178. Memorandum for the Record by the Special Advisor to the President and Secretary of State on Arms Control Matters (Nitze)1


  • Events Concerning Secretary General Gorbachev’s Letter

At 10:30 a.m. today I received a call to join the Secretary, Ambassador Ridgway, Jim Timbie, Charlie Hill and Nick Platt in the Secretary’s office. The Secretary said that Dobrynin had just been in and had handed him a letter to the President from Secretary General Gorbachev.2 The translation of the letter had just been passed out and we began reading it. After everyone had read the letter, there ensued a general discussion of both the letter and what we should do about it.3 The Secretary said that he had to leave shortly for a meeting on another subject and was scheduled to speak at a luncheon at Ft McNair. The luncheon would be over at 1:30 and he was scheduled to meet with the President at 2:00.

I suggested that I be authorized to ask Richard Perle to come over so that we could coordinate a plan of action. The Secretary thereupon telephoned Secretary Weinberger, told him we had received an important communication from the Soviets which required a plan of action, and suggested that he get Perle to meet me in my office as soon as possible. I temporarily left the meeting to call my office to get them to follow up with a direct call to Perle. The Secretary then called William Casey, giving him the same summary of the situation and suggested [Page 778] Doug George come to my office.4 He then called John Poindexter and told him what he had done.

He then turned to the group of us and said that he would like a properly prepared Secretary/President memorandum describing in 1-1/2 pages the Gorbachev letter.5 He said he’d also like to have talking points which he could use in commenting to the President on the letter. He suggested picking out the interesting points in Gorbachev’s proposal, in a manner similar to that which I had used in my statement to the North Atlantic Council describing the Soviet counterproposal of August 25. The Secretary also said he wanted a draft press statement commenting on the Soviet proposal for the President’s consideration. He suggested that the group go to my office and prepare the documents which he described and get them to him at Ft McNair prior to the time he was scheduled to leave there to go to the White House. We then left the Secretary’s office and went to my office. Roz Ridgway had other work to do and sent Mark Parris to represent EUR. I asked Jim Timbie to put his hand to writing the Secretary/President memo describing the Gorbachev letter and asked Mark Parris to put his hand to a draft of the press statement. I undertook to do the draft of the talking points the Secretary might use in commenting to the President on the Gorbachev proposal.

Richard Perle and Doug George arrived while this work was in process. George reported that Izvestiya had published a 5,000-word article accurately describing the proposal in Gorbachev’s letter and Gorbachev himself would in the next hour or two appear on TV. George had to return to the agency before the various papers were finished. The principal discussion of the papers was with Perle.

Perle raised the question of how the Gorbachev proposal is to be viewed, as propaganda or as the initial step toward a serious negotiation. I said I thought it might be a combination of both and that we could not expect the Soviets to put forward their final position in their initial presentation. Therefore, the fact the proposal had serious bugs in it did not necessarily mean they might not be serious about wanting [Page 779] to proceed down some line which could be acceptable to us; we’d not know the final answer until we had the chance to negotiate seriously with them. Perle felt the original draft of the press statement was too optimistic. We reorganized the next to the last paragraph and finally accepted a final paragraph drafted by Perle.

We tried to get Ken Adelman but could not; and in his absence Mike Guhin was briefed. The documents had been typed in final by one o’clock. We took them to Brunson McKinley and Nick Platt. They finally authorized us to go forward with them. They also authorized Norm Clyne to give a copy of the Gorbachev letter to Perle so he could take that and copies of the other two documents with him to brief Secretary Weinberger in full detail on the subject.

Jim Timbie and I then went off to Fort McNair and intercepted the Secretary’s car just as he was leaving and rode with him back to the White House. We got there at approximately 1:45. The Secretary suggested that both of us join him in John Poindexter’s office. We found Poindexter meeting with Linhard, Lehman, and Matlock, discussing the same issues which we had already gone through. Poindexter emphasized the need to notify Congressional leaders and our allies and provide some statement to the press. He said they had concluded that the press statement should include the following items; we welcome the Soviet interest, it could be serious, we needed to consult closely with our allies, some elements were interesting and others presented real problems. The Secretary of Defense had called and suggested we say some elements were unacceptable. Weinberger also had noted that the Gorbachev letter continued to refer to SDI as space attack weapons. Poindexter thought it might be worth making the point that Gorbachev’s making his proposal public without first allowing time for a serious discussion with us made it look more like a propaganda exercise than a serious proposal.

The Secretary described the papers which he had brought with him for his meeting with the President. These included not only the papers our group had prepared but also a paper containing a quote from the record of the President’s fireside chat with Gorbachev which said in substance that “of course in the absence of offensive nuclear weapons, defensive weapons would be much less necessary.”6 He suggested the need for more time with the President than had been scheduled. He wished to discuss not only the Gorbachev matter but also the originally scheduled subject; i.e., policy in the mid-east. This was arranged.

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Shortly after 2:00 word came that the President was ready to see the Secretary and Poindexter. The Secretary suggested I go with them.7

After we had joined the President, the Secretary began by giving the President Gorbachev’s letter, a translation thereof, and the summary indicating its major points. The President read the summary and noted that Gorbachev’s plan was indeed comprehensive. The Secretary then went through the various points in his talking point paper elaborating on each one of them as he went along. He emphasized that there was a tremendous amount to be negotiated; there were numerous jokers in the proposal, including its treatment of space.

The President recalled his statements offering to share our technology with the Soviets and referred to a suggestion of Keyworth’s. Keyworth had suggested that a space defense system could be so designed that any nation could trigger the defensive weapons contained in it in the event it believed a real threat to it had been launched. The Secretary commented that he thought the negotiators in Geneva should deal with the details, however, they were not going to get very far with the details unless he and Gorbachev had set some joint objectives. The Secretary then dealt with the further issues outlined in his talking point paper.

With respect to whether we could agree to the abolition of nuclear weapons in the absence of non-nuclear defenses, he referred to the [Page 781] greater difficulty a Qaddafi would have in building ballistic missiles than in building nuclear weapons which could be delivered in a suitcase. With respect to conventional weapons he gave various reasons why he thought one could deal with conventional weapons problems and the world would be a better place if one could in fact eliminate nuclear weapons. With respect to radar research, he noted the word “research” is not used in Gorbachev’s letter and that a vigorous SDI research program would be the best insurance and its failure in a staged reduction scheme to eliminating nuclear weapons. He then discussed problems with our allies, Britain, France, and China, in the context of a Soviet proposal and stressing the importance of our maintaining a correct position with them. He then dealt with the implications of negotiating the staging so we could maintain a reliable deterrent throughout the entire process.

The Secretary then handed the President the draft press statement saying that everybody was on board generally, even though Cap had certain suggestions.8 Poindexter then described Cap’s specific problems. He said that he would talk to Weinberger and attempt to deal with his points. The President agreed that we should inform our allies, alert the Congress and issue a press statement along the lines of the one the Secretary had given him.

Paul H. Nitze 9
  1. Source: Department of State, Ambassador Nitze’s Personal Files 1953, 1972–1989, Lot 90D397, January 1986. Secret; Sensitive.
  2. See the attachment to Document 177.
  3. In his memoir, Shultz wrote: “I called in Paul Nitze, Roz Ridgway, and Jim Timbie. The essence of Gorbachev’s message was: let’s go to zero in nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, by the year 2000. The particulars were booby traps, but he made that goal look operational and more serious by proposing a three-stage process to get there. And he announced the extension of the unilateral Soviet moratorium on nuclear testing. I passed around the letter for the others to read. Nitze was fascinated. ‘I wonder whose work of art on the Soviet side this is.’ While accepting the president’s general concept of massive reductions in nuclear weapons, even to zero, the Gorbachev letter was also packed with all the old obstacles: defining our intermediate-range missiles as strategic, but not theirs; including the British and French nuclear systems in their proposal, although they altered the form of inclusion in a way that moved toward our position; conditioning all reductions on our agreement to give up SDI. The proposal was a blockbuster that Gorbachev clearly intended, by going public within hours of providing it to us, to use for propaganda purposes.” (Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, p. 699)
  4. Shultz wrote: “I telephoned Cap Weinberger. ‘I’d like Paul Nitze to talk to Richard Perle about the letter right away.’ We had to produce our public position quickly to counter Gorbachev’s attempt to gain a propaganda advantage. I felt that we should welcome the fact that Gorbachev proposed large-scale reductions; we should not put out the word that this was just another warmed-over Soviet propaganda ploy. I telephoned Bill Casey. ‘Bill, something of considerable significance has come in from Gorbachev. We need to make a decision about a fast public response. I’d like Doug George [CIA arms control expert] to come over here right away. Have him come to Paul Nitze’s office. Richard Perle is coming. I want a representative from every interested agency.’ (Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, pp. 699–700; brackets are in the original)
  5. See Document 177.
  6. See Document 153.
  7. Shultz wrote in his memoir: “At 2:00 P.M., I went over to see President Reagan, having in hand a careful summary and preliminary analysis of Gorbachev’s proposal. The Soviets had moved conceptually in the president’s direction by advocating big reductions. But we faced a real dilemma. At the Geneva summit, President Reagan had made a comment to Gorbachev, which I had later called to his and McFarlane’s attention. Although I had not been present, I had read the interpreter’s notes of the president’s one-on-one conversation with Gorbachev in front of the fire in the pool house at Fleur d’Eau: if there was agreement that there would be no need for nuclear missiles, then one might agree that there would also be no need for defenses against them. The president said at first that he had never made the statement. But here was Gorbachev, in this letter, calling for the elimination of nuclear missiles and a related end to SDI. Gorbachev knew that we could not agree to his formulations, but in setting them out, he had accepted the fundamental concept of massive reductions in nuclear arms that was central to the president’s agenda. I said to President Reagan, ‘This is our first indication that the Soviets are interested in a staged program toward zero. We should not simply reject their proposal, since it contains certain steps which we earlier set forth.’ The president agreed. ‘Why wait until the end of the century for a world without nuclear weapons?’ he asked. He recalled that he had, in fact, made that statement to Gorbachev in the pool house at Fleur d’Eau. I wanted to get the president’s initial reaction out to the public immediately. Otherwise, we would leave the stage entirely to Gorbachev. Again, he agreed. He put out word that he welcomed the Soviet proposal and would study it carefully. And the next day he said in response to questions, ‘We’re grateful for the offer. . . . It’s just about the first time that anyone has ever proposed actually eliminating nuclear weapons.’ He smiled when I later reminded him of the many times he had publicly and privately said that his dream was to see a world free of nuclear weapons.” (Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, p. 700)
  8. On January 15, the White House released the following statement: “In 1983 at the Japanese Diet, I called for the total abolition of nuclear weapons. Since that time the United States has put forward a series of proposals to achieve this goal through radical reductions in strategic weapons. As early as 1981, I set forth a specific proposal for the elimination of all long-range intermediate nuclear missiles. At the Geneva arms control talks in November, we made yet another proposal designed to bring us closer to the goal of zero nuclear weapons. Now the Soviet Union has responded with a proposal which builds on some of the elements we had previously set forth. I welcome the Soviets’ latest response and hope that it represents a helpful further step in the process. We, together with our allies, will give careful study to General Secretary Gorbachev’s suggestions. Many elements contained in the response are unchanged from previous Soviet positions and continue to cause us serious concern. There are others that at first glance may be constructive. The American delegation in Geneva has instructions to implement the agreement reached at the Geneva summit to seek early progress in achieving radical reductions in offensive nuclear weapons, including an interim agreement on intermediate-range nuclear forces. If the position outlined by General Secretary Gorbachev advances this objective, it would prove to be a constructive step.” (Public Papers: Reagan, 1986, Book I, p. 58)
  9. Printed from a copy with this typed signature.