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


  • Gromyko Meeting: Setting, Objectives, Tactics

Though, in his UN speech, Gromyko may present a re-mix of typical Soviet propagandistic fare in a fresh wrapping, he is most unlikely to be bringing any significant new proposals with him.2 Nevertheless, your meeting will be of great importance as the Soviets sort out how they are going to manage their relations with the United States over the next four years. This will be the first time since you took office that any Soviet leader of Politburo rank has had the opportunity to meet you personally and take your measure. The conclusions Gromyko draws, and the impressions he chooses to convey to his colleagues, will influence their subsequent decisions.

Our Objective

We should aim to have the meeting encourage the following conclusions on Gromyko’s part: (1) You are confident of your political position in the United States and feel no need to make concessions to the Soviet Union to shore up your popularity; (2) You recognize that the power of the Soviet Union requires you to deal with it, despite your ideological distaste, and as a pragmatic statesman, you are prepared to do so; (3) You feel that you have made substantial moves to improve the relationship, and do not seem inclined to move further until the Soviets demonstrate a willingness to engage you in a realistic give-and-take; (4) Your positions are not rigid, and in a negotiating context could be brought sufficiently in line with Soviet needs to permit some agreements; and (5) You would be willing, in fact, to implement any major agreements if the negotiations were successful.

We cannot expect a single meeting, no matter how persuasive, to achieve these objectives, given the heavy burden of resentment and suspicion that beclouds Soviet judgment, and their assumption (a mirror-image of their own habit) that we never state what is really on our minds directly. Nevertheless, the meeting can provide an important [Page 992] stimulus toward the sort of conclusions which can facilitate realistic negotiations in the future.

The Obstacles

Specifically, the most important psychological obstacles on the Soviet part to entering into comprehensive negotiations are: (1) A conviction that we have used negotiations in the past not to reach accommodation, but to keep Congress and the public at bay while you proceed with your defense modernization program—and that this is your intent in the future; (2) The fear that when you are reelected, whatever interest in accommodation you profess now will disappear; and (3) The strong suspicion that your real goal is to bring down the Soviet regime (synonymous in their mind with their personal rule), which is, naturally, a non-negotiable proposition for them.

There are things we can do to diminish these specific obstacles, and the second will disappear after the election if you sustain your current policy, but we must recognize that these psychological obstacles stem from a more fundamental cause which we must do nothing to alter. While the Soviets talk a lot about the damage done by “rhetoric,” this is not at the root of their problem. What is at the root of it is the alteration in the balance of power which your policies have brought about. The Soviets feel it keenly, do not like it (and cannot be expected to), and are squirming to find a way to cope with it. So far with notable lack of success—and they know that too. In fact, they confront a pair of extremely uncomfortable policy options, both of which have serious dangers from their point of view.

In broad terms, they face the choice between accepting our offer to negotiate an accommodation and reduce arms, and that of hunkering down, tightening up further internally, and trying to limit the accretion of U.S. strength by encouraging public opposition here to key defense programs and instigating allied disaffection. Both courses present large risks for the Soviet leaders.

They know that accommodation with the U.S. would require more restrained behavior abroad, limitations on their use of military power for political purposes, and very likely some loosening at home, which leads to “contamination” by Western values and disaffection. This would be true even if the policy worked and produced limitations on U.S. military programs, better access to Western technology, and more somnolent Western publics as regards the Soviet threat to their security. And if it didn’t work—if the U.S. proved too intransigent to allow any substantial Soviet benefit—then it could be a disaster for them.

On the other hand, the “hunker down” option also has serious dangers for them: the technological race with the U.S. would be in an area where Soviet performance is weakest and their confidence low; [Page 993] increased repression might not produce the required sacrifice without public unrest and further economic malaise; fearful Western publics might not, in fact, successfully force their Governments to abandon defense programs. In this case, the Soviet Union would end the decade in a more disadvantageous position, and possibly even with strategic military inferiority just at a time when the U.S. would be poised to add effective defensive systems to its offensive strategic arsenal.

Nevertheless, in the Soviet mind, the first option is likely to seem the more risky, because it would require some genuine accommodation on the U.S. part. Many Soviets will argue that the second, bleak as it is, is the safer because it does not depend on partnership with an adversary, and besides, the adversary has never been known to stick to a given policy for very long, so the threat may dissipate of its own accord.

What all the Soviet leaders clearly understand is that if they accept your overtures to negotiation and enter upon a course of strategic arms reduction, they will have validated your policy of dealing from a position of strength, and thus contribute not only to the survival of that policy beyond your incumbency, but probably also to a stiffening of the posture of many of our Allies. The Soviets obviously will not want to do this. Our task is to encourage the thought that the price is acceptable, given the long-term dangers of rejecting our offers.

Succession Struggle

On top of this dilemma, the Soviet leadership is beset by weakness at the top, and very likely, a struggle to determine Chernenko’s successor. Gromyko himself doubtless is playing a major role in this drama, though it seems unlikely that he could aspire to the top Party post himself. (He could, however, be named Chief of State if there is a decision not to combine this post with the Party general secretaryship—a practice for which there is plenty of historical precedent.)

We cannot know what role, if any, disputes over policy toward the U.S. play in the succession struggle. Normally, Soviet leadership struggles are not based so much on policy disputes as on a raw jockeying for power. Policy issues are used, however, as weapons in this process, and can be affected by the outcome.

Even if we knew more about infighting in the Soviet leadership, it would be a delusion to think that we could manipulate this process to our advantage. What we can and should do is to see to it that our policy is crystal clear, so that Soviet decisions are not based on misperceptions of it. Your meeting with Gromyko can contribute importantly to this goal.

Getting Your Point Across

Although it will be important to stress your commitment to peace, to arms reduction, and to your other ultimate objectives, Gromyko is [Page 994] likely to receive such statements with great skepticism. A cynic himself and a master at holding his cards pressed to his chest, he will be wary of taking your general statements at face value. What he will be looking for is concrete indications of the direction your policy will take over the next four years, to contribute to an assessment of whether the possible payoffs to the Soviets will justify the risks involved.

Given these circumstances, some might advise using the meeting to advance a bold, new substantive initiative, or highly specific negotiating positions on matters known to be of interest to the Soviets. I think they are wrong. Until the Soviets have made a fundamental decision to negotiate on the major issues—or at least until you have been reelected so that they can no longer suspect that the proposal is a political gesture and a trick—highly specific proposals regarding nuclear weapons, ASAT or missile defense would be untimely.

However, you will need more than general pledges of good will if you are to be convincing. I believe the most effective way to do this is to suggest, as part of your discussion of the issues, how in broad terms you think the problem might be resolved. These suggestions should not be so specific or detailed that they could simply be pocketed, and should be made contingent on a change in the Soviet stance regarding the issue. I will forward to you shortly a list of candidates for this sort of treatment.3

Sizing You Up

An important part of Gromyko’s mission will be to size you up as a person. They know very well that you are a strong, charismatic leader of the American people. But they don’t know you personally, and this is important to them. Paradoxically—since they are Marxist-Leninists and should theoretically believe that personalities do not play a key role in history—they actually put great stock in the personal characteristics of their interlocutors.

Aside from trying to determine whether you are serious about negotiation, Gromyko also will be forming judgments on such questions as whether you are really in command of your administration or are subject to manipulation by advisers and whether you are a pragmatic politician capable of making deals and holding to them or an ideological zealot who is out to bring the Soviet system down. They are convinced (however mistakenly) that there are important members of your Administration who fall into the latter category and wonder whether you would be willing and capable of overruling them if the Soviets take the plunge and set their policy on a negotiating track.

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These are of course questions which are not amenable to direct discussion—and even if they were, Gromyko would not be persuaded by anything you said about them. What he will be looking for is indirect evidence. He will note how many assistants are in the room, who they are, and what role they play. Do you often turn to them for prompting (on other than detailed, technical issues), or have you mastered your brief? Are you willing to concentrate on practical ways to get from here to where you say you want to go, or are your fine-sounding objectives just a smokescreen for policies designed to put the Soviets at a disadvantage?

Your most powerful ally is, of course, the truth. You need take note of the sort of questions Gromyko may have about you personally only in order to make sure that nothing in the arrangements unwittingly contributes to a false impression.

Gromyko’s Tactics

Although Gromyko is famous for his pugnacious approach to negotiation, he is unlikely to come on as strong with you as he would, for example, with a foreign minister. He will defend Soviet policies and attitudes vigorously, and is much given to irony and even sarcasm, but will likely refrain from the sort of emotional pyrotechnics he used on George Shultz in Madrid after the KAL shoot-down.4 Nevertheless, his presentations will be blunt, will be supported by a host of allegations about American “transgressions” and “unreasonableness,” and he is unlikely to give an inch on standard Soviet positions in his initial presentation.

Obviously, you will not want to spend much time in the meeting scoring debating points. But it is important to nail the more egregious of Gromyko’s false statements before turning constructive. This is important for two reasons: you thereby win Gromyko’s respect (despite his dour demeanor, he seems to enjoy a good debate), and—more important than Gromyko’s personal opinion—you place on the record for his colleagues the U.S. point of view. (A detailed report of the conversation will doubtless be passed to the key decision makers on the Politburo, and Soviets consider an unanswered accusation as tacit admission of its accuracy.)

Your rebuttals can be brief, and should match Gromyko’s in tone. If his language is polite and tactful, yours should be the same, though equally firm. If, however, he should become strident and emotional, you should show a little passion.

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Only when you have rebutted, briefly and pointedly, important false charges should you turn the conversation to the positive with a remark such as, “But we won’t get anywhere if we keep debating the past; let’s concentrate on where we go from here. Now it seems to me . . .”

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Robert McFarlane Files, Subject File, Soviet Union—Sensitive File—1984 (07/27/1984–09/27/1984); NLR–362–3–22–7–5. Secret; Sensitive. Sent for information. Prepared by Matlock. A copy was sent to Bush.
  2. See footnote 4, Document 287.
  3. This list was not found.
  4. See Documents 104, 105, and 106.