236. Memorandum From Secretary of State Shultz to President Reagan1


  • U.S.-Soviet Relations

I am convinced that we are approaching a fork in the road for your Presidency and for American security over the next decade, and perhaps beyond. You have a choice to make. So does Gorbachev. You should take the initiative to lead him in the right direction.

We have seen enough of Soviet behavior since the summit to make an educated guess that Gorbachev’s strategy in the months ahead will be a sophisticated mixture of two elements: playing a propaganda game to influence trends in the U.S. and Europe; and probing for opportunities to reach agreements.

Gorbachev almost certainly is being counseled by some to play for time. He and his advisors follow us closely and are aware of the elements working against us—reduced budgets, Congressional pressure on security issues from chemical weapons to critical R&D such as SDI, Allied divisions over your strong medicine on Libya and the SALT treaties. These trends will tempt him to wait out your Presidency and hope that your successor will be less resolute or less popular, and thus be less able to drive a tough bargain. All the Soviets need to do to carry off this strategy is appear as reasonable as they can and advance proposals designed to erode Western unity and public support for our foreign policy and defense objectives.

At the same time, such a course poses tough problems for Gorbachev. He clearly places top priority on invigorating the Soviet economy, and military spending stands in his way. Politically, he knows that you are a President who can deliver. Thus, if a reasonable deal is available, it makes sense for him to strike it with you. Finally, there [Page 970] are suggestions that he may in fact be the first Soviet leader to recognize that increasing quantities of nuclear weapons may yield less rather than more security—a thought you planted at Geneva, now reinforced by the Chernobyl accident.

I have reviewed Soviet moves in arms control and other areas of our agenda since the summit. Many are self-serving and propagandistic. Yet taken as a whole, they form a package that is comprehensive and at times dramatic, with elements that seem to involve real efforts to address our concerns. Admittedly, many of these moves might look the same if Gorbachev was simply playing for time. But some—particularly Soviet efforts over the last few weeks to clear up about half of our human rights cases, and the move last week on strategic defenses—have been impressive. The only way to find out if Gorbachev is serious is to put him to the test.

To do so, we need to take care of three pieces of business.

First, we cannot tolerate what is happening to the defense and foreign affairs budgets. We are facing murderous cuts in both. If these occur, it will confirm to Gorbachev that if he stalls, he will get a weaker American defense and foreign policy without paying any price. We have to find a way to restore funding in these areas. This is imperative.

Second, we have to work on the Alliance connection. The Allies are deeply disturbed. Every single minister at Halifax opposed our interim restraint decision. This is not to say that our decision was a mistake, but rather that we have a problem that needs tending.2 Western unity has always been a fundamental advantage in driving forward our agenda with the Soviets. Moreover, friends like Kohl and Mrs. Thatcher have cast their political fate with us, and what we do has a [Page 971] direct bearing on their future. Both are in political trouble; both have told us that reasonable Western positions on arms control are key to their survival. If they go, their successors are unlikely to have the inclination or the steel to carry off, say, an INF deployment. In the 1990s, our key allies would be ruled by weak and recalcitrant governments. The Soviet Union would have an open field.

Third, we have to advance positions that can bring about good agreements, if the Soviets are willing to make realistic bargains.

To strengthen support for our budget, to revitalize Western unity, and to see if good agreements are possible, we need to get back in charge. That means advancing proposals of our own across a broad front, above all at Geneva. It also means that when the Soviets show readiness to deal on our terms, we have to be ready to take yes for an answer.

The recent Soviet move on strategic defenses is just such a moment of truth. For the first time, the Soviets are showing willingness to get to the center of the NST puzzle—the strategic offense/defense relationship.3 We have waited long for such a moment; you worked hard on Gorbachev at Geneva to make him understand this point, telling him that the less offense there is, the less defense might be necessary. By proposing to negotiate deep reductions in offensive arms conditioned on extension of the withdrawal period for the ABM Treaty, Gorbachev is, in effect, calling our bluff on our assurances to him, our Allies, the Congress and the public that we will conduct our SDI research program within the limits of the Treaty. Although the 15–20 year withdrawal period he proposes is too long, the concept of giving substance to our assurances is not unreasonable and, properly applied, one we can accept with no cost to the SDI program. Moreover, because of the strong support in almost all quarters for the ABM Treaty and because of the inducement of possible deep reductions in offensive arms if we will agree to reaffirm the Treaty, our rejection of his proposal would seriously undermine our credibility. It could be especially harmful in Congress, where our commitment to observe the ABM Treaty while research proceeds is crucial to achieving adequate funding for SDI.

[Page 972]

We should take the initiative and propose our own comprehensive solution to the strategic offense/defense problem. This should entail some form of reaffirmation of the Treaty (designed so that future decisions to develop and deploy strategic defenses would not be precluded) and clarification of its provisions, conditioned on Soviet agreement to deep, equitable, and stabilizing cuts in offensive arms. Not only is this essential for getting deep cuts, it strengthens SDI. If the Soviets refuse the proposal, our demonstrated good faith effort to negotiate will bolster support for the program; if the Soviets accept, it will legitimize SDI and make a robust research program the essential guarantee of Soviet compliance with the agreed offensive arms cuts. Either way, this move could be critical to keeping SDI on track in the next Administration.4

  1. Source: Reagan Library, George Shultz Papers, 4D, 1986 Soviet Union June. Secret; Sensitive. According to another copy, the memorandum was drafted by Burton and Stafford on June 2 and cleared by Nitze and Palmer. (Department of State, Ambassador Nitze’s Personal Files 1953, 1972–1989, Lot 90D397, June 1986) A typed notation in the top margin reads: “Hand delivered by the Secretary June 3.” According to the President’s Daily Diary, Reagan met with Shultz on June 3 from 2 to 3:15 p.m. (Reagan Library, President’s Daily Diary) No substantive record of the conversation has been found.
  2. The 77th NATO Ministerial meeting took place in Halifax from May 28 to May 30. On May 27, the White House issued a statement announcing the U.S. decision to end its observance of the unratified SALT II Treaty. For the text, see Public Papers: Reagan, 1986, Book I, pp. 678–681. In his memoir, Shultz wrote that: “In 1985, the president had debated whether he should continue to abide by the limits set out in the unratified SALT II Treaty. The outcome of the debate then was to maintain the policy of staying within the SALT II limits. Practically speaking, we had no operational need to exceed them.” (Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, p. 717) Documentation on the decision is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1981–1988, vol. XLIV, Part 1, National Security Policy, 1985–1988.

    In telegram Secto 10023 from Shultz in Halifax to the White House, May 30, Shultz reported to Reagan: “Predictably the U.S. approach to SALT II was the primary topic in the minds of my colleagues. They regard Cap’s statement that we would violate the SALT II limits by August rather than the end of the year, as a vigorous assault on arms control.” Shultz continued “It is clear, however, that they were uniformly opposed to our decision, with the opposition most vociferous from the British, Canadians and Dutch.” (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, N860006–0097) Weinberger’s statement was presumably made in remarks to reporters before his commencement address at West Point on May 28. (Don Oberdorfer, “U.S. Is ‘No Longer Bound’ by SALT II, Weinberger Says,” Washington Post, May 29, 1986, p. A1)

  3. According to a May 29 memorandum for the files: “Greg Suchan reported this morning that the Soviets made a ‘major’ proposal in the Defense and Space Group Plenary by calling for a 15–20 year commitment to ‘no-withdrawal’ from the ABM Treaty. In two post-plenary conversations— including Karpov-Kampelman—the Soviets stated that the acceptance of this commitment would be sufficient by itself for a 50% reduction in strategic systems.” (Department of State, Ambassador Nitze’s Personal Files 1953, 1972–1989, Lot 90D397, May 1986) See Document 238.
  4. In his memoir, Shultz wrote that during a June 3 meeting with Reagan, it became clear that Reagan “was afraid that any discussion with the Soviets about strategic defense would be used as a way to scuttle SDI. I tried to convince him that we could give up those deployment rights that we could not exercise anyway—we lacked the technical capability—and hold the line there. That would be giving the Soviets the sleeves from our vest! But he remained apprehensive, and we reached no agreement. That evening I called in Paul Nitze. ‘I keep trying to explain to the president that this approach, which you and I have advocated, is the best insurance policy for the continuation of SDI and the best way to make SDI valuable to his successor,’ I told Paul. ‘The question is, are we willing to discuss what the ABM Treaty means? The Soviets have come toward our position. They have moved from saying the ABM Treaty bans any work on SDI, a ridiculous position, to asking us how we might agree that the treaty limits SDI, particularly on deployment rights, in return for an agreement on offensive reductions.’” (Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph, pp. 718–719)