101. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Meeting with the Business Council (list attached)
  • Henry A. Kissinger

[Omitted here are Kissinger’s introductory comments and a passing reference to the war in Vietnam.]

When this Administration came to power at the beginning of 1969, we found ourselves in a period with the foreign policy capital of the post-war era virtually exhausted. That era was one in which the United States was the sole nation of the non-Communist world with power sufficient to run foreign affairs. Following the Second World War the traditional powers were shattered economically and had domestic structures that would not sustain the active conduct of foreign policy. At the same time the emerging nations were still looking for power. They had not achieved it. During that era, throughout the non-Communist world questions of security and progress depended on answers from the United States. It came to be the view of the other nations that their security and progress was of more interest to the United States than it was to them themselves. As a reflection of that, foreign affairs for them came to be little more than lobbying efforts in the United States for action by our government. This situation, of course, simply could not last.

In the subsequent period we have seen Europe and Japan both grow enormously in their economic and military potential. Japan by [Page 348] now has one of the largest economies in the world. During that same period we have seen the Communist world split; and now, surprisingly enough, the most significant political split in the world is not between the Communists and the non-Communists, but within the Communist world between Russia and China. So the whole international balance had changed by the time this Administration came into power: first, due to the growth of the power of our friends, and second, due to the growth of the power of our enemies.

As an example, in 1962 during the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy’s supporters were proud to say that the President had gone to the edge of cataclysm to prevent intrusion in the Western Hemisphere. At that time, the Russians had some 70 intercontinental ballistic missiles: all were standing in the open, and required ten hours to fuel. By the time this Administration came into power in 1969, the Russians had 1200 missiles, all in hard sites, and they had a constantly growing fleet of missile-armed submarines. So during this era, decisions about peace and war in the international area have been taken under circumstances drastically different from those which prevailed in the 1960’s.

The Europeans, most of all, have been slowly recognizing the changes in the international order. On the other side of the iron curtain, of course, there have also been significant changes. Russia was torn between her revolutionary ideology and the management of her national bureaucracy. And the Russians found themselves in a situation where their national economy could not continue to support revolutionary foreign policy. Interestingly enough also, Russia’s main enemy turned out to lie in Asia, and to be Communist (that is to say China) and not to be as traditionally though, in Western Europe. And this, of course, was not long after the Russians were wont to celebrate the Communist feats of the Chinese. As a further shock to Russia the Chinese have chosen to deal now with the least dangerous of the four major powers that it sees in the world—the United States. In any case this is the situation that we faced in 1969, and to which we have tried to adjust.

Among the requirements of this new adjustment was to leave behind an attitude from the post-war foreign policy era that engagement itself was an end to be sought. Such engagements throughout the world have become beyond our resources, not only physically but also psychologically.

I have been asked not infrequently what I have learned from this job. In attempting to answer that, let me say that humility is not one of my strongest virtues. Later, after I leave this job, I may have a better perspective on what I have learned. But I will say that working outside the government the toughest problem I found was to identify issues. Once I had identified an issue, I could work to the best of my ability in reaching [Page 349] whatever solution seemed appropriate. Here in the government I find that there is no problem about getting the issues: they pile up in my “In-Box” every day. The problem here is how to get time to deal with them.

You all probably know that a large number of articles exist on the subject of policy planning. In fact, I myself have authored some scholarly (if not learned) articles of that nature. But I will tell you gentlemen tonight that concepts about policy planning are entirely esoteric if the issues involved cannot get to the policy-makers in the limit with which we realistically have to deal. If we were to try to take on the entire world in our foreign policy, the mere quantity of work that would be produced would just simply be too great to be handled by our top decision-makers. The greater our involvement in the world, the more the railroad train which always seems to be coming down the track toward you is likely to hit you. And while the chance that the train will hit you is growing enormously, your ability to deal thoughtfully with issues is of course declining.

The policy of this Administration is not to withdraw from the world; it is to maintain an involvement in the world—an involvement under a policy that we are capable of maintaining. In the non-Communist world this is the Nixon Doctrine. The basic premise of this doctrine is that we cannot expect to defend others beyond the point where they cannot defend themselves. Intellectually, organizationally, they must take the lead. Key here are psychological factors. We want the top policy-makers around the world to think for themselves, to organize regionally on their own, not to come automatically to the United States for answers to their problems. We are not going to withdraw from the world; this is surely evidenced by our continuing fight against amendments to limit our capacities around the world attached to the appropriation bills in Congress. We are going to demand more from the other nations of the world community.

Now let me turn for a moment to address our adversaries. We face two entirely different situations. The Soviet Union is a highly developed Communist society. The Chinese have a society which is in infancy. There is a peculiar nostalgia that leads Americans to believe that all the peoples of the world are secretly Americans. I have often said that the Americans hold the view that if you caught a Britisher off guard, when he didn’t know you were listening, for instance, at 4 a.m. in the morning, he would drop that phony British accent and talk like an American. (Laughter) This nostalgia is reflected in the traditional view that our differences with the Russians must be reflections of mere personal misunderstandings and that the remedy for national differences is the development of interpersonal good will. The theory was that if we could only [Page 350] show the Russians we are regular guys, our problems would be resolved.

Now this theory is one that the Russians have gone along with when it has been convenient for them. This has led us to a history of brief periods of détente followed inevitably by periods of increased tensions. The inevitability of these increased tensions is evidenced by the fact that they have regularly reappeared over the last fifty years of relationship with the Russians. They must have some basis in fact other than personal misunderstandings.

The policy of this Administration, and it was reflected in the President’s first press conference, has been not to talk about tensions with the Russians. We are not going to confuse foreign policy with psychotherapy. What we want to do is deal with concrete issues in our relationships, and we must avoid giving the Russians the impression that realities can be affected by changes in the atmospherics and personal relationships; otherwise, they would have no incentive to settle the real problems that exist between us.

An example of what I am talking about occurred early in the Administration. We had a problem about businessmen wanting licenses to deal with Russia. Businessmen kept coming to the White House with threats that they were going to do grave things when they got back to their Board of Directors if we didn’t “okay” new trade with Russia. President Nixon’s first press conference outlined the Administration policy of viewing all foreign problems as inter-related. This is a policy sometimes called “linkage”—a policy we deny in words but carry out in actions.

In the fall of 1970 there was surely evidence to the Russians that we were serious about dealing on concrete issues. There was the Middle East crisis, the frustration of trying to reach progress on the German question, the Cuban problem, and our firm position on the Polish uprising. Subsequent to that, we have seen dramatic progress in SALT negotiations, in Berlin (an area that brought the world four times in the post-war era to the brink of war), and in other areas. In addition, we have seen an opening of trade. The period immediately following this one may not be one of an expanding trade, at least prior to the consolidation of political advances commensurate with already expanded trade. But I do predict, gentlemen, that if those political advances continue we will see a tremendous growth in trade with the Russians.

Let me say (and by the way let me take this opportunity to confirm that my remarks this evening are totally off-the-record), that one might say that the Russians can be characterized as slightly thuggish bureaucrats, whereas the Chinese are more like fanatical monks. As we confront the Chinese, we confront a young society which has been totally [Page 351] isolated from us for some 22 years. China is a nation that does not impinge upon us except in our relations with Taiwan. The Russians are in a different situation. With them we have numerous, precise issues and conflicts.

In China our problem is in setting a basic direction of foreign affairs. What we must identify is a long-range direction, and I mean a direction for the next five to ten years. We must use our opening to identify those areas in which we have conflicting interests and those areas in which there is no such conflict (and cooperation is possible). Our meeting with the Russians will likely result in specific objective agreements; but at the Chinese summit the communiqué which results will not be the key to the understanding reached there. Most important will be a philosophical, intangible understanding of motives and of the basic direction of our relationship.

As we deal with the Chinese we have no illusions about the depth of their ideological hostility to us. But my experience with the Chinese to this point leads me to reflect that they have an extraordinary depth of understanding about the world situation. They demonstrate considerably greater flexibility than the Russians in dealing with us. In the interim phase with the Chinese our big task is going to be to show them that we are serious enough to be dealt with.

As the Chinese approach relations with the United States, they have two basic alternatives. First, they can deal with us in a revolutionary manner by stirring up anti-government sentiment domestically. Second, they can deal directly with the government of the United States. They have chosen the second route, and we think that is a desirable route, and in the interest of world peace. Of course, if that choice proves not to be fruitful, they could revert to the revolutionary anti-government alternative. This gives you the general direction that we are headed vis-à-vis the Communist world.

Let me say this Administration hopes that when the passions have cooled, and history looks back on this period of foreign affairs, it will not be remembered as the Administration which settled the Vietnam war (though we certainly do intend to have the Vietnam war settled), but rather as the Administration that set a new direction in foreign policy—a direction desirable without regard to party affiliation—a new direction which would contribute not only to the likelihood of international peace, but also to the unity of the American nation. You know, one of the most serious things that we have faced in this Administration has been the loss of moral support from the American Establishment. By the loss of moral support I do not mean the lack of agreement on individual issues, but rather the absence of a feeling in foreign affairs that the nation is a unified and functioning entity. [Page 352] These, then, are the foreign policy goals that this Administration seeks internationally, and domestically (regarding the reintegration of American society).

[Omitted here are concluding remarks and questions and answers.]

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box CL 270, Memoranda of Conversations, September 1971-November 1972. Administratively Confidential. There is no drafting information on the memorandum. The meeting was held in the Chinese Room of the Mayflower Hotel. A list of the Business Council participants is attached but not printed.