132. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to Nixon1


  • Cautioning the USSR against Escalating the Mid-East Arms Race

The intelligence of the last few days suggests that the USSR may have decided to give the Egyptians some sort of “system” designed to counter Israeli air operations. As noted in the memo sent you last week-end,2 the Soviet action could fall into three broad categories:

  • —improvement of ground-to-air defenses using substantial numbers of new Soviet technicians and perhaps more advanced surface-to-air missiles; or
  • —open Soviet involvement in the air defense of Egypt, perhaps including Soviet pilots flying interceptors;
  • —introduction of an offensive weapons system such as surface-to-surface missiles or Soviet pilots flying attack missions.

If the Soviets involve themselves openly, this will raise serious questions for us: Can we afford to let the Soviets openly assume responsibility for the defense of a Mid-Eastern nation without responding? On the other hand, is it in the U.S. interest to move toward a confrontation with the USSR over Israel’s strategy of bombing the UAR?

These larger questions are being dealt with urgently this week in the Special Actions Group.3 However, since it is patently preferable—if possible—to prevent this kind of situation from developing, the tactical question today is whether we should follow up your letter to [Page 392] Kosygin4 with approaches to Dobrynin and perhaps Gromyko (Ambassador Beam sees him Wednesday for a broad discussion) to caution against dangerous escalation.

This would have to be done delicately since the obvious Soviet counters will be that we should first halt Israel’s bombing and agree not to ship more arms to Israel. We would also have to avoid giving the impression that recent Soviet moves have us excessively worried.

Our answer on each of the first substantive points could be that (1) we are prepared to work with Israel for return to observance of the cease-fire provided both sides agree and (2) we are prepared to discuss arms limitation to both sides.

The most delicate question is how we show our own resolve. So far we have indicated our determination not to let the local arms balance shift against Israel. Since Israel’s superiority over the Arabs is substantial, that would not be difficult to achieve even with small shipments. But if the Soviets enter the picture, more may be required and our response would assume a direct anti-Soviet character.

For the moment, it is probably best to stick to language expressing strong concern over escalation, (1) repeating our intention not to permit a change in the military balance and (2) leaving to the imagination what “escalation” means as far as we are concerned.

I believe some such approach is desirable. Your letter to Kosygin set the stage but some follow-up would give us a better feel for what it is possible to achieve with the Soviets in the way of restoring the cease-fire and achieving some slowing of the arms race.

In my next talk with Dobrynin I could make the points that (1) The introduction of Soviet combat personnel would be an act of the gravest sort and (2) we are willing to continue talks with them to find a peaceful solution. But in diplomatic channels, there are two ways of making such an approach:

Assistant Secretary Sisco could make the approach to Dobrynin. This would have the disadvantage of being pointed only at the Mid-East and perhaps displaying excessive concern and running across direct approaches we might make to Dobrynin.
Ambassador Beam could be instructed to include this on his broad agenda with Gromyko tomorrow. As you know, he has asked for more of this sort of thing to do.

Recommendation: That you approve having Ambassador Beam raise this with Gromyko.5

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 711, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. VI. Secret; Nodis. Sent for action. Drafted by Saunders based on a February 9 memorandum from Sisco and Richardson to Kissinger entitled “Cautioning USSR Against Qualitative Escalation of Armaments in the Near East.” (Ibid.)
  2. Document 128.
  3. See Document 130 and 134.
  4. Document 126.
  5. Nixon initialed his approval on February 11, and Beam met with Gromyko the same day; see Document 136.