199. Memorandum From Secretary of State Shultz to President Reagan1


  • Chernenko’s March 19 Letter and Accompanying “Oral Remarks”

We have given some thought overnight to what this message really means.

The overall thrust is that the Soviets are skeptical of your offer of dialogue, and very wary of working with us at least until we have put more on the table. As a response to your last letter,2 the message came fast (thirteen days after yours); and it passes up the chance to indulge in the kind of sharp language we have been hearing from Soviets in public these last two weeks. On the other hand, it does go in for some very self-serving argumentation, and it is extremely careful when it comes to specific issues. In brief, while Chernenko did not slam any doors, he did not open any either.

The whole message, in general, is permeated with the fear that we will trap them into sham dialogue and exploit it for electoral purposes to prove that business-as-usual is going on. To some extent, this wariness probably reflects the intense competition for power among the Soviet leaders. We knew the Soviets were suspicious. This letter shows how far that is the case.

Turning to specifics, the message avoids engaging us on START and INF. The argument is that there is nothing in our current position that provides for serious negotiation. Chernenko asserts that our new INF missiles present a new strategic threat. It may be they understand we will not withdraw them without a negotiated agreement, but do not know how to proceed without legitimizing our deployments. This dilemma would explain why Chernenko says he sees no need to restate the Soviet position explicitly, and no additional “official or unofficial” clarifications from us will help “of themselves.” They may well have concluded that for the time being they are better off waiting for a [Page 718] change in the political situation in Europe or here before looking at the negotiating problem again.

Instead, they are pressing their own agenda on other issues. He restates the same tired, sterile agenda for non-nuclear arms control set forth in Andropov’s last letter of January 28 and Chernenko’s March 2 speech.3 Chernenko identifies four top priorities: renunciation of space weapons, a nuclear weapons freeze, resumption of comprehensive test ban negotiations, and agreement on norms of conduct among nuclear powers. More constructively, he then calls for use of our bilateral channel to facilitate progress in multilateral negotiations on chemical weapons, MBFR and non-first-use of nuclear weapons and non-use of force agreements together with confidence-building measures at Stockholm. The “oral remarks” add ratification of the TTBT and PNET treaties to this list, and also suggest favorable consideration of military-to-military contacts, if overall relations improve.

Both Chernenko’s letter and the “oral remarks” are relatively positive with regard to your suggestion that we need more regular consultations on regional issues. The stress is on the Middle East and especially Iran-Iraq, and they are suspicious of our intentions in moving forces toward the Gulf. But the oral remarks also state that “we are for constructive interaction, and we have a rather positive experience of such cooperation with the United States.” This may be no more than a masked reference to the aborted October 1977 joint statement on the Middle East, but it amounts to a green light to further exchanges on such issues.

Chernenko essentially transfers the action on bilateral issues to the Foreign Ministry, which gives wary responses to the issues you raised in your March 6 letter. They start with a warning that these matters should proceed in “normal, steady fashion, rather than be determined by some expedient considerations,” i.e. election-year tactics. On the issue of consulates, they seek to link movement to our lifting the Poland/KAL sanction against Aeroflot operations here, thus creating an additional burden to progress. But they close no doors, not even on the Pacific maritime boundary negotiations where we announced last week we would be accepting bids for exploration in the disputed area. And they do engage the Soviets to respond to whatever we can come up with.

I think we ought to be firm and candid in responding to Chernenko’s arguments that we are responsible for an impasse, in refusing to be drawn into negotiation of the non-starters he puts up front, and in keeping the dialogue focussed on genuine issues where real progress [Page 719] could be made if the Soviets are willing. When we reply, we should make it clear once again that it is Soviet SS–20 deployments that caused the INF problem; that the Soviets have an anti-satellite weapon deployed and we do not; and that they too have research and development programs in the strategic defense field. We need not be polemical, but we should keep these facts before them.

At the same time, we should continue to define steps that would be in both our interest and the Soviet interest, and to put them on the table.4 We have in fact made a few small moves implementing your March 6 letter. On the hotline, we have sent along technical information and proposed another meeting; we have proposed another session of the Pacific maritime boundary talks; and we have asked formally whether the building prepared for us in Kiev is still available, as a preliminary to negotiations. We are at work here to produce a draft chemical weapons treaty, and we are working with our Allies on some new ideas to put into MBFR. But it is in fact not much so far, and if we are to have a credible record available in case of need, there will need to be more to it than that.

I will be back to you with suggestions for a draft reply to Chernenko and some thoughts on next steps.5

  1. Source: Reagan Library, George Shultz Papers, Box 18, 1984 Mar. 21 Mtgs. w/ the Pres. Secret; Sensitive. Printed from an uninitialed copy. In a memorandum forwarding the memorandum to Shultz on March 21, Burt suggested that the Secretary discuss how to respond to the Soviets—in particular, Chernenko’s letter—during his meeting with the President on March 21. According to marginalia on Burt’s memorandum, Shultz “didn’t sign 3/21 but took.” See footnote 4, below.
  2. See Document 190.
  3. See Documents 164 and 187.
  4. In his covering memorandum to Shultz (see footnote 1, above), Burt suggested the “next steps should be the following: 1) On Friday when you see the President, you might go over the letter and discuss the line you propose to take with Dobrynin. 2) Then call Dobrynin in next week (he expects to be working again by the middle of next week) to go over the Chernenko letter and ‘oral statement.’ The purpose would be to obtain a better feel for the Soviet position before we draft a reply for the President. 3) Draft a response for the President to consider by the end of next week. 4) Proceed with the Soviets where we think it is in our interest—from Consulates to CDE—prodding the interagency process for appropriate U.S. positions where we do not yet have them.”
  5. Shultz met with Reagan at the White House at 1:35 p.m. on March 21 (Reagan Library, President’s Daily Diary), and seemingly delivered this memorandum to the President, but it was not discussed until their regular Friday meeting on March 23. From Reagan’s diary entry it is clear they discussed the Soviets during this March 23 meeting: “George Shultz, Bud & I met for a strategy session on where we go with the Soviets. I think they are going to be cold & stiff-necked for awhile. But we must not become supplicants. We’ll try to get agreement on a few lesser matters.” (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, vol. I, January 1981–October 1985, p. 331)