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


  • Andropov’s Funeral and U.S.-Soviet Relations

In case the President is receiving a variety of recommendations that he should attend Andropov’s funeral, he should be fully aware of the deleterious consequences of such a move.

Presumably the principal argument in favor of the President’s attendance is that it will send a powerful signal that he is ready and anxious to improve relations with the Kremlin, and that therefore he is really a man of peace. This would be therefore yet another way that the President could underscore that America has regained its strength [Page 609] under his Administration and that we can now negotiate with the Soviets from our new position of strength more securely than before.

There are several major problems with this line of thinking which, if ignored, could yield political results that could inflict severe damage to everything the President has done so far to make the world a safer place.

Confusion About the Nature of Renewed American Strength

The principal problem here is that this argument does not reflect a proper understanding of how and why the U.S. is stronger today than in 1980—and that a misunderstanding of this nature could work to undo the real sources of renewed American strength. The unspoken assumption is that we have revived our military power and that as a result we can face the Soviets more confidently and negotiate with them now that we have some chips to play with. This attitude is not only prevalent within the Administration—especially in the State Department—but is widespread even in conservative Republican circles on the Hill, where there is talk about cutting the Defense budget now that we have allegedly done so much to redress military imbalances.

The problem is that our military buildup consists mostly of promissory notes—and in real terms manifests itself today mostly in increased readiness and morale. Secretary Weinberger stated a few days ago to Congress that the Soviets have widened their margin of superiority over us in most categories even further.

The real source of our new national strength is in the moral-spiritual-political sphere—a measure of strength to which the Soviets pay very close attention. As a matter of fact, they see our moral-political strength as the key criterion in their measurement of the correlation of forces; for this is what constitutes our national will—our will to use force if necessary to defend our interests, our will to believe that our system has a future and is worth defending, and our will to recognize the realities of the world as they are and not as we would wish them to be.

Coddling Illusions and Wishful Thinking

If the President were to decide to attend Andropov’s funeral, he would send the Soviets a major signal that this real strength was severely eroding. By going to Moscow and inevitably meeting with some Soviet officials, the President would be saying that he does not feel that he can ensure his reelection without coddling the illusions and wishful thinking of large portions of the electorate. Those illusions are that peace is achieved by better atmospherics and by such direct dialogue with the Soviets as is sufficient to clear up those “misunder[Page 610]standings” which allegedly are the source of the U.S.-Soviet adversarial relationship. These illusions are bolstered further by the wishful thinking that a reduction of the President’s allegedly hostile rhetoric will “improve relations.”

The reason, of course, why these notions are illusions is that they rest on the assumptions that the Soviets are not truly a communist power with communist objectives, and that therefore there are no fundamental political reasons why U.S.-Soviet relations should necessarily be adversarial. That this is an extreme form of wishful thinking with no basis in fact needs no explanation. It derives from that pervasive Western penchant, as Ambassador Kirkpatrick recently explained, to disbelieve the horrible. Large chunks of the American people simply do not want to believe:

—That the Soviets are communists;

—That they must therefore have unlimited international objectives;

—That the destruction of American democracy is one of those objectives;

—That the Soviets do not share the same concept of peace that we strive for;

—That the Soviets continue to have an enormous Gulag with millions of slave laborers;

—That the mass murders of innocent Afghans are actually going on today, right now;

—That visiting Soviet trade representatives, academicians, “journalists,” UN employees and Embassy personnel might actually be engaged in subversive actions that might conceivably do harm to our country;

—That the Soviets have actually broken various arms control agreements;

—That maybe the Soviets do not find it in their self interest to reach mutual, verifiable arms control treaties and comply with them;


An Improvement of Relations?

Some people may think that the question here is whether the President is more or less likely to get reelected by trying to win over the “wishful thinking” constituency by catering to their illusions. Indeed, the President can try such a strategy. Then, maybe his picture will appear on Time’s cover shaking hands with Ustinov, presaging a new improvement of relations, a new “generation of peace.” But would this represent a real improvement of relations, or would it be a deception of the world public that would merely reinforce the illusions of the wishful thinking constituency?

The fact is that it would not be a true improvement of relations—at least not as we would define those terms. A real improvement of relations could take place only: a) if it were conducted on our terms—i.e., by the Soviets exercising greater international restraint, withdraw[Page 611]ing from Afghanistan, complying with arms agreements, stopping their military buildup, improving their human rights situation, etc.; or b) if it were conducted on Soviet terms—i.e., by the U.S. silencing itself about Soviet aggression, silencing itself about Soviet human rights violations, letting bygones be bygones after 61 Americans are shot out of the air, by negotiating, signing and complying with arms control agreements that the Soviets will violate or at least circumvent (thus permitting further shifts in the military balance in their favor), by doing absolutely nothing when we catch them violating such agreements, by desensitizing the public and the Congress about the necessity of further defense spending through such silence about Soviet behavior, etc. So long as the Soviets remain communists and so long as we are committed to democracy, there can be no other formula to “improve relations.” The best relations we can hope for are those where stability prevails, where the American people are under no illusions about the adversarial nature of the relationship, and where we are so strong that the Soviets will make no miscalculations.

A Message of Weakness to the Soviets

The fact is that an atmospheric “improvement of relations” would be a deception; and as such it would send a great signal of weakness to the Soviets. Before, Ronald Reagan showed the world that the Presidency could be won by telling the people the unadulterated truth. This was the real sign of American strength—because the people as a whole were increasingly willing to face the ugly realities of the world, to reject disbelief in the horrible, and to tackle these realities with resolution and determination. Now, if reelection can only be won by coddling wishful thinking and calming public fears, the President will be telling the Soviets:

—That America is unwilling to face the truth and to hear the President tell the truth;

—That the electorate has thus forced the President to “tone down the rhetoric”—which in practice means, stop reminding the country about the nature of the powerful empire we face;

—That therefore the American people are really ostriches at heart;

—That Soviet disinformation efforts to convince the American people that the USSR is not truly a communist power any more have been successful;

—That Soviet propaganda to intimidate the American people has been successful; and

—That Soviet power is so great that America has been forced to meet the Soviets increasingly on their terms.

Acknowledging the Flaws of Past Policy

The President’s presence in Moscow now would also signal that his entire previous policy was flawed. It would acknowledge that [Page 612] before, he was not really a man of peace and that peace is not achieved by facing the truth, warning the people of dangers and building up the body, the spiritual strength and thus the credibility of our deterrent forces.

Peace on Whose Terms

In his January 16 speech, the President already extended an olive branch to the Soviets. He asked them to improve relations on our terms—which is the only acceptable path. The ball is in the Soviets’ court and it is their turn to respond. For the President to make an atmospheric gesture of the order of attending Andropov’s funeral would be to play the role of a supplicant. It could even be perceived as an effort to compete with Walter Mondale2 for Kremlin support in the election. Instead the greatest move the President could make toward achieving peace on our terms would be to show the Soviets he can get reelected without their help at all. The window of vulnerability is open today. The Soviets must be considering what they can do to demand American respect for all that power they have accumulated. Any sign of weakness now may encourage them that they can demand more respect than they have won thus far.


That you share this memorandum with the President.3

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Executive Secretariat, NSC Country File, Europe and Soviet Union, USSR-Andropov Funeral (February 1984). Confidential. Sent for action. A stamped notation on the memorandum indicates McFarlane saw it.
  2. Walter Mondale, front-runner among the Democratic candidates for President in the 1984 election.
  3. McFarlane did not approve or disapprove the recommendation. Instead, he wrote beneath it: “The President decided, correctly in my judgment, not to go before your memo arrived John. I must say that it would strike him as a little pedantic in my opinion. You’re preaching to the saved as you know.”