234. Editorial Note

On May 26, 1971—two days before the final meeting of the fourth round in the strategic arms limitation talks (SALT)—Vladimir Semenov and the Soviet Delegation hosted a dinner in Vienna for Gerard Smith and the American Delegation. According to Smith, the “main topic of conversation” was the May 20 announcement. “There were some heated exchanges,” Smith later recalled. “The Soviet interpretation of the sequence issue was that after an ABM agreement had been fully negotiated the sides would turn to measures affecting offensive arms, and the two agreements could then be concluded together. But we had no interest in completing an ABM treaty, which would probably involve concessions during the negotiation process, until we were much clearer as to what was going to be possible in the way of restraints on offensive arms.” After the dinner, Smith sent a backchannel message asking Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger to “straighten out” the differences in interpretation with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin and to do so before the final meeting on May 28. (Smith, Doubletalk, pages 244–245) A copy of the message is in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 427, Backchannel Files, SALT, 1971.

Kissinger had already scheduled a meeting with Dobrynin the next morning, May 27, to exchange formal letters on SALT. The message from Smith, however, meant that the meeting would be more than a mere formality. Kissinger first met the President in the Oval Office at 9:57 a.m. to review the situation. Their meeting included the following exchange:

[Page 691]

Kissinger: “I’m seeing Dobrynin today to exchange the letters. And—”

Nixon: “Fine.”

Kissinger: “Then—the fellow in Vienna [Semenov] is making some noise about not discussing things simultaneously. And I’m going to be very tough with Dobrynin and say, ‘You’d better not horse around or we’ll just publish the telephone conversations I took, which I have—I have every conversation word for word.’”

Nixon asked Kissinger to explain his remarks:

Kissinger: “Well, there it was agreed that it would be discussed simultaneously.”

Nixon: “Why? Are discussions going on again?”

Kissinger: “No, but—all I want is that they don’t, at the concluding session tomorrow, make a reference. By July, we might settle. Gerry is worried that Semenov will say tomorrow that first we do this and then we do that. And that wouldn’t be good. And I think I can get that settled.”

Nixon: “Well, for Christ’s sake, that’s the whole purpose of the deal.”

Kissinger: “It’s in the letters. There’s really—”

Nixon: “So, put the letters out.”

Kissinger: “Yes.”

After a brief exchange on the Kremlin’s policy in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, the two men compared how the Soviet Union and China approached relations with the United States:

Nixon: “We have a situation here with them and with the Chinese. We are still dealing with governments that are basically hostile to us.”

Kissinger: “Oh, no question.”

Nixon: “So hostile to us that we, therefore, have got to do those things that are in our interests. And here it’s cold turkey: if sons-of-bitches don’t play, fine.”

Kissinger: “And, actually, I think the Russians are really, basically, gangsters as types.”

Nixon: “That’s true.”

Kissinger: “The Chinese are a little more civilized.”

Nixon: “That’s about all. Those Chinese are out to whip me.”

Kissinger: “Oh, they’re both out to get us. The difference is that the Chinese will probably go for a big knockout, while the Russians will try to bleed us to death with the—”

Nixon: “Yeah, the Russians. But, we’re going to play it very—with Dobrynin say, ‘Look, that the President has called it to your attention—this [Page 692] Semenov or whatever—he saw this news summary and he said, “Now, look, we’re not a bit, a goddamn bit, interested in this, this kind of a thing.”’ If he—if they want to play that kind of a game, it’s—then all bets are off. And I think you got to get to the summit thing faster. Remind me next week, sometime, you—when you get back [unclear]—”

Kissinger: “All right. I’ll do it next week.”

Nixon: “And I’d put it right to him hard: ‘What the hell are you going to do?’”

Kissinger: “That’s right. I’ll tell him. But the threat has to be there: if they can’t accept it now, we won’t go in September, no matter what they do.”

Nixon: “Yeah.”

Kissinger: “That’s the threat we have to—otherwise it’s bleeding us.” (Ibid., White House Tapes, Conversation 504–2) The editors transcribed the portions of the tape recording printed here specifically for this volume.

Rather than wait for their meeting, Kissinger called Dobrynin at 10:43 to discuss Smith’s message. According to Kissinger, the problem had become a matter of “time urgency”:

“K: The problem is Semenov in Vienna has been saying to Smith that his understanding is first there will be negotiations on ABM agreement and afterwards there would be discussions on offensive limitations, which is not my understanding. But I don’t want to get that issue settled today. However, Smith is afraid that Semenov will say publicly tomorrow at the closing session that this [is] the understanding. If he says it publicly, Smith will have to say the opposite publicly. And the negotiations will be ending on a note of disagreement. This is the plenary session which closes the negotiations in Vienna.

“D: It’s a closed session.

“K: Yes, it is a closed session, but I wanted to recommend—and I just talked to the President—that neither side states anything. We can get this worked out during the month. We now have agreement and we should not immediately record disagreement. My understanding is that we will discuss offensive limitations while the other is being discussed.

“D: My understanding—I did not specifically mention it to him recently but said it in a telegram long before when we discussed that—that there would be two parts so to speak. There was no specific agreement between you and me. My understanding is that at the beginning of the first part we will discuss this one, but on the second part, we will begin half-way. They will do ABM and the second part when they begin to discuss this one.

“K: We can work that out. My understanding is they will begin on ABM but well before that is completed they will have to discuss offensive limitations. I don’t think you would find in the record ‘half-way.’ [Page 693] But this is not an issue that cannot be worked out. The major thing is there would be no useful purpose served if there is a record of formal disagreement at the closing plenary session tomorrow. Whether it is half-way or a third of the way …

“D: My understanding is they would concentrate on ABM and when a substantial part is completed, continue on ABM and then proceed with the other one. That was my understanding which I sent to Moscow.

“K: What sort of ABM agreement, whether it would be capitals, or what else …

“D: I didn’t go into details. I didn’t send what kind—SALT or what else. It was a simple understanding—not a specific question.

“K: We don’t have to settle it this minute. The major thing is it would be very helpful if we ended the session tomorrow on a positive note. Nothing can be accomplished by recording disagreement tomorrow. If you could get that word to Semenov. I will show Smith’s cable to you when you come.”

Although they agreed to meet in his White House office at 11 a.m., Kissinger suggested that that Dobrynin could “come a few minutes late” in order to draft a telegram to Moscow before Smith and Semenov met on May 28. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Henry Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts, Box 27, Dobrynin File)

Kissinger met Dobrynin at the White House on May 27 from 11:40 a.m. to 12:35 p.m. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 438, Miscellany, 1968–76, Record of Schedule) During the meeting, the two men exchanged the formal letters on SALT; in addition to the circumstances surrounding Smith’s message, they apparently also discussed how the Department of State handled such issues as the emigration of Soviet Jews (see Document 238). Although no record of the conversation has been found, Kissinger briefly reported to Nixon in the Oval Office immediately afterwards. According to this account, Kissinger told Dobrynin: “Look, every problem you raise now is at the Presidential level, so you better be careful what you [say].” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation 504–8)

Dobrynin called Kissinger at 5:30 p.m. and reported that Moscow had sent a telegram to Vienna, instructing Semenov to refrain from any further “interpretation” of the May 20 announcement. (Ibid., Henry Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts, Box 26, Dobrynin File) Before the final plenary session on May 28, Smith and Semenov met privately and agreed to avoid in their closing statements any controversy over the sequence of negotiations between offensive and defensive strategic weapons. (Telegram 761 from USDEL SALT IV, May 28; ibid., RG 59, Central Files 1970–73, DEF 18–3 AUS (VI)) As Smith later recalled: “The dispute was left for another day.” (Smith, Doubletalk, page 245)