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

Kissinger: I called Dobrynin, Mr. President, and Vorontsov picked up the phone.2

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: And I put it on the ground that Smith was—I said, “I need your advice as a fellow bureaucrat.” I said, “Smith is scheduled to get back to SALT tonight. I had to keep him here. What do you think?” He said there’s no problem. He said let him go. He said it’s—he said this is such an important thing that Gromyko can’t do it on his own, even the announcement. And he’s probably going around Moscow checking with the four or five key people. He says there’s no problem.

Nixon: Exactly. No problem. But we don’t know about a date.

Kissinger: That’s—

Nixon: Huh?

Kissinger: He thinks there’s no—he is in the box that, until he gets the word, he can’t say yes. But he just doesn’t think there is an issue. I just don’t want to speculate, Mr. President, because—

Nixon: Well—

Kissinger: —there may be a hundred reasons why in their bureaucracy—

Nixon: Yeah. I think—it seems to me—I can’t see why—or I can’t see one reason in a thousand why they aren’t going to do it. But the point is, you see—

Kissinger: I can’t see any.

Nixon: —you’ve got to—I can’t see. As I said, one in a thousand. I don’t know. Except—

Kissinger: If they had wanted to stop it, Mr. President, the easy way to stop it was last week, to tell us our proposal is unacceptable.

Nixon: Yeah.

[Page 664]

Kissinger: To get an agreed text and then, at the last minute—we’ve got too many things hanging over them: China, Berlin—

Nixon: There’s nothing he can do to find out what the hell the story is?

Kissinger: No, he said he sent a cable last night. He said it—and he said it’s too early for him to have heard today.

Nixon: Yeah? Too early? Hell.

Kissinger: Well, there’s a two-hour transmission time, because—

Nixon: The problem is that we need to go—we need to know, well—

Kissinger: Well, I think—I have canceled—

Nixon: —whether we go Thursday3 or not. That’s the point.

Kissinger: Well, I’ve canceled Smith for now.

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: And you might consider canceling—

Nixon: I canceled Rogers.

Kissinger: —canceling Rogers.

Nixon: I did.

Kissinger: But—

Nixon: I’m not going to tell him though that we’re, of course, we’re doing this thing.

Kissinger: In concrete—

Nixon: If the son-of-a-bitch [Rogers] should turn back on us, this would be a—we just can’t—

Kissinger: No, your—

Nixon: —let him know. You know what I mean, Henry?

Kissinger: Your one—

Nixon: Never take such a chance.

Kissinger: Your one thousand—if there’s even—

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: —one chance in ten thousand—

Nixon: Sure.

Kissinger: —why make ourselves look bad?

Nixon: That’s right. That’s right. Well, because then they’ll think we’re—we give away the game without getting anything for it.

Kissinger: Right.

Nixon: So would a—

[Page 665]

Kissinger: Well, we’ve kept the Smith appointment with you for 3.

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: If we haven’t heard, we can say you got locked in the Congressional battle.

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: I’d like to get him out of town, quite frankly.

Nixon: But you think you can get him out?

Kissinger: Of course, we can get him out of town without telling him anything.

Nixon: I think I’d get him out of town without telling him anything and then come back and tell him. You could even—

Kissinger: Or we get Farley in and have him tell.

Nixon: Why don’t you get Farley in and tell him?

Kissinger: All right.

Nixon: I think it would be better to get Smith out of town.

Kissinger: Right. Then I just—

Nixon: It’s too late to react.

Kissinger: Then I just have to make sure that Semenov doesn’t say anything to him. And I can handle that.

[Omitted here is discussion of the President’s meeting earlier that morning with Republican Congressional leaders.]

Kissinger: And I think after the SALT announcement, which—

Nixon: If—

Kissinger: —after all, we’ll have within a week—

Nixon: If we get it. If we get it.

Kissinger: Oh, Mr. President, I cannot—if they negotiate for four months, make that many concessions, and then kick it over when an agreed text exists, that would be so unconscionable. They paid such a price for it. They also—they have a truck plant they are negotiating with us, and I arranged for Peterson to see their man on it.4 And I—we’re holding that.

Nixon: [unclear]

Kissinger: It can’t fail. This is just a terribly bureaucratic government, Mr. President.

Nixon: I know. I think it’s going to come, but my point is—

Kissinger: No—

Nixon: —I’m just taking that extra degree of caution that I know in dealing with this, in dealing with—

[Page 666]

Kissinger: You’re a thousand percent right.

Nixon: In dealing with Smith and Rogers, we must never go unless we got them by the balls.

Kissinger: You couldn’t be more right.

Nixon: We got them by the balls, then we go, right?

Kissinger: You couldn’t be more right.

[Omitted here is discussion of domestic politics, including the President’s meeting with Republican Congressional leaders.]

Kissinger: Well, I’m inclined to think, Mr. President, maybe we ought to let Smith go tonight, even if we haven’t got an answer. Because if the thing is—

Nixon: With all this, haven’t you got a secure telephone line?

Kissinger: Yeah. I’ll get Farley in and let him worry about telling Smith. Farley won’t give us any—it also gives Rogers something to do—

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: —with Farley.

Nixon: Well, I’ll tell you what I would do. I would, I’d let—where is Smith going? Helsinki?

Kissinger: To Vienna.

Nixon: Let him go. Then, have him come back because of this breakthrough to get new instructions, and so forth and so on. Why not? He’s got to do it. And then he gets in the play. Call Smith back. Have that as part of the scenario.

Kissinger: All right. I just don’t want him to stand on the platform with you when you announce it.

Nixon: Oh, no, no, no. After I make the announcement?

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: You’re right. [laughs] No.

Kissinger: Absolutely.

Nixon: Nobody. I’m going to be alone on that.

Kissinger: Neither Rogers nor you—nor me.

Nixon: After what I’ve been through? Hell, no. Not Rogers. Nobody. I’m going to do it myself. I’m just going to—

Kissinger: Because Scali—as Scali said to me yesterday, that if you would have put this proposal into the bureaucracy, they would have all accused you of sabotaging the SALT talks.5 It would have leaked [Page 667] all over town. Because we really did something on these negotiations. We pulled away from our own proposal on ABM and got the offensive link. Well, it’s—

Nixon: It’s a hell of a job. I read the, your memorandum. It’s a hell of a job.

Kissinger: Well, Mr. President, if it fails—

Nixon: And I know the hours that went into it.

Kissinger: Oh, God, but—

Nixon: Well, if it fails, we—

Kissinger: It cannot fail.

Nixon: Eight years [unclear]—

Kissinger: It cannot fail.

Nixon: If it fails, listen, we’ll burn the house down ourselves. If it fails, I don’t see anything else to do but to fight on everything. I mean, then we’ll have to go out and—and if the Russians turn this, we’re going to have to go out and say, “To hell with elections and the rest. Let’s build up American forces.”

Kissinger: It can’t fail.

Nixon: “There has to be more taxes—”

Kissinger: They’re not that stupid, Mr. President. If they wanted it to fail, after having made six major concessions, for them to let it fail now, would be nuts. It—

Nixon: Did they make them? Or did Dobrynin make them?

Kissinger: Oh, no. They are—Dobrynin always has a note. This is why I’m so confident, because Dobrynin, if he had the slightest doubt about the date—

Nixon: Hm-hmm.

Kissinger: —would tell me there’s a problem. All he is telling me—what he says is, Gromyko—he says Brezhnev was out of town, Gromyko can’t set the date alone, and he’s now going around town talking to the senior government officials because they don’t want to call a new government meeting. That would be too time-consuming.

[Omitted here is discussion of domestic politics.]

Nixon: By God, if we can get this SALT thing, this will really make these bastards look like a bunch of cheap politicians and cowards—

Kissinger: Oh, that’s why it’s so important, Mr. President, because—

Nixon: That’s why we’ve got to get—I wish [unclear]—I know I was the one who wanted that word changed but—

Kissinger: I don’t think that’s the thing.

Nixon: —that’s denial or the—

[Page 668]

Kissinger: I think Dobrynin—I don’t think Gromyko has the—

Nixon: It may be that they, however, they could be—the only danger we have is this: they could be looking at the—they have people. Look, they’re Communists. They have an American section analyzing American opinion. They also have American agents over here. You got a fellow like Joe Kraft, who’s a slimy son-of-a-bitch, constantly saying, “Nixon can’t get along with the Russians.” Now, it just may be they decided they could—that is what could move them, those great historical facts.

Kissinger: Yeah, but if they do that, they also know that they won’t get a [Berlin] agreement.

Nixon: Well, if they know that. That’s—

Kissinger: If [laughs]—Mr. President, I’m going to do a memo for you summing up what we did on Berlin,6 because if you think this is—

Nixon: Do they think—does Dobrynin know that we’ll flush it?

Kissinger: Oh, yeah.

Nixon: Listen, don’t worry. There ain’t going to be no doubt about flushing it. I’m not going to—

Kissinger: DobryninDobrynin said to me last week that, that I’m the toughest fellow he’s negotiated with since he’s come here, and he says his government is just up a tree, because they’ll—because I fight over every word. Now, basically, you know, I’m sure they’re irritated with me. On the other hand, that’s what they respect.

Nixon: That’s what they do. They fight over every word.

Kissinger: I don’t—it’s that word, Mr. President. Maybe we should have let it go. But I think for them to announce—what I am afraid happened is not the word. Basically, that announcement, which they drafted themselves, is a mistake—

Nixon: [unclear]

Kissinger: —from their point of view. The word is nothing. But the announcement is where they made their mistake. And I am afraid what happened is that Semenov came back to Moscow from Vienna, saw that announcement, and said, “You idiots, you gave away too much.” That’s what worries me, because that announcement gives us more than we asked for. Even I didn’t have the heart to say—to use the word “agree,” “agree.”

Nixon: Hm-hmm.

Kissinger: That’s the—

Nixon: Oh, well, I think—I don’t think they can—

[Page 669]

Kissinger: But I don’t see—

Nixon: I doubt that they can screw around on the announcement.

Kissinger: But I don’t see how they can pull off from an announcement, which is verbatim the text they gave us. That’s not—I didn’t change a word in the announcement, except put it into English. But I’d worked that out with his own man, with—I mean, with Dobrynin. We’ll have it. It’s too far down the track.

[Omitted here is discussion of domestic politics.]

Kissinger: By this time tomorrow, we will have heard. No question. They just cannot not do it.

Nixon: Well, we will have heard what though? You can’t tell.

Kissinger: We’ll have heard—

Nixon: You’ll hear?

Kissinger: —that they want to announce it either Thursday or Friday.

Nixon: I think you’re probably right.

Kissinger: I just—

Nixon: And if they say “No,” though, then we know what we’re up against. We’re up against a hell of a—

Kissinger: Mr. President, if they say “No,” then we know that we’re dealing with an insane government.

Nixon: That’s right.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation 500–10. No classification marking. The editors transcribed the portions of the tape recording printed here specifically for this volume. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Nixon met Kissinger in the Oval Office from 9:41 to 10 a.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files)
  2. A transcript of the conversation is ibid., Henry Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts, Box 27, Dobrynin File.
  3. May 20.
  4. See footnote 5, Document 214.
  5. According to his Record of Schedule, Kissinger met Scali on May 17 from 6:05 to 6:45 p.m. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 438, Miscellany, 1968–76) No record of the conversation has been found.
  6. No such memorandum has been found.