344. Memorandum of Conversation1
- Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko
- Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin
- Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
Contrary to the usual practice, the meeting took place not in the Ambassador’s apartment but in a formal reception room on the first floor which I had not previously seen. Both Dobrynin and Gromyko went out of their way to be cordial.
Gromyko began the conversation by saying that he had been enormously impressed by his conversation with the President the day before. He had been struck particularly by the remark the President had made that, whatever the relations of each of the superpowers with other countries, he realized that the peace of the world ultimately depended on the United States and the Soviet Union, and that the superpowers therefore had a special obligation. Gromyko said that this reflected the view of the General Secretary absolutely. Mr. Brezhnev, as I undoubtedly knew from the President, had asked him to pass on to the President how much he was looking forward to his visit and how he would receive an especially warm welcome in the Soviet Union.
Gromyko then asked me for the President’s reaction. I replied that I thought that the President shared his view about the constructive tone of the meeting.
The Middle East
I said, turning now to concrete matters, that I wanted to check with Gromyko whether the President had understood him correctly with respect [Page 1072] to the Middle East. As the President understood him, he had made three propositions: (1) The Soviet Union would agree to a ban on arms. Gromyko said correct. (2) The Soviet Union would withdraw all organized military forces from the Middle East. Gromyko said correct. (3) The Soviet Union would participate in and guarantee the arrangements. Gromyko again said correct. (4) All of these measures would go into effect as part of an interim settlement. Gromyko said correct—provided that the interim settlement contained provisions for how to get to a final settlement.
I said that the problem now was how to go from here to there. The President had also asked me to tell Gromyko that he was prepared to have me engage in exploratory conversations with Dobrynin to find out whether there was anything worth negotiating about. However, I wanted to point out that the conditions here were somewhat different than on Berlin. On Berlin all parties or at least three of the parties wanted an agreement. Secondly, we had an Ambassador in Bonn2 who was very well versed in the technical side and who, given proper direction, could handle the details. And thirdly, the Soviet Union sent their best expert3 to Bonn to negotiate with our Ambassador. These conditions were not easy to meet in the Middle East. For one thing, how could we be sure that word of these talks would not leak out? Gromyko replied, “I give you my word it will be absolutely waterproof. There can be no mistake, we would never tolerate it.”
Leaving aside the question of leaks, I said there was the concrete issue of how we would approach the settlement. It seemed to me that much of the discussion at the moment concerns theology. I did not understand phrases like “secure and recognized boundaries” unless they produced a concrete proposition. I did not want to get involved on behalf of the President unless there was a good chance of achieving an agreement, and this is why we proposed exploratory talks. Gromyko said he agreed with this. I said that, for example, it seemed to me rather irrelevant whether the Israelis withdrew 40 kilometers, 30 kilometers, or 20 kilometers from the Canal. The depth of the withdrawal was not at issue in the interim settlement—but the fact that the withdrawal had started could be of tremendous significance. Egypt had to decide whether it wanted substance or theory. Gromyko said he agreed with this, but everything depended on the link between the interim settlement and the final settlement. Gromyko added that he was prepared to say that in the interim settlement there could already be a fixed obligation that Israeli ships would have the right to traverse the Suez Canal as soon as a final settlement was reached.[Page 1073]
I replied that I did not want to get into details on this occasion but I simply wanted to point out the problems that had to be addressed. Gromyko said we should not take lightly their willingness to guarantee the agreement. Why should the Israelis be so worried about their security if both the United States and the Soviet Union guaranteed them? I said because they had had bad experiences, and they could learn from history that guarantees often failed. Gromyko said that nevertheless, sooner or later they would have to make peace and accept some guarantees.
We then turned to the question of how to establish a link between the interim settlement and the final settlement. Gromyko said it wasn’t necessary that the final settlement be achieved in one stage; perhaps it should be achieved in two stages, perhaps it should be achieved in three stages—as long as it was clear that a final settlement was envisaged. The length of time was also not decisive, Gromyko added, though he thought that the final settlement should be within a year of the interim settlement. I replied that the problem of the settlement was as follows: The more theology we included in the interim settlement, the less likely it would be achieved. Indeed, if we wanted to waste time, I would urge to have as much specificity about the final settlement as possible in the interim settlement because I knew it would never be agreed to by the parties. However, if we were to get involved it would have to be on the basis that progress was possible; this to me meant that there should be some vagueness as to the final destination.
Gromyko said this was very hard. He said, “Quite frankly we will have to sell the settlement to our allies, and I recognize you will have to sell it to your allies. In particular, the withdrawal of our air forces and other organized units will not be happily greeted by our allies, and therefore we have to show them that we are doing it for a greater cause.” Gromyko added that in strictly Middle East terms the Soviet Union had perhaps some hesitation about proceeding, but he wanted us to know that Brezhnev had said that his approach to the Middle East was dictated by global considerations and not by Middle East considerations alone. I replied that I was glad to hear this because this characterized our attitude.
Since I only spoke on the level of reality, I replied I wanted to state the reality as I saw it. There was no possibility of implementing a final agreement before the American election. No American President could engage in the pressures that might be necessary to achieve this. Therefore, the only practical approach would be to try to get the interim settlement out of the way, perhaps by the time that the President visited Moscow. And on that occasion, perhaps the President and the General Secretary could agree on the nature of the ultimate settlement, use this as the point of departure, and settle the matter this way. [Page 1074] Gromyko responded that it would have to be a very binding settlement, however. I said, “Mr. Foreign Minister, we do not believe in tricking you. We may be difficult about reaching an agreement, but if we reach an agreement it will be absolutely maintained.”
Gromyko then asked whether we could tell the parties about the agreement. I said this would produce an enormous outcry, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid. Gromyko wondered whether there was some possibility of telling their allies on the basis of strict confidence. I said my impression was that the Egyptians were incapable of keeping a confidence. Gromyko laughed and said this was generally true, but in this case it was to their interest to keep it, since if the agreement that might be reached at the summit should leak, it would be aborted. And since it might then contribute also to the defeat of President Nixon. I said I did not exactly know what the agreement would look like and, of course, the more acceptable it was to Israel, the less concern one had to have about secrecy.
Gromyko then said, “I understand that you have not committed yourself to these negotiations, but can I tell my government that your attitude is at least constructive enough to have exploratory talks? As you know, we have President Sadat in Moscow in two weeks, and it is important for us to know your general attitude so that we can make our policy.” I said our general attitude is that the Soviet offers had constructive elements, that I would engage in exploratory talks, and that I thought the interim settlement was soluble. A great deal depended on the ultimate settlement. I did not believe that it was possible to ask Israel to go back entirely to their 1967 frontiers but I would like to reserve this for the discussions with Dobrynin.
Gromyko said he thought that was a very positive discussion. As for the time scale, I told him that I would be prepared to start talking to Dobrynin in about three weeks. We should then have about a month of discussion after which we would decide whether to go further, and if we decided to go further we should aim to have the interim agreement done by next May.
The conversation then turned to Vietnam. I told Gromyko that we considered the North Vietnamese a courageous people, that had fought heroically for many years. At the same time, we were wondering whether the qualities of heroism that they had shown made them capable of having peace. I frankly was beginning to doubt it. Some suspicion was indicated as a result of their history, but when suspiciousness was carried to such morbid lengths then of course it was impossible to come to any understanding. Gromyko said that they had many reasons to be suspicious.[Page 1075]
I said we were now in the last phase of the war and we were determined to end this one way or the other. We would either go unilaterally, which we were reluctant to do, or we would go by way of negotiations. However, I wanted Gromyko to understand that if the negotiations did not succeed by the end of this year we would have to go unilaterally, with all the risks to the détente that this involved. It seemed to me a tragedy for the Soviet Union and the United States to run the risk of conflict over an area in which they had many common interests. What did we want in Southeast Asia? We wanted countries that were independent and self-reliant. Any reasonable assessment of the historical situation should make clear that we were not the major threat to the independence and security of Southeast Asia, and that the day might even come that the countries of Southeast Asia would look to us for support against threats that came from much shorter distances. Why then should the war continue? Why should they assume that we would maintain a colonial position when we were withdrawing from so many other areas?
As far as I could see, there were only two issues now between us: the withdrawal and the political future. I thought that the withdrawal issue was manageable. As for the political future, it was impossible for us to end a process which had begun with the overthrow of an ally with the overthrow of another ally.
Gromyko responded that he understood our point but he was just wondering, thinking out loud, whether some compromise might not be possible. For example, would we be willing to replace Thieu and have another person in his place who might not in the first instance have Communists in his government? Would that be acceptable to us? I replied that we were in the process of reformulating our political proposals and I was therefore not able to respond with great precision. I could tell him now, however, that we would not agree to the replacement of Thieu as a condition of the peace settlement. We were prepared, however, to work with Hanoi on a political process in which it was possible to replace Thieu as a result of the political process. For example, we did not insist that Thieu had to run the elections that might be set as a result of the peace settlement; the elections might well be conducted by a government that was not dominated by one of the contenders. Gromyko asked whether we might be prepared to agree to a fixed period after which elections had to take place. I said that was correct. Were we prepared to have Communists in the government that would run the election, he asked. I said perhaps not in the government but certainly on the commissions that would supervise the election.
Gromyko said, “All right, we will pass this on to Hanoi and we will be in touch with you.” I told him that this was not a formal proposal, and perhaps Hanoi had another idea.[Page 1076]
I then told Gromyko that I wanted to say in all solemnity the following: We were determined to see the war in Vietnam through to an honorable conclusion. We thought that from now until the end of the year was the last opportunity for a negotiated settlement. After this we would be forced to make our decisions unilaterally and not rely on negotiations. We would make a specific proposal to Hanoi in the near future. When that proposal was made, we might talk in greater detail to Dobrynin. To show our goodwill and to ease Hanoi’s suspicions, I continued, we were also prepared to offer the following: It might be that Hanoi would feel easier if one of its friends helped to assure the good faith of the participants. I was therefore prepared to go secretly to Moscow to meet for three days with a suitable personality from Hanoi if this had a high probability of leading to a solution. It could not be either in Moscow’s interest or mine to have a trip to Moscow that led to failure.
Gromyko responded that this was a very interesting proposal, which they would consider with the utmost seriousness. He repeated again, “We will do what we can and we will be in touch with you.”
The conversation then turned to China. I told Gromyko that we had noticed in Brezhnev’s letters and in public statements by the Soviet Union that the Soviet Union welcomed improvement of relations but not if it led to the point of collusion between the United States and Communist China. I said that this was a view with which we could associate ourselves in principle. We wanted to improve relations but we did not want to collude with China against anyone. It seemed to us, I continued, there were two principal issues between the Soviet Union and Communist China—(Gromyko interrupted at this moment: “Only two? You are being much too generous.”)—these issues were the border question and the ideological question. It went without saying that on ideology we had no interest or possibility of intervening. On the border question we would do nothing that would in any way indicate a taking of sides.
Gromyko said he appreciated this very much. I then said it was important in any event for the two of us to understand some fundamental issues: If there was going to be a fundamental change in our relationship it was crucial that we separate basic objectives from short-term objectives. To be sure, as great powers the United States and the Soviet Union had unlimited opportunities to harass each other. But what would it gain either side? The other side would certainly begin a counter-harassment and there would be a gradual escalation of tension. We were not interested in pinpricks with the Soviet Union. We recognized that the peace of the world depended on our relationship with the Soviet Union, and therefore we were prepared to be restrained in our actions if the Soviet Union was prepared to be restrained in its [Page 1077] actions. Gromyko said he was glad to hear this. The Soviet Union, he said, had no objections to improved U.S. relations with China as long as they were not directed against her.
I asked whether Gromyko could give me any indication of what he meant by collusion. Gromyko said it was hard to be specific, but anything that would threaten the peace between the Soviet Union and Communist China or anything that made it harder to achieve peace in Southeast Asia would be considered very unfortunate by the Soviet Union. I replied that whatever we did with respect to Southeast Asia we clearly wanted to bring about peace. Gromyko said that that was his impression, but we might have the opposite effect.
I told Gromyko that in fact there were two kinds of motives for our attitude towards Communist China: One, our general desire to improve relations; and two, our desire to speed the end of the war in Southeast Asia. To the extent that the war in Southeast Asia could be ended we could concentrate on the fundamental problems, and there of course our priority for the next 10–20 years had to be in our relations with the Soviet Union. I therefore thought the Soviet Union had an interest in helping bring the war in Southeast Asia to an end.
Gromyko said, “We will talk to Hanoi and we will be in touch with you.”
I foreshadowed the October 5 announcement by saying that we and the Chinese had been discussing the possibility of an interim visit to Peking to prepare for your trip. I said we would give Moscow 24 hours advance warning.
Germany and European Security
We then talked about the German situation. I said that one of the difficulties in our relationship was that as soon as an agreement on something was achieved, new conditions were raised, so that we felt we had to buy the same agreement over and over again. Gromyko asked what I was referring to. I mentioned the fact that the Soviets had now established a reverse linkage according to which ratification of the German Treaty had to precede a Berlin agreement. Gromyko said this was based on a total misunderstanding. The Soviet Union was afraid the Germans would ratify the Berlin agreement first and then refuse to go ahead with the German Treaty. They were afraid of being left holding the bag. Gromyko stressed that the Soviet Union would agree to any formula for ratification which would put the two instruments into effect simultaneously, but it was a little difficult to think of a formula that would accomplish that other than by the prior ratification of the German Treaty. He said, “after all, why would we sign the Berlin Treaty if we did not want to bring it into effect?” I suggested that perhaps the Berlin Treaty could be ratified as scheduled and then an exchange of notes be added to it, according to which the treaty would [Page 1078] become effective only after the German Treaty was ratified. Gromyko said he would think about it.
I then raised the matter of the translation problem. He said the Germans were unbelievable. There were three official texts—British, French, and Russian—and now the Germans were raising the issue of the correct German text. None of the powers had negotiated in German, so why should the Four Powers get involved in it? Why not let the Germans operate with two separate texts if they wanted—especially if there were only two words at issue—and substitute for these disputed German words the agreed English, French and Russian words. I said we would stay out of it for the time being but it was my view that, after all the investment we had made, it would help greatly if we moved ahead on the ratification.
Gromyko then turned to European security and said the Soviet Union was prepared for preliminary exchanges. He was a little puzzled by the fact that the President had told him the day before,4 when they were alone, that I would handle the discussions, while Rogers had told him at lunch5 that he would handle the preliminary discussions. I said that the best way to conduct it would be to have technical matters handled between Dobrynin and Rogers and major substantive issues between Dobrynin and me. But it was essential for these divisions to be carried through without an attempt at playing them off. Gromyko said, “Exactly our view.”
Gromyko then summed up the discussion by saying he thought this had been a most constructive meeting. During the course of it, he had taken off his coat and both of us had conducted the discussions in shirt-sleeves. He said he wanted us to know that Brezhnev considered relations with the United States not just from the perspective of this or that issue but from a global perspective and of a historical nature, and therefore, we could be certain that the Soviet Union would approach all the specific issues discussed today with that attitude. Gromyko said, “I hope very much that you will come to Moscow before a Summit Meeting.” I said, “I have given you a way for me to be able to do that.” Gromyko smiled and said, “Always linkage,” but said, “we hope to see you in Moscow.”
There was some exchange of pleasantries and when Dobrynin took me to the door, he thought it had been one of the best meetings he had attended, and he had never seen his Minister so relaxed. But no significance need be attached to this.
- Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 71, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Gromyko, 1971–1972. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting was held at the Soviet Embassy. Lord and Rodman submitted this memorandum and another summarizing it for the President to Kissinger on October 4. Kissinger forwarded the package to Nixon the next day; notes on both memoranda indicate that the President saw them. In the summary memorandum for the President, Kissinger commented: “In sum, I believe that our conversations with Gromyko have been extremely important ones, and Dobrynin tells me that Gromyko shares this assessment. We can expect the Soviets, even in this new ‘positive’ line, to be pursuing their own interests, driving hard bargains for their friends, and doing their normal amount of tactical elbowing. But the prospects and interplay of your two summit meetings give us useful leverage. If we play our cards right, we can hope for some constructive results.” (Ibid.) For his memoir account, see Kissinger, White House Years, pp. 838–839, 1287–1288.↩
- Kenneth Rush.↩
- Valentin Falin.↩
- See Document 338.↩
- See Document 345.↩