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


  • The International Communist Conference

The conference which convened in Moscow on June 5 was not at all what Khrushchev had in mind when he began pressing for it in 1963–64. He clearly wanted to ostracize the Chinese and restore Soviet authority in a disintegrating international organization. While most parties at that time shared his ideological aversion to Peking’s policies there was a growing apprehension over the self-proclaimed Soviet right to “excommunicate” any one. This remained the underlying issue in the intervening years.

The project lay dormant, after Khrushchev’s removal, until late 1966; some of the Soviet difficulties, however, were eased by the Vietnam war and the ostensible Soviet willingness to cooperate with China in Hanoi’s defense,2 and secondly, by the excesses of the Cultural Revolution in China which dismayed most of China’s communist allies, such as the Japanese party.

Brezhnev began to press for a new conference to reassess the world situation, disavowing any intention of driving the Chinese out of the international communist ranks. It took a full year, until February 1968, however, to organize even a “consultative meeting,” which convened in Budapest.

The Cubans refused to attend, and at the meeting there was a major confrontation with Romania. The Soviet high priest of ideological orthodoxy, Mikhail Suslov, laid down a tough line, and launched a major attack on China. The Romanians, led by Paul Niculescu-Mizil, countered in defense of the Chinese, and when attacked by the Syrians walked out.

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Nevertheless, agreement was reached on a projected date of late 1968 and a single agenda item, the struggle against imperialism.

A permanent preparatory commission began sitting in Budapest. Subsequently, 88 parties were invited to participate in this work, but only 44 attended, and Romania was among the absentees.

By the time of the second preparatory meeting in June 1968, the Czech crisis was approaching a climax. There was strong opposition against proceeding with a conference until the Czech affair had been resolved. The Soviets accepted a postponement until November 1968 and had to settle for another “preparatory” meeting to discuss the final date.

The Czech invasion and the Soviet justification of “limited sovereignty”3 created a brand new issue. At the November meeting, a number of parties insisted on a further postponement because of the Soviet invasion and the draft document was scrapped, to be replaced by a new one drawn up by a small working group. It was clear that a major issue was whether the Soviets could obtain an endorsement of their rationale for intervention in Czechoslovakia.

The last round of the preparatory meeting (May 23–June 5) witnessed a frantic struggle. About 450 amendments were presented to the main document, only about 45 were accepted. Romania sponsored about 100 amendments. By the time the meeting opened, the main document had been greatly watered down.

Victory or Defeat?

From the Soviet viewpoint the conference produced mixed results. It was by no means an unqualified victory. On the other hand, it is doubtful that the Soviet leaders regarded it as a defeat.

The fact that 75 communist parties did finally convene in Moscow after six years of wrangling, and remained for thirteen debates, with no walkouts, was a victory of sorts. To achieve this, however, meant repeated retreats and compromises, until in the end it was clearly a case of obtaining agreement to the lowest common denominator to avoid an open schism.

Moreover, 14 parties, including the Romanians and Italians, refused to accept the final document without reservation.4 Four ruling parties were absent: China, North Korea, North Vietnam and Albania; the Yugoslavs were also absent; and the Cubans did not sign the final document, since they participated as “observers” only. India was the [Page 220] only Asian party other than Mongolia to attend.5 Those attending and agreeing without qualification represented only one third of the Communists throughout the world.

In this sense it was a pyrrhic victory. The conference was in effect a rump session, compared to 1957 and 1960. And on the question of the legitimacy of Soviet authority as the pre-eminent party, nothing was gained. While the Soviet leaders did not expect to restore the role of “leading party,” abandoned by Khrushchev, in their heart of hearts this is what they believe. They sought to demonstrate this by convening a conference that no one really wanted. An objective observer would have to conclude that the 1969 conference marked a further stage in the decline of Soviet authority over its communist colleagues abroad.


Even in their most optimistic moments the Soviet leaders could not have expected any formal action to outlaw the Chinese party, despite the dismay over China’s radical internal policies. By prior agreement the Soviets had conceded that the Chinese issue would not be raised. Nevertheless, Brezhnev launched a major attack on the Chinese in a bitter and lengthy diatribe delivered to the second session of the conference. For the first time, he dwelt on the Chinese military threat to the USSR, and went a long way toward ultimate condemnation of the Chinese as not merely renegades but open enemies of the Soviet state.6

The Romanian leader, Nicolae Ceausescu, had apparently been given the text or main points of Brezhnev’s speech on the preceding day and had threatened to walk out and return to Bucharest, where he would summon the Central Committee to support his action. There was a tense confrontation, but the Soviets outmaneuvered him by claiming he would look foolish if he returned home and Brezhnev did not give the speech as intended. So Ceausescu decided to wait and present a rebuttal. In fact, the China problem was first raised by Paraguay, and then elaborated on by Gomulka, before Brezhnev’s major speech. Ceausescu made an appeal against further criticism, but about 55 parties spoke against China, thus giving the USSR fairly strong support.

On this issue, then, the Soviet leaders have reason for some satisfaction. They did not get approval of an edict of excommunication, but [Page 221] did not try to. They did receive a significant degree of support, even though the limitation on their power to impose their position was clearly demonstrated.


It is possible that had the Soviets remained silent on China, they might have escaped without a direct airing of the Czech invasion. Once the China question was broached, the dissidents were free to discuss the Czech invasion. Several delegations attacked the Soviets directly, but most remained silent and very few spoke in support. Husak had appealed to the conference before it opened to avoid the issue, but this was disregarded after the attack on China by Brezhnev.

On this issue, the final document is highly equivocal. Without mentioning Czechoslovakia, it discusses the limited sovereignty, or Brezhnev doctrine.7 By not endorsing it as such, the conference in effect repudiated it.8 Indeed, the document is so general and ambiguous that the Romanians are now quoting it in defense of their own independent course and the President’s visit.

The Effect on Soviet Policy

It seems increasingly obvious that once the conference had been convened the Soviet leaders felt free to chart their own policy course without much regard to the actual proceedings or the final agreed documents. Indeed, Brezhnev’s speech is the real Soviet position, and not the agreed statement on anti-imperialist struggle. In this regard, the Soviet position is more conservative and restrained. Brezhnev was much stronger on the themes of preventing a new war and conducting a policy of “peaceful coexistence”9 than the conference statement, which had to be amended to conciliate militants such as the Cubans.

The follow-up speech of Gromyko suggests that what was agreed to in Moscow will have no great influence on Soviet policy, at least in the sense of forcing it into more “revolutionary” lines. Both Brezhnev and Gromyko went well beyond the conference consensus in crediting the good intentions of the US and other “sober-minded” elements in the West. Thus, one could conclude that all Moscow really wanted was a dramatic forum to attack the Chinese leaders, and once having done so, are returning to the practical business of foreign policy.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 392, Subject Files, Soviet Affairs. Confidential. Sent for information. A notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it. On June 27, Sonnenfeldt forwarded Kissinger a memorandum from the Department of State on the International Communist Conference. Three days later, Haig notified Sonnenfeldt that Kissinger wanted a memorandum on the International Communist Conference for his signature to the President. On July 18, Sonnenfeldt provided a draft of memorandum similar to the version prepared by the Department. (Ibid.)
  2. Nixon underlined this sentence up to this point.
  3. Nixon bracketed “limited sovereignty,” a phrase used in the Brezhnev doctrine.
  4. Nixon underlined this sentence.
  5. Nixon underlined this sentence.
  6. “China’s foreign policy has, in effect, departed from proletarian internationalism and shed the socialist class content … these days the spearhead of Peking’s foreign policy is aimed chiefly against the Soviet Union and the other socialist countries.” [Footnote and ellipsis in the source text.]
  7. Nixon underlined the second half of this sentence.
  8. Nixon underlined this sentence.
  9. Nixon underlined this sentence up to this point.