178. Message From the Embassy in France to the White House and the Department of State1

202. Fm the Vice President. To: The White House for President Reagan Eyes Only, SecState for Secretary of State Shultz Eyes Only, Director, Central Intelligence Agency Casey Eyes Only, Moscow for Ambassador Hartman Eyes Only. Subject: My Meeting With Chernenko, February 14, 1984.

1. The meeting began with Chernenko, reading from a prepared text, expressing to us the gratitude of the Soviet leadership for honoring the memory of the late General Secretary Andropov. He asked me to transmit this sentiment to you. He asked me also to inform you that the Soviet Union was retaining continuity in foreign affairs. He said this meant that the USSR was pursuing the absolutely clear goals of consolidating peace and reducing the threat of war, as well as of pursuing peaceful co-existing between states with different social systems with a view to promoting beneficial cooperation between all states. At [Page 621] the same time, he said the USSR would safeguard its security interests, as well as those of its allies and friends, against any attempts to impinge on their security. Chernenko wanted to emphasize that the Soviet Union had no intention of striving for unilateral military-strategic advantage. The Soviet objective was to preserve under all circumstances the established balance with a view to ensuring peace. The U.S. Government should be absolutely clear on this.

2. Chernenko then said he wanted to set forth the Soviet assessment of the current state of USSR-US relations and of their prospects for the future. The current state of relations, he said, had to be a cause for concern, adding that in his opinion Washington also recognized this. For its part, the Soviet Union would do everything it could to prevent alienation between our two countries, and to promote a constructive interaction between them, based on mutual respect. Chernenko asked me to inform you that the Soviet Union was in favor of smooth, better yet, good relations with the U.S. He asked whether this was possible, and, answering his own question, replied that it certainly was.

3. He then took note of your expression of intent to cooperate with the USSR, and of making the world a better and more peaceful place for all. This required, he said, that relations be based on the concept of equality and equal security, on mutual trust, mutual respect for each other’s interests, and that non-ideological differences should not be introduced into Soviet-American relations. This latter point was critical. Otherwise, the relations would be spasmodic and, what was most important, would lead to mistrust rather than mutual trust. Chernenko went on to say that it was primarily up to our two countries to insure stability and prevent the threat of a nuclear arms race, and to proceed with arms limitation and reduction.

4. Chernenko said that to be candid, the Soviet Union believed it was up to us to take practical steps in this direction. The U.S. was in a position to take these steps, he said, without in any way harming its prestige or its interests. He said the Soviets had no convincing reason why the U.S. could not follow their example and undertake not to be the first to use nuclear arms. The Soviet leadership was convinced that this would help relax the international situation. All that was required was a political will and a desire to reverse a dangerous course of events.

5. Chernenko continued by saying that there were many issues requiring solutions and many that were capable of being solved. The U.S. Government was familiar with these issues. The Soviet policy of pursuing mutually acceptable accords—and he then emphasized, mutually acceptable accords—remained unchanged. Among the most important and pressing problems he would mention arms limitation and reduction, stopping the spread of the arms race to new areas, and resolving regional conflicts, taking into account the legitimate interests [Page 622] of the parties. To be candid, the bilateral relations between our two countries were devoid of meaningful content, he said. This constituted the Soviet approach and the position of the Soviet Union. He then said he hoped that you and your administration would draw the relevant practical conclusion. This would permit an improvement in Soviet-U.S. relations and in establishing the kind of relations which would promote peace. Chernenko told me that the Soviet leadership did not believe in the inevitability of a confrontation. The Soviet and U.S. peoples had not inherited hostility toward each other, he said, adding that he did not want such hostilities to occur in the future.

6. I thanked Chernenko for his remarks and noted that Chernenko had had a very busy day and that he had several traumatic days behind him. I told him that Senator Baker and I had come to offer our sincere condolences. He thanked me for this sentiment.

7. After handing over your letter,2 which I told him reflected your sincere feelings, I told him that I was absolutely convinced that, in fact, we did not want to be drawn into any kind of conflict with the Soviet Union. As you had said in your January 16, 1984 speech,3 the U.S. was prepared to build a relationship based on constructive cooperation. Just as Chernenko had said, we, too, believed that good relations were possible. We, too, recognized that there were differences between us, and like the USSR, the U.S. would defend its own interests and those of its allies. However, the U.S. did not wish to challenge the security of the Soviet Union or its people. We, too, agreed that the time had come to move from words to deeds.

8. I went on to say that in the U.S. view, the meeting between Secretary Shultz and Minister Gromyko had identified areas in which progress was possible in the coming months4 and we wanted to make a beginning towards a better and more productive relationship. If real progress on the issues were made—if there was a prospect for serious progress—then you remained interested in a meeting at the highest level.

9. I told him that we especially wanted to avoid conflicts over regional issues. The Middle East was the Middle East, and thus was always difficult. With respect to Lebanon, in particular, we were not seeking a conflict with the Soviet Union, I said, nor were we seeking a permanent U.S. presence there.

10. I then emphasized that the U.S. wanted to move forward on arms control. We believed that START was one area in which construc[Page 623]tive steps were possible toward achieving our mutual goal of reducing strategic offensive arms. We were ready, I told him, for serious negotiations. Frankly, we would be interested in hearing the Soviet side’s ideas on how to reduce the differences between the two sides on START. We believed it useful to focus on the area of trade-offs between Soviet advantages and U.S. advantages. Our overall objective was to find a framework for a general reduction of strategic arms which, both sides agreed, had so far eluded us.

11. Noting his statement concerning interference in the domestic affairs of the other country, I said we knew how seriously the Soviet Union viewed this matter. However, it would be most useful if we were able to find ways for taking practical steps—and I emphasized that they should involve quiet diplomacy—in the area of human rights. A number of these cases had become important U.S. domestic concerns. I told him that they had heard various names from us in the past, but I wanted to take this opportunity to mention Shcharanskiy, Orlov and Sakharov.

12. With the meeting drawing to a close, I remarked that there was far more to discuss, but that I wanted to end on the note on which I had begun, namely that the U.S. was ready for better relations with the Soviet Union. We were aware of the difficulties, of course. But we had not come to Moscow to assign blame or to escalate the rhetoric. This should be a new beginning. We were prepared to meet them half way.

13. He thanked me for my remarks, expressing his gratitude to me for taking the time to come to Moscow at such a difficult moment. He asked that this sentiment also be expressed to you. He said that my visit was a human kind of gesture, a good gesture which went in the right direction. The Soviet side hoped for further steps towards improving relations between us. Even this brief discussion, he said, had shown that we had things to talk about, and that there were issues which could be resolved on a mutually acceptable basis. He said that through no fault of our own, we shouldered the task of leading two great powers, the USSR and the U.S. This being the case, he said, we should pursue an honorable policy in order that future generations remember us as good leaders, wise and kind individuals whose goal was the well being of all. He finished by again expressing gratitude to you and thanking me and Senator Baker for attending the funeral.

14. As I departed, Chernenko remarked that he had not had an opportunity to read your letter, but promised to study it and provide a response if one was appropriate.

15. As I reported in my earlier message,5 I was basically encouraged by the meeting.

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16. I thought you would be interested in Ambassador Hartman’s observations. His experience gives him an excellent perspective. Ambassador’s comments:

Chernenko received Vice President with Gromyko, Dobrynin, Alexandrov and another assistant with Sukhodrev as interpreter. He read his opening statement in a strong voice but with his usual slurring of words. He appeared fit and in good humor. His dress was immaculate; suit well-tailored, shirt well-made. Both he and Gromyko were at pains to be pleasant and welcoming. Chernenko had slight shortness of breath as he began to read. He did not wear glasses which were on table in front of him. Gromyko made only one attempt to add or correct by being more explicit in saying that, if there were points in President’s letter that required response, there would be answer after they had a chance to study letter. Alexandrov, earlier near receiving line and during meeting, made special effort (unlike other recent contacts) to convey a friendly message and express his own appreciation for Vice President’s visit.

In sum, Ambassador had an impression of Brezhnev revisited. Unlike Andropov who was coldly, humorlessly intellectual, Chernenko appears to be the old wily Russian peasant-type but with an over-lay of having run a Politburo secretariat for many years. There is also no doubt that the memories of Andropov were fading fast as this new leader enjoyed every moment of the ironic situation he found himself in—a loser who became a winner. Many were struck, however, by the sight of an unknown individual holding Chernenko’s arm firmly; Chernenko was the only Politburo member who appeared to be aided down the steps (twice) from the top of the Lenin mausoleum. Would there be another rendezvous in fifteen months?

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Executive Secretariat, NSC Country File, Europe and Soviet Union, USSR (02/15/84–02/16/84); NLR–748–25–12–1–6. Secret; Via Privacy Channels. Printed from a copy that indicates the original was received in the White House Situation Room. Reagan initialed the message, indicating he saw it. Bush traveled from Rome to Paris and met with President Mitterrand at 6:30 p.m. on February 15. (Telegram 6302 from Paris, February 14; Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D840100–0072)
  2. See Document 175.
  3. See Document 158.
  4. See Document 159.
  5. See Document 177.