308. Letter From President Reagan to Soviet General Secretary Chernenko1

Dear Mr. Chairman:

Thank you for your reply to my oral message transmitted through Ambassador Hartman and for your congratulations upon my reelection.2 I am especially pleased to note that we are both prepared to search for solutions to the problems that stand before us and to address [Page 1110] the task of eliminating the nuclear threat. I would like to convey some of my thoughts about what we can do to bring this about.

As I prepare to embark on the next four years of my presidency, I see no more important task before me than ensuring peace and greater security, not only for the United States, but for all countries of the world. It is a fact of life that our two great countries share in responsibility for making mankind more peaceful and more secure. Neither of us alone can succeed in this task.

Of course, we will continue to have fundamental differences in our political beliefs, and both of us will defend the interests of our countries vigorously. Nevertheless, I am convinced that our divergent interests need not—and must not—bring us into conflict. We have an obligation to act to put our relationship on a safer and more constructive course, and to expand cooperation as much as circumstances permit.

The world has undergone profound changes over the last four decades, and you and I have witnessed both the best and worst times in Soviet-American relations. The two of us today have not only the power, but the responsibility, to bring about constructive changes in our relationship. Indeed, we owe it to the entire world to do all we can to seek peaceful resolution of our differences and opportunities for cooperation wherever possible.

I have studied carefully our previous correspondence and your recent public statements. The discussions Secretary Shultz and I had with Deputy Prime Minister Gromyko in September, as well as the subsequent exchanges between Mr. Gromyko and Mr. Shultz with our respective ambassadors, have been most useful.3 Secretary Shultz has also reported to me on his necessarily brief but encouraging meeting with Prime Minister Tikhonov in New Delhi.4

In reviewing this record, I have been looking to the future rather than to the past, since my approach is strategic rather than tactical. The conclusions I would draw from these various communications and meetings is that we are in agreement on a number of basic principles which should govern our relations, but that we have not yet found the practical means to move our relationship beyond useful small steps on bilateral issues toward a more productive overall course. On such important matters as the objective of peace and the goal of reducing and eventually eliminating nuclear weapons, we have a common view. But at this point, it seems to me, we must concentrate our attention on how to move forward in practical ways.

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Experience shows, I believe, that we cannot do this if either of us demands concessions of the other in advance. I am convinced that we will not be able to find a solution to the problems our two countries face if we should require Soviet concessions prior to negotiations. We pose no such requirement, and if you can adopt an analogous position, this would open the way for finding realistic solutions to real problems.

The suggestions I made in my address to the United Nations General Assembly on September 24 reflected my desire to find means acceptable to both of us for addressing the issues before us. I kept my suggestions general, because I wished to preserve the possibility of consulting with you privately and thus developing ideas cooperatively. But let me take this opportunity to give you my current thinking on them.

One question that must be addressed is how we go about the task of negotiating new arms control agreements. I think our Foreign Ministers, both directly and through ambassadors, should play an increasingly active role, as was the practice in previous years. In this context, I have suggested that we initiate talks which address broader strategic concepts than do the fora available to us up to now. The objective would be to create a firmer foundation for negotiations on the whole range of specific issues involved in the process of reducing arms and increasing stability. I visualize such talks as providing an “umbrella” under which specific arms control negotiations could be planned, and suggestions from both sides could be examined, with the goal of finding mutually acceptable approaches for negotiation.

George Shultz has suggested to me that one way to test this concept would be for both of us to designate a representative who is thoroughly familiar with the strategic thinking of his highest political authority and who would meet with his counterpart with a mandate to develop specific proposals for submission to us for consideration.5 Of course, their consultations and recommendations would be totally confidential. [Page 1112] If initial experience with this procedure should be positive, we could consider the possibility of carrying it forward as a continuing means of contact to provide advice and guidance to the total arms control negotiating process.

If you agree that the idea has merit, I am prepared to appoint a person of national stature in the arms control area to work with George Shultz and me.

In our correspondence and in your public statements, you have placed great stress on the question of negotiations on “preventing the militarization of outer space.” In his discussions here, Mr. Gromyko reaffirmed the importance the Soviet Union attaches to this issue. As I said in our meeting, the United States is ready to meet with you to discuss space weapons, and we have no preconditions as to the form or scope of the discussions. At the same time, we believe that the most pressing issue is how to begin the process of reducing offensive nuclear arms. I think your own experts would agree that these two areas are inherently related, even though we may ultimately choose, as was the case in the past, to discuss them in separate negotiating fora. The broader, “umbrella,” consultations I have suggested could give us a vehicle for agreeing on approaches to the interrelated issues.

Nuclear and space weapons are not the only arms control areas in which we should strive to make progress in the coming years. Nuclear testing is another. I have taken note of your suggestion that ratification of the 1974 and 1976 treaties would contribute to progress on other subjects. In this regard, you are aware of the suggestion I made in my United Nations address that we each invite experts from the other country for direct measurement of upcoming underground nuclear tests.6 There have been uncertainties on both sides about whether the yields of certain tests have been below the 150-kiloton limit established in the 1974 treaty. The direct measurement I have suggested, while separate from the treaty ratification issue, might reduce those uncertain[Page 1113]ties in reliable fashion to the point where the path to ratification would again be open.

Another area where positive results could be achieved is that of measures to enhance confidence and reduce the risk of conflict arising through accident or miscalculation. At the Stockholm Conference on Disarmament in Europe, we have agreed to your proposal to discuss non-use-of-force commitments, in the context of negotiations on measures to give that principle concrete new meaning. With political will on both sides, this should provide the basis for an agreement that meets both sides’ interests. Bilaterally, we have agreed on steps to improve our Direct Communication Link, and there are further ways to improve communication that I would hope we could explore in the coming year.

I also hope you will give serious consideration to the other suggestions I have made concerning ways of moving forward not only in arms control but in other fields.

Meetings at the ministerial level are one example. Our ministers of agriculture met in 1983 and will be meeting again soon. We would like to see discussion of bilateral cooperative activities in a number of other fields progress to the point where we could envisage joint commission meetings at the ministerial level next year. In the defense field, too, our ministers have met in the past, and the talks between our navies in the context of the Agreement to Avoid Incidents at Sea have been useful. I think further exchanges between senior officials on various defense issues would be a promising way of reducing misunderstanding. This is the context in which I suggested such possibilities as exchanges of observers at military exercises and exchanges of five-year defense procurement plans.

Regularized meetings at the policy level on regional issues would be another appropriate way to enhance our dialogue. The danger of turbulence and instability in various regions reinforces my conviction that it is important for us to be explaining our policy approaches concerning regional issues to each other more systematically than in the past. Placing our discussions of regional issues on a more systematic basis would help us to understand more fully each other’s approach and would at least reduce further the danger of miscalculation in times of crisis. We have made specific offers for experts’ talks on the Middle East, southern Africa and Afghanistan, and hope you will be able to respond positively to these proposals.

Questions in our bilateral relations have not figured prominently in our correspondence, but I would like to emphasize that I am strongly in favor of concrete steps to increase cooperation in the cultural, economic and scholarly fields, and to expand contacts to the mutual benefit of our peoples. I hope that we can find ways to give new momentum [Page 1114] to an invigoration of activities in these areas. In this connection, let me say once again that steps by the Soviet Union to resolve pending humanitarian issues can have a very important positive influence in every other field of our relationship, for the reasons I explained to Foreign Minister Gromyko.

So that we can move from consultation to action—the concrete deeds we both want—I hope that we can implement these ideas as rapidly as possible.

Our Foreign Ministers can follow up in greater detail on all the various issues between us, and I believe that an early meeting between them might be useful.

Let me say once again that I value our correspondence, and I look forward to receiving your reaction to my thoughts and proposals.


Ronald Reagan
  1. Source: Department of State, Executive Secretariat, S/S, Sensitive and Super Sensitive Documents, Lot 92D52, November 1984 Super Sensitive Documents. Secret. The Department of State sent the letter in telegram 339906 to Moscow, November 16, with instructions that the “Ambassador should seek meeting with Gromyko to present text of the President’s letter to Chernenko.” (Reagan Library, Executive Secretariat, NSC Head of State File, USSR: General Secretary Chernenko (8491139) (1/2))
  2. See Document 304.
  3. See Documents 284, 286, 287, 288, 296, and 300.
  4. See Document 302.
  5. In his memoir, Shultz recalled: “In the president’s postelection letter to Chernenko, he suggested that we each appoint a high-level official, in whom we had special confidence, to deal with arms control. I was determined that Paul Nitze should be our man and that the chain of command should run from Nitze to me to President Reagan. Interagency committees would meet, and NSC members would fight for their views, but ultimately the decisions would be made through the Nitze-Shultz-Reagan lineup. This idea, I knew, would evoke more protest: Nitze had been considered ‘soft’ and ‘uncontrollable’ by many hard-liners in the administration ever since his walk in the woods.” (Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, pp. 498–499)

    In his memoir, Nitze wrote: “It was about this time that Bud McFarlane decided that the work in Washington on arms control matters needed greater centralization and coordination. He asked me whether I would take on the job, reporting to both the President and to Secretary Shultz. He suggested that I have an office with the NSC staff in the Old Executive Office Building, as well as an office in the State Department.

    “I was tempted by the offer, although I had had bad experiences before when I had tried to work simultaneously for two bosses. Secretary Shultz vigorously opposed my shuttling between offices in State and the White House. He wanted me to move my office from ACDA on the fifth floor of the State Department building to the seventh floor in an office adjacent to his. I agreed to his proposal.” (Nitze, From Hiroshima to Glasnost, pp. 402–403)

  6. In his speech to the UNGA on September 24, Reagan stated: “We would also welcome the exchange of observers at military exercises and locations. And I propose that we find a way for Soviet experts to come to the United States nuclear test site, and for ours to go to theirs, to measure directly the yields of tests of nuclear weapons. We should work toward having such arrangements in place by next spring. I hope that the Soviet Union will cooperate in this undertaking and reciprocate in a manner that will enable the two countries to establish the basis for verification for effective limits on underground nuclear testing.” (Public Papers: Reagan, 1984, Book II, pp. 1360–1361).