3. Memorandum From John Lenczowski of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (McFarlane)1


The basic lesson behind any transfer of power in the Kremlin—including the election of Mikhail Gorbachev to the post of General Secretary—is that the United States must continue to conduct our defense policy toward the USSR with the same caution and prudence as we have been. In spite of the fact that we have a new face, we will be dealing with a quintessential Communist Party man, whose ability to exercise his own individual political predilections is severely constrained by the control mechanisms built into the Soviet system.

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The very fact of a new face, however, tempts many Americans—and most importantly, members of Congress—to believe that a new General Secretary has similar latitude for individual decision-making as does an American President. From this assumption comes the further assumption that it is within Gorbachev’s power to change radically the character of Soviet policy toward the West. Hence, such a line of thought tends to conclude that if only American diplomacy is skillful enough, we should be able to reconstitute the basic nature of U.S.-Soviet relations. Needless to say, although such thinking is not often so directly articulated, it puts much of the onus of better relations on the President. The fact that Gorbachev is a member of the new generation and gives the appearance of a smooth, pragmatic, non-ideological “moderate” tends to reinforce such public perceptions all the more. And Gorbachev’s performance in England, which exemplifies the situation we face, led ineluctably to public commentaries implying the existence of “hawks” and “doves” or “Stalinists and moderates” in the Kremlin.2 This theme, of course, echoes the principal Soviet disinformation theme—that there are real communists and non-communists in the Kremlin and that therefore, if Gorbachev is indeed a non-communist, then Soviet global objectives will no longer be unlimited.

Although there are indications of a healthy, skeptical “let’s wait and see” attitude in the initial public commentary here, this generational succession still does present us not only with a very significant political challenge to deal with an ongoing problem of misunderstanding, but with a major opportunity to educate the public about the USSR and communism in a way that can assist our defense policy.

Because of the considerable limits on the latitude of individual decisionmaking, it is not at all clear that the generational change in the Soviet leadership will mean significant changes in Soviet policy. As part of the new generation, Gorbachev is more likely to be inclined to take Soviet power for granted than were his predecessors. He has been an integral part of the political leadership which presided over major doctrinal reformulations which asserted superpower status for the USSR in the world—a status whose legitimacy is based largely on an uninterrupted flow of international successes, including the continued accretion of military power.3

Among these doctrinal reformulations was the acknowledgement that both the East European satellites as well as the domestic Soviet [Page 6] population are vulnerable to external ideological subversion. The outgrowth of this reformulation was not only the Brezhnev Doctrine but a new and determined effort to ensure ideological conformity within the Soviet system: hence the constant emphasis in recent years on successful counterpropaganda. Insofar as the Andropov internal discipline campaign was a function of such concerns and insofar as Gorbachev was associated with it, we can anticipate that its general thrust may well continue under his regime. This should not bode well for the general human rights situation in the USSR.

In his capacity as Party Secretary for Agriculture, Gorbachev has demonstrated an inclination toward minor reforms—such as increased production incentives. Although the forms by which such incentives would be offered might differ from previous mechanisms, none appear to be radical enough to change the basic collectivist nature of the agricultural economy.

Although his prodigious rise to power would appear to imply Gorbachev’s ability to wield great power personally, this career advance is largely attributable to his skill at consensus politics and “Party-mindedness.” This does imply, however, his considerable skill at conducting policy deliberately, strategically and methodically—on the basis of a well-honed assessment of the internal “correlation of forces” and respect for the sensibilities of fellow Party leaders. This can only suggest that his regime will be not only a formidable opponent to the United States, but also sensitive to, and realistic about, the indices of American strength and weakness. Thus, requisite indications of our military and moral strength will be respected and can reasonably be expected to restrain Soviet adventurism.

Steve Sestanovich and Ty Cobb concur.4


That you include the above points in your breakfast conversation with Secretaries Shultz and Weinberger.5

  1. Source: Reagan Library, John Lenczowski Files, NSC Files, Chron File March 1985; NLR–324–11–69–2–2. Confidential. Sent for action. An unknown hand crossed out the subject line with black marker. Poindexter wrote in the margin: “Everybody agrees with this analysis. JP.” According to another copy of the memorandum, the subject line reads: “Shultz-Weinberger-McFarlane Breakfast: Implications of the Gorbachev Election.” (Reagan Library, Tyrus Cobb Files, Country File, USSR (1); NLR–98–4–50–1–3)
  2. In December 1984, Gorbachev traveled to England where he met with Prime Minster Thatcher and addressed the British Parliament. For the text of his December 18, 1984, speech, see Documents on Disarmament, 1984, pp. 882–888. See also Foreign Relations, 1981–1988, vol. IV, Soviet Union, January 1983–March 1985, Document 334, footnote 3.
  3. McFarlane made a marking in the margin at the end of this paragraph.
  4. Lenczowski initialed for Sestanovich and Cobb above their typed names.
  5. McFarlane approved the recommendation and wrote “Thanks, John” above the recommendation.