59. Editorial Note

On December 10, 1970, President Richard Nixon addressed the subject of Soviet-American relations during his first press conference in over four months. For several days beforehand, the President reviewed his position on a number of issues, from negotiations on SALT [Page 182] and Berlin to confrontations in Vietnam and the Caribbean. To prepare for the occasion, Henry Kissinger, his Assistant for National Security Affairs, assembled a “foreign policy index” of relevant questions and answers. Nixon studied the answers carefully but also planned to reply in his own words. Kissinger, for instance, suggested an acknowledgment that “our own people” had “displayed poor judgment” and “applied faulty procedures” in the recent case of the Soviet defector near Martha’s Vineyard. Nixon drew a sharper distinction, writing in the margin that “it was a disgraceful incident,” “completely contrary to American tradition,” so “outrageous” in fact, that “a court martial was under consideration.” The President also drafted the following handwritten response to a question on prospects for a summit:

“We have no plans for a summit meeting now.

  • “1. Continue to talk on the Mideast, SALT, Berlin—other channels—
  • “2. When there is something to be determined at summit—OK
  • “3. We have differences—but we are talking—
  • “Mideast—
  • “Berlin—
  • SALT—” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 907, Presidential Press Conferences, December 10, 1970)

Kissinger was particularly concerned about a question on Soviet military presence in Cuba, drafting and re-drafting language on two informal agreements: the “understanding” of October 1962 on Soviet nuclear missiles and the “understanding” of October 1970 on Soviet nuclear submarines. Nixon and Kissinger discussed the issue by telephone at 5:45 pm on December 8:

“P: With regard to this base on Cuba. I was of the opinion that in the TASS thing they referred to the understanding that they hadn’t referred to submarines being a base.

“K: They said they were not constructing submarine bases in Cuba.

“P: Was that new?

“K: They reaffirmed the ’62 which referred to offensive missiles and extended it to submarine bases.

“P: It doesn’t say that. My answer should say it reaffirms the agreement of ’62.

“K: I have it and I will change that.

“P: I don’t think it’s clear. The Soviet news agency issued a statement they are not building a military base on Cuba.

“K: They said military naval base.

“P: ‘[omission in transcript] with regard to offensive [omission in transcript] on the island. [omission in transcript]’ See what I’m getting at?

[Page 183]

“K: ’62 that they agreed not to put offensive weapons on Cuba and TASS statement extended it to military naval base. That’s new and they added that to the understanding of ’62.

“P: That will do it. No need to re-write it. Fine. Thank you.” (Ibid., Henry Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts, Box 8, Chronological File)

Kissinger provided additional guidance in a note to Nixon the next morning:

“In line with our discussion yesterday evening, I have modified the question and answer covering Soviet military activities in Cuba. As you know in recent days the Soviet submarine tender has been involved in military exercises in the waters northeast of Cuba with as many as 4 Soviet diesel-powered submarines. Thus, we can see their salami tactics beginning.

“For this reason, I believe it is important that you include the second paragraph of the proposed answer dealing with our expectation that they will comply with both the letter and the spirit of our understandings.”

The attached second paragraph, with Nixon’s handwritten revisions incorporated, reads as follows:

“In view of such assurances, we consider that there is an understanding between us and the Soviets as to our respective positions on the limits of actions with regard to Cuba. I expect that the Soviet Union will abide by both the letter and spirit of this understanding. We will continue watching current Soviet military activity in and around Cuba very closely.” (Ibid.)

Kissinger addressed the issue again in a memorandum to the President that afternoon, taking into account reports that the Soviet submarine tender and other naval vessels had returned to Cuba on December 8: “These actions suggest that the Soviets are taxing our resolve by continuing activities in and around Cuba just below the legal limits or our ‘understanding.’ For this reason, it is important that we maintain a firm and cool posture with respect to the existence of an ‘understanding’ and the seriousness with which it is regarded.” Kissinger reviewed and emphasized the “precise language” of the statement issued by TASS on October 13: that “the Soviet Union has not built and is not building its military base on Cuba and is not doing anything that would contradict the understanding reached between the Governments of the USSR and the United States.” Kissinger reiterated his advice that if asked about the “understanding,” Nixon should “take a strong line to ensure there are no uncertainties in Moscow as to your attitude on this subject.” (Ibid.)

The President spent most of the day on December 10 preparing for his press conference that evening. As White House Chief of Staff [Page 184] H.R. Haldeman recorded in his diary: “P stayed locked up at the EOB all day, and I didn’t see him for the entire day, something of a record. He didn’t leave the EOB until just time to go over to the Residence and change clothes and go down for the press conference at 7:00.” (Haldeman, Haldeman Diaries, page 218) While “locked up” in his private office, Nixon collected his thoughts on a yellow legal pad, covering a variety of issues both foreign and domestic. His handwritten notes include the following passages on Soviet-American relations:

Defector: Court Martial [Board of Investigation completed—& Commandant of Coast Guard in the next 2 days—]

  • “1. The relevant information was not reported to State—and for that reason—from State to W.H.
  • “2. It was a shocking, disgraceful incident—in a nation with a proud tradition of providing a sanctuary for refugees—
  • “3. It will not happen again.”

Understanding with Cuba

  • “1. In 1962—Understanding that Soviet would not introduce offensive missiles
  • “2. In October 13 Soviet TASS—reaffirmed this understanding—to include a military naval base
  • “3. We expect it to be kept & will watch—”

U.S.S.R. :

  • “1. We have great differences
  • “2. We talk at SALT
  • “We work on Mideast—
  • “We work on Berlin—
  • “3. Summit may will be useful.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, President’s Personal Files, Box 62, President’s Speech File, December 10, 1970, Press Conference—RN Notes) The brackets are in the original.

Nixon began the press conference, which was broadcast live on radio and television, at 7 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. As expected, he received several questions on his Soviet policy. The first such question concerned Soviet naval presence near Cuba. When a reporter asked, however, whether he thought a “submarine base in Cuba” threatened national security, the President gave a brief answer: “No, I do not.” Nixon was more expansive when asked whether the lack of progress on SALT and Berlin reflected “any serious deterioration in U.S.-Soviet relations”:

“I have noted the speculation to the effect that U.S.-Soviet relations—sometimes they’re warmer and sometimes they’re cooler. I would only suggest that U.S.-Soviet relations are going to continue to be difficult, but the significant thing is that we are negotiating and not confronting. We are talking at SALT. We are very far apart because our [Page 185] vital interests are involved, but we are talking, and our vital interests, the interests of both the Soviet Union and the United States, require that we have some limitation of arms, both because of the cost and because of the danger of a nuclear confrontation.

“And so it is with Berlin, so it is with the Mideast. I am not suggesting that we are going to find easy agreement, because we are two great powers that are going to continue to be competitive for our lifetime. But I believe that we must continue on the path of negotiation, and in my long talk with Mr. Gromyko, I think there are some other areas where we can negotiate.”

Nixon also answered a question on his “personal view on the defector problem” as follows:

“Well, as I have already indicated, I was, as an American, outraged and shocked that this could happen. I regret that the procedures of the Coast Guard informing the State Department and the State Department informing the White House were not adequate to bring the matter to my attention. I can assure you it will never happen again. The United States of America for 190 years has had a proud tradition of providing opportunities for refugees and guaranteeing their safety, and we are going to meet that tradition.” (Public Papers: Nixon, 1970, pages 1101–1111)

The President called Kissinger at 7:45 p.m. to review the press conference. Kissinger assured Nixon that his performance was “spectacular, the best that I have ever heard.” “From a foreign policy point,” Kissinger added, “this was ideal. If I had staffed it, it wouldn’t have been as good.” Although he “really stuck it into Hanoi,” Nixon commented that he did not “get the Middle East in there. The State Department wanted me to kick the Soviets on that.” After a brief exchange on domestic issues, the two men turned to Soviet-American relations:

“P: [W]asn’t it good the fact that with regard to the Soviets, Mr. Gromyko and I had some other things we talked about—of course, the President discussed other things.

“K: You gave a message to the Russians.

“P: What was the message?

“K: We want to talk seriously with the Russians. You talked just enough about the Chinese.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Henry Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts, Box 8, Chronological File)