153. Memorandum From Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

    • Soviet Party Congress

Bill Hyland and I have had a series of discussions over the last few weeks with the best Sovietologists in the Government. Without necessarily attributing all our views of the CPSU Congress and Soviet developments generally to any of them, attached are two memoranda on the Party Congress. The first (Tab A) is for the President,2 and reflects what seems to be a consensus around Washington of what the Congress may produce, plus some ideas of our own. The second memorandum (Tab B) is much longer and only for you. It is a hypothesis of sorts and quite speculative. At Tab C there is the recent Soviet discussion of the Nixon Doctrine,3 which is definitely worth reading, when you have some time.


That you sign the memorandum to the President (Tab A).
That you read the second memorandum at your leisure (Tab B).

Tab B


    • Soviet Foreign Policy and the 24th Party Congress

Party Congresses, at least since the 17th in 1934, have usually marked a significant turn in Soviet policy. The implications, however, [Page 438] were only dimly perceived at the time: few foresaw the massive purges that would follow the 17th Party Congress, the Nazi-Soviet pact signaled at the 18th Congress, the abortive Stalinist purge following the 19th, de-Stalinization and its repercussions after the 20th, etc.

Now, on the eve of the 24th Party Congress, the consensus seems to be that it will not initiate shifts in major policies. The BrezhnevKosygin regime, after all, is awfully gray, rather unimaginative. But “history teaches” we ought to be ready for some doses of change along with continuity.

The thesis of this memorandum is that the longer term evolution is likely to be in a direction unfavorable to our general relations with the USSR.

What follows is an examination of some of the major factors that determine Soviet foreign policy.

Part I.

A. Sino-Soviet

It is appropriate to begin with an appraisal of Sino-Soviet relations for two reasons: (1) Americans have grown accustomed to the Sino-Soviet conflict as one of the “permanent operating factors” of international politics; and (2) of the many aspects of Soviet foreign relations, this is one in which change has been distinct since the 23rd Congress and perhaps least appreciated in the West.

The change has been in great part the result of the new, more effective tactics adopted by the Brezhnev regime soon after taking office. Whereas Khrushchev had led Soviet policy into a dead-end, and in the process lost influence in the communist movement, this regime set out to repair their position among other communist parties and states, to soften the worst aspects of polemics, and, most important, to strengthen their military position in the Far East. This last, the military component, has been extremely costly and spread over four or five years, but in the end it paid off.

Whether by choice or chance the USSR’s new military strength was the decisive element in the border crisis of 1969. The Chinese chose to back down and negotiate. Thus far the Soviets have won tactical points in the negotiations. The Chinese have conceded for now that the Soviets do not have to acknowledge that the old border treaties are unequal. The initial Soviet demand that state relations be normalized before any border settlement has also been met. Ambassadors have returned to their posts and trade will increase.

The basic conflict of course continues and the Soviets cannot help but be worried about their ability to cope with an increasingly powerful Chinese military posture. And the situation is fragile enough that new [Page 439] outside developments, especially in Sino-American relations or in Indochina, can easily ignite a new period of Sino-Soviet tensions.

Nevertheless, from Moscow’s standpoint the China challenge is not as immediately urgent as it used to be.

What this means for us, is:

  • —That pressures on Moscow to stabilize its “Western front” because of China have been reduced; to the extent that Moscow felt compelled to make important concessions to the West is less likely now.
  • —Since Mao’s statement of May 20, 1970 (in the wake of the Cambodian intervention),4 there has also been some shift in Chinese policy toward a more anti-US stance and a less anti-Soviet one.
  • —Once Mao departs, the conditions for a rapprochement with Moscow may ripen.
  • —Our position in the triangular relationship, however, will grow in importance: we can expect private overtures from both sides, depending in part on the future course of the Indochina war.

B. Eastern Europe

Second in importance to this evolution of relations with China is the dangerous demonstration in Eastern Europe that the Soviet empire is rotting from within. Czechoslovakia was sufficient proof of this, but in view of the drastic Soviet suppression and the proclamation of an ominous inter-ventionist doctrine, many observers thought that the fire had been extinguished, perhaps for another decade. Poland exploded this myth.

The Polish crisis, at bottom, only marginally concerned price increases. It was and is a crisis of the “Stalinist conception” of the organization of society. Throughout East Europe the state and the social order is structured along the lines of the famous communist pyramid, in which all power and policy passes from the top downward. In practice, Djilas5 long ago warned, this must lead to bureaucratization, and eventually to the separation of the party from the masses. In Poland the unique element was that the alienated segment, entirely cut off from the process of decision making, was not the intelligentsia or the youth, but the workers—the very element of society that the system is intended to serve.

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The most impressive fact about the current situation is that the workers have succeeded in terrorizing the leaders. Gierek has been forced to sacrifice up more and more cadres to the crowd, and to offer a series of economic concessions that confound the whole effort to stabilize the situation on any rational basis. The net effect is that whatever Gierek himself may believe or desire, the imperatives of the situation will impel him into further concessions to popular demands and to reformist positions in order to achieve an illusive stability.

To deal with the economy he will inevitably dilute the “leading role of the party”—the first criterion by which Moscow judges a regime’s legitimacy. The alternative for Gierek, to deter Soviet intervention, would be to seek an alliance with the conservatives which could only rip the party apart once again, and perhaps ignite a new popular rising.

In short, the chances of Soviet military intervention in Poland will remain high.

Even if this terrible day is postponed, the Polish crisis has probably already had its sobering effect on Soviet policy:

  • —In early December, at the Warsaw Pact summit, Brezhnev and Gomulka pressured Ulbricht into accepting a conciliatory line on the German and Berlin questions.
  • —The events in Poland provided the basis for an East German counterattack.
  • —By the time of the Warsaw Pact meeting of mid-February, the Soviet position had hardened; the East German role in talks with Bahr and the Berlin Senat has grown while the four power talks are stalemated.

If Sino-Soviet developments have eased the pressures on Moscow to make major concessions in the West, the situation in Eastern Europe has made such concessions seem dangerous in any case.

The result, however, is ambiguous. There is still the objective of consolidating the status quo in East Europe, but the price that the Soviets would pay has probably been reduced.

C. External Economics

A third factor often cited as a reason that the Soviets must seek some accommodation in the West is the need to obtain Western technology on credit.

Yet, a careful analysis of the USSR’s economic position indicates that regardless of the importance attached to buying technology in the West, the means to do so are limited not by Western reluctance to grant the necessary credits, but by Moscow’s inability to absorb more credit repayments [Page 441] without mortgaging future exports to a degree no prudent government could afford.6

The irony of this is that at the very time when the notion is most prevalent in Western Europe that détente can be purchased, the Soviets are no longer actively in the market.

This means that the Soviets will have to be more selective in their economic deals with the West, but can pick and choose their partners. The West, in turn, will be all the more eager to share in the shrinking exports to Russia.

It is also worth noting how the Soviets manage to buy American technology by the back door:

“The value of Soviet orders for Free World chemical equipment and technology placed during 1970 ($200 million) was more than twice the value of such orders in 1969… Japan was the largest single Free World seller of chemical plants to the USSR with sales of more than 70% of the total value. Six of the plants sold to the USSR by Japan in 1970 will use US process technology. The sale of technology for these Japanese plants made the US a major source of process technology for the USSR.… In terms of size and efficiency these plants represent a great advance over plants now operating in the USSR.” (Quoted from CIA study.)7

What this means is that in one important field the US is in fact subsidizing the Soviet economy (eight year credits at 5.5% interest), but our policy is based on the assumption that by holding back from official Soviet trade and credits we hold out an incentive for a political amelioration so that the USSR can gain access to our technology.

The economic motive in Soviet foreign policy is thus not growing. The West will obtain less rather than more leverage. In this way, Soviet external economic circumstances reinforce the conservatism that is the byproduct of developments in Chinese and Eastern European policy.

Part II.

Before turning to relations with the US and a survey of specific issues, it is necessary to touch on some internal factors to the extent that they may or may not influence foreign policy.

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A. The Leadership

Rather than try to read the Kremlinological tea leaves, the following seem to be the pertinent observations to bear in mind when reflecting on the last six years of the BrezhnevKosygin regime:

  • —The main character of this leadership both at the top and at the second echelons is that they are by and large the generation raised by Stalin . Almost without exception they are the product of the Stalinist purges; they rose to fame and fortune in a period when loyalty to Stalin was virtually the only criterion for advancement. They are, collectively, “morally crippled,” and, intellectually, a generation “far more constricted in imagination, in the ability to look at the world and conceive new policies.” (Robert Conquest, “Stalin’s Successors,” Foreign Affairs).8
  • —There is no prospect for a distinctly different generation to come to power for at least another decade.
  • —Despite the apparent “permanence of collectivity,” the struggle for power continues, and will be evident at the Party Congress and after. Its influence on policy is virtually unpredictable, but it generates an atmosphere in which major issues requiring decision tend to become institutionalized in the form of personal contests and ultimate decisions and compromises rather than real resolutions.
  • —The prospects for Brezhnev’s dominance are growing stronger.

B. The Economy

For much too long Westerners have held as an article of faith that Soviet economic problems would lead the USSR inevitably into a prolonged détente with the West. Yet it has never been demonstrated that there is a direct correlation between the state of the internal Soviet economy and foreign policy.

At this particular point in Soviet development, there is probably less reason to conclude that internal economics will force foreign policy in a given direction.

  • —To be sure the pressure of the Soviet consumer is growing.
  • —In the past five years, however, consumer goods availability, especially consumer durables, has increased.
  • —This has been accomplished in a period of major strategic buildup and reinforcement of the Far East.
  • —Moscow has thus managed to avoid the guns or butter choice.
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Of course this does not mean that all will be well. Even the Soviet leaders admit they have exhausted the potential for “extensive” economic development, and must now concentrate on “intensive” growth. This is, of course, a far more difficult task than confronted Stalin or even Khrushchev.

The present five-year plan, however, is a sober one. It does not appear from any reading of economic targets, growth rates, etc., that the USSR intends to rely on foreign sources more than in the past. Rather the new plan suggests an intention to obtain growth through Soviet resources in the main.

In short, they have made a prudent decision not to mortgage their economic development to outside factors.

C. Brezhnev

Even in the era of collective leadership, most Sovietologists acknowledge that Brezhnev occupies a position above the others. How strong he is can be debated. But in the last year his emergence has been more marked than in any period.

What is intriguing now is the possibility that Brezhnev is falling under the spell of his “place in history.”

His behavior since last summer seems to be one of a man in a hurry.

  • —For some reason he seized the lion’s share of the credit for the German treaty even before negotiations were completed. We know (from special sources) that he was highly pleased last June that the United States and West German press highlighted his conciliatory remarks about peaceful coexistence.9 He told Gromyko that this was just as “planned.”
  • —Last fall he again claimed a major foreign policy role by personally endorsing the SALT talks, breaking down Ulbricht’s resistance to the Berlin negotiations.
  • —He has openly pressed, unsuccessfully as it turned out, for an early Party Congress.
  • —He made an unprecedented televised New Year’s Day speech to the nation.10
  • —He personally signed the new five-year plan,11 a unique occurrence in Soviet history, and pushed it through without a Central Committee meeting.
  • —He is thus personally identified with the shift in investment priorities from heavy industry to consumer goods, for the first time in Soviet history.
  • —He has been willing to accept this role, even at the cost of some military grumbling.

In short, Brezhnev may believe this is his last Party Congress to control (he would be over 68–69 for the 25th Congress, four or five years hence), and that he must have an appealing platform to distinguish him in the annals of the Soviet state. Stalinist or exclusively cold war themes are not likely to have much appeal as a platform. A better way may be a display of internal and external success, based on a better standard of living, détente and peace.

This, of course, runs counter to the conservative tendencies created by other factors, but it would not be the first time that personal politics played a dominant role in Soviet history.

Social Discipline

If in fact Brezhnev does try to break out of the confines of collectivity, it must be noted that his internal social policies are likely to become more repressive, more disciplinarian. Though he often tries to remain in the middle of the road, his inclinations in the end are toward the conservatives and reactionaries. It was, after all, under his regime that the police terror against the dissenting intelligentsia was revived.

Thus, it is possible that Brezhnev and his colleagues, foreseeing growing problems of social discipline, not only with intellectuals but the youth and the non-Russian nationalities, will not want a period of acute tensions abroad. It is conceivable that “success” in foreign policy will be prerequisite for an internal tightening, just as more consumer goods divert popular unrest from the increasingly totalitarian aspects of this regime. (The regime’s dilemma of course is that any détente combined with improved material life tends to generate more spontaneity.)

If this is the course Brezhnev intends to follow, one signal could be anti-Khrushchevism, and at the same time, a further effort to restore Stalin’s historical role. Indeed, in some respects, coming to terms with Stalin is one of the major ideological and political issues of the Congress. If Brezhnev tries to increase his power position through the Stalin [Page 445] or Khrushchev issues, however, he may overreach himself and initiate a major political crisis. His record, however, suggests he is too prudent to launch a major frontal attack. The resolution of the Stalin issue is more likely to come in nuances.

Part III.

A. The United States

There is obviously still uncertainty of what to make of present day American foreign policy. Some recent sophisticated discussion suggests that the Soviets have made an estimate of our prospects that is distorted in a potentially dangerous manner. They seem to dwell on the following main points in describing and evaluating the United States at this juncture:

  • —The war in Vietnam, plus domestic factors, have forced the US into a political retreat, which is manifested in the Nixon Doctrine.
  • —The Nixon Doctrine is, on the one hand, a new and more sober perception of America’s role, but it is also an attempt to gain flexibility in a period when US capabilities are reduced.
  • —The trend of adapting American foreign policy to the “changing ratio of forces” will continue.
  • —Domestic factors in the future will act to force further reductions in commitments, but will be offset by a new effort to shift responsibilities to allies.
  • —America’s “weight” in the various Alliances and in the capitalist world will remain formidable and sufficient to block major shifts, but US friends and allies will inevitably have to act more independently and with less reliance on the US.

(The above is based on a long Moscow symposium on the Nixon Doctrine, printed in the Soviet journal USA . The full text is at Tab C.)

In short, what the Soviets seem to be saying more seriously rather than propagandistically, is that the balance of forces in the world is indeed changing, and this presents an important decision point for the USSR; is it a time for an advance? or, is it a time to seek stability and strike bargains with the more “sober elements” of the bourgeois?

On the one hand, there must be arguments (like the armed forces day speech of General Sokolov, a First Deputy Defense Minister) that the USSR can and should develop a position of military superiority over the US. On the other hand, one can read arguments in public literature that it is impractical and dangerous to aim for military advantages which could provoke the US into renewed military efforts, but, most important, would in the end lead to only marginal military gains.

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This has been the underlying debate in SALT on the Soviet side. The ABM-only approach suggests that, as usual, the Soviets are seeking to compromise their own differences on a plan that the military could tolerate, and that the “doves” could also live with. In effect, they are willing to accept some increase in strategic stability, but largely as a holding action, in order to see if the US does, in fact, continue to decline in power and influence as their analysis suggests.

B. Europe

It follows from Soviet analysis of the position of the United States, that American prospects in Europe (as Gromyko’s son 12 has recently argued in a long analysis) are declining.

  • —In the long run, the Soviets argue, we will be unable to stand the expense of a major military commitment to Europe and trying to shift the burden to our allies we enhance their own freedom of political action and create apprehension over our reliability.
  • —In this context, Soviet diplomacy will have new opportunities. The spearhead of that diplomacy will be directed at Bonn, which is still the lynch pin in the West European structure.
  • —If West Germany can be detached, even in part, from the European economic and political structures, the competitive nationalism of the other Europeans will revive, and the old goal of dividing hostile coalitions will be advanced.

This is why the Berlin negotiations are in many respects the key to Soviet policy (perhaps even more so than SALT ).

  • —The Soviets are likely to pay a price for the ratification of the treaties, not only because of the intrinsic political value of the treaties themselves, but because the consequences, as Moscow interprets them, will be important to the continuing forward movement of Soviet policy.
  • —A European Conference will symbolize the triumph of almost two decades of striving to ratify the territorial and political status quo in Europe.
  • —From that point Moscow can advance to the next stage of dismantling the Western Alliance (or so they believe).

(There is of course another side to this coin: the destabilizing effect on Eastern Europe of the new fluidity in East-West relations which a successful completion of the German/Berlin negotiations will have. This may be compounded by progress in the European Communities [Page 447] and their attraction to the East Europeans. Ironically perhaps we may see an evolution in Europe which in the Western half poses serious challenges to our interests and, simultaneously, in the Eastern half poses new dangers for the Soviets. The difference of course is the proximity of Soviet physical power, which in the short run at least, can be applied directly or indirectly to contain instabilities in Eastern Europe.)

C. Middle East

Finally, there are the nagging problems of the Middle East and the conflicting and agonizing Soviet choices in that area. The situation is probably too fluid even for the Soviets to see much beyond each tactical phase. But certain trends must be apparent to all in the Kremlin.

  • The Soviets are firmly and probably irrevocably entrenched in the Near East. In an age when there is a secular trend of Western “imperialism” withdrawing from this and adjacent areas (the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean), it is of first importance that the Soviets protect their power position as a base for expansion.
  • —Only secondarily, does it matter how the Israeli-Arab contest is resolved, as long as the Arabs are not totally defeated.

This is not to say that the Soviets are unmindful of the dangers in this area, or the underlying instability of alliances with Arab governments. But their calculations of the risks must be less disturbing now than last year. They successfully defied the US in the test over the cease-fire violations. They must have recognized that despite their aggressive behavior the Israelis have been reluctant to reopen the fighting, and the United States has exerted increasing pressure on Israel.

Thus, the Soviets probably now foresee that the risk in the Middle East can be contained, and that the outcome is likely to be more and more unfavorable to Israel. If, in fact, the Soviets in the end deliver back to the Arabs most of their losses in the war, they can count on a long term entrenchment in this area from which to expand.

Part IV.


In considering the prospects for Soviet policy following the 24th Congress, it is worth recalling the characteristics of the post-Khrushchev period thus far.

In a sense it has been an interregnum. The transition from Stalinism to Khrushchevism was characterized by the emergence of the USSR from a narrow-based European power to a global one. Yet, Khrushchev did not possess the means to carry on such a policy effectively in direct competition with the US; or he could only do so indirectly in various areas of the world.

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The Brezhnev-Kosygin leadership has created the means for a more vigorous competition through a vast increase in strategic power, a better economic base, and a more realistic evaluation of the complexities and uncertainties of political involvement abroad.

Thus, the following seems likely to be the main features of Soviet policy in the post-Congress period:

  • —At home an emphasis on steady though unspectacular economic advance with some more tangible benefits to the Soviet people. The present leadership will be less concerned about the longer term, since they are not going to be in power to face the consequences of or the failure to make adequate investments to cope with growing demands in the period beyond the present five-year plan.
  • —Domestically, policies will become more conservative and repressive to cope with social and national dissidence that the present Soviet leaders are incapable of dealing with or understanding.
  • —Within the Communist world the Soviets will have to work for consolidation in light of Czechoslovakia and Poland; less toleration of independence in Eastern Europe is likely, but, on the other hand, the Soviets will try to hold open the prospect of some modus vivendi with China.
  • In relations with the United States negotiations and agreements of a limited character will be entertained and concluded. The motive will in part be to demonstrate that the USSR can deal with the US on equal terms for the first time in history, and has gained recognition of co-equal status as a superpower. Their longer term motive will be to encourage trends they perceive in the United States that will lead to further retrenchment on the world scene.

Their major problems will be:

  • —The intractability of the Soviet economy in the long run, which will be aggravated by the conflict between social discipline, which the party must enforce, and the need to permit more initiative and freedom to provide the incentive for increased productivity in a period when growth must come through intensive economic development.
  • The inherent instability of Soviet control over Eastern Europe, and the chance that in a period of détente, initiated for purposes of consolidation in Eastern Europe and disruption in the West, one effect will be to make it more difficult to discipline the Eastern European satrapies.
  • The unpredictability of the Chinese, especially in a period when American policy toward China may be thawing and presenting the Chinese with more room for diplomatic and political maneuvers.
  • —Finally, there is the problem of the Soviet leadership: if Brezhnev does in fact enhance his power and put through a program, he becomes more vulnerable to hostile coalitions. If Soviet policy comes to reflect more and more of his personal prejudices and predilections, his abrupt removal or departure makes longer term prognosis more uncertain.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 66, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Soviet Party Congress. Secret. Sent for action. Drafted by Hyland. Haig initialed the memorandum. Kissinger wrote two notes in the margin: “Excellent memo” and “Want to read on plane to San Clemente.” Kissinger departed for San Clemente on March 26 at 4:58 p.m. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 438, Miscellany, 1968–76, Record of Schedule)
  2. Printed as Document 162.
  3. At Tab C is a March 16 memorandum from Eliot to Kissinger, with an enclosed report on and translation of a recent article by Georgi A. Arbatov on the Nixon Doctrine.
  4. For the text of the statement, in which Mao urged the people of the world to “unite and defeat the United States aggressors and all their running dogs,” see the New York Times, May 21, 1970, p. 6.
  5. Milovan Djilas, Yugoslav Communist leader and author of The New Class (1957).
  6. A CIA analysis concludes that in 1973 Soviet repayments on debts will exceed drawings, and this crossover point might be reached in 1972. “With a marked slowdown in the growth of exports, the USSR will have to slow the growth of its indebtedness to the West in order to hold the ratio of debt service to exports within reasonable bounds.” [Footnote in the original.]
  7. Not further identified.
  8. Published in Foreign Affairs, Vol. 48, No. 3 (April 1970), pp. 509–524.
  9. In its coverage of the speech, the Washington Post published a UPI ticker item, which reported that Brezhnev had called for “improved Soviet-American relations ‘to facilitate the cause of world peace’ and said they must be based on a ‘realistic assessment’ of the world situation.” (Washington Post, June 13, 1970, p. A11)
  10. For the English text of Brezhnev’s speech, published in Pravda and Izvestia on January 1, see Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. XXIII, No. 1 (February 2, 1971), p. 7.
  11. The draft directives for the Ninth Five Year Plan were published in the Soviet Union on February 14. See Keesing’s Contemporary Archives, May 29–June 5, 1971, pp. 24625–24627.
  12. Anatoli A. Gromyko was then a specialist in African and American studies at the Soviet Academy of Sciences.