139. Editorial Note

On October 20, 1969, at 3:30 p.m., President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger met in the Oval Office of the White House with Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin at the latter’s request to discuss the range of U.S.-Soviet relations. In an October 17 diary entry Assistant to the President Haldeman wrote: “K has all sorts of signal activity going on around the world to try to jar Soviets & NVN—appears to be working because Dobrynin asked for an early mtg—which we have set secretly for Monday [October 20].” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, Haldeman Files) In [Page 468] an October 18 briefing paper to the President, Kissinger stressed: “Your basic purpose will be to keep the Soviets concerned about what we might do around November 1. You should also make clear that, whether or not they agree to SALT, unless there is real progress in Vietnam, US-Soviet relations will continue to be adversely affected.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 489, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/HAK, 1969, [part 1]). According to the October 20 memorandum of conversation, the discussion on Vietnam follows:

“The President then turned to Vietnam. He said that prior to the bombing halt, ‘which you are aware will be one year old on November 1st,’ Ambassadors Bohlen, Thompson and Harriman had pointed out that the Soviet Union could do nothing as long as the United States was bombing a fellow Socialist country, and that it would be very active afterwards. The bombing halt was agreed to and the Soviet Union has done nothing.

“Of course, the President said, we now had an oblong table to the attainment of which the Soviet Union contributed something, but the U.S. did not consider that a great achievement. All conciliatory moves for the past year had been made by the United States. The President enumerated them.

“The President said he therefore had concluded that maybe the Soviet Union did not want to end the war in Vietnam. They may think that they can break the President; they may believe that the U.S. domestic situation is unmanageable; they may think that the war in Vietnam costs the Soviet Union only a small amount of money and costs the U.S. a great many lives. The President did not propose to argue with the Soviet assessment. As a great power, it had the right to take its position. On the other hand, the Ambassador had to understand the following: the Soviet Union would be stuck with the President for the next three years and three months, and the President would keep in mind what was being done right now. If the Soviet Union would not help us to get peace, the U.S. would have to pursue its own methods for bringing the war to an end. It could not allow a talk-fight strategy without taking action.

“The President said he hoped that the Ambassador would understand that such measures would not be directed against the Soviet Union, but would be in the U.S. interest of achieving peace. The U.S. recognized that a settlement must reflect the real situation. It recognized the right of all Vietnamese to participate in the political process. But up to now, there had been a complete refusal of North Vietnam to make its own proposals in order to have any serious discussion.

“The President pointed out that all the Ambassador had done was to repeat the same tired old slogans that the North Vietnamese had made already six months ago, and which he knew very well could lead nowhere. It was time to get discussions started. The humiliation of a defeat was absolutely unacceptable. The President recognized that the Soviet [Page 469] leaders were tough and courageous, but so was he. He told Ambassador Dobrynin that he hoped that he would not mind this serious talk.

“President Nixon said he did not believe much in personal diplomacy, and he recognized that the Ambassador was a strong defender of the interests of his own country. The President pointed out that if the Soviet Union found it possible to do something in Vietnam, and the Vietnam war ended, the U.S. might do something dramatic to improve Soviet-U.S. relations, indeed something more dramatic than they could now imagine. But until then, real progress would be difficult.

“Ambassador Dobrynin asked whether this meant that there could be no progress. The President replied that progress was possible, but it would have to be confined essentially to what was attainable in diplomatic channels. He said that he was very happy to have Ambassador Dobrynin use the channel through Dr. Kissinger, and he would be prepared to talk to the Ambassador personally. He reiterated that the war could drag on, in which case the U.S. would find its own way to bring it to an end. There was no sense repeating the proposals of the last six months. However, he said, in the meantime, while the situation continued, we could all keep our tone down and talk correctly to each other. It would help, and would lay the basis for further progress, perhaps later on when conditions were more propitious.

“The President said that the whole world wanted us to get together. He too wanted nothing so much as to have his Administration remembered as a watershed in U.S.-Soviet relations, but we would not hold still for being ‘diddled’ to death in Vietnam.” (Memorandum of conversation, October 20; ibid.)

The full text of this discussion is in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XII, Soviet Union, 1969–October 1970. That evening the President called Kissinger and suggested that in a meeting with Dobrynin the next day on another subject, Kissinger should try to raise the issue of Vietnam. Nixon told Kissinger “to shake his head and say ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Ambassador, but he [Nixon] is out of control. Mr. Ambassador, as you know, I am very close to the President, but you don’t know this man—he has been through more than the rest of us put together.’ He’s made up his mind and unless there is some movement just shake your head and walk out. He is probably just figuring out what was said [at the October 20 meeting with Kissinger and Nixon].” Kissinger suggested typing up what the President said on a plain piece of paper and giving it to Dobrynin. The President agreed, noting that Dobrynin would ask, “What does this mean? Are you threatening me?” Then Nixon stated that Kissinger should say “Please now, Mr. Ambassador, the President isn’t threatening you. He just wants a little movement.” Kissinger suggested that “if they ignore what you said this afternoon, they either believe that your freedom of action is so circumscribed that you can’t do anything or Hanoi is out of control.” The President [Page 470] suggested it was the latter and remarked: “As I said, I’m here for three years.” (Notes of a telephone conversation, October 20, 8:25 p.m.; Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 360, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File)

In an October 21 memorandum to the President, Kissinger assessed the meeting with Dobrynin and emphasized: “Dobrynin’s basic mission was to test the seriousness of the threat element in our current posture and to throw out enough inducements (SALT, Berlin, direct informal contact with you) to make it politically and psychologically difficult for you to play it rough over Vietnam.” Kissinger went on to suggest that Nixon’s threats might give the Soviets ammunition to lobby Hanoi for a more flexible position, or at least a token concession. Kissinger also concluded that Dobrynin had no substantive adjustments to present on Vietnam and that it was “essential to continue to back up our verbal threats with military present moves.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 489, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/HAK, 1969, [part 1]) From October 13–30, Nixon authorized the Joint Chiefs of Staff to place portions of the U.S. military on heightened alert (JCS Readiness Test). Documentation on this subject is in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXXIV, National Security, 1969–1972.