248. Mock Memorandum From Soviet Foreign Policy Assistant Chernyayev to Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev1


  • U.S. Policy and Our Dilemma: The SDI Issue

You will recall that I promised in my memorandum of June 9 to follow up the general assessment by our group with a more detailed discussion of the particular issues.2 We started with SDI, and frankly, I wish we hadn’t. I apologize that it took more than the two days I initially thought. The truth is that, when we went from the general to the particular, most of our consensus vanished. The decibel level of our deliberations rose at times to alarming magnitudes, and unfortunately Svyatoslav is going to be out of action for a while. The doctors in the Kremlin hospital managed to set his broken jaw, but what with the bruises on his face and his dislocated shoulder, we thought it better that he not show up for a while. The bright side is that when he can talk again he probably won’t be making cracks like “The only thing wrong with the American strike on Libya is that they didn’t get Qaddafi.” Candor is candor, but there are limits. (And don’t worry about the security aspects. As always, they are uppermost in our minds and we’re spreading the story that his wife caught him with Ludmila. Anyone who knows his wife and knows Ludmila is bound to believe it!)

What follows is a summary of the conflicting opinions that were voiced. Since we couldn’t get agreement, all we can do is throw the problems in your lap—and recommend a course of action that may give us further clues as to what the Americans are really after.

American Objectives in SDI

The attempt to stop the American SDI program has been such a prominent part of our propaganda that we need to take a hard look to see if your predecessors were right in saddling you with that stance. [Page 1017] If we look back to the fall of 1983 when the decision was made to do this, the reason was that Reagan’s speech that spring scared the pants off some of our marshals. They said, “We don’t know what he’s up to, but if he pulls it off, there go down the drain two decades of sacrifice to build the greatest ICBM force in the world. We won’t even be a second rate power.”

Of course, this was at the same time the Americans were getting ready to put their Pershings in Europe—weapons which could be landing in your office three or four minutes after our radar sees them coming. (Given the way communications work around here, that would probably be about a half hour before it occurred to the guys who watch the radar screens to let you know what was coming—they would assume their equipment was faulty.) And it was just a few months after the “Evil Empire” speech, when Reagan openly set the goal to wipe us out. It was not unreasonable to suppose that this was part of a master plan: put Pershing II’s in Europe to wipe out our national command authority, deploy the MX and D–5 to take care of our silos, then put up an impregnable defense. Zippo: end of the “Evil Empire.”

We’ve had three years now to look at things more carefully, and though some of us are still convinced that this scenario is the correct one, it really has a lot of holes in it. None of us really know what Regan’s intentions are, so we must look at the objective facts. Some of the relevant ones are as follows:

—None of our scientists think the Americans have a hope of deploying an impregnable defense in the foreseeable future. Even if they develop parts of a system to provide some defense, they couldn’t test the full system under realistic conditions, which means that they couldn’t rely on it for immunity if they were to launch a first strike.

—Our military agree that an impregnable defense is not possible, but worry that the Americans are up to something else. If they could protect their missiles better, they could get the edge on us with all the new systems they have coming. Also, the whole program could be a cover for developing exotic space-based offensive weapons.

For example, some projects could produce very dangerous offensive technologies. The Americans have been working on an X-ray laser just as we have, and although our scientists are not making much progress, we cannot be sure the Americans won’t solve the problem if they keep trying. Some of our people think the whole SDI program is an elaborate cover for this research. They point out that although Reagan talks about abolishing nuclear weapons, this project has to use a nuclear device. And if it ever works, they would orbit that device in space. So this makes clear that whatever Reagan tells you about the defensive character of SDI, he is not really sincere. (By the way, our [Page 1018] people also think that the research on the X-ray laser is the real reason the Americans won’t join us in a nuclear testing moratorium.)

—There are also puzzles in the way SDI has been handled in the U.S. If the Americans are really serious about the program as they have described it, why would they talk about it so much? They didn’t tell the world they were developing the atomic bomb. They built it in complete secrecy, then dropped it on the Japanese. We do the same with serious weapons systems, as does every other responsible power.

Yuri, the fellow who just came back from our Embassy in Washington, tried to persuade us that the Americans talk a lot about their military programs because the President has to get funds out of Congress. Of course, he didn’t convince the rest of us, because we know that the President can get what he wants when he really wants it. He runs it as a “black” program, like he’s doing with “Stealth.” (I’d suggest we take a closer look at the people we send to Washington—some of them come back with the most absurd ideas. Is Chebrikov sure that the CIA didn’t set up a Swiss bank account for Yuri, to pay him for the disinformation he spreads here?)

—In fact, Congress is just a cover for conducting propaganda campaigns for other purposes. For example, who in his right mind would believe an American President has to mount a public campaign to get a measly hundred mil for the contras? That’s not enough to buy a year’s supply of toilet paper for the Pentagon. (It may surprise you that Americans spend real money on such non-essentials. They could save by giving everyone a subscription to Pravda and letting them use it the way we do, but, no—they’re too soft for that!) Anyway, if the point were to help the contras, the President would just give them a couple of billion and shut up about it. Instead, we get this public campaign, which is clearly designed just to make us look bad, and to put you on the spot with the old-timers here. The object in all the SDI propaganda may be the same, but we can’t be sure.

—Part of the answer may be the U.S. military-industrial complex. A lot of scientists, technicians and business firms are feeding at the SDI trough. The more funds, the more jobs and the more profits. You understand all this very well, and I thought you were very clever to let Reagan know you are on to this game when you met him in Geneva. It caught him so much by surprise that he forgot to point out that the whole Soviet Union is a military-industrial complex! Still, I don’t suppose he thinks we are an agricultural-industrial complex, so maybe you better not try this line again. Just as well to stop while you are ahead.

As you can see, these considerations pull in a lot of different directions, and there are at least four ways they can be explained.

[Page 1019]

American Motivations: Four Theories in Search of Reality

Theory A: The American SDI program is just a propaganda effort, with no likely military impact.

Evidence in favor:

(1) The high-profile political campaign, which implies a lack of seriousness in building a working system.

(2) The fact that this propaganda enables Reagan to pose as a champion of eliminating nuclear weapons, while still building up his nuclear forces.

(3) Many U.S. military officers are dubious about SDI and give it little support.

(4) Reagan’s offer to “share” the system—which no one can take seriously—is consistent with a purely propaganda approach.

(5) Pressure on American Allies to participate in the research implies at least two things: (a) that the U.S. is not about to develop a workable system (if they were, they would not tell anyone), and (b) they are using it as a tool to control technology developments in Allied countries—i.e., their objectives are political and economic, not military.

Evidence against:

(1) The U.S. research effort seems to be making some progress. Their ten-year lead in computers gives them a great advantage.

(2) They usually accomplish what they set out to do, even if it seems impossible at the start (take the goal of putting a man on the moon!). It would be foolhardy to discount American technology.

(3) Even a partially effective system used to protect American nuclear installations could give the Americans an edge if they get it first.

Theory B: SDI is a cover for development of some other military system.

Evidence in favor:

(1) All the evidence in favor of Theory A would support this one as well.

(2) Public attention to SDI distracts attention from other programs which could be more immediately threatening to us (Stealth, for example, and Lenin only knows what else.)

(3) Much research carried out under the SDI rubric could be applied to offensive systems.

Evidence against:

(1) The program seems to be structured to achieve its declared purpose.

(2) If it were merely a cover for something else, the American negotiating position would not be so rigid, since they could distract attention from other programs for a long time just by negotiating on SDI.

(3) President Reagan is totally dedicated to the program in its most extreme form (a “space shield”).

Theory C: The whole purpose of the program is to force us to ruin our economy to gear up to match them. When we have committed [Page 1020] billions to the effort, they will just drop the whole thing like they did the supersonic passenger plane and leave us holding the bag.

Evidence for:

Consistent with propagandistic approach.

Evidence against:

Program looks serious, as noted.

Theory D: The program is exactly what the Americans say it is, but while the President genuinely views it as defensive, others intend to use it as part of an offensive strategy, and if successful it would provide that capability.


Impossible to prove either way, but this is potentially the most threatening of the scenarios.

Policy Implications

It is impossible to devise a policy which deals simultaneously with all these contingencies. If this is just an effort to take us in, we would be foolish to over-react—but then we have probably already done this. If it is a serious military challenge, then we have to find ways to counter it militarily, but it is not immediately obvious what these ways could be. The things we have talked about—just building more ICBMs and going flat out to develop our own system might be the worst option of all since it would strain our economy and probably make it impossible to turn it around as you have recognized is necessary. If we do this, we may well be falling into a clever and well laid American trap.

Your task is to find a way to handle the issue in order to achieve the following objectives:

(a) Get the marshals off your back with their demands for increasing their funding by an additional ten percent. (We are going to have trouble over this five-year-plan scraping up their usual 4% annual increment without further ruining the economy.)

(b) Preserve the political clout that our huge ICBM force gives us. (If people believe that SDI will work, they may stop taking us seriously as a superpower.)

This is a tall order, and the way to do it does not come readily to mind. We may have to just play for time, and hope that Reagan’s successors will kill the program. Settling for an extension of the ABM Treaty probably would not affect the American program, but would give us an argument to use with our tin hats, particularly if we could put tight restrictions on the U.S. program. Actually, as we negotiate, we might get some further insight into which of the various theories I have mentioned is the right one.

Regarding the American negotiating objective, they clearly want us to agree to revising the ABM Treaty to legitimize SDI and give them [Page 1021] a totally free hand. It would be most dangerous for us to go along with this; we would end up at a disadvantage no matter how you look at it. In this connection, I am sure that you will not be deluded by Reagan’s offers to “share” the American system. For all I know, he may be sincere, but this is irrelevant. He won’t be President when the question arises, and even if the U.S. were bound by a treaty to share it, you know very well that our clowns couldn’t make it work. And besides, are we expected to depend on the Americans for spare parts?

So, finally, in my judgment, the least we can settle for and protect our minimal requirements is an extension of the ABM Treaty until Reagan is no longer in office. I doubt that we can get much more out of the Americans, and we shouldn’t cut our ICBMs very much for that. But at least it would kick this SDI can down the road and give us time to assess whether it is a real threat or not, and maybe come up with some ideas as to how to deal with it.

If this doesn’t work, we may have no option except to build a few hundred more ICBMs. We don’t really need them, but that would certainly panic the U.S. Allies, and could eventually bring fatal pressure to bear on SDI in the U.S. Congress.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Jack Matlock Files, Chronological File, 1980–1986, Matlock Chron June 1986 (6/6). Top Secret; Eyes Only General Secretary. Reagan initialed the memorandum, indicating he saw it. Matlock wrote this fictitious memorandum to reflect his assessment of possible thinking within the Soviet leadership. In a covering note to Reagan, Poindexter explained: “Mr. President, Here is Jack Matlock’s latest assessment of Soviet thinking on SDI. John.” Reagan replied: “He [Matlock] should run for General Sec. RR.”
  2. See Document 240.