172. Letter From Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev to President Reagan1

Dear Mr. President:

I consider your letter and value the spirit in which it was [written] addressed to me.2

I am speaking to you because I see a desire to continue and to that which we achieved in Geneva. I am gladdened that we have begun—both in fact and in spirit—a direct and frank discussion. I attach special significance to the fact that we have been able to overcome the serious psychological barrier which for a long time has hindered the dialogue achieved by the leaders of the USSR and USA.

I also have the feeling that now we together can set aside our differences and get down to the heart of the matter—we can set a specific agenda for discussing in the upcoming years how to set straight Soviet-American relations.

This much is perfectly obvious: we must expand areas of agreement and must increase painstaking responsibilities in our policies and must adopt the appropriate specific resolutions.

In my opinion, such a position would be ideal in which we together make steady progress. I agree with what you said: no one except us, in the final analysis, can achieve this. And especially we should assume [Page 758] the duty to untie the knot surrounding nuclear and space weapons. It has struck me that you, Mr. President, also consider that this is of critical importance to us.

From what we said in Geneva, you, I think, have understood that our decisive opposition to the creation of nuclear space weapons is rooted in the fact that weapons of this class, possessing in their very nature the ability to be used both for defensive and offensive aims. In the final analysis they present the extreme danger of broadening the offensive potential with all the inevitable consequences entailed in this in the sense you have said, Mr. President, that the US has no intention of using the SDI program for achieving military superiority.

I am sure that you personally could not have any such intention. But we agree that it is the duty of the leaders on both sides to evaluate the actions of the other in the area of the creation of new types of weapons not in terms of intentions but rather in terms of the potential capabilities which might be achieved due to the creation of a new weapon.

Viewing the SDI from such a position, the Soviet leadership inevitably arrives at one conclusion: in the current actual conditions “the space shield” is needed only by that side which is preparing a first (preemptive) strike. For the side which does not proceed from this notion, the need for such a weapons system need not arise.

Indeed, space strike weapons are global weapons. The space strike weapons being developed in the US are long-range directed-energy and kinetic weapons (which have a range of several thousand miles and are highly destructive). They are capable—and here your [scientists] specialists and ours are in agreement—in a short period of time, in mass quantities of (1g) destroying targets thousands of miles away both in space and from space. And I emphasize, thousands of miles. How, for example, should one consider the space weapons of one side, which have the capability in a short period, (2g), of destroying the other side’s monitoring, navigation, communications and other space systems by strikes from guided space weapons. In essence, the use of this weapon can only be considered as a means to “blind” and take the other side by surprise, and to interfere with its capability to respond to a nuclear attack. Moreover, once this weapon is created the process of improving it will begin, giving it ever increasing combat characteristics. Such is the law of the development of any weapon. How, Mr. President, should the Soviet Union respond in this situation? I would like to repeat what I said in Geneva. The USSR simply can not and will accept the situation of the U.S. realization of the SDI program to reduce nuclear weapons to provide for its security. Come what may, we will be forced to develop and perfect strategic nuclear forces, to increase their ability to neutralize the American “space shield.” At the same time we would [Page 759] be force to develop our own space weapons, including those for national ballistic missile defence. Apparently, the U.S., for its part, would adopt other kind of measures. As a result we would not be able to break out of this vicious circle and in the final analysis, from the whirlpool of the ever-spiraling arms race. The end results of such actions inimical to our people and all of mankind would be unspeakable.

I am convinced that the only rational way out is not to do this. From all points of view the right path for our countries is to prevent an arms race in space and halt it on earth. Moreover, it is necessary to negotiate under equal and mutually acceptable conditions. Together we are committed to speeding up the negotiations. I was pleased to hear your words to the effect that the U.S. will not “create offensive space-based weapons.”

As I understand it, we now have a common ground on a very essential part of the problem of preventing an arms race in space. Let us do what needs to be done so that our representatives at the talks will begin to develop specific measures on this basis aimed at preventing the development of offensive space weapons; that is, all such space-based weapons which are capable of destroying targets in space and from space.

In the spirit of that frankness, with which we conducted our talks, I tell you that this questions is now acute; either future events will determine policy or they will be determined by us. In order not to be caught up in events, it is again especially important to look into all aspects of the objectively existing interrelationships between offensive and defensive weapons and to listen to each other on this question. I think, however, that there is little sense in such discussions if at the same time from the doors of our laboratories begin to appear weapons of war, whose effects on strategic stability cannot be calculated. Common sense tells us that until we jointly clarify these consequences, it is impossible [should not] to produce anything behind the walls of the laboratories. We are also ready to discuss this question.

It seems to me that this is the primary course toward the realization of joint talks, which we considered in Geneva on the unacceptability of an arms race in space and, in the final analysis, on the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Such an approach makes sense at the discussion in the Geneva negotiations on eliminating the danger first strike (preemptive) nuclear weapons. I would like to again tell you definitely that we are not gambling on a nuclear first strike nor are we preparing our nuclear arsenal for this purpose.

I cannot agree with the way in which you consider the question of first strike nuclear weapons. This, of course, is not simply a matter [Page 760] of ICBM warheads. There is no comparison of the destructive capability between, for example, “Trident” submarine ballistic missile warheads and warheads on current Soviet land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles; that is, in such indicators as accuracy, (1g) and range. If it is a question of warning time, then there cannot be less time than for a significant part of submarine missiles, in which warheads the U.S. has a great superiority. [And] can we view in any other way than as a first strike weapon the “Pershing–2” missiles deployed in Europe with high accuracy and short flight time to targets in the USSR?

Please forgive me for being concerned with technical details in a personal letter of this kind. But, really, this is a vitally important situation and it cannot be avoided.

Believe me, Mr. President, we have real and extremely serious concern over U.S. nuclear weapons. You speak of mutual concerns. The solution of this problem is only possible through consideration and calculation of sum total of the corresponding nuclear weapons on both sides. Let our negotiators discuss this, too.

Mr. President, in short, I would like to respond to your reference to regional concerns. I already emphasized, when we spoke on these matters in Geneva, that the most important thing here is that we look at things as they are. If we acknowledge that in the international arena independent states are speaking and acting and that we must recognize their sovereign right to maintain relations with anyone they wish and to seek assistance, including military.

Both of us are providing this kind of assistance. Why apply a double standard here and assert that Soviet aid is a source of tension and American aid is goodwill? Better to be guided in this matter by objective criteria. The Soviet Union will help lawful governments which ask us for aid because they have been and are being subjected to external armed intervention.

But the U.S., and such are the facts, inspires action against governments and supports and arms antisocial and, in essence, terrorist groups. Objectively looking at the matter, it is specifically such actions and external interference which creates regional tensions and conflict situations. Were there no such activities, I am sure that tensions would be reduced and the prospects for political control would be much better and more realistic. Unfortunately, developments are proceeding in another direction. Take, for example, the unprecedented pressure and terror to which the government of Nicaragua which has been lawfully elected by the people in free elections has been subjected.

I will be frank—the things which the United States has done lately make us wary. It seems that just now a shift is being made in the direction of further exacerbation of regional problems. Such an [Page 761] approach does not facilitate finding a common language and complicates the search for political solutions.

As far as Afghanistan is concerned, the impression is being formed that the American side is intentionally overlooking the “open door” leading to a political settlement. Now there is a working formula for such a settlement. It is important not to interfere with the ongoing negotiations but to assist them. Then a just settlement will definitely be found.

Mr. President, I would like for you to view my letter as another of our “fireside chats.” I sincerely would like not only to keep the warmth of our Geneva meetings but also move further in the development of our dialogue. I look at correspondence with you as the most important channel in preparing for our meeting in Washington.

There are only a few days until the New Year and I would like to convey to you and your spouse our warmest wishes.


M. Gorbachev
  1. Source: Reagan Library, Jack Matlock Files, Head of State Correspondence (US-USSR) December 1985 (2/3). Secret; Sensitive. Brackets are in the original translation. In an undated memorandum to Poindexter summarizing the letter, Platt explained that Gorbachev “sent a lengthy, handwritten response to the letter sent by the President after the Geneva summit. The fact that the President wrote his letter in longhand obviously made an impression. Gorbachev not only answered in kind, but with an unusual lack of formality.” (Reagan Library, Executive Secretariat, NSC Head of State File, U.S.S.R.: General Secretary Gorbachev (8591293)) Gorbachev’s handwritten letter, in addition to a typed copy noting “Final translation done by WH translators,” is ibid.
  2. On January 13, 1986, Ridgway sent a memorandum to Shultz, “Handling of Gorbachev’s December 24 letter,” explaining that “the original translation was done by White House personnel from the handwritten script that had been delivered by the Soviet Embassy to Don Regan. We received this preliminary version, plus a copy of the handwritten text, late on the evening of December 26.” State Department personnel from the Soviet Desk, she continued, “including two who have served in the Soviet Union and speak Russian, worked that night to provide an analysis and talking points (Tab 3) for the NSC to brief the President the following day. They were in touch directly with the White House translators to clarify points in the text. On December 27, State’s Language Services Division did its own translation. The analysis based on the White House translation notes that the tone of the Gorbachev letter was informal and upbeat; this characterization is accurate for the State translation. There are no significant differences between the two translations on substantive points.” (Reagan Library, George Shultz Papers, Super Sensitive 01/07/1986–01/16/1986) See Document 163.