28. Memorandum From John Lenczowski of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Clark)1


  • Soviet SALT Compliance and U.S.-Soviet Relations

The Immediate Issue

The immediate issue is how to handle the latest apparent Soviet arms control violation: the testing of the PL–5. The intelligence community unanimously believes that this test has raised enough questions about Soviet compliance that a major diplomatic demarche is necessary. The problem here is that this issue cannot be treated in isolation without causing severe problems for the President and his overall foreign policy.2

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The Surrounding Immediate Issues

Coming up very soon are several critical issues, all related: the Adelman vote, the MX votes, the nuclear freeze votes, the defense budget vote, and a decision on how to proceed at the INF negotiations—whether to present a new fall back proposal or not. Each one of these issues hinges on the answer to one question: how will the President conduct U.S.-Soviet relations? Each one of these issues represents a challenge to the President’s views and policies. What the President must decide is whether or not he will try to win each battle by presenting the strongest case he can make or whether he is willing to risk losing these battles by compromising his views and thus making a weaker case in order to accommodate his critics.3

The Real Issue

To view these various issues and upcoming battles in Congress in the context of the compliance issue presents a situation that cuts to the core of how we conduct our policy toward the USSR. This situation compels us to address several key questions:4

—Who is responsible for U.S.-Soviet tensions?

—Who is responsible for progress or lack of progress in arms control negotiations?

—Is it possible to trust the Soviets?

—Is it unreasonable, provocative or belligerent to conduct a policy based on a suspicion about true Soviet motivations and behavior, especially in the field of arms control?

—Is true peace and accommodation possible between the U.S. and the USSR, between democracy and communism?

Each of these questions depends upon a certain theory about the nature of the Soviet system and communism. Thus, the compliance issue in combination with its surrounding issues, at bottom, addresses the whole question of whose assessment of the USSR is correct—that of the President and those who are realistic about the Soviets, or that of his critics—the proponents of detente and those who are inclined toward wishful thinking and a mirror-image perception of the USSR. Put yet another way, the real question here is: are the Soviets actually [Page 96] communists or not, and if they are, will we conduct our foreign policy on the basis of this fact?

The Position of the President’s Critics

The President’s critics answer every one of the above questions on the basis of a wishful-thinking, mirror-image view of the USSR.

—They believe that the Administration is just as responsible as, if not more responsible than, the USSR for U.S.-Soviet tensions, the arms race and lack of progress in arms control. This is evident in their pressures on the President to back off his zero-zero proposal in order to “get the negotiations moving again.” Apparently, the fact that they are not criticizing and pressuring the Soviets to do something means that in their view, the Soviet position is reasonable and the President’s is unreasonable. Somehow it is the Soviets and not the President who deserve the benefit of the doubt. Implicit in this view is the mirror-image perception that the Soviets must feel threatened by the prospective U.S. INF deployments and defense buildup and that their fears are legitimate ones.

—They either trust the Soviets (on account of the fact that they never raise questions about Soviet treaty compliance) or they argue that we need not trust them: instead we can rely on the fallacious, mirror-image assumption that the Soviets have just as much incentive to control arms as we do (e.g., the problems of their domestic economy). Their trust of the Soviets manifests itself in another, even more important way: they refuse to believe that the Soviets are using arms control negotiations as an integral part of their ideological struggle against democracy and that such negotiations are the key to the Soviet strategy of deception.

—They believe that the President (and Adelman as well) is not truly committed to arms control, and that as a result, the Administration position is not only unreasonable but even provocative toward the Soviets. Not one of the Senators opposing Adelman acknowledged that there is any legitimacy to the President’s (and Adelman’s) hesitation about rushing Cranston-style into new agreements with the Soviets—a hesitation based exclusively on a realistic suspicion about Soviet motivations and behavior.

—They believe that some kind of real peace and accommodation can be reached with Soviets if only we try harder and give the Soviets the right incentives to cooperate with us to realize our alleged “mutual interests.” Arms control negotiations are thus seen as the key to this process. Originally, it was detente that made arms control both possible and desirable. But, since the policy of detente was called into question by Soviet misbehavior, the only thing left to keep detente alive was arms control—the only arena where there appeared to be a mutuality of interest, an interest in avoiding war. Thus the President’s critics see arms control as a cooperative enterprise in confidence building and reduction of tension, a process of mutual concessions, mutual interests and mutual advantages. This is in direct contrast to the Soviet, ideological approach to diplomacy which considers negotiations as an arena of class struggle, a zero-sum game where one side must win and the other must lose.

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The common denominator of each of these positions held by the President’s critics is that the Soviets are not really communists and therefore do not pursue the unlimited international objectives of a revolutionary communist power, using any means necessary to achieve these goals. Instead they feel that the Soviets are just like any other normal great power, possessing limited international objectives, and desiring their fair share of the spoils. The assumption here is that once the Soviets get their fair share, which may include a “legitimate” security buffer, then they will behave like a good citizen in the existing international order and find an ever greater mutuality of interest with us in controlling arms and maintaining a peaceful international status quo.

If this view of the Soviets is correct,5 then the policy of detente with its elements of appeasement and accommodation would be a legitimate foreign policy path to explore. If it is incorrect, then all elements of the policy of detente, including arms control, are put into question and we have to face up to the possibility that we are facing not just a “potential adversary” but a real, live, communist enemy, for whom the mere existence of a democratic United States is an ideological and therefore internal security threat.

As part of their wishful thinking, the President’s critics refuse to listen to any portrayal of the East-West conflict that is couched in moral terms. They refuse to acknowledge that military forces are a reflection of political, ideological and moral differences and not the cause of them. To repeat, they refuse to believe that the Soviets are really communists.

The President’s critics are so unwilling to face this possibility (just as Chamberlain and Co. were unwilling to take Naziism’s unlimited revolutionary objectives seriously), that they remain committed to doing everything they can to try to teach the Soviets to be something they cannot be.

To find an arms control violation thus represents not only a failure of these efforts and a failure of the policy of detente, but it represents a repudiation of their wishful-thinking, mirror-image view of the USSR, a view which is the only thing that seems to sustain their hope that peace on earth is possible. Thus, any violations of agreements must be made to go away: either they did not occur, they were passing aberrations, or they have no significant military or political consequences.

It is for this reason that the Carter Administration defined a SALT violation not as an act contrary to the terms of the agreement, but as a deliberate act, contrary to the precise terms of SALT, which results in a significant increase in Soviet strategic power.

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The Soviet Role

The Soviets have one overall objective in this context: to change the correlation of forces (both political and military) in their favor. Their immediate objective is to stop our INF deployments and force us to reduce our defense budget and our strategic programs. Their principal means for achieving these goals are the use of deception and intimidation.

Deception: Their primary deception—their number one disinformation theme—is to convince the West that they are really not communists and that therefore a true accommodation is possible between us and them. They try to cultivate the notion that they do not really believe in their ideology any more, that they have lost their revolutionary elan, and that there is a new non-orthodox “pragmatic” group in power. The more they can promote this fallacious mirror-image perception in the minds of Western leaders, the more those leaders can be convinced that the Soviets are as interested in arms control as they are.

A related disinformation theme is the idea that the Soviets have as much to fear from Western military forces as we do from theirs. This theme promotes the idea that the U.S. is as responsible as, if not more responsible than the USSR for the arms race and lack of progress in arms control.

If the Soviets can compel Western publics to accept these premises and assumptions, then they can much more easily force us to play the peace game on their terms rather than ours. Thus, they can come to the arms control table and make countless false statements, engage in all sorts of circumventions and violations, and still compel us to sit at the table with them. In spite of a decade’s worth of unilateral U.S. restraint, in spite of all our peaceful international intentions and behavior, much of the West accepts these false notions to be true.6

Intimidation: As part of their effort in psychological conditioning, the Soviets have used various forms of intimidation to compel Western publics and leaders to accept their terms of the “peace” game. Principal among these is to encourage us that there will be dire consequences if the arms control process does not continue. Other forms of intimidation include the recent threats that INF deployments would compel the Soviets to target European cities and station similar weapons close to American borders, and the threat of nuclear attack against the Japanese.

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The Soviet Assessment of Western Behavior

The one factor that rarely is considered in situations like this is the true Soviet view. Almost always, the fallacious, mirror-image perception of the Soviet view is the basis upon which Western decisions are made. This mirror-image perception invariably explains that the Soviets will see how their own alleged interests in reducing their own military expenditures and reducing tensions with the West are advanced by the arms control process. This mirror-image perception also explains that the Soviets regard all U.S. negotiating proposals as signs of U.S. strength and self-confidence: after all, isn’t the reverse true?—didn’t we tell ourselves that the Soviets would never negotiate until they felt strong enough to bargain from a position of relative parity and therefore strength?

The facts are the complete opposite. The Soviets view the very fact that we are sitting at the table with them as something they forced us to do.7 Every time we impatiently come up with another negotiating proposal (usually a fall-back position), they regard it the same way. Most significant of all is their perception of our utter lack of response in the face of their continuing circumventions and violations of existing agreements. They can only see this as proof that the correlation of forces has shifted so much in their favor that Western leaders have no choice but to accommodate themselves to the Soviet position that no violations have occurred.8

What Is To Be Done

As things currently stand, we are in the intolerable position of being forced by our allies to reject the zero-zero proposal as if we were the ones responsible for no progress in the INF talks, as if we have been negotiating in bad faith.9 In other words, we are being forced to act as if we are the principal cause of East-West tensions and the arms race. Since this is unequivocally not so, the Soviets can only view their disinformation efforts as successful and remain convinced that even under Ronald Reagan, the U.S. is too weak to compete politically with them.

If the President loses the nuclear freeze vote (a Soviet proposal, after all), the defense budget vote, the Adelman vote, the MX vote, the [Page 100] Soviets will be even further convinced of the Administration’s and America’s political weakness. And they will make further plans for more geopolitical offensives around the world based on this view.

The only recourse available to us to reverse this situation is to expose Soviet bad faith in arms control. No explanations of arcane weapons comparisons or military force balances (which can be easily manipulated by sophisters) will either be as convincing or comprehensible to Western publics as a clearcut accusation that the Soviets have been cheating.

If, however, the President accuses them of a violation only on the PL–5 issue, and only on the grounds of impermissible changes in the RV to throw-weight ratio (which would be utterly incomprehensible to the public), then he will be put in a very politically precarious position. His critics will easily be able to portray him as having gotten overly exercised about a miniscule violation that is strategically insignificant. They will try to make the President look petty and foolish.

What he must do, therefore, is to explain to the public that this is the last straw—the straw that broke the camel’s back. He would then explain what all the others straws are.

Presenting the Catalog of Soviet Deceptions, Circumventions and Violations

The President can then point out that:

—The Soviets have consistently violated the 1972 Agreement on the Basic Principles of Relations between the U.S. and the USSR.10 Since the SALT II Treaty states in its preamble that it “proceeds” from the Basic Principles Agreement, the only foundation of SALT II is being violated.

—The Soviets have violated the Kennedy-Khrushchev agreements of 1962 on the placement of offensive weapons in Cuba. (The President and three top national security officials are already on record with this charge.) Specific violations include the TU–95 Bear, the nuclear capable MIG 23/27’s and others.

—The Soviets have committed more than 30 violations of both SALT I and II and other arms control agreements.

Explaining Why Soviet Deceptions, Circumventions and Violations are an Intrinsic Element of Soviet-Communist Strategy

The most convincing way the President can present the catalog of Soviet violations is by putting them in the context of communist [Page 101] (particularly Leninist) strategy. For the first time in decades, the President can explain the real basis of the East-West conflict and thus why both sides have the kinds of arsenals they do.

What this really means is that he must show the American people that the Soviets really are communists. He must explain that whether they believe in the ideology or not, the system requires that they must behave as if they believe in it entirely. He must show how the Soviet Party leaders use their ideology as the standard against which deviationism is measured—and how this is the way they identify threats to their rule and thus stay in power.

From this analysis necessarily follows a foreign policy which cannot accept a “social status quo” and thus which considers negotiations as part of the class war.

What Then?

If the President comes forward with these charges and explanations, many will instantly conclude that arms control is dead and that he is leading us to war. To curtail the effect and spread of such accusations, he can immediately declare that the U.S. will continue to negotiate with the Soviets and do everything possible to reach a verifiable agreement—only now it will be on our terms and no longer on Soviet terms.

A Challenge Brewing in the Senate

If the President fails to raise the entire compliance issue he will face a major challenge from conservative Senators. As far as I can tell two measures are being prepared: a SALT II withdrawal resolution and an amendment prohibiting U.S. unilateral compliance with SALT II (on Constitutional grounds).

—If the resolution or amendment wins, SALT II is dead.

—If either fails, it will be followed by passage of a Senate advice and consent resolution on SALT II ratification.

—If this wins, the conservatives will have at least prompted U.S. compliance with SALT II to be in accordance with their Constitutional powers on treaty making.

—If consent for SALT II ratification is given then the President will be in a very difficult spot. He will have to ratify a treaty which he declared to be “fatally flawed” and he will have to do so in the context of the recent evidence of Soviet violations, and face charges of appeasement and cover-up.

—If the President refuses to ratify SALT II after Senate consent, he may face a major conflict with the Senate that may have Constitutional implications.

If the President fails to charge Soviet violations in his March 31 speech, it is very likely that he will be faced with this predicament.


If the President follows the recommendations in this memo:

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—He will not only avoid the potential challenge in the Senate;

—He will seize the moral high ground;

—He will take the steam out of the freeze movement;

—He will demonstrate to the Soviets his and America’s political strength, thus strengthing our military deterrent in a non-military way;

—He will re-enter the peace game on American terms while rejecting Soviet terms;

—He will gain as good a chance as any of winning the votes on Adelman, the MX, the freeze, and the defense budget;

—He will have told the unadulterated truth, thus confounding the Soviets’ number one foreign policy priority—namely to silence Ronald Reagan, and aborting the efforts of their principal disinformation campaign—to convince the West that they are not really communists and that a true accommodation, especially in the form of a good faith arms accord can be reached with them.

—He will have made the strongest case he could possibly make in each of the upcoming political battles he faces.

—He will have avoided appealing to the weakness of the American people—their naive good will and willingness to give others (including the Soviets) the benefit of the doubt; but rather,

—He will have appealed to the strengths of the American people—their pride and greatness, their commonsense view of right and wrong, their devotion to truth, justice and fair play.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, William Clark Files, US-Soviet Relations Papers Working File: Contains Originals (4). Secret. Sent for information. A notation in an unknown hand at the end of the memorandum reads: “Sven Kraemer and Ken DeGraffenreid concur.”
  2. Reagan wrote the number one in the margin of this paragraph. In addition to his marginalia, Reagan also responded in an attached handwritten note, with points relating to these issues. Concerning “The Immediate Issue,” he wrote: “1. I think we should seriously discuss with Sec. Shultz a strong demarche—re the test of the P.L.5.”
  3. Reagan wrote the number two in the margin of this paragraph. Concerning “The Surrounding Immediate Issues,” Reagan wrote: “2. Of course we make a strong fight on these issues before long. Decision has been reached on I.N.F.”
  4. Reagan wrote the number three in the margin of this paragraph. Concerning “The Real Issue,” Reagan wrote: “3. We know the answers to these questions re—the Soviets and détente as done or attempted was not the answer. There is some truth however that the Soviets are mistrusting of us because they are Russians. They’ve had a sensitive inferiority complex for centuries. We can be realistic about them & still try for peace. Not to do so is unthinkable.”
  5. Reagan underlined this phrase and wrote in the margin: “This is not correct.”
  6. Reagan underlined this phrase and wrote in the margin: “We must do better than we have in refuting this.”
  7. Reagan underlined this sentence and wrote in the margin: “I can’t agree to this. History shows they have always resisted coming to the table.”
  8. Reagan wrote in the margin here: “I agree we must insist on enforcing to the letter every agreement we have.”
  9. Reagan underlined this sentence and wrote in the margin: “I don’t believe this is accurate. We knew from the 1st we might have to settle for less but whatever gains we made might make it easier to ultimately get zero-zero.”
  10. The Basic Principles of U.S.-Soviet Relations was issued on May 29, 1972, during the Nixon–Brezhnev summit. For the text, see Public Papers: Nixon, 1972, pp. 633–635. See also Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 233.