8. Memorandum From John Lenczowski of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Clark)1


  • The Memorandum to the President on U.S.-Soviet Relations

If I may be blunt about it, this memo is seriously flawed and contains recommendations that are not in the interests of U.S. security.2 The assumptions underlying its analysis are at best questionable and at worst (which is most of the time) faulty. Among these are:

—The assumption that the U.S. is as responsible as, if not more responsible than, the USSR for U.S.-Soviet tensions and differences. This is implicit in the assertion that “we haven’t tried” to see if better U.S.-Soviet relations are possible. It is also implicit in the author’s statement that it would be politically useful to prove to the world that the President is not “ideologically against solving problems with the Soviet Union” (as if he has not done so already in his INF and START proposals).

—The assumption that the Soviets believe that “we are on the march again”—i.e., that our military buildup is on track, will inevitably overtake them in a few years, and is forcing them to come to arms control accords with us. Apparently the Soviets cannot see the efforts in our Republican Senate to cut back that buildup (which, in any event, will not match the concurrent Soviet buildup).

—The assumption that since the Soviets are at a position of maximum relative strength vis-a-vis the U.S., they are in the best position possible to negotiate an arms control agreement and therefore have a real incentive to do so. This is half-true. The Soviets will always negotiate an agreement that restrains U.S. defense programs. But they will never cut a deal that serves U.S. interests in any meaningful way unless they are forced to do so. We have not forced them whatsoever. In fact, in the only arena where we could plausibly make a case that we are forcing them—the INF deployments in Europe—the Soviets are the ones who have us up against the wall, and they know it.

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—The assumption that the Soviets have something to fear from the U.S. defense buildup, and that our impending INF deployment imposes on them a “sense of urgency.” This assumption is based on a mirror-image perception of the Soviet Union—a perception that is totally false. The Soviets know that there is no military threat coming from the U.S. They know that when the U.S. was really anti-communist in the 1950s, we would not even help the Hungarian freedom fighters. They know that there is even less of a political constituency today to do anything similar, much less threaten the USSR itself.

—The assumption that the Soviets have “suffered recent military setbacks” (the “woeful performance of their hardware in Lebanon”). Need it be said that the Soviets have not suffered any setbacks?

—The assumption that these “setbacks” reinforce their policy of not risking military conflict with us. The only reason why they don’t want to risk military conflict with us is that they do not need to take such risks. Their political strategy is doing quite a good job of eroding the strength of the West, while pursuing their policy of attrition in the Third World.

—The assumption that there are “interest groups” in the USSR and that the military is one of these. This is expressed in relation to the military’s support of Andropov (as if such support were analogous to constituent group support in the U.S.) and its alleged willingness to engage in arms control talks at this stage (as if there are other times when it is against such talks). This whole theory assumes that the military wants something different than what the Party wants, i.e., more military spending, and that the military is usually a force opposed to detente. This theory has serious flaws (such as a lack of evidence to support it). It is, once again, a mirror-image-based theory that ignores mountains of evidence to the contrary (not the least of which is the total infiltration of the military by Party political commissars who maintain strict political controls). This theory further ignores all the evidence that the military has a major interest in pursuing the policy of detente—both to restrain U.S. defense programs and to acquire Western technology which permits them to maintain, without reform, their command economy, which in turn allows them to keep the highest priority on military spending. (The other flaws of this theory require more lengthy explanation.)

—The assumption that the Soviets have domestic economic reasons (like ours) to cut back their military spending. This is another mirror-image fallacy that has little or no evidence to support it. The Soviets are perfectly willing to starve their own people (witness the current pervasive rationing system and malnutrition) to retain military superiority.

—The assumption that there is a conflict between proponents and opponents of detente, and that the “detenteniks” (a label the author ascribes to Chernenko) are falling all over each other in a competition to see who can be more detentist vis-a-vis the U.S. There is utterly no evidence to show this. Nor is there any evidence to show that we can help Andropov in his domestic political position by reaching an agreement with him (except, perhaps, if we make so many concessions that he can boast of his unique negotiating skills to his comrades). (I can explain elsewhere at greater length why the proponents-opponents of detente theory is false.)

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—The assumption that we can easily sustain our defense buildup while engaging in the kind of negotiations with the Soviets that the author recommends. The author ignores the fact that a respectable case can be made to demonstrate that the entire arms control process makes it very difficult to convince the people that a defense buildup is necessary or that we even face any kind of threat from our negotiating “partners”.

—The assumption that negotiating through a private channel serves U.S. security interests. It is the Soviets, in fact, who are the greatest proponents of private channels. The author’s comments on this subject almost suggest that he trusts Andropov more than he trusts our most security-minded people at DOD. In fact Andropov himself could not have written a better recommendation to the President.

—The assumption that we and the Soviets have a “common interest in maintaining peace.” This assumption, as formulated here, which is a truism when it refers to avoiding nuclear war, nevertheless tends to equate the U.S. and the USSR politically. It tends to ascribe blame for tensions if not equally, then largely on the U.S. It fails to explain how murdering a million Afghans represents a “common interest in peace.”

—The assumption that we are dealing with an individual, Mr. Andropov, who has individual discretion to make major policy changes. (This assumption is reflected in the author’s view that Andropov’s accession to power represents a new opportunity for better relations.) The fact is that we are dealing with a system where individuals have little impact or discretion. If Andropov were to deviate measurably from the Party line as defined by the system, he would represent a threat to his colleagues, who would oust him as they did Khrushchev. To operate from this assumption is to entertain the illusion that Andropov has it within his power to pursue a genuine policy of accommodation with the U.S. It is to believe that the possibility exists that Andropov might really turn out to be something other than a Communist. To believe that individuals (as opposed to the system) can really make a significant political difference is the first step in the process of wishful thinking about the nature of Soviet communism.

With so many questionable or false assumptions, this memo proceeds from a most shaky base. What aggravates its soundness even more is that many of these assumptions are deliberate disinformation themes that the Soviets use to confuse Western policymakers. The original question posed by the memorandum—“Is there a possibility of achieving a constructive change in U.S.-Soviet relations?” remains not only unanswered but not seriously examined. The key question here is not even addressed, namely, “constructive change in U.S.-Soviet relations” according to whose definition of “constructive”? What is “constructive” for the Soviets is not necessarily constructive for U.S. national security.

What this memorandum recommends, in effect, is that the U.S. act to improve relations with the USSR on Soviet terms. It asks us to accept as true the charge that the U.S. is substantially if not largely responsible for the arms race and that the Soviets have as much to fear from us [Page 28] as we from them. It denies that the President’s zero-option proposal is a good faith arms control proposal, in spite of the fact that by itself it represents a concession to the Soviets in strictly military terms. It is overly sanguine about our defense buildup and our political will to defend ourselves and lead the Free World. Indeed the President has demonstrated his own will to do so—but can we say as much for Congress, most of the probable Democratic presidential candidates or various important East-West trade constituencies? Or speaking of the electorate as a whole, what conclusions have the Soviets reached when they viewed the victory of the nuclear freeze initiative (a Brezhnev proposal, after all) in every state referendum where it appeared?3 It would appear that any attempt to make the kinds of negotiating concessions recommended by this memo would only solidify in Soviet minds their view that the political-moral-spiritual strength of America as a whole is not as great as the election of President Reagan would have had them believe.

The author concludes with the notion that a U.S.-Soviet arms agreement would be a lasting accomplishment for the President in foreign affairs. However, he fails to warn the President that previous agreements have not been such jewels in crowns of his predecessors. A Middle East peace would indeed be a feat. But nowhere is the President’s Democracy Initiative mentioned—or his related efforts to upgrade U.S. public diplomacy and make America strong and respected again. Indeed these are the real feats this President is accomplishing—and they stand on the solid ground of strengthening U.S. interests and values and not the shaky ground of problematic compromises with an adversary that has shown no evidence of changing its avowed purpose of destroying our civilization.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, William Clark Files, US-Soviet Relations Papers Working File: Contains Originals (2). Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Sent for information. Reagan initialed the memorandum, indicating he saw it. In a cover note to Reagan, Clark wrote: “Mr. President: While I do not concur in all points of this staff memo, it provides a basis for discussion—hopefully during some of your unscheduled time today—to discuss ‘next steps.’ Do you wish to meet on this? Bill.” A typewritten note from the unidentified “JH” reads: “I am not certain the above note was the WC note attached to the JL paper when taken to the President via the usher.”
  2. The memorandum from Lenczowski is in response to Document 7. See also footnote 3 thereto.
  3. In a message to the UNGA Second Special Session on Disarmament read by Gromyko on June 12, 1982, Brezhnev proposed a freeze on nuclear arsenals and pledged that the Soviet Union would not be the first to use nuclear weapons. See Documents on Disarmament, 1982, pp. 349–352.