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

    • Comments on Soviet Conversations with Lou Harris2

A Soviet UN official, Dr. Kocharyan, has had two conversations with Lou Harris concerning the meaning of the Brezhnev Party Congress speech.

  • Kocharyan’s interpretation is that the speech represents an important signal of the Soviet leadership’s interest in improving relations with the US.
  • —Accordingly, in the second conversation the Soviet official stressed the need to establish channels of communication direct to the top Soviet leadership.
  • US business leaders were supposed to involve themselves in this channel and travel to the USSR for private meetings with Brezhnev.
  • —The new channels will make it possible to interpret policy and distinguish serious statements from propaganda.

Mac Bundy asks for some guidance in his covering letter (Tab A).3

Frankly I am skeptical that anything of serious interest is involved. Various Soviet officials in Geneva and New York are interpreting the Brezhnev speech in light of their particular interest. Thus, the Soviet arms controllers are stressing what a major opportunity there now is for a test ban, for BW, etc.

As you know from our memoranda, there is some change of tone in the Brezhnev speech, but certainly not to the point that we could interpret it as a major signal by itself.

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It is possible that this extracurricular channel through Lou Harris is meant to develop into something more important. There is a mention of Glassboro, which might be intended as a new interest in a summit. At the same time, it is also possible that the Soviets are interested in developing some new contacts with businessmen for commercial purposes to increase pressures for a relaxation of trade restrictions, etc. They also know the susceptibility of businessmen to bear-hugs.

In your talk with Bundy, I suggest that:4

  • —You tell him that you see no harm in developing this channel in a low key and without any sense of urgency.
  • —You are not all that impressed with the substance of Brezhnev’s speech, or convinced that it is a major signal.
  • —The proof of Soviet interest should come in concrete issues—Berlin and SALT.

I suspect this is not the last we will hear from various channels of the Soviet interest in improving relations with the US. All Soviet officials will be assigned the task of propagandizing and publicizing their leaders’ remarks. For us, however, the key will be the reactions of accredited Soviet negotiators.

Note: Depending on how candid you want to be, I think you could tell Mac that we do not lack channels with the Soviets. As he himself knows, a proliferation of channels can easily lead to misunderstandings and actually hamper progress in negotiations. For some time, the Soviets have been using businessmen, academics and legislators to generate pressures on us. But the issue is not how to improve atmospherics; it is how to make progress on deadlocked issues. While we are of course receptive to any ideas or to impressions that US visitors may gather in Moscow (discounted for Soviet massaging), ultimately the issues have to be talked out through official channels.

Finally, I think you should tell Mac frankly that some of the reported remarks sound like interest in summitry. On this, as Mac knows better than anyone else, the President will have to make his own decision and it will not help him, or the country, to have him maneuvered into it through any groundswell created by Soviet siren songs to US business leaders, no matter how “great.” (Brezhnev may well want to have a summit as one more jewel in his crown; but it is hard to see how businessmen’s talks with Brezhnev can prepare this for the President in a way that does the President any good.)

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Files, Box 66, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Harris, Lou (Soviet Conversations). Secret; Sensitive. Sent for action. According to another copy, the memorandum was drafted by Sonnenfeldt and Hyland. (Ibid., Box 716, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. XV)
  2. See also Document 169 and footnote 2 thereto.
  3. In the attached letter, April 6, Bundy explained: “I usually have no hesitation in commenting informally to Soviet officials on matters like the Brezhnev speech but there is a flavor to this conversation and to Kocharyan’s request for the views of people like myself which makes me think that it may be important to give unusual care to the answer, if indeed I respond at all. Any advice you can give will be a real help to me, and I will of course pass on to Harris anything you may have to tell him.”
  4. See Document 173.