378. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Meeting with Vladimir Shcherbitsky of the Soviet Union



    • The President
    • Secretary of State George Shultz
    • Mr. Donald Regan, Chief of Staff
    • Mr. Michael K. Deaver, Deputy Chief of Staff
    • Mr. Robert C. McFarlane, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
    • Admiral Daniel J. Murphy, Chief of Staff to the Vice President
    • Mr. Richard Burt, Assistant Secretary of State
    • Mr. Jack F. Matlock, NSC
    • Mr. Dimitri Zarechnak, Interpreter
  • USSR

    • Vladimir Shcherbitsky, Member of Soviet Politburo
    • Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin
    • Boris I. Stukalin, Department Head, Central Committee
    • Aleksandr A. Bessmertnykh, Ministry of Foreign Affairs
    • Oleg A. Krokhalev, Interpreter
[Page 1400]

The President opened the meeting by saying that he supposed the question uppermost on both their minds was the negotiations to open next week in Geneva.2 He said he had read the words by Chernenko and Gromyko recently expressing a hope to eliminate nuclear weapons, and he agreed with these words completely. (C)

Shcherbitsky confirmed that this is Soviet policy. (C)

The President added that he knew it is a complicated question, but if both countries feel that way, we should move ahead toward accomplishing the goal. It, of course, cannot be done all at once, but we can establish phases of reductions to move in that direction. (C)

Shcherbitsky said he had the impression that our goals coincide. But to bring them into effect we need patience, and also need to exhibit less emotion in the dialogue. He pointed out that we have so far been able to accomplish some small-scale things, such as increased exchanges in the cultural and environmental protection areas, but we must be more ambitious. (C)

He continued by saying that you say you have no aggressive intent toward us and we say the same, that we have no aggressive intent toward you. You are determined to defend your allies and we are committed to defend ours. So in this respect our policies are the same. But there is an excess of arms. We have enough to destroy the world many times over, and to what point? People are surprised by this situation and think their governments are not acting in a sensible fashion. (C)

He then recalled that he had been in public service for many years and had worked under various Soviet leaders who differed in many ways. He was a student in Stalin’s time, then was in the Army during the war, and after that in various party and government positions. The Soviet leaders differed in their approaches on many things: Stalin took decisions alone; Khrushchev, who had both positive and negative qualities, did as well. The others consulted their colleagues. He worked for Brezhnev for many years, with Andropov for a period which proved unfortunately short, and now with Chernenko. But through all this period there was not a single meeting of the Politburo where any plans were developed to attack the U.S. or impose on the U.S. (S)

We think of our countries as far apart, he continued parenthetically, but in fact our borders are very close in the Bering Sea. The Diomede Islands, one of which is Soviet and one American, lie only a few miles apart. But the fact is, whether we are distant or close, such questions [Page 1401] as aggressive acts against the U.S. are simply not discussed by the Soviet leadership. (S)

The Soviet people had learned a bitter lesson in World War II and are determined not to repeat the experience. They saw U.S. bases all around the Soviet Union created by the U.S. after the war, so the question was not that of threatening the U.S. but of not lagging behind the U.S. And what he had said of discussions among the Soviet leadership was equally true of discussions and plans made by their military people and scientists. (S)

So the picture is different in our two countries, he continued; you kept up an arms race while we kept up with you. (C)

As for the Geneva negotiations, he referred to Chernenko’s recent letters to the President and stated that the principled positions set forth in them had not changed. He could reaffirm the policy Chernenko had described. His government has been working hard on the instructions for their delegation to Geneva. He believes we can reach a mutual understanding there if we approach the negotiations in the spirit of mutual concessions. Referring to the treaties and agreements signed between 1972 and 1974, and to the Declaration of Principles of 1972, he said that this experience demonstrated that we can reach agreement by a series of compromises. (S)

However, Shcherbitsky continued, if you continue your plans for an ABM system with elements based in space, then this will be contrary to the ABM Treaty. That treaty bans development, testing and deployment of sea-based, air-based, space-based or mobile land-based ABM’s. He recognized that the President had said the U.S. program is limited to research, but wondered what the point of the research could be if the results are not tested. (S)

The President said he would like to speak to that. Research is not banned by the ABM Treaty and all we propose is research. He had stated publicly that if this research proves that defensive weapons are possible, we will sit down and talk about how they can be integrated into a more stable deterrent system. We must try to move toward the elimination of nuclear weapons, and defensive systems could help. The Soviet Union has defensive systems today, including ABM’s which the U.S. does not have. (S)

Regarding suspicion of each other, the President pointed out that there was no ground for Soviet fear of the U.S. At the end of World War II, the U.S. was the only one of the wartime allies which emerged with its industry intact, and the only one with nuclear weapons. If our intentions had been aggressive, we could not have been stopped. But instead of threatening others with our nuclear weapons, we proposed that atomic energy be placed under international control and that the military devices be dismantled. The Soviet Union rejected this and [Page 1402] proceeded to undertake what was probably the greatest military buildup in the history of the world. Soviet leaders also made statements declaring their intent to expand their control in the world. So the U.S. had no choice. (S)

The U.S. has tried unilateral disarmament, the President continued, but the Soviet buildup continued. Our intentions are peaceful, but we cannot sit still when there is an imbalance of forces. The U.S. must act to make sure the balance is not upset. (S)

As for the Geneva negotiations, the President stated, we must either achieve reductions of nuclear weapons—and we want their total elimination—or else, until we have agreements and these are honored, the U.S. must build sufficient force to match the Soviet force. He pointed out that Gromyko had spoken of the mountains of weapons we are sitting on. We want to reduce them, just as Gromyko said he did, but we will not stand by and see ourselves inferior. (S)

The President then pointed out that we have some important things in common. We have the power to start a war, but we also have the power to bring peace to the world. That is where our efforts must be directed. (C)

Shcherbitsky said he agreed that it would be good to pursue joint efforts in this direction. He also had some comments on some of the President’s earlier remarks. (C)

As for the President’s mention of U.S. restraint after World War II when it had a monopoly of nuclear weapons, Shcherbitsky said that the Soviet Union had ten million men under arms and could have swept across Europe if it had so chosen. Nevertheless, they observed the wartime agreements, which illustrated their restraint and lack of aggressive intent. (S)

Regarding strategic defense, he would not agree that the U.S. program is purely research. Assistant Secretary Perle had stated that there could be testing within four years, and General Abrahamson had spoken of tests within two years. (S)

Regarding compliance, Shcherbitsky said that he had read the U.S. memorandum and had consulted with Soviet military experts in regard to the 19 allegations.3 He believes the Soviet Union has not violated any treaties, but that there have been violations by the U.S. It is true that they have ABM’s around Moscow, but this is permitted by the [Page 1403] treaty. As for the radar near Krasnoyarsk, it is a system to be used for tracking civilian satellites, communication satellites. He suggested that we have our specialists discuss these matters. If we do so, many doubts might be dispelled. (S)

Shcherbitsky then asked why the U.S. refuses to commit itself not to use nuclear weapons first. He understands the U.S. position that it is because the Warsaw Pact has more conventional weapons than NATO. But we have been holding negotiations in Vienna for 12 years on this question and the Soviet Union has agreed to equal levels. They are willing to withdraw troops and their equipment in accord with an agreement, and are willing to have verification. And the Soviets are willing to ban the first use of any type of force. He wondered whether an agreement in the MBFR forum would not make it possible to proceed to a no-first-use of nuclear weapons commitment. (S)

He then turned to the question of chemical weapons, alleging that the U.S. has a campaign to stockpile chemical weapons. This gives the Soviets great concern. He has talked to many Soviet citizens, and many have the impression that the U.S. is preparing for war against the Soviet Union. When they hear threatening statements by U.S. political figures they feel that war is close. (C)

Nevertheless, Shcherbitsky asserted, Soviet citizens have maintained a warm attitude toward Americans since World War II. They know of American achievements and the high standard of living here. Soviet media do, Shcherbitsky added, show examples of poverty and the “barbaric treatment of Negroes,” but they know that this is not the whole story. In short, the U.S. is respected in the Soviet Union and the Soviet people want only peace. (S)

The President agreed that the Soviet people, like the American people, want peace. Americans feel great friendship for Russians also. As he had said many times, people don’t start wars, governments do. And the problem is that the Soviet people do not have much to say about what their government does. [Shcherbitsky interjected, “Why do you say this?] We want the people in both countries to live in peace, the President continued. (S)

The President then explained why we are concerned about Soviet intentions, recalling statements by Lenin and other leaders to the effect that they would take Asia, then Europe and eventually the U.S. would fall into their hands like ripe fruit. He also recalled, as an example of Soviet official hostility, the Soviet refusal for a long time during World War II to allow U.S. bombers on missions over Germany to land on Soviet territory. The Cuban missile crisis was another example; the Soviets removed their missiles, but we had superiority at the time. Many Soviet activities today give us concern, such as their preponderance of heavy missiles and their continually expanding blue water navy. (S)

[Page 1404]

The President then observed that deterrence based entirely on offensive weapons is undesirable. All we have now to deter war is a system of mutual threats against innocent civilians. History records a whole series of international agreements designed to protect civilians in wartime, and we must not ignore that experience or that moral principle. We need to see if defensive weapons can be developed so that we can return to a more acceptable means of avoiding war than threatening civilian populations. (C)

Shcherbitsky asked which country had encircled the other with bases. (S)

The President replied that we had dismantled some of these bases, and we began to deploy missiles in Allied countries which could strike the Soviet Union only when our Allies asked for protection from the threat of Soviet SS–20’s. Even then, we offered the zero option, but the Soviet answer was that they would reduce by half but NATO could have nothing. So it was a half zero option—half for them and nothing for us. (S)

Shcherbitsky remarked that they could argue endlessly on these points, but would point out that when the U.S. refused to count British and French missiles, there was no way the Soviet Union could agree. Now U.S. missiles are in Europe, and the President should try to understand how the Soviets feel. (S)

The President pointed out that Soviet SS–20’s are there too. (S)

Shcherbitsky said that they cannot strike the U.S., and that the Soviets must take measures to counter them. And if the U.S. is to pursue SDI, why does it need the MX and a new bomber? (S)

The President said that the MX is in response to four new Soviet systems. It has the same capability of the SS-18, but the Soviets have many more of these than the hundred MX’s which the U.S. intends to deploy. (S)

Shcherbitsky alluded to the research done on the possibility of a nuclear winter if a nuclear war should be fought. In light of this possibility, he wondered why we keep creating more weapons. We can destroy mankind only once, and we already have the means to do so many times over. (C)

The President said that if Shcherbitsky wished to negotiate, he would have a deal. We can start eliminating nuclear weapons right now. If our two countries could cooperate in this, we could make sure that no one else uses these weapons. We must do this to preserve peace for our children and grandchildren. (S)

Shcherbitsky said that the prospect of space weapons is particularly frightening. People would feel that destruction is poised above their heads. To have weapons on earth and on and under the water is one [Page 1405] thing, but something which is poised in space above your head all the time is enough to drive people crazy. (S)

The President pointed out the desirability of having a non-nuclear weapon which could be used against nuclear ones. This would be particularly important if nuclear weapons ever came into the hands of a madman. Madmen exist, but if the nuclear weapons could be destroyed, then we could deal with that problem. (S)

The President then reiterated that if we ever find a way to build such a weapon, we would internationalize the question and work for agreement on how to use it as a means for eliminating nuclear weapons. (S)

Shcherbitsky replied that, in that case, the U.S. would begin dealing with the Soviets as if they were children. And what is the Soviet Union to do until it has such a weapon? Their only choice would be to increase their offensive weapons. (S)

The President asked why they would not be willing to reduce their nuclear weaponry. (S)

Shcherbitsky claimed that we have parity, an approximate parity, of nuclear weapons now. U.S. claims that the Soviets have superiority are without foundation. This parity must not be disturbed. But the main problem is distrust. (S)

The President agreed that distrust is a problem. (C)

Shcherbitsky then said that if the U.S. proceeds with SDI, the Soviets will have to spend much more on new weapons. This will be painful. The U.S. is richer. But although the Soviet people have on average 3% fewer calories to consume each day and do not live as well as Americans in general, no army in the world defends its country better then theirs. If necessary, they will tighten their belts, but this will mean another spiral in the arms race. (S)

As for the Geneva negotiations, the Soviets are ready for a sensible compromise, he said, and noted that he understood that some members of Congress intended to go to Geneva for the opening of the talks. He said that this is up to the U.S., but if Soviet legislators wished to attend the talks, he would not think that this is a good idea. (S)

The President returned to some of Shcherbitsky’s earlier comments and pointed out that there is no evidence that the U.S. has embarked on expansionism. The U.S. is not in Africa and is not injecting its forces into local disputes. He added, however, that it seems to us that the Soviets have an expansionist program, and this gives us concern. (S)

Shcherbitsky inquired, “What do you mean by an expansionist program?” (S)

The President answered citing Afghanistan and proxy forces in Angola and Kampuchea, for a start. (S)

[Page 1406]

Shcherbitsky inquired about Kampuchea, and the President said he was referring to the North Vietnamese, who are backed by the Soviets. (S)

Shcherbitsky protested that Soviet troops were not involved here. As for Afghanistan, Soviet troops were there at the request of the government. The request had been made several times and the Politburo had considered the request several times before finally granting it. He then asked about the American action in Grenada. (S)

The President explained that we have no troops in Grenada, and the island has been returned to the control of its people. He pointed out that we had found documents and weapons there which had made the earlier Soviet involvement and intentions quite clear. (S)

Shcherbitsky observed that Afghanistan is a much larger country and therefore presents a much more formidable military problem. Noting that they were already over the scheduled time, he expressed the hope that the negotiations in Geneva would be fruitful. (S)

The President said that he also hoped for good results and wished Shcherbitsky and his delegation a pleasant trip to Texas and California. (U)

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Jack Matlock Files, Chronological File, 1980–1986, Matlock Chron March 1985 (4/4). Secret; Sensitive. Prepared on March 8. A covering memorandum from Matlock to McFarlane suggests that the memorandum of conversation was drafted by Matlock. Brackets are in the original. The meeting took place in the Oval Office. Reagan wrote in his diary: “Big event was meeting with Polit bureau [Politburo] member (Soviet) Sheherbitsky [Shcherbitsky]. He had Ambas. Dobrynin & a couple of others with him. I had George S., Bud, Don Regan & a couple of others with me. He & I went round & round. His was the usual diatribe that we are the destablasing [destabilizing] force, threatening them. It was almost a repeat of the Gromyko debate except that we got right down to arguing. I think he’ll go home knowing that we are ready for negotiations but we d—n well aren’t going to let our guard down or hold still while they continue to build up their offensive forces.” (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, vol. I, January 1981–October 1985, p. 433; brackets are in the original)
  2. The Nuclear and Space Talks between the United States and USSR were set to open in Geneva on March 12.
  3. On February 1, Reagan submitted to Congress a report on “Soviet Noncompliance With Arms Control Agreements.” For the text of Reagan’s message to Congress and this report, see the Department of State Bulletin, April 1985, pp. 29–34. Soviet non-compliance was also addressed by the administration in NSDD 161, February 6, which is planned for publication in Foreign Relations, 1981–1988, vol. XLIII, National Security Policy, 1981–1984.