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


  • Analysis of Dobrynin Message
I am attaching the memorandum of conversation with Dobrynin (Tab A)2 as well as the analysis of the note-taker and a member of my staff (Tab B).3 They did not see the note.4
My reaction to the note is as follows:
The tone of the document is extraordinarily forthcoming. The Soviet approach is, as far as I can see, totally non-ideological—even anti-ideological. The arguments are posed strictly in terms of national interests and mutually perceived threats, without even the usual ritual obeisance to Marxist-Leninist jargon.
The document advances the dialogue between the Soviet Union and the United States beyond mere détente and into the realm of overt Soviet-American cooperation in the solution of outstanding international problems and the maintenance of peace.
The gist of the paper is that the Soviets are prepared to move forward on a whole range of topics: Middle East, Central Europe, Vietnam, Arms Control (strategic arms talks), cultural exchange. In other words, we have the “linkage.” Our problem is how to play it.
The document is vague about specific proposals. However, the following aspects deserve mention:
  • Vietnam. There is no reference to the usual Soviet claims of American aggression. They ask for “equal position” for all parties in the negotiating. We could probe what they mean.
  • Middle East. The document links Israeli withdrawal to a guaranteed existence for Israel. These are not posed as successive actions; rather they appear parts of a negotiated settlement, to be enforced by the sanctions of the Great Powers. Of course the Soviet statement leaves many loose ends, such as navigation rights in Suez, freedom of the Straits of Tiran, refugee problems, etc., but if one wishes to place the most generous possible construction on the Soviet statement, one could conclude that these points would follow agreement on the two basic tenets. Here, as in the case of Vietnam, there is great vagueness on specifics, but a positive tone of accommodation and mutual interest. It also offers specific negotiations.
  • European Settlement. Here the statement comes close to offering a deal recognizing the status quo. There is not the slightest mention of the Brezhnev doctrine of “Socialist sovereignty”5—presumably because the Soviets reason it applies only within their half of Europe, which we would agree must not be disturbed. They add a particularly clear expression of Soviet disinterest in further expansion in Europe and hope for détente. They add that we were close to agreement in 1959–63. We might probe what they have in mind.
  • SALT . The line of seeking limitation and subsequent reduction of strategic arms, both defensive and offensive, has been used before, but not, so far as I know, advanced so strongly in the context of “mutual assurance that our security will be maintained.” As they have repeated often before, the Soviets here reiterate their readiness to sit down to talk as soon as we wish.

The question then is what the Soviets are up to. There are two schools of thought.

The first is based on the notion that while the US-Soviet relationship is basically antagonistic and competitive, there are many areas where our interests overlap and where there is opportunity for at least tacit cooperation. The main common interest is in survival and, hence, in the prevention of war. This common interest, in turn, is held to make arms control a central issue in US-Soviet relations since the arms race is seen as a major source of potential conflict. Consequently, in this approach every effort should be made to engage the Soviets in negotiations wherever common interests occur, and especially on arms control. Moreover, every effort must be made to insulate these areas of common interests from those areas where our interests clash. It is argued, indeed, that arms control talks, even if they are not immediately successful, can serve as a firebreak to prevent confrontations from getting out of hand and spilling over into our whole relationship. It is fair to say that these are the principles on which the last Administration sought to operate, though it recognize, of course, there are limits beyond which a compartmentalization of our relations with the USSR became infeasible and counter-productive. (The invasion of Czechoslovakia was one of the limiting points.)

A rather different approach is one that holds that an excessively selective policy runs into the danger that the Soviets will use the bait of progress in one area in order to neutralize our resistance to pressure elsewhere. It holds that precisely because we remain in an antagonistic relationship the erection of firebreaks may encourage the Soviets to be more adventurous. Moreover, in this view, there is an essential connection between crises and confrontations; unless there is progress on a fairly broad front to mitigate confrontations, there is little prospect of real reduction in tensions. This view also holds that arms per se rarely cause wars (at least as long as they are kept in relative balance) and that the arms control agreements that have been reached have had singularly little effect in reducing areas of conflict and confrontation.

My own view tends toward the latter approach, and I might add that the Soviets, with their Marxist training, have little difficulty in grasping its meaning—although they have become quite skilled in conducting a policy of selective tension and selective accommodation.

I believe the current Soviet line of conciliation and interest in negotiations, especially on arms control but also on the Middle East, stems [Page 52]in large measure from their uncertainty about the plans of this Administration. They are clearly concerned that you may elect to undertake new weapons programs which would require new and costly decisions in Moscow; they hope that early negotiations would at least counteract such tendencies in Washington. (I doubt that there is much division on this point in the Kremlin, though there may well be substantial ones over the actual terms of an agreement with us.) In a nutshell, I think that at this moment of uncertainty about our intentions (the Soviets see it as a moment of contention between “reasonable” and “adventurous” forces here), Moscow wants to engage us. Some would argue that regardless of motive, we should not let this moment of Soviet interest pass, lest Moscow swing back to total hostility. My own view is that we should seek to utilize this Soviet interest, stemming as I think it does from anxiety, to induce them to come to grips with the real sources of tension, notably in the Middle East, but also in Vietnam. This approach also would require continued firmness on our part in Berlin.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 340, Subject Files, USSR Memcons Dobrynin/President 2/17/69. Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Sent for information.
  2. Attached and printed as Document 14.
  3. Attached and printed as Document 16.
  4. Document 15.
  5. A term applied in the West to the Soviet justification for its occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. In a speech on November 11, 1968, Brezhnev declared that a threat to Socialist rule in any state of the East European bloc constituted a threat to all and therefore “must engage the attention of all the Socialist states.”