17. Memorandum From Jack Matlock of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (McFarlane)1


  • U.S.-Soviet Relations: Planning for 1985

In a previous memorandum commenting on an informal paper passed to you by Rick Burt, I expressed the view that the paper is inadequate for the basis of discussion with the President since it failed to address the real substantive issues on which the President’s attention should be focused.2 At this time, I would like to set forth these issues as I see them.

Fundamental Issue

The most basic tactical decision the President faces at this time is:

(a) whether to assume that Gorbachev is unable or unwilling to make significant changes in Soviet policy this year, and therefore to [Page 52] concentrate his attention almost exclusively on public diplomacy and alliance management; OR

(b) to decide that, even though the prospects for success may be slight, a careful and private attempt should be made to see whether Gorbachev is interested in arranging a real breakthrough in one or more of the key areas under contention.

There are powerful arguments for each of these alternatives.

Regarding the first, it is clear that Gorbachev’s first priority in 1985 is to consolidate his own power, and in this process he may not be able to introduce major changes in traditional Soviet policy. Therefore, we should not be sanguine that he has the authority to move in a decisive way to meet our concerns. We also should not assume that he has the desire to to so, even if his authority were well established. For these reasons, we should be cautious about raising public expectations or expending valuable negotiating capital prematurely. However, we also must recognize that, without public and allied perception of new initiatives on our part, a “stand-pat” position will come under increasing pressure and could militate against effective public diplomacy and Alliance management.

Regarding the second approach, it seems to me that there is an outside chance that Gorbachev could be attracted by the right package of proposals. Among other things, this could give him ammunition to move toward consolidation of his authority, using the argument that an acceptable deal with the U.S. is possible and that this would relieve pressure on the system and give it time to work on getting its economy in better shape. (One can make a devastating critique of the Soviet policies of the 70’s on Leninist grounds: it amounted to “infantile Marxism”—in Lenin’s words—since it underestimated the strength of the “imperialists” and represented a premature move to challenge the West before “socialism” was consolidated.)

In particular, Gorbachev will have his own reasons for moving to get the Soviet military under more solid Party (meaning his own) control. There is some interesting evidence that this process may in fact have started, when we look at the series of events beginning with Ogarkov’s ouster, the appointment of the political lightweight Sokolov as Defense Minister, and the exclusion of any military representatives from the Chernenko funeral commission. Furthermore, I doubt that anyone as smart as Gorbachev seems to be could have failed to understand the high price the Soviet Union has paid (in their image abroad, which is important to them) by the KAL affair and the Nicholson shooting. We can also assume that the failure to deal effectively with Afghanistan has not enhanced the prestige of the Soviet military establishment with the political leadership.

These are, of course, no more than straws in the wind, and one should not base policy on inferences drawn from them. But they pro[Page 53]vide some evidence that Gorbachev could conceivably judge it to be in his political interest to respond positively to a U.S. initiative which provides the prospect for eased relations—at least for a few years—and some assistance in gaining mastery over the Soviet military behemoth.

If the President decides to follow the second tactical approach, it will be most important to avoid making initiatives out of the blue either publicly or—in the early stages—in official channels. In either case, even an attractive proposal will be doomed to failure if it is presented in the wrong way. In order to attract Gorbachev, we must give him the chance to maneuver behind the scenes to set the stage for acceptance. Furthermore, for our own protection, we would need to float ideas which could not be attributed to us publicly, or misused to our disadvantage in formal negotiations.

Nature of Informal Proposal

A private, informal “channel” is of limited utility unless we have something to say which is not appropriate for our official discourse. This is why it is desirable to decide first whether we have anything to say, and only then (depending on the nature of what we want to convey) to decide how to convey it.

I do not profess to have in my head a “magic formula” which just might lure Gorbachev to real negotiations. However, I believe that if the President decides he wants to test the water informally, it is best to present something comprehensive and not limited to one element or another. It is also best, in the early stages, not to be specific with numbers and other concrete details which could interfere with negotiations.

To illustrate the sort of things I have in mind as possible elements in a comprehensive package, I offer the following. They are not proposals on my part. (All would have to be thought through carefully.) I mean it only to illustrate the manner in which a package might be assembled. The package should include important elements of all the areas on our agenda, in keeping with our policy of not giving exclusive priority to any one.

(a) Regional issues: Propose a clear understanding (not to be formulated in a formal document) that neither side will act to exacerbate local conflicts by direct or indirect introduction of significant military force in places where neither side is currently involved. (This should be a precondition to the rest of the package; it would leave us free to help the mujahedin—and would not solve the problem of Nicaragua—but would serve as clear notice that all bets are off if the Soviets, for example, increase military pressure on Pakistan or try some form of armed intervention in Iran.)

Additionally, we might consider making a suggestion which goes further in regard to some specific situation, such as, for example, assist[Page 54]ance in obtaining “no-intervention” commitments from interested parties as part of a negotiated withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan or, perhaps, some understanding in regard to parallel action to end the Iran-Iraq war.

(b) Arms Control: Here we will need to offer enough to be interesting—and to provide a basis for arguing that we have taken Soviet SDI concerns into account—without, of course either selling the store or crippling SDI. This may turn out to be a suggestion to square the circle, but it probably is worth a try.

Informal arms control proposals can take one of two forms, or can be a mixture of the two: (1) a mutual statement of general principles and goals; and (2) a concrete framework for future negotiation.

A proposal of the first type might contain a selection and rewording of some of the principles Chernenko proposed, along with some of our own, plus a commitment to reduce offensive nuclear weapons by a certain percentage not later than a certain year, plus a commitment by both sides to “strengthen” the ABM Treaty to the satisfaction of both.

A proposal of the second type might contain:

(1) Re START: a proposal similar to (though not necessarily with the same content as) the one State was promoting last year;

(2) Re INF: “Walk-in-the-Woods” with some modifications.

(3) Re defensive arms: No limits on SDI research, but commitment on both sides to strengthen ABM Treaty and commit selves to no “surprise” testing and deployment—i.e., without advance consultation and negotiation.

(c) Human Rights/Trade: The Soviets remain intensely interested (though they often profess indifference for tactical reasons) in the trade relationship. It is, practically speaking, the only effective lever we have to induce more acceptable human rights practices. Nevertheless, their sensitivity toward being seen making deals in this area is so great that we can only use the lever effectively in private and informally. We need to decide concretely what we want and what we responsibly can offer for it, and then make this clear in some informal fashion. Such an informal “deal” could look roughly like this:

(1) If Jewish emigration reaches 10,000 and some political prisoners are released, the U.S. will give its blessing to the sale of licensable energy technology;

(2) If Jewish emigration reaches the rate of 25,000 per year and most political prisoners are released, we will review U.S. export controls with the goal of making them no more stringent than Cocom controls in general;

(3) If Jewish emigration reaches 50,000 and all prominent political prisoners are allowed to leave, we will take steps to grant MFN under [Page 55] the terms of existing U.S. legislation, but without referring to formal assurances on the Soviet part.

(4) The suggestions above are valid only if new negative elements are not introduced into the picture (e.g., a wave of arrests; imposition of an “education tax” or the like).

It is possible, of course, to think of other elements which might go into a package. I would reiterate that the above is intended only to illustrate the sort of proposal the President might wish to consider.


If the President decides that he wishes to have some sort of proposal floated unofficially, there are various ways of doing so.

—[1 paragraph (6 lines) not declassified]

—There are a number of other Americans who travel periodically to the Soviet Union and have appropriate contacts there. Several are reliable and could float “deniable” suggestions, presenting them as their “personal” ideas, based on contacts with senior Administration officials.

—We could try to establish a more direct form of contact such as that discussed several times last year.

—It is not desirable to use Dobrynin, unless and until we have reciprocity in Moscow.


1. That you discuss with the President his desires regarding the tactical approach he prefers for 1985.3

2. That you let me know if I should give any further thought to any of the ideas expressed above.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Robert McFarlane Files, Subject File, Soviet Union—Sensitive File—1985 (09/01/1985–10/02–1985); NLR–362–3–25–1–8. Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Not for System. Sent for action. Sent through Poindexter, who did not initial the memorandum.
  2. See Document 14.
  3. McFarlane did not approve or disapprove either of the recommendations.