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


  • Action Plan for U.S.-Soviet Relations

Attached is a paper setting forth alternative action plans for U.S.-Soviet relations. It will provide useful background for our meeting on the subject tomorrow.

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Paper Prepared by the National Security Council Staff2

Program of Action for 1984


The Soviets are holding to the position that it is up to us to make the next step. Their main motivation is doubtless to bring pressure to bear on us to make concessions in advance, in order to satisfy public opinion. Other contributory factors may be that they are unable to reach agreement on initiatives of their own, and—to a degree—that they genuinely doubt our good faith in proposing negotiations.

Their stance is unreasonable and we should avoid steps which undermine important substantive positions.

Initiatives, however, are not necessarily the same as concessions. The Soviet stance does not give us the opportunity to shape the agenda to our advantage by carefully considered initiatives. There are some steps which are to our net advantage; in other areas, largely cosmetic alterations on our part could be used both to defuse domestic and allied pressures and to attempt to elicit more substantial concessions on the Soviet part.

We should also bear in mind that some of our positions are likely to come under intense public and Congressional pressure in this election year. Minor modifications in advance of that pressure can preserve negotiating leverage which might be undermined if we stand pat and the pressures grow.

A Fundamental Choice

We should decide at the outset whether:

(1) We will engage with low expectations and focus on the easier peripheral issues.

(2) We will in fact attempt to achieve some major breakthroughs, while recognizing that they may not be possible given the disarray in the Soviet leadership.

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The first option (“Modest Scenario”) would require some expansion of the dialogue and some steps in bilateral areas where solution favors our long-term interests (e.g., exchanges, consulates).

The second option (“Ambitious Scenario”) would require, in addition, some movement—either cosmetic or conceptual—in our arms control positions. While concessions on basics are neither required nor desirable, we must be prepared to concede enough in form to make it possible for the Soviets to negotiate seriously. And we must be prepared to consider innovative ways to achieve our basic objectives.

The Modest Scenario

This would involve moving rapidly to resolve some bilateral issues which are in our own long-term interest (exchanges agreement and consulates in Kiev and New York), pressing for Soviet cooperation in establishing better navigation aids on the airline route KAL 007 should have followed, trying to settle other outstanding bilateral issues, and expanding the dialogue into a number of regional and general topics. On arms control, however, we would merely discuss the potential of our existing proposals and wait for Soviet movement before changing any of ours. On human rights, we would continue to make representations, but would not offer concrete incentives (other than an improved atmosphere) for better performance. An illustrative scenario is at TAB A.3

The Ambitious Scenario

This would test the limits which might be achieved this year and would include all the items in the Modest Scenario plus the following:

(1) An attempt (initially in informal channels) to get START and INF off dead center by proposing a new START framework and indicating that, in resumed negotiations, we would accept a modified “Walk-in-the-Woods” solution to INF, to include some, but not all planned Pershing II deployments. (This would address the most important immediate Soviet concerns.)

(2) An attempt through private channels to agree on a series of independent or joint steps by which the Soviets would take specified actions in the human rights area, which would in turn trigger certain actions by us on bilateral issues, provided the Soviets refrain from going after additional “targets of opportunity” in the Third World or on their borders.

Significant movement on these points would provide an adequate basis for a successful summit meeting, which could produce renewed [Page 665] negotiations on START/INF and/or an agreed “work program” on other issues. If the Soviets fail to move on any of them (as they well might), the initiatives could be made public in late summer or early fall to prove Soviet intransigence.

An illustrative scenario is at Tab B.4


—Would maximize whatever chances exist to make significant progress this year.

—Could be used eventually, whether it works or not, to bolster our public diplomacy.

—Could provide the basis for a successful summit.

—Since any alterations in our position would, for the most part, be contingent upon prior or simultaneous action by the Soviets, implicit concessions could not easily be pocketed.

—If successful, it would vindicate our policy of strength and could be used to keep public support behind future efforts to deal realistically with the Soviets.


—Soviets may not be either able or willing to make the hard decisions rapidly enough to make it work.

—Premature leaks could endanger the whole process.

—Making proposals contingent upon Soviet actions does not totally remove the danger that they would try to pocket changes in our positions without corresponding changes in theirs.

—Even if successful, this course might lead to public euphoria, which could undermine necessary support for our defense programs. It might also be interpreted as a signal that we have written off Afghanistan, Poland, and other important issues which would remain unsolved.

Public Diplomacy

Whichever option we choose, it will be essential to minimize public expectations during the next few months. If we raise expectations at this point, we hand the Soviets a powerful lever to make our policy seem ineffectual just as the result of their inaction. For several months to come we should be very guarded in our predictions, both on the record and on background, and should not encourage expectations either of a summit or of major breakthroughs.

Such a stance would enhance the impact of a summit (if a productive one can be arranged) and of any substantial progress in the relation[Page 666]ship. In the absence of major progress, however, it would permit us to explain in late summer what we had attempted and to place the blame squarely on the Soviets.


I would endorse proceeding on the basis of the “Ambitious Scenario,” bearing in mind that we will have to gauge each step we make as a function of the quality of Soviet responses to earlier actions. In short, we should maintain our policy of firmness and of making no preemptive concessions but with evidence of good faith, “leaning forward” to make clear our commitment to solving problems.5

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Robert McFarlane Files, Chronological File, Chron (Official) March 1984; NLR–362–6–22–2–7. Top Secret; Sensitive. Sent for action. A note in the margin written by an unknown hand reads: “Orig handcarried to Res. [Residence] for Pres 3/1/84 pm.” A stamped notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it. In a March 1 memorandum to Matlock, returning a marked-up draft of this paper, McFarlane wrote: “Your paper is exactly what I was looking for. I have marked it up a little bit.” He continued: “In short, we should maintain our policy of firmness and of making no preemptive concessions but with evidence of good faith, ‘leaning forward’ to make clear our commitment to solving problems. Please try and get this back to me today. I would like to send it to the President tonight.” (Reagan Library, Jack Matlock Files, US-USSR Summits, Briefing Material for President Reagan-Gorbachev Meeting 11/27/1985 (2/3))
  2. Top Secret; Sensitive.
  3. Tab A, an undated timeline of the “Modest Scenario,” is attached but not printed.
  4. Tab B, an undated timeline of the “Ambitious Scenario,” is attached but not printed.
  5. Tab C, an undated “Issues in the Scenarios” paper, is attached but not printed.