62. Memorandum for the Record1

    • Conversation with Editors of The Washington Post, December 17, 1970; 1:00 p.m., the office of Kay Graham. Questions answered by Dr. Kissinger.
    • Don Oberdorfer, Marylin Berger, Chalmers Roberts, Murrey Marder, Meg Greenfield, and Henry Hubbard

Question: Why are our relations with the Soviets so bad now?

Answer: I really wish I knew. In June I would have thought they were going to be much better by this time. The question is really whose fault has it been. Even granting Soviet paranoia it seems that something happened in July or August which stalemated the Soviet leadership. This seemed to coincide with their decision to delay the Party Congress.2 The symptoms of the stalemate within the Soviet leadership would seem to be their reactions in the Middle East during the ceasefire where they brought in the missiles in violation of the ceasefire, [Page 191] their base in Cienfuegos, Cuba and their condoning of the harassments in Berlin.

The real problem may be on a much deeper level and it may revolve around the Soviet Union’s relationship with the Chinese, both geopolitically and ideologically. If they improve their relationship with us and there is a warming of the atmosphere and détente, then they face criticism from the Chinese for not holding the ideological line. At the same time, if they hardline it so that they avoid criticism from the Chinese they cool the détente atmosphere. They also have a geopolitical factor with the Chinese which makes this a complicated choice for them. What they may be trying to do is maneuver so that they don’t have to make a choice between détente in the West and a positive relationship with China. This they could do if they could split Western Europe away from the US and have a détente with Western Europe but not with the US.

Another element may be that it appears to the Soviets that several of our actions have been part of a deliberate campaign against them; such things as the publicity with regard to the defector and the two generals that strayed across the Turkish border. In the latter case it must be remembered that they took two-and-a-half weeks deciding what to do, never answering our requests to see the generals.

One must realize that each nation tries to bring coherence and rationale to the actions of the other nation, regardless of how diverse or inexplicable such actions are. One should also realize in dealing with the Russians that in the Cold War posture of the 1950’s, there was a substantial difference between the strength of the US and Russia so that relatively minor changes did not really make much of a difference. But today they are so close to parity that minor changes can make major shifts in balance.

Question: Would you review each of the areas that you have mentioned specifically, i.e., the Middle East, Cuba and SALT?

Answer: On SALT, in the Vienna phase3 we developed our position more fully and so did they, but they did not put in numbers to explain their position. At Helsinki the positions were developed more in a conceptual framework and it would seem that what we have done, or what the Russians have been attempting to do is get the negotiations to a point at which they could move forward into very serious negotiations when it is politically opportune. In other words, they have gotten to the point where a political decision is now necessary on whether or not, and what type of, an agreement is desired. They expanded the conceptual theory on which their position is based; but [Page 192] they did not come up with anything concrete enough so that we would reply or make a counter-proposal. The talks did make progress but they have reserved to themselves the time on when to move. It seems that so far there has been a non-decision in Moscow on whether they want to move ahead seriously and on whether or not they want a comprehensive agreement.

Question: Was Laird’s statement which appeared in today’s Post a deliberate signal?4

Answer: No.

Question: Is the White House admitting that it can’t control the Department of Defense?

Answer: No, but it helps when we know what they are going to say.

Question: What are your views, or how do you look at the Middle East in view of what you have just said above?

Answer: There are three basic issues when one looks at the Middle East. First, one can look at it solely as an Arab-Israeli problem; secondly, one can focus on the significance of the Soviet presence there; or thirdly, one can also focus on the nature of the Arab states, their autonomy. Our objective has been to try to get each of these issues in phase with each other. Some however think that only the first issue is of any consequence and it is therefore the key. They believe that if it can be solved, the rest will fall in place.

We believe however that each of these issues is related; that there are a number of problems which have to be resolved or at least addressed. A good example is the likelihood of a stalemate once negotiations are started.

In fact, stalemate is really inevitable. It seems to be an obsession in Washington to focus only on the next step. One of the things that surprised me most when I came here was the singlemindedness with which the immediate step was addressed and the lack of attention paid to what was going to happen next. Starting negotiations is of second order priority; breaking the stalemate is really the critical issue. Examples of the questions we should address are: With whom are we going to deal when there is a stalemate? Is it going to be in a four-power forum, two-power forum, the Security Council at the UN? Are we going to move alone? There are numerous other crucial questions which [Page 193] have to be answered, but they will not be addressed until the problem is on top of us.

Question: Isn’t the issue that we are facing now—that Israel wants an answer as to what we will do?

Answer: Yes, that is true in part, but we say that we won’t propose a settlement and we really can’t say or be any more precise at this time.

Question: Do the Israelis want us to say we will exercise our Security Council veto in their behalf if the occasion arises where it is needed for their support?

Answer: Yes. One must realize the situation which Israel faces. It would prefer to hold on to all conquered territories rather than give them up in exchange for promises and one must admit that there has been little in the last year which inspires confidence in the promises or assurances, whether written or verbal, on the Arab side. It is very tough for an Israeli politician to take the position that he will withdraw from the conquered territories because that is their security. If he does, he has problems not only with his government but the bureaucracy as well. Israel would probably have been much better off if in 1967 they had immediately offered a half or a third of the territory that they had conquered in exchange for the recognition and promises which they want. They would have probably had a better chance of getting the terms they want now. And even though it probably would have been turned down in the abstract by the Arabs, it would have been a better starting point for today. What we have to do now is distinguish between what the Israelis will take and what they say they will take.

Question: Why do we even contemplate interference in this matter in the Middle East?

Answer: It is our strong conviction that any other route than our involvement might become too dangerous. The factors here involve predominance and growing influence of the Soviets in the Middle East and the radicalization of the Arabs.

Question: Is this danger equivalent to the danger of our losing our influence in Western Europe due to the increase in Soviet influence and interest there?

Answer: The change here has primarily been one in starting points and it has not relieved tensions. There are of course risks if you try to intervene, but there are also risks if you do nothing.

Question: Returning to the proposition that stalemate is inevitable. Would it make sense to have a stronger peace force with the Soviets and the US joining as a means of enforcing any settlement?

Answer: It would seem difficult to at the same time both remove the Soviets by one negotiation and insert them by another. An international force would have its maximum effectiveness in relation to a [Page 194] conventional attack. But as we can see, the threat to Israel is primarily guerrilla operations, not conventional ones. At the same time the Israelis are primarily geared to operate conventionally and their strategy is based on moving preemptively. An international force therefore does not meet the needs of Israeli security. Possibly, in ten or 15 years, this would not be the case, but right now it is.

Question: How then can be boundaries of Israel be secured?

Answer: The issue facing Israel is that they must weigh security provided by the intangibles of promises, good will and international legal recognition against the security provided by the reality of territory. There is a need for them to have confidence in the promises and other intangibles before they give up the territory. One of our objectives should be to remove Israel from the forefront of four-power politics.

Question: The Jordanians, Lebanese and Syrians do not seem to pose that much of a threat today? Is not the real threat to Israel’s survival from the Egyptian side?

Answer: You are right in talking about Jordan, Syria and Lebanon as not being threats, but only in the conventional sense, not in the guerrilla sense. On the Egyptian side it is true that an international force could play a useful role because of the distance and the fact that only a conventional attack could be launched there. An international force could therefore contain it, or at least prevent it for a limited time. If such border security could be arranged, Israel might, but it is very unlikely that they would, accept the 67 borders vis-à-vis Egypt. If they did, we would not object. We are not going to say, “Hold on, look what you are giving up.”

Question: What do you think of the Dayan idea for settlement5 and the likelihood that Sadat would go along with it?

Answer: The Dayan idea has many good points. The opening of the canal would greatly reduce the likelihood of attack, but my impression is that Egypt won’t accept it. [The questioner interjected here that Sadat, as a first step, might accept the border settlement with Egypt even though the other borders are not settled, and that this could lead to serious negotiations on the other borders.]6

Question: Have the Israelis been less flexible than you had hoped and have the Egyptians been harder to deal with? We realize you never thought it would be easy, but has it been tougher than you had expected?

Answer: It has been tougher than we had anticipated but for different reasons. The point to be made here is that how one manages a deadlock [Page 195] is essential to the kind of peace that ensues. The series of events that took place in September could not be managed or anticipated, but it is not surprising that some such development would occur. What is surprising and in many respects cannot be explained is the fact that they so brutally broke the ceasefire understanding. In addition, there was the death of Nasser which, of course, no one had anticipated.

Returning to the point made earlier on the nature of the problem facing Israel, where they have to balance promises, good will, and legitimate legal status against the relinquishment of territory—it is obvious that the events of the summer have depreciated the value of the intangibles and at the same time increased the value ascribed to the territory. There is a need for confidence not only in the willingness of the Arabs to carry out their promises, but in their ability to do so. In certain surrounding circumstances during this past summer’s events there was a lack of willingness to carry out their promises. And in the case of Jordan there was a lack of ability to carry out their promises. Furthermore, circumstances surrounding the whole episode, such as the violations of the ceasefire, do not increase one’s confidence in the seriousness with which the Arabs want to make peace. In my view we have therefore gone back since July. And, in addition, the other fears that were voiced then seem to still remain. We are not against a settlement but we must be realistic in our appraisal of what it is going to take to have a settlement.

Question: On the subject of Cuba and the sub-base at Cienfuegos, do the Soviets now constitute a threat there? The President answered this with a short “no” the other night at his press conference, and the State Department has since said that the President’s answer meant that it is now not a threat.7 Do you agree with this? And would you, if you had to give the backgrounder over again which you gave just before the trip to Europe use the President Kennedy quote again?8

Answer: The events which led up to the making of the statement were as follows:

When we became aware of what the Soviets were doing we decided to work out a joint public affairs posture which all the agencies of the government would adhere to. It was decided that the Department of [Page 196] Defense would acknowledge and reply to the factual questions on what was there and the State Department would make a follow-up statement if required. This was the statement that I made at the press conference. It was approved by all the departments and in fact was drafted by State.

In this setting, then, there appeared the Sulzberger article in the Friday edition of the NY Times addressing the whole situation in Cienfuegos.9 Next, the Defense Department revealed very extensively the factual basis for our concern 45 minutes before I was to brief the press corps in connection with the President’s European trip. It was then decided that I should read the agreed statement. It just happened that this backgrounder was the first time that an Administration spokesman would be before the press after the Defense revelation and it would not have looked good for the White House to have referred this to State or to have “no commented.”

The only thing which I did which was not in the original game plan was to read the quote rather than simply refer to it. I did this because I felt that the obvious next question would have been, “Well, what did Kennedy say in the statement to which you are referring?” It is therefore utter nonsense to say that I was blowing up the Cienfuegos situation. The way that the statement played was what we wanted. It was only in later articles that the matter became confused, not only to our public, but also to the Soviets.

Question: But that question with regard to Cuba was planted. We know that Ziegler handed a piece of paper to one of the press corps coming in which told him, or asked him, to ask that question.

Answer: But the question that was asked did not, as far as I know, come from the person who was asked to ask it. It developed independently and on its own. In any event, that is irrelevant to the question of whether or not the situation was blown out of proportion. The outcome of all of this was an unfortunate spate of stories. The one that was put out by Tad Szulc of the NY Times saying that it was based on evidence that was ten months old was a straightforward lie.10 For our part, perhaps we made the mistake of bragging too much. However, from a diplomatic point of view the result is that the understandings are now clearly established. If a sub-base is established there, then there is clearly a violation.

An interesting question to ask is, if they were not doing anything, why was Castro so quiet? His silence is usually evidence that what we are alleging is true.

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The question then is whether or not the present situation is a threat to the security of the United States. The answer is no. But if they apply salami tactics and try to stretch the understanding, then their facilities may become a threat. There are all sorts of variations and ways in which they could try to stretch the understandings. But it is clear that the understandings themselves alone are not going to stop them. If they want to build a base, they will try to build a base whether or not we have an understanding with them. One should remember that Kennedy didn’t have an understanding with them in ’62. The question one must ask himself at this point is why do they do this if they really want to reduce tensions.

Question: Are you saying it is not a present threat but it may be a potential threat?

Answer: No; what State said that the President meant is true. Perhaps he simply wanted to give a short answer. On the other hand, if they do develop a full-scale sub-base it could increase their coverage by some 35%. If they don’t actually build a base they can horse around all they want. We don’t care. But we are determined to prevent establishment of a base. It is also very clear that there is no misunderstanding. They have said they understand, and they have not violated the understanding yet.

Question: What do you think actually happened within the Soviet leadership structure in July?

Answer: One can’t really say. It is interesting though that Dobrynin went home and my Deputy, Haig, told me that it must be that they don’t want to be reached. At the time I didn’t quite accept this, but it seems that it may have been true. There could have been a leadership crisis. They could also simply have wanted to tread water while preparing for the Party Conference. It could also be that each of the heads of the various departments was trying to gain a little more muscle for himself; each acting below the threshhold but with an accumulative effect that may result in a chain of events which is beyond their control. One should remember that the Politburo does not have any coordination below it, such as we have with our National Security Council. All the members of the Politburo read all the cables and it is very possible that at one time or another different factions of it are predominant, but that none is strong enough to control the whole.

Question: If the Soviets are in a suspicious or aggressive mood, do you think it is because the situation in Vietnam or NATO makes them feel squeezed?

Answer: It is unlikely that the situation in Vietnam or the recent bombing of North Vietnam has made them feel squeezed. In fact, our experience has been just the opposite. The time when they were most flexible and forthcoming was immediately following the Cambodian [Page 198] operation. What have we done which would lend support to the proposition that they feel we are trying to squeeze them? I really can’t say. Perhaps our decision to go unilateral on the Middle East—they could think that that was an attempt to squeeze them. But overall I would think that about 75% of the cause is on their side; perhaps 25% on ours. It is also true that they might feel that our actions in NATO are an attempt to squeeze them.

Question: Have you gone through all of your backgrounders of the summer and any other public statements which might lend credence to their feeling that we are trying to squeeze them?

Answer: No, it seems very unlikely other than what I have said.

Question: What are the upper limits on the ABM?

Answer: I can’t answer that. Of course this all depends on one’s assessment of the Soviets. One should realize, though, on the ABM that it will not be deployed—nothing will be deployed before ‘74 and that if they really want to stop it and have a zero or very limited ABM, we can have an agreement. We are not trying to provoke them.

Question: On the ABM, is it likely that there will be a large step vis-à-vis the Senate?

Answer: No, I would think this unlikely. The basic question here is whether or not you are more likely to get them to negotiate seriously and reach agreement by conceding your main bargaining chip ahead of time, or by keeping your main bargaining chip and using it as part of the negotiations.

Question: What is the general view of the Administration with regard to Cambodia now looking back?

Answer: There is no doubt that the Communists will mount a major attack on Cambodia as soon as they can. How well the Cambodians will be able to withstand the attack we do not know. They are not very well trained yet, but they have done much better than we expected. The whole Cambodian operation however was far more successful than we even anticipated. The fact that they were bringing in so many supplies through Sihanoukville—three times our highest estimate—has meant that they now have to reestablish their whole supply system. Furthermore, the North Vietnamese now know that they cannot knock over South Vietnam until they have gotten Cambodia and can get their supplies in through Cambodia. We estimate that they will launch a major effort in Cambodia this dry season. If they can knock over Cambodia this year then they can try for South Vietnam next year. If they do not knock over Cambodia this year then the pace of our disengagement and our withdrawals should continue without much difficulty.

Question: Are the Soviets now providing more supplies to North Vietnam?

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Answer: This is really not relevant to the question of negotiation. It is likely though that the more we destroy, the more they are in need of supplies and the more they are going to ask the Russians for.

Question: Are we risking the creation of a new credibility gap when we launch new bombing raids such as we did a couple of weeks ago?

Answer: When one does something again which has been done in the past and which has a certain association with it, they will always face the problem of association, but we have been scrupulous in trying to give out as much information as we can and which we consider consistent with the national interest.

Question: Are we forcing Cambodia into the arms of the North Vietnamese by allowing the South Vietnamese to run loose in there?

Answer: The only choice which we had was either to let Cambodia collapse or let the South Vietnamese help them. The fact is that the Cambodians asked the South Vietnamese to help them and, indeed, complained at one point that help was not coming soon enough. There are some abuses, but these are minor and I don’t think that we can say that the South Vietnamese are driving the Cambodians into the arms of the North Vietnamese.

Question: As a general observation, would you say that President Nixon is spending more time on domestic affairs this year than he did last?

Answer: By and large, this is true. His interests, however, have not changed. I believe that he is still very interested in foreign affairs, but he has changed the amount of time that he has been able to spend on domestic affairs vis-à-vis foreign affairs. In each case it takes more time to set the basic direction than it does to try to keep tabs on an operation. In the first year we spent more time trying to set our direction on foreign policy. And now we are trying to follow it and carry it out. More time is now being spent trying to set directions domestically and this by its very nature requires more effort and consumes more time.

On foreign policy, the only issue left with regard to Vietnam is how quickly we will get out, but whether or not it’s a little faster or a little slower than some people want is not an issue of first order magnitude. If one were objective and had access to all the information which we have, I do not believe that they would vary from what we calculate by more than plus or minus four months.

Question: Would you comment on the German Ostpolitik and on where Dean Acheson’s views fit in with those of the Administration?11

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Answer: There was no special significance to the fact that Acheson, Dewey, Clay and McCloy came in recently. The President has made a policy of from time to time meeting with them. And it just happened that their turn came up. McCloy’s views are well known on Europe and one would expect him to have certain views on Ostpolitik and their effect on NATO. The President’s job in this situation is to listen to their points of view and to other points of view. It does not mean necessarily that he agrees, but these are people that he respects and which he likes to hear from.

We are not opposed to Ostpolitik. We don’t want to interject the United States into German internal politics. We did not open the negotiations with the Russians, nor did we establish a linkage between the Ostpolitik and the Berlin negotiations. Quite frankly, we do not know why people are complaining that we are dragging our feet. There has actually been no concrete proposal as yet on which we could act. In general, I believe that the Berlin situation really can’t be improved very much. Historically, access to Berlin has become more difficult as East Germany has grown in sovereignty over the access routes. There are all sorts of administrative procedures which they could use against us. An ingenious bureaucracy can invent innumerable ways in which to harass access to Berlin. There is nothing in the treaty which could prevent this and it could even be legal.

The real improvement is going to depend on the relationship between East and West Germany. If each believes it is in its interest to have better relations and less friction with regard to Berlin, then there can be a meaningful treaty. One must admit that the Soviet attitude on Berlin has been quite puzzling, since they could get the Berlin situation settled by making a few concessions and this would force ratification of the Ostpolitik. No German politician is going to stand up and say he is against a rapprochement with the East Germans. I predict that when the Ostpolitik treaty is ratified it will be unanimous. Why then have the Soviets been so inflexible? One could say that perhaps the East Germans have more of a veto over their actions than we think. It could also be simply that the Soviets think they are going to get their way without giving any concessions, or it might be explained by a difficulty within the factions of the Soviet leadership which we discussed earlier.

Question: Do you think this Solzhenitsyn case12 recently has had any impact internationally?

Answer: No, I think it is too minor an incident.

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box CL 269, Memoranda of Conversation, 1968–77, Chronological File. Confidential. Graham was publisher of the Washington Post. According to Kissinger’s Record of Schedule, the meeting lasted until 2:55 p.m. (Ibid., Box 438, Miscellany, 1968–76)
  2. On July 13, TASS announced the postponement of the 24th Party Congress until March 1971; Brezhnev had insisted as recently as July 2 that the Congress would be held “this year.” (James F. Clarity, “Soviet Postpones Party’s Congress Until Next March,” New York Times, July 19, 1970, p. 1)
  3. The second round of SALT talks was held in Vienna from April to August 1970.
  4. In his statement released on December 16, Laird reported that there were “some preliminary indications” that the Soviet Union had recently started to curtail construction of its SS–9 ICBMs. (Michael Getler, “Soviets Slow ICBM Buildup,” Washington Post, December 17, 1970, p. A1)
  5. Reference is presumably to the “interim canal-agreement initiative” proposed by Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan in November 1970.
  6. Brackets are in the original.
  7. No statement from the Department of State qualifying the President’s answer on Cuba has been found.
  8. Kissinger answered several questions on Cuba during his “backgrounder” for the press on September 25. During the session, Kissinger read the following quotation from President Kennedy’s press conference on November 20, 1962: “As for our part, if all offensive weapons are removed from Cuba and kept out of the Hemisphere in the future, under adequate verification and safeguards, and if Cuba is not used for the export of aggressive Communist purposes, there will be peace in the Caribbean.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 490, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1970, Vol. 2)
  9. C.L. Sulzberger, “Ugly Clouds in the South,” New York Times, September 25, 1970, p. 43.
  10. Tad Szulc, “White House Charge on Cuba Puzzles U.S. Officials,” New York Times, September 30, 1970, p. 2.
  11. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XL, Germany and Berlin, 1969–1972, Documents 142 and 143.
  12. On October 8, the Nobel Academy announced that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would receive its 1970 prize for literature. Although he accepted the honor, Solzhenitsyn announced on November 27 that he would not ask for official permission to travel to Stockholm to receive the award.