93. Memorandum of Conversation1
- The President
- Ambassador Dobrynin
- Henry A. Kissinger
Ambassador Dobrynin opened the conversation by handing the President a brief announcement suggesting November 17th as the opening of the SALT talks, and suggesting Helsinki as the place. The President asked why Helsinki—he preferred Vienna. Ambassador Dobrynin replied that it did not make a great deal of difference to the Soviet Union, but since Helsinki had been proposed as one of the places by the Secretary of State in June, they decided to go along with that. The President said the Secretary of State had been under instructions to point out the difficulties of Helsinki. Ambassador Dobrynin replied that all the Secretary of State had said to Gromyko was, “to hell with ‘Sinki,” which is not a diplomatic suggestion. If the United States preferred some other place, this should not be too difficult.
Dr. Kissinger asked the Ambassador what they meant by preliminary discussion. He replied that this meant only the first phase of the discussions, and had no particular significance. But Ambassador Dobrynin suggested that one possible way of handling it would be by beginning in Helsinki and then moving on to Vienna. Dr. Kissinger pointed out to the Ambassador that we had to consult some Allies, but that there seemed to be no insuperable difficulties.
The President then said it would be dangerous if the talks were only a series of platitudes. Ambassador Dobrynin replied that there [Page 280]would be specific suggestions, depending on the range of our proposals, and they would probably be put in the form of several options.
The Ambassador then said that President Podgorny paid close attention to good relationships with the United States, and valued this private contact that had been established, but they wanted the President to hear directly their view of international relations. The Ambassador then read the attached Aide Mémoire to the President. After he was through reading the Aide Mémoire, the President pulled out a yellow pad, handed it to Dobrynin and said, “you’d better take some notes,” and began to speak almost uninterruptedly for half an hour.
The President began by saying to Dobrynin, “you have been candid, and I will be equally so. I, too, am disappointed in US-Soviet relations. I am today, in office for nine months. The babies should have been born; instead, there have been several miscarriages. I recognize that the future of my country and of the world depends on the success the Soviet Union has in bringing us closer together. We have not done well. Let me point out why.”
Middle East. The President pointed out that Sisco and Gromyko, and Sisco and Dobrynin, have talked, but the Soviets have been taking a hard position based on total withdrawal without asking a similar sacrifice from the UAR. The President pointed out that the Soviet client had lost the war, had lost the territory, and was in no position to be extremely aggressive. Ambassador Dobrynin asked whether the President was suggesting that total withdrawal was no longer acceptable, and why a UN force was not adequate. The President said that in light of the experience with the other UN force, one would have to understand and take account of the Israeli position. We are not intransigent, the President added, and you must not be. If you are willing to press your client, we may be able to make some suggestions to Israel. Ambassador Dobrynin began to argue and the President cut him off by saying these were technical issues which should be discussed with Sisco.
Turning to trade, European security and Berlin, the President said that these could be dealt with later at a very high level, if we can make a breakthrough somewhere. The Ambassador asked, “how do we make a breakthrough?”
The President ignored him and turned to China. He said, “Look to the future of Asia—what will Asia be 25 years from now? China will be in a position of immense power and we cannot have it without communication. Anything we have done or are doing with respect to China is in no sense designed to embarrass the Soviet Union. On the contrary, China and the United States cannot tolerate a situation to develop where we are enemies, anymore than we want to be permanent enemies of the Soviet Union. Therefore, we expect to make moves in trade and exchange of persons and eventually in diplomacy. As the Ambassador has said [Page 281]himself, there are enough blocs in the world without contributing to another one. He repeated this was not directed against the Soviet Union. Within 10 years, China will be a nuclear power, capable of terrorizing many other countries. The time is running out when the Soviet Union and the United States can build a different kind of world. The only beneficiary, then, of U.S.-Soviet disagreement over Vietnam is China. And, therefore, this is the last opportunity to settle these disputes.
The President then turned to Vietnam. He said that prior to the bombing halt, “which you are aware will be one year old on November 1st,” Ambassadors Bohlen, Thompson and Harriman had pointed out that the Soviet Union could do nothing as long as the United States was bombing a fellow Socialist country, and that it would be very active afterwards. The bombing halt was agreed to and the Soviet Union has done nothing.
Of course, the President said, we now had an oblong table to the attainment of which the Soviet Union contributed something, but the U.S. did not consider that a great achievement. All conciliatory moves for the past year had been made by the United States. The President enumerated them.
The President said he therefore had concluded that maybe the Soviet Union did not want to end the war in Vietnam. They may think that they can break the President; they may believe that the U.S. domestic situation is unmanageable; they may think that the war in Vietnam costs the Soviet Union only a small amount of money and costs the U.S. a great many lives. The President did not propose to argue with the Soviet assessment. As a great power, it had the right to take its position. On the other hand, the Ambassador had to understand the following: the Soviet Union would be stuck with the President for the next three years and three months, and the President would keep in mind what was being done right now. If the Soviet Union would not help us to get peace, the U.S. would have to pursue its own methods for bringing the war to an end. It could not allow a talk-fight strategy without taking action.
The President said he hoped that the Ambassador would understand that such measures would not be directed against the Soviet Union, but would be in the U.S. interest of achieving peace. The U.S. recognized that a settlement must reflect the real situation. It recognized the right of all Vietnamese to participate in the political process. But up to now, there had been a complete refusal of North Vietnam to make its own proposals in order to have any serious discussion.
The President pointed out that all the Ambassador had done was to repeat the same tired old slogans that the North Vietnamese had made already six months ago, and which he knew very well could lead nowhere. It was time to get discussions started. The humiliation of a defeat was absolutely unacceptable. The President recognized that the Soviet [Page 282]leaders were tough and courageous, but so was he. He told Ambassador Dobrynin that he hoped that he would not mind this serious talk.
President Nixon said he did not believe much in personal diplomacy, and he recognized that the Ambassador was a strong defender of the interests of his own country. The President pointed out that if the Soviet Union found it possible to do something in Vietnam, and the Vietnam war ended, the U.S. might do something dramatic to improve Soviet-U.S. relations, indeed something more dramatic than they could now imagine. But until then, real progress would be difficult.
Ambassador Dobrynin asked whether this meant that there could be no progress. The President replied that progress was possible, but it would have to be confined essentially to what was attainable in diplomatic channels. He said that he was very happy to have Ambassador Dobrynin use the channel through Dr. Kissinger, and he would be prepared to talk to the Ambassador personally. He reiterated that the war could drag on, in which case the U.S. would find its own way to bring it to an end. There was no sense repeating the proposals of the last six months. However, he said, in the meantime, while the situation continued, we could all keep our tone down and talk correctly to each other. It would help, and would lay the basis for further progress, perhaps later on when conditions were more propitious.
The President said that the whole world wanted us to get together. He too wanted nothing so much as to have his Administration remembered as a watershed in U.S.-Soviet relations, but we would not hold still for being “diddled” to death in Vietnam.2
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 489, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1969, Part 1. Top Secret; Sensitive; Nodis. The conversation was held in the Oval Office of the White House. On October 17, at 4:40 p.m., Dobrynin called Kissinger to arrange a meeting to deliver to Nixon a message from Moscow regarding SALT and U.S.-Soviet relations. According to a transcript of their conversation, “K asked if Dobrynin had requested this [meeting] through the State Department. D said no, he has spoken only to K. K said then he would keep it that way.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 360, Telephone Records, 1969–1972, Chronological File) On October 18, Kissinger sent Nixon summary talking points in which he stressed that “Your basic purpose will be to keep the Soviets concerned about what we might do around November 1. You should also make clear that, whether or not they agree to SALT, unless there is real progress in Vietnam, US-Soviet relations will continue to be adversely affected.” The summary talking points and longer attached briefing paper are in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 489, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1969, Part 1.↩
- Nixon provides a detailed account of this conversation in his Memoirs, pp. 405–407. He concludes with the following description: “Kissinger came back in after he had seen Dobrynin to his car. ‘I wager that no one has ever talked to him that way in his entire career!’ he said. ‘It was extraordinary! No President has ever laid it on the line to them like that.’“↩
- No classification marking.↩