217. Editorial Note

On May 14, 1971, Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev elaborated on the “peace program” he had announced six weeks earlier at the 24th Soviet Party Congress. During a speech in Tbilisi, Brezhnev addressed, in particular, various proposals for mutual and balanced force reductions in Europe; he also offered a signal of the Soviet intention to negotiate an agreement:

“Some NATO countries are displaying an appreciable interest, and in part some nervousness as well, on the question of the reduction of armed forces and armaments in Central Europe. Their representatives ask: Whose armed forces—foreign or national—and what armaments—nuclear or conventional—are to be reduced? Perhaps, they ask, the Soviet proposals embrace all this taken together? In this connection, we too have a question to ask: Do not such curious people resemble a person who tries to judge the taste of a wine by its appearance alone, without touching it? If there is any vagueness, this can certainly be eliminated. [Page 647] All that is necessary is to muster the resolve to ‘taste’ the proposals that interest you, which, translated into diplomatic language, means to enter into negotiations.” (Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Volume XXIII, No. 20 (June 15, 1971), pages 1–5)

On the day before Brezhnev spoke in Tbilisi, President Richard Nixon met at the White House with members of the “old guard”—Dean Acheson, George Ball, and other members of the foreign policy establishment—to discuss the amendment submitted by Senate Majority Leader Michael Mansfield on May 11 to withdraw American military forces from Europe. (President’s Daily Diary; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files) Brezhnev’s speech, therefore, attracted considerable attention both at the White House and in Congress, where the Senate was already debating the Mansfield Amendment. Hoping the speech might influence the debate, the President instructed White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to contact Secretary of State William Rogers. As Haldeman reported in his diary on May 14, Nixon “wanted Rogers to try to get Mansfield to withdraw his amendment on the basis of the Brezhnev statement and this development. I called Rogers after we got to Key Biscayne, covered this with him. He fell for it pretty well. He didn’t think there was much chance of Mansfield withdrawing his deal, but he said he would try.” (Haldeman, Haldeman Diaries: Multimedia Edition) According to his Appointment Book, the Secretary met that evening with several Senators, including Hubert Humphrey (D–Minnesota). (Personal Papers of William P. Rogers) No record has been found to indicate, however, whether Rogers cited Brezhnev in an effort to convince Mansfield to withdraw his proposal.

In a memorandum for Nixon on May 15, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger assessed the substance of Brezhnev’s speech, including its likely impact on diplomatic and political developments:

“The major question is why, after considerable stalling on this issue, the Soviets seem ready to negotiate.

  • “—It may be that there are genuine economic pressures resulting from the continuing buildup of Soviet forces in the Far East, which recent intelligence indicates is continuing.
  • “—It could also be related to Czechoslovakia, and a Soviet desire to lower their profile there. In this regard the Soviet greetings to the Czech Party Congress noted that the situation has been ‘normalized’; such a claim could be a justification for some withdrawal of some Soviet forces there. Brezhnev may try to trade in any such withdrawal for Western cutbacks.
  • “—The Soviets may be coming to see negotiations on force reductions as a way to get to their goal of a European Security Conference. The West has made progress on Berlin a precondition for such a conference but not for troop negotiations. Any such negotiations would [Page 648] almost certainly have to involve the GDR, a major Soviet goal in the European security conference proposal.
  • “—Finally, the Soviets may be convinced that this is a serious Western offer, and see some advantage in exploiting the desire among all Europeans for reductions in military spending. As we move into the more intensive phase of improving the quality of NATO forces through the plans worked out last year, the prospect of negotiations on troop reductions with the Soviets could slow down or undermine the effort. This risk has always been inherent in the Alliance’s dual approach to mutual force reductions, negotiations and improvement of forces.

“In short, Brezhnev’s offer ‘to start negotiations’ can be turned to our advantage in the next few days. At the same time, it means that we may be entering the path of new negotiations, which our studies have shown could be turned against the Alliance, if not handled properly and with prudence.”

Nixon noted in the margin that the opportunity to frustrate plans for improving NATO forces was “probably a major factor in [Brezhnev’s] move.” The full text of the memorandum is printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXXIX, European Security, Document 49.

Although he misdated the speech—on the assumption that Brezhnev spoke on May 15 rather than May 14—Kissinger also addressed the relationship between Soviet rhetoric and American politics in his memoirs:

“What possessed Brezhnev to make his mutual force reductions offer on that particular day is not clear. It was long-standing Soviet policy; he had said exactly the same thing in a speech in March. The Mansfield amendment must have caught the Kremlin even more than the Administration by surprise. Nor could Moscow have expected it to pick up such a head of steam. The Brezhnev proposal was undoubtedly planned to give impetus to the Berlin negotiations by suggesting that they would unlock the doors to a hopeful future. Nothing illustrates better the inflexibility of the Soviets’ cumbersome policymaking machinery than their decision to stick to their game plan even when confronted with the Mansfield windfall.” (Kissinger, White House Years, pages 946–947)

The Senate defeated the Mansfield Amendment on May 19 by a vote of 61 to 36.