10. Letter From President Nixon to Secretary of Defense Laird1

Dear Mel:

I have been giving much thought to our relations with the Soviet Union and would like to give you, informally, my ideas on this central security problem. My purpose in doing so is not to prejudge the scheduled systematic review by the National Security Council of our policy options with respect to the USSR, but rather to set out the general approach which I believe should guide us in our conduct as we move from confrontation to negotiation.

I believe that the tone of our public and private discourse about and with the Soviet Union should be calm, courteous and non-polemical. This will not prevent us from stating our views clearly and, if need be, firmly; nor will it preclude us from candidly affirming our attitude—negatively if warranted—toward the policies and actions of the Soviet Union. But what I said in my Inaugural address concerning the tone and character of our domestic debates should also govern the tone and character of our statements in the international arena, most especially in respect of the Soviet Union.2
I believe that the basis for a viable settlement is a mutual recognition of our vital interests. We must recognize that the Soviet Union has interests; in the present circumstances we cannot but take account of them in defining our own. We should leave the Soviet leadership in no doubt that we expect them to adopt a similar approach toward us. This applies also to the concerns and interests of our allies and indeed of all nations. They, too, are entitled to the safeguarding of their legitimate interests. In the past we have often attempted to settle things in a fit of enthusiasm, relying on personal diplomacy. But the “spirit” that permeated various meetings lacked a solid basis of mutual interest and, therefore, every summit meeting was followed by a crisis in less than a year.
I am convinced that the great issues are fundamentally interrelated. I do not mean by this to establish artificial linkages between specific [Page 57] elements of one or another issue or between tactical steps that we may elect to take. But I do believe that crisis or confrontation in one place and real cooperation in another cannot long be sustained simultaneously. I recognize that the previous Administration took the view that when we perceive a mutual interest on an issue with the USSR, we should pursue agreement and attempt to insulate it as much as possible from the ups and downs of conflicts elsewhere. This may well be sound on numerous bilateral and practical matters such as cultural or scientific exchanges. But, on the crucial issues of our day, I believe we must seek to advance on a front at least broad enough to make clear that we see some relationship between political and military issues. I believe that the Soviet leaders should be brought to understand that they cannot expect to reap the benefits of cooperation in one area while seeking to take advantage of tension or confrontation elsewhere. Such a course involves the danger that the Soviets will use talks on arms as a safety valve on intransigence elsewhere. I note, for example, that the invasion of Hungary was followed by abortive disarmament talks within nine months. The invasion of Czechoslovakia was preceded by the explorations of a summit conference (in fact, when Ambassador Dobrynin informed President Johnson of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, he received the appointment so quickly because the President thought his purpose was to fix the date of a summit meeting). Negotiation and the search for agreement carry their own burdens; the Soviets—no less than we—must be ready to bear them.
I recognize the problem of giving practical substance to the propositions set forth in the previous paragraph. Without attempting to lay down inflexible prescriptions about how various matters at issue between ourselves and the USSR should be connected, I would like to illustrate what I have in mind in one case of immediate and widespread interest—the proposed talks on strategic weapons. I believe our decision on when and how to proceed does not depend exclusively on our review of the purely military and technical issues, although these are of key importance. This decision should also be taken in the light of the prevailing political context and, in particular, in light of progress toward stabilizing the explosive Middle East situation, and in light of the Paris talks. I believe I should retain the freedom to ensure, to the extent that we have control over it, that the timing of talks with the Soviet Union on strategic weapons is optimal. This may, in fact, mean delay beyond that required for our review of the technical issues. Indeed, it means that we should—at least in our public position—keep open the option that there may be no talks at all.
I am of course aware that the Soviets are seeking to press us to agree to talks and I know also of the strong views held by many in this country. But I think it is important to establish with the Soviets early in [Page 58] the Administration that our commitment to negotiation applies to a range of major issues so that the “structure of peace” to which I referred in the Inaugural will have a sound base.


  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 220, Agency Files, Department of Defense, Vol. I, 1/12/69. Secret. President Nixon sent an identical letter on February 4 to Secretary of State Rogers. (Ibid., Box 279, Agency Files, Department of State, Vol. I, 1/17/69)
  2. In his inaugural address, Nixon said: “We cannot learn from each other until we stop shouting at one another—until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.” (Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard Nixon, 1969, p. 2)