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

    • US-Soviet Relations in Light of the President’s Visit to China

Over the past two and a half years the Soviets have been highly sensitive about the warming trend in US-PRC relations. As with our Romanian policy, they have seen our basic motives as hostile to themselves. Our more immediate purposes, in their view, have been to bring the USSR under pressure in various negotiations and to delimit the “legitimate” Soviet role in Asia and the Pacific. These suspicions, powerfully reinforced by deep-seated antagonism toward the Chinese, will obviously have been drastically raised further by the latest turn of events.

Yet the fact remains that in spite—or more likely because—of their anxieties the Soviets have staked much on improved relations with the US. Brezhnev personally is closely identified with this policy and the calculus underlying it. That calculus involves the recognition that US and Soviet interests are uniquely intertwined in numerous areas and on numerous issues and the belief that the time is propitious for achieving certain advantageous arrangements with the US at a tolerable price. [Page 856] Brezhnev has not been without opposition and in dealing with it he has no doubt argued that domestic trends in the US and other Western countries and the fact that Chinese power is as yet only incipient make the present period in US-Soviet relations one of unusual opportunity for the Soviets.

The question now is whether the anxieties that have accompanied and to some extent impelled recent Soviet policy toward us will become so overwhelming as to throw that policy off the present line. This could occur either because the dominant Soviet leadership group feels compelled to demonstrate that it will not be dealt with under pressure of the new US-Chinese rapprochement or because opposition forces manage to use this rapprochement to undermine Brezhnev’s room for maneuver or even his power position.

It has long been a tendency in the US to view whichever Soviet leader or leadership group happens to be in power as preferable to any alternative. In fact, the fortunes of individual Soviet leaders should be of less concern to us than how the Soviets perceive and structure their interests and how we can best pursue our own with respect to the USSR. Thus, whether Brezhnev personally is damaged in his position is of less concern than whether we can continue to develop our relationship with the USSR along lines we desire. To the extent that the nature of the Sino-Soviet relationship and our policy toward China to date have exerted a beneficial influence on the US-Soviet relationship, this influence should over time be reinforced by what has happened. The immediate sense of shock and even outrage in Moscow may cloud the situation at the moment; and it could produce a political convulsion in the Kremlin. But it seems probable that when faced again with the prospect of open hostility on two fronts any foreseeable Kremlin leadership will seek relief on one of them. For the time being, and after the shock has worn off, the Western front will still seem the most promising to the Soviets.

General US Stance

We obviously have no interest in stimulating the anxieties of the Soviets to the point of irrationality. While nothing that we can say will remove Soviet suspicions it is clearly desirable to keep our rhetoric moderate and to avoid public or, for that matter, private diplomatic speculation that the Soviets must now choose between conflict on two fronts and concessions toward us.

By the same token, the Soviets are past masters at playing the aggrieved party and demanding compensation for injuries allegedly done them. If we are to benefit from our Chinese move in our Soviet relationship we should clearly not be drawn into excessive conciliation of the Soviets. Reciprocity and equity should remain the standards in our dealings with them.

[Page 857]

Third Areas

Among foreign communist parties and in various radical movements the Soviets may well manage to turn the US-Chinese rapprochement to some advantage. The Soviets have always been able, where they chose, to outdo the Chinese in giving material support to these groups. They may now also be able to compete on more nearly even ideological terms. At the same time, the Chinese will be eager to prove that their own fidelity to revolutionary goals is undiminished. As regards the Soviets, we will need to be particularly alert to any invigoration of their activities in Latin America and in other regions of strategic interest to us (e.g. West and East Africa). This problem is not fundamentally different from what it has been but may be more intense now. There may once again be a Soviet impulse to test the limits of our tolerance to their military activities in the Caribbean. We should keep the limits clearly where we have previously drawn them; it may indeed be desirable to define them more firmly if the occasion arises.

More dangerous and incalculable is the impact on the Indian sub-continent. Although the objective Soviet interest in the absence of open conflict there cannot have changed, the Soviets may see the region as offering the most tempting opportunities for rekindling US-Chinese difficulties and for achieving unilateral advantages. In addition, Indian and Pakistani actions are unpredictable. While some in Moscow undoubtedly continue even in the new circumstances to flirt with finding a pretext for taking drastic military action against China, it is hard to believe that the Soviets would pursue this as a calculated policy. Moscow’s basic disadvantage is that in any open fighting it cannot rely on India to hold its own against Chinese intervention on Pakistan’s side. Consequently, the Soviets are not likely to encourage the Indians to start major operations. But they may continue to give lesser kinds of support to Indian clandestine activities, hoping in this way to build their position in India while the Indians are resentful of us and more than ever frightened by the Chinese. In this complex situation, little can probably be achieved by direct US talks with the Soviets, though this option should be held open. Our efforts are probably best devoted to influencing the Pakistanis and the Indians.

There probably is little direct effect on the Middle East from our Chinese move. As in the subcontinent, some in Moscow might be tempted to raise the temperature between Arabs and Israelis, believing—even apart from the “provocation” of our China policy—that the extent of actual US support for Israel may be worth testing. But the preponderant view in Moscow is likely to remain that (1) the Arabs cannot yet be relied upon to fight even a moderately successful campaign and (2) the risk of some US intervention if the Soviets intervene actively is still high. At the same time, the Soviets [Page 858] are not likely in the short run to counsel greater negotiating flexibility in Cairo lest they appear to be reacting defensively to our China initiative.

Rightly or wrongly the Russians have suspected us of trying to exclude them from the diplomatic action. As long as we judge that any settlement will require Soviet involvement in some form, it seems pointless to feed these Soviet suspicions. This is mostly a matter of style which is worth handling with some care under present circumstances.

There may be some Soviet temptation to stimulate hostile North Korean actions against the South or us on the grounds that our reaction will complicate the President’s trip to Peking. The North Koreans themselves, worried about a US-Chinese rapprochement, may consider such actions. We should obviously provide no pretext but if the contingency arises we ought to act rapidly against the source of the trouble and make clear to both Moscow and Peking what we are doing.

There may be some new warmth in Soviet-North Vietnamese relations in the period ahead but it is unlikely to have any new impact on the course of either the war or the negotiations. Clearly, however, if we can trace new Communist military actions to increased Soviet support we should go slow in bilateral economic relations with the USSR which have long been tied to the situation in Vietnam. This should be made clear to Moscow at the time.


SALT has always had major Chinese implications, though for the most part they have remained inexplicit. The basic interests of the two sides have not changed but the Soviets will be more sensitive in some respects and we should exercise greater care on certain points. Recent US revival of the zero-ABM option may now appear in a different light in Moscow than it did when Smith mentioned it.2 Almost certainly, one of the basic reasons for Soviet reluctance to consider it has been concern for maintaining some defense against the Chinese. But our own approach should continue to be based on our evaluation of the implications of a complete ban for us. We should make clear to the Soviets that we can accept either of the broad ABM options we have presented and assume that Moscow will make its own judgment of its interests.

[Page 859]

The Soviets may also be sensitive to our counting the SS–11s deployed in the Western USSR (MR/IRBM fields) in a ceiling on ICBMs if these SS–11s can be targeted against China. We cannot tell one way or the other; but in terms of our own concerns we have no alternative but to count these SS–11s.

The Soviets have consistently pressed for “third country” clauses in a SALT agreement and in an agreement on measures to prevent accidental nuclear war.3 Apart from problems this poses for us in our relationship with the British and French, we should avoid appearing (1) to collude with the Soviets against China and (2) to be holding open the option of a side-deal with the Chinese at Soviet expense. In practice, we can accept the somewhat redundant general proposition that any agreement between ourselves and the Soviets should not be circumvented via third countries (though there is room for substantial disagreement on how to define “circumvention”).

In the accidents agreement, we should, at most, reach a tacit understanding that each side should seek whatever arrangements it wishes with other nuclear powers. It is now unwise to enter into a commitment to do this. Likewise, Chinese attitudes probably make it undesirable to open the US-Soviet agreement for accession by other nuclear powers. Indeed not only the Chinese but also the UK and France could well have reservations about acceding to an agreement which they did not negotiate and on the terms of which, especially in the case of the Chinese, they were not consulted. In any event, the Soviets for reasons of geography should have a much more acute interest than we in making some arrangement with the Chinese on accidents and we should leave this up to them.

In the likely event that agreements on accident prevention and the Hot Line are completed before the defensive and offensive agreements, there may be virtue in promulgating them promptly. This would be mostly for the benefit of certain domestic US audiences (although some of these may also assert that the Administration is seeking credit in SALT when in fact it has nothing of substance to show). But it will give the Soviets something and perhaps demonstrate to the Chinese that our negotiations have not been detrimental to their interests.

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Test Ban

The Soviets may well try to engage us more vigorously in renewed negotiations on a comprehensive nuclear test ban. This may be attractive to them in any case because of the growing pressures to which we will be subjected domestically on this subject; under the new circumstances it could be even more attractive because of the potential for isolating the Chinese if some new agreement were reached. We should deal with this issue on its merits when our internal studies are complete. In considering whether a broader ban than now exists, or even a complete one, may be in our interest, we clearly have to weigh the effect of continued Chinese testing and weapons development. Undoubtedly, the Soviets will do so too and the negotiating positions of both sides would reflect these assessments. The principal guideline for our dealings with the Soviets should be that we should not get drawn into schemes for joint pressure on the Chinese. Peking will address this issue when it is ready to do so and not before—just as the other nuclear powers.

Five Power Nuclear Conference

We still owe the Soviets a response to their proposal.4 In advancing this old idea, the Soviets no doubt expected the Chinese to reject it. Whether the Soviets had any concrete propositions in mind that could usefully be negotiated in such a forum is hard to tell. In any event, subject to consideration of our NSSM study now in progress,5 our best posture is one of (1) giving priority for now to SALT, (2) leaving a larger conference to the future, and (3) leaving the other nuclear powers the option to join the US-Soviet dialogue at a time and under conditions of their own choosing. Conceptually, arms control agreements between grossly unequal nuclear powers are hard to envisage in any case.


There is no obvious reason why our position in the Berlin negotiations should be affected by Chinese developments. The Soviets may, however, have a more complex problem. To the extent that their position has encountered East German resistance the Soviets may now be [Page 861] more cautious. Moreover, any general, even if only temporary toughening in Soviet attitudes toward us could be reflected in a more demanding posture on the remaining disagreed issues on Berlin and in dilatory tactics. In addition, to the extent that Soviet tactics so far have been controversial within the Soviet leadership, Brezhnev may consider it expedient to apply the brakes. Sooner or later, however, the interests that have led the Soviets this far in the Berlin negotiations will reassert themselves. The issues themselves have not changed and the negotiations should therefore proceed essentially along the existing lines.

MBFR may also assume some added complexity. For us, a factor of greater weight will be the possibility that the Chinese may view an arms control arrangement in Europe as freeing additional Soviet forces for Central Asia and the Far East. This factor has undoubtedly already colored Soviet attitudes, both for economic and political reasons. At the same time, Chinese dealings with us have been powerfully influenced by their worries about the Soviet military build-up against them. On balance, these complex and opaque interrelationships are extremely difficult to evaluate with precision and we should continue to develop our position in terms of security considerations directly relevant to Europe, the US/Soviet politico/military balance and the various domestic pressures which led us to embark on the MBFR venture in the first place.

Our East European policy, especially with respect to Romania, will probably require even more careful handling. Soviet-Romanian relations are currently again in a rather tense phase. As Chinese policy in Eastern Europe again becomes more active, as the Ceausescu and Tepavac visits to Peking6 strongly indicate it will, the Soviets are bound to see a concerted US-Chinese effort to injure their interests in a region vital to them. Our general approach in this potentially explosive situation should be to pursue a measured policy of developing contacts, but including some gestures toward countries, e.g. Poland and Hungary, that we have so far treated with reserve. This is not a good moment for us to move toward diplomatic relations with Albania, although at some point in the next year or two we should do so.

Bilateral Relations

Our bilateral relations with the Soviets offer the best opportunity for some therapeutically useful moves to keep relations with the Soviets on a relatively even keel. We should not depart from the essential principle of reciprocity and we should not set aside the merits solely in order to assuage Soviet anxieties. Moreover, excessive generosity is likely on the one hand to stimulate Moscow’s suspicions and sense of injury [Page 862] and, on the other, its appetite for “compensation”. Within these limits, the question of port security regulations and the issuance of export licenses are probably the areas where we can best afford to show movement. Such matters as the implementation of the cultural exchange agreement and the consular convention (site for the Soviet consulate general in San Francisco) should continue to be treated on their merit. More far-reaching economic concessions—credit and credit guarantees if the Fino Amendment is repealed;7 MFN etc.—should be held open for later decision in the light of overall political progress. The problem of Jews in the USSR should continue to be treated cautiously.

Over the coming months it will be highly desirable to keep VOA and RFE/RL broadcasts dealing with China policy and its implications under close control. VOA especially should be confined mainly to news reporting and should exercise special restraint in selecting US press comments for re-broadcasting.

The prospects for cooperative US-Soviet space projects have recently improved; our efforts in this field should continue.

The UN

Apart from the Chinese seating issue, on which there is no special reason for contact with the Soviets, the main problem on the horizon is the replacement of U Thant as Secretary General. This is a matter on which a decision can only be reached by prior US-Soviet agreement. We presumably will also want to bear in mind the acceptability to Peking of the new appointee. Although it is too early now to talk about specific candidacies with the Soviets, we should, when the time arrives, take the initiative in consultations and avoid backing candidates we know to be unacceptable to Moscow. The Jakobsen candidacy8 is probably the most attractive for us among the various possibilities; the real Soviet view of him remains uncertain but is likely to be negative because of the Arab attitude. We should avoid becoming identified with any one individual but should rather react to names as they emerge. We should not go so far as to accept an East European except perhaps a Yugoslav; but no Yugoslav is likely to be acceptable to the Soviets.


The Soviets have probably been operating on the premise that a summit is of greater direct interest to the President than to Brezhnev. (In fact, however, Brezhnev has considerable personal interest in one [Page 863] himself in terms of his own political problems.) They have probably felt that the President’s interest can be turned to advantage in ongoing major substantive negotiations on SALT and Berlin. The Peking trip probably makes Soviet interest in a summit greater than it was before but, psychologically, the Soviets (and Brezhnev personally) would be reluctant to disclose this under present circumstances. In any case, a summit in which some useful substantive business can be transacted remains desirable for us; with our China policy moving ahead the implication of US-Soviet collusion against Peking will be reduced. Our own allies, who have been manifesting some disquiet about US-Soviet bilateralism, would probably remain uneasy if they felt that we were under some compulsion to propitiate the Soviets. All of this argues for (1) proceeding with ongoing negotiations on their merit, (2) giving close new attention to Alliance consultations on East-West questions, (3) proceeding with the preparations of the Peking meeting and (4) holding open a US-Soviet summit after completion of the Peking trip and, preferably, another round of highest level contacts with the Europeans.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 715, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. XIV. Secret; Sensitive. Sent for information. Haig forwarded the memorandum to Kissinger on July 21 with his own assessment of the China initiative (Document 292). Kissinger wrote in the margin: “Hal—outstanding. HK.” Haig also initialed the memorandum.
  2. Smith later recalled that he had urged Nixon and Kissinger to support an ABM ban “[o]ften, perhaps too often.” After receiving permission from the White House, Smith informally raised the issue again in a private meeting with Semenov in Helsinki. (Smith, Doubletalk, pp. 256–258) A July 13 backchannel message from Smith to Kissinger on the meeting is printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXXII, SALT I, 1969–1972, Document 177.
  3. In a July 16 backchannel message to Kissinger, Smith advised that progress toward an accidental war agreement might assuage Soviet sensitivities on the “U.S. move toward China.” (Smith, Doubletalk, p. 295) Kissinger replied on July 20 that he had followed this advice during his meeting with Dobrynin the previous day. Smith’s backchannel message is printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXXII, SALT I, 1969–1972, Document 179; Kissinger’s reply is cited in footnote 3 thereto.
  4. See Document 260.
  5. On June 28, Kissinger issued NSSM 132, instructing the agencies to make a “preliminary analysis” of the issues raised in the Soviet proposal. An Ad Hoc Interagency Group submitted a formal response on July 15. The Verification Panel met briefly at 3:05 p.m. on July 30 to discuss the interagency study. During a meeting with Nixon at 4:46 p.m., Kissinger reported: “We’ve decided not to answer that [the Soviet proposal] … just let it drop.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation 267–22) NSSM 132, the interagency study, and minutes of the Verification Panel meeting are published in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume E–2, Documents on Arms Control and Nonproliferation, 1969–1972, Documents 326, 329, and 332.
  6. Ceausescu visited the People’s Republic of China from June 1 to June 9; as soon as Ceausescu left, Yugoslav Foreign Minister Mirko Tepavac arrived for a week-long visit.
  7. See footnote 6, Document 258.
  8. Max Jakobsen, Finnish Permanent Representative to the United Nations. On December 21, the Security Council elected Kurt Waldheim, Austrian Permanent Representative, to succeed U Thant as Secretary General.