286. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • The President’s Meeting with Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko of the Soviet Union


  • The President
  • The Vice President
  • Secretary of State George P. Shultz
  • Robert C. McFarlane, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Ambassador Arthur A. Hartman, U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union
  • Assistant Secretary of State Richard Burt
  • Jack Matlock, NSC
  • Dimitry Zarechnak, Interpreter
  • Foreign Minister Andrei A. Gromyko
  • First Deputy Foreign Minister Georgiy Korniyenko
  • Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy F. Dobrynin
  • Aleksey Obukhov, Notetaker
  • Viktor M. Sukhodrev, Interpreter

After several minutes wait, as journalists came through for photographs, the President opened the meeting at 10:20 a.m.2 He said that he was pleased that Foreign Minister Gromyko had been able to come to Washington to meet with him and he hoped that he could demonstrate to Gromyko that he was not the sort of person to eat his own grandchildren.

The President pointed out that our political systems are very different and that we will be competitive in the world. But we live in one world and we must handle our competition in peace. He emphasized that the United States will never start a war with the Soviet Union. He added that they did not have to take his word for that but only look at history. For example, after World War II when the United States was the predominant military power in the world, we did not use that power to force ourselves on others. Instead we set out to help—allies and one-time enemies alike—to restore their economies and to build a peaceful world. We have been trying to reduce stocks of nuclear weapons and today have only two-thirds as many as we had in 1967.

Of course, we are now rebuilding our military strength, but we are doing this because of the massive Soviet buildup. We feel this is a threat to us. Soviet leaders have proclaimed their dedication to revolution and to our destruction. And we have experience with Soviet aggression: the Cuban missile crisis, the attempts to extend Soviet influence in Africa, their efforts elsewhere. Throughout, the Soviet Union seems to consider us the enemy to be overcome.

The President said he mentioned this only to explain why we feel threatened—not to debate the matter—but he wanted to make it clear that while we do not intend to be vulnerable to attack or to an ultimatum that would require us to choose between capitulation and annihilation, we have no aggressive intent toward anyone. He added that we are [Page 1023] willing to accept Soviet concerns for their own security. We understand the loss of life in World War II, and we understand their feelings based on a number of invasions of their country over the years. But the problem is that we are mutually suspicious; both sides are fearful. The time has come to clear the air, reduce suspicions, and reduce nuclear arms.

As the two superpowers, we must take the lead in reducing and ultimately eliminating nuclear weapons. If the two of us take the lead, the rest of the world would have to follow. And this applies not only to nuclear weapons, but also to such weapons as biological and chemical as well.

The President mentioned that the Soviet Union had proposed negotiations on weapons in space. He said that we are ready for this. But we also feel that offensive weapons must be a subject of concern and a subject of negotiation. And he wondered if we could not consider concluding an interim agreement with restrictions on anti-satellite weapons, and also agreement on a process of reducing nuclear arms.

The President also suggested that we need to have representatives of senior levels meet to discuss the whole situation and to try to find ways to negotiate these problems. A private channel would be useful. For example, someone here and a counterpart there could take up contacts privately in order to consult confidentially and give direction to negotiations. The President stressed that we both have confidence in our Ambassadors and should use them more, but there may also be a need for confidential contacts without the formality of more official channels.

The President then referred to the American commitment to human rights. He said that he understands the Soviet feeling that these questions impinge upon their sovereignty, but they must understand that the United States is a country of immigrants, and that many ethnic groups in the United States maintain an interest in ties with their home country. They take a great interest in human rights questions, and they insist that their government be responsive to these concerns. The fact is that it would be much easier for the United States to make agreements with the Soviet Union if there is improvement in this area. As an example, he cited the resolution of the case of the Pentecostalists who took refuge in the American Embassy in Moscow, and said that we treated their permission to leave the Soviet Union as a generous act on the part of the Soviet Government.3 We never attempted to portray it as an arrangement between our two governments, but did attempt to respond and ease relations by, for example, concluding the long-[Page 1024]term grain agreement.4 The President added that although the Foreign Minister knows the United States fairly well, some of his colleagues may not, and the Soviet leadership should understand that the President cannot simply dictate to the Congress or to the public. The atmosphere must be right if the President is to be capable of carrying out and implementing agreements with the Soviet Union.

The President stressed that peace is our greatest desire and we are prepared to move in a peaceful direction and to discuss how we can reduce arms and set a goal of ultimate elimination of nuclear weapons.

Foreign Minister Gromyko responded that the President had touched on many problems and he thought it was necessary to set out their policy. He realized that the President had heard and read many authoritative statements from the Soviet leadership, including Chernenko’s letters and public statements. He observed that it cannot be questioned that relations between the United States and the Soviet Union are of tremendous importance for the entire world. Indeed, this is axiomatic and no one in the world would deny it. The conclusion he would draw from this is that the leadership of the United States and the Soviet Union must see to it that both bilateral issues and international questions that concern us are conducted in full accord with the responsibilities which the leadership of both countries carry.

Gromyko said that he did not know how the President got the idea that the Soviet Union set for itself the goal of demolishing the American system, or that the Soviets think about that at all. The Soviet Government has no such goal, and the U.S. has no basis for making the accusation.

Gromyko stated that in accord with the philosophy held by the Soviet leaders, the course of historical development is unavoidable, and just as they believe that the sun will rise tomorrow, they also believe that the capitalist system will be followed by a socialist system which in turn will be followed by a communist system. But that is not a goal. And, indeed, “volunteerism”—attempts to force historical developments—is alien to their philosophy. It is, he said, “anti-scientific.” Therefore, there is no goal of undermining the social and political system in the United States. He felt that if some of the President’s statements have been motivated by such a misunderstanding, the President would do well to correct his comments. He would not use the word “insult” to characterize these accusations because it is too mild. The fact is, the Soviets have a philosophy of historical processes, but not a goal of changing or replacing the political and economic systems in other countries.

[Page 1025]

Gromyko continued that it was not the first time that they had heard that the United States had acted generously after World War II and that the U.S. had possessed nuclear weapons, but had not used them. He observed that it is true that the United States acted wisely in not using nuclear weapons, saying in passing that the U.S. had only a negligible number, of course, but he wouldn’t emphasize that. He continued by saying that at the end of the war, if the Soviet leaders had waved their armies to the West, no force could have stopped them. It would have been like a tidal wave. Yet, they did not do it; they were loyal to their agreements with the Allies, to their agreements with the United States and the United Kingdom. France, of course, later joined as an ally, but principally with the United States and the United Kingdom. The USSR was true to its word and did not move beyond the boundaries specified in the post-War agreements. The President would recall that President Truman signed the Potsdam Accord along with Churchill and Stalin. The Soviet Union had lived up to this agreement.

Gromyko continued that in the President’s observations, he detected the thought that the Soviet Union is a threat to the West. The fact is, Gromyko said, that after the war when the guns fell silent, all the military bases which had been set up by the United States throughout the world were retained. They were kept and even increased; new ones were built. Arms were increased as well. He asked, rhetorically, if the Soviet Union should have taken this into account, and answered “of course,” and said that these events were still fresh in their memories.

Gromyko went on to charge that the United States had built a wall—a barrier—against all attempts to reduce arms. He said he would remind the President that after the war ended in 1945—and he digressed to say that the Soviet Union had entered the war against Japan precisely in accord with its commitments—and nuclear weapons appeared on the scene, it had been no miracle for the Soviet Union to acquire them. All nuclear weapons require is a certain technological potential and funding decisions. But Gromyko claimed that at that time the Soviet Union had proposed a permanent ban on nuclear weapons, and a commitment to use nuclear power solely for peaceful purposes.

He recalled that he himself had introduced in the United Nations in New York a draft convention for the permanent prohibition of nuclear weapons.5 The United States Administration (Truman was then President) rejected this idea. So what was the Soviet Union to do? They had to reconsider their position. They had to draw conclusions from the path the world was taking.

[Page 1026]

Gromyko then stated that the West always raises questions of verification. It does this as if the Soviet Union doesn’t do all it should do in carrying out its commitments. But the Soviet proposal was a very comprehensive one. It was for both nuclear and conventional disarmament, and as for verification at that time, they had proposed “a general and complete verification.” And what was President Truman’s response? He refused. He refused because the United States simply wanted more and more and more arms.

Gromyko then observed that we now have at our disposal mountains of arms. It’s not a very pretty picture. We’re sitting on mountains of nuclear weapons. We must ask how far we want to go in this direction.

He then recalled that when President Nixon came to Moscow in 1972 and entered Brezhnev’s office, he observed that we both have enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other nine times over.6 And Brezhnev replied, “You are right. We have made the same calculation.” So both came to the conclusion that it would be senseless to continue piling up these arms, and the result was the SALT II Agreements—the ABM Treaty, and the interim agreement on offensive weapons. These are historic agreements and they are still alive.

Gromyko continued by saying that the question now is which direction we will go: toward a further accumulation of nuclear weapons or toward their reduction and elimination? This is indeed the “problem of problems.” It is a question of life and death; it is a problem which must be overcome.

He suggested that a helpful step to start us on the right direction would be to freeze nuclear weapons where they are. He added that he wanted to say directly to the President that the Soviet Union is not threatening the social system of the United States. Indeed, the Soviets have great admiration for the talent of the American people, for its technology, for its science, for its vitality. They want to live in peace and friendship. And, he believes Americans want the same. Everyone wants trade, and trade can be mutually beneficial. The USSR needs the more advanced American technology and Americans can make a profit from it to the benefit of its own society. In short, Gromyko said, “we are offering peace as we have always offered peace. We will extend our hand if you extend yours.”

Gromyko continued by observing that the President could say that the Soviet Union has more arms than the United States. That is not [Page 1027] true, he said, the USSR does not have more. The United States and its allies have more, but an approximate equality exists. The Soviets say an “approximate equality” because it is not exact and the advantage is actually on the Western side. But, they are willing to say equality in order to move things forward.

In Europe, for example, NATO has fifty percent more weapons than the Warsaw Pact yet the Soviets have declared that this is approximately equal. In counting, of course, they take into account tactical and theater weapons, British and French systems and aircraft, including carrier aircraft.

So this is the situation as the Soviets see it. They do not wish to follow the course the United States has set of adding to the weapons in Europe. Of course, they are determined not to stay behind if the U.S. moves ahead.

Gromyko observed that one thread that ran through some of the argumentation he had heard was the contention that the Soviet Union cannot keep up in an arms race, and it is true that an arms race would cost the Soviets much in the way of material, intellectual and financial means. But they would do it. They were able to develop nuclear weapons even after their economy had suffered the colossal losses in World War II, and they will be able to keep up in the future regardless of the sacrifice required.

Gromyko added that he had heard some good words in the President’s statement. He agreed that the United States and the Soviet Union must deal as equals and he wanted the President to know that the Soviet Union is seeking peaceful relations. The United States has advanced technology and can profit from trade with the Soviet Union and the Soviet Union felt that it is better to trade than to compete in nuclear arms. Trade could be to the mutual benefit of both countries.

As far as outer space is concerned, the problem, according to Gromyko, is that we already have arms competition on the ground, under the water, on the water, in the air, but not yet in space, and we should prevent its spread to space. The Soviet Union, he said, is against the American plan to extend the arms race into space. They condemn it and if the effort continues it will be irreversible. Tremendous resources will be spent, and yet there will be no advantage gained in this field. Look at it coolly, he said. We are fed up with the competition in nuclear arms. Why involve space as well? Think it over calmly and coolly, he repeated.

He noted that the United States had taken a negative attitude toward the Soviet proposal for negotiations in Vienna. It would have been better, he said, if the United States had not proposed its formula at all. It is clear the United States wants the militarization of space, which the Soviet Union opposes.

[Page 1028]

Gromyko continued that a freeze of weapons is not a reduction and they would like to reduce nuclear weapons, but that a freeze would improve the atmosphere for reduction and might make it possible. He believed that no nuclear power would be hurt by a freeze. He went on to say that the average person in the United States knows very little about the Soviet Union but does know that he wants peace.

Gromyko continued by saying that the President’s speech at the United Nations spoke of contacts and consultation.7 These are not contrary to Soviet desires; they are not bad. The Soviets do not reject the President’s proposal at all. What disturbs the Soviets is that everything seems to be reduced to the question of contacts, and they wonder if this is something just to make people think that something is happening. If nothing, in fact, happens, then that would be an incorrect impression.

Gromyko stressed that we need a constructive goal for these meetings. We need to decide what they will lead to. One cannot combine arms reduction with the current American policy of increasing military budgets and increasing the arms buildup. So long as American arms keep growing this is inconsistent with reductions or a mutual goal that can be set. He added that this may be unpleasant to hear but he felt he must explain it.

Gromyko concluded his initial presentation by saying that the entire leadership of the Soviet Union and the General Secretary personally wanted to find a common language with the United States. We must find a way to put our relations in motion. It must be understood that they are not trying to undermine the American social system. The U.S. must seriously and coolly analyze the current situation. The Soviets will defend their interests, but want peace and cooperation. The choice is up to the United States, but it should be understood that the Soviet Union wants good relations with the United States.

The President stated that he could not agree with many of the things which Gromyko had said. First, the idea that Soviet policy is not directed against our system is inconsistent with many statements made by Soviet leaders over the decades. The President quoted from Lenin and from others to make his point, but then said that there was no point in continuing citations and that what is important about all of this is that it is evidence of the high level of suspicion that exists between us.

As for American behavior at the end of the war, he recalled that one of the few things that Stalin said that he agreed with was that the Soviets would not have been able to win the war without American help. Gromyko had said that we had retained our bases at the end of [Page 1029] the war. This is simply untrue. The United States had demobilized its forces. The Soviet Union did not.

As for arms control Gromyko had spoken of “a wall constructed against arms and troop reductions,” and of the Soviet proposal for a nuclear weapons ban. He had not mentioned, however, the U.S. proposal for international control of all nuclear weapons and activity—the Baruch Plan—which the Soviet Union turned down.8

Gromyko had also mentioned the U.S. concern for verification, and the President commented that yes, this is a U.S. concern and should be the concern of the Soviet Union and of other countries. He recalled that President Eisenhower had made his “open skies” proposal, which would have allowed each country to inspect everything that went on in the other, and the Soviets had rejected that.9 In addition, the United States had made at least nineteen proposals regarding nuclear weapons and the Soviet Union had been unresponsive.

The President then turned to Gromyko and said, “You say you want to eliminate your weapons. Fine. We’ll sign an agreement on that right now.” He pointed out that the U.S. has already made proposals in that direction. For example, in the INF negotiations, the U.S. proposed that all INF systems be eliminated from Europe. When the Soviets did not accept that the U.S. proposed the lowest possible levels, and the Soviet Union still did not accept. As far as the START negotiations are concerned, the United States at first concentrated on ICBM’s because they are the most frightening and the most destructive of the weapons. But the United States is prepared to include also submarines, aircraft, and other strategic systems.

The President noted that Gromyko had mentioned President Nixon and the SALT I Agreement and pointed out that the Soviet Union has deployed 7,000 warheads since the SALT I Agreement, and since the SALT II Agreement, has deployed 800 ballistic missiles. So far as INF is concerned, he showed Gromyko a chart depicting SS–20 deployments and noting the statements of various Soviet leaders that there was a balance, while each year the Soviet total mounted and the U.S. was making no deployments in Europe.

The President added that the United States had taken many tactical weapons out of Europe, whereas the Soviet Union had not, but has been adding to them. He said that so far as our armies are concerned, the United States has seventeen divisions and the Soviet Union 260 divisions.

[Page 1030]

The President then pointed out that the Soviets are saying they want peace and we are saying the same, but we need deeds. He agreed that there is a mountain of weapons, and made clear that the United States will keep pace with the Soviet buildup. But he asked what the purpose of a continued buildup can have, and suggested that we start reducing. He observed that reducing equally and verifiably would produce just as effective a defense for both countries as they have now.

The President pointed out that the United States does not have more warheads than the Soviet Union. In fact, the Soviet Union had developed several entire families of nuclear weapons, while the U.S. was developing only one. He noted that Gromyko had mentioned the cost of the competition, but referred to the U.S. experience when the previous administration had cancelled systems, but the Soviet Union did not reciprocate and slow its buildup.

In regard to anti-satellite systems, the President pointed out that the Soviets had a tested system and the U.S. did not, and therefore calls for a moratorium before the U.S. has tested a system and is on an equal basis were one-sided and self-serving. He added that his criticism of SALT II was that it simply legitimized the buildup of arms.

The President stressed, however, that we want peace and that we are willing to believe that the Soviets want peace. But the fact is that the United States did not walk away from the negotiating table. He agreed that we need deeds and specifically to resume negotiations on nuclear weapons.

Gromyko referred to the President’s opening remark and said he wanted to assure the President that they did not believe he ate his own grandchildren or anyone else’s.

Then Gromyko referred to the table the President had shown him of the buildup in Soviet nuclear weapons. He said that one should remember the way our respective nuclear weapons systems developed. At first the United States had a superior Air Force and the Soviets began to develop missiles. The United States then developed submarines and so the two systems developed in parallel, but resulted in structures that are quite different.

The President pointed out that the Soviets had gone on to outbuild the United States in submarines, to build more modern aircraft while the United States was still flying B–52s which are older than the pilots that fly them, and in addition, had developed several new missiles. The President added that in the START negotiations we did propose to concentrate initially on ICBM’s, but that this was not a take-it-or-leave-it proposal and was simply based on the consideration that the land-based missiles are the most threatening. But we have agreed to talk about all the systems and to take them into account.

[Page 1031]

What we want, the President pointed out, is reductions. He recalled a statement by President Eisenhower that modern weapons are such that nations possessing nuclear weapons can no longer think of war in terms of victory or defeat, but only of destruction of both sides. We bear that in mind and want to reduce as much as possible. The President then asked why, if we both are of this mind, we cannot proceed to agree on the reduction of weapons.

Gromyko said that he wished to recall a few facts. At Vladivostok, the question of Soviet heavy missiles had been raised along with the question of the U.S. forward-based systems, and at that time, President Ford and Secretary of State Kissinger had agreed that if the Soviet Union dropped its insistence on including forward-based systems, the United States would drop its insistence on restricting Soviet heavy missiles.10 If now the United States insists upon raising the question of restraints on heavy missiles, the question of forward-based systems immediately arises.

Gromyko then turned to the British and French systems and asked how the Soviet Union could leave them out of account inasmuch as Britain and France were allies of the United States. He added that President Carter had a different opinion from President Reagan and recalled that once when he was at lunch at the White House, President Carter had said that in principle these systems should be included.11

With regard to nuclear weapons, Gromyko said that he could give an answer as follows: “as soon as the United States corrects its position.” He then asked rhetorically whether the U.S. considers the Soviets to be such frivolous people as not to know of American aircraft carriers and what they mean to the Soviet Union. According to Gromyko, each carrier has 40 planes which can carry nuclear weapons. Six times 40 equals 240 nuclear launchers which the U.S. is not willing to count at all.

The President interjected that the U.S. is willing to put this on the table in negotiations, but he pointed out that Gromyko seemed to forget that their SS–20s were targeted on our allies and even if NATO carried through all of its planned deployments, they would amount to only a fraction of the Soviet missiles targeted at Europe.

Gromyko then asked if we were willing to include tactical and theatre weapons, and whether the British and French systems were included.

[Page 1032]

The President stated that, no, we would not be willing to count British and French systems. In fact, he pointed out, there had been a net decline of nuclear weapons in Europe available to NATO.

Gromyko asked if the U.S. would include carrier-based aircraft, and the President, referring to the U.S. START position, reiterated that we had started by concentrating on ICBM’s but that we were willing to consider aircraft and other systems in the overall negotiations.

Gromyko stated that there is no question of excluding carrier-based aircraft from the negotiations.

Secretary Shultz pointed out that the Soviet Union has a greater number of nuclear-capable aircraft than the United States, that so far as British and French systems are concerned, we had made it clear that when strategic levels were reduced substantially, there would be a time to consider British and French systems in the negotiations. The main point, however, is that the U.S. fully recognizes the differences in the structures of the nuclear forces of our two countries. We have been trying to generate a discussion which recognizes these as asymmetries. To search for a framework is a necessary ingredient in this process.

Gromyko asked if we were saying that the Soviet Union is concealing its aircraft.

Shultz said no, not concealing aircraft, but simply that they have more nuclear capable aircraft than the United States.

Gromyko retorted that that was incorrect, that we seemed to be counting cargo planes and other aircraft which do not carry nuclear weapons and observed that this was not serious reasoning.

Gromyko continued by saying that the U.S. position is that we should simply sit down, but the Soviet Union has experience with that. So far no one had mentioned the improper use of the language of ultimatums in these negotiations. Gromyko claimed that the U.S., in effect, said, “This is our plan, accept it. If not, there is a deadline that has to be met and we will deploy.” In fact, that is what happened.

So, the U.S. must liquidate the results of that decision. The Soviet Union does not see any point in continuing negotiations otherwise.

The President asked how it would have been possible for NATO not to deploy under the circumstances of the SS–20 threat and the Soviet rejection of our zero proposal and also U.S. proposals to negotiate lowest possible equal levels.

Gromyko claimed that NATO now has 50 percent more nuclear weapons.

The President said that the proper procedure is to count each other’s systems.

Gromyko then asked specifically about British and French systems and carrier-based aircraft. He asserted that if we count all of these systems and then compare, we will find that NATO is ahead.

[Page 1033]

The President disputed this, but noted that the time for lunch had come and invited Gromyko to stay a few minutes for a private conversation.12

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Jack Matlock Files, Meetings with USSR Officials, President-Gromyko Final Papers (5). Secret; Sensitive. Prepared by Matlock. This meeting took place in the Oval Office. According to the President’s Daily Diary, from 3:03 to 3:54 p.m. on September 27, the President participated in a briefing for Gromyko’s visit. (Reagan Library, President’s Daily Diary) McFarlane also briefed Reagan for the meeting with Gromyko at 9 a.m. on September 28. (Ibid.) No record of these meetings has been found.
  2. On September 28, Reagan wrote in his diary: “The big day—Andrei Gromyko. Meeting held in Oval office. Five waves of photographers—1st time that many. I opened with my monologue and made the point that perhaps both of us felt the other was a threat then explained by the record we had more reason to feel that way than they did. His opener was about 30 min’s. then we went into dialogue. I had taken notes on his pitch and rebutted with fact & figure a number of his points. I kept emphasizing that we were the two nations that could destroy or save the world. I figured they nurse a grudge that we don’t respect them as a super-power. All in all 3 hrs. including lunch were I believe well spent. Everyone at our end thinks he’s going home with a pretty clear view of where we stand.” (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, vol. I, January 1981–October 1985, pp. 386–387)
  3. See Documents 34 and 74.
  4. See Document 76.
  5. See footnote 3, Document 273.
  6. For the private meeting between Nixon and Brezhnev in Moscow on May 22, 1972, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 257.
  7. See footnote 7, Document 267.
  8. See footnote 5, Document 267.
  9. See footnote 6, Document 267.
  10. Ford and Brezhnev met in Vladivostok November 23–24, 1974, to discuss arms control. For documents related to this summit, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XVI, Soviet Union, August 1974–December 1976, Documents 8395.
  11. Carter met with Gromyko on September 23, 1977. For their discussion of SALT, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XXXIII, SALT II, 1972–1980, Document 183.
  12. No official account of this private meeting was found. However, in his memoir, Shultz wrote: “As we were about to leave for lunch, the president took Gromyko aside and had him stay back in the Oval Office, where the two of them conversed in English without interpreters. The president later told me that in their private conversation he had been struck by Gromyko’s description of the two superpowers sitting on top of ever-rising stockpiles of nuclear weapons and by Gromyko’s statement that the Soviet Union wished to reduce the size of those piles. ‘My dream,’ Reagan had told him, ‘is for a world where there are no nuclear weapons.’” (Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, p. 484) Dobrynin also wrote of this private conversation: “Reporting later to us about the brief conversation, Gromyko observed that he did not quite understand what the excitement was all about. The president emphatically told him, as if this was a big secret, that his personal dream was a ‘world without nuclear weapons.’ Gromyko answered that nuclear disarmament was the ‘question of all questions.’ Both agreed that the ultimate goal should be the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. And that was about all there was to the private meeting.” (Dobrynin, In Confidence, p. 556)