149. Memorandum of Conversation1

    • Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin
    • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger

Soviet Government System

The conversation began with some general discussion about the different methods of government. Dobrynin said that in the Soviet system the method of asking advice from junior people is extremely rare. Brezhnev and Kosygin to all practical purposes never consult anyone on foreign policy other than Gromyko or Kuznetzov. They will, however, discuss all foreign policy issues of significance in the Politburo. Brezhnev can pretty well decide the agenda of Politburo meetings, but every major communication going abroad from the Soviet government is put on the Politburo docket. Communications to Washington are always given high priority.

The draft of the Politburo note is almost invariably prepared by Gromyko. There is no vote in the Politburo, but rather a discussion guided by Brezhnev. Brezhnev states what he takes to be the consensus. If there is significant disagreement, Gromyko is asked to prepare another note, and that means that automatically the matter goes back for another Politburo meeting. Politburo meetings always take place on Thursday so that any decision that is not taken at one meeting of necessity has to go over to the next one. Special meetings are held only on the rarest occasions on matters of extreme urgency. No Politburo member, not even Brezhnev, can take any unilateral decision. This was [Page 428] not the case with Stalin. He would take the decisions; sometimes he might ask the Politburo to ratify them, but he never really consulted the Politburo. It was indeed extremely dangerous to contradict Stalin, particularly if you were a senior official; junior officials could occasionally get away with it. Every member of the Politburo had the right to read every cable, and the docket material for each member is always the same. But, of course, there are only a very few that have any interest in foreign policy and therefore the effective Politburo members concerned with foreign policy do not number more than five.

Middle East

Dobrynin then turned the conversation to the Middle East. He said that there was extreme concern to make sure that the discussions with the United States on the Middle East would be resumed. He asked me for my personal views. I said he had to understand that I was speaking informally and that this did not represent the governmental position. I said I thought that the immediate step should be to move ahead on the Suez Canal opening, and that in the time that might be gained by this procedure we might discuss a more fundamental settlement.

Dobrynin asked what I meant by “a more fundamental settlement.” Did I really believe that we would aim for a settlement, or did I just want to gain time to get through the election of 1972? I replied that I had always had the view that a settlement in the Middle East would sooner or later have to be worked out with the Soviet Union. This did not mean that we and the Soviet Union could impose a settlement, but that we had to agree on our broad objective if we were going to get anywhere. Certainly, as the President pointed out in his World Report,2 we could not imagine a settlement that the Soviet Union had no stake in maintaining.

Dobrynin then asked me whether I had any precise ideas. I said it was of course possible to engage in endless legalistic arguments and to talk about “just and lasting peace” and “security,” but he recognized as well as I that the matter had to be given some concrete content sooner or later. In those terms it seemed to me that Israel would not yield on Jerusalem, the major part of the Golan Heights, and some very significant security guarantees in the Sinai. Dobrynin asked whether I meant security guarantees or security arrangements. I said I really meant both, but the arrangements were more important than the guarantees, or at least as important.

I said to Dobrynin that if a summit meeting came off these were subjects that might appropriately be discussed there. Dobrynin said that his government remained extremely interested in serious talks [Page 429] with me on the Middle East, and he hoped that I would soon be permitted to be concrete.


We then turned to SALT. I asked Dobrynin whether he had received any answer to our latest proposal.3 Dobrynin said no. He told me to remember, however, that SALT represented a very complex decision-making issue for the Soviet Union. It involved both the Defense and the Foreign Ministry, and the Soviet government was not used to inter-departmental clearances. Also, when he had sent a message to Moscow telling of the need for a reply he was told that all the top members were busy preparing the five-year program for the Party Congress. He did not see how an extraordinary meeting could be held since there was not too much urgency.

I told Dobrynin that we would have to make some fundamental decisions between April 15 and May 1, and that if we could not do them with the Soviet Union we would do them unilaterally. He said, “But you cannot do that without our approval.” I said no, if we decide that it cannot be done with secret negotiations we may have to try it with overt. Dobrynin said he would do what he could to get an answer.


We then turned to Berlin. I told Dobrynin that I had studied the text of the Soviet note.4 Dobrynin said that he hoped we realized that they had made a major effort to meet us, that none of their formulations had been made worse and many of them had been made better. I said we considered it a positive action on the part of the Soviets that they had submitted a draft prior to bringing it up at the Four Power talks. I also said that on a number of points the Soviets followed the concept of our draft, and that they had made some progress, for example in the matter of FRG representation abroad. On the other hand, there were a number of items which gave us difficulty. I listed them from the summary of comments made on Rush’s cable (attached at Tab A).5

[Page 430]

I also said there were a number of other issues. Dobrynin pointed out that it would be better if I gave him the whole list in writing. I told him therefore I would give him those in writing the next day on an unsigned sheet of paper. The list is attached at Tab B.6

Dobrynin then asked how we could proceed in the future. I told him that it was quite conceivable that our Ambassador would comment on his draft along the line of the comments that I had already made, and that a negotiation might develop in this manner. Dobrynin asked me whether the Ambassadors could meet privately. I said as far as I knew they had already met privately. Dobrynin asked whether I could send instructions to Rush to meet privately with Abrasimov. I said as far as I understood Rush did not need any instructions.7 At any rate that was not an insuperable issue as long as Dobrynin and I understood each other. Dobrynin then said it was very important for me to submit these comments to him as soon as possible so that they could be considered, hopefully before the meeting on the 26th of the Four Powers. It was not possible to find them reflected in the Four Power document then, but I could be sure that they would be taken very seriously in the subsequent negotiations.8

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 491, President’s Trip Files, Kissinger/Dobrynin, 1971, Vol. 5 [part 1]. Top Secret; Sensitive; Nodis. The dinner meeting was held in the Soviet Embassy Residence. According to his Record of Schedule, Kissinger returned to the White House from the Soviet Embassy at 10:45 p.m. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 438, Miscellany, 1968–76)
  2. See Document 126.
  3. See Document 142.
  4. See Document 144.
  5. In his attached special channel message to Kissinger, March 21, Rush assessed the Soviet draft: “I consider it a positive action on the part of the Soviets that they should have submitted a draft to you prior to bringing it up at the four power talks. This action strengthens my own feeling that the Soviets desire to reach a Berlin agreement in order to obtain ratification of the German-Soviet treaty and to move towards a conference on European security.” Rush also forwarded a series of detailed comments on the draft, including a summary of his comments on the individual sections. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 59, Country Files, Europe, Ambassador Rush, Berlin, Vol. 1 [2 of 2]) For the full text of the message, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XL, Germany and Berlin, 1969–1972, Document 203.
  6. Attached but not printed.
  7. In a special channel message that evening, Kissinger briefed Rush on his “long talk” with Dobrynin. In addition to reporting the discussion on Berlin, Kissinger instructed Rush to forward draft formulations on access, inner-city improvements, and Federal presence. Kissinger stated his intention to give Dobrynin the “essence” of Rush’s comments on the Soviet draft. He also relayed the Soviet proposal for “occasional meetings” between Rush and Abrasimov to discuss the details of a quadripartite agreement. “Since Dobrynin is leaving for Moscow,” Kissinger added, “I promised him an answer on both our formulations and your meetings with Abrasimov by close of business Tuesday, March 23.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 59, Country Files, Europe, Ambassador Rush, Berlin, Vol. 1 [2 of 2])
  8. During a conversation that evening, Nixon asked Kissinger about his meeting with Dobrynin: “K: Well, we made some progress on Berlin. He doesn’t have an answer yet on the SALT thing and he says one of the reasons is that they have to get a defense and foreign office position and they told him that they were meeting on the five-year plan right now. Well, so this may slip for a few weeks. P: Humph. K: Well, if we don’t have it by the end of April, I would just make it as a unilateral public proposal and then let them kick you—let them turn it down and then they are on the defensive. P: Yeah, I think so too. I think they may be just bickering about Laos and the big win for them or something of that sort. K: And not give you a success, or it may really be that they—. P: They may be so damn confused. K: This is a tough bureaucratic problem for them to handle with something so [omission in transcript—complicated?]. And with the Party Congress coming up.” (Ibid., Henry Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts, Box 29, Home File)