15. Memorandum of Conversation1

SUBJECT

  • U.S.-Soviet Problems

PARTICIPANTS

  • The President
  • Foy D. Kohler, American Ambassador to the U.S.S.R.

Having expected an appointment on Saturday morning March 7 I rather tardily learned that the President wished to see me on Friday evening, March 6. I arrived there precisely at 6:00 p.m. and saw the President from 6:20 until 6:50 p.m. The President came out with a visitor, [Page 40]greeted me by first name and invited me into the office. He asked me first about the Soviet attitude toward his administration. I replied that the Soviets had been very reassured by the nature of his public statements after the assassination of President Kennedy, by the first exchange of correspondence between him and Chairman Khrushchev and by the President’s talk with Deputy Chairman Mikoyan at the time of the funeral.2 The impression made by his statements had been reinforced by his moving ahead with current business, notably the sending of FAA Chairman Najeeb Halaby to Moscow to go ahead with the Air Agreement.3 I said I was sure that Khrushchev had hoped to be able to have a meeting with the President early in his administration. I thought that he and the Russian leadership in general now understood the President’s constitutional problem and his unwillingness to absent himself from the United States until after the forthcoming elections. However, I believed that Khrushchev still regarded his relationship with the President as not yet firmly established and would not do so until he had had a chance to talk with him face to face. I was, therefore, sure that the Chairman would be interested in moving toward a meeting within a reasonable period after the elections. I personally hoped that such a meeting would take place some time after the elections, though I realized that this involved problems connected with Allied relationships on which the Secretary would be advising him.

In reply to the President’s query I told him that I felt strongly that we should go ahead with the Air Agreement and that the Russians put considerable significance on this as a specific token of our readiness to proceed to practical agreements. However, I understood that there were some doubts and hesitations on this subject in Washington, notably on the part of Assistant Secretary Mann.4 I said I would be discussing this [Page 41]matter with the Secretary and other officials involved during my consultations in Washington.

The President asked about relationships between Moscow and Peiping and I repeated the thesis of the Embassy in Moscow as to the national-interest nature of the conflict, in terms of Russian unwillingness to share the wealth with the Chinese Communists or to be led into a confrontation with the U.S. by Chinese initiatives, as well as of the factors of the unsettled boundary between the two countries and of the personal antipathy between Khrushchev and Mao.

The President indicated great interest in Soviet policies toward Cuba and asked whether Khrushchev did not understand that this was politically very difficult for him. I replied that I thought Khrushchev did have some appreciation of the domestic political aspects of this question and said that I was sure the Chairman had cancelled a planned trip to Cuba in December in order not to jeopardize his relationship with the President. I also said that I felt confident that the Soviets had in fact removed all combat troops and that they were moving toward a reduction in their training missions. However, I pointed out that Cuba was practically the only success to which Khrushchev could point in the foreign field for a long period of time. His maintenance of his position in Cuba also had its importance in terms of his world-wide conflict with the Chinese Communists for the allegiance of the communist parties and for influence in the lesser developed countries.

The President asked about Soviet attitudes towards the Republicans, with particular respect to Messrs. Nixon and Goldwater. I said it would be no exaggeration to say that the Soviets regarded and portrayed Mr. Nixon as their U.S. Enemy No. 1 and Senator Goldwater as the Devil Incarnate. I therefore thought that they would try to stay strictly out of anything which might be regarded as interference in U.S. politics, but that they particularly would do nothing which they thought would facilitate the political prospects of either of the gentlemen named.

Shortly before 7:00 the President proposed that we go downstairs to the Mess Room to attend a farewell party being given for Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, USSR, Vol. II. Secret; Limit Distribution. Drafted and initialed by Kohler on April 7. The time of the meeting is from the President’s Daily Diary. (Ibid.)
  2. For memoranda of Mikoyan’s conversations with Johnson on November 26, 1963, see Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. V, Documents 380 and 381.
  3. For a report on Halaby’s trip to the Soviet Union, December 8–18, 1963, see ibid., Document 389.
  4. Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Mann expressed his doubts in a February 13 memorandum to Rusk, stating that the signing of the U.S.-Soviet Civil Air Agreement would undermine efforts to keep Cuba isolated and make more difficult U.S. efforts to persuade Latin American and African countries to deny landing and overflight rights to bloc aircraft. (National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964–66, AV 4 USUSSR) In a February 5 memorandum to Rusk, Thompson sought to counter Mann’s views by emphasizing the agreement’s advantages, the greatest of which he thought was “a psychological one. As a result of their quarrel with the Chinese Communists, their internal economic difficulties, and the growing independence of the Eastern European Communist countries, the Soviet regime will be faced in the next year or two with some major decisions which could basically influence Western relations for many years to come.” U.S. willingness to conclude bilateral agreements would help provide an alternative to the Chinese hard line. (Ibid., S/AL Files: Lot 67 D 2, Staff Memos, Ambassador Thompson) Rusk incorporated the views of both men in Document 22.