66. Memorandum From Jack Matlock of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (McFarlane)1


  • Reflections on Horowitz Message

My overall reaction to this,2 as well as the plethora of other indirect “messages” we have been getting of late is that this is one helluva way for great powers to communicate (or mis-communicate).

Many of the particulars of this “message” must be treated with great caution for several reasons:

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a. One of the Soviet motivations was doubtless to sow seeds of dissension (or water the growths already present) in our own political system.

b. Even if we discount this factor, we must recognize that Horowitz (who I believe is acting in good faith) is not a specialist on the various issues involved and also is not a stenographer. He may well have missed critical details and in some cases misunderstood the point being made. (For example, there are some inner contradictions in the points made, which may not have been in the original presentation. In particular I do not grasp (and Horowitz could not explain) the contradiction they say they found in the positions Kampelman was said to have taken in Geneva.

c. There is clear and obvious misrepresentation in some of the details given Horowitz (e.g., that the Soviets discussed warhead reductions down to 50% at Geneva).

The Message

Having noted these caveats, however, I believe that in this and other messages we have received, the Soviets are trying to convey to us the impression—either for constructive purposes or for disinformation—the following basic points:

1. Gorbachev needs to come out of the November meeting with a breakthrough on at least some of the key issues as they define them.

2. He is willing to take a hard look at existing Soviet positions, whether they be on Afghanistan, SDI, or the extent of offensive nuclear weapon reduction, but must have something significant in return if he alters the Soviet position.

3. If he doesn’t get this in at least one of the areas they deem critical, he will do all he can to make the meeting seem a failure. (And he knows we know about the SS–20 base construction, therefore can be counted on to grasp the plausibility of the threat to increase the number substantially after November.)

Gorbachev’s Real Position

My hunch is that this basic message is authentic, and not disinformation, although its utility in pressing for unilateral concessions is obvious. I believe it fits with the facts as we know them of Gorbachev’s internal position, and also with the typical way Soviet Russians look at issues. The most salient perceptions which give rise to my hunch are the following:

—It is clear that Gorbachev’s fundamental aim is “to get the country moving again.” He faces an enormous task in this, since it will require replacement of the great majority of personnel in key positions.

—As he proceeds down the road of internal reform of management and leadership style (not of the system itself, which he has no intention [Page 249] of changing), he needs fewer pressures on the international scene, and in particular an excuse to refuse to throw a steadily increasing proportion of investment resources into the military sector. (The question is not whether to cut back—they won’t do that—but only how much more will be required.)

—Imagery is vitally important to him, as a Russian, as a communist, and as the leader of a superpower. He cannot be seen making concessions from a position of weakness.

—Therefore, with all his relative pragmatism (and I believe he has proved to be pragmatic by Soviet standards), he is quite capable of following an irrational course in military terms, just to make a political point. For this reason, I do not believe the SS–20 threat is a bluff. (Whether we need to worry much about it is another question.)

The Specific Issues

With these assumptions in the background, I have the following thoughts on the specific issues raised by Bukin and Velikhov:

1. The reference to the need for an “agreement on the framework of future relations” is a very typical Soviet attitude of trying to find a conceptual framework within which actions can be taken without carrying overtones of compromise with principles. (In formulating them, of course, the Soviets try to derive maximum advantage, but that is a separate matter.)

This compulsion to agree on a theoretical framework first, then proceed to details, is not fundamentally inconsistent with the President’s desire to set an agenda, priorities and map out a game plan for the future. In practice, if the Soviets are willing to proceed in good faith, the two could amount to the same thing. We need to explore this concept further to find out what, precisely, the Soviets have in mind.

2. The comments on CDE and on the four bilateral issues probably do not mean that the Soviets are prepared to agree to our terms. I believe that what they are saying is, “If you want these agreements to announce at the Geneva meeting, that’s OK with us. OK, but not enough.” I think it is clear that they have misinterpreted Secretary Shultz’s “inventory approach” as meaning that we are setting these issues up as candidates for announcement at the Geneva meeting.3 It is important for Shultz to clear up this misunderstanding at Helsinki, and also important for us not to jump to the conclusion that we have a “commitment” that the Soviets will come to terms with our positions. It is entirely possible that they have interpreted what was said as a signal from us that we will come to terms with theirs.

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On the first two points, let me digress with some experiences from the past which shed light on Soviet negotiating behavior. Before each of Nixon’s summits, Kissinger met with Dobrynin—and from time to time with Gromyko and Brezhnev—to settle in principle what would be achieved. In addition to the key issues, a list of “target agreements” was compiled and left to the bureaucracies to negotiate, but with a clear push from the top. As Director of SOV in State, it fell to my lot to coordinate all the negotiations in the non-arms control areas. We always had a White House directive listing the areas in which to seek agreement, and the admonition to “negotiate them on their merits.” But whenever we held in tough on some important points, telephone calls always came from the NSC to “be reasonable.” Usually these were the result of direct appeals from Dobrynin to Kissinger—in a couple of cases Dobrynin actually told me he would “call Henry and see that you are overruled.” (Actually, we never were formally overruled since neither Kissinger nor members of his staff wanted to take responsibility in writing for overruling us, and I and my superiors insisted on instructions in writing if we were to deviate from our judgment regarding the merits of the issues.)

My point is simply that the Soviets, given their experience in the past when they, unlike we, had essentially the same staffs working the issues as are active today, probably expect Shultz or somebody in authority to engage them in advance regarding the contours of the “results” of the meeting in November. When we catalog issues and say that we think some can be solved by November, they are likely to interpret this as a signal that that is what we want from the meeting, and also that we will make most of the negotiating concessions to get it if they agree in principle that it can be done. Also, if we don’t find some way to discuss, in fairly precise terms, how some of the critical impasses might be broken, they will doubtless interpret this as an attempt by us to evade addressing the key issues.

3. MBFR: The Horowitz “message” implies greater interest in MBFR than I would have anticipated. Given the complexities of this issue with the Allies, I do not think we should encourage them to think it is a promising area. Nevertheless, I think it probable that they feel genuinely that the West has not yet adequately adjusted its position to take account of their moves on verification in ‘83. The emphasis on symbolic reductions is related to the “imagery” problem, even though that does not explain it totally.

4. Nuclear testing is different. The Soviet interest in ratification of the TTBT and PNET keeps cropping up. The President’s offer in his letter (if it gets out) might stimulate some movement here.4 Also I [Page 251] believe it would be well if Shultz reviewed our position on the issue in Helsinki, to make sure the new Soviet team really understands it. (I am growing more and more dubious that Gorbachev is getting the straight skinny from the MFA bureaucracy on what our position really is.)

5. Regional Issues: I was struck, as I am sure you were, by the statements on Afghanistan. I don’t know whether anything is really here or not, but there may be. I suspect that Gorbachev would really like to get this one off his plate if he can, and realizes that if he lets it drag on for another year, it will be his war and thus more difficult to resolve without damage to his own prestige.

I would suggest two steps for the Helsinki meeting:

a. A proposal to schedule the remaining “regional consultations” which have been proposed. (Shultz told Dobrynin July 3 that we are now prepared to proceed with the others.)

b. Some pointed questioning on Afghanistan, with perhaps a suggestion that since the meeting of experts was largely sterile, we might want a higher-level meeting soon. If the Soviets are really serious about striking a deal they will seize on this, or else give a signal in another way. (As for “higher level,” I have in mind perhaps Mike Armacost one-on-one with one of the First Deputy Foreign Ministers for a day.)

6. Human Rights: The flat and completely negative statement on this issue is ominous. I think our approach should be to state (in Helsinki): “You know what needs to be done in this area. It does not require contravening your laws or changing your system. It only requires the political will to do what you have agreed to do in the Helsinki Final Act. All I have to say is that many issues of mutual benefit, particularly in the trade area, are not going to be resolved until these matters are resolved.”

My guess, by the way, is that if the Soviets are inclined to allow some movement in this area, they will try to arrange things so that someone other than the President implicitly gets the credit for it: Mitterand, for example, or perhaps some of our Congressional figures or private groups—or even the Israelis, if Gorbachev has decided to try to strike a bargain for the renewal of diplomatic relations.

7. Gorbachev’s Paris Visit:5 The comments given Horowitz smack of rather outrageous blackmail. Some of it is doubtless bluff (I cannot imagine that Mitterand, even in his most irresponsible mood, would give them anything useful on INF). However, broadly speaking, there is considerable potential for Gorbachev here. If he makes some attractive- [Page 252] looking trade offers, praises Eureka,6 and throws a human rights bone or two, he can doubtless have a visit which can be touted as an unalloyed success—and potentially give us some collateral problems. But he will do this anyway, and there is not much we can do about it other than keep in close touch with Mitterand along the way and try not to give him any gratuitous cause to make problems.

8. Nuclear/Space Issues: Velikhov’s comments about the contours of a possible agreement were much more precise and coherent than Bukin’s. The latter’s mention of an “Incidents in Space” agreement is intriguing, particularly since in the past Soviet specialists have tended to belittle the idea as relatively meaningless. The fact that both Bukin and Velikhov used a 50% reduction factor (in both cases applied to warheads) is interesting in light of the rumors from other sources, and is most curious in light of the behavior of the Soviet negotiators in Geneva. Could the thinking in Moscow be moving faster than the instructions to the delegation?

In any event, I think it would be appropriate for Shultz to ask some questions in Helsinki designed to draw Shevardnadze out on the various issues involved here.


A. Re the Helsinki meeting:

1. Shultz should make a crystal-clear presentation of our view of the Geneva meeting when he meets Shevardnadze in Helsinki.

2. He should focus primarily on eliciting Soviet ideas as to how the deadlock on some of the key issues might be broken, without making very many suggestions himself.

3. He should also try to elicit a sense of Soviet priorities, so that we can mull them over before the September meetings.

4. He should avoid the usual “inventory” approach lest this be misunderstood as representing either the focus or the sum total of our aspirations for the Geneva meeting.

B. Re communications in general:

1. All possible factors of deliberate Soviet misrepresentation and calculated special pleading notwithstanding, it seems clear that important elements of our policies and our approach are simply not getting through to Soviet decision makers.

2. If we had an arrangement whereby a well-informed U.S. official could review these matters with a Soviet counterpart, it could be [Page 253] extremely useful to both sides. In the first place, we could be more confident that we are understanding precisely what they are saying. In the second, it would provide an opportunity to call attention to misrepresentations of our position and faulty interpretations of our reaction (such as conclusions that particular speeches—perhaps reported inaccurately—are intended as signals). And finally, it would provide a vehicle for a franker discussion of what is in the ball park than is possible in formal sessions, given the Soviet propensity for concentrating, in their public and their formal diplomacy, on issues which are often not in fact the center of their concern.


1. That you indicate your reaction to the various thoughts above.7

2. That you authorize me to work with State next week to try to cast Secretary Shultz’s Helsinki talking points in the framework I have suggested above.

3. That, before my departure next weekend, we discuss the whole situation in case there is an opportunity for some private discussion with Soviet officials in Helsinki.8

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Jack Matlock Files, Chronological File, 1980–1986, Matlock Chron July 1985 (5/8). Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Not for System. Sent for action.
  2. See Document 65.
  3. See Document 55.
  4. See Document 64.
  5. See foornote 6, Document 114.
  6. See footnote 7, Document 65.
  7. McFarlane approved all three recommendations.
  8. Poindexter wrote in the margin: “Good analysis, Jack. I wish we could either put you in Moscow or set you up in a private channel. JP.”