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


  • Memorandum to the President on Soviet Developments—Comment on our Policy

Attached, pursuant to your instruction, is a memorandum to the President on Soviet developments (Tab A).

In this general connection, I understand that the President at the May 21 NSC meeting2 made a series of negative decisions on East-West trade issues. I have only been intermittently involved in the preparatory work for the NSC meeting, so that I am not familiar with the factors and considerations that led up to this rather major decision in the area of East-West relations.

But I consider it unfortunate that the Executive appears to have surrendered a flexible instrument of policy vis-à-vis the East. I have never believed that our trade (and cultural) policies will have more than marginal impact on the evolution of Soviet policy. On the other hand, I find it surprising that we should want to let the Soviets (and, for that matter, the North Koreans and North Vietnamese) control our policy toward all the Communist states of Eastern Europe. I believe that the policy of treating different Communists differently, if pursued without [Page 161] illusion and grandiose expectations, is a wise one. But there is little, if anything, that we can do in practice to implement it if we deprive ourselves of just about the only instrument we have for doing so.

If the intention is to hold out lush vistas of trade as an incentive for the Soviets to cross the threshold of “sufficient progress” it is doubtful that we will be successful. The Soviets are unlikely to consider the potential economic benefits of sufficient interest to warrant political concessions; and since our present policy supports their own efforts to rebuild a monolith in Eastern Europe, they will hardly be inclined to pay us in order to get us to give it up.

More fundamentally, I find disturbing the apparent decision, as I understand it, to withhold a “generous” Eastern trade policy until there is “sufficient progress” in our “overall relations” with the Communists.

It seems to me that this implies a concept of our relations with the Soviets that can lead us into serious difficulty. The notion that there is some definable threshold between insufficient and sufficient progress—between confrontation and negotiation—is unrealistic. The prospect is for a highly mixed relationship with elements of both. The attached paper attempts to sketch some of the reasons why this is so.

If we think of our relations with the Soviets in terms of milestones and thresholds, we run the risk of arbitrarily proclaiming great new eras of cooperation—much as President Johnson did for subjective reasons of his own in connection with the most marginal housekeeping agreements or with a summit of the most dubious achievement—when in fact little that was fundamental had changed. We should not forget President Eisenhower’s experience with his speech of April 16, 1953,3 in which he established certain litmus paper tests for Soviet good behavior. After the Soviets had met some of them (like the Austrian peace treaty) it nevertheless turned out that we were small, if any, distance farther along in improving “overall relations.”

In sum, rather than conditioning our minds and hopes to a vision of a relationship with the Soviets that is moving in one consistent direction of progress, we should anticipate that SALT and pepper will mark these relations for a long time to come. If the past is any guide at all, the landmarks we are likely to pass will not be ones of progress in overall relations as much as lines we draw in our own imagination for reasons and purposes and at moments of our own choosing. And the path along which these kinds of landmarks are posted is likely to lead to disillusionment or worse.

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Tab A

Memorandum for President Nixon 4


  • The View from Moscow

If one had to summarize the view from Moscow in a word, it would be “uncertainty.” Whether considering their internal situation or surveying the external scene, the Soviet leaders must see a number of problems and issues that are increasingly difficult and complex. Even if the collective leadership were disposed to be more decisive, which it is not, there are too many variables that impinge on their calculations and over which they have only limited control and influence.

A case might be made that the several pressures and uncertainties with which Soviet leaders must cope may dispose them to seek quiescence in their relations with us. Yet, for the most part these pressures cut several ways, leading the Soviets into policy lines that impede improved relations with us.


This problem is at the center of Soviet preoccupation because it affects almost every other area of decision. The build-up which the Soviets have made in the Far East will, by the end of this year, have created stronger ground forces than the USSR has in Eastern Europe; this has been and will be extremely costly, especially as the Russians create tactical nuclear capabilities along the China border. This is an entirely new aspect to the traditional squeeze on Soviet military-economic resources, and one which Moscow should logically want to alleviate.

Yet the Soviets find it difficult to cope with the China problem. The results of the Chinese party congress offer little hope for the future, if Lin Piao5 actually does succeed Mao. Moreover, any forceful move greatly complicates the situation in Europe, in the international communist movement, and above all, would seem to call for a much more stabilized relationship with the US and the West in general.

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There are significant barriers, however, to moving very far in this direction.

Eastern Europe

The Soviets would prefer a tight, cohesive, ideologically orthodox Warsaw Pact. But the two recent “summit” meetings exposed once again the enormous problems of recreating such an alliance, without provoking the gravest crises; meanwhile, Rumania remains determined to create an independent position, and receives aid and comfort from Tito, whose relations with Moscow are deteriorating.

Much the same applies to the international communist movement, which will gather in Moscow on May 29 to prepare for the grand conclave of June 5. The Soviets would like, of course, to lay down a new “general line” on major issues—the imperialist threat, the Chinese, the “Brezhnev doctrine,”6 the character of the international movement, etc. But sharp clear positions are almost certain to provoke a showdown with the dissident parties. So the result is likely to be a compromise which will settle very little.

And in the background is Czechoslovakia. The situation there is, of course, improved from the Soviet viewpoint. But they are not out of the woods by any means. To the extent that Husak7 seeks to conciliate Moscow and consolidate his own position, he courts popular resistance. Yet if and as he succeeds, his strong personality and sharp nationalist sentiments may confront Moscow with yet further problems.

The net result is that the Soviets are reluctant to see a significant relaxation of tension in Europe, despite propaganda exercises such as the Budapest Appeal,8 since they are concerned that the centrifugal forces already at work might be accelerated.

Western Europe

At the same time, the Soviets recognize the attraction of “détente” politics in the West, and still intend to play this line. The uncertainties created by de Gaulle’s withdrawal,9 however, probably have upset all [Page 164] Soviet calculations. They have already evidenced some concern over possible departures from the Gaullist line by Pompidou.10

The principal Soviet concern, however, is whether the political weight of Bonn does not automatically gain as de Gaulle leaves the scene. Relations with Bonn, in any case, have been ambiguous. The Soviets are tempted to promote a “dialogue,” especially while the SPD is in the Grand Coalition, and even open up the Berlin question. Recent trade overtures and agreements with German industry also point in this direction. Any extensive dialogue, however, creates problems for Moscow’s relations with East Germany and Poland. Moreover, the NPT issue is a source of tensions between Bonn and Moscow. While the Soviets have now decided to start the ratification process, they will still withhold the final steps until the Germans sign, which probably means after the German elections. Thus, the issue may become acrimonious and an issue in German politics in which the Soviets will try to involve themselves. It may also complicate relations with us.

Middle East

On the Middle East, the Soviets have recognized the explosiveness of the situation and the need for a breathing spell; hence their interest in the four-power discussions and their fairly flexible approach. But the question remains whether they believe a breather is all that is necessary, or that a more durable settlement is required. In the latter case, they would have to consider the cost to their position in the Arab World of trying to reach a mutually acceptable compromise. It is unlikely that they have faced the hard decisions on the Middle East, since they do not seem to share our concern over the recent deterioration of the situation.


A similar ambiguity seems to characterize the Soviet position on Vietnam. In Paris they have been stonewalling and of no visible help in the talks. Recently, however, there were some signs—in remarks by Kosygin to Beam—that they might again take a more active role in private talks; perhaps this was conveyed to Le Duc Tho11 when Kosygin saw him.

The Soviets are probably still basically of two minds on Vietnam, however. On the one hand, they could see the virtue in further stalling, in expectation that domestic pressures in the US will force new concessions in Paris. On the other hand, they may recognize that Vietnam [Page 165] casts a shadow over relations with the US and may stand in the way of proceeding on other issues. The Soviets may also be concerned that the lack of progress in Paris vindicates the Chinese criticism and reduces Moscow’s influence in Hanoi. But Vietnam is still a critical issue over which the Soviets have limited leverage and no compelling incentive to exert pressures on North Vietnam.

The US

Apparently, the uncertainties over Vietnam and the Middle East are reinforced by doubts over relations with the US. The Soviets have been notably patient about the SALT talks and fairly calm in their criticism of the US ABM decision. They have also been moderately positive in evaluating the new American administration. And Brezhnev in his keynote speech on May Day seemed restrained.

At the same time, the Soviets may have suspicions that the US is improving its military position and attaching “preconditions” to arms control talks.


That there is a greater uncertainty seems to be reflected in evidence of a debate over military affairs. The military seem to be arguing among themselves over weapons programs, including ABMs, and with the civilians over who should have the last word on professional military decisions. Civilian control is almost certainly not in danger, but concessions to military pleading, say for new weapons programs, may affect the political leaders’ attitude toward SALT.

Internal Pressures

These issues have been sharpened by the need to begin preparations for the new Five Year Plan (1971–75). The Soviets are not facing an acute economic crisis; nor are they faced with simple choices of guns versus butter. The problems are more complex. The main one is how to increase the rate of investment for future growth, which is almost certain to decline further if investment rates are not increased.

Eventually, enough political leaders may conclude that they should cut into the military pie, which is probably exactly what the marshals fear and are trying to head off in their contentious articles of late.

While it can be argued that economic pressures push the Soviets in the direction of a détente with the United States, social dissidence and internal unrest draw the Soviet leaders into an increasingly repressive, authoritarian mode of behavior. Some very ugly features of the Soviet leadership are more and more apparent. Historically, such trends in internal affairs are linked to a more defensive but militant attitude toward the outside world.

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The Outlook

All of the foregoing does not add up to a crisis. Nor does it suggest a more belligerent, forward policy abroad. Probably the leadership will continue to manage, rather than solve, its principal problems, and do so in the businesslike fashion which has characterized the collective in Moscow since they assumed power.

From our standpoint, this may offer some opportunities. If the Soviet leaders seem to be temporizing and are rather uncertain, then there may be room for the US to influence decisions, especially on the critical issues—the Middle East, Vietnam, and disarmament.

From the standpoint of the Kremlin, however, there may be those who are impatient with a leadership which seems increasingly tired. A change at the top, before the party congress next spring could be one outcome. Another could be the development of a new “general line” after the Communist conference, which is the next major landmark which should provide us with considerable material for a better view of Moscow’s foreign policy direction.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 710, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. V. Secret; Sensitive.
  2. A NSC meeting on U.S. trade policy toward Communist countries was held in the Cabinet Room of the White House from 10:26 to 11:30 a.m. on May 21. (Ibid., White House Central Files, President’s Daily Diary) No record of this meeting has been found. On May 28, National Security Decision Memorandum 15 on East-West trade was issued as a result of this meeting. For NSDM 15, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume IV, Foreign Assistance; International Development; Trade Policies, 1969–1972, Document 299.
  3. Eisenhower’s address, “The Chance For Peace,” was delivered before the American Society of Newspaper Editors. (Public Papers: Eisenhower, 1953, pp. 179–188)
  4. Secret. Kissinger sent this memorandum to Nixon on May 24, suggesting that the paper “points up the many conflicting strands in current Soviet behavior.” A note on Kissinger’s covering memorandum reads, “9/15, Ret[urned] and no indication that Pres has seen.”
  5. Lin Pao was Minister of Defense of the People’s Republic of China and Vice Chairman of the CCP Central Committee (Politburo).
  6. The Brezhnev Doctrine applied in the West to the Soviet justification for its occupation of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. In a speech on November 11, 1968, Soviet Premier Leonid 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.”
  7. Gustáv Husák was First Secretary of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party.
  8. Warsaw Pact nations issued the Budapest Appeal on March 17, calling for cooperation among all European countries and a conference on European security. For text, see Documents on Disarmament, 1969, pp. 106–108.
  9. French President Charles de Gaulle resigned in April 1969.
  10. George Pompidou succeeded de Gaulle as President of France in April 1969.
  11. Le Duc Tho was a member of the Politburo of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and Special Adviser to the DRV Delegation to the Paris Peace Talks on Vietnam.