80. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Hedley Donovan
  • Hugh Sidey
  • William Mader
  • Herman Nichol
  • John Steele
  • Henry A. Kissinger
  • David R. Young (note taker)

The luncheon opened with a general discussion about the student movement. Mr. Kissinger explained that when he met with the students around the time of the Cambodian operation he did so on the condition that they return after the summer or in six months to discuss it and other matters of foreign policy again. By and large the result has been that the students’ interest has petered out. In fact it has now become necessary for us to take the initiative to encourage students to come down. The groups that we now have are no longer protest groups and they are asking more serious questions. The earlier groups were characterized by incredible ignorance. A good example is the question that Safire asked them, that if the Administration did certain things would they be satisfied. When they said yes, he revealed that these steps had already been taken, but they were not satisfied. The same ploy was used by the Vice President on TV a short time later.

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The students seem to only know the standard questions and after they had said, “What about Cambodia ?” and one has replied, “yes, what about Cambodia”?, they did not know what to say. They seem quite bored with probing into the reasons behind decisions, etc.

Mr. Donovan mentioned Bator’s2 complaint about the coverage of the visit of the Harvard professors and Sidey explained that this involved their disagreement with the article he had written stating that one of the implied messages of their visit was that in view of the recent Cambodian actions and Mr. Kissinger’s part in it, he would no longer be welcome back at Harvard. The group claimed that they had never said this and Sidey agreed but said it was implicit in their coming down and he was not questioning their integrity but their judgment.

Mr. Kissinger explained how the meeting took place and that he was completely unaware of their purpose in coming. They opened the meeting by stating that everything he said would be completely on the record. As a result he could not really give any explanations. Many have since felt somewhat guilty of their role because they acted at a time of considerable emotion. Mr. Kissinger also explained that he had since been in touch with just about all of the members of the group and he thought their communications were relatively open in spite of the confrontation.

[The discussion then turned to a general question and answer format.]3

[Omitted here is an exchange concerning problems coloring the Nixon administration’s dealings with Congress on foreign policy issues.]

Q. Mr. Donovan: In the last ten years do you think there had been any constructive public opinion intervention in the formulation of foreign policy?

A. Dr. Kissinger: The whole debate on commitments has indirectly been somewhat helpful. The problem is that the debate has concentrated on our commitments and not our interests. It is really our interests that should get us involved, not our commitments. The real debate therefore should be on what and where are our interests, and only then should we look at our commitments. The whole public debate on commitments, however, has at least focused our attention in the right direction. In Vietnam there never was an adequate analysis of what our strategic interests were. The theory was that Vietnam was a test case for [Page 286] what appeared to be centrally directed guerrilla wars; if we could stop the war there, we could stop it worldwide. There was no real examination of our interests vis-à-vis the Soviets or the Chinese. If LBJ had known that the one division he committed would grow to 550,000 men he would never have done what he did.

Q. Mr. Steele: It seems that in the past many commitments were made simply by the military in the field. How do you look at the making of our commitments now?

A. Dr. Kissinger: Our procedure now is much more formal. One of the jobs of the Washington Special Action Group is to develop contingency plans which have an integrated political/diplomatic/military scenario even down to the point of preparing draft cables on what we should say to particular countries. And more importantly, we examine where we will be two years after a certain plan is followed. This procedure was first followed after the shoot-down of the EC-121.

One of the discoveries made since assuming this position has been the realization that it is not simply enough to be able to identify a problem. This is what I thought was the objective when I was a consultant on the outside. The problem I now realize is to get time to address a particular issue. Our commitment to Ethiopia is an example of a situation where we have not yet had time to give it the attention we should.

One additional practice which we have instituted is to formally review our major programs and reassess our covert operations on a periodic basis. If this is not done from time to time, programs have a habit of just going on even though the initial reason for their implementation may have disappeared.

Q. Mr. Donovan: Who do you think really carries the responsibility for understanding and implementing a new direction in our foreign policy?

A. Dr. Kissinger: The answer would seem to be the “establishment”, whatever that means. Specifically, it would seem to be those who are concerned about our foreign policy, who have an influence on the media and who have the means to form a consensus of opinion in the country. These seem to be the ones who carry the responsibility for understanding and giving us a new direction, but one of the more disturbing aspects of the Cambodian operation was the total collapse of the establishment at a time when it should have stood up. One can understand the students’ reaction, but it is not as easy to excuse the establishment and its leaders for attacking the President and the system on such an issue. They should have known better and have realized that, regardless of what they said, the only one that could bring the war in Vietnam to an end was the President and that it was not in the best interests of the country to seek to destroy it [him?].

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It is surprising how preoccupied outsiders are in operational matters. On such matters the government official can invariably outpoint his outside opponent, not because he is brighter but simply because he has more information at his disposal. What the outsider should concentrate on doing is asking the right questions, then the government official can try to get the answers. If they are wrong that is his fault, not the fault of the questioner. One of the great dangers with trying to deal with such a high number of issues and problems is that the urgent ones seem to displace the more important ones. It is a constant fight to find time to address those questions which have long range implications. The bureaucracies also do not help one in this connection since they almost always give us three options in which the first and third are the extremes and the second is what they are doing or what they propose to do.

To answer your questions directly, yes, the formulation of informed and reasoned public opinion is needed very badly.

Q. Mr. Donovan: How many people would you say in a country are reasonably well informed, 100,000, 200,000, 10,000?

A. Dr. Kissinger: The number of people who cause senior people in the government to think would be more restricted. We do care about the League of Women Voters in Iowa, but the groups that I think would be the opinion molders would be various foreign relations committees around the country such as the Council on Foreign Relations. The problem with such a group as the CFR is that the membership must really be changed since they are all thinking on the basis of post World War II 1940’s assumptions. McCloy4 was in the other day bemoaning the lack of leadership in Europe. What he wants is something like the Marshall Plan. But the situation has changed. The Marshall Plan was okay in the 1940’s but not now.

Q. Mr. Steele: What is your present analysis of the “cold war”?

A. Dr. Kissinger: In June, despite Cambodia, it was fairly optimistic. We had the likelihood of progress in SALT, a visit to the US by Kosygin in connection with the UN anniversary and an apparent willingness to keep the Middle East quiet. We never even anticipated a problem in Cuba. In the middle of June, however, there seemed to be a sudden shift and the flexibility that we had earlier experienced disappeared. This was at about the same time as the Soviet decision to delay their Party Congress.

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There are three possible explanations for this change:

  • —First, that it was part of a master plan that each one of these decisions which seemed to be gratuitously aggressive was made as part of an integrated scheme.
  • —A second explanation would be that the leaders are so grossly incompetent that they made these decisions on an ad hoc basis simply without studying the relation of one to the other.
  • —Thirdly, it can be explained as the outgrowth of a collective leadership in which there is no dominant personality and which has become divided into divisive factions.

Each faction is seeking to outdo the other, no one has the power of a veto but neither does anyone have the power to make a generous deal with the US which might produce some long-term advantages. It is entirely possible that the Middle East actions were decided by one group, the Cuban ones by another and the SALT ones by still another.

Dobrynin, notwithstanding the element of flattery, has told me that the problem is that the Kremlin does not have an office such as an advisor for national security affairs which can pull together all the various points of view. It is equivalent to each of our Cabinet members having access to all cables and papers. The result is obviously that there is more likely to be discordant decisions. And this, incidentally, is also what Tito believes to be the case.

Q. Do you think the cold war is over?

A. By all reason it should be over but it obviously is not. It would seem that the Soviet [ Union] would realize that it is to its advantage to deal with Nixon since he has far more flexibility in reaching agreement with them than either Kennedy or Johnson had. For example, in SALT or in the Middle East if they would pull themselves together and forget about gigging us and trying to take advantage of every tactical situation, we could have progress. But it must be admitted that so far in this Administration there has been no conversation resulting in a fundamental agreement.

Q. Mr. Mader: Are not these divisive factions also at the Politburo level?

A. Dr. Kissinger: Yes; that is exactly where they are and where they are most apparent. In fact, it would not seem to be unusual for one faction to make a deal with another faction in order to get reciprocal support from their divisions.

Q. Mr. Nichol: How would you apply this analysis of the Soviet regime to its actions on Berlin?

A. Dr. Kissinger: It would seem that what West Germany is doing—their Ostpolitik—is in the best interests of the Soviet Union. The Soviet reaction is therefore puzzling. With regard to the question of access to Berlin, there is no doubt that the East German regime is gaining increased sovereignty over the routes. And even if an access agreement [Page 289] is worked out, there is no end to the harassments an imaginative bureaucracy can think up. And they can even be legal. Therefore, if the Soviets wanted to put West Germany in a fairly tough spot, it would seem that they would give some concessions in order to facilitate an agreement on Berlin thereby removing the West German precondition to ratification of their treaty with the Soviets. But it may be that the Soviets think that they can get their ratification without any Berlin concessions. It may also be that the Soviets believe that no West German government can take responsibility for not ratifying the treaty.

Q. Mr. Nichol: Will we make it easier or tougher for West Germany to ratify the treaty with the Russians?

A. Dr. Kissinger: As long as the agreement on Berlin is confined to the question of access, we will go as far as the Germans want us to. But we cannot be more German than the Germans. We have not been tough on Berlin, the comments of Ehmke5 notwithstanding. We will not hold up the Berlin agreement unless it is a patent turnover to the other side. We will not push Germany into a soft position. It should be remembered that it was the Germans who started the negotiations. They said that they had a deal with the Soviets to get improvements on Berlin in exchange for their Ostpolitik. But as yet, we have not seen any sign of such a deal.

Q. Mr. Mader: How would you describe your present concern about Cuba ?

A. Dr. Kissinger: It is a fact that the Soviets constructed a submarine facility in Cienfuegos such as we have at Holy Loch. It was done with a maximum of deception and speed in a little over three weeks.

We challenged them along the line that we knew what they were doing but without saying it precisely. We said if this facility turns into a military base, we would not be pleased. The Soviets then came back and said specifically they were not building a military base. The 1962 Understandings6 therefore were extended on the public record to include this type of military facility. The Soviets at the same time pulled [Page 290] out their tender so that, while they would not admit that they were building a nuclear submarine facility, their actions betrayed them.

Q. Mr. Donovan: Isn’t this sort of action insulting?

A. Dr. Kissinger: Yes, it is. It may be indicative of the petty type of leadership that the Soviets now have, but the positive result is that the 1962 Understandings have been extended to cover the submarine facility. If the tender services nuclear subs, it is breaking the agreement. If it does not tend the subs, then it is no good to them. The question here is why do they continue to horse around. The way that they are putting the tender in here, pulling out something else there, putting the tender back over here does not give one confidence that he is dealing with big people. If they do set up a facility and it operates sufficiently, it can increase their patrolling by 35 per cent. The thing they do not seem to realize, though, is if they do get away with a partial establishment of a base, they are hurting our confidence in them in relation to other more significant areas of agreement

Q. Mr. Mader: Do we have any confidence in them now at all?

A. Dr. Kissinger: In the SALT talks, we can still see areas for progress. The reason here is that the SALT preparations were so thorough that if any agreement is reached it will be so precise that there will probably be about a two-year period in which to react to any violation. We can therefore go ahead regardless of how they behave elsewhere in the world.

We would have liked to have been known as the Administration that developed a new international system not based on rivalry but which took into account the abyss before which we stand as nations.

It may be that after the Party Congress next year there will be a crystallization of leadership and more likelihood of agreement. But, we must realize that the Soviet leadership is a bunch of thugs. Krushchev’s memoirs7 and specifically his account of Beria’s downfall are good examples of this brutal system.

The Soviets also have the China problem which is both geopolitical and ideological. They want to free their Western rear so that they can focus more on China, but when they do so, it complicates their ideological problem since the Chinese will say that they are not the “true church” because they have become soft on the West. In this sense, a détente in Europe is a God-send for the Soviets. Europe will protect their rear (e.g., Pompidou’s visit, Brandt’s Ostpolitik, disintegration on the Italian political scene) while they continue to maintain a stiff attitude toward us and thereby lay claim as “the true church.”

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This, however, in my opinion is an illusion. For the same reason that a détente is important, it does not bring about anything permanent. It only defers decisions for three to four years. Hence, Ostpolitik may indirectly contribute to increased tensions with the US.

Q. Mr. Donovan: Is there any likelihood that there will be a warm-up of US/Chinese relations?

A. Dr. Kissinger: It seems that the quickest way for us to get the Soviets’ attention is to put out the word that we are restudying the China question. It is indeed worrisome to Moscow whether we will develop a dialogue with the Chinese. We have floated all sorts of signals to the Chinese, but as yet, we really don’t know how to get in touch with them. In Warsaw, the Chinese have enjoyed trying to drive the Soviets crazy by various approaches to us. But the Chinese are really trying to play the same game as the Soviets; namely, to first isolate us and then deal with the other. Our China strategy has been both to develop a dialogue with them for its own sake and then to have a counterweight with the Soviets.

[Omitted here is discussion of developments in Vietnam.]

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box CL 269, Memoranda of Conversation, 1968-1977, Chronological File. No classification marking. Prepared by David Young of Kissinger’s office. The interview was conducted by Time magazine correspondents at the Washington offices of the magazine.
  2. Francis M. Bator, professor of political economy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard, and former Deputy Special Assistant to President Johnson.
  3. Brackets in the source text.
  4. John J. McCloy, member of the law firm of Milbank, Tweed, Hadley, and McCloy, and Chairman of the President’s Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament.
  5. Horst Ehmke, Head of the Federal Chancellery and Minister for Special Tasks, Federal Republic of Germany.
  6. An apparent reference to the exchange of letters between President Kennedy and Soviet Chairman Khrushchev on October 27 and October 28, 1962, which ended the initial phase of the Cuban missile crisis. As outlined in Kennedy’s letter of October 27, the “understandings” involved the dismantling and removal from Cuba of “all weapon systems capable of offensive use” combined with an assurance that the Soviet Union would not introduce such systems into Cuba in the future. In return, the United States agreed to lift the naval quarantine in effect and offer assurances against an invasion of Cuba. Khrushchev accepted Kennedy’s proposal on October 28, but further negotiations to establish formal understandings based on the exchange of letters foundered on the issues of verification of the removal of weapons from Cuba and on the unwillingness of the Kennedy administration to provide a formal non-invasion pledge. See Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. XI, Documents 95 and 102.
  7. Reference is to an advance copy of Nikita Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers, translated and edited by Strobe Talbott (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971).