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


  • Kosygin’s Mission to Peking

Very little is known of the origins or purposes of Kosygin’s visit to Peking.2 Judging from the characterization of the talks by both sides—”frank” (Chinese) and “useful” (Soviets)—there was no significant movement toward an accommodation.

The fact that the talks were held against a background of sharply-rising border tensions does suggest, however, that each side had an interest in attempting to check what seemed to be a gathering momentum toward large and more serious clashes.

The initiative apparently came from the Soviets, perhaps using the Romanians or North Vietnamese as intermediaries. The Soviets may have seen an advantage in appearing to take the lead in trying to reach an understanding, whether the Chinese agreed to the meeting or not. Should hostilities ensue, the Soviets would thus be in a position to present themselves as the aggrieved party. At the same time, the actual Soviet motive may have been to put on the record for Chinese benefit their refusal to tolerate a protracted border conflict. This is the line they took in recent letters to other Communist parties. It may not necessarily reflect a Soviet decision to escalate, but rather an effort to pressure and deter the Chinese.

The Chinese motive is a question, since so far they have been quite consistent in rejecting third party intervention or direct Soviet appeals. The Chinese willingness to receive Kosygin could reflect the more flexible Chinese diplomacy which seems to have been developing in recent months. However, the Chinese would not wish to appear to be resistant to Kosygin’s visit, especially since third parties in the Communist world were apparently involved, and would want to appear at least as “reasonable” as the Soviets. In their public treatment they took [Page 251] pains to minimize its significance by stating that Kosygin was merely “on his way home” and that Chou En-lai met him at Peking airport.

US Interests

Until we learn more of the content of the Peking discussion, it is uncertain how our own interests might be affected:

  • —there is nothing thus far, however, that suggests a new Sino-Soviet diplomatic offensive on Vietnam;
  • —there is nothing to suggest a narrowing of Sino-Soviet differences on fundamental problems;
  • —it is at least possible, that the failure of a personal encounter may actually worsen relations;
  • —sudden moves of this sort do point, however, to the caution which the US should exercise in basing its own actions solely on expected developments in the Sino-Soviet dispute; much of this relationship is still shrouded from us.

Tab A

Intelligence Analysis


There are few facts about the origin of the Kosygin–Chou meeting on 11 September, and none at all about its content or results.3

Clearly it was arranged on short notice. When Kosygin left Hanoi, TASS announced that he had departed for Moscow. He made a brief stop at Calcutta and got as far as Dushanbe, in Soviet Central Asia, when his plane altered course and headed for Irkutsk. There it was met by a flight from Moscow which, after a brief stop, headed on for Peking.

[Page 252]

The Soviets were the first to announce the meeting, saying the two sides “openly set forth their positions and held a conversation useful to both sides.” The Chinese statement, coming a few hours later, was even more terse, saying simply that “frank talks were held” and revealing that the meeting took place at the airport.

Since the meeting, on 11 September, our monitoring has picked up no anti-Chinese polemics in the Soviet press and radio. The same is true for the Chinese radio, but two anti-Soviet press articles appeared on 11 September.

Possible Explanations:

There are several possible explanations for the unexpected and dramatic meeting. One is that the Chinese, well aware of the continuing Soviet build-up along their borders and apprehensive over the increasing speculation that Moscow intended to conduct a preemptive strike against their advanced weapons facilities, asked for the meeting in an effort to calm down their bellicose neighbor. This scenario seems highly unlikely, however. First reports indicate that Chinese propaganda against the Soviets is continuing even after the meeting. Had the Chinese proposed the talks and shown signs of apprehensiveness or fear, the Soviets would have demanded an end to such propaganda as a precondition to any easing of tension. Moreover, the Chinese communiqué on the meeting made it clear that Kosygin was treated with minimum respect during his brief visit—he never even left the airport. This is hardly the kind of treatment he would have received if the Chinese had pressed for the meeting in order to arrange some sort of accommodation with Moscow.

Another possibility is that the Soviets pressed for the meeting in order to present the Chinese with some sort of ultimatum regarding the border. Although Moscow has recently issued stern warnings to Peking through their propaganda media, this explanation for the meeting also seems unlikely. The Soviets would hardly have to send their premier to the Chinese capital to deliver such an ultimatum. Had this been their intention they could have effectively achieved their purpose by calling in the Chinese chargé in Moscow and reading the riot act to him. Furthermore, Kosygin’s abrupt reversal of his flight plans in order to reach the Chinese capital seems a rather humiliating prelude to the issuance of some sort of “final warning.”

Still another possibility is that the meeting was not directly related to bilateral relations between the two countries but concerned Vietnam. The Chinese may have informed the North Vietnamese that they were cutting off all Soviet arms shipments to Hanoi, for example, and the Vietnamese might have then urged Kosygin to travel to Peking to iron this problem out. Or Hanoi, pointing to Ho Chi Minh’s “will,” might have again urged the two parties to attempt to compose their differences. [Page 253] However, the North Vietnamese have been urging the two sides to do exactly this for years—with no effect. There is nothing in the present situation which would suggest that such advice would now fall on fertile soil. Moreover, when in the past the Chinese have created difficulties over Soviet arms shipments it has been the North Vietnamese themselves who have taken the initiative in straightening things out—clear indication that Hanoi recognizes that it, rather than Moscow, can apply leverage on Peking in this matter.

Yet another possibility is that a large-scale, but unannounced incident recently occurred somewhere along the Sino-Soviet border—an incident of such gravity that it required direct talks between the two premiers. This scenario would help explain the suddenness of the meeting in Peking, but it would not fit the pattern of previous major incidents occurring in the past year. Both sides have immediately publicized such incidents, and at this juncture neither side would have much motivation to conceal a new clash. Furthermore, a major clash would in all likelihood be reflected in some manner in communications intelligence, and this has not occurred.

It seems most likely that the initiative in calling for the meeting came from the Soviet Union. The Soviets probably believe:

that the course of the Sino-Soviet dispute has reached a dangerous stage. It is hurting them on several fronts. The Chinese, they believe, are trying to “bleed them white” along the border. At the same time, the Soviets are being put at a disadvantage politically because their enemies and their allies as well believe them to be off-balance and on the defensive because of their preoccupation with the Chinese.
Kosygin could have gone to Peking either to issue a last direct warning to the Chinese to cease and desist or face the consequences. We think it more likely that, though he may have talked in uncompromising terms to the Chinese, he was trying to discover whether there was a way to bring the conflict down from its present risky level. The hiatus in propaganda, particularly if it should continue, would point in this direction.
Kosygin may also have proposed further discussions, perhaps including the issue of frontiers. He would, in this case, have made it plain that there can be talk of reducing the potential for border clashes but there can be no question of ceding territory.
Whether an easing of the conflict results from the meeting, the Soviets by sending their premier to Peking will have shown the rest of the world that they were willing to go the last mile toward seeking a solution.

In view of Soviet unease over reports of a preemptive strike, it is possible that Kosygin’s sole purpose was to reassure the Chinese. We think it unlikely that this was the main element in Kosygin’s visit. It is more likely that he sought, at one and the same time, to indicate to the Chinese that they were not under imminent threat of devastating attack but could expect a strong reaction if there were further trouble on the border.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 710, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. V. Secret. The memorandum is stamped “October 6” and bears the handwritten comment “ret’d.” as well as a large check mark in the upper righthand corner.
  2. According to a DIA Intelligence Summary of September 12, Kosygin met with Chou En-lai in Peking on September 11, a visit that lasted only 5 hours before the Soviet Premier returned to Moscow. (Central Intelligence Agency, Executive Registry Files, Job 93–T01468R, Box 3, Sino-Soviet Border, August–December 1969)
  3. On September 12, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover sent information obtained from “an extremely sensitive source” about the Kosygin–Chou En-lai meeting to Helms, Rogers, and Mitchell. According to the FBI source, “both Kosygin and Chou feel it would not be in the best interest of either country to terminate the Vietnam conflict at this time. Both feel that the Vietnam conflict is keeping the United States tied up in that area and that it is bleeding the economy of the United States to support South Vietnam.” On September 17, a senior CIA analyst informed the Deputy Director of Current Intelligence of his “grave reservations about the accuracy and value of this [FBI] report.” Discrediting the origin of the FBI report and its substance, the analyst concluded that “we do not think that the Sino-Soviet relationship is of the kind that would have allowed either side to discuss future plans on Vietnam as this report alleges.” Apparently, the FBI information was discounted in the writing of the attached CIA analysis. An official routing slip to Helms from the Deputy DCI of September 18 reads as follows: “This came in over the weekend—as the contents are nothing really new I did not think it necessary to bother you.” (Ibid., Job 80–R015080R, Box 12, Soviet)