308. Editorial Note

On August 4, 1971, President Richard Nixon met members of the White House press corps for the first time since his announcement three weeks earlier of the upcoming trip to the People’s Republic of China. During the 50-minute conference, which began in the Oval Office at 11:38 a.m., Nixon received a series of questions on the future of Sino-American [Page 908] relations. Several other issues of foreign affairs also arose, including the prospects for his policy toward the Soviet Union. When a reporter asked whether he would consider visiting Moscow before Beijing, the President replied:

“In view of the announcement that we have made on Peking, the visit to Peking will be the first visit that I will make. Obviously, it takes a great deal of time to prepare a visit, and to attempt now to—and the Soviet Union, I am sure, feels exactly the same way—to attempt to rush around and have a summit meeting in Moscow before we go to Peking would not be in the interest of either country.

“I would add this point, too: When Foreign Minister Gromyko was here, we discussed the possibility of a possible summit meeting, and we had a very candid discussion. He agreed and said that his government leaders agreed with my position, which was that a meeting at the highest level should take place and would be useful only when there was something substantive to discuss that could not be handled in other channels.

“With regard to the Soviets, I should also point out that we are making very significant progress on Berlin. We are making good progress on SALT. Discussions are still continuing on the Mideast, although there I will not speculate about what the prospects for success are in view of the fact that Mr. Sisco is presently in the area exploring with the governments concerned what the possibilities of some interim settlement looking toward a final settlement may be.

“Having mentioned these three areas in which we are negotiating with the Soviet Union, I will add that if the time comes, as it may come, and both sides realize this, then the final breakthrough in any of these areas can take place only at the highest level, and then there will be a meeting. But as far as the timing of the meeting before the visit to Peking, that would not be an appropriate thing to do.” (Public Papers: Nixon, 1971, page 852)

White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman wrote in his diary that, while the press conference “went reasonably well,” the President managed to complicate matters for his Assistant for National Security Affairs, Henry Kissinger: “He drove Henry right up the wall when he said that he and Gromyko had discussed the possibility of a Summit and had agreed that it would be useful only when there was something substantive to discuss.” As Haldeman explained: “Problem was that the contents of the Gromyko talk have up until now been secret, and it was agreed with Gromyko that they would be.” (Haldeman, Haldeman Diaries: Multimedia Edition)

Before Nixon finished his press conference, Kissinger left the conference to call Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. After an exchange of pleasantries, Kissinger told Dobrynin:

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“I’m calling because something embarrassing happened at the press conference. They asked about a summit with Moscow, would he consider it before Peking? He said in effect what I had told you, but in a convoluted way. He said that when Gromyko was here last year we discussed the summit and said that if it was held it should be well prepared. That slipped out and we owe you an apology for that. I hope you will explain it. It was a slip of the tongue. The answer itself was along the same lines as what we discussed. The only part of it that worries me is that he mentioned he had discussed it with Gromyko last year.”

Rather than dwell on the incident, Kissinger told Dobrynin that Nixon was also “preparing a letter to Brezhnev” and continued:

“I will have the letter to you almost certainly by Friday [August 6], or by Monday morning.

“A: Friday would be better. Sometimes things little bit more in time.

“K: There is nothing in the letter we haven’t already discussed.

“A: I understand, but good idea.

“K: Just for tone …

“A: And proper perspective in our relations.

“K: I think you will find it constructive. Worked on it yesterday and again this morning. By Friday morning we should have it.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Henry Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts, Box 11, Chronological File)

The President met Kissinger and Haldeman in the Oval Office at 12:27 p.m. to discuss the press conference and related matters, including the scheduling of summits in Moscow and Beijing:

Kissinger: “I thought it went very, very well. I did one thing. I called Dobrynin about the reference to Gromyko, because that was a—”

Nixon: “Yeah.”

Kissinger: “—secret talk and I didn’t want him to read it on the—”

Nixon: “Right.”

Kissinger: “—on the wire. And I said that you did this so that there couldn’t be any embarrassment and so that they share.”

Nixon: “Yeah.”

Kissinger: “So it didn’t look as if you were turning them off.”

Nixon: “Right. Then we agree. That’s why we did it.”

Kissinger: “Yeah. That’s why I said it. And he was practically drooling.”

Nixon: “Yeah.”

Kissinger: “He said he can tell me, in strictest confidence, that they’re having a high-level meeting to decide the summit invitation. It [Page 910] really kills me right now. They want it. And I said—he said, ‘What did the President say about the summit?’ I said, ‘Sorry.’ The only thing that worries me is that we’re now in a funny position that if they speed up SALT—”

Nixon: “Yeah. Well, that was the point that encouraged Smith.”

Kissinger: “—and conclude it. Well, I don’t see how we can go to Moscow—”

Nixon: “What I said to him?”

Kissinger: “Yes.”

Nixon: “Why?”

Kissinger: “Well, then they just go broke for SALT or go for something else.”

Nixon: “Well—Bob?”

Kissinger: “They may settle it this fall.”

Nixon: “Well, what do you think? I might have to go there.”

Kissinger: “I think—”

Nixon: “Now, that would be a terrible slap.”

Kissinger: “I think it would be, but I think it sets it up wrong, because that means Peking gets the last shot at us. It’d be a hell of a lot better to have Moscow hanging over Peking’s head, than Peking hanging over Moscow’s head.”

Nixon: “Right.”

Kissinger: “Peking is the one that we can’t fail on. Moscow has so many other reasons to get along with us. Then Moscow, we know, won’t embarrass you. Peking—I think we are better off having Peking—”

Nixon: “Yeah.”

Kissinger: “—with Moscow hanging over their head, with the fear that we might be dividing them up with Moscow.”

Nixon: “Hm-hmm.”

Kissinger: “And—I think it’s much better to go to Pe[king]—Moscow after Peking.”

Nixon: “Excuse me. Well, I can tell you [unclear] Chicago by saying the leaders of both sides do not feel that the summit—”

Kissinger: “[unclear]”

Nixon: “—would be useful unless it was different.”

Kissinger: “Right. Now, the only part that worried me was mentioning a conversation with Gromyko—”

Nixon: “Yeah.”

Kissinger: “—to keep Gromyko from saying, ‘That isn’t quite what happened. I brought him an invitation, which would have—’”

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Nixon: “He did bring it to you.”

Kissinger: “No, but that message didn’t fix a date.”

Nixon: “Hm-hmm. Oh, I’ll just say that—”

Kissinger: “Well, but, I think, they’re so slobbering now. Our bigger problem with them now, Mr. President, in my view, is not whether they’ll have a—”

Nixon: “Yeah.”

Kissinger: “—meeting, but whether they’ll try to stampede us into one.”

Nixon: “In order to screw the Chinese?”

Kissinger: “Yeah, that would really—if we go to Moscow to sign a bilateral agreement—besides, we’ve told the Chinese we wouldn’t do it now—before Peking. That was one of the messages we sent them, to tell them that we said you’d go in the order in which you will announce. But you said that today.”

Nixon: “You mangled a word. I just said ‘meeting.’”

Kissinger: “No, you said you wouldn’t—’It would not now be—’”

Nixon: “Appropriate.”

Kissinger: “—’appropriate.’ You’d go to Peking first. You said it. Don’t you think, Bob?”

Haldeman: “Yeah.”

Kissinger: “That was very clear. And, you remember, I told you that he had mentioned that a letter from you to Brezhnev might be a good idea, and I drafted one. And I told him there may be one and he was practically drooling. He said, ‘Well, that would be good.’ You see, Brezhnev has a lot riding on the line with you. He committed to having a good relation partner.” (Ibid., White House Tapes, Conversation 554–3) The editors transcribed the portion of the tape recording printed here specifically for this volume.

Later in the day, Kissinger clarified Nixon’s remarks for members of the Washington press corps. Murrey Marder, columnist and diplomatic correspondent for the Washington Post, called at 5:57 p.m. to seek a “little guidance” on the President’s timetable:

“M: The question was whether to literally rule out a visit to Moscow or agreement on Berlin, SALT, the Middle East sequence …

“K: No, wait a minute. An agreement is not contingent on willingness to have a summit. There will be a Berlin agreement whenever we have it regardless of where we stand with Peking. The same is true of SALT. What he meant to indicate is that it is highly improbable that we will go to Moscow before Peking.

“M: Right. Another thought here, he said that to speculate that we are going to get that done before going to Peking is ill-advised. He didn’t mean it literally, did he?

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“K: Absolutely not. We are moving at the fastest rate possible on both. They are totally separable from whenever we go to Moscow or have a summit wherever that would be.

“M: Does this rule out participation in meetings with the Soviets before going to Moscow on one of these other factors?

“K: The prospect is that we will have summits, if they are summits, in the order in which they are announced. If the SALT agreement is already finished there will be no need to have a meeting. If there is a summit, it’s because progress in other talks has made major steps in other fields possible. I don’t believe timing is all that consistent. Berlin is a different issue—that’s four powers and I don’t see the pace of SALT … after we have agreement in principle, drafting may take several months. I don’t interpret this press conference as meaning we are going to hold up negotiations to make room for a summit or that we are going to speed them up for a summit.” (Ibid., Henry Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts, Box 11, Chronological File)

Several minutes later, Nixon and Kissinger reviewed the day’s events by telephone:

“K: There has been some inquiry in the press about your comment on the Soviet Union—whether you are going to hold up on an agreement. I told them no, you were going ahead.

“P: The two things are totally separate.

“K: That’s what I said.

“P: I was quite clear.

“K: And this was absolutely consistent with what we told Dobrynin.

“P: And with what the Chinese know.

“K: Exactly. It would be ironical now if they [the Soviets] try to squeeze us into an early summit.

“P: And they are crude enough to try. After all the times we’ve been around with them. And we’ll just treat them the same way they’ve treated us if they do. And they’ll respect us for it.

“K: No, this way the pressures are set up in the right way to do it in that sequence.

“P: That’s the big thing. And we played the Soviets very generously today. Talking about more progress … Berlin …

“K: Of course you know about more progress on Berlin than anyone else. But the Russians will understand.

“P: Exactly, and getting the people a little confused isn’t a bad idea.

“K: And after all that’s happened the press takes it at face value, so there’s no problem there. And the bureaucracy is now used to the fact that things are going on they aren’t aware of.” (Ibid.)

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On August 5, the Washington Post published Marder’s column on the President’s press conference. Although he addressed Nixon’s remarks, Marder largely based his analysis on Kissinger’s clarifications over the telephone:

“In his news conference, the President not only placed a prospective U.S.-Soviet summit meeting after, rather than before, his visit to Peking. He also appeared to be tipping his hand on the expected timing for completing a first stage agreement in the Soviet-American strategic arms limitation talks (SALT), and on a new four-power accord on Western access to Berlin, if not on a possible interim agreement in the Arab-Israeli conflict as well.

“Administration sources promptly cautioned those who thought the President might be revealing the full U.S. diplomatic scenario that all of his statements should not be taken so literally.

“These negotiations are totally separable, and each will move at the fastest pace possible, without any attempt to time them to the President’s travel, these sources emphasized. The Berlin talks, it was noted, are four-power talks (Soviet Union, Britain, France, United States) and an agreement in that forum need have no relationship to a U.S.-Soviet summit conference.

“The President’s remarks, nevertheless, are considerably revealing for diplomats when added to other information and speculation about the probable course of U.S. diplomacy in the coming months.”

“A ‘double journey for peace’ in advance of a presidential election,” Marder concluded, “would be an unparalleled coup, requiring more surefootedness—and luck—than any White House occupant has ever experienced on the world’s unpredictable summitry circuit.” (Marder, “Nixon’s Diplomacy Plans,” Washington Post, August 5, 1971, page A15)