238. Memorandum From Jack Matlock of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (McFarlane)1


  • The Soviets: Where We Stand

I have the following miscellaneous (but interconnected) thoughts on the current state of play in our Soviet relations and how we might handle some of the issues tactically.

The September Meeting

The June 29 Soviet proposal and our quick response has put us in a very strong tactical position, both publicly and privately.2 We must move carefully to exploit our current advantages.

The Soviet response shows clearly that Gromyko has no intention of allowing a meeting to materialize in September unless we buy the Soviet position in full. However, he is coming on increasingly defensive, and may not be able to hew to this rigid position as the time approaches. Evidence is accumulating that his critics in Moscow may be becoming more assertive. If we play our cards right we may be able to achieve a breakthrough, and if not, undermine the Soviet position even further, with useful implications for 1985.

Publically, we should stick right where we are: we are placing no preconditions on the meeting, therefore assume it will take place, and are pursuing arrangements in diplomatic channels. This forces the Soviets to growl and concentrate on their preconditions, which are looking less and less tenable. Meanwhile, this relieves us of the immediate pressure to define our ASAT position, which is desirable tactically, since we need to squeeze the Soviets as much as we can in advance. Since they have proposed a conference, there is no rational argument in favor of our communicating in advance what our position is. To do so would only give Gromyko the ammunition to say it is inadequate and to shift attention from their intransigence to the alleged shortcomings of our substantive position.

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This thought should also lie at the basis of our private communications with the Soviets. We should make our proposals general enough and ambiguous enough to provide no logical grounds for complaint (the diplomatic equivalent of a stealth design).3 One way to do this would be to propose an agenda whereby the first item would be the Soviet exposition of their proposals, and the second item the U.S. commentary and proposals, followed by a Soviet commentary, etc. If we do not define the subjects precisely, it will be exceedingly difficult for the Soviets to argue that there are any preconditions, or that we are refusing to discuss their agenda.

As for the timing, if the conference begins September 18, we need to handle it so as to minimize the opportunity for the Soviets to break it off before November claiming U.S. intransigence. Therefore, there is an advantage in letting them go first, and instructing our delegation to ask frequent questions in order to maximize the amount of time necessary to get their position on the table. We could then take our time in commenting in detail and putting forth our thoughts. This process, if handled adroitly, could easily carry us into November without giving the Soviets ammunition to cry foul and break off. Such tactics would also drive home the point implicitly that they should expect little in the ASAT area until they start talking turkey on nuclear arms.

Gromyko’s Role

The above is predicated on the assumption that Gromyko will retain his stranglehold on Soviet policy throughout this period, and that therefore our object should be to demonstrate the weakness of that policy while not damaging our own public image.

With every move on the U.S.-Soviet chessboard, my conviction deepens that Gromyko is in fact our principal problem, and that we are likely to make no significant progress until sufficient pressure is brought to bear on him from within the system to modify his approach.

Two recent straws in the wind support this interpretation. First, Strobe Talbott informed me that during his recent visit to Moscow, his interlocutors (mainly from the Institutes) put the finger on Gromyko quite explicitly.4 This came up in a discussion of the treatment given Scowcroft; all the Soviets said privately that the problem was the effort to secure a private audience with Chernenko, which caused Gromyko to “hit the ceiling.” So far, nothing new, but what was surprising was that the Institute types added (when they were out of the office and [Page 862] walking in the park), that our analysis was quite correct; it is necessary to bypass Gromyko, and the only thing wrong with our effort was the way it was done, since it gave Gromyko the opportunity to block it. A quieter effort at a lower level might have worked, they observed.

Second, Robert Anderson informed me today that Velikhov had telephoned his assistant Hirsch twice since their visit to inquire about the fate of “point three” of Anderson’s “Bering Straits” proposal. You will recall that Anderson had given them an off-the-cuff idea for a declaration regarding the Bering Straits, which included a proposal for a high-level binational commission to discuss this and other matters (TAB).5 The idea has many potential problems and probably is not worth pursuing on its merits, but I am struck by Velikhov’s obvious and uncharacteristic interest. Could it be that a “commission” of some sort would provide a structure for those outside the MFA to interact with us on behalf of the Party and/or KGB? No other explanation comes readily to mind.

In sum, while it will be necessary for us to continue to play out the game with Gromyko, I am convinced that we are unlikely to find any real opening for a breakthrough, this year or next, unless we can get something going, very quietly, with other elements in the Soviet hierarchy. It should be obvious by now that we cannot do this with officials in the State Department, because Gromyko will always have the perfectly sound bureaucratic argument that it is his responsibility to deal with them. He is on much weaker ground in fending off counterpart-to-counterpart meetings, even if he should know about them in advance (which he will), and gets reports on what transpires.

The fact is that every senior official puts more credence in what his own staff produces than in what comes from others. Therefore, it makes a real difference bureaucratically whose staff does the initial work. So long as the Central Committee apparat, for example, has no direct contact with us, they have little means of reaching conclusions other than those Gromyko is pushing. With direct contacts, they are better able to activate their boss to their own ultimate advantage, provided political conditions permit.

The argument that we should continue to try to communicate with various elements in the Soviet hierarchy is not based on a “good guy, bad guy” presumption. There are no “good guys,” and we should never act as if there were. But we should not pass up any feasible opportunity to utilize normal and natural bureaucratic rivalries in the Soviet system to our own advantage.

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The Danger of Leaks

Few things can be more damaging to our ability to maximize our current tactical advantage than a further succession of leaked stories about the progress of our interagency consideration, possible positions on specific issues and the like. We need either to achieve much greater discipline than we have managed in the past, or else simply keep the bureaucracy (including the SACPG) ignorant of the President’s decisions until we have had time to act upon them and can time our public disclosures.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Jack Matlock Files, Chronological File, 1980–1986, Matlock Chron July 1984 [07/01/1984–07/14/1984. Secret; Sensitive. Eyes Only McFarlane and Poindexter. Sent for information. McFarlane wrote in the margin: “I agree with your points, especially in re Gromyko & the need to find another way. What measures could we try? Bud.”
  2. See Documents 233 and 236.
  3. McFarlane wrote in the margin: “Right on.”
  4. Strobe Talbott, Time Magazine correspondent on U.S.-Soviet relations. Likely a reference to the Institute of US and Canadian Studies (ISKRAN).
  5. The tab is not attached. For more on Robert Anderson and this proposal, see footnote 3, Document 244.