225. Memorandum From William Hyland of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1
- The Soviet Reply
The Soviet reply2 both in tone and substance is obviously intended to be conciliatory. It clearly backs away from any suggestion that the Soviets have a “right” to establish a base in Cuba, which would have been the toughest response. Rather, it specifically claims that the USSR traditionally opposes foreign bases—thus establishing a presumption [Page 672] that they would not do so in Cuba (it is worth recalling, however, that Khrushchev in September 1962 publicly claimed that the USSR had no need to “transfer” its strategic missiles to any foreign bases). The note also goes to some length to pin down the understanding of 1962 and claims in particular that their activities at Cienfuegos are consistent with that understanding.
This general line, plus other possible signs strongly suggests that the Soviets are anxious to avoid a public (or private) confrontation:
- —On the day following your press release, two of the Soviet vessels—the salvage and landing ship—that had been in Cienfuegos since September 9–10, departed for the USSR.
- —Since then there has been virtually no change in Cienfuegos: no new construction, no significant increase in defense, no change in the use of the tender (it has apparently been at the pier since September 25–26, rather than moored at the deep basin, thought to be the submarine support area, guarded by the submarine nets).
- —The Soviets have made only a minimal public acknowledgement (on September 30) and have tried to dismiss the affair as mere propaganda.
- —The Soviet counselor (Vorontsov) told the UAR Ambassador in Washington that the Soviet activities were only Cuban port improvements.
The general Soviet response thus suggests that they are looking for an easy and quick end to the incident. This is consistent with the interpretation that the main purpose of the exercise has been a probe of our permissiveness, following on their earlier visits, especially the one to Cienfuegos in May, which included a cruise missile submarine. Having found that move has drawn a strong response, they probably want to resolve it by taking refuge in the 1962 agreement. In this light, the earlier conversation with Vorontsov was a form of reinsurance against the current contingency, as well as sounding us out for any reaction to what had already transpired in May and July.
Nevertheless, the Soviet response is deliberately ambiguous, a retreat but only a partial one. The note implies that, while an offensive or strategic base is not involved at Cienfuegos, the facilities could still be used from time to time in unspecified ways. Thus they are proposing a narrow definition of the 1962 agreement. The consequence could be that we might accept a de facto Soviet support base, limited only by the exclusion of ballistic submarines.
In short, the Soviet approach implies a reaffirmation of the 1962 understanding but on the basis of the status quo, i.e., the acceptance of the current facilities at Cienfuegos, and perhaps their improvement.
The definite commitment to the 1962 accord is an important first step toward resolving the issue on our terms. But there remains a gray [Page 673] area that should be clarified lest there be a future misunderstanding, and, most important, could signal to the Soviets we were prepared to tolerate a de facto base in Cuba.
To avoid this, the following could be your general response:
- —You note that both sides have now reaffirmed the basic 1962 understanding.
- —You also note that this applies specifically to the facilities at Cienfuegos.
- —This means that Cienfuegos cannot be used to service or support missile submarines.
It remains to clarify in what way the facilities will be used.
- —While we could not object to ceremonial port calls, accepted as traditional international practice, certain patterns of activity and the appearance of certain types of vessels would raise serious questions of Soviet intentions.
- —In other words, our interpretation of the 1962 agreement is that the USSR should not use Cuba in any way to gain a military advantage over the US.
- —The simple solution would be for the submarine tender to return to the USSR. This would be a tangible change. Otherwise it will be extremely difficult to explain to the Congress or the American public why we have not taken this up through regular diplomatic channels.
- —As long as the tender remains, there will be doubts in our minds of the Soviet commitment to abide by the 1962 accords. (Optional: If the tender does remain, we would have to be far more concerned over any use of the Cienfuegos port by Soviet vessels.)
- —Until the remaining ambiguities are resolved, we cannot consider the matter closed, and must reserve the right to shift to less confidential channels, which we would not prefer. It is in our common interest not to allow this issue to fester, and become a public confrontation.
- What is the purpose of keeping a submarine tender in Cienfuegos, if it is not to be used? (How would the Soviets regard the stationing of a US submarine tender and nets in the Gulf of Finland?)
- Does the Soviet Government agree that the intention of the agreements in 1962 was that the USSR would not attempt to use Cuba to gain a military advantage over the US—that is, not to change the status quo in the area?
- Does the USSR agree that any regular use of Cienfuegos by any Soviet warships or any kind of submarine (ballistic, cruise or attack) would violate the basis of the understanding reached in 1962?
- Do the Soviets agree that further construction of barracks, new communications with the USSR, storage for weapons (missiles) would change the status quo and be inconsistent with their assertion that they do not intend to establish a base in Cienfuegos?