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


  • Possible Meeting with Kosygin

As we await Soviet reaction to our latest exchange, I thought you might want to have some reflections on the subject of summits. This memorandum discusses the background of U.S.-Soviet summits; Kosygin’s role in the Soviet leadership and his personal traits; and the role a trip of his would play in current Soviet policy generally.

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Over the years, summit meetings with American Presidents have held as much, albeit rather different, fascination for Soviet leaders as vice versa. It has always been one of the paradoxes of Bolshevik behavior that their leaders have yearned to be treated as equals by the people they consider doomed. For Khrushchev, consorting with the high and mighty of the capitalist world roused some of the impulses of the parvenue. But the totality factors that have gone into Soviet thinking and feeling (as into American) have been complex and ambivalent and defy precise definition.

Certainly, in the last 15 years or so—since the Geneva summit—there has been the element of coresponsibility for the survival of mankind that is so uniquely part of the American-Soviet relationship by virtue of our size and power. In many ways, the psychological adjustment to this special relationship has been harder for the Soviets who were raised in a value system of victors and vanquished, of historically-ordained and objectively determined class hostility which temporary, subjective factors could not really change.

In any event, there is now a history of Soviet leadership interest in communication with American Presidents; and the same impulse, whatever its wellsprings, has existed among American Presidents since Roosevelt. This has been true despite the fact that summits, since World War II, have produced few if any specific results, except procedural ones: i.e., agreements to have more meetings, at lower levels. It might be argued that the 1959 Eisenhower–Khrushchev summit, by producing agreement on a four-power summit six months hence gave Berlin that much of a lease on life. But in the end that four-power summit, in 1960, aborted and Berlin lived on, anyway.

Many hold the view that a summit is useful for atmospheric reasons, to make it easier for countries to reach subsequent understandings; from this perspective, agreement all too often becomes an end in itself. However unimportant or irrelevant the settlement may be, it is said to contribute to a climate of confidence which will “improve” the situation.

The usual consequence of such an approach is that more ingenuity and effort are put into finding things to agree on than in coming to grips with the issues that have caused the tensions. As a result the difficulties which are “ironed out” are often soluble only because they are inconsequential. This distortion is forgotten and the mere fact that something is settled, no matter how trivial, is said to be “progress.” Such agreements, therefore, become a means of postponing instead of solving the real issues. They do not lessen the tensions but rather perpetuate them.

The topics which were slated for discussion at the Paris summit conference in 1960 are evidence of this point: exchange of persons, nuclear testing, arms control, and Berlin. They are either so unimportant [Page 604] that they can be solved fairly easily and without the attention of heads of state, or they are so complicated that a summit conference can at best serve as a means for deferring decision.

The intangible results of meetings between American and Soviet leaders are harder to define and more controversial; many observers think that these results far outweigh the absence of concrete ones: e.g., the supposedly tacit agreement in 1955 that nuclear war was unthinkable; or the impact on Sino-Soviet relations of the mere fact of the Camp David meeting in 1959; or the ultimate effect on Soviet strategic doctrine and on their view of the ABM of McNamara’s Glassboro lectures to Kosygin in 1967. These things are hard to judge; but that American-Soviet summits involve or produce some special chemical mixtures that American-Mexican ones don’t is undoubtedly true. The only question is whether the mixture is for good or ill.

Nor have domestic political considerations always been absent—on either side. Khrushchev saw his cavortings with the Capitalist great as enhancing his stature at home. In Kosygin’s case, foreign trips and summit meetings are not so much part of a personal “election campaign” (although, in fact, the current pre-Party Congress period is something not unlike an American election campaign). Rather, as the representative of the aging Soviet Troika, a Kosygin trip to New York and meeting with the American President—especially if they could be depicted as successful—would be used on arguments against Young Turk elements in the Party who are critical of the moribund approaches of the now top ruling group which has now been at the top for six years. Arguments like “we know how to handle the American ruling group” undoubtedly figure in internal debates.

It may be that in this particular year a Kosygin foray into the West is connected with a general Soviet effort to delineate certain more orderly relations with the West. This could be because of the uncertainties of the Chinese challenge, the instabilities in Eastern Europe which the Czech invasion submerged but did not remove and the need for greater certainty in economic planning at a time when the USSR faces tough and expensive economic and technological choices.

Perhaps we need not take quite so epochal a view of a possible NixonKosygin meeting. After all, Kosygin is not the Soviet summit. (In fact, one of President Johnson’s unending frustrations was that he could never quite find his Soviet equivalent: sometimes it was Brezhnev, sometimes Kosygin and sometimes—usually only for purposes of writing messages beginning with “Your Excellency”—it was Podgorny.) Kosygin quite evidently is number 2 in the USSR in many important ways; yet some would argue that someone like Kirilenko, who might some day be General Secretary, is more like the real number 2 than Kosygin. Kosygin has never challenged Brezhnev for the top spot, [Page 605] though we know that he has sometimes done things in ways that made Brezhnev feel he was showing insufficient deference to number 1. Kosygin obviously is a manager who likes to manage, sometimes he cuts corners, even around the Party. (Yet, as a Marxist, on many issues we know him to be almost a Puritan.)

If Kosygin comes to New York, it will not be because he decided to come but because the Collective, whatever precisely that is, decided he should go. He may or may not have plenipotentiary power on some issue or other. In 1967, we know he frequently checked with the home office for instructions; though in London in 1966, our intelligence caught him slipping a couple of things past the lethargic Brezhnev in the interest of speed. (Speed, cutting corners, getting things done, indeed, is where Kosygin’s main troubles with Brezhnev have been. His strength has been that he has not reached for the top job and, in fact, does not have the constituency in the Party for doing so.)

An intriguing question, if Kosygin comes toward the end of October is whether by that time November 2 will be so close that he would be able to give President Nixon the Soviet counterproposal on SALT (assuming the Soviet leadership can agree on one). Then again, if Bahr’s analysis of Soviet interests has any merit, would Kosygin come in October to offer some interesting proposition on Berlin? SALT (including the fascinating and ramified third country problem) and Berlin are the two issues on which Soviets could make really interesting offers on their own initiative. On the Middle East, they are not free agents. However, even if Kosygin made such moves, it is unlikely that he would be here long enough or that his terms would be so close to ours that anything remotely close to conclusive negotiations could be expected.

As in the past, Kosygin would come not only in the expectation of seeing our President. The Soviets have in recent years acquired a certain interest in the UN and in the potential it provides for a Soviet role as the defender of small, formerly colonial countries. Depending on where the Middle East situation stood, the Soviets could also, under his leadership, seek to start an anti-Israel/US bandwagon as they abortively tried in 1967. They could try a push for admission of divided countries, with Germany in the vanguard. In sum, the strand in Soviet policy that gropes for co-responsibility, condominium, duopoly with the US remains vigorously accompanied by other strands more directly and more obviously prejudicial to our interests. Kosygin would be here to exemplify this multiplicity of tendencies. (The more hopeful strand, incidentally, would continue whether Kosygin came or not, though it might perhaps be set back a little if the Soviets felt they had been deliberately snubbed or insulted.)

Kosygin has on occasion in the past demonstrated keen negotiating skill. Even if undoubtedly acting on Politburo orders, and closely [Page 606] flanked by the diplomatic and military expertise of Foreign Minister Gromyko and Defensive Minister Grechko, Kosygin deserves much credit personally for bringing off the Tashkent-compromise between India and Pakistan. (It should be added that the establishment of peace, or at least the prevention of war on the Subcontinent was genuinely in the Soviet national interest—as it was in ours—since war might have faced the Soviets with the dilemma of openly supporting India against a China-supported Pakistan.)

The sudden fatal heart attack of Indian Prime Minister Shastri at Tashkent has never been traced, by any one, to the effect of his personal encounters with Kosygin. Indeed none has ever attributed to the Soviet Premier the capacity for personal brutality and crudeness that, according to the most reliable reports, were displayed by Brezhnev, for example, just two years ago when the kidnapped, Liberal Czechoslovak leaders were Kremlin “guests.”

We know that Kosygin is tough and unyielding, if need be. We know, too that while foreign policy is not his first love, he briefs himself meticulously and masters the subject matter at hand and the Soviet position on it.

Kosygin has sometimes been identified with the “liberal” wing of the Soviet leadership, mostly because of his interest in economic advancement and efficient management. His son-in-law, Gvishiani has been responsible for expediting certain kinds of technical US-Soviet exchanges. Yet none could, like Kosygin, survive near the very top of Soviet leadership for over thirty years without at least having acquiesced in the brutalities of the regime. His origins are in the Leningrad Party organization which was almost completely purged by Stalin. Like the rest of the sixty-odd year-olds in the Politburo, Kosygin has had to walk over corpses to be where he is.

Kosygin has also showed considerable shrewdness in dealing with Americans, even if, as one must assume, his general conduct was on orders from the Politburo. There have been several instances when he has impressed Americans, and others, as the equivalent of the manager of a large Western corporation. But in 1965—to cite just one example—he displayed unusual psychological adroitness when dealing with Averell Harriman. On the first day of the Governor’s visit, Kosygin was tough, dour and almost brutal in depicting the deleterious effects of the American aggression against the DRV. The Americans were depressed and their telegrams showed it. On the second day, Kosygin painted vistas of US-Soviet cooperation once we had only screwed up enough courage to get out of Vietnam. He reminded Harriman how he had successfully negotiated the test ban treaty and subtly suggested that there might well be other treaties (at that time the NPT was the great US dream) that the Governor might bring to fruition. [Page 607] Without attempting psychological judgments, the Governor’s firm conviction that somehow, sometime the Soviets would “help” us in Vietnam seems to have stemmed from that second day’s encounter in 1965.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 713, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. IX, August 1–October 31, 1970. Secret; Sensitive; Nodis; Eyes Only. Sent for information. The memorandum was not initialed by Kissinger, and there is no indication it was sent to the President. According to a handwritten note on the August 25 covering memorandum from Lord to Kissinger, this memorandum was drafted on August 26. Lord’s memorandum explains: “Hal Sonnenfeldt sent out some revisions in the last couple of pages in the memorandum. He knows nothing about your exchanges with Dobrynin and Vorontsov, so I had to delete some of his material toward the end of the memo which suggests that we should send a positive signal to the Soviets and ways in which to do this.”