114. Conversation Between President Nixon and the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

[Omitted here is a brief exchange unrelated to the Soviet Union.]

Kissinger: The Russians now have put a tender back—

Nixon: Yeah, I saw that.

Kissinger: —in Cienfuegos and a nuclear submarine next to it.2

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: And that really is a kick in the teeth in the light of what you said on your—

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: —television program.3 Of course, it was produced by all these leaked stories that came out early in January saying that no one—well, that’s not the story now.

[Page 335]

Nixon: The Soviet Union [unclear] that was exactly what they did.

Kissinger: That’s right. But I then told—

Nixon: Isn’t that what the understanding was?

Kissinger: That is the understanding. But I told Ehrlichman early in January. There were two stories in the New York Times saying State didn’t think—that State thought we exaggerated it and there was no problem.4 I told him—I said they’d be back there in six weeks and here they are. I think I ought to tell Dobrynin that until this damn nuclear submarine leaves I can’t continue talking to him.

Nixon: Yeah. Well, now do you consider [unclear]? Do you consider that a violation of the understanding?

Kissinger: I would think you should say something very enigmatic: “The Soviets know the understanding and the consequences.”

Nixon: Yeah, I saw that. All right. You could say that. But as a matter of fact, they—

Kissinger: This comes very close—

Nixon: They better not—it’s servicing a nuclear submarine.

Kissinger: Well, it says that when they have a nuclear submarine next to a tender—

Nixon: Hm-hmm.

Kissinger: It’s also—if we then say this is servicing unit—if they can establish that, then—

Nixon: Yeah. Okay.

Kissinger: [Mr.] President, they’re really putting it to us. If they put a submarine into Havana and a tender into Cienfuegos, it would be rough but we could close our eyes. But I think on this one, I hate to run any risks on the thing that’s going on now, but our experience with them is whenever we’ve played it hard—if they really want that summit and that agreement, particularly now that we’re giving them their goodies on Berlin—

Nixon: Well, we have to do it because we said so, Henry. Kissinger: So—

Nixon: Don’t you understand?

Kissinger: Mr. President, what is—

[Page 336]

Nixon: What are [unclear]?

Kissinger: That’s what they—sort of, yes. They’re probably going to make the distinction between port visits and servicing. But—and it’s all right if they have a port visit without the tender and the tender next to the—

Nixon: Well, when do we find out? You have to make the distinction if it’s real. This is not a—This is what kind of a submarine?

Kissinger: It’s a nuclear-powered submarine.

Nixon: I know. With missiles—?

Kissinger: I don’t know if it’s an attack submarine.

Nixon: Yeah. But we consider that—oh, I know what we said: “nuclear submarine free.”

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: You didn’t say anything about the other. Remember, I had to raise the question.

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: As you’ll recall, all the others said “no,” right?

Kissinger: Well, because the British, the Navy, everybody felt that that distinction—

Nixon: Is meaningless?

Kissinger: —is practically meaningless. No, it’s one of their games. They are just a bunch of thugs.

Nixon: They just are. And then—what else? Well, play it tough with the Soviet, too.

Kissinger: And—

Nixon: [unclear] Yeah, I saw that and I said, “Well, here we go again.” What a jerk.

Kissinger: I’ll just tell him until that submarine leaves Cienfuegos I won’t continue my conversations with him. I think it will leave.

Nixon: Just tell him he started this thing.

Kissinger: Right. I think it’s the only thing he respects. I’ve got the whole thing set but I think if we let them put it to us and continue talking as if nothing were happening—

Nixon: I know. [unclear]

Kissinger: You have publicly said “servicing in or from Cuban ports.”

[Omitted here is discussion of the President’s schedule, SALT, and Vietnam.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation 450–11. No classification marking. The editors transcribed the portion of the tape recording printed here specifically for this volume. According to his Daily Diary, the President met with Kissinger in the Oval Office on February 16 from 10:48 to 11:03 a.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files)
  2. See Document 117.
  3. Reference is presumably to the President’s televised “conversation” on January 4. See Document 81.
  4. Max Frankel reported in the New York Times on January 7 (pp. 1, 4) that “some senior officials” had concluded that the presence of Soviet naval vessels near Cienfuegos the previous autumn “should not have been represented as a crisis point.” “Mr. Nixon now believes,” Frankel added, “the Russians will not risk a quarrel in the Caribbean for only marginal logistic advantage for their submarines.” According to his Record of Schedule, Kissinger met Ehrlichman on January 7 from 9:55 to 10:10 a.m. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 438, Miscellany, 1968–76) No record of the conversation has been found.