168. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Ambassador Dobrynin
  • Henry A. Kissinger

After a brief meeting with the President, which is the subject of a separate memorandum of conversation,2 Dobrynin and I left for the [Page 516] Sequoia.3 Dobrynin began the conversation by saying that he hoped for very complete results and complete discussions. The difficulty with some of our present negotiators was that they didn’t seem to be well briefed, like the Secretary of State; or if they were well briefed, like Sisco, they were too petty and never saw the wood for the trees.

He said that Cambodia had had at first a very severe impact on the Soviet leadership. When he had come to Moscow with my suggestion for a summit meeting,4 Podgorny, Brezhnev, and Kosygin had been extremely interested. However, as time went on after the Cambodian events, opinion shifted and they believed I had mentioned a summit meeting merely to hold them quiet while we were preparing the Cambodian invasion. I said it was probably futile to argue this point but I could assure him that the Cambodian invasion was not planned before April 20, and as he remembered, I warned Vorontsov immediately that if North Vietnamese attacks on Cambodia did not stop we might have to take drastic measures.

Dobrynin asked what North Vietnamese operations we objected to. I said that as long as they stayed in the base areas we could live with the situation, though we didn’t like it. Once they left the sanctuaries, however, they represented an intolerable threat to the security of our forces by turning the whole country into one base area. Dobrynin said that he was prepared to speak about Cambodia a little later, but he first wanted to pick up the President’s points which were that we should forget about the past and concentrate on the future, and in the future it was necessary to come to some very concrete understandings between the United States and the Soviet Union. He suggested that we take up the subjects in the order mentioned by the President: SALT, first; the Middle East, second; Europe, third; and, Vietnam last. I said I could agree except that I wanted to put Europe in the last spot and put Vietnam and Southeast Asia before it.

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We then turned to SALT.5 Dobrynin said that he wanted to find out whether our understanding of April was still adequate, i.e., whether we were still prepared to have a limited agreement, and if so, how we should handle business in Vienna. Should we tell our negotiators in Vienna that they had gone far enough or that we wanted them to explore a little further; or did we want to charge them with making specific agreements?

I told him that it seemed to me that the negotiators in Vienna could go on for another three weeks, during which time he and I might discuss the specific principles of a settlement and agree on a general outline. We could then decide whether to have that taken up at Vienna or whether we should have it discussed in some other forum. Dobrynin said this was agreeable to him and that their delegation would be instructed accordingly.

He then asked me what I understood by a limited agreement. I said that to us a limited agreement meant a ceiling on offensive weapons and a limitation on defensive weapons to what we call national command authority levels. Dobrynin said this was not a very limited agreement because it encompassed the whole range of strategic forces.

I asked him whether the Soviets had another definition. He said that to the Soviets limited agreement meant that the Soviets probably would prefer a limitation on ABM deployment with some general agreement about protection against provocative attacks, which he explained meant third country attacks. I told him that this was almost certainly unacceptable to us. It would be more useful to explore some package that involved ceilings on all strategic forces.

Dobrynin then said that this raised a number of issues. Our package had been weighted against the Soviet Union. For example, we had established a ceiling of 1,710 missiles and a separate ceiling of the existing forces of bombers, giving us 500 and giving them 250. This established an inequality which was unfortunate, of course. There were some Soviet scientists who said both sides already possessed overkill and therefore it didn’t make any difference. He did not want to argue that point, but he did wish to point out that the symbolic effect of the Soviet Union accepting inferiority in any category would be very bad and very hard to sell.

Another aspect of the bomber package was that the Soviet Union had no equivalent for our aircraft carriers and, therefore, there should be [Page 518] some limitation on their deployment. I pointed out that aircraft carriers did not play a significant role in our strategy against the Soviet Union, but that any limitation on their deployment would affect their utility against other countries. Dobrynin said that if we were concerned about aircraft carriers we had to agree to the principle of some form of compensation for the Soviets, either in the form of giving them additional units of missiles or in some other way. He also pointed out that we were counting their tanker planes as bombers while we did not count ours.

I told him that the way to advance this problem would be for him to give me some idea of what they meant by compensation. If it was a symbolic compensation, we might consider it. If it was a major one, it would be difficult. I also pointed out to him that NCA levels involved limitations on radars and not just on missiles. He asked me to explain this, and I gave him a brief explanation of the differential lead time between missiles and radars. Dobrynin replied that radars useful for missile tracking were clearly distinguishable from others. He thought this was a proposition that could be entertained as long as it did not involve the destruction of existing radars and only limitations on building new ones. We summed up the results of this part of the discussion as follows:

The Vienna Conference would go on for another three weeks exploring the packages.
In the meantime, Dobrynin and I would work on the general principles.
He would give me some idea of what the Soviet Union understood by compensation.
I would explore whether there were other limitations available on the bombers. (I was thinking of the fact that budgetary reasons might force us to reduce our bomber force and that we might throw that into the equation.)

Middle East

Dobrynin then launched into an impassioned discussion on the Middle East. He said that we completely misunderstood Soviet motivations and intentions, and that we had to look at the problem from the Soviet point of view. We might not believe it, but the Soviets had not taken advantage of a tenth of the opportunities they had had to place military forces into several of the Arab countries. In 1967 the Egyptians had offered them naval bases and free use of all of the air bases if they only came in. Since then they’ve had repeated offers from Egypt and from Syria to put military forces into their countries, but they had always refused.

However, the deep penetration raids of the Israelis had left them no choice. They could not permit one of their friends in the Middle East to be totally humiliated and destroyed and there were no other [Page 519] means available to protect them. The Soviet Union desired no military presence in Egypt and it thought that the time was ripe to make a comprehensive settlement.

On the other hand, a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East was out of the question along the lines of the SiscoDobrynin conversations. Sisco constantly was raising pettifogging objections and was trying to draw him into drafting specific clauses of an agreement. Dobrynin said, for example, that the two offers he had brought back with him from Moscow matched almost verbatim the formulations that Sisco had demanded of him. Nevertheless, it was treated as only a minor concession because he had referred him to the Soviet June 9 document rather than to our October 28 document. He said we had to understand the fact that the Soviet Union could not accept the United States document as a basis for a settlement. On the other hand, it would not insist on its own and in its final formulation would come up with something that would not be ascribable to either side.

The major decision that had to be made was whether both sides were willing to make significant progress now. This required filling in the gaps of the agreement: specifically, on withdrawals, on Sharm-el-Sheik, on demilitarized zones and similar matters. This would then be put as a recommendation to Jarring who would take it up with the parties.

I asked whether he was talking of an imposed settlement. Dobrynin said, “No, not imposed. But of course our recommendations would carry a great deal of weight.” And he added, “Believe me, that if we make a proposition to the Arabs, we will also see to it that it is accepted.” However, he said it was essential that we make a prior decision that there would be a concrete agreement. He said that the time was short and that there were only a few months left before events could take an unpredictable turn.

I told him that for us the presence of Soviet combat personnel in Egypt was a matter of the very gravest consequence which sooner or later would produce a major difficulty with the United States and could perhaps even lead to a confrontation. We have no incentive at all in a settlement which would leave combat personnel in Egypt.

I, therefore, wanted to know whether, assuming that there were a peace settlement, the Soviet Union would be prepared to withdraw its combat personnel. Dobrynin asked what would happen if the Israelis started deep penetration raids in this period. I said I was talking about what would happen after, not before, there was an agreement between the Israelis and the Arabs.

Dobrynin said that under those conditions it was conceivable to him that the Soviet Union might agree to withdraw its personnel. He said he would query Moscow and get me an answer at our next meeting [Page 520] on whether the Soviet Union would withdraw its combat personnel as part of a general Middle East settlement.

Dobrynin then asked me if I had anything specific to propose on the Middle East. I said that under the right circumstances it was not inconceivable to me that we would be prepared to discuss a general settlement of the Middle East issues with the Soviet Union as long as it was understood that the Soviet Union would ask for some sacrifices from the Arabs commensurate to the sacrifices we would have to ask from the Israelis.

This led Dobrynin into a long exposition of the Soviet position and an explanation of the many sacrifices they had already made, specifically with respect to Sharm-el-Sheik, demilitarized zones, conditions of peace, and control of the Fedayeen. Dobrynin then asked me what was new in my proposal. I said the newness in our proposal was the willingness to discuss the specific terms of the settlement and not just the general outline. Dobrynin said frankly there was nothing new in that because Rogers had already made that proposition to him when they were having drinks on Monday, but he was happy to see that it was backed by the President.

Dobrynin then read to me a long statement which he allegedly got from the newspaper and which paralleled the State Department recommendation to the President. He asked me what I thought of it. (I later learned from Sisco that the Secretary gave most of this to Dobrynin at their meeting on June 8.)6 I told Dobrynin that this was one of the proposals that was before the President. Many elements of it might have interesting aspects, but I did not want to comment prior to a Presidential decision.

Dobrynin again made an impassioned plea for a settlement of the Mid-Eastern issue which could only drag us all into incalculable results. He said that the Soviet Union was willing to guarantee access through the Straits of Tiran and the Suez Canal. When I raised the objection that the Soviet Union had gone no further than to guarantee the 1888 Convention, he said this was only because it represented the only usable legal document to guarantee free access. They were prepared to define access in any way that would meet Israeli objections.

We left it that I would talk to the President and inform him before we made a major move and that he would find out from Moscow whether the Soviet Union would be prepared to withdraw combat personnel as part of a general settlement.

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Southeast Asia

The conversation then turned to Southeast Asia. Dobrynin said that he found it very difficult to understand how we thought a peaceful settlement was now possible. He did not doubt the military gains that we had made in Cambodia, but on the other hand, we had given the Chinese a tremendous shot in the arm. The Chinese were now using Cambodia as a campaign against the Soviet Union, and had tried to induce the Soviet Union to cancel all meetings with the United States. Also, China was clearly in the ascendance in Hanoi. The result would be that it would be very difficult to make a settlement. The Chinese would never accept a pro-American government in Cambodia and neither would Hanoi.

I said that we did not expect them to accept a pro-American government in Cambodia. We were perfectly willing to live with a Sihanouk-type government provided it did not give Communist supplies access into the sanctuaries. Dobrynin wanted to know whether we had been prepared to accept the sanctuaries if the North Vietnamese had not moved out of them. I told him that, of course, we had accepted them for many years and that we had never made any plans for attacking them until after their threat to Cambodia had become evident.

Dobrynin said that I might not believe it, but they had no particular interest in a Communist government in Cambodia because such a government was certain to be dominated from Peking. He hoped that we had noticed that they had maintained a Chargé in Phnom Penh and had not recognized Sihanouk, even though Kosygin had written him some letters. He also called my attention to the article in the New York Times. He added, “Well, whatever has happened in Cambodia has happened, and there’s no sense in talking about past history.” He wanted to know what sort of political settlement for Cambodia we had in mind. I replied that we would certainly be willing to accept a government that had the general composition of the Sihanouk government. In fact, the government in Phnom Penh was the Sihanouk government minus Sihanouk.

Dobrynin then wanted to know whether we were prepared to partition Laos. He said he had heard this as a suggestion from the State Department. I said that there were many ideas floating around but we were certainly prepared to discuss any reasonable plan that would assure the neutrality and security of Southeast Asia.

With respect to South Vietnam, Dobrynin said that for the North Vietnamese, the only interesting point was the political settlement. They did not much care about the rate of American troop withdrawals. They did not believe in a process of free elections, and as long as we insisted on them, there was no hope of a political solution. I pointed [Page 522] out to him the passage in the President’s April 20th speech7 that indicated that we were flexible with respect to the determination of the popular will. Dobrynin wondered whether this proposal was still open. I told him all proposals had been reiterated in the April 30 and June 3 speeches.8

Dobrynin asked me about my assessment of my talks with the North Vietnamese. I said that the North Vietnamese had missed a great opportunity, and that if they had told Moscow that we had been rigid, they were severely mistaken. After all, the President need not send his personal advisor to negotiate if he wanted merely to have the stalemate that already existed in Paris. There was no sense in repeating standard positions. Dobrynin obviously had not read a very full account of the meetings because he kept saying that the impression that Hanoi had left with them was that we had been very rigid. Dobrynin said he didn’t see any possibilities for great movement at this moment, but that the situation might change after the end of our Cambodian operation.


We then turned to Europe. Dobrynin said that we were the chief obstacle to the European Security Conference idea that they had put forward. I said that they had never explained satisfactorily why it was necessary to have a big conference simply to settle cultural and trade matters. Dobrynin said that it was impossible to please the United States. When they had proposed to Johnson to have a European Security Conference, they had been accused of wanting to settle too much. In this Administration, they were accused of trying to settle too little. He said we were oscillating between being too specific and being too vague.

For example, he simply did not know what we meant by mutual balanced force reductions and, frankly, he had the impression that we didn’t know ourselves what we meant by the term. As an example of how impossible it was to deal with us, he mentioned the luncheon conversation he had had with Elliot Richardson.9 He said Richardson had handed him a State Department working paper on mutual balanced [Page 523] force reductions and had asked him to comment on it. Dobrynin replied it was very unusual for a foreign diplomat to comment on a working paper of another foreign office. When he had called this to the attention of Richardson, the latter replied that he needed Dobrynin’s comments in order to bring the military around in our country. I told Dobrynin that I would be ready to talk in concrete details about mutual balanced force reductions later this summer, after we had worked out our own thinking a little more fully.

Soviet-American Relations

We then turned to the general subject of Soviet-American relations. Dobrynin said that when the Administration had come into office, the leadership in Moscow was very concerned, given the past reputation of the President. Then, there was a period of relative hopefulness. This was dashed by the visit to Romania and there was a period of stagnation. Then, just when things began to pick up again, we had invaded Cambodia. Nevertheless, the Soviet leadership was willing to let bygones be bygones, as long as we understood that their desire for an agreement did not reflect weakness and that their domestic difficulties were figments of the American press.

I told him that we recognized the Soviet Union as a major country. We, of course, assumed that any agreement they made would reflect mutual interests and could not be imposed by either side. Our view was that either we could proceed along tactical lines as we had for most of our relationship in the post-war period, or we could make an effort at a fundamental improvement in relations. If we did the latter, the United States would be prepared to make a serious effort in the channels that the President had indicated, with the purpose of marking this Administration as the one in which the basic turning point towards peace had been made. Such an agreement would, of course, have to include that neither side would take advantage of any difficulties that the other might face in other parts of the world.

This led Dobrynin to ask me how we were getting on in our relationship with China. I said that it was very interesting that China was vitriolic in its public attacks but very polite in its private conversations. Dobrynin said that he suspected as much. He said, “Are you going to try to get on better terms with Communist China?” I responded that we would continue talking but their own experience must teach them that progress would not be very rapid. Dobrynin believed China would try to lead a crusade against us. I said that we were relaxed about this and would probably try to stay in contact with them.


We then summed up the conversation by listing the things that were going to be done. Dobrynin would try to get an idea from Moscow [Page 524] of what was meant by compensations in SALT and a position on the withdrawal of Soviet forces from the Middle East in case of a settlement. I would give him some idea of the range of limited agreements that we could discuss and some procedure for approaching the Middle East problem.

There was some extended conversation about the various personalities with whom Dobrynin had worked here, and his own estimate of them which was extraordinarily shrewd. For example, he said that he had never been much for Robert Kennedy because he thought that underneath his liberal facade, he was an extremely tough man. After about a year, he would have been the most intransigent cold warrior that had ever been in the Presidency. Of the Secretaries of State that he had met he thought Dulles was the most impressive and Rusk was the most reliable. I did not ask him to speak about any members of the present Administration.10

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 489, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1970, Part 2, Vol. I. Top Secret; Sensitive; Nodis. The conversation was held on the Sequoia.
  2. Document 167.
  3. Earlier that day, Kissinger sent Nixon talking points for his meeting on the Sequoia. Kissinger explained that this was his first private meeting with Dobrynin since April 9. Nixon initialed his approval of Kissinger’s positions. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 489, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1970, Part 2, Vol. I)
  4. Kissinger’s talking point on a summit reads: “At our last meeting I had indicated the possibility of you and Premier Kosygin breaking a Vienna SALT deadlock and ratifying the agreement at a summit meeting. Dobrynin said he would explore this in Moscow and have an answer upon his return. I plan to let him take any initiative on the question of a summit meeting. I would say that I will take this up with you, while repeating that we would be interested in a summit that was assured of a significant agreement on at least one issue.” (Ibid.)
  5. The second phase of the strategic arms limitation talks between the United States and the Soviet Union began in Vienna, Austria, on April 16, 1970.
  6. Kissinger is in error; the meeting was on June 2. However, Kissinger received a memorandum from Saunders on June 8 summarizing the conversation. See Document 159.
  7. The relevant passage reads: “A fair political solution should reflect the existing relationship of political forces within South Vietnam. We recognize the complexity of shaping machinery that would fairly apportion political power in South Vietnam. We are flexible; we have offered nothing on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.” For a full text of Nixon’s “Address to the Nation on Progress Toward Peace in Vietnam,” see Public Papers: Nixon, 1970, pp. 373–377.
  8. On April 30, Nixon gave an “Address to the Nation on the Situation in Southeast Asia.” (Ibid., pp. 405–410) On June 3, Nixon delivered an “Address to the Nation on the Cambodian Sanctuary Operation.” (Ibid., pp. 476–480)
  9. A memorandum of Richardson’s conversation with Dobrynin is in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 712, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. VIII.
  10. On June 15, Kissinger sent Nixon a memorandum, drafted by Winston Lord, summarizing his June 10 conversation. Kissinger’s memorandum bears Nixon’s handwritten comment “K—good job—now we shall see.” In the summary of Kissinger’s discussion with Dobrynin about SALT, Nixon wrote “very significant! (China) (phase II)” next to Kissinger’s statement: “The Soviet definition consists of limiting ABMs to defense against third country attacks.” In the section about Dobrynin’s comments on Southeast Asia, Nixon underlined and wrote “interesting” next to Kissinger’s statement: “While we had made some military gains, Chinese influence in the region had been bolstered and prospects for a settlement set back.” (Ibid., Box 489, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1970, Part 2, Vol. I)