34. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Carlucci) to President Reagan1


  • Looking Ahead on US-Soviet Relations

Your speech in Los Angeles2 and Secretary Shultz’s trip to Moscow3 will open a new phase in the minuet with the Soviets. At Reykjavik, Gorbachev was unable to catch you in a prelaid trap because you neither gave in on SDI nor accepted the outcome as a political failure. For a time thereafter Washington was distracted by Iran-Contra, while Moscow was both puzzled—by Washington developments and unexpected European anxiety about Reykjavik—and seized with its own internal politics. Moscow continued to probe us for backchannels, but the game slowed down.

By the end of February, you were getting the political effects of Iran-Contra under control and about to table an INF draft treaty. Gorbachev, having managed some internal problems of his own, knew he had to make a move and, once again, “delinked” INF from Space and START to recover initiative.4

We remain unsure what course Gorbachev is on. We know he still wants to kill SDI, deflect your administration from broader policies that challenge the USSR, and to get some sort of “detente on the cheap.” By delinking INF he could seek to facilitate relatively easy progress to a major nuclear reductions agreement, leading to a summit and wider political effects that will help him indirectly with other goals, such as killing SDI and straining US-NATO relations. Or he could be trying, once again, to set up a Reykjavik-like situation: Expectations of easy progress are generated; Gorbachev makes dramatic new offers which we cannot accept without undue penalty to SDI or to European security (e.g., zero nuclear forces in Europe); and then Gorbachev tries to tag [Page 126] you once again with a failure, this time to influence the 1988 elections. We certainly know Gorbachev is a bold political gameplayer. Moreover, we still lack evidence that the Soviet side has examined the military implications of its own arms reduction proposals, leaving us wondering about their seriousness.

These uncertainties have made it impossible for you to shape your policies around some interpretation of what is going on in Moscow. Your policies toward the USSR arise, not from Kremlinology, but from our national values (peace with freedom), our international responsibilities (toward allies and insecure regions), from your visions (e.g., SDI), and from your already-accomplished legacy of rebuilding American strength. Your own view of that legacy is vital. Some would have you “cash in” for quick breakthroughs on arms reduction; but this could all too easily become “selling out” your legacy, particularly on SDI. Rather, the situation calls for patient and demanding steadiness on your part that will allow that legacy of strength to survive. Gorbachev’s policies are crafted largely to distract you and American public opinion from these goals.

The wisdom of your four-part agenda for US-Soviet relations—arms reductions, easing regional conflicts, human rights, and bilateral contacts—is that it is not seasonal, but perennial; it is steady, but flexible; it can deal with positive as well as negative developments in Soviet behavior. The main purpose of your speech in Los Angeles will be to rearticulate this policy, to take stock of recent developments, and to remind Americans and Soviets of its underlying values and goals. It will contain some good news—promising Soviet moves on arms and human rights, along with big remaining problems; some bad news—continued Soviet failure to move positively on regional conflicts; clear statements on what it will take from the Soviets to move the relationship ahead; and a strong reminder to all that only the compass of freedom points to real peace and human progress.

George Shultz must go to Moscow with his seatbelt securely fastened to your policy. Gorbachev may well present him with an easy path to an INF agreement and a summit in the US. But the record shows that George must be prepared for Reykjavik-style ploys, designed to exploit differences within your Administration over handling SDI or the dilemmas our European allies see in an INF agreement. George’s foremost goals should be those he has fully under his control: Learning where the Soviets are coming from in this new tactical phase; and telling them clearly where we stand. This Moscow meeting is not the setting for negotiations, i.e., making changes on the spot in our positions, especially given the demeaning and insecure situation created by the Soviets at our embassy.

In the next day or so, you shall decide what, if any, changes, George should communicate in our arms positions. He should bring back [Page 127] Soviet reactions and positions. He should also be instructed on how to deal with Soviet probing about the conditions and timing of another summit. You have set no conditions, but an INF agreement acceptable to us and the Europeans should be possible. It is quite possible that Gorbachev is now eager for a US summit in September or October as a prelude to celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in early November. We should let him be the eager one. There will be plenty of tactical maneuvering over the next six months, and George is wisely viewing his trip as one of two or probably three ministerials before a possible summit.

In this busy and possibly volatile period, it would be unwise to focus too much of your political capital on US-Soviet bilateral diplomacy at whatever level. As your own successful policies have shown, our management of the relationship is largely a function of effectively managing the surrounding strategic and political realities: our domestic political and economic health, our defense strength, our alliances, our regional security interests, and our image in the world as a repository of hope for the future. They are what need the most attention.

Ironically, Gorbachev gets more than his share of applause for “initiatives” because he is the one who must try to revive a stagnant system, activate a weak foreign policy, and assault strong American positions. Superficial impressions disguise the fact that the US is historically strong and the USSR historically weak and more deeply troubled. Of course, nearing the end of your term, you face challenges in keeping your legacy intact. National convictions that elected you twice, overwhelmingly, may be weakening somewhat. A sober but forthcoming attitude toward Soviet initiatives, constant articulation of your basic policies, and, above all disciplined adherence to them by your Administration will all contribute to success in the most vital task, making sure your policies survive and carry on beyond 1988.

Breakthroughs with the Soviets on terms contrary to your goals are possible in an instant. Breakthroughs consistent with your goals are always possible, but uncertain. If they don’t occur, so be it. If you succeed in your basic task of fortifying and transmitting your legacy of strength and steadiness, then future progress by future presidents in assuring peace with the Soviets will be credited to your policies, your visions, and your name.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Ermarth Files, Chron Files March-April 1987 (2). Secret. Sent for information. Prepared by Ermarth. A copy was sent to Bush. Reagan initialed the memorandum in the upper right-hand corner. A stamped notation on the memorandum also indicates that the President saw it. Ermarth sent a copy of the memorandum to Carlucci under an April 6 covering memorandum requesting that Carlucci send the memorandum to Reagan “with the NSPG package” or prior to the April 7 NSPG meeting. (Ibid.) For the minutes of the NSPG meeting, see Document 35.
  2. See Reagan, “Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session at a Los Angeles World Affairs Council Luncheon in California.” (Public Papers: Reagan, 1987, Book I, pp. 356–372)
  3. See Documents 3847.
  4. See Document 22.