105. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • U.S.—Secretary Shultz
  • Assistant Secretary Richard Burt
  • Ambassador Arthur Hartman
  • Ambassador Jack F. Matlock
  • Mr. William D. Krimer, Interpreter
  • USSR—Foreign Minister A.A. Gromyko
  • Deputy Foreign Minister Komplektov
  • Ambassador Makarov
  • Mr. Viktor Sukhokrev, Interpreter
[Page 363]

The Secretary thought it would be fair to say that when he and Foreign Minister Gromyko agreed to hold this meeting several weeks ago, he had hoped that this meeting might make a modest step forward in the relationship between our two countries. Instead, the destruction of a civilian airliner carrying 269 people by a Soviet military aircraft has created a major new obstacle to progress.

Gromyko interrupted at this point, threw his glasses on the table, stood up and said he refused to discuss this matter as he had told the Secretary earlier.2

The Secretary interrupted and said he strongly insisted on such a discussion, that he had instructions to discuss this matter with Gromyko in order to draw his attention to how deeply this action had shocked all Americans. We were shocked by the cost in human life.

Gromyko interrupted again to say that he knew this without the Secretary telling it to him. He proposed that they first discuss an agenda on what issues were to be taken up at today’s meeting.

The Secretary said that he would take up the Korean airliner shoot-down right now. If Gromyko did not want to listen, that was his privilege.

Gromyko said he proposed that they discuss the major, important questions of curbing the nuclear arms race, and did not agree to start off on another issue.

The Secretary said that we must start with the question of the Korean airliner since it was on everyone’s mind as Gromyko surely heard in the conference room during the last two days. We must know the facts and how the Soviets plan to deal with them.

Gromyko said he knew this without the Secretary telling him, only he knew the facts of the matter better than anyone, i.e., he knew the truth.

[Page 364]

The Secretary repeated that his agenda called for first discussing the question of the Korean airliner tragedy.

Gromyko repeated that he wanted to talk about nuclear arms first; later he would be ready to discuss the question of the airliner.

The Secretary said that the airliner matter was of first importance and this was the subject he proposed to discuss with Gromyko. Gromyko need not listen if he did not choose to, but he himself intended to explain his concerns.

Gromyko said he was reaching the conclusion that the Secretary did not want to discuss any other problem. In that case they had nothing to discuss at this meeting. The Secretary was in the clutches of an artificially built scheme.3

The Secretary interjected that if Gromyko did not want a meeting, so be it, and rose from his seat. He was disappointed that Gromyko did not want to hear our position. He pointed out that the other matters Gromyko had mentioned were the subject of discussions in Geneva and elsewhere but here, today, and under these circumstances, he had to address the problem that was foremost not only in his mind but also foremost in the views of most people throughout the world. Many Foreign Ministers had raised the question of the meeting here; airline pilots are very concerned; so are publics everywhere.

Gromyko said that the Secretary had already said a great deal on this question. He could report to the United States that he had only one matter to discuss, but Gromyko would report to his Government and to the whole world that the US side refused to discuss matters of such enormous importance as curbing the nuclear arms race and preventing the outbreak of nuclear war, and that he himself was prepared to discuss nuclear weapons. He added that he was entirely prepared to discuss other matters as well, including the Korean airliner matter. But priorities had to be agreed upon first and he would note that this was the first time that he found himself in a situation where the Secretary of State of the United States was attempting to impose an agenda for a meeting without taking into account the views of the other side.

The Secretary said that if Gromyko did not want to discuss this question with him, that would be his choice. But the Secretary’s choice [Page 365] was to convey to Gromyko the information he had regarding this matter.

Pacing and greatly agitated, Gromyko said he would tell the Secretary what it was he was proposing to discuss. He proposed first of all to address the question of our negotiations in Geneva, i.e., the question of nuclear arms. If the Secretary was not prepared to respond, that would be acceptable, but he insisted on first presenting his views. Later on he would be prepared to listen to the Secretary’s setting forth whatever he believed necessary. He would repeat that he was prepared to discuss this matter and set forth the position of the Soviet Government and the Soviet leadership, to set out their views on critical questions. But he would also repeat that he had never encountered a situation when the other side tried to impose an agenda on him. He wanted to talk about the Geneva negotiations on nuclear arms. It would be up to the Secretary whether or not he wanted to respond. The Secretary was mistaken if he believed that Gromyko was trying to aggravate the relations between our countries. He had met many times with officials of the United States but had never encountered a situation such as the one he was encountering now. It was for this reason that he proposed first to work out an agreed agenda. For his part, he wanted to set forth the Soviet position on nuclear arms and then would be prepared to listen to the Secretary talk on the airliner matter. He did have something to say on that score. At this point, Gromyko being the guest, the Secretary sat down and said, “proceed,” and Gromyko resumed his seat.

Gromyko wanted the Secretary of State to know that in his view there was no more important issue between us than the question of nuclear arms and that of preventing nuclear war. The Secretary had referred to the airliner matter as a question of first importance, but in his view the foremost importance should be attached to the urgent need of halting the arms race and preventing nuclear war. He was quite confident that the Secretary himself believed this indeed to be the case. He was certain that no American in his right mind would regard this question as anything but Number One. Gromyko was speaking here on behalf of the Soviet Government and the entire leadership of the Soviet Union, including Yuri Andropov, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU and Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. He was authorized to draw the attention of the Secretary and the President of the United States to the fact that the Soviet leadership was deeply convinced that the world today was in an extremely dangerous state. It was sliding closer and closer toward the abyss of nuclear war. The situation is getting worse and worse. It was for this reason that he regarded this question as Number One today. There were no other countries in the world today that had to [Page 366] bear such a great responsibility for preventing this slide toward nuclear war as the Soviet Union and the United States. The Soviet Union was conscious of its responsibility in this respect and was drawing the proper conclusions from this fact. In the view of the Soviet leadership the US authorities, on the other hand, were not conscious of their responsibility, did not correctly assess the situation and underestimated its gravity. If it were otherwise, US policy today would be entirely different.

What we were witnessing today was a colossal increase in the production of arms and above all nuclear arms in the United States. Furthermore, whatever proposals aimed at curbing the arms race and limiting, let alone reducing, nuclear arms had been made by the Soviet Union, they had all been rejected out of hand, one after the other. No matter what had been proposed by the Soviet side, everything had been rejected. And yet, it was the United States and the Soviet Union together that had assumed the international obligation to prevent war and especially nuclear war. A document to that effect had been adopted by both sides, a number of joint and unilateral statements had been made by both countries to the effect that they would do all in their power to make sure that such a tragedy would not happen. This was under a previous Administration; but it was a formal agreement obligating both sides to take all steps necessary to prevent war. There were a number of differences today between our two countries, including some very major differences, and of course no one had the right to ignore these differences. However, up to now, and by this he meant up to the present Administration of the United States, the United States had also taken a positive view of the necessity of seeking solutions to these differences. There were many documents and unilateral statements by former Administrations to the effect that this was absolutely necessary. The Soviet Union urgently called upon the United States to take this into account, and he would express the hope that both countries would seek practical and peaceful solutions to these differences. Even the present Administration had made statements in favor of contacts and dialogue. The Soviet leadership still had a glimmer of hope, paradoxical as it may seem, that this view would be reciprocated on the US side, and the present meeting also testified to the fact that even under such unfavorable conditions dialogue between the two countries and contacts between its leading statesmen were important and necessary.

Summing up, Gromyko wanted to say that even taking into account the differences between us, it was necessary to seek solutions at the negotiating table and not allow the leaden storm clouds hanging over the world today to result in a nuclear downpour. He was certain the Secretary knew very well what such a calamity would entail for both our countries and for the whole world.

[Page 367]

Gromyko wanted to remind the Secretary of an occasion when President Nixon was in power and had come to Moscow for a meeting with Brezhnev.4 Upon entering Brezhnev’s office, Nixon had said that according to American scientific experts and their calculations, the Soviet Union and the United States had amassed a nuclear arsenal that would be sufficient to destroy each other seven times over. Isn’t this too much, Nixon had asked. Brezhnev had replied that Nixon was right and that Soviet calculations showed the same thing—seven times over. It was too much, he had agreed. Brezhnev had then added that they should seek solutions to defuse that situation. One might very well ask how many times over we could destroy each other today and did this not surely make it incumbent on both our countries to display the necessary care and solicitude to prevent this situation from escalating and to build bridges between us wherever possible.

The world today was in a very fragile state, and it was necessary for us to be extremely careful. It was for this reason that he wanted to appeal to the President of the United States, to the Secretary of State and to the entire leadership of the US to do everything in their power together with the leadership of the Soviet Union to avert conflict, seek agreed solutions, and bring our positions ever closer together on all the issues between us. On the other hand, he would ask, what would follow if the United States proceeded with its intention of stationing new nuclear weapons in Europe? What would happen then? Obviously the Soviet Union and its allies will not be caught napping and will do everything necessary to preserve the equality in arms existing today. Peace will become more fragile. Thus, the question of what will happen can only be answered by pointing out that the world will become even more fragile than it is today. It was for this reason that it was incumbent on both sides to have a correct assessment of the current situation and to take up the kind of positions at negotiations that would bring us closer together.

In this connection, Gromyko wanted to draw particular attention to the proposal on nuclear missiles which was recently advanced by President Andropov.5

[Gromyko in an aside assured the Secretary that he was not greedy and did not have any malicious plans to take up the Secretary’s time by lengthy presentations of Soviet views.]

What were these proposals? Earlier, when discussing reductions in the numbers of missiles stationed in Europe, the Soviet side had [Page 368] proposed that excess missiles be transferred beyond the Ural Mountains to the Asiatic part of the Soviet Union. The US side had maintained that such missiles could easily be redeployed back to Europe subsequently. Although this was a somewhat primitive kind of reasoning—because after all missiles were not something that were put in a basket to be shipped at will—the Soviet side had taken this US concern into account and was now saying that it would dismantle such excess missiles, including the SS–20s that the United States and its NATO Allies were concerned about. The Soviet side had clearly stated now that they would be dismantled. The Soviet leadership had hoped that this would build a bridge, drawing the positions of the sides closer together; but now it turned out that even this was not to the liking of the US side. This was one major point to which Gromyko wanted to draw the Secretary’s attention.

His second point concerned the fact that the US Government and some US Allies, particularly Britain and France, although the Federal Republic of Germany could also be heard from here, were trying to prove that British and French nuclear missiles should not be taken into account. He wondered what sort of simpletons did the US side take the Soviet leadership for. Britain and France were US Allies and their nuclear missiles were part of NATO’s arsenal. It was therefore obvious that they would have to count in the balance. He was not saying they should be reduced, but only that they be taken into account. Previous US Administrations, in particular President Carter’s, had realized this, and President Carter himself had told Gromyko that the Soviet side was right in maintaining that British and French missiles were aimed at the Soviet Union. He said that he had given this matter a great deal of thought but had not yet found a way to resolve it. Yet, ultimately, the solution to this matter had to be found. He wanted to emphasize this to the Secretary, that it was necessary to take into account British and French missiles, for otherwise they would become a sort of special premium for NATO’s arsenal. He wanted to convey this thought to the Secretary as forcefully as he could so that no illusions be harbored on the US side. If they are not taken into account, there is no basis for an agreement (‘isklyvehenna dogovorennost’). If the United States planned to deploy its new missiles in Western Europe come what may, what he had just said would not impress the Secretary. But if the US side was truly prepared to make an effort at bringing the positions of the sides closer together, then this statement of his would be meaningful.

Gromyko said that he had wanted to present the overall Soviet position without going into various details. He had wanted to make these two points which, of course, had various aspects. But, these aspects were being dealt with in Geneva at the START negotiations and at the negotiations to limit medium-range nuclear missiles. He [Page 369] had simply wanted to draw the Secretary’s attention to some of the crucial aspects of these matters in the hope that perhaps the Secretary and the President would bear them in mind if they still believed that it was necessary to improve relations between our countries and to achieve a reduction in international tensions. He would assure the Secretary that the Soviet Union wanted to have good relations with the United States and even at present would make every effort to even out the sources of friction between us. This is what he wanted to convey to the Secretary on a question that concerned the entire world, including the people of the United States, for he was sure that the people of the United States, like the people of the Soviet Union, did not want war but instead craved peace. He was sure that no one in their right mind in any country would welcome the prospect of war. He would conclude by noting that in the past the Secretary had made a few good speeches on this subject.

Secretary Shultz wanted to assure Gromyko that no one in the world was more dedicated to the preservation of peace than President Reagan. His concern over the threat to peace emanating from the buildup in nuclear arms had been fully borne out by his proposal for drastic reductions in strategic arms and complete elimination of an entire class of nuclear missiles—intermediate-range nuclear forces. Nor did his concern stop there: he was also advocating reductions in the area of conventional arms, elimination of chemical and biological weapons as well as a number of other initiatives. It was because of this very fact that in spite of the upheaval in the United States over the shoot-down of the Korean airliner, President Reagan had sent Ambassador Nitze to Geneva, where he would also soon be joined by Ambassador Rowny. Further, Ambassador Abramovitz would continue his efforts in Vienna.

And yet, it was not nuclear arms that were the number one issue today, nor the destruction of the Korean airliner. The number one issue today was human life and it was because of this that nuclear weapons with their holocaustical nature were so threatening and it was also this that triggered the indignation throughout the world over the shoot-down of the Korean airliner. Nowadays multitudes of people fly all over the world and, naturally, now wonder about the safety of flight in airliners. The real concern is over human life and over what can happen as a result of the recent occurrence.

Therefore, the Soviets must recognize that the loss of 269 human lives had a stunning impact throughout the world. We wanted Gromyko to understand how deeply this action had shocked all Americans. We were shocked at the cost in human life. We were shocked at the apparent lack of effort to identify the aircraft, to communicate with it, or to assist it back on course. We were shocked at the refusal to acknowledge the destruction of the aircraft until just the day before [Page 370] yesterday, and the refusal to assume responsibility for the action, or to cooperate in efforts to search for survivors, if any, or their remains. The Soviet Union had not even allowed members of families in mourning to go to the scene and throw flowers on the water in commemoration of their loved ones. We are shocked at the efforts of the Soviet Government to shift responsibility and to levy entirely baseless and unsubstantiated charges against the United States Government. They surely must be seen as pure fabrications. Quite frankly, the Secretary was personally shocked by Gromyko’s statement yesterday.6 The Soviet Government has stated flatly that it will take the same action in the future in similar circumstances. Yesterday Gromyko not only reaffirmed this position but stated that Soviet law requires such barbarism. Yesterday Gromyko said that Soviet territory was sacred. Our territory is sacred to us too. But for us human life is also sacred. Therefore, we balance our concern over the security of our territory against the sacredness of human life. President Reagan shares these sentiments in full. He had asked the Secretary to use this meeting to seek an explanation of this incident and to secure the Soviet Government’s cooperation in conducting search and rescue efforts, in compensating the families of those who lost their lives and in adopting measures to see to it that we and the whole world can agree to prevent such tragedies in the future.

Only through a full accounting of this incident can the damage it has done to our relationships begin to be repaired, the Secretary said. The Soviet Union must accept financial responsibility for this action. There can be no legal or moral basis for evading such an obligation. We sought Soviet cooperation in the organization of thorough search and rescue efforts. We provided the details requested by the Soviet side with regard to these proposed efforts, but we haven’t heard anything further. We also wish to discuss positive steps which the Soviet Union can take in conjunction with all other nations to ensure that this tragedy is never repeated. We have earlier made proposals to the Soviet Union for direct communications links between our two military commands. Had such links existed in this case, a further channel to secure information on this flight would have existed and ensured against any mis-identification, although we believe that the aircraft in question could so easily have been identified that if this was not done, it should have been.

[Page 371]

The Secretary wanted to emphasize to Gromyko that the American reaction to this incident stems from a commitment to human rights and to the importance of the individual human being, which is at the heart of our political and social system. These were the very considerations which give so much drive to our efforts toward reduction of nuclear arms.

The Secretary wanted to ask Gromyko: “Will you take part in an accounting of this tragedy, in an international effort to ensure that all the facts are known? Will you compensate the families of the victims? Will you permit us to search the waters for any possible survivors or remains? And will you take part in a constructive way to search for means to assure that a tragedy such as this can never happen again?” These are the questions the Secretary had for Gromyko. He had tried to provide a background for our feelings on this matter.

Gromyko noted that the Secretary had started to speak on the main issue between us which Gromyko had raised at the very beginning of this talk, but had then switched to the question of the airliner incident. Gromyko very much regretted that the Secretary had not wished to speak on the important main issue in greater detail, or to present the views of the US Administration on the major nuclear question, that of reducing the nuclear arms build-up, of preventing war and slowing the nuclear arms race. Perhaps the Secretary intended to present the position of his Government later; if so, Gromyko would be prepared to listen at any time.

As for the Secretary’s remarks concerning the airliner incident, the Secretary would be making a gross error if he thought that Gromyko would present some sort of defensive remarks in connection with what the Secretary had said. Absolutely not. Quite the contrary, Gromyko would level a charge against the US side on behalf of the Soviet leadership. The Soviet side accused the US side of having undertaken a large-scale hostile action against the Soviet Union. This was the only way that what had happened could be assessed. Of course, the Secretary would know better than Gromyko whether this action had been instigated by the highest authorities of the United States or whether US special agencies had perhaps acted within the framework of some general instructions in undertaking this action. But the Soviet side had no doubt whatsoever that the entire incident had been pre-planned. All the statements made by the US side since the incident could not dispel this conviction of the Soviet side.

Secretary Shultz interrupted to tell Gromyko that this conviction had no basis in fact whatsoever.

Gromyko noted that the aircraft had deviated from the established international route by almost 500 kms, and not toward the left, that is toward international waters, but to the right, toward USSR territory. [Page 372] In fact, the plane was deep in Soviet territory and had spent more than two hours in its air space. How did this happen? Had the US Government answered this question? Indeed, it had not; this question was being carefully avoided. Was it not clear to the US Government that this flight took the aircraft over important prohibited areas of the USSR with installations of strategic significance. This is also being avoided. Was this deviation accidental or was it not? It could not have been accidental. How would the United States act if airplanes of other states flew over secret US bases? And why did this plane, flying deep in Soviet air space and over Soviet strategic bases, not obey the signals provided for in international law, given by Soviet ground services as well as Soviet air defense aircraft, signals that were both visual and radioed, as well as the physical maneuvers of the fighter interceptors? What happened? Had the pilot and crew suddenly lost their minds and had turned into idiots? Such things do not happen. They not only failed to obey all signals. They even ignored them demonstratively and flouted international standards as well as Soviet laws which are well known to all, since they have been published. Why was one of the United States’ planes accompanying the airliner although it did so at a distance, outside Soviet air space? Isn’t that significant? Evidently it was impossible to conceal this fact. Why didn’t the Japanese air navigation services notify the Korean plane and advise it to correct its flight pattern? He believed that US control of these air services is close indeed. Why didn’t the US authorities get in touch with Soviet authorities either in Washington or elsewhere? Why did they fail to draw the attention of the Soviet side to the fact that this was an error, either in Moscow or locally, unless its intentions were hostile? After all, hours had passed where minutes would have been sufficient.

Secretary Shultz interrupted to say that this was a clear effort to avoid answering relevant questions by posing questions which have obvious answers; it was not worth the time to sit here. These questions are basically ridiculous and what’s more Gromyko knew that very well. It therefore seemed to the Secretary that we had nothing further to discuss on this subject or perhaps any other.

Gromyko resumed by charging that the fact cannot be avoided: the United States organized this whole criminal action. The Soviet Union bore no responsibility for this matter, not financial responsibility nor any other. Those who organized this whole incident were responsible.

Gromyko also noted that the Secretary had linked this incident with human rights. Supposedly nuclear war had nothing to do with human rights although it would be a catastrophe costing hundreds of millions of lives. Here, in this distorted way, the Secretary had tried to link this incident with human rights. This was his response: The Soviet side charges US authorities with the responsibility for this action. The Secre[Page 373]tary would know best what the relations were between the US central authorities and its various agencies and how this incident was organized. He accused the US, and he had nothing more to say on this matter.

Gromyko further noted that the United States had undertaken many actions against the Soviet Union in many different areas. US authorities seemed to believe that there was no limit to such actions. And yet, there was very little left to be done to worsen the relations between our countries further. The Soviet Union regretted this fact, but responsibility for it rested on US shoulders. He noted that our respective representatives in Geneva could indeed achieve some things with respect to the important question of nuclear arms, but at the higher level you have little or no taste for any progress. The Secretary had limited himself to some very general comments on nuclear arms. That was not enough. Gromyko was prepared to listen to any response the Secretary might have.

As for the general tone of US officials when talking about the Soviet Union and the socialist system, they had used up an entire dictionary of salty words of abuse. The Soviet side decisively rejected and condemned these words and methods. They were totally unworthy of the high calling of statesmen. Abuse could not cover up the true aspects of US policy, the attempts to fuel the arms race and where the true blame belonged.

The Secretary interrupted Gromyko to say that his statements were growing more outrageous by the minute. We were constantly engaged in discussing issues, but Gromyko had refused to come to grips with Korean airliner tragedy. This was shocking. Gromyko had leveled unfounded charges against us in order to cover up the need for a complete accounting of the facts on a Soviet atrocity. This was even more shocking. In view of this, there was nothing further to discuss.

  1. Source: Department of State, Executive Secretariat, S/S, Memorandum of Conversations Pertaining to the United States and USSR Relations, 1981–1990, Lot 93D188, Shultz/Gromyko in Madrid September 8, 1983. Secret; Sensitive. Drafted by Krimer; cleared by Matlock, Hartman, Burt, and Palmer; approved by Shultz. Brackets are in the original. The meeting took place in the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in Madrid.
  2. Matlock later recalled: “When Shultz announced he was prepared to discuss only the Korean airliner incident and started to set forth the American position, Gromyko exploded in fury and stood up as if to leave, literally throwing his glasses on the table. The rest of the delegation also rose, apparently uncertain as to whether the boss was on his way out. Shultz, seated across the table from him, also stood, as if prepared to see him out. Gromyko, pacing the floor, started a harangue that went on for a full twenty minutes. In his excitement he frequently interrupted Viktor Sukhodrev, his interpreter, in mid-sentence, so Shultz grasped only snippets of Gromyko’s outburst.

    “Once Gromyko started talking, his colleagues took their seats and began taking notes. Shultz stood with a look of amazement on his face and interjected periodically that he was following President Reagan’s instructions. Gromyko thundered that he, the foreign minister of the Soviet Union, was not subordinate to Reagan and did not take orders from him. Those of us who were present were glad that a table separated the two. Shultz was outwardly calm, but his cheeks were flushed with anger.” (Matlock, Reagan and Gorbachev, p. 68)

  3. In his memoir, Shultz recalled: “the plenary session developed into a brutally confrontational meeting. At one point, Gromyko stood up and picked up his papers as though to leave. I think he half-expected me to urge him to sit down. On the contrary, I got up to escort him out of the room. He then sat down, and I sat down. After the meeting ended, my interpreter, Bill Krimer, told me that he had been interpreting in high-level meetings with the Soviets for seventeen years and had never seen anything remotely like it.” (Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, p. 370)
  4. Reference is presumably to the meeting between Nixon and Brezhnev in Moscow on May 23, 1972, when they discussed SALT. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Documents 262 and 263.
  5. See Document 82.
  6. The Washington Post reported that in his speech at the closing session of the CSCE conference on September 7, Gromyko warned that “any future violations of ‘sacred’ Soviet borders, such as the South Korean airliner’s intrusion into Soviet air space last week, would receive the ‘full brunt’ of Kremlin retaliation.” (Peter Osnos, “Gromyko Threatens Further Soviet Violence,” Washington Post, September 8, 1983, p. A1)