182. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (McFarlane) to President Reagan1


  • U.S.-Soviet Relations: Toward Defining a Strategy

A recent article by James Billington, Director of the Wilson Center and one of America’s leading specialists in Russian history, culture and psychology, deserves your attention.2 Billington is a tough-minded supporter of our deterrence strategy, and his article provides some important insights in the current situation in the Soviet Union and some thought-provoking suggestions for steps we can take to influence the development of the Soviet system over the long run.

[Page 637]

Billington’s Arguments

The U.S.-Soviet relationship has been remarkably stable but destabilizing forces have grown as Soviet military might and international involvement has increased without a comparable increase in internal maturity and serenity. Much of Soviet insecurity stems from the regime’s failure to exorcise Stalinism and build an internal basis for self respect. Instead, present leaders are reverting to Stalinist techniques of coercion.

We must acknowledge the complexity of the situation and differentiate several distinct elements in the Soviet-American rivalry:

Economic: Here we have already won.

Imperial: A new form of the traditional Russian policy of extending its borders by absorbing or subordinating smaller states, it is most tempting when the U.S. seems weak or irresolute.

Ideological: An expansionist policy is justified on ideological grounds, and the leaders see in revolutions elsewhere a vindication of their ideology which has failed at home.

Psychological: The Soviets have a love-hate relationship with the U.S. We are “the only power that can destroy them, and also the only civilization by which they can measure themselves.”

Thermonuclear: The danger is not deliberate use but the difficulty of avoiding use in an escalating situation and also the potential for blackmail.

We must reject the idea that reaching agreements with the Soviets is an end in itself and also the idea that the Soviet system is on the verge of collapse. The forthcoming generational change of Soviet leaders provides some basis for hope that the system will change. Future leaders will face a choice between a course of further centralization, militarization and oppression and one of moving toward a more open system. The U.S. cannot determine the outcome, but it can influence it.

In order to bring maximum influence to bear on this developing situation, we need a more comprehensive dialogue in three areas:

—With the current leadership, a dialogue that is tough and specific;

—With the broader society and postwar generation, a dialogue that is generous and general;

—With both, a multinational dialogue addressing common problems of the future jointly with other countries.

This will permit us to raise our sights without lowering our guard, and will help the coming Soviet generation to forge better links both with their own past and with our broad, contemporary experience.

[Page 638]


I agree with Billington’s point that our policy should include both hard-nosed negotiations with the current Soviet leadership, and measures to influence the future evolution of Soviet society.

Dealing with the Soviet Leaders: We already have under way a sound policy for dealing with the Soviet leaders. We must continue to expand the channels available and to probe for areas of possible negotiability, while recognizing that significant progress may not be possible this year. Power struggles may make it impossible for the Soviet leaders to make the hard policy changes necessary for an improvement in relations with us. We should, nevertheless, continue to convey to them a policy of firmness coupled with negotiability, which can have its own impact on the leadership struggle. Our basic message should be:

(a) That no improvement of relations will be possible without a change in their policies and behavior;

(b) That continued intransigence on their part will result only on a worsening of their own situation;

(c) That we are serious about negotiating fair arrangements in a variety of areas; and

(d) That your political strength at home gives you the ability to deliver on any deals reached.

It will be particularly important to convey credibly the last two points. If the Soviet leaders conclude that no agreements are possible with you, they will simply hunker down and put all their efforts into making trouble (though almost certainly in ways that do not risk direct military confrontation). If, however, they are convinced that agreements are in fact possible, this will strengthen the arguments of those in the Soviet leadership who are inclined to make sufficient concessions to reach agreements with us.

The Broader Soviet Public and Younger Generation: We have given less attention to means of influencing the successor generation than we have to dealing with the leadership. Andropov was moving in a neo-Stalinist direction. His successors, however, will be forced to choose whether to intensify centralization, repression and militarization of Soviet society, or to improve incentives, decentralize decision making and rely more on market factors.

While we can have only a marginal effect on the outcome of this internal Soviet process, we should do what we can to strengthen the tendencies toward greater decentralization and openness, since this would produce a Soviet Union with less commitment to the use of force and less willing to engage in costly foreign adventures. Therefore, even if the rivalry of our systems did not end (it would not), the U.S.-USSR interaction would be safer and more manageable.

[Page 639]

Billington’s suggestions for reaching the younger generation through greater expanded exchanges are apt. The fact is that the successor Soviet generation is as parochial as the current one. Opportunities to meet with Americans and to come to the United States can undermine officially-sponsored negative stereotypes about the U.S. and stimulate private doubts about the veracity of propaganda caricatures. While the persons involved will rarely if ever be able to influence policy decisions immediately and directly, broader exposure of Soviet citizens to the U.S. can over time produce pressures for more realistic and less rigid Soviet policies.

For these reasons, I believe you should consider reopening negotiations on an exchange agreement in the near future. Exchanges can be broadened considerably on the basis of private funding, and I am investigating ways that we can bring our influence to bear in encouraging private foundations to direct their efforts toward reaching a new Soviet audience, rather than multiplying contacts with regime propagandists like Arbatov.3

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Executive Secretariat, NSC Country File, Europe and Soviet Union, USSR (01/23/84). Confidential. Sent for information. Prepared by Matlock. Copies were sent to Bush, Meese, Baker, and Deaver. A stamped notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it.
  2. The article is attached but not printed. In a January 28 memorandum, McFarlane tasked Matlock with summarizing Billington’s article, “A Time of Danger, an Opening for Dialogue,” which was printed in the Washington Post on November 20, 1983, p. F8. “It seems to me that there is much in common between Jim’s prescriptions and your own,” McFarlane commented. “I would like to infuse the President with an historical appreciation of where we stand in the relationship and what we can expect in the way of the Soviet leadership (goals and strategy). Finally, given what I believe we share (a basic pessimism toward any near-term movement away from the deeply Stalinistic values held by the current senior generation of leaders), we ought to propose how we should proceed so as to avoid catastrophe in our strategic relationship while seeking to at least keep alive the hope of an alternative future among the successor generation. I would like to get this to the President as soon as possible.” (Reagan Library, Executive Secretariat, NSC Country File, Europe and Soviet Union, USSR (01/23/84))
  3. In a February 6 memorandum to McFarlane, Matlock reported, in relation to private foundation money, cultural exchanges, and even trips of U.S. business leaders to Moscow: “I had two extended discussions with Billington about his ideas.” He continued: “Basically he feels, and I strongly agree, that some means must be found to direct foundation money into new channels, so that we do not have a private-sector dialogue dominated by the Arbatovs and Zhukovs, as it has been up to now.” He concluded: “it should be possible to implement some of Billington’s ideas without major changes of U.S. policy or larger commitment of federal funds. We must, however, do what we can to encourage effective goal setting and more effective briefing of U.S. participants.” (Ibid.)