382. Information Memorandum From the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs (Kelly) to Secretary of State Shultz1


  • Shcherbitskiy’s Hurry-Up Departure and the Chernenko Succession

Dobrynin’s No. 2 Oleg Sokolov called Mark Palmer in mid-afternoon to request that we arrange an early departure from San Francisco to Moscow for Shcherbitskiy and his party, two days ahead of schedule. He said he was unable to tell us the reason for this request. However, the party cancelled out San Francisco events they would still have been able to attend, and a Central Committee staffer with the party told an accompanying State Department official that “we have a custom that for 24 hours after a death there is no public announcement.” Other officials in the party including Arbatov are disclaiming any knowledge of the reason for the departure but say they “assume” it means Chernenko is dead. By 7:30 pm our time, FBIS was reporting somber music on Soviet radio.

In the course of the afternoon plans shifted from a night departure from Andrews to New York’s Kennedy Airport and then to a Kennedy departure at 3:00 p.m. tomorrow, all with no reasons given. Mark worked through the afternoon and EUR/SOV until late in the evening arranging the flight clearances and other logistics needed to marry up the Shcherbitskiy party coming by US military aircraft from San Francisco with his Aeroflot special plane coming up from Havana. The Soviet confusion was clearly shown when the Soviet aircraft departed Havana early without clearances and with a flight plan to Washington. With good cooperation from the Air Force at Andrews and the Port Authority people in New York, we made and broke arrangements at Andrews and finally arranged for the plane to land at JFK at 11:15 pm.

Concurrently, we alerted all interested Department officials, Embassy Moscow, the White House, and CIA. We have kept in close touch with Jack Matlock, and also touched base with Don Gregg in the Vice President’s party in Geneva.2 Embassy Moscow kept in touch several times through the night as they watched for any telltale signs. [Page 1417] Matlock was in touch with Bud McFarlane, and had the impression that he would be briefing the President when he returned to the White House late Sunday.3

During the evening we also updated the contingency briefing book we have had on hand for the last month or so. It includes suggested drafts of the appropriate condolence and congratulation messages for the outgoing and incoming General Secretaries and Gromyko, very much along the lines we used for the Brezhnev and Andropov cases. The US media already have the story that Shcherbitskiy will be departing ahead of schedule, and Department spokesmen have confirmed that he is returning tomorrow but offering no further comment. Press stories will most likely state that Chernenko has died but there will, of course, be no way to verify this until it is announced by Moscow.

Jack Matlock tells us that late last week he raised with Bud the issue of whether or not the President should go to Moscow for a Chernenko funeral instead of the Vice President, in addition to you if you decide to go this time. He did so because a number of the inhibitions to Presidential participation that were in play last time have been removed.

In Jack’s view, Chernenko is not the policeman Andropov was, and we are back in arms control negotiations at Geneva, so there is no question of rewarding them for their 1983 walkout. Moreover, even though we might not know who Chernenko’s successor will be before we must decide on our delegation, this succession is more critical than its two predecessors whether or not a younger man representing the new generation is chosen. The 27th CPSU Congress, which will choose a new Central Committee and pass on the 1986–1990 Five-Year Plan, is to take place late this year, and the infighting over directions and priorities which is already underway will take a quantum jump in intensity whether the third oldster in a row is chosen or Gorbachev succeeds. To the extent that the outside world figures in debate over Soviet futures, the US is the key variable.

It is conceivable that Shcherbitskiy is leaving because of some development other than the Chernenko succession, but the Soviets in the delegation have been giving the clear impression without being categoric that the reason is Chernenko’s death. Assuming this is the case, we should have an announcement tomorrow. Following the Brezhnev and Andropov precedents, the announcement of a funeral committee should follow some hours later—both Andropov and Cher[Page 1418]nenko headed their predecessors’ funeral committees—with the funeral itself possibly five days after the death, i.e. on Friday.4

  1. Source: Reagan Library, George Shultz Papers, Box 13, Executive Secretariat Sensitive Chron (03/09/1985–03/13/1985). Secret; Sensitive. Drafted by Simons and Pascoe; cleared by Palmer. Pascoe initialed for Kelly. The memorandum is stamped “Treat As Original.”
  2. Bush was in Geneva for the opening of the Nuclear and Space Talks on March 12.
  3. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Reagan was at Camp David from late afternoon on Friday, March 8, until he returned to Washington on Sunday, March 10 around 2:30 p.m. (Reagan Library, President’s Daily Diary)
  4. March 15.