42. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • SALT


  • Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin
  • Llewellyn E. Thompson

My wife and I had the Dobrynins to dinner alone last night to show them our new house and to receive a mounted photograph of Kosygin which he had informed me he had been asked to transmit.

In an after dinner conversation with the Ambassador alone we discussed the strategic arms talks. He said that the Soviet leadership had been disturbed by the speculation in the American press to the effect that because of economic pressure the Soviet Government was eager for the talks to begin and that over a month ago he had been instructed not to raise the question of talks on his own initiative with anyone and had not done so. When I said I was optimistic that we could reach agreement he replied that he had thought so too but had changed his mind. He thought that as a result of the delay in starting the talks and the attempt to charge the Soviets with building for a first strike he thought that there was great suspicion and distrust in Moscow of our purposes.

I explained at some length the thoroughness of the review the U.S. Government was undertaking of the problem and Dobrynin said that he could understand this but indicated he had not convinced Moscow. In this connection he mentioned the leak of the Packard study which added to the difficulty and said that this was something that even he could not understand.

[Page 148]

He asked whether in the talks we would propose a reduction or a freeze, whether we would go for parity or insist upon superiority and how we would define strategic.

I began my reply by saying that the whole question of our position at the talks was under review and I could therefore only give him my personal views. I thought it would be foolish of both of us to go for parity in every category as this would probably amount to escalation since one of us in each case would have to destroy weapons or systems which would be difficult as a way to reach a first agreement, although reductions could be considered later. I did think that our position would be based on an overall balance between us.

I evaded answering his question on our definition of strategic weapons but did mention that in the case of airplanes this was very difficult. He observed that in the present situation airplanes were not very important.

On the matter of delay I said the Secretary had asked me to tell him that he hoped to be in a position to discuss the matter of date and place with him before he left on his trip the beginning of next week. Dobrynin expressed his hope this would be possible.

I tried to draw Dobrynin out on the Soviet position in the talks. He said he had been familiar with the position that had worked out for the previously proposed talks. He said this position laid down general principles and objectives but did not go into specifics. He explained that this would be done after the talks had opened and they had a better idea of what kind of agreement we had in mind. I had earlier mentioned that one reason for the considerable time we were taking to develop our position was that the President liked to have several options explored in depth. He said the Politburo did not normally operate in this way. Papers usually come to the Politburo in a form that enabled issues to be decided by a yes or no. Of course the members had to do a lot of homework on the agenda before the meeting. He said an agenda might have as many as sixty items on it. On a complicated issue like SALT the members could not be expected to form opinions on all the specific issues that might theoretically arise in the talks but the delegation could get instructions on these as they came up.

At one point Dobrynin asked if the problem of Communist China would affect our position in the talks. I said my guess was that we would have an open mind on this and would give careful consideration to any points they might wish to raise. I said he would be aware from the discussion in our press that one argument for an ABM system was that it would be useful against a Chinese attack even though such an attack in the foreseeable future would be irrational. He inquired when we thought the Chinese Communist would have ICBMs. [Page 149] When I hesitated in replying he suggested not until in the 1970s and I said I thought this was our view.

One interesting remark by Dobrynin was that my job as Ambassador had been easier than his. I had only to convince the Secretary and the President of a given position. In his case although Brezhnev was the boss, even if he and Kosygin accepted his position, if the other members of the Politburo did not agree that position would not be adopted. Therefore on his trips to Moscow for consultation he had to talk to all of the Politburo members and convince a majority of them in order to put across his point of view. I pointed out that in the case of the President he had Congress to consider. He admitted that this was true but thought the President could prevail in most cases where it was important to him.

I started to raise the question of Vietnam but at this point the ladies came in and his wife insisted on their going home as the hour was late.

Before parting Dobrynin said he needed something to show that the Nixon Administration sincerely wanted to enter into an era of negotiation with the Soviet Union and in that connection even a small step in advance would help. It was for that reason he had raised with the Secretary the matter of their opening a consulate in San Francisco in return for one for us in Leningrad. I gathered he had done this without specific instruction to do so.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, DEF 1 US–USSR. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Thompson on May 6. Copies were distributed to Rogers, Smith, Kissinger, Laird, and the Embassy in Moscow. On May 8, Kissinger sent Nixon a copy of this memorandum of conversation with a covering memorandum that reads: “I particularly draw your attention to the third paragraph on page 2 which indicates that Ambassador Thompson—under instructions—told Dobrynin that we ‘hoped to be in a position to discuss the matter of date and place’ for SALT before Secretary Rogers left for the Far East. This conversation took place before you had made your decision on how to proceed with SALT.” Kissinger’s covering memorandum and copy of the memorandum of conversation between Thompson and Dobrynin are stamped “the President has seen” and are ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 725, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Memcons, Thompson/Dobrynin.