70. Editorial Note

On December 20, 1970, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger instructed William Hyland of the National Security Council staff to provide a “preliminary assessment” for President Richard Nixon on the situation in Poland, including the implications of the crisis for the Soviet Union. Kissinger and Hyland discussed the memorandum by telephone that afternoon:

“K: Okay, now look here’s what I want you to do in this memo for the President. First, explain briefly what it does in internal politics. Secondly, what it means in bloc politics, you know greater voice for the East Germans—

“H: Right, right.

“K: … and thirdly, what it does in East-West politics.

“H: Yeah, okay.

“K: Now, do you agree with my assessment, which incidentally I just was playing the devil’s advocate, I agree with you.

“H: Oh. (laughter)

“K: I mean I can’t judge the domestic politics but I agree with you on the other—on the Ostpolitik.

“H: Well, Ulbricht is going to—this is a windfall for Ulbricht—he is going to blame a great deal of it on Ostpolitik and …

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“K: I agree with this. Now, the next thing I wonder is this, I think the Russians may decide is either to toughen up their line generally slightly towards the whole West or they may decide that they need some détente with the West and it is safer to do it with us than with the Germans.

“H: Yeah, I think the latter is more likely.

“K: Do you agree with that?

“H: Yeah, I think they will have to cool it with the Germans and end it up with us.

“K: You think that’s right.

“H: That would be my guess, yeah.

“K: Okay, will you put that in the memo.

“H: Yeah, yeah, we can put it in.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Henry Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts, Box 29, Home File)

During a subsequent telephone call, the two men reviewed the text of the draft memorandum, and Kissinger urged Hyland to prepare the final version for delivery to the President before 8 p.m. (Ibid.)

Nixon was in his private study in the Executive Office Building that evening when he received the unsigned memorandum from Kissinger. (President’s Daily Diary; ibid., White House Central Files) After reviewing the “facts” and “domestic implications” of recent events, the memorandum assessed the impact of the crisis on Polish-Soviet relations. “To what extent Moscow was consulted on the leadership change is not clear. It appears the changes were made too rapidly for the Soviets to be directly involved.” The new leadership in Warsaw, however, had already declared that cooperation with Moscow was a “fundamental” requirement for Polish security. The memorandum then addressed how developments in Poland might affect détente in Europe, including relations between the Soviet Union and West Germany:

“The change of leaders may lead to a slow down in the pace [of] normalization between Poland and West Germany. Gomulka had been heavily identified with the rapprochement with Bonn and the recent treaty. If only because of the tense internal situation, the new regime is not likely to make new moves in foreign policy. Gierek in his speech mentioned normalization with Bonn but perfunctorily. Moreover, the East German leadership will probably be able to claim that Gomulka’s foreign policy contributed to instability in Poland. Ulbricht immediately congratulated Gierek, suggesting he is satisfied with Gomulka’s removal.

“As for Soviet foreign policy, the Soviet leaders may also be inclined to believe that Ostpolitik has an unsettling effect on Eastern Europe. For example, they may believe that the treaty with Germany led [Page 217] Gomulka to conclude he could press unpopular price increases on the population. Thus, Moscow may also want a pause in its relations with Bonn. One casualty of the Polish events could be the Berlin negotiations, where the Soviets may not wish to press the East Germans for concessions—thus compounding instability in Central Europe.

“At the same time, with this détente with Bonn at least temporarily slowed down, the Soviet leaders, if they choose to maintain some prospect of détente, may be inclined to show some improvement in their relations with us.” (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 698, Country Files, Europe, Poland, 1969–1971)

The full text of the memorandum is printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXIX, Eastern Europe; Eastern Mediterranean, 1969–1972, Document 145.

Kissinger later described the denouement in his memoirs: “After submitting my memorandum, I had several extensive conversations with the President on the situation. I told him that the moment had come to test the channel between Dobrynin and me. I conjectured that the Soviets might be ready to break the deadlock on a number of negotiations; of these SALT and Berlin were especially important, for SALT would influence our defense budget and Berlin would test Allied cohesion.” (Kissinger, White House Years, page 798)