383. Editorial Note
On March 11, 1985, the Embassy in Moscow reported the death of Soviet General Secretary Konstantin Chernenko: “Chernenko’s death ‘after a serious illness’ was announced at 1400 Moscow time on Moscow radio and television. Time of death was given as 1920 on March 10.” (Telegram 2946 from Moscow, March 11; Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, D850163–0464) In his diary entry for March 11, President Ronald Reagan wrote: “Awakened at 4 A.M. to be told Chernenko is dead. My mind turned to whether I should attend the funeral. My gut instinct said no. Got to the office at 9. George S. had some arguments that I should—he lost. I dont think his heart was really in it. George B. is in Geneva—he’ll go & George S. will join him leaving tonight.” He continued: “Word has been received that Gorbachev has been named head man in the Soviet.” (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, volume I, January 1981–October 1985, page 434) According to the President’s Daily Diary, Reagan met with Shultz in the Oval Office around 2 p.m. on March 11. (Reagan Library, President’s Daily Diary) In his memoir, Shultz recalled: “A few weeks earlier, aware of Chernenko’s poor health, the president had decided that the funeral delegation should be George Bush, myself, and Art Hartman.” Shultz wrote that he “went to the White House to see President Reagan to go over ideas for the meeting our delegation would have with Gorbachev. There wasn’t a thought in his [Reagan’s] mind about going to Moscow.” (Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, page 527)
In his diary entry for March 11, Reagan also wrote: “A Haircut & then over to the Soviet embassy to sign the grief book—this is my 3rd such trip.” (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, volume I, January 1981–October 1985, page 434) Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin recalled Reagan and Shultz’s visits to the Embassy that evening in his memoir: “On the very day Gorbachev was elected general secretary, we received our first hint of changes that he might expect from the Reagan administration. Shultz visited the embassy on March 11 to sign the condolence book for Chernenko, arriving twenty minutes before president Reagan [Page 1419] to talk with me in private. Shultz told me he and the president had met in the White House earlier that day with McFarlane and Donald Regan, the new White House Chief of Staff. The president summed up by saying that a new situation with new opportunities was emerging in Soviet-American relations and it would be unforgivable not to take advantage of it, although the outcome was hardly predictable. Just as he was starting his second term as president, a new Soviet leader had taken the helm who by all appearances would manage foreign and domestic affairs energetically. Relations with Moscow would therefore be high on the president’s list of priorities. With the Geneva arms control negotiations starting, Reagan added, results were crucial.” “When the president arrived,” Dobrynin continued, “he did not raise these questions with me, but I took note of his remark that it was his third visit to the embassy in the course of three years on the occasions of grief. ‘But,’ he added, ‘I hope to come to the embassy next time on a happier occasion.’ He also asked me to convey his personal regards to Gorbachev.” (Dobrynin, In Confidence, pages 566–567)
Mikhail S. Gorbachev was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on March 11. Vice President Bush and Secretary Shultz attended Chernenko’s funeral and met with Gorbachev in Moscow on March 13. For the memorandum of conversation, see Foreign Relations, 1981–1988, volume V, Soviet Union, March 1985–October 1986, Document 5.