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26. Notes on Discussion/1/
Washington, February 11, 1961.
/1/Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Countries Series,
USSR. Top Secret. Drafted by Bundy on February 13.
THE THINKING OF THE SOVIET LEADERSHIP,
CABINET ROOM, FEBRUARY 11, 1961
The President, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, Ambassador Harriman,
Ambassador Thompson, Mr. Bohlen, Mr. Kennan, Mr. Bundy
The subjects discussed can be grouped under four headings:
1. The general condition of the USSR and its government.
2. Current Soviet attitudes on foreign affairs.
3. Useful American policies and attitudes.
4. Methods of negotiation, and problem of a possible meeting between the President and Khrushchev.
1. General condition of the USSR and its government
Ambassador Thompson reported that, in a general way, the Soviet Government
is strong, and Soviet economic growth a formidable fact. But agriculture is
a deep problem; the government may be facing a third successive year of bad
On the industrial side, while there are still problems in the process of
control and decentralization of the growing machine, prospects for continued
strong growth are good, and the regime can use these resources in a showy
way--as for example by constructing the largest heated swimming pool in the
world. Both at home and abroad we can expect new Soviet activities as the
economic base grows.
At the same time, there is a rapid growth in consumer demand. When there
was almost no new housing, public pressure for more was slight, but now everyone
has a friend with a new house, and "the appetite grows with eating," especially
while the apparatus of terror is left unused. In agriculture, the avoidance
of terror complicates a problem already made difficult by technological backwardness:
Secretary Rusk pointed out in this connection that the agricultural experts
of the Rockefeller Foundation are persuaded that there are deep weaknesses
in Soviet work in this area, largely as a result of the influence of Lysenko./2/
/2/Trofim P. Lysenko, Soviet agronomist and biologist whose theories were supported by Stalin.
But difficulties in agriculture should not obscure the growing strength of the Soviet Union as a whole, or the stability of the Khrushchev government. Khrushchev's personal position is strong. While the Government is a collective enterprise, it is increasingly a collective enterprise of Khrushchev's supporters. Only if he should face unusually grave difficulties both in agriculture and in foreign affairs would Khrushchev's political control be seriously threatened.
Soviet military strength is formidable. Ambassador Thompson is inclined
to believe that in the area of conventional forces this strength may be somewhat
exaggerated by most American estimators, but he offers no separate estimate
of Soviet missile capability, and he agrees with Mr. Bohlen's comment that
in the last five years the general Soviet posture has been made stronger and
bolder by growing confidence in the Soviet military position. On the other
hand, there was general agreement with Mr. Kennan's comment that Soviet
leaders do not think in terms of a narrowly military calculus, and expect
to win by the play of other forces, while their military strength protects
the "forces of history" from the "imperialists."
Khrushchev's own deepest desire is to gain time for the forthcoming triumphs of Soviet economic progress; for this he really wants a generally unexplosive period in foreign affairs.
2. Current Soviet attitudes on foreign affairs
While the Soviet attitude toward the world is fundamentally optimistic, Khrushchev
would very much like some specific diplomatic successes in 1961. Perhaps his
first hope here is that, through negotiations with the new American administration,
there may be progress toward disarmament. Soviet interest in this area appears
real; "we do have one common enemy--war." While Khrushchev's interest in exploiting
Berlin continues, he is not likely to bring this situation to a boil unless
there is a breakdown of negotiations on disarmament, or perhaps an increase
in tension in such a place as Laos.
After the United States, the great long-run worries of the Soviet Union
are Germany and Red China. These are the countries whose relations to
the atomic problem seem an important one to the Soviet Union, and indeed effective
restraint of the Chinese Communists is a continuing task of the Soviet government.
In this connection, Mr. Bohlen recommended--and later agreed to send over--certain
documents telling the exact nature of the sharp dialogue between the Russians
and the Chinese.
But if Soviet concern over Germany's relation to atomic weapons is real,
it is also an example of the duality of Soviet thinking: the German question
is not only a real worry, but an excellent crowbar with which to pry at the
seams of the Atlantic alliance. Mr. Bohlen, in particular, emphasized that
nearly every Soviet argument must be appraised not only as evidence of the
rational calculations of a powerful government, but also as part of a process
of cynical manipulation by a group of doctrinaires profoundly committed to
the advancement of their party and their ideology by every available means.
Meanwhile, around the world Soviet leaders are cheerfully taking advantage
of targets of opportunity, and their recent successes in such areas as Laos,
the Congo, and Cuba have made them confident, perhaps overconfident, about
their prospects in such adventures. In these areas they appear to be following
a policy of backing promising political leaders who are hostile to the West,
whether or not they are explicitly Communist in their allegiance, in the hope
that timely support of such leaders may make easier the gradual growth of
Communist influence and the eventual Communist takeover; this is a change
from earlier doctrinaire commitment to Communists alone.
3. Useful American policies and attitudes toward the Soviet Union
Precisely because of the double character of the Soviet behavior, American
policy must be both rationally stated and evidently strong. Strength is not
entirely a military matter, and, in some areas, other things are more important.
In Laos, for example, allied disunity and the failure of the West to find
and support an esteemed non-Communist leader have played into the hands of
Communists. Moreover, while strength is essential, noisy demonstrations of
strength are likely to be counter-productive, because of the high sensitivity
and pride--and perhaps the inferiority complex, in some sense--of the Soviet
government. On the other hand, it should not be assumed that the Soviet Union
would react violently to a possible swift action against the Castro government.
A quick fait accompli would probably lead to only verbal reactions. On the
other hand a long civil war might well generate strong pressures upon the
Soviet government to prove its greatness on behalf of an embattled ally in
the great contest against imperialism. (In this connection, the experts agreed
that Soviet intervention in Hungary was on an entirely different plane,
resting as it did upon a deep-seated Soviet conviction that a continuation
of the Hungarian revolution would have undermined the entire Communist position
in Eastern Europe.) In such a case as Berlin, only strength and firmness
4. Methods of negotiation and the problem of a possible meeting of the President and Mr. Khrushchev
In general, it was felt that we were on the right track in maintaining a
quiet and courteous tone in direct exchanges with the Soviet government. The
last months of the old administration had created blocks to communication
which were now being removed by the fact of a change. While Khrushchev evidently
disliked Nixon (especially because of a speech to the dentists), he had
liked Eisenhower personally, without respecting him very much as a leader.
But the events leading up to the Paris summit had been a great blow to his
pride, and had so shaken him that further effective negotiation could not
occur with the outgoing administration. He is now eager, above all other immediate
desires, for an early meeting with the President, and there seemed considerable
feeling among the experts that a meeting in due course, for an exchange of
courtesies and the opportunity of becoming personally acquainted, might be
useful. Nothing approaching a summit, in terms of serious negotiations, should
be considered favorably for the present. There was a strong feeling, sharply
expressed by Mr. Bohlen, that it would be unwise to have Khrushchev come to
the United Nations, as a means toward any early meeting, because the Soviet
leader cannot resist a rostrum, and his speeches in the UN would be unlikely
to add to the sum of international good will, or Soviet-American understanding.
Thus it might well be wise to indicate quite promptly to Khrushchev that,
while the President looks forward to meeting him before too much time has
passed, it does not look as if a meeting in connection with the General Assembly
would be possible or productive. In this same connection, Mr. Harriman suggested
that the President might well say quite candidly that it would be hard to
meet with Mr. Khrushchev before he has had a chance to meet and talk with
the heads of the principal allied governments.
But if courtesy and a moderate tone of voice are appropriate in our first exchanges with Khrushchev, there is no reason to tolerate or leave without comment the continuing Soviet attempt to use both the high road and the low road. Savage and continuing denunciation of the United States as the principal enemy of mankind, from the highest levels of the Soviet government, is not really consistent with effective negotiation between the two great states, and this point can usefully be made. If they believe these things, what chance is there we can reach reliable agreements with each other? If they do not believe them, what use is there in our sitting down to talk with such obviously cynical opponents?
The President, in any meeting with Khrushchev, would wish to show both a willingness to negotiate reasonably and great strength and firmness. He would wish to avoid the fuzziness which made trouble for President Eisenhower in the Berlin negotiations--it never helps in negotiating with the Russians to use ambiguous words or phrases which may be taken in quite different ways by the two sides.
It was agreed that there would be no decision at present on the question of a meeting. Meanwhile communications with the Soviet Union could usefully continue, through diplomatic channels, on a variety of topics, as further examination might decree. Among the topics considered as likely for such treatment were Laos, commercial conversations, the consular convention, air transport, exchange of persons, and of course the test ban negotiations. These last may be perhaps the most important element in American-Soviet relations in the immediate future.
Ambassador Thompson, in response to a concluding question from the President, summarized the requirements upon the United States in four steps: first, and most important, we must make our own system work. Second, we must maintain the unity of the West. Third, we must find ways of placing ourselves in new and effective relations to the great forces of nationalism and anti-colonialism. Fourth, we must, in these ways and others, change our image before the world so that it becomes plain that we and not the Soviet Union stand for the future.
/3/Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.
27. Editorial Note
On February 13, 1961, Ambassador Thompson testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for over 2 hours on conditions in the Soviet Union, U.S.-Soviet relations, and Soviet policy around the world. For a transcript of the proceedings, see Executive Sessions of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Historical Series), 1961, pages 135-178.
28. Memorandum of Conversation/1/
FOREIGN RELATIONS OF THE UNITED STATES - 1961-1963 - Volume V - Soviet Union P12