225. Editorial Note

On May 20, 1971, the United States and Soviet Union announced a “breakthrough” in the talks on strategic arms limitation. President Richard Nixon and Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger spent much of the morning preparing for the announcement. The announcement consisted of two parts: the public statement Kissinger had negotiated with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and the President’s remarks placing the statement in context. The two sides also exchanged—but did not publish—letters on their intention to reach agreement “this year” on both offensive and defensive strategic weapons. After briefing his staff at 8:25 a.m., Kissinger joined Nixon at 9:02 and 10:15 for separate meetings on the announcement with members of the Cabinet and members of Congress. Throughout the day, Kissinger also conducted several background briefings for television commentators, newspaper reporters, and other media representatives. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 438, Miscellany, 1968–76, Record of Schedule; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files, President’s Daily Diary) The President, meanwhile, placed the finishing touches on his remarks for the occasion, which Kissinger and Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the National Security Council staff had drafted during the previous week. (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 886, SALT, Presidential Statement May 20, 1971, re: Soviet-American Talks on SALT) According to his handwritten notes, Nixon planned to emphasize his “personal initiative” in breaking the deadlock. (Ibid., President’s Personal Files, Box 66, President’s Speech File, May 20, 1971, Statement re SALT Talks)

The President went to the Briefing Room at 11:59 and read the following brief announcement on live radio and television:

“As you know, the Soviet-American talks on limiting nuclear arms have been deadlocked for over a year. As a result of negotiations involving the highest level of both governments, I am announcing today a significant development in breaking the deadlock.

“The statement that I shall now read is being issued simultaneously in Moscow and Washington: Washington, 12 o’clock; Moscow, 7 p.m.

“‘The Governments of the United States and the Soviet Union, after reviewing the course of their talks on the limitation of strategic armaments, have agreed to concentrate this year on working out an agreement for the limitation of the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems (ABMs). They have also agreed that, together with concluding an agreement to limit ABMs, they will agree on certain measures with respect to the limitation of offensive strategic weapons.

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“‘The two sides are taking this course in the conviction that it will create more favorable conditions for further negotiations to limit all strategic arms. These negotiations will be actively pursued.’

“This agreement is a major step in breaking the stalemate on nuclear arms talks. Intensive negotiations, however, will be required to translate this understanding into a concrete agreement.

“This statement that I have just read expresses the commitment of the Soviet and American Governments at the highest levels to achieve that goal. If we succeed, this joint statement that has been issued today may well be remembered as the beginning of a new era in which all nations will devote more of their energies and their resources not to the weapons of war, but to the works of peace.” (Public Papers: Nixon, 1971, page 648)

Nixon returned to the Oval Office at 12:05 p.m. and met with White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to review the morning’s events. During the meeting, Haldeman summoned several other advisers—including White House Press Secretary Ziegler and Special Consultant Scali—to discuss how to proceed in the days ahead. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files, President’s Daily Diary) According to Haldeman, Nixon warned Scali that “we’ve got to be very careful not to get crosswise with the Soviets by saying that they gave in on everything and we gave in on nothing.” (Haldeman, Haldeman Diaries: Multimedia Edition) Rather than concentrate on what to say, Nixon later decided to eliminate such statements altogether. In a May 21 memorandum to Secretary of State William Rogers, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, and Gerard Smith, Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the President issued the following instructions:

“I want all speculation or disclosure by officials of the Administration to the press or any other unauthorized individual concerning the substantive positions we may take in the SALT talks to cease immediately.

“I expect that prompt disciplinary action will be instituted against any person found to be responsible for stimulating the kind of press speculation on our negotiating position that appeared in the press for May 21, 1971.

“The successful outcome of the strategic arms limitation talks hinges crucially on the utmost discipline within the Administration and on my complete freedom in reaching the substantive decisions required for the further course of the negotiations. Any leaks will be prejudicial to these objectives and must therefore be ended at once.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 881, SALT, SALT talks (Helsinki), Vol. XV)

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While Nixon met with Haldeman, Kissinger summoned Pakistani Ambassador Agha Hilaly to the White House to deliver a message for Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 438, Miscellany, 1968–76, Record of Schedule) In addition to providing the text of the SALT announcement, the message emphasized that the United States would conclude “no agreement which would be directed against the People’s Republic of China.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1031, For the President’s Files—China/Vietnam Negotiations, Exchanges leading up to HAK trip to China, December 1969–July 1971) The text of the message is printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XVII, China, 1969–1972, Document 126. When Hilaly expressed concern about the cost, Kissinger decided instead to use Ambassador Joseph Farland as a courier. On May 22, Farland gave the message to Pakistani President Yahya Khan, who delivered it to the Chinese Ambassador in Islamabad the next day. (Aijazuddin, ed., From a Head, Through a Head, To a Head, pages 71–73) According to Kissinger, sending a message to the Chinese about an agreement with the Soviets was an exercise in triangular diplomacy. “It showed Peking that we had an option toward Moscow,” he later recalled, “while giving us an opportunity to demonstrate that we understood fundamental Chinese concerns. We used the Pakistani channel to inform the Chinese leaders of our decision and the reasons for it, making clear that we rejected any ambitions to condominium.” (Kissinger, White House Years, pages 822–823)

According to Haldeman, Nixon was “very cheerful” about the initial reaction to the announcement in Washington. (Haldeman, Haldeman Diaries: Multimedia Edition) The news from Moscow, however, was less encouraging. Kissinger called Dobrynin at 1:48 p.m. on May 20 to complain that the TASS news agency had released a different version of the announcement in English—a version which, he believed, implied that the interim agreement on offensive weapons would be negotiated “after” rather than “together with” the ABM treaty. Although he thought the difference was insignificant, Dobrynin suggested that the Soviet Embassy could release the “authentic” text within several days. Kissinger, however, wanted the Soviets to take action as soon as possible. “Moscow has got to straighten it out,” he insisted. “This gets things off to the worst possible start.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Henry Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts, Box 27, Dobrynin File) When he called back 20 minutes later, Dobrynin assured Kissinger that the TASS representative in Washington would soon send an “urgent telegram” to Moscow. (Ibid.) Within two hours, the Soviets had released the “authentic” text not only in Moscow but also in Washington—in time for Kissinger to distribute it during his press briefing that afternoon. “It was probably the only time,” Kissinger later recalled, “that a press release with a Soviet [Page 674] letterhead was distributed from the White House press office.” (Kissinger, White House Years, page 820) For the complete English text of the Soviet announcement, published in Pravda and Izvestia on May 21, see Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Volume XXIII, No. 20 (June 15, 1971), page 32.