88. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1


  • The US Role in Soviet Maneuvering Against China

In the last two months, the increase in Sino-Soviet tensions has led the Soviets to sound out numerous American contacts on their attitude toward a possible Soviet air strike against China’s nuclear/missile facilities or toward other Soviet military actions. These probes have varied in character from point-blank questioning of our reaction to provocative musings by Soviets over what they might be forced to do against the Chinese, including the use of nuclear weapons. Some of these contacts have featured adamant denials that the Soviets were planning any military moves—thereby keeping the entire issue alive. (Secretary Rogers’ Memorandum on this subject is at Tab A.)

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Our contingency planning for major Sino-Soviet hostilities is well along, and NSC consideration of a basic policy paper on the Sino-Soviet dispute is scheduled for October 8.2

Meanwhile, I am concerned about our response to these probes. The Soviets may be quite uncertain over their China policy, and our reactions could figure in their calculations. Second, the Soviets may be using us to generate an impression in China and the world that we are being consulted in secret and would look with equanimity on their military actions.

A related issue is the shifting Soviet attitude on Chinese representation in the UN. We have had two indications that the Soviets, in an effort to keep the Chinese Communists out of the UN through indirection, are dangling the prospect before us of cooperation on the representation issue. Gromyko, in his UN speech, of course failed to mention Peking’s admission for the first time.3

I believe we should make clear that we are not playing along with these tactics, in pursuance of your policy of avoiding the appearance of siding with the Soviets.

The principal gain in making our position clear would be in our stance with respect to China. The benefits would be long rather than short-term, but they may be none the less real. Behavior of Chinese Communist diplomats in recent months strongly suggests the existence of a body of opinion, presently submerged by Mao’s doctrinal views, which might wish to put US/Chinese relations on a more rational and less ideological basis than has been true for the past two decades.


That you authorize me to ask the Department of State to prepare instructions to the field setting forth guidance to be used with the USSR and others, deploring reports of a Soviet plan to make a preemptive military strike against Communist China.4

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Tab A

Memorandum From Secretary of State Rogers to President Nixon


  • The Possibility of a Soviet Strike Against Chinese Nuclear Facilities

Soviet Embassy Second Secretary Davydov brought up the idea of a Soviet attack on Chinese nuclear facilities in a Washington luncheon conversation with a Department officer on August 18. I am enclosing the memorandum of conversation5 which details the rationale for such a move which he adduced in asking what the United States reaction might be.

Davydov’s conversation was unusual for the length of the argument that he presented for such a Soviet course of action. None of the other occasional references to the idea in talks with Soviets which have come to our attention have spelled out such a justification.

  • —In late March or early April Kosygin’s son-in-law Gvishiani and Professor Artsimovich who were visiting in Boston reportedly said that the USSR would have to destroy Communist China’s nuclear arsenal. They seemed to be soliciting the reaction of the American to whom they were speaking.
  • —Italian Communist Rossana Rossanda has claimed that, in July, the Italian Communist leadership received a message from Moscow asking how the Italians would react if, in self-defense, the Soviet Union were forced to make a preventive strike against Chinese missile and atomic installations. On the basis of past experience, Rossanda is not to be taken too literally as a reporter, and a more accurate version of her information may be contained in a Finnish Communist account of the consultations in Moscow at the World Communist Conference in June. According to this report, a Soviet leader then asserted that the USSR had a capability to deal China an immediate mortal blow (presumably more than just a strike at nuclear facilities), but did not wish to do something so “un-Leninist,” except as an extreme defensive measure.
  • —In June the science editor of Izvestia’s Sunday supplement asked an American Embassy officer in Moscow what the American reaction [Page 269] to a possible Soviet attack (nature of the blow not specified) on China might be. The same Russian has avoided the subject more recently, and in response to the American’s latest query two weeks ago, the editor merely said that the USSR was trying to better its relations with China. In July Sidney Liu of Newsweek was asked by Delyusin of the Soviet Institute of Asian and African Affairs what he thought the Chinese popular reaction would be to a major Soviet attack on China (the nature of the attack was not otherwise defined in the report).
  • —A Soviet communication to foreign Communist parties in early August left an impression of great concern over the future of Sino-Soviet relations, but neither of the two accounts of the message that we have indicates that it discussed such specific courses of action as a strike against Chinese nuclear facilities.
  • —Finally, the most recent Soviet statement on the subject was by Southeast Asia Chief Kapitsa of the Foreign Ministry who insisted to a Canadian newsman that a Soviet strike against Chinese nuclear targets was “unthinkable” and that the very idea was an invention of the Western press.

It is extremely unlikely that Davydov would be privy to top-level Soviet discussions on this matter, much less any decisions taken. Rather, it is likely that he has been given the job of getting as much information as he can on American attitudes on the China issue, and his questioning about the strike hypothesis was in the context of trying to elicit discussion of American views of Sino-Soviet relations. The idea of a strike against Chinese nuclear targets is one which has been mentioned in the United States press and talked about among diplomats and newsmen in Washington. Moreover, Davydov had been asked—at a meeting with Congressional interns a few days before the above cited luncheon—what he thought the United States attitude ought to be in the event of a Sino-Soviet war, and thus would have had occasion to have thought through some of the argumentation he used in the memorandum.

What emerges clearly from the foregoing evidence—as well as from Soviet leaders’ speeches, from Moscow’s propaganda, and from clandestine source reports on Soviet diplomatic anxieties—is an obvious sense of Soviet concern over troubles with China and of great interest in how others view Sino-Soviet tensions. What remains doubtful is whether the Soviets have ordered their officials systematically to canvass for reactions to a specific potential course of action—attack on Chinese nuclear targets. Nevertheless, the Department has considered the possibility that Davydov’s conversation might have been the first move in such a probing operation, and, with that in view, has alerted key American posts abroad to be certain to report analogous conversations. The only response so far was from the American Embassy in [Page 270] Rome. A Soviet First Secretary told Italian officials he foresaw new and more serious incidents; he was not reported to have sought reactions and there was no reference in the report to the idea of a strike against Chinese nuclear facilities.

In the absence of a cluster of such reports in a relatively short time, it would appear that Davydov’s recent conversation, as well as the remarks in Boston five months ago, are curiosities rather than signals. It is certain that Moscow remains preoccupied with its Chinese problem, and the Kremlin is probably reviewing all of its options. Thus the possibility of a Soviet strike at Chinese nuclear facilities cannot be ruled out. Nevertheless, my advisers and I do not believe such a move to be probable. The Soviets would have to weigh the risk of triggering an all-out war with China, a war for which the Soviets are not likely to believe themselves yet well prepared despite their buildup since 1965. Moreover, they would not be sure of getting the entire inventory of Chinese bombs, and would in any case face the prospect that the Chinese would most likely rebuild their nuclear arsenal with renewed determination.

The National Intelligence Estimate of August 12, 19696 on the Sino-Soviet dispute notes that a conventional air strike aimed at destroying China’s missile and nuclear facilities might be the most attractive military option available to Moscow, if the Soviets believed that they could do this without getting involved in a prolonged and full-scale war. The National Intelligence Estimate did not think it likely that the Kremlin would reach this conclusion, but felt that there was some chance that it would. Considering all of the military, political, economic, foreign policy, and ideological implications of any such Soviet attack, the Department’s analysts judge that the chances of this particular course of action are still substantially less than fifty-fifty and that Sino-Soviet conflict, if it does occur, might more likely result from escalation of border clashes. That assessment seems reasonable to me.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 337, Subject Files, HAK/Richardson Meetings, May 1969–December 1969. Secret. Sent for action. Drafted by Sonnenfeldt. This memorandum was sent as an enclosure to an October 23 memorandum on items to discuss with Elliot Richardson; see footnote 4 below.
  2. See Document 79.
  3. Gromyko’s speech before the UN General Assembly on September 19 mentioned all Socialist countries except the People’s Republic of China and also avoided the issue of UN membership for the PRC. (United Nations, General Assembly, Twenty-fourth Session, Official Records, 1756th Plenary Meeting, September 19, 1969, pp. 7–14)
  4. Nixon initialed the approve option and added: “Base it on ‘reports which have come here—etc.’” On October 23 Kissinger apparently asked Richardson to “prepare instructions to the field setting forth guidance for deploring reports on a Soviet plan to make a preemptive military strike against Communist China” based on Nixon’s comments on this paper.
  5. Attached but not printed.
  6. Document 73.