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

    • Vietnam and Soviet-American Relations

Vietnam has always been in the background of our relations with the USSR. Since the negotiations began in Paris, however, the Soviets have been relatively content to remain on the sidelines, becoming active only periodically, and then usually responding to new developments with by-now-standard pledges of support for Hanoi and the Viet Cong. Nevertheless, Vietnam, when added to other issues has an impact on the Soviet assessment of our policies.

When it appears that the situation on the ground may escalate, the Soviets cannot help but be concerned. It raises the question for them of further military aid requests from Hanoi, which, in turn, means a greater dependence on the Chinese supply routes. It forces the Soviet leaders to fall in line with Hanoi and China in issuing recent denunciatory statements by Brezhnev in Yerevan,2 at the Warsaw Pact [Page 189] meeting,3 and the Soviet government statement of December 16.4 And it raises the question for the Soviet leaders of whether they can and should continue to negotiate for agreements with the US, if Vietnam is going to escalate to a major crisis.

This last factor is of some immediate concern in regard to the continuation of the Paris talks. While the Soviets will not acknowledge any responsibility for the “understanding” they know as well as we that they did assume some measure of responsibility for the terms of the bombing halt.5 But more important, a continuation of the talks, and some remote prospect of a political settlement, has been the Soviet position throughout the debate with China (and with Hanoi) over how to conduct the war.

At the same time, the Soviets have profited from our involvement in Vietnam, and, no doubt, attribute some of their successful European diplomacy to European fears that Vietnam would cause a gradual withdrawal of the United States from world affairs. Thus, as long as talks continue and the war does not escalate to North Vietnam, the Soviets are relatively content.

Now it seems their concern may be growing. We have, for example, received a report6 of the line sent from Moscow to Gus Hall and the American communist party. According to this, (tailored for USCP use) at the CPSU Party Central Committee plenum on December 7, Brezhnev made a “belligerent and combative speech” in which he blamed the President for sharpening the world situation in Indochina, the Middle East and Berlin. He criticized us for blocking the Bonn–Moscow treaty, and following a “reactionary” domestic policy. Interestingly, however, Brezhnev is supposed to have said that the Soviets will try to reach agreement in SALT, and are not against a summit conference. (This last squares with French reports of what Brezhnev said to Pompidou).7

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The significant aspect of this seems to be the ambivalence in the Soviet position. On the one hand, Brezhnev wants it known that he is tough and harsh on the US, but he is careful not to foreclose a meeting with the President or even a major agreement. It may be that Vietnam is casting a shadow over these latter possibilities, and could move the Soviets into some more diplomatic action. It is difficult to see how the Soviets can influence the situation much without confronting Hanoi or further worsening their relations with us by some new pressures to dissuade us from a course of action which to Moscow must appear potentially very dangerous.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 714, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. XI. Secret; Nodis. Urgent; sent for information. Hyland initialed the memorandum for Sonnenfeldt. According to an attached note, Kissinger saw the memorandum, which he also initialed, on December 21.
  2. See Document 56.
  3. See footnote 7, Document 56.
  4. For the text of the statement, published in Pravda on December 17, see Current Digest of the Soviet Press, Vol. XXII, No. 50 (January 12, 1971), pp. 27–28.
  5. Reference is presumably to the bombing halt over North Vietnam of October 1968.
  6. Not further identified.
  7. Pompidou visited the Soviet Union for eight days in October 1970. In a memorandum to Nixon on October 23, Kissinger reported that the results of the visit were “rather ambiguous and inconclusive.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 677, Country Files, Europe, France, Vol. VII) Sonnenfeldt, who drafted the memorandum, also observed: “As evidenced by the cordial reception afforded Pompidou, the Soviets were obviously intent on warming up their relations with Paris—undoubtedly in part to help dissuade Paris from moving toward too close a rapprochement with the U.S. Many elements of Gaullist policy of détente and cooperation with the East were clearly renewed by the Pompidou trip.” (Memorandum from Sonnenfeldt to Kissinger, October 19; ibid.) Kissinger’s memorandum is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XLI, Western Europe; NATO, 1969–1972.