110. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1

SUBJECT

  • My Conversation with Ambassador Dobrynin

Attached is a memorandum of my conversation with Ambassador Dobrynin during the evening of December 22.2 I found the following of particular interest:

  • Dobrynin discussed Vietnam with a very low-key tone. His threat about what would happen if we started bombing the North again or hit Haiphong—that the Chinese would send in engineer battalions which would increase Chinese influence in Hanoi—seems almost to be an invitation for us to attack North Vietnam.
  • Dobrynin said that he did not think Hanoi would have anything new to say for the next few months.
  • —The Russians seem eager to talk on a number of substantive issues. They are probably trying to head us towards a summit meeting. This could be a reflection of a desire for real détente, or it could mean they are getting ready to hit China in the Spring. The latter interpretation—that they are repeating their Czechoslovakia drill—is reinforced by their choosing April 16 as a date for resumption of the SALT talks.

Dobrynin suggested that he and I meet at regular intervals, discussing a particular topic at each meeting to explore what possible solutions on various issues might look like. We could decide after the discussion of each topic was completed and after it had been discussed with you whether any action was necessary—whether instructions would be given or it should be taken to another level. If you approve, I will agree to meet with him every three weeks after our return from San Clemente on an agenda to be approved by you.3

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Tab A

Memorandum of Conversation Between the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) and the Soviet Ambassador (Dobrynin)4

SUBJECT

  • Conversation with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin

After an exchange of pleasantries, Dobrynin opened the conversation by saying that he wanted to speak to me on a frank and open basis. He had missed the opportunity to talk to me for a long time, and he hoped that our meetings would be more frequent. I said that it was always a pleasure to talk to him.

Dobrynin said that when he had met with the President,5 the President had indicated that the Middle East and other issues could be settled only on the highest level. With this, the Soviet Government agreed. On the other hand, the President had also indicated that there could be no contact on any level except the diplomatic level until Vietnam was settled. Did this mean that we did not believe that there could be any progress in our relations with the Soviet Union? I asked Dobrynin why he raised this issue now, since I thought we had explained to him at great length what our position was and that nothing had really changed. Vietnam was an important problem to us, and he knew how we related it to other issues.

U.S. Domestic Scene

Dobrynin said he wanted to be frank. He had made a careful analysis of the American domestic situation, and he had communicated it to Moscow as follows:

The President was almost certain of re-election in 1972. He had only begun to tap the right-wing votes and he could always expand his base in that direction. There was, therefore, no prospect of anyone’s unseating him in 1972. If anyone wanted to wait him out, they had to be ready to wait for seven more years. This was too long for the Soviet Union, and it should also be too long for Hanoi. He therefore wanted to ask me again whether I saw any prospect for improving Soviet/American relations.

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I repeated the President’s statement at the October 20th meeting that he hoped to have his Administration go down in history as one that did bring about a substantial improvement in Soviet/American relations but we wanted to proceed by concrete steps. And, of course, it was a difficult problem while the Vietnam war went on.

Vietnam

Dobrynin then turned to the war in Vietnam. He said, “You have to understand that we tried to do something last April and May, but Hanoi told us that there was no sense having a private channel unless the United States agreed in advance to negotiate about a coalition government. We cannot tell them how to fight in their own country. This is a real problem to us, and we thought it was best not to return a negative reply.” I said it would have been better to return some sort of a reply, but there was no sense talking about the past.

Dobrynin then asked me how I saw the future. I said that I really had not come to discuss Vietnam, but to sum it up in a few words, we were very confident. For the first time in my experience with Vietnam, I now was certain that time was working on our side. It seemed to me that Hanoi had only two choices—to negotiate or to see its structure in South Vietnam erode. He said, “Isn’t there even a slight chance that the South Vietnam Government might collapse?” I said that we were confident that we were on the right course. Maybe Hanoi would start an offensive but then, as the President had repeatedly pointed out publicly, it would have to draw the consequences. Dobrynin said, “Of course, if you start bombing the North again, or if you hit Haiphong, you realize what would happen.” I expected him to say the Soviet Union would come in. But instead, he said, “What would happen is the Chinese would send in engineer battalions, and you don’t want to increase Chinese influence in Hanoi.” I said, “If you can live with it, we can,” and in any event, our problem was to end the war in South Vietnam.

Dobrynin said that he did not think that Hanoi had anything new to say for the next few months. I told him that they knew what channels were available and that we would be glad to listen to them if they did. We would be flexible and conciliatory in negotiations. We had no intention to humiliate Hanoi, but we would not pay an additional price to enter the negotiations. Dobrynin asked me whether we were ever going to send a senior Ambassador to the negotiations. I said it depended in part on the negotiations, but I had no doubt that ultimately it would be done. He said he had to admit that nothing was going on at the negotiations now, but that he thought they were an important symbol.

I said in conclusion that if Hanoi had something to say to us it should do so explicitly, and not get us involved in detective stories in [Page 336]which various self-appointed or second-level emissaries were dropping oblique hints. Dobrynin laughed and said he would be sure to get this point across. He thought Hanoi had nothing to say at the moment.

The major point about the Vietnam part was the complete absence of contentiousness on Dobrynin’s part. There was no challenge to my assertion that our policy was working out, and there was a conspicuous effort by Dobrynin to disassociate himself from the Vietnamese war.

Tour d’Horizon

Dobrynin asked how we looked at Southeast Asia as a whole. I referred to the Nixon Doctrine and regional groupings, etc. I asked him how the Russians saw their own interests in the area. Surprisingly, he said, “We don’t have real interests there. We were drawn in in 1964 on the basis of a misunderstanding.”6

Dobrynin then turned to other issues. He began with a familiar catalogue. He said that the Soviet Government was approaching relations with the United States with an open mind and with good will, but a number of very strange things had happened. They had made a formal proposal to Secretary Rogers about European security. They had never received a reply; instead, the Secretary had made a very anti-Soviet speech in Brussels.

On the trade bill, the Administration had not liberalized trade as7 many in Congress had wanted.

While the SALT talks were going on, there were newspaper stories that the United States was pushing its ABM development and its MIRV development in the Defense Program Review Committee under my chairmanship.8

The Middle East negotiations9 were stalled.

Deputy Foreign Minister Macovescu of Romania was received at the White House while Gromyko was not.

I had to remember that in the Soviet Union, decisions were not made by one man as in the United States, but by eleven;10 and all these signals put together created a very bad impression. I shouldn’t tell him that something had slipped in our big bureaucracy—such reports were not believed in Moscow. “Our people take orders,” he said.

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We managed to convey the idea that we were making everything conditional on something else.11 For example, we were asking them to show their good intentions in Berlin before we agreed to a European Security Conference.

With respect to summits, we gave the impression that they were pleading with us where, in fact, they had not—though they were, of course, certainly willing to consider it in principle. There was one place on which one could make quick progress and that was at the summit, but we didn’t seem to be interested in it. And therefore he wanted to know how I visualized the possibility of progress.12

I told Dobrynin that we remained interested in good relations with the Soviet Union. We were the two great powers, and we had to avoid conflict; we should speak while we were still in a position to make definitive decisions. At the same time, as the President had repeatedly pointed out, we wanted to have concrete, detailed negotiations. Until he told me just what he was aiming at, it was very hard for me to comment on his points, since I did not know what he understood by progress. For example, we had heard a great deal about the European Security Conference, but I did not know just exactly what the Soviet Union hoped to achieve there. Dobrynin said, “Well, why don’t you ask us. We would be glad to tell you at any level.” I said, “Well, maybe we should ask you, but why don’t you tell me now.” Dobrynin said, “We want existing frontiers recognized.” I said, “No one is challenging the existing frontiers.” Dobrynin said that he had the impression we were challenging the status quo in Germany. I told him we were not challenging the status quo in Germany, but there was a big difference between challenging it and giving juridical recognition to East Germany.

Dobrynin then asked about China. He said, “What exactly are you up to. Are you trying to annoy the Soviet Union?” He also asked how we visualized relations with China developing. I said the President had often pointed out that the 800,000,000 Chinese were a fact of international life which we had to take seriously and from which we couldn’t foreclose ourselves. We were not childish, and we did not believe that we could end all the distrust immediately or have a very huge negotiation immediately. But we did want to establish some sort of relationship. Dobrynin said, “How can you do it as long as you have Taiwan?” I told him that this was essentially our problem, and that we thought we could explore possibilities. Dobrynin said, “Well, you made [Page 338]a rather clever move getting Japan involved in the defense of Taiwan and at the same time opening negotiations with Communist China.”13 I did not make any direct response to this. I said we had no intention of playing for small stakes with Communist China, and needling the Soviet Union was an unhistoric and not worthwhile effort. Dobrynin asked why we don’t recognize Mongolia. He said that the Soviet Union would welcome it.

Dobrynin then said that he thought the Mid-Eastern negotiation could not go anywhere. Sisco was ingenious in coming up with formulae, but they always moved around in a circle and they did not take into account the power realities. He thought that the Middle East had to be settled at the highest level.

One result of the distrust between Washington and Moscow, Dobrynin said, was that a number of other countries could attempt to maneuver between us. For example, the British were always going to the Soviet Union and telling them that the United States was preventing a European Security Conference, but the Soviet Union knew the British game.14 The British thought they had to keep the Soviet Union and the United States apart so that they could maneuver—that if the United States and the Soviet Union were together, Britain was nothing. I said that I did not know to which statements he referred, but that the British and we were in rather close accord.

Finally, I said to Dobrynin it was not very fruitful to discuss these issues in the abstract. It would be much better if we discussed them at least on a hypothetical basis, issue by issue. Dobrynin said that as a matter of fact, he was going to make exactly this proposal to me. He said that his government was aware of the fact that the President might not wish to have comprehensive solutions while the war in Vietnam was going on, but they saw no harm in exploring what such solutions might look like.15 At least, we would both understand each other better then. He therefore wanted to suggest that after I came back from California, he and I meet at regular intervals and set aside each session for one particular topic. We could then decide after the topic was completed and after this had been discussed with the President whether any action was necessary—whether instructions would be given or it should be taken to another level. I told him that I would have to take this matter up with the President, but that, in principle, it was possible that we might proceed this way.

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Dobrynin then made another effusive statement of the need for Soviet/American cooperation and of the good faith of his government and earnestness in trying to seek it. He said a good example was the rapidity with which they had agreed to the President’s preference on the site for the SALT talks. He said, “You know Smith had tried for two weeks but when the President requested Geneva, we gave him Vienna even though he had not asked for it. This is what could happen in other areas if we understand each other.” I told him that he could be sure I would report this fully to the President, and that I would be in touch with him after we returned from the West Coast.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 489, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1969, Part 1. Top Secret; Sensitive; Nodis. Sent for action. A notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it.
  2. On December 22, Kissinger sent the President a memorandum of “Points I Propose to Make to Ambassador Dobrynin at Dinner This Evening,” which Nixon approved. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box CL 215, “D” File) Before leaving for the dinner, Kissinger and Nixon spoke on the telephone. According to the transcript of their conversation, Kissinger said, “I just wanted to make sure that nothing else occurred to you.” Nixon replied, “Say, the promise is great, but conditions are the same. On Vietnam, play it cool. Say well, maybe we don’t need your help. If it is raised say we are really pressing across the bridge on that. Now anything we do, we don’t want to take affront at it.” (Ibid., Box 361, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File)
  3. Nixon initialed the approve option.
  4. A notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it. Nixon wrote “K—very fascinating!” in the upper righthand corner.
  5. See Document 93.
  6. Nixon underlined “basis of a misunderstanding.”
  7. Nixon underlined “had not liberalized trade as.”
  8. Nixon underlined most of this sentence.
  9. Nixon underlined this word.
  10. Nixon underlined most of this clause.
  11. Nixon underlined most of the second half of this sentence.
  12. Nixon underlined most of this paragraph.
  13. Nixon underlined most of this sentence.
  14. Nixon underlined this sentence.
  15. Nixon underlined this sentence.