for CNN's Coldwar Series
June 13, 1997
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INTERVIEWER: Thank you very much for being willing to do an interview. I'll start by asking about arms control: what were the Administration's arms control objectives when they came into office?
ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: It was essentially to limit, first of all, the arms race, and then, if possible, to scale it down. I remember vividly how committed the newly elected President was to the idea of a significant cut in the nuclear weapons on both sides. That was kind of a central goal of his.
INT: How were these ambitions received by the Soviets?
ZB: Hah, with some ambiguity. They, I suspect in retros...
INT: Can you say "the Soviets" in your answer, because you'll never hear my question?
ZB: All right. And the Soviets received these proposals with some ambiguity and indeed suspicion. I suspect myself that they felt that Carter was not sincere, that he was merely trying to put them on the defensive, and that he was trying to back out of the earlier Vladivostok agreement that had been concluded between President Ford and Mr. Brezhnev. This, incidentally, was not Carter's intention) - he really was very sincere; if anything, he was over-ambitious.
INT: Can you describe Brezhnev's response to the proposals, the letter that he sent in February of 1977, what your own reaction was to that?
ZB: I thought Brezhnev's letter was excessively negative, close to hostile, somewhat patronizing.
INT: The next thing I want to ask you about is SS-20s, and how much of a threat to the security of Europe was the Soviet deployment of SS-20s.
ZB: The Soviet deployment of the SS-20s worried the Europeans - frankly, initially more than us. I remember being somewhat startled when Chancellor Schmidt started making a big issue out of the SS-20s, but then I came to realize that in a sense he was right: namely that the SS-20, while perhaps not a decisive military weapon, posed the risk of de-coupling Europe's security from America's; namely, of posing before us the dilemma that maybe Europe was threatened by nuclear devastation, but that we were not, and therefore, should we risk the devastation of our own people and our own cities in order to protect Europe? That was the element of potential de-coupling involved in the Soviet deployment, and in that sense it posed a serious challenge to NATO, to which we had to respond, and to which we did respond.
ZB: By deploying the Pershings and the ground-launch cruise missiles, which put the Soviets very much on the defensive, and the Pershings particularly gave us the capacity to devastate the Soviet command and control centers in the very first few minutes of any conflict.
INT: What was your response to Chancellor Schmidt when he accused the Americans of not taking sufficient account of the Europeans' fears?
ZB: I think it's an exaggeration to say he accused us. I think he posed the dilemma, the possibility of a de-coupling of American and European security. And as I said earlier, after initially thinking that perhaps this was not a real issue, we came to the conclusion that indeed it was and that we should respond to it seriously. So we did. The President sent me to Europe; I talked to Chancellor Schmidt at length, and we came up with a formula: namely, that we would deploy the Pershings, which were theatre missiles, shorter range but very fast, very accurate, and the ground-launch cruise missiles - slower, but extraordinarily accurate: we could put one right through a window in the Kremlin, and if it had a nuclear tip on it, it would make a bit of a bang.
(Request in b/g re: next question)
INT: Yes. Could you reflect on the dual-track policy of NATO for us?
ZB: Well, essentially our position was that if the Russians want to discuss it, we will discuss; if not, we'll deploy.
INT: The neutron bomb - why did President Carter decide to cancel the project of the neutron bomb?
ZB: The President decided to cancel the neutron bomb, I think for two reasons, though one was emphasized. First, there wasn't sufficient support in Europe for it, and there was a great deal of reluctance in Europe to it. But secondly, I think the President personally found it morally abhorrent.
INT: SALT II - there was a lot of opposition to SALT II. Can you explain why opposition built up to SALT II?
ZB: The opposition in the United States to SALT II was the result both of serious concerns over some of the technicalities, specifics of the agreement - it was a very complicated agreement - and therefore some feeling that perhaps we weren't getting as good a bargain as we should; and maybe also of a more pervasive suspicion within some quarters that President Carter wasn't tough enough with the Russians. So these two things kind of coalesced and built up a degree of opposition to SALT II that shouldn't have been there. Now, in addition to that, before too long there was a third factor at play: namely, the Soviets started acting in a way that made movement forward on SALT II very difficult, culminating eventually in the occupation, invasion of Afghanistan.
INT: That leads on to the Soviet expansionism. How far did you believe the Soviets were becoming an expansionist threat and were undermining American influence, really from '77 onwards?
ZB: The Soviets at that time were proclaiming over and over again that the scales of history were tipping in the favor of the Soviet Union: the Soviet Union would outstrip us in economic performance, the Soviet Union was getting a strategic edge, the Soviet Union was riding the crest of the so-called national liberation struggles. The Soviet Union was moving into Africa, it had a foothold in Latin America; it was using that foothold, and particularly Castro himself, to see if something couldn't be done on the mainland of [the] Southern hemisphere. So all of that made it quite essential, in my view, to demonstrably show that these analyses were false: that the scales of history were not tipping, that Soviet assertiveness will not pay, that we can compete effectively, eventually put the Soviets on the defensive, if necessary.
INT: What was your view, particularly in Africa...? I'm thinking of the arc of crisis and your response to that.
ZB: My view of Soviet activities in the arc of crisis in Africa, so to speak, was that it was incompatible with the notion of détente to which we were subscribing, to which we thought the Soviets had subscribed in the course of their negotiations with Presidents Nixon and Ford; that you can't have your cake and eat it too. And that if that's what they were going to be doing, then clearly we are entitled to play the same game, wherever we can, to their disadvantage. But then we'll not have détente: we'll have competition across the board. So there is a real choice: either détente across the board, or competition across the board, but not détente in some areas and competition in those areas in which we were vulnerable.
INT: Moving on to Poland, what support you could give to Solidarity from 1980 onwards?
ZB: We gave them a great deal of political support. We encouraged Solidarity as much as we could. We made it very clear as to where our sympathies are. We of course had certain instruments for reaching Poland, such as Radio Free Europe; we had a very comprehensive publication program; we had other means also of encouraging and supporting dissent. And when the critical moment came in December of 1980, when the Soviets were poised to intervene in Poland, we did everything we could to mobilize international opinion, to galvanize maximum international pressure on the Soviets, to convince the Soviets that we will not be passive. And by then we had some credibility, because the Soviets knew that already for a year we were doing something that we had never before been done in the entire history of the Cold War: we were actively and directly supporting the resistance movement in Afghanistan, the purpose of which was to fight the Soviet army. So the notion that we wouldn't be passive, I think had somcredibility by then.
INT: How important was the Iran hostage crisis to Carter's prestige?
ZB: I think it was devastating. I think the Iran hostage crisis was one of the two central regions for Carter's political defeat in 1980, the other reason being domestic inflation. Iran and inflation - both were politically devastating.
INT: The downfall of the Shah and the Iranian hostage crisis - how much did they influence Americans' reaction to Soviet policy in Afghanistan?
ZB: I think the crisis in Iran heightened our sense of vulnerability in so far as that part of the world is concerned. After all, Iran was one of the two pillars on which both stability and our political preeminence in the Persian Gulf rested. Once the Iranian pillar had collapsed, we were faced with the possibility that one way or another, before too long, we may have either a hostile Iran on the northern shore of the Persian Gulf facing us, or we might even have the Soviets there; and that possibility arose very sharply when the Soviets marched into Afghanistan. If they succeed in occupying it, Iran would be even more vulnerable to the Soviet Union, and in any case, the Persian Gulf would be accessible even to Soviet tactical air force from bases in Afghanistan. Therefore, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was viewed by us as of serious strategic consequence, irrespective of whatever may have been the Soviet motives for it. Our view was the objective consequences would be very serious, irrespective of what may or may not have been the subjective motives for the Soviet action.
INT: Before the actual invasion, how much do you think the exit of the Shah affected Soviet plans for that area of the world?
ZB: The collapse of the American position in Iran had to have a rather strikingly reinforcing impact on Soviet expectations. This was a major setback for the United States. There's no doubt that from the standpoint of the Soviet analysis of the situation, the collapse of the regime in Iran meant that the position of the United States north of the Persian Gulf was disintegrating.
INT: How did you interpret Soviet behavior in Afghanistan, such as the April revolution, the rise of... I mean, what did you think their long-term plans were, and what did you think should be done about it?
ZB: I told the President, about six months before the Soviets entered Afghanistan, that in my judgment I thought they would be going into Afghanistan. And I decided then, and I recommended to the President, that we shouldn't be passive.
INT: What happened?
ZB: We weren't passive.
INT: But at the time...
INT: Right, describe your reaction when you heard that your suspicions had been fully justified: an invasion had happened.
ZB: We immediately launched a twofold process when we heard that the Soviets had entered Afghanistan. The first involved direct reactions and sanctions focused on the Soviet Union, and both the State Department and the National Security Council prepared long lists of sanctions to be adopted, of steps to be taken to increase the international costs to the Soviet Union of their actions. And the second course of action led to my going to Pakistan a month or so after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for the purpose of coordinating with the Pakistanis a joint response, the purpose of which would be to make the Soviets bleed for as much and as long as is possible; and we engaged in that effort in a collaborative sense with the Saudis, the Egyptians, the British, the Chinese, and we started providing weapons to the Mujaheddin, from various sources again - for example, some Soviet arms from the Egyptians and the Chinese. We even got Soviet arms from the Czechoslovak communist government, since it was obviously susceptible to material incentives; and at some point we started buying arms for the Mujaheddin from the Soviet army in Afghanistan, because that army was increasingly corrupt.
INT: How united or divergent were the views in the Carter Administration, responding to the invasion of Afghanistan?
ZB: They were surprisingly uniform. That is to say, I remember that the State Department, which earlier had opposed taking a very tough stand on Afghanistan, and certainly didn't want us to be issuing any public warnings directed to the Soviet Union, came in with a long list of something like 26 or 28 proposed sanctions against Soviet Union, including the most severe ones that subsequently were adopted by the United States. So once the Soviets had acted, some of the hesitations and reticence regarding how we should respond to the Soviet challenge, dissipated almost instantly.
INT: But you managed to increase the powers of the National Security Council?
ZB: Well, I didn't increase the powers of the National Security Council, but obviously what the Soviets did confirmed what we were arguing for some time: namely, that if we don't draw the line clearly enough, we're going to get an escalation in Soviet misconduct, that simply acquiescence was not good enough. And in that sense, yes, I suppose one could say the political scales within the US Government were somewhat tipped in the favor of the NSC.
INT: How tough was President Carter's approach to the Cold War?
ZB: I think, on balance, it was much tougher than most people realize. Not only did he take some historic decisions which no other president had before - such as the decision to aid directly the Mujaheddin against the Soviet army - but he took a very tough position in December 1980, when the Soviet Union was poised to invade Poland. He took that decision, and it was a very tough decision, and we did all sorts of things to convince the Soviets that we wouldn't be passive. In addition to it, he took the decision to engage in a strategic relationship with the Chinese, and it was again directed at Soviet expansionism. But what is even less known is that even in the early years, when he was generally perceived as being soft and overly accommodationist, he took some very tough-minded decisions which were simply not known publicly. Robert Gates, the subsequently director of the CIA, and at that time a member of my staff, reveals in his book that as early as 1978, President Carter approved proposals prepared by my staff to undertake, for example, a comprehensive, covert action program designed to help the non-Russian nations in the Soviet Union pursue more actively their desire for independence - a program in effect to destabilize the Soviet Union. We called it, more delicately, a program for the "delegitimization of the Soviet Union". But that was a rather unusual decision. He took some others along these lines, too. So his public image to some extent was the product of his great emphasis on arms reductions and a desire to reach an agreement on that score with the Russians. But it didn't quite correspond to the reality, and it certainly didn't correspond even to the public reality in the second half of the Carter Administration.
INT: Could you summarize the reasons for the shift that seems apparent from the 1977 détente and co-operation, inordinate fear of communism, through to the Carter doctrine in 1980?
ZB: Well, that question was prepared before my answer to the previous question. (Laughs)
INT: Can you give me a summary?
The reasons for it.
ZB: I don't think there was a shift. As I said, I think even prior to the public realization that he was much tougher than most people had assumed, he was taking some decisions privately in the first two years of his presidency which were quite tough-minded. The reason he was perceived by a lot of people as not being tough enough, was rooted largely in his passion for arms control, for arms reductions, and that I think created an image that was somewhat one-dimensional and not entirely accurate.
INT: Well, following on that, how successful was Carter at laying the foundations for increased defense and security which the next administration inherited?
ZB: Any answer by me in that respect is inevitably self-serving. But I think you would find a good answer tothat question in the book written by the Republican head of the CIA, Robert Gates, who says that Carter deserves enormous credit in responding assertively, energetically and in an historically significant fashion, to the kind ochallenge that the Soviets -erroneously - thought they were ready to pose before us, when they assumed in the mid-Seventies that the scales of history were really tipping in their favor and they could now act assertively in keeping with that shift. It was our response in those years which provided the basis for what subsequently was done by Reagan, and this is what is being said by Robert Gates and not by me.
INT: But in your own book, you do stress that Carter laid good foundations for strengthening ...
ZB: Well, as I think is evident from my answer, I don't disagree with Robert Gates, but I think...
INT: Tell me (Overlap) from your own point of view...
ZB: ... but I think Robert Gates may be a better judge and more dispassionate judge of that than I, because obviously I would be accused of engaging in a self-serving diagnosis.
(Request in b/g re: next question)
INT: Why was the Horn of Africa so important to America?
ZB: The Horn of Africa was not important to America as of itself, but it was important as a measure and a test of how the Soviets were interpreting détente; and it seemed to us, given the strategic location of the Horn of Africa, that the Soviets were engaged in activities which they should know would be a sensitive concern to us. And if they were, notwithstanding that, doing precisely that, then obviously they were exploiting détente to try to attain some significant geopolitical gains, and that we simply could not tolerate.
INT: Did America underreact to start with to the activities of the Soviets in Africa?
ZB: Absolutely, I think we underreacted, and that's why they gradually escalated, and eventually, as I have said earlier, SALT was buried in the sands of Ogaden, the sands that divide Somalia from Ethiopia, and eventually led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which then precipitated a very strong, overtly so, American response. I would have preferred us to draw the line sooner, and perhaps some of the things that subsequently happened wouldn't have happened.
INT: Just to follow on to that, is how events in Afghanistan affected the US relationship with Pakistan.
ZB: There was a certain coolness and distance in the American-Pakistan relationship prior to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. After that invasion, we collaborated very closely. And I have to pay tribute to the guts of the Pakistanis: they acted with remarkable courage, and they just weren't intimidated and they did things which one would have thought a vulnerable country might not have the courage to undertake. We, I am pleased to say, supported them very actively and they had our backing, but they were there, they were the ones who were endangered, not we.
INT: Reflecting on that whole situation in Afghanistan, do you think it was worth all the suffering that was involved?
ZB: I think the Soviets made a tragic mistake, and therefore it wasn't worth their while to go in. I think it would have been a tragedy if we had allowed them to overrun the Afghans.
INT: Well, I would like to ask about détente. ... By 1980, the principle of détente was dead. Can you explain why détente died, how it died, and for what reasons?
ZB: Détente of the kind that existed in the mid-Seventies was really undermined by the Soviets, who thought that they could have détente and a fundamental shift in the balance of power at the same time. Instead of accepting détente as a relationship designed to stabilize the relationship between the two major countries, they viewed détente essentially as an umbrella under which a fundamental shift in the correlationship of power could be effected, and they thought they could do so both on the strategic level and on the geopolitical level, via their activities in the Third World. This is what contributed to the collapse of détente. I fail to see how anyone can argue that it was up to us to maintain détente at a time when the Soviets were very reluctant to accept any reductions in strategic arms, and felt themselves free to engage in military activities in the Third World, ranging from Africa through to Central America, and eventually culminating in Afghanistan. That is not the definition of détente in my book.
INT: The Vance mission in March 1977 - was that a turning point in any way on that route that you've just been describing?
ZB: The Vance mission in 1977, the March mission to the Soviet Union in order to conclude an arms control agreement, was a big disappointment to us, and it's not well understood, because most people assume that Vance went to Moscow all of a sudden confronting the Russians with a proposal for deep cuts in the strategic arms relationship, and that the Russians, annoyed by this sudden development, turned him down. The fact of the matter is, he went there with that proposal, but also with another one: namely, "If you're not prepared to have deep cuts, then let's have essentially the kind of deeps cuts - but less deep, much less deep - that were agreed to in Vladivostok," with two issues yet to be resolved, which in our view had not been resolved: the question of the cruise missiles and of the long-range new Soviet bomber called the Backfire, and these two issues we had to resolve. And the Russians took the position: "We don't accept deep cuts, but we also don't accept your fall-back position, unless you accept our definition of what the agreement ought to be regarding the cruise missiles and the Backfire." And of course, we couldn't do that, because that would have placed in jeopardy our own strategic position, and I doubt very much that Congress would have approved any such agreement. So the Russians adopted a very intransigent attitude, and that was a disappointment to those who thought that perhaps we could start a new administration, the Carter Administration, with some wide-ranging agreement with the Russians. It became clear that this would be much more difficult, and that in fact perhaps the Russians have a very one-sided, distorted, self-serving definition of what détente really ought to be.
INT: One side only.
(A bit of discussion)
INT: Why did President Carter take up the issue of human rights, especially on the Soviet Union, and what effect did this have on Soviet-American relations?
ZB: The President should really speak for himself on that, but President Carter, in my view, was deeply committed to human rights as a matter of principle, as a matter of moral conviction, and he was committed to human rights across the board. I mean, he felt very strongly about human rights in Argentina, as well as in the Soviet Union. I was deeply committed to human rights; I felt this was important, but I will not hide the fact that I also thought that there was some instrumental utility in our pursuit of human rights vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, because at the time the Soviet Union was putting us ideologically on the defensive. They saw themselves as representing the progressive forces of mankind, marching toward some ideologically defined future; and raising the issue of human rights pointed to one of the fundamental weaknesses of the Soviet system: namely, that it was a system based on oppression, on mass terror, on extraordinary killings of one's own people. Focusing on human rights was in a way focusing on a major Soviet vulnerability. So, while I was committed to human rights - and I am committed to human rights - I do not deny that in pushing it vis-à-vis the Soviets, I saw in this also an opportunity to put them ideologically on the defensive at a time when they saw themselves rightfully on the offensive.
INT: Thank you very much.