206. Memorandum From Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1


  • Our Signals to the Soviet Union and Their Possible Misconstruction as a Source of Crises in US-Soviet Relations

I should like very briefly to convey to you my deep concern that in the present Middle Eastern situation we may have (unwittingly) misled the Soviets to believe that cheating on the cease-fire was a matter of indifference to us and that we may have thereby contributed to a potentially much deeper crisis.

Interpretation of Soviet conduct is a tricky and quite inexact exercise and I am very conscious of all the pitfalls and evidential gaps and ambiguities in this sort of analysis. I also do not claim to know or to have followed in detail all that we may have said and done with respect to the present state of affairs.

I am disturbed by the present train of events because of a history of US-Soviet crisis situations which lends itself to the respectable [Page 620] hypothesis that, especially in election years, we may be prone to give the Soviets the impression that they are relatively free to do certain things inimical to our interests; that they then do them; that we then react and find ourselves propelled into potentially dangerous and damaging confrontations. Some work has been done on this hypothesis as it relates to Suez (1956), various phases of the Berlin crisis, and, most especially, the Cuban missile crisis (1962). I have not done the research myself, do not have the required mass of findings or data available and would question some of the conclusions that have been advanced.

But, to take Cuba 1962, there is a tenable theory that runs somewhat as follows:

  • —that with the minimal camouflage accompanying the heavy Soviet military movements into Cuba during the spring and summer, including at first SAMS and then M/IRBM-associated gear, the Soviets must at least have suspected that we had an idea of what they were doing;
  • —that what was said (especially, at that time, by a phalanx of White House assistants and hangers-on) and done by us during the summer could well have appeared to the Soviets as US acquiescence in what they were doing, including in the Soviet depiction of it as solely “defensive”;
  • —that Khrushchev may have concluded that as long as he did not flaunt his action in our face before the fall election we would remain passive and that, indeed, it was politically more important to us that nothing leaked out before November than that the Soviets would acquire some 40-odd additional first-strike strategic launchers;
  • —that even or especially the President’s public warnings against offensive deployments as late as September 11, when they were well underway (plus further ongoing negotiations, e.g. on NPT), were interpreted in Moscow as further signs of toleration, if not collusion;
  • —that our blowing the issue wide open on October 222 thus came as a complete surprise and could well have led to so irrational a Soviet reaction as to produce disaster.

I am drawing no precise analogies. One can’t. I do suggest, however, that the nature, timing and speed of our cease-fire initiative, the relative looseness of its terms, the informality of its consummation, our reluctance to concede violations and our other statements and actions after violations began could have led the Soviets to conclude that all that really mattered to us was a cease-fire in a pre-election period in which we preferred not to confront the awkward choices of continued open warfare. They could, therefore, have concluded that what they know are violations certainly of the spirit and also of the terms of the [Page 621] agreement were not of vital interest to us. They could thus have been surprised by our subsequent apparently real indignation at what was happening (having meanwhile given the UAR, and themselves, the green light to proceed with violations and thus put their prestige on the line). Or they may even yet believe that we are merely play-acting.

I have sent you another memo, on the latest BeamVinogradov exchange,3 to suggest that the Soviets may just possibly now be sufficiently worried about our further reaction that they are willing to consider some form of “rectification”; or that at least they are trying to maneuver politically to inhibit us from acting. On the other hand, this is far from clear. And there is no telling what may happen to the cease-fire and what the Soviets may do in the face of some unilateral Israeli act of “rectification” (or some new US act of support for Israel) when they may well have thought of themselves (and their clients) as acting on the Suez west bank with our toleration. (Even more than in Cuba, the Soviets this time knew for certain that we knew the standstill was being violated.)

I do not claim to know the right way to communicate our intentions and conceptions of interests (assuming we ourselves know and agree what they are) to the Soviets in a way that minimizes the danger of misconstruction and subsequent deep confrontation. Nor, emphatically, do I exonerate the Soviets, who after all are the perpetrators of or accessories to the inimical acts in question.

I merely note from past involvement in these matters that our propensity to give the wrong signal has been considerable and that a theory is intellectually quite tenable that holds that some major US-Soviet crises of the past, especially in months before US elections, can be correlated to what we ourselves say and do, including at highest (presumed or actual) levels. Admitting that I have not been very close to Middle Eastern developments and to our explicit and implicit communications to the Soviets about them, I nevertheless wish to register my deep concern that this theory has acquired additional weight by recent events.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 713, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. IX, August 1, 1970–October 31, 1970. Secret; Nodis; Eyes Only; Outside System. Sent for urgent information.
  2. On October 22, 1962, President Kennedy delivered a radio and television report to the American people on the Soviet arms buildup in Cuba. (Public Papers: Kennedy, 1962, pp. 806–809)
  3. See Document 205.