156. Memorandum From John Lenczowski of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (McFarlane)1


  • The Situation in the Soviet Union and Recent Disinformation

You may have already seen the attached cable from Moscow citing the report of an “academic” who recently visited there (Tab I).2 If you have not, I call it to your attention, because it is being widely circulated and may be influencing the thought of many of our analysts and, perhaps, policy makers. There is concern, however, that the report represents an attempt at disinformation by the Soviets and a possible agent of theirs.

Two factors contribute to this possibility. The first is the substance of the academic’s report. It reflects one of the principal Soviet propaganda messages of recent months—namely that American “militarism” and “bellicosity” are fueling Soviet “paranoia.” The second is the apparent source of the report—a certain East European emigre, who was once a member of the Communist Party in his native land. Everything, from the circumstances surrounding his immigration to this country, to his decade-long establishment of academic bona fides at a prominent university, to his subsequent policy recommendations and analytical pronouncements, to the very high-level entree he enjoys whenever he visits Moscow, contributes to the possibility that he may be a classic disinformation agent, perhaps one of the most effective of his kind in the U.S.A. This report is only the latest bit of evidence pointing to this possibility.

Are the Soviets “Paranoid”?

The “academic” has reported that Soviet officials are growing increasingly “paranoid” and obsessed by fear of war—so much so that emotionalism and irrationality are now entering into play. As evidence for this, the source cites a “straight-faced claim” made to him by one [Page 532] official that the KAL flight was a deliberate provocation staged by the U.S.

Not only is this report of Soviet war “paranoia” preposterous, but, given the manner in which it and its supporting evidence are presented, it reflects either ignorance about the USSR or, more likely, deliberate disinformation. First of all, the Soviets are not, and in the post-war period never have been, “paranoid” about the United States. If paranoia signifies rational fear, the Soviets have had no cause to see any military or geopolitical threat from this country. They know very well that when we had nuclear monopoly and superiority, we refrained from using it to threaten the USSR. They know that when anticommunism was at its peak here in the 1950s, we did not even help the Hungarian resistance. The Soviets know that today there is even less of a political constituency for rendering such help. The idea that the Soviets could possibly have a rational fear of war instigated by the U.S. is simply implausible. The principal rational fear the Soviets have is of their own people and the possibility that foreign influences may spark a severe internal security problem. Given the degree to which they have sealed their society from most such influences and the means by which they are conveyed, the Soviets have little cause to fear foreign instigation of this threat.

If paranoia signifies irrational fear—i.e., a form of insanity where actions taken are beyond the personal responsibility of the actors, this possibility is equally misleading. The only conditions under which this could be the case in the USSR would be if the leadership fell into the hands of an all-powerful dictator of the Stalin type whose personality and its aberrations would become de facto policy. This would require the end of collective leadership in the USSR—a condition that is nowhere in sight.

So long as collective, institutional leadership remains, Soviet policy will be formulated as it has been for years: decisions to advance or retreat (“two steps forward, one step back”) are made according to “scientific” assessments of the correlation of forces. Just because the U.S. is rebuilding its strength these days is no cause for Soviet strategists to entertain apocalyptic fears.3 It is a fundamental misinterpretation of the way the Soviets assess the correlation of forces to assert, as some are doing within the Administration, that we have handed the Soviet so many defeats recently that we have sent them reeling.

The Soviets see weaknesses in the West—from political polarization and “peace” movements to interests that compete with defense priori[Page 533]ties for scarce resources—all of which mitigate any tendencies perceived to threaten their rule. Their failure to stop our deployments and split our alliance may give them cause for a little frustration—but only on account of their failure to move history forward as fast as they would like. To the contrary, in spite of their recent setbacks in Grenada and INF, the Soviets still are sanguine that the correlation of forces is in their favor. Their attempt last year to intervene so blatantly in the German elections was indicative of an excessive optimism on their part—but was based nevertheless on a calculated risk that perhaps the correlation of forces was configured even more in their favor than they had been calculating. When it actually shifts to our favor is when we can expect them, as part of a strategic retreat, to abandon their intimidation strategy, renew their peace offensive and make those cosmetic concessions which kindle the hopes of many in the West that true accommodation with the USSR is possible.

Soviet “Paranoia” as a Disinformation Theme

The Soviets have used the paranoia idea as one of their key disinformation themes for decades. Notwithstanding accounts by Soviet military historians themselves that most military engagements conducted by Tsarist Russia were in fact aggressive Russian actions, the Soviet disinformation machine continues to repeat the myth about “traditional Russian insecurity”—as if the Russians had more cause to be insecure than anyone else.

As a disinformation theme, the Soviet paranoia and insecurity argument fulfills many useful purposes. Construed as a “self-defense plea” or an “insanity plea” it serves to legitimize aggressive Soviet acts—from the KAL shootdown to the invasion of Afghanistan. It also serves to obscure the nature of Soviet intentions—by attributing traditional great power security concerns to the Soviets while disguising their uniquely communist concerns and motivations. Finally, in the present context, it serves as part of the Soviets’ overall strategy of intimidation and deception. By convincing the West that they are paranoid and perhaps even irrational, the Soviets encourage us to be wary of them and to treat them with kid gloves lest they lash out with irrational behavior.

That the source of this report should cite as evidence of irrationality a “straight-faced claim” by a Soviet official that KAL was a U.S. provocation reflects either ignorance or disingenuousness. The Soviets have made lying with a straight face standard operating procedure. Because of the nature of Soviet indoctrination, and the normal prescribed behavior for spouting the Party line, Soviet officials are capable of lying with extraordinary expressions of emotion and sincerity. The psychology of this ability may incorporate both genuine belief in the lie or, more often, simple, advanced, Soviet-style cynicism. The source’s personal [Page 534] background in Soviet bloc Communist Party politics suggests that his failure to raise the likelihood that cynical mendacity may be involved here (as distinct from genuine irrationality) is a disingenuous attempt to disinform Americans less trained in Soviet affairs. It is also important to note that the academic’s contacts in Moscow, Ponomarev, Zagladin, Arbatov, et al., make up the “A” Team of the Soviet disinformation apparatus. So, even if the source is not a witting disinformation agent, he could be serving as an unwitting conduit.

The Soviets and Our Presidential Elections

One other significant point of dubious reliability in this cable is the source’s assertion that “in their efforts to prevent the President’s reelection, the Soviets are determined not to allow him to assume the mantle of peacemaker.” It is possible that this is indeed the Soviet position. But it is equally possible, and even quite probable, that this assertion represents more disinformation.

It is by no means clear that the Soviets are certain of the best means by which to harm the President’s reelection chances. And even if they were to hire America’s finest political consulting firm to advise them on this, it is unlikely that such a firm could give them any sure-fire advice. By playing their current intimidation game and denying the President a START or INF agreement, they do not necessarily deny him the mantle of peacemaker. Rather, they supply him with further evidence that the President’s peace-through-strength policy is what ultimately keeps the peace whatever the vagaries of treaty negotiations. In short, it is not easy to deny the President that mantle of peacemaker when the truth is on the President’s side.

The Soviets, however, do have a motive in equating treaties and summitry with peacemaking and impressing this equation on the Western public mind. They hope that the public will brand the absence of treaties and summits as an absence of peaceableness. Further, they hope U.S. policy makers will swallow the same equation or at least be influenced by the public’s ingestion of it. This, the Soviets hope, will spur the President to make negotiating concessions and create treaty loopholes through hasty treaty-drafting in the interest of reaching election year agreements.


That you share this memorandum with the President.4

  1. Source: Reagan Library, System IV Intelligence Files, 1984, 400010. Secret. Sent for action. Copies were sent to Matlock, deGraffenreid, Lehman, and Raymond. McFarlane’s stamp appears on the memorandum, indicating he saw it. McFarlane wrote in the margin: “John—Don’t you expect this was Seweryn Bialer? He has left a lot of people very nervous in Eur.” Seweryn Bialer was a professor of Political Science at Columbia University who focused on Soviet and contemporary Russian studies.
  2. Reference is to telegram 15409 from Moscow, December 10, not found attached. See footnote 4, Document 143 and Document 144.
  3. A checkmark was placed in the right margin next to this sentence, presumably by McFarlane.
  4. McFarlane checked the Approve option.