146. Telegram From the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State 1

2141. 1. In talks with colleagues here, I find considerable uncertainty and confusion as to where Soviets are heading as respects Vietnam.

2. My experience with the Soviets would suggest to me that where their aims and intentions are not reasonably clear to experienced observers, this means that they are themselves in a state of some uncertainty and confusion on the subject in question.

3. Until a couple of months ago every competent foreign observer in Moscow would have said with complete confidence that despite their noisy support of and military and economic aid to DRV, Soviet leadership clearly wanted negotiated solution in Vietnam and could be expected use influence to this end, short of undue pressure on Hanoi.

4. Soviet actions since about time major ChiCom attack last November have somewhat shaken this relatively optimistic view, notably escalation vicious anti-American campaign and evidence leadership trying organize world Communist meeting on agenda limited to “unity in support Vietnam against American imperialism.” As minimum, this seemed to indicate Soviets not only sensitive Chicom attacks but had accepted and were ready to support obdurate stand North Vietnamese against negotiations. Since proposed conference apparently projected for time 23rd Party Conference, this effort implied Soviet expectation not serious steps toward peaceful settlement at least until sometime after March 1966.

5. Soviet behavior since suspension [Page 365]of bombing and launching of peace offensive2 has done nothing to alleviate this rather grim prospect. Their press commentary on our peace offensive has been cynical, taking cue from Hanoi in interpreting it as propagandistic preparation for further escalation of war, and only once mentioning fact of our suspension of bombing and that in course of reprinting a DRV statement. Podgorny took an unbending position with both me and French Ambassador in our discussions of Vietnam with him on December 29 and 30, and Kosygin’s remarks on Vietnam to Japanese journalists published in Izvestiya on December 31 were calculatedly hard line. Even more significantly, composition of Shelepin’s delegation to Vietnam3—timing of which indicates to me that it could have had no connection with our peace efforts-has clearly been intended to emphasize the possibility of increased military support for North Vietnamese with its inclusion of rocket expert Tolubko and Ustinov, whose career has centered on Soviet defense industry. Finally, the strong attack against us in Soviet draft co-chairmen message (Embtel 2111),4 published in today’s Pravda, is yet another indication that Soviet preoccupation has been more in terms of how to exploit Vietnamese situation against us than to help find a peaceful settlement.

6. The picture is by no means as clear, however, and the outlook probably not as gloomy as the foregoing suggests. There is in all of this, in fact, a strong element of inertia, of continuity with the positions previously assumed by the Soviet leadership, suggesting that it may not yet have faced up to the decisions required by our peace offensive. In weighing these decisions, Moscow will be mindful of several factors which will give it pause:

Moscow undoubtedly recognizes that DRV has little hope of prevailing ultimately against U.S. power, especially if this power is more fully exerted. While Podgorny in his conversation with me followed established line, I was impressed by his description of widespread devastation caused by our bombing in DRV and his sense of acceptance that, even with aid of socialist camp, DRV could not defeat U.S. (with implicit recognition that Soviet and other outside aid would be limited and would not involve direct conflict between us). I was also struck by Podgorny’s repeated expressions about improvement of U.S.-USSR relations in 1966, though this could simply be a reflection of his rather Khrushchevian personality.
Our peace offensive introduces highly complicating element in conduct of Moscow’s own campaign for leadership both of world Communist movement and of third world. Our current efforts are bound to have an impact on a number of socialist governments-Yugoslavia and Poland may be good examples-which may already have misgivings about wisdom of Vietnam’s unyielding line, and this impact will be still greater among third world states whose allegiance Moscow has insistently sought over recent months. Among other results, Soviet efforts [Page 366]to bring about an anti-American conference of Communist parties in support of Vietnam could run into even greater resistance than is now the case. Of more immediate importance to us, the longer our bombing suspension lasts, the greater I should imagine the pressures will be on the Soviet leadership from socialist and especially third world states to contribute to a settlement in Vietnam.
Perhaps the most important factor of all will be Soviet concern about longer-term results of situation in which it must expect continuing buildup of U.S. military strength to point that cannot yet be foreseen. I think it unquestionably true that first aim of new Soviet leadership is to get their lagging economy moving again, and they cannot look with equanimity on prospect of substantial increase in defense portion of our budget which will require them either to fall further behind in terms of our relative military power positions or sacrifice some of their own economic plans in order to divert resources to defense purposes. Kosygin has several times voiced his concern on this score.

7. I suspect that above considerations add up to as mixed a picture in Soviet minds as it does in ours. I am inclined to believe that, for time being at least, Moscow will feel constrained to appear to match prospect of increased U.S. escalation. This indeed is meaning of Ustinov’s and Tolubko’s inclusion in Shelepin’s delegation. In fact, however, it cannot be excluded that, behind smokescreen of this ostensibly offense-minded delegation, Shelepin will also be talking with North Vietnamese leaders about coping with our peace offensive in ways more satisfactory-at least from Moscow’s viewpoint-than the present negative, unyielding line. Moscow’s public line on our peace efforts has clearly lacked conviction, and they must know that it has not been convincing for others and does not square with image of peace-maker in Asia they are trying to create.

8. It is worth noting in this connection that in his expectedly tough speeches in Hanoi, Shelepin has refrained from joining Vietnamese in characterizing “peace offensive” as “lying campaign” and “fraud” (septel)5 and it is clear subject is one which will have to be dealt with in private talks. While Soviets will continue to be careful not to seem to be forcing Hanoi’s hand, we consider likely they will argue circumstances require some more positive response from “socialist” side. Since we know Soviets are impressed by bomb damage and that bombing of “socialist” state is most galling aspect of whole situation to them, our best guess is that Shelepin may well advise Hanoi initiation talks would assure indefinite suspension bombing without prejudice to their military position in South Vietnam.

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9. In sum, we think “peace” campaign has introduced new element further complicating Soviet efforts organize Communist meeting around Vietnam and forcing them a step away from unquestioning acceptance Hanoi’s objuracy. It could not have been better timed and I would hope pressure can be sustained.

10. Depart repeat as desired.

  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, POL 27 VIET S. Confidential; Limdis; Pinta. The telegram does not indicate a time of transmission; it was received at the Department of State at 8:28 a.m. Bundy forwarded the text to the President under cover of a January 10 memorandum that reads: “This is the message which Dean Rusk mentioned at our meeting at noontime. It is well worth reading.”
  2. For documentation on the 37-day bombing pause, December 24, 1965–January 31, 1966, and the peace offensive, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volumes III and IV.
  3. A.N. Shelepin led a five-person Soviet mission to Hanoi January 7–12.
  4. Not found.
  5. Telegram 2136 from Moscow, January 8. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, POL 32–1 INDIA–PAK)