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

Kissinger: Mr. President, if I could just bother you with that letter2 so that—

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: —I can get it to Dobrynin today.

[Page 410]

Nixon: Okay.

Kissinger: They have a Politburo meeting on Thursday,3 which means he’s got to get it out by four this afternoon.

Nixon: Sure.

Kissinger: [showing Nixon several drafts] This is the one where we stand now. We had first given him a long one to which he comes down—

Nixon: Is this the line you’re suggesting?

Kissinger: That’s right, which is drawn from—

Nixon: Hm-hmm.

Kissinger: This is what they want to say, so you see it’s a lot more. This was his counter proposal to the previous draft. [pause] Notice it says nothing about a freeze.

Nixon: [reading] “[an obligation to continue active]4 negotiations and to reach an agreement on the limitation of strategic offensive weapons.”

Kissinger: I think they’ll accept this one because—

[Here follows a long pause as the President reads several drafts of his letter to Kosygin.]

Kissinger: [unclear]

Nixon: Hm-hmm. Fine.

Kissinger: We’ll know by Friday if we can’t get an agreement.

Nixon: However that would be seen, do you think we’re going to get it?

Kissinger: I think we may have better than a 50–50 chance.

Nixon: I wonder if, well, if we put ourselves in the [unclear], saying that we shall reach an agreement before we know for sure.

Kissinger: And then we have the freeze. Oh, you mean on the ABM?

Nixon: Well, on the both, Henry. You see, a freeze may—it’s just a document. [unclear] to cover MIRVs. I mean it’s a—

Kissinger: We didn’t ask for a MIRV even in our formal proposal.

Nixon: I know, but I’m getting at—the point I’m getting at, the point here, is whether we just, it puts us any worse off than we are now.

Kissinger: I think it would show an initiative of trying to break the deadlock. If they then deadlock on technical—I have the impression that they want an agreement.

[Page 411]

Nixon: What we’re doing is—say we negotiate an agreement in Vienna that has the opposite effect. It’s still worth doing. With ABM, we could still not get, get together on that. Then we would have a freeze on offensive weapons and agree to negotiate more at a later time.

Kissinger: Well, what it will do, Mr. President—right now the deadlock is—for example, we have a long New York Times editorial again today,5 not that that matters, but in which they say we’re being obstinate by linking offensive and defensive weapons. This is your way to break that deadlock. Whatever we put in the letter would still—

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: —you couldn’t possibly cover all the bases because—

Nixon: The New York Times just wants a SALT agreement [to] agree to an ABM limitation.

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: They want it, because that’s the drive of everybody who’s opposed to ABMs, is simply to go back and be done with it. Correct?

Kissinger: That’s right. But in that case, we’re doing better than what the New York Times recommended. They accept it because we’re getting an offensive freeze also. You’ll get an ABM limitation with a good chance of one different from what they want—

Nixon: Hm-hmm.

Kissinger: —which is Washington.

Nixon: Um-hmm. Do you see anything [unclear]—?

Kissinger: I mean, we were just—

Nixon: Do they want us to stop?

Kissinger: Yeah. We would instruct Smith to stick with—

Nixon: Three.

Kissinger: —our present program. But his present instructions are four and we could let him fall back to three. Of course, what we really need is the radar, and the radar does the same for three and four. Only we’ll get—three gets us fewer launchers.

Nixon: Fine. Well, let’s go on that. We’ll do it that way. Kissinger: Okay, Mr. President.

[Omitted here is discussion of Vietnam and the military situation in Laos.]

[Page 412]

Nixon: I think what the problem right now is this: I’m not so sure the SALT thing is going to be all that important. I think it’s basically what I’m placating the critics with—maybe it’s just as well.

Kissinger: Well, I think—I met with a group of senior businessmen yesterday.6

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: I think it would be considered a generally hopeful thing. And it would be a run-up to a summit. I think, if we got that and the summit—and Rush sent me a cable7 that some of the stuff Dobrynin and I have been talking about is beginning to be reflected where he is.

Nixon: Hm-hmm.

Kissinger: I consider it—in Berlin, all we can do is cut our losses. But Brandt has, in effect, has practically given away the ballgame there already. So—

Nixon: Sure. Nothing we can lose.

Kissinger: No.

Nixon: There’s nothing to lose that he hasn’t lost already.

[Omitted here is discussion of Vietnam and the military situation in Laos.]

Nixon: Laos was the right thing to do. Cambodia was the right thing to do. But my point is, we did both of those for the purpose of getting to another point. Now we’ve reached the other point.

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: And once we reach it—now, every decision is now made not in terms of, well, what’s the effect going to be on Saigon. The decision has got to be made on what’s the effect on us.

Kissinger: Absolutely. I agree.

Nixon: Now—

Kissinger: One thing too—

Nixon: We have to remember that our giving to the Russians—everything is all tied to this. And we have—now, about Thieu, we have to remember that our view of the Russians, everything, is all tied into this, and we—

Kissinger: If we could—the advantage of a summit, even if it gets a sort of half-baked SALT agreement—whatever the SALT agreement is, it’s a lot better than the nuclear test ban.

Nixon: Of course. Of course. Of course.

[Page 413]

Kissinger: And it—

Nixon: I agree with you. It would stop—

Kissinger: It would defuse people. They can’t very well attack their President when he’s getting ready for a summit meeting.

Nixon: No.

Kissinger: And that would get us a few months of, you know, of quiet here.

[Omitted here is discussion of Vietnam and the military situation in Laos.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation 468–5. No classification marking. The editors transcribed the portions of the tape recording printed here specifically for this volume. According to his Daily Diary, Nixon met Kissinger in the Oval Office from 9:30 to 9:50 a.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files)
  2. Reference is to the draft letter from Nixon to Kosygin on SALT. A copy of the draft Nixon approved during his meeting with Kissinger is ibid., NSC Files, Box 490, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1971, Vol. 4 [part 1].
  3. March 18.
  4. The editor inserted this text based on the draft text referenced in footnote 2.
  5. The New York Times editorial on March 16, the day after formal talks resumed in Vienna, assessed the prospects for an agreement on SALT: “Unless Mr. Nixon is prepared to propose a realistic MIRV ban, it runs counter to the deepest security interests of the United States to delay exploration of an ABM agreement by linking it to valueless limitations on offensive missiles.” (“Back to the SALT Mines,” New York Times, March 16, 1971, p. 36)
  6. According to his Record of Schedule, Kissinger met the so-called “Flanigan Group” on March 15 from 12:08 to 12:57 p.m. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 438, Miscellany, 1968–76) No record of the conversation has been found.
  7. See Document 140.