178. Editorial Note

Shortly after he became President, Richard M. Nixon and his Assistant for National Security Affairs, Henry A. Kissinger, began negotiating with the leaders of the Soviet Union to establish a limitation on strategic arms. By early 1972 they had agreed to restrict the number of anti-ballistic launch sites each could have and to freeze the number of intercontinental and submarine-launched missiles in each other’s arsenal. To formally ratify this progress required a summit meeting between President Nixon and General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev. Discussions by the two sides about when and where the two should meet to sign the arms agreements, as well as other less controversial agreements, resulted in a decision to hold a summit in Moscow in late May. For a detailed examination of the path to the summit and the summit itself, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972.

North Vietnam’s launching of the Easter Offensive on March 30 complicated Nixon’s diplomacy because the Soviet Union was North Vietnam’s major supplier of munitions and equipment in its war against South Vietnam. As Nixon wrote in his memoirs: “It was hard to see how I could go to the summit and be clinking glasses with Brezhnev while Soviet tanks were rumbling through Hue or Quangtri.” ( RN, page 601) The failure of Kissinger’s meeting in Paris with Le Duc Tho, the chief North Vietnamese negotiator, on May 2 (see Document 109) further increased the difficulty.

After consultation with Kissinger; Assistant to the President H.R. Haldeman; Major General Alexander M. Haig, Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs; and Treasury Secretary John Connally, Nixon decided to continue and substantially intensify the American military response to the offensive with additional air and naval action against North Vietnam (see Document 121) and leave it to the Soviets to cancel the summit. That is, he would not lose in Vietnam, even if commitment to that goal caused him to lose the summit (see Document 120).

As it turned out, the Soviet response was, as Kissinger put it, “tepid and mild.” (White House Years, page 1193) In the immediate aftermath of the mining of Haiphong Harbor and the start of intensified bombing against the North on May 9–10, the Soviet Union did nothing more than protest the American decision. At the same time, senior Soviet officials working with Kissinger on the summit focused on the details of the upcoming event, making clear to him, as he wrote later, “The summit was on.” (Ibid., page 1194)

Nixon and Brezhnev met in the Soviet Union from May 22 to May 29. At the summit the leaders signed strategic arms limitation [Page 642] agreements (the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Interim Agreement on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms) and others on the environment, medical science and health, science and technology, the non-military exploitation of space, trade expansion, and on the principles of mutual relations between the two nations. Although not formally on the agenda, the two sides discussed Vietnam—including an evening session in which the Soviet leaders harshly criticized Nixon’s decision to bomb and mine the North—but reached no conclusion or agreement. (White House Years, pages 1225–1227; RN, pages 613–614, 617–618)

According to Kissinger’s report to Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker in Saigon, during the Vietnam discussions in Moscow:

“President set forth our positions on military measures and negotiations. North Vietnamese actions had left us no choice but to act decisively. Soviets must recognize responsibility in this and future situations of exercising restraint in arming smaller allies lest localized situations get out of control. President emphasized that our preferred way to end the conflict was through negotiations and that choice is now up to Hanoi whether it wished to endure further tests of strength.

“On negotiations we reviewed both the U.S.–GVN January peace plan and the President’s May 8 speech. The Soviets asked if these two proposals could be combined. We said our past proposals including the January plan still stood but stressed that these issues should be discussed at the conference table by the other side in a serious manner.

“Soviet leaders took predictable line with considerable intensity but without making demands. They did not condition progress in other areas on Vietnam in any way. They expressed support for DRV/PRG negotiating positions, sharply criticized our bombing of DRV and pressed hard for return to plenary sessions in Paris.

“We rejected enemy’s political demands as unacceptable and reaffirmed our refusal to replace SVN. As for plenaries we stated that we rejected stale propaganda performances of the past where they consider their own proposals as the only ones to be discussed. We said that if the other side agreed to discuss our proposals point by point we would consider return to plenaries later in the month. We will now await any Communist response. Until then no repeat no agreement has been reached concerning plenaries or private meetings.

“You may assure Thieu that any rumors of meetings between high-level DRV officials and US representatives are completely without foundation.” (Backchannel message WHS 2075 from Haig to Bunker, May 31; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 869, For the President’s Files (Winston Lord)—China Trip/Vietnam, Camp David Cables, January 1–July 31, 1972)