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

    • Soviet Ship Visit to Boston is Postponed—The Danger of a Deepening
    • US-Soviet Crisis

Early last month a Soviet oceanographic vessel2 requested permission to call at Boston December 5–9 to take on provisions and to permit Soviet scientists to meet with their American counterparts at Woods Hole. Similar port calls have been made recently: in August a Soviet research vessel called at Honolulu, and in September a Coast Guard ship called at Murmansk. Another research vessel has requested permission to call at Miami in late December. The Port Security Committee formally cleared the Boston visit on the afternoon of December 1.

Fortunately, State was alive to the distinct possibility of an unpleasant incident in Boston if the Soviet vessel were to tie up at Boston Harbor. State has suggested to the Soviet Embassy that we do not feel that we can provide optimum security for the vessel, its crew and scientific team at this time, and that it would be better if the Boston visit were postponed. The Soviet DCM (Vorontsov) said he could not see any connection between this Boston visit and the Lithuanian defector incident, but he nevertheless understood our position.

A reporting memo from State on this is at Tab A.3 I do not believe any action on your part if required, in this particular instance.

Comment: There is no question that the State Department did the right thing in this case.

In the broader context of the present phase in US-Soviet relations, I would judge that this incident, although minor as these matters go, will in the Soviet perception of our conduct and purposes, be seen as further evidence of a “hardening” in the US position.

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The Soviets (i.e., various people in Moscow with various sets of biases, interests and domestic political ambitions at this highly fluid moment of internal Soviet politics) see American behavior in peculiar ways. There is much evidence that just as we have in recent months perceived a hardening in Soviet policies toward us, and have reacted thereto, they in turn have seen a similar trend in our behavior toward them. (Comments by Dobrynin and high-level Soviet visitors to this effect are of course to some extent normal Soviet debating tactics and psychological warfare but they do, in my view represent a hard core of actual Soviet perception and judgment.) We must allow for the strong possibility that many things that the Soviets are doing are seen by them as reactions to our behavior. (Needless to say the detention of the Soviet vessel in the Panama Canal4 will be added by the Soviets to the catalogue of our sins, as will, for example, our rejection of an ABM-only agreement at Helsinki.)5

We are in consequence in a period of the greatest delicacy in our relations with the USSR in which discipline and coherence in the signals we emit and the actions we take, or do not take, are more crucial than ever; or we may find ourselves in a first-class crisis of unpredictable outcome. I can think of no more serious problem than this for our national security policy at this time.

I am of course at your complete disposal should you want me to be of assistance to you.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 714, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. XI. Secret; Nodis; Sensitive. Urgent; sent for information. Kissinger initialed the memorandum on December 8.
  2. Akademik Kurchatov, named after Igor Vasilevich Kurchatov, the physicist who, as scientific director of the Soviet nuclear program, oversaw not only its first atomic bomb test in 1949 but also its first hydrogen bomb test in 1953.
  3. Attached but not printed at Tab A is a memorandum from Eliot to Kissinger, December 2.
  4. In a memorandum to Kissinger on December 2, Arnold Nachmanoff, the senior NSC staff member in Latin American Affairs, reported: “This morning a US Marshal boarded the Soviet passenger vessel Shota Rustaveli, owned by the Black Sea Shipping Co., in Cristobal at the Atlantic end of the Canal and impounded it. The Marshal was acting on orders issued by the US District Court in Cristobal in connection with a suit for damages filed by the American owners of the SS Aquarius, a vessel which suffered a collision with another vessel owned by the Black Sea Shipping Co. in the Persian Gulf some time ago.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 714, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. XI)
  5. Semenov proposed talks on an ABM-only agreement during the SALT session in Helsinki on December 1. (Smith, Doubletalk, p. 192)