7. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Clark) to President Reagan1


  • The Prospects for Progress in US-Soviet Relations

Is there a possibility of achieving a constructive change in US-Soviet relations or not? The short answer is that we don’t know; in part because of the change in Soviet leadership, but also because we haven’t tried.2 There is a good reason for that. It was your view—correctly in my judgement—of the state of our relations at the end of the decade of the seventies that the Soviets may well have considered us a nation in decline and that before we could have any realistic hope of getting them to bargain seriously with us toward the resolution of the many problems before us, we had to make clear that we had reversed that trend. In short, we had to demonstrate that we still possessed the will and the capability to defend our interests and once more, to lead the free world. Toward that end you set out to restore [Page 22] our defenses, to reassure our allies, to solve our economic problems at home and in sum, to show by action that we were coming back and had to be taken seriously. At the end of two years it seems to me that you have succeeded and that there is a very solid basis for concluding that the Soviets may be reconciled to the fact that by the end of the decade we will have passed them again. The corollary is that now, at a position of maximum relative strength, they ought to cut the best deal that they can. In this respect, they are not unlike the Japanese in 1941. They—like the Japanese—have two choices. Either they can attempt to inflict a devastating military defeat upon us, or they can seek to restrain our military buildup through negotiation. Which of the two is the most appealing course can be argued. This memo proceeds from a fundamental judgement, borne of a reading of Soviet history and reinforced by recent military setbacks they have suffered (e.g., the woeful performance of their hardware in Lebanon) that the Soviets will not risk a military conflict with us.

There are also internal incentives at play which could lead the new Soviet leader to conclude that an arms control agreement—not just endless negotiation—is in his personal interest. For example, Andropov came to power relying, like all of his predecessors, on the support of the military. Historically it has been necessary in the Soviet Union to give the military its due—more spending—in order to keep that support. But at times, the military has been willing to accept arms control as a reasonable alternative because it has constrained US defense programs in the process. Now, at a time when you have launched a solid rebuilding program, such an incentive is at hand. And as you have pointed out, the other pressing demands on the Soviet economy give him a separate set of reasons for cutting back the rate of increase in military spending. (Note: I do not intend to say that a significant real cut is likely—at best we might achieve a reduction in the rate of increase.)

Separate from these military/economic incentives in Andropov’s mind are the personal political realities. He is not yet President and it is reasonable to ask why. Is it not because he faces competition? Before his accession there was speculation that Chernenko was a strong contender for the top position. He is still a prominent player with his own following. Chernenko is a Brezhnev protege and generally labled as a detentenik. There is still a certain attractiveness among Soviet intellectuals for this approach and Andropov cannot dismiss their power and influence. For this reason there is considerable incentive for him to outflank them with an agreement of some kind.

Against this view one can paint the well-known image of Soviet single-minded militarism which requires eternal confrontation without even the suggestion of compromise. My point is that it is irrelevant to debate which view is correct for as long as we keep our guard up. [Page 23] More importantly what do we have to lose by trying to open some doors? Two years ago I wouldn’t have said that for indeed at that point, we had a lot to lose; we would have appeared to be supplicants, rushing into a very tough card game with no winners. But that’s no longer true. We’re on the march, and Andropov knows it.

So what should we do? The first question is where should we concentrate our effort—on what subject do we and they have an overlapping interest in an agreement? The answer seems to me clearly arms control and more specifically the INF talks. There is also some promise in START but that can wait. On INF, we have a schedule—the clock is running—and it gives us substantial leverage and imputes a sense of urgency in Moscow.

The next question is how to open the dialogue. Should we use traditional diplomatic channels either in Moscow or in Geneva or try a private channel. The latter seems to me preferable and perhaps unavoidable. The reason it is preferable is because Andropov likes secrecy—indeed he has made a career out of it. It also makes it easier for him to manage his internal bureaucratics. The same factors apply in our government for different reasons. It has become virtually impossible for us to keep the substance of our negotiations private once they are circulated within the government. And we have a separate but related problem. This concerns the very deeply-felt ideological bias which exists within your Administration against arms control. This small group of professionals—centered in the Defense Department—believes that arms control generically is bad. To be fair we have a legacy of 12 years experience which supports their claim. In gross terms, the military balance has worsened during the SALT era. But I think that we must have the maturity to understand that much of the reason for our failure in the past has to do with our inability to keep the “stick” as powerful as the “carrot” owing to post-Vietnam and Watergate vulnerabilities. In short, just because we came out badly in the past doesn’t mean that we will suffer the same fate again. We have to be tough negotiators and sustain our defense buildup. But back to the point, these individuals will resist any serious negotiation and if given the opportunity, will undermine it with leaks. Consequently a private channel may offer the only means to proceed.

Concerning what is to be said, there is a good reason not to be so anxious as to lay out an entire proposal in the first overture. Rather it would be better to make the first contact with a short letter expressing in serious tones your recognition that our relations appear to be evolving toward renewed confrontation. It would express your acknowledgement that we will no doubt continue to disagree on fundamentals, but that this should not be allowed to abort our common interest in maintaining peace and, where possible, resolving problems. You might [Page 24] then note that you view Andropov’s accession as an occasion on which perhaps a new page can be turned in US-Soviet relations and that if he is so inclined you want him to know that you are seriously interested in making real progress toward reducing the level of nuclear arms. If he is interested, you would welcome his reply in the same channel.

With regard to how that message would be sent, there are several choices. We could use the hotline. While the circle of awareness within the Soviet Union is small for such messages, we cannot be sure that it would not include some who Andropov would rather not include. If our objective is to allow Andropov the maximum latitude as to whom he chooses to involve, we should seek the personal delivery to him of your letter by a trusted individual. There are various options on this score; suffice to say that it can be done without great risk of compromise.

Once that contact is made with Andropov it is possible that he will reply and ask that talks be opened. At that time he will indicate his interlocutor. If it is Dobrynin, then it would be my recommendation that we have him open talks with George Shultz but here in the White House (in the Map Room with total privacy as has been done in the past). From there we would see what develops.

Launching such an undertaking holds some risks. If made public it would engender criticism from the right on general principles and from a disaffected bureaucracy as well. Still on the whole I believe it would be worthwhile because it would make clear that you are not ideologically against solving problems with the Soviet Union; it would show that you are at least willing to try. To assure the substantive quality of the talks and assure their ultimate supportability, you would include as the backstopping group for this effort, the statutory members of the NSC (the Vice President, the Secretaries of State and Defense), the Chairman of the JCS, Bill Casey and your National Security Advisor.

Mr. President, it seems to me that we have reached a point where you must decide where you will invest your time and political capital in the next two years. You may be able to accomplish two or three truly lasting things in foreign affairs. In my judgment, forging peace in the Middle East and securing an arms control agreement with the Soviets represent the best and most exigent opportunities. You may have other thoughts. The purpose of this memo is to raise one possibility and, thereby, stimulate a discussion at your convenience, during which we can begin to lay out a strategy. I have discussed this with no one.3

  1. Source: Reagan Library, William Clark Files, US-Soviet Relations Papers Working File: Contains Originals (2). Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. The memorandum is unsigned. There is no drafting information on the memorandum. Reagan initialed the memorandum, indicating he saw it.
  2. Reagan wrote in the right-hand margin: “we have tried.”
  3. It is unclear if Clark wrote this on his own, as he suggests. Lenczowski wrote extensive comments in the margins of another copy of this memorandum. (Reagan Library, John Lenczowski Files, NSC Files, Chron File February 1983) It is unclear, however, whether Lenczowski saw the memorandum before it went to the President or whether he was looking at a copy. See Document 8.