14. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Ambassador Dobrynin’s Initial Call on the President


  • U.S. Side:
    • The President
    • Mr. Henry A. Kissinger, Asst. to the President for National Security Aff.
    • Mr. Malcolm Toon, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for European Affairs
  • Soviet Side:
    • H.E. Anatoliy F. Dobrynin, Soviet Ambassador

The President greeted Ambassador Dobrynin in the Fish Room and escorted him into his office for a brief private chat. Ambassador Dobrynin told the President privately that, before his departure from Moscow last week, he had spent two days at a government dacha outside Moscow with Brezhnev, Kosygin and Podgorny and the message that he carried was based on his talks with the leadership. The President should understand, therefore, that what he had to say on substantive issues was an accurate reflection of the views of the leadership.

After Mr. Kissinger and Mr. Toon joined the President, the President gave the floor to Ambassador Dobrynin.

Dobrynin said that his government had noted with interest President Nixon’s statement that his Administration looked forward to an era of negotiations, not confrontation. He could assure the President that the Soviet Government shared this view and was prepared to do its part to see to it that the period that lies ahead was truly one of negotiations and not confrontation. This was on the understanding, of course, that the issues to be negotiated and the subjects to be discussed would be by mutual agreement, that negotiations would not be pursued simply for their own sake but for the purpose of bringing about constructive results. Past experience indicated the importance of beginning negotiations as soon as possible. Delay could be harmful, and it was important therefore to recognize the desirability of moving ahead at an early date. The Ambassador had been instructed by his government to ascertain precisely what the President had in mind by negotiations—specifically what issues the President felt should be the subject of negotiations and when, where, and at what level these should [Page 38] take place. So far as the Soviet Government was concerned, negotiations and an exchange of views on various subjects and at various levels could take place simultaneously. It was not excluded that at an appropriate time discussions could be carried on at the Summit level.

The President asked Ambassador Dobrynin what he meant by his statement that negotiations on various issues could be carried on simultaneously.

Dobrynin referred to the President’s remarks at his first press conference concerning the Middle East situation and the arms race.2 The Soviet Government was prepared to use its influence on parties directly involved in the Middle East situation to help arrive at a solution of the problem. Depending on the President’s views, talks on the Middle East problem could take place in New York or Washington and also in Moscow, either with the American Embassy there or with a special emissary, if the President desired to send one. With regard to the so-called arms race, the Soviet Government was prepared to reach agreement on limitation and subsequent reduction of both offensive and defensive strategic missiles. As the President was aware, certain aspects of this question had already been discussed with the previous Administration. Both sides had agreed on the desirability of early initiation of talks on the missile problem, although there had not been full agreement on a procedural aspect, which Ambassador Dobrynin understood related to the level at which the talks should begin. In any case, he was instructed by his government to inform the President that the Soviet side was prepared to begin talks now and to ascertain from the President his ideas on where, when, and at what level talks might begin. The Soviet Government was not pressing for an early reply but, in its view, discussions of the arms control problem as well as the Middle East problem were worth pursuing and could be carried on simultaneously. Certainly, the Soviet Government was under no illusion that the solutions to either problem could be achieved overnight, but it felt that a beginning should be made. While other subjects might be discussed, and in this respect Ambassador Dobrynin was prepared to hear our own suggestions either through Mr. Kissinger or the State Department, it was his government’s view that the two subjects he had [Page 39] mentioned—the Middle East and the arms control—were among the most important which should engage our early attention.

The President thanked Ambassador Dobrynin for his forthright statement of the Soviet Government’s position. The President wished to make clear that his Administration began its tasks with a fresh viewpoint and with an eye to the future. Since Ambassador Dobrynin referred to a possible Summit meeting, the President wished to make clear that he shared the view that at some point a meeting of Heads of Government might be useful. The President felt, however, that such meetings must be based on a carefully prepared agenda and be preceded by adequate preparatory work on the issues to be discussed and possibly on which agreements might be reached. Without adequate preparations, Summit meetings could be harmful, since expectations of results might not be met. The President did not believe in a Summit meeting simply for the sake of bringing together the Heads of Government. Some specific purpose must be served, and the President felt strongly that we should now discuss at lower levels the principal issues before us so that ultimately when there should be a Summit meeting it would have constructive results.

Secondly, the President wished to set forth in a completely candid way his view of the relationship between the two super powers, as they are now commonly referred to. We must recognize that there are basic differences between us. This has been true historically of the relationship between great powers, and it is equally true now. We both have a responsibility to moderate these differences, to see to it that they do not result in a sharp confrontation, and in the President’s view the most effective way of doing this was to keep the lines of communication open. This is the task of diplomacy—to recognize that great powers will differ and to insure that differences be resolved by peaceful means.

Finally, the President wished to stress the importance of eliminating those areas of friction where our own fundamental interests are not involved. We know from history that great powers can be drawn into a confrontation with each other as a result of actions by other nations. The President felt, for example, that it would be the height of folly to let the parties directly involved in the Middle East conflict bring about a confrontation between Moscow and Washington. It is particularly for this reason that the President attached great importance to an exchange of views, either bilaterally or in a multilateral forum on the Middle East situation.

The strategic arms problem involves primarily the United States and the Soviet Union, although both sides, of course, must consult, as necessary, with their Allies. The President wished to make clear his views on the relationship between strategic arms talks and progress on political issues. It was not his view that the initiation of such talks must [Page 40] be conditioned on the settlement of larger political issues. We both recognize that the principal purpose of strategic arms talks is peace, but there is no guarantee that freezing strategic weapons at the present level alone would bring about peace. History makes clear that wars result from political differences and political problems. It is incumbent upon us, therefore, when we begin strategic arms talks to do what we can in a parallel way to de-fuse critical political situations such as the Middle East and Viet-Nam.

Ambassador Dobrynin asked if his understanding was correct that the President favored simultaneous discussion of the problems which the President had mentioned. The Ambassador recognized, of course, that it might not be possible to discuss all problems at the same time, and he was not pressing the President to set the exact time for beginning arms talks. He wanted simply to clarify his own understanding of the linkage between arms talks and negotiations on political issues. His government, of course, would be interested in having a more precise idea as to when the President would be prepared to begin an exchange of views on the missile problem, even if preliminary and at the level of experts.

The President replied that it was his hope that we would soon be able to decide the question of timing. First, of course, the Administration would wish thoroughly to examine the whole problem and our position on it. This would probably have to await his return from Europe. In any case, as Ambassador Dobrynin was aware, Mr. Gerard Smith had just recently been appointed Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency3 and he was now engaged in reviewing our entire position on arms control issues.

With regard to the Middle East situation, the President wished to review the question of modalities for our bilateral discussions with Ambassador Yost and others. The President is gratified to learn that the Soviets are prepared to do what they can to cool the situation, and certainly the President himself would do everything in his power to bring this about.

On Viet-Nam the President recognized that the Soviet position was somewhat more delicate than our own since the Soviets were not directly involved in the problem. The President knew, however, that the Soviet Government has an interest in terminating the conflict and had played a helpful role in getting the Paris talks started. For our part, we are prepared to go “the extra mile” in Paris, but the Soviets should understand clearly that the American public will not tolerate endless [Page 41] discussions there. The Administration’s determination is to bring the conflict to an end, one way or another. We hope that the Soviets will do what they can to get the Paris talks off dead-center.

Dobrynin said he would like to speak briefly of the Soviet position on the Paris talks. The Soviet Government had welcomed their initiation and it was their view that if all participants in the Paris talks would face realities and treat each other on an equal basis, then the Soviets might be in a position to play a constructive role. Dobrynin said that he agreed generally with the President’s statement that progress in one area is bound to affect progress in other areas. He thought, however, that it was useful to make a beginning and it would be wise not to begin with the most difficult issues. Often small steps can have influence.

The President said that he wished to make clear that it was not his view that agreement on one issue must be conditioned by settlement of other issues. The President wished to express his conviction, however, that progress in area is bound to have an influence on progress all other areas. The current situation in Berlin is a case in point. If the Berlin situation should deteriorate, Senate approval of the Nonproliferation Treaty would be much more difficult. The President wished to make clear that he favored early ratification of the treaty and he is optimistic that the Senate will act favorably in the near future. We should bear in mind, however, that just as the situation in Czechoslovakia had influenced the outlook for the treaty last fall, so would the situation in Berlin now have an important bearing on the Senate’s attitude. Ambassador Dobrynin had mentioned the desirability of making progress on some issues, even if settlement of other issues should not be feasible. The Non-Proliferation Treaty is just such an issue. If we can move ahead on this it would be helpful in our efforts on other issues. The only cloud on the horizon is Berlin and the President hoped that the Soviets would make every effort to avoid trouble there.

Dobrynin said that the situation in Berlin did not stem from any action taken by the Soviets. The President would recall that a meeting was scheduled in Berlin last fall and the Secretary of State had discussed the problem with the Ambassador, urging him to persuade his government to avoid any action in connection with this meeting which might possibly result in unpleasantness in and around Berlin. The Ambassador said he would not wish his remarks to be recorded but he felt the President should know that his Government had used its influence to insure that the situation remained calm. There was no confrontation then, and Ambassador Dobrynin saw no need for a confrontation between us in the present situation.

The President hoped that there would be no trouble in Berlin and he welcomed Ambassador Dobrynin’s assurances on this point. The [Page 42] Soviets should understand that we are solidly behind the integrity of West Berlin, and we will do whatever is necessary to protect it. He had noted in the press references to the “provocative nature” of his visit to Berlin. The President wished to assure Ambassador Dobrynin that these stories were totally without foundation and that his visit to Berlin was a perfectly normal action for any United States President to take in connection with a visit to Europe.

The President concluded the discussion by pointing out to Dobrynin that the United States and the Soviet Union have all the power necessary to maintain peace in the world. If we play our role effectively, peace will be maintained. We do ourselves and others disservice, however, if we pretend that we agree on all the basic issues. We should rather insure that our differences do not lead to confrontation, that we are not drawn into confrontation by actions of others. We should recognize that diplomacy can play a vital role in insuring that this does not happen.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 1 US–USSR. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Toon. The conversation was held in the Oval Office at the White House.
  2. During Nixon’s first press conference on January 27, the President was asked where he stood on starting missile talks with the Soviets. He replied that he preferred “to steer a course between those two extremes” of waiting until there was “progress on political settlements” and moving forward without such political talks. “What I want to do is to see to it that we have strategic arms talks in a way and at a time that will promote, if possible, progress on outstanding political problems at the same time—for example, on the problem of the Mideast and on other outstanding problems in which the United States and the Soviet Union, acting together, can serve the cause of peace.” A full text of the conference is in Public Papers: Nixon, 1969, pp. 15–23.
  3. Nixon submitted Smith’s name to the Senate for confirmation on January 31; he was confirmed on February 7.