5. Telegram From the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State1

3137. S/S only for clearance. Subject: Memcon, Gorbachev Meeting of March 13.

1. Secret entire text.

2. Following is draft memcon of March 13 Gorbachev meeting prepared by State Department interpreter Dimitri Arensburger. Begin text.


Subject: Meeting with General Secretary Gorbachev After Chernenko Funeral

Date: March 13, 1985

Time: 9:55 p.m. to 11:25 p.m.

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Place: The Kremlin, Moscow



The Vice President

Secretary George P. Shultz

Ambassador Arthur A. Hartman

Mr. Dimitri Arensburger (Interpreter)


General Secretary of the CC CPSU Mikhail Gorbachev

Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko

Mr. Andrey Aleksandrov-Agentov

Mr. Viktor Sukhodrev (Interpreter)

3. On behalf of the entire Soviet leadership, General Secretary Gorbachev wanted to thank the U.S. participants for paying their respects on behalf of the U.S. Government to the late General Secretary Chernenko. He especially wanted to thank President Reagan, the Vice President, and Secretary Shultz for honoring Chernenko. Gorbachev was aware that the President, along with Secretary Shultz, had visited the Soviet Embassy in Washington and had signed the condolence book. The Soviet side had taken due note of this.

4. Gorbachev continued that it was natural for U.S. officials to wonder what might change with the departure of one General Secretary and the appointment of a new one. The U.S. should proceed from the premise that there would be continuity in both the domestic and foreign policy of the USSR, as had been reaffirmed two days ago at the plenum of the Party Central Committee. Since the present conversation was being held between the representatives of two great powers, Gorbachev wanted to say on behalf of the Soviet leadership that in the future, too, the USSR would pursue an active and constructive foreign policy, cognizant of the USSR’s role as a great power. (Noting the chimes of an antique clock in the room, Gorbachev remarked that the clock was old and was not intended to serve as any kind of signal). Gorbachev went on to say that the Soviet side had set a meeting time which would permit the participants to hold an exchange of views and enable them to get to know each other.

5. Referring to extensive typed notes, Gorbachev continued that in global terms the Soviet side proceeded from the premise that the task before us was to assist all countries in improving the international situation. This included creating conditions for promoting economic ties and furthering exchanges in the fields of culture, technological achievements, and so forth. As for the place assigned to the U.S. within the foreign policy of the USSR, it had previously been set forth by [Page 10] Soviet officials. Gorbachev also assumed that Gromyko had discussed this during his meetings in Washington with the President and the Vice President.2 The Soviet Union attached major importance to its relations with the U.S. Foreign Minister Gromyko added that he had also addressed this matter with Secretary Shultz in Geneva in January.3

6. Gorbachev continued that the USSR had no territorial claims against the U.S., not even with respect to Alaska. Gromyko noted that Alaska had indeed belonged to Russia at one time; moreover, there was even a Russian Hill in San Francisco and a number of Russian churches in the San Francisco area. Gorbachev continued that the Soviet Union had no desire to achieve military superiority over the U.S.; it had no intention of infringing on legitimate U.S. interests. At present we had a major opportunity for cooperation.

7. Gorbachev recalled that there had been periods of such cooperation in the past. Specifically, the Soviet side frequently recalled the World War II period when the two countries had been able to cooperate, differences in their political systems and ideologies notwithstanding. Gromyko added that this had been a bright page in the history of Soviet-U.S. relations; moreover, it had occurred under wartime conditions. Gorbachev continued that it was especially appropriate to recall that cooperation now when we were approaching the 40th anniversary of the victory. Gorbachev also wanted to recall a later time, the late 60’s and 70’s, when the two states had found it possible to cooperate to the benefit of international relations in general, and relations in Europe in particular. He pointed to the Helsinki Final Act, as well as the 1972 nuclear arms control agreements and others. That was a time when our economic, technical and cultural relations began to develop extensively. Now we have to begin everything anew.

8. Gorbachev could tell the Vice President that the USSR had never intended to fight the U.S. and did not have such intentions now. There had never been such madmen within the Soviet leadership, and there were none now. So what was the problem, he asked rhetorically; why were Soviet-U.S. relations so exacerbated at present? It would seem that both countries should be able to establish proper relations and adopt proper policies in the international arena, provided that the leadership of each recognizes the realities as they exist in the world today. It was appropriate to note in this connection that the situation had changed radically compared to the 1950’s for example. The international arena now included dozens of new countries, each of which had [Page 11] its own interests and aspirations. No one, not even the USSR and U.S., could fail to take this into account.

9. Whether we liked it or not, Gorbachev continued, we have to learn to base our relations on these realities in the world. The interpretation of these realities affected the formulation and implementation of foreign policy. Gorbachev suggested that this subject deserved some thought. Why, he asked rhetorically, was he saying this? Because numerous statements were being made by very highly placed U.S. officials which attempted to explain events in various countries on various continents, i.e., events involving changes of a political nature when the people of a given nation were exercising their sovereign right to determine their own course—and of course every individual desired vigorous development and well-being—as being simply the result of Moscow’s mischief-making. Moscow would seem to be almighty, it seemed to have its hand everywhere. This was being used as the basis for setting policy, for establishing relations, and for determining the positions to be adopted on various issues. Whether we liked it or not, we lived in the real world and both the USSR and U.S. had to take this real world into account. Gorbachev repeated that these realities had to be taken into account in formulating foreign policy.

10. Gorbachev continued that the USSR had no expansionist ambitions. It had all the resources it would need for centuries, be it in terms of manpower, natural resources or territory. He thought it was Palmerston who had said that Great Britain had no permanent enemies and no permanent friends, only permanent interests. This quote had come up during Gorbachev’s discussion with Prime Minister Thatcher.4 It seemed to him that if Great Britain had permanent interests, the same could be expected to apply to the U.S., the USSR, Mozambique, Brazil, Nicaragua, and everyone else. If there was a desire to establish healthy relations, one could not rely on the concept that might made right. The USSR would object to anyone adopting such an approach and would assess it accordingly. It seemed to him that these remarks contained the crux of our different approaches to the world’s realities. After all, Gorbachev continued, the Soviet Union believed that it was strictly up to the people of the U.S. to determine their economic policy, their political system, to select their President, their Vice President and their Secretary of State. In the same way, it was up to the Soviet people to make such decisions on behalf of the USSR and the USSR would never permit anyone to teach it how to govern the Soviet Union. This led to one important conclusion: There was no alternative to peaceful [Page 12] coexistence. As to the question of which was the better system, this was something for history to judge.

11. The foregoing constituted the first part of his somewhat extensive remarks which he had wanted to express by way of thinking out loud. At this first meeting between us, he had wanted to present the Soviet side’s views in a more comprehensive fashion.

12. Gorbachev went on to say that the second problem at this time—a problem that was particularly important and timely and had a direct bearing on the future relationship between the USSR and U.S.—involved disarmament and ending the arms race. Negotiations have now begun in Geneva. He wanted to tell the Vice President that the Soviet Union was approaching them very seriously. The USSR hoped that these negotiations would produce genuine results. Aside from everything else, Gorbachev continued, the two countries had now reached a point in their arms build-up when any new breakthroughs resulting from the scientific and technological revolution—not to mention shifting the arms race to space—could set in motion irreversible and uncontrollable processes. Let the delegations in Geneva discuss the details. Gorbachev wanted to convey only one thought at this important meeting: Why were people in the U.S., including some participants of the present meeting, taking such a somber view of these negotiations? These negotiations are being depicted as requiring years and years. This makes one wonder about U.S. intentions with regard to these negotiations. Are they to be eternal? And beyond that, is the U.S. side really interested in these negotiations, is it interested in achieving results? Or does the U.S. find these negotiations necessary in order to pursue its programs for continuing the arms race, for developing ever new types of arms, in order to enforce discipline on its allies and—to put it crudely—to tell those who are advocating disarmament to “shut up?” Could that be the purpose of engaging in these negotiations?

13. The Soviet side would hope that the U.S. would take due note of the seriousness with which the USSR is approaching these negotiations, its desire for concrete results. The opportunity for progress should not be missed if there is a genuine interest in such results. On the other hand, it would be nothing but a pipedream, nothing but adverturism, for the U.S. to follow the advice of various experts about wearing down and weakening the USSR economically, reducing its role in the world. The USSR had been able to find appropriate responses in times more difficult than the present. The USSR could find an appropriate response. But would actions along such lines constitute statesmanship?

14. There was a time, Gorbachev continued, when the Soviet Union had been accused of lowering an iron curtain, but today it appeared [Page 13] that the U.S. was lowering an iron curtain to seal itself off from the USSR. Contacts between the two countries have been curtailed, technology can be transferred only with the express approval of the President, trade is not permitted. This was a strange policy indeed. The Soviet Union wanted to live in peace with the U.S., it wanted to cooperate, even to be friends with the people of the U.S. The people of the USSR had much respect for the people of the U.S. and for their achievements, but the Soviet people could not understand U.S. attitudes and U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. This was beyond the comprehension of the Soviet people.

15. Thus, Gorbachev concluded, what sort of relations will the two countries pursue in the future? Were we going to resort to the press in order to exchange views and assessments, or were we going to do this at the political level, giving an impetus to better relations between our two countries?

16. The Vice President thanked Gorbachev for his comments. To begin with, he again wanted officially to extend condolences to the Soviet people upon the death of Chernenko and to thank Gorbachev for the many courtesies extended to the Vice Presidential party. This was the end of a very long day but he wished he had all the time in the world in order to explain the overall approach of the President. Yes, this approach was based on strength and realism but, the Vice President wanted to assure Gorbachev, it was also very much based on dialogue. It was not the U.S. intention to threaten the Soviet Union, though we were determined to protect U.S. interests. The Vice President had carefully noted Gorbachev’s remarks and wanted to assure him that we had no aspirations of dictating how to administer the Soviet Union. This was the farthest thing from our thoughts.

17. The Vice President handed over to Gorbachev a letter from the President and expressed the hope that Gorbachev would read it carefully.5 The President was ready for real give-and-take, and was serious in saying that he was prepared for a meeting at the earliest convenient opportunity. A former U.S. President, Abraham Lincoln, had once said that we must think anew; Gorbachev had said that we must start anew. The U.S. was interested in both.

18. Turning to arms control, the Vice President noted that the two sides had made a basic beginning. It seemed to the Vice President that some progress had been made during the meeting between the President and Gromyko when a mutual ideal goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons had been established. We did not have any aspirations for superiority, nor did we want the talks to continue endlessly to [Page 14] enable us to engage in other activities. We were serious in our approach. The message the Vice President wanted to convey was that we hoped for progress and results of a positive nature.

19. Turning to regional issues, the Vice President noted that the Soviet side had mentioned Nicaragua, while we have raised Afghanistan on previous occasions. The Vice President could say that we were ready for dialogue and he thought that cooperation was possible. A major area in which the Soviet Union could play a constructive role involved Ethiopian relief efforts.

20. Addressing bilateral programs, the Vice President noted that some progress was underway on programs involving housing, environment, and trade. But he agreed that more could be done here. One specific example would be an agreement on Pacific air safety which would be a big step forward. He thought that this was possible.

21. The Vice President went on to say that we knew the Soviet Union’s views on human rights. But he asked Gorbachev to understand that this issue was extremely important to the President and the American people. Progress was important on the question of Jewish emigration, persecution of Hebrew teachers, and treatment of dissidents. The Vice President would repeat names mentioned by us before: Shcharansky, Sakharov, Begun, and Orlov. This matter was very, very important in the United States. The Vice President again appealed to the Soviet leadership to understand our position. He hoped that we could start anew in this regard. Moreover, we wanted to approach and discuss this matter consistent with the spirit and letter of the Helsinki Accords.

22. Gorbachev interjected that generally speaking he would agree to think about appointing rapporteurs on human rights in order to discuss the human rights issue. The Soviet Union would have something to say about human rights in the Soviet Union and human rights in the U.S. After all, the U.S. violates human rights not only on its own territory but also beyond its borders, it disregards the human rights not only of individuals but of entire nations and countries, it brutally represses human rights. Just a few minutes ago we were talking about not teaching each other how to manage one’s own affairs. But, to repeat, if necessary we could establish a forum and have rapporteurs to demonstrate to the U.S. administration and the U.S. population how things stand with human rights in the U.S. and how the U.S. administration deals with that problem abroad, i.e., how the U.S. treats the human rights of entire countries and continents. Still, Gorbachev did not think that this was an appropriate subject for discussion between our two states. Every time there was a meeting involving our two countries, the U.S. proceeded to raise these questions. Thank God there was socialism because with socialism even the people of capitalist countries had gained more rights.

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23. The Vice President replied that in his view it would be useful if we could speak about these things. He wished there were time to do it now. He would be glad to present our problems and to hear out the Soviet side. Perhaps we could thereby make progress. Based on what Gorbachev had said, there would seem to be much misunderstanding of our position. According to Gorbachev, the U.S. misunderstood the Soviet side. He would leave the subject by noting that it would be appropriate to talk about it.

24. In conclusion, the Vice President wanted to note that both he and Secretary Shultz had participated in World War II. We recognized the Soviet sacrifices during the war, but we wanted to look ahead rather than backward, we wanted to emphasize the themes of peace and reconciliation. Furthermore, we did not want to overturn any post-war understandings. Rather, we wanted to see them faithfully implemented.

25. The Vice President assured Gorbachev that we wanted to make real progress. He was saying this with great conviction. The President liked to say that it was better to talk to each other rather than about each other. He wanted to make a start in that direction. While we could not counter every wild voice in the country, we did want, to use Gorbachev’s words, to start anew.

26. Secretary Shultz said that just before departing Washington for Moscow he had sat down with the President for a long discussion of what should be said at the present meeting because the President views this moment as being very important.6 The President and Secretary Shultz had reviewed relations between the two countries and had discussed the conversation between the President and Gromyko, who was held in high esteem in the U.S. and whose words had made a big impact on the President—especially Gromyko’s use of imagery. Gromyko had referred to piles of arms which both the President and Gromyko had agreed should be reduced. The President, too, was a colorful speaker. The President and Secretary Shultz had also reviewed the meeting with Mr. Shcherbitsky, who had left a powerful impression in the U.S.

27. At the conclusion of the pre-departure meeting with the President, the latter, by way of a summary, had asked Secretary Shultz to look Gorbachev squarely in the eyes like a man, and to say the following: The President believes that this is a very special moment in the history of mankind. Gorbachev was starting his term as General Secretary. Mr. Reagan was starting his second term as President. Negotiations were beginning in Geneva. Over the past year we had found [Page 16] solutions to some problems, though not great problems, and if it was at all possible, we must establish a more constructive relationship between the U.S. and USSR. The President had asked Secretary Shultz to convey to Gorbachev his view that in order to achieve success he personally must work very hard and that he was ready to do so. To resort to Gorbachev’s words which Secretary Shultz had almost used himself, the negotiators in Geneva could discuss details and there certainly were many of them, but only people like those present here and like the President could resolve the main issues. The President was ready to work with Gorbachev. Thus, in his letter he was inviting Gorbachev to visit the U.S. as our guest at the earliest convenient time. The President believed that a letter from someone was one thing, but a personality with whom one could deal was something entirely different. For that reason, the President very much wanted to sit down with Gorbachev and review the over-all state of our relations and discuss arms control issues. The President felt that if important agreements could be found, the sooner this was done, the better. The President viewed this as a historic moment. These were the sentiments the President had asked Secretary Shultz to convey to Gorbachev, looking him in the eyes like a man.

28. Gorbachev suggested that the exchange of views had indicated the usefulness of this discussion. The Vice President agreed. Gorbachev continued that while he did not wish to offend diplomats—and Gromyko and Secretary Shultz were not true diplomats because they had other responsibilities as well, thus the only true diplomat present was Ambassador Hartman—it was most useful, he thought, that this conversation had been held not in the language of diplomacy but in the language of politics. Leaving aside the question of human rights which somehow had appeared, one could say that this exchange of views had been important and had included serious considerations which required thought. The USSR would welcome it if the comments made today by the Vice President and the words of the President, as related by Secretary Shultz, about a kind of unique moment, were to be put to good use in order to return Soviet-U.S. relations to a normal channel, and if such sentiments were serious. Gorbachev promised to study carefully the President’s letter and to think about what had been said here today.

29. Gorbachev concluded by saying that he was pleased to have met his U.S. interlocutors because he believed it was necessary to know each other, to find time for meetings to discuss outstanding problems, and to seek ways to bring the two countries closer together. The Soviet side did not advocate confrontation. It did advocate an improvement of Soviet-U.S. relations. Of course, if the U.S. Government were to set itself the goal of using one or another important issue to outflank the [Page 17] USSR or to attain unilateral advantage, that would hardly promote better relations. The Soviet Union advocated an honest dialogue which properly took into account the “ranking” of our two countries and of the officials leading these two countries.

30. The Vice President thanked Gorbachev for the opportunity to meet with him and mentioned that he would be holding a press conference at which he would not reveal the substance of the conversation but would characterize it as useful.7 Gromyko concurred that the press should be told it was positive and useful. End text.

31. No distribution without approval of Charles Hill.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, [no N number]. Secret; Immediate; Nodis. In telegram Tosec 50092/77674 to Shultz’s aircraft, March 14, the Department repeated the text of telegram 3137. (Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, Electronic Telegrams, N850004–0009) Under a March 19 covering memorandum to Gregg, Platt attached a copy of telegram 3137 and wrote: “Attached for your review is a copy of the interpreter’s full verbatim notes of the Vice President’s March 13 meeting with General Secretary Gorbachev.” (Reagan Library, George Shultz Papers, 1985 Soviet Union February) In his personal notes on March 15, Dam commented that it was Shultz’s first day back from Moscow and that Dam “joined in a meeting where he gave his impressions of the trip to Moscow and particularly his impressions of Gorbachev. He was favorably impressed with Gorbachev, who struck him as a self-confident and competent politician who was businesslike in manner. On the other hand, the Secretary does not feel that anything is likely to change very fast as a result of this change in personalities.” (Department of State, Executive Secretariat, S/S–I Records, Deputy Secretary Dam’s Official Files: Lot 85D308, Personal Notes of Deputy Secretary—Kenneth W. Dam—Oct. 1984–June 1985)
  2. See footnote 2, Document 1.
  3. See footnote 2, Document 4.
  4. See footnote 2, Document 3.
  5. See Document 1.
  6. See Document 2.
  7. For the transcript of Bush’s press conference, see Department of State Bulletin, May 1985, pp. 18–19.