281. Memorandum From the Deputy Director of the Office of National Estimates (Huizenga) to Director of Central Intelligence Helms 1


  • Some Signs of Change in Soviet Policy

1. Signs have appeared recently that Soviet policy may be moving in new directions on some key issues. Having responded for the last several years to approaches on Vietnam only by a willingness to provide Hanoi’s telephone number, the Soviets have now begun some diplomatic activity in the anterooms of the Paris talks. For the first time since the Arab-Israeli war a year ago, there are hints that Moscow’s hard pro-Arab line may give way to a more flexible diplomacy and some parallel efforts with the US. And, of course, the American offer of a year and a half ago to discuss the control of strategic weapons has now been taken up. Assuming that these are valid and significant signs, some obvious questions arise: Why? Why now? What range of movement on these or other issues is likely?

2. The consideration that might figure in a shift of Soviet policy on such issues would no doubt be multiple and complex. But more than likely, given their intense preoccupation with tactics, the Soviets have in mind some inter-connection when they become active simultaneously in several apparently unrelated matters. There has not been, however, any general improvement in the climate of Soviet-American relations, Moscow’s usual way of accenting the positive when it wants to get some diplomatic business done. The harsh attacks on the US which have marked the entire period of the Vietnam war continue. The suggestion is that Moscow is prepared for bargaining, but that the terms will be hard and that there will be no movement on matters important to the US unless it makes concessions sought by the USSR on others. Among the three subjects listed above, the Middle East and strategic [Page 662] arms control are those on which the US has been pressing Moscow to be more accommodating. Presumably the Soviets expect the US to move toward concessions on Vietnam.

Soviet Aims and Tactics on Vietnam

3. Support for Hanoi and its campaign against the South has had a high priority in Soviet policy since the fall of Khrushchev in 1964. While this course may have been entered upon then in the mistaken belief that Hanoi was nearing success, it has been persisted in at some cost and risk. Probably the main motive has been to sustain Moscow’s claim to leadership of the Communist movement in the face of China’s bitter attacks and deviant tendencies in others. At the same time, it was recognized that the widespread opposition to the US role in Vietnam provided opportunity for Soviet propaganda and diplomacy to work effectively against US influence in many other areas. Evidently, such possibilities as there might have been for constructive developments in Soviet-American relations did not weigh as heavily in Soviet calculations.

4. The Soviet leaders have probably always believed that the war could only end in a negotiated settlement, and they probably now hope that the Paris talks will develop in such a way as to bring that result at the earliest feasible date. Tactically, Hanoi’s move to the negotiating table also frees Moscow to begin at last to talk with the US on Vietnam. That this is happening does not mean that Moscow is now prepared to play a mediating role, however, much less to bring any sort of pressure on Hanoi to settle for less than it wants. Soviet diplomatic activity so far is only parallel and supporting, and appears at every step to be coordinated with the Vietnamese. This will probably continue to be true, for two very substantial reasons. First, the Soviets clearly do not have significant influence on Hanoi’s policy. Second, an attempt to put pressure on Hanoi to agree to some “compromise” solution short of its desires would play into China’s hands and probably cost Moscow its entire investment and effort in North Vietnam.

5. Thus the outcome Moscow will be working for will be one satisfactory to the Hanoi leadership. If Hanoi wins control of the South, and perhaps eventually of Laos and Cambodia as well, the Soviets will expect their repute among Vietnamese and other Communists to grow, and they will expect to increase their influence in Southeast Asia generally, at the expense of both the US and China. They do not equate success for Hanoi with an enlarged Chinese threat to that area. On the other hand, if Hanoi feels obliged to accept an unfavorable outcome, the Soviets will accept this also, though in this case they would expect Chinese influence in Hanoi to grow at their expense. The ideal solution from Moscow’s point of view would be one favorable to Hanoi, one that resulted from a negotiated settlement the Soviets could claim [Page 663] to have helped bring about, and perhaps also, if Hanoi were willing, a solution phased over some period of time, on the ground that this might limit complications and dangers in Soviet-American relations.

6. The indicated course for the Soviets, therefore, is to induce the US to move toward acceptance of terms agreeable to Hanoi. This has been their line all along, but the fact that negotiations are now in train authorizes them to take initiatives which Hanoi’s previously rigid attitude precluded. If the Soviets still cannot bargain on their own account over a Vietnam settlement, Hanoi will have no objection and perhaps even counts on the Soviets exercising leverage on the US by opening up other areas of negotiation.

7. It is probably no accident, therefore, that the Soviets chose the present moment to signal an interest in moving with the US on the Middle East and in talking about control of strategic arms. In making this point it does not need to be implied that the Soviets will only make motions on these subjects and will not talk seriously. In fact, in respect of both there are good reasons for believing that the Soviets think the moment has come when there would be advantage to them in trying to deal with the US. The opportunity to bring these subjects together with Vietnam perhaps only gave an added incentive.

Soviet Policy in the Middle East

8. Since the Arab-Israeli war in 1967 the Soviets have aligned themselves rigorously with the Arab cause. They have resupplied the arms lost and in their diplomacy and propaganda have worked for a settlement which would at least deprive Israel of the fruits of its military victory. In some part, this effort was intended to recoup the loss of prestige suffered by the USSR when it encouraged the Arab belligerency prior to June 1967 and then stood idly by as its clients were humiliated. The Soviets probably now think that they have largely reestablished their position in the radical Arab states. But for many complicated reasons, some having to do with Soviet interests in Europe, both East and West, Moscow has no desire to align itself with Arab intransigence aimed at the destruction of the Israeli state. Its problem is to preserve its influence with the Arabs while avoiding a full commitment to Arab aims.

9. If the present stalemate continues, the Israelis will simply stand fast on their territorial gains and the Arabs will feel that they have no recourse but to look to another round of war. They will demand more and more arms and probably direct Soviet support as well in an eventual showdown, perspectives which cannot be congenial to Moscow. The Soviets probably now think that they have an interest in joining with the US to bring the Middle East hotbed under some degree of control. What they would want from the US is pressure on Israel to [Page 664] moderate its claims for a settlement. In return, they might hold out the possibility of an agreement the US has long sought—one limiting arms sales in the region. The Soviets would be particularly pleased if under such an agreement the US could be persuaded to withhold further supply of high performance aircraft to Israel. In any case, they would expect that the prospect of parallel action to contain the dangers in this area would elicit considerable US interest. And, they might think, this could have some bearing on what the US would be willing to do about a settlement in Vietnam.

The Soviet Approach to Control of Strategic Arms

10. The long delay in acceptance of the American offer to discuss the control of strategic weapons was probably owing to several reasons. Responses to the repeated American initiatives in the arms control field have always been marked by extreme caution and suspicion, and on so central an issue as the control of strategic weapons the resistance of conservative forces, both within and outside of the military establishment, was probably formidable. Moreover, until very recently the Soviets have been in the position of catching up, at least in numbers of land-based ICBM’s. The present moment, when the Soviets have probably come to have real confidence in their possession of an assured destruction capability, and before the US advances to new developments which could unhinge this equilibrium once more, probably seems the most opportune to entertain measures to arrest competition in this field. The Soviets are probably not fully confident of their ability to keep pace should the race continue, and, of course, they must be deeply conscious of the economic burdens of continuing.

11. Moscow’s willingness to begin talks does not signify a firm intention to strive for an agreement. In the initial phase, the Soviets will probably confine themselves to probing the US position. If and when they get down to serious dealing, the process, given the critical nature of the issues, will be hard and prolonged. But, because of their intensely political approach to arms control issues, the Soviets will see certain advantages in this very process. For one thing, they are aware that prolonged negotiation about arms control measures is itself a form of arms control, since some inhibition would be imposed on new US programs. For another, they would hope that one result of the negotiations, even if no agreement issues from them, will be that the US concedes in principle that the USSR is and should be recognized as an equal power, with a full right to strategic parity, however that may be defined in detail. This alone the Soviets would see as a considerable political achievement, with favorable implications for the position of the Soviet regime at home, for its claims to leadership in the Communist world, and for its standing and influence as a world power.

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12. And, of course, to engage the US in negotiations for a goal—significant arms control agreements—to which American opinion and policy are deeply committed, would, the Soviets could calculate, have an influence on how the US appraised what was at stake in one or another form of Vietnam settlement. It is not that there could be any direct trade-offs; this would be too crude. But the belief that Soviet-American relations were at last on a constructive course could have a far-reaching effect, especially on general American opinion, in making concessions in Vietnam seem more acceptable. It is a classic Soviet mode in negotiating close issues to hold out the promise of broader benefits to follow.

In Sum

13. This reading of the signs which point to some new directions in Soviet policy on certain major issues clearly does not forecast any very deep change. There are good tactical reasons why the Soviets should now move toward some degree of tacit collaboration with the US in the Middle East, and should take up the US offer to discuss the control of strategic weapons. The possibility of influencing the US course in the negotiations on Vietnam by these moves is an added tactical consideration of great weight. In other areas, however, Soviet purposes will require that tension and hostility be sustained. This is particularly true in Eastern Europe where the Soviet hegemony is under challenge and where “the threat of aggressive US imperialism” is more than ever needed. Even in the USSR itself, the leadership apparently feels, certain unwholesome tendencies and a kind of ideological unsteadiness preclude any broad relaxation of tensions with the US. Thus the signs of change considered here presage, in the intentions of the Soviet leaders, no very far-reaching effects for Soviet-American relations. But then the Soviet leaders have not been uniformly successful in forecasting and controlling the consequences of every new turn in the play.

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, USSR, Vol. XXI. Secret; Eyes Only. Helms forwarded Huizenga’s memorandum to the President under cover of a July 16 memorandum that stated: “Walt Rostow and I have been discussing the significance of recent Soviet foreign policy moves in an effort to ascertain what coherence there might be when the principal ones are taken together. To this end, the attached paper has been drafted. It is a careful, balanced analysis with which I agree.” Rostow added his own covering memorandum to the President, dated July 16, in which he commented that the paper was “worth reading” and its author “a thoughtful and hardheaded fellow.” In a July 16 memorandum to Rostow, Helms noted that he had also sent a copy of the paper to Rusk but otherwise it would be given no distribution. (All ibid.)