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

    • Cienfuegos: Thoughts on Being Eye-Ball-to-Eye-Ball, The Other Guy Blinking—And Then Making Massive Increases In His Military Forces

Today’s TASS statement,2 together with the Izvestiya article of October 9 (morning edition of October 10)3 plus what has trickled through the intelligence grapevine about Soviet ship movements in and near Cuba, indicate that whatever the Soviets were doing at Cienfuegos has evaporated or is in process of doing so. I assume the TASS statement, with its codeword of top-level authorization, reflects more than merely a public signal.

This apparent turn of events prompts some reflections on Soviet conduct during and after the 1962 missile crisis and its relevance to US-Soviet relations in the period ahead.

Some weeks ago I sent you a memo4 propounding the obviously unprovable but nevertheless tenable hypothesis that the actions and statements of the Kennedy Administration in the summer of 1962, as late as mid-September, could have given the Soviets the impression that we knew what they were doing, that we did not consider it strategically significant and that as long as they were not going to flaunt it [Page 14] in our faces during that election year we would keep quiet. I suggested further that our angry reaction and use of DEFCONs etc. was greatly surprising to the Soviets and might well have jarred them to such an extent that their behavior could have become irrational—and disastrous for all concerned.

In that earlier memo, I speculated that a somewhat analogous situation may have obtained with respect to the Suez cease fire/standstill5 where the Soviets might have got the notion that we were more interested in the cease fire in this election season than in the standstill, and that they might therefore again have been quite baffled by our angry reaction and our highest-level intimations that we considered the Soviets untrustworthy and hence had second thoughts about the whole US-Soviet relationship.

I stressed, of course, that I was in no sense exculpating the Soviets who, after all, were the perpetrators, active or passive, of the events involved. I was simply trying to underline the extreme importance of making sure that we kept our signals under control, lest misunderstandings with possibly the gravest consequences ensue. (When I wrote that memo I was not in fact aware of the Cienfuegos situation, but I did very much have in mind the general situation in Cuba where, as you know, I had become increasingly concerned about our lack of reaction to the Bear flights and other signs of Soviet activity.)

I would now like to suggest a perhaps rather more fanciful, equally unprovable but nevertheless tenable theory of what happened in 1962 and again this year.

It is that whoever sold or supported Khrushchev on the missile venture in 1962 did so in full expectation that we would discover it, stage a confrontation and, by virtue of geographic advantage and strategic predominance force the Soviets to back down. Their idea was that the resulting psychological atmosphere would make demands for massive resource allocations for the Soviet military—hitherto deflected by Khrushchev—irresistible. (Kuznetsov to McCloy: “This will never [Page 15] happen again.”)6 Whether as part of a political bargain or as a deliberate decision, it was not at all inconsistent that a massive strategic building program (the fruits of which we are now witnessing) should have been accompanied by a major détente policy on Khrushchev’s part resulting, cumulatively during his reign and during that of his successors, in the test ban treaty, the hot-line, the Johnson-Khrushchev agreement (abortive) on curtailing fissionable material production, the NPT, and major initiatives toward Western Europe, especially the FRG. What better insurance was there against possible US temptations to follow through on the Cuban victory with additional pressures; what better way to persuade McNamara and company that US strategic programs were on the right track and required no increase; and what better way to fix things in such a way that the West might even be induced to help finance the Soviet buildup by increased economic relations as part of the overall détente.

Of course many things supervened to affect events in ways that could not have been foreseen: Vietnam chiefly; the Nixon election victory; Czechoslovakia; the six-day war, etc., etc.

Applied to the latest episode, this line of speculation might lead one to the theory that once again a group of people or interests (the rough equivalent of the Soviet Military-Industrial complex) moved into action in Moscow with a scheme that they had reason to believe would draw a strong reaction from us and lead to a Soviet backdown. (This would not exclude the possibility that others in Moscow, who were a party to the Cienfuegos caper, supported or acquiesced in it because (1) they thought our passivity in the face of the Bears and other Soviet actions betokened a readiness for US connivance with construction of a base at Cienfuegos in this pre-election period, or (2) they wanted to test whether rumors they had widely heard and read about regarding US tiredness and readiness to accept across-the-board parity, were in fact true.) On this theory, the Soviet schemers were eager to demonstrate to the political leadership at this moment of pre-CPSU Congress maneuvering and infighting for resource allocations in the yet-to-be-approved new five-year plan that massive new outlays for strategic and military forces were more than ever needed. In addition to our reaction to Cienfuegos, they could place in evidence also our actions in regard to Jordan and our subsequent vocal claims that these actions [Page 16] had turned the tide. It was of course crucial to the persuasiveness of this argument that we should have reacted as we did on Cuba.

Whether or not there is validity to this hypothetical reconstruction of Kremlin calculations and maneuverings, the point I really want to make is that, the denouement apparently having occurred as it now has, we should now prepare ourselves for

large new Soviet military expenditures, accompanied by
an invigorated détente policy, including summitry.

Such a policy would quite easily include acceptance of something like our SALT proposal. For while an agreement on that basis would have enormous psychological impact and would indeed place a limit on SS–9s, overall numbers of launchers and numbers of ABM launchers, it would also, especially because of the ABM freeze, allow for and make potentially extremely rewarding a broad Soviet program of (1) accuracy improvement, (2) MIRV development, and (3) other qualitative improvements contributing to the development of counter-force forces in the late 70s.

Moreover, if the détente component of the policy has any success (conceivably by at least some greater flexibility on Berlin) it could, as it failed to do in 1962, produce precisely the kind of economic subsidization, especially from Western Europe, which would make the increased military programs palatable to Soviet political leaders who are concerned with the needs of the USSR’s domestic economy and with how all the burgeoning commitments of the Soviet Union abroad, and the forces needed to sustain them, are to be paid for. (Incidentally, TASS makes clear that, short of bases, Soviet military activities in the Western Hemisphere will continue.)

I do not of course wish to detract one iota from the impressive success of our actions with respect to either the Syrian-Jordan crisis or the Cuban affair. I simply wish to flag, on the basis of a not dissimilar success in 1962, what the Soviet reaction might be. I am concerned because Mr. Laird has been leaving the impression that “tough” US defense decisions will be required only if there is no SALT agreement. I am suggesting that, having just again demonstrated our ability to use power in specific situations, we will face “tough” decisions even, or especially, if there is a SALT agreement. We should remember that we scored impressive tactical victories in 1949–50 (Berlin, Korea) only to find that by 1962 our room for maneuver had been considerably narrowed by Soviet military growth. We again managed to score impressively in 1962 (Berlin, Cuba) only to find that our room for maneuver had further narrowed when we again succeeded in scoring in 1970 (Jordan, Cuba). By 1976, if current trends continue and the above line of speculation has any merit, we may find ourselves with no room left at all between concession and cataclysm.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 128, Country Files, Latin America, Cuba (2). Secret; Nodis; Sensitive; Strictly Eyes Only.
  2. The TASS statement included the following passage: “TASS has been authorized to announce that the Soviet Union has always strictly observed the agreement reached in 1962, and will continue to observe it, and assumes that the American side will likewise carry out this agreement strictly. Any assertions of a ‘possible violation’ by the Soviet Union of the agreement because of construction in Cuba of a naval base are fabrications, since the Soviet Union has not [built] and is not building a military base in Cuba and is undertaking nothing that would contradict the agreement reached between the U.S.S.R. and U.S. governments.” For the full English text of the statement, published in both Pravda and Izvestia on October 14, see Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. XXII, No. 41 (November 10, 1970), p. 15.
  3. The Izvestia article, written by a “political observer,” included the following passage: “The Soviet government has observed and is now observing the agreement reached in 1962 between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S.A. and intends to observe it fully, if the government of the U.S.A. will also carry out just as strictly its commitment on not permitting an invasion of Cuba.” For the condensed English text, see ibid., pp. 14–15.
  4. Dated September 16; printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XII, Soviet Union, January 1969–October 1970, Document 206.
  5. Reference is to the cease-fire in the so-called “War of Attrition.” Rogers had submitted a proposal calling for a cease-fire of at least three months and a renewal of the Jarring mission to Dobrynin on June 20. Rogers then announced the plan during his press conference on June 25. For the text of the conference, see Department of State Bulletin, July 13, 1970, pp. 25–33; see also Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XII, Soviet Union, January 1969–October 1970, Document 170. Gunnar Jarring was the U.N. Special Representative for the Middle East. The United States arranged—without Soviet involvement—for Israel and Egypt to agree to these terms on August 7. During the brief pause in hostilities, Egypt moved Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles to the east bank of the Suez Canal.
  6. Charles Bohlen recounted that the “galling decision to withdraw [from Cuba] accelerated Soviet construction of missiles. Vasily V. Kuznetzov, a long-time Soviet official, said to John J. McCloy, one of the United States representatives to the United Nations, as the missiles were being withdrawn, ‘You Americans will never be able to do this to us again.’” (Bohlen, Witness to History, pp. 495–496)