74. Memorandum of Conversation1

  • PARTICIPANTS
    • Henry A. Kissinger and Ambassador Anatole Dobrynin

The lunch lasted about three and a half hours and took place in an extremely cordial atmosphere. During the course of the luncheon the discussion covered the general state of U.S.-Soviet relations as well as a number of specific topics including the Middle East, Vietnam, SALT and Cuba.

Khrushchev’s Memoirs.2 I began the conversation by asking Dobrynin on a personal level what he thought of the Khrushchev Memoirs. Were they authentic? He replied, “It depends on what one means by authenticity.” It is clear that Khrushchev never wrote anything in his life. He remembered when Khrushchev was First Party Secretary that he would call in Dobrynin who was then head of the American section and start saying, “Now, please write the following letter to Mr. President. Dear Mr. President:” And then he would start pacing up and down the room and talk as if he were confronting the President personally oblivious to anyone else in the room.

This procedure finally reached the point where Dobrynin always brought a secretary along and put her into a corner to take things down. So it was clear that Khrushchev had not written the Memoirs. On the other hand, it was also probable that they were dictated in some form and were therefore quite authentic. He thought that either Khrushchev had dictated some of it or, alternatively, some Westerners whom Khrushchev had permitted to call on him had brought tape recorders in their pockets and got the Memoirs on that basis.

I asked him about Kennan’s3 theory that the KGB may have put these out in order to prevent more damaging Memoirs from appearing. [Page 227]Dobrynin said this struck him as absurd. The KGB would not operate independently. It would have to be the Politburo and the Politburo would have no interest in doing a thing like this.

I then asked Dobrynin about an aspect of the section in the Memoirs where Dobrynin, during the Cuban missile crisis, is reported to have quoted Robert Kennedy as saying that there was danger of a military coup in the United States.4 Dobrynin said we had to remember, first, that whenever Khrushchev made these observations was long after the event and that he would not have had the reports in front of him. Secondly, I could be certain that when Dobrynin reported a conversation with a very senior official such as the brother of the President, the report would be an exact quotation.5 What Khrushchev would do with it in reporting to the Politburo was less certain, and what Khrushchev would remember was even less certain. It was a fact Kennedy had said to him that if things continued much longer, the military dominance would become so great that there would be no choice except to invade Cuba. But he obviously never said anything about a coup.

Ivanov. I then turned the conversation to Ivanov, and commented that the procedures to release Ivanov would start early in January and that the Secretary of State would call him in within the next few days to inform him of that fact.

Summit: I then raised the Semenov conversation with Smith in which Semenov allegedly remarked that this would be a hot, political summer, and that SALT would have to mark time while the principals were negotiating.6 I wanted Dobrynin to understand that Smith did not know about our Summit discussions and that I really had to be sure Soviet diplomats would not speak to other Americans about the content of our conversations. Dobrynin replied that he had read Semenov’s reporting cable and it contained no such references. He wondered whether Smith might have made it up. I said it seemed unlikely [Page 228]since it was too circumstantial. But whether or not it happened exactly as reported by either side, special care should be taken that our channel would not be played back into any American net.

Cuba. I then mentioned to him that I had just spent 15 minutes with the President and that the thrust of the conversation had been on Cuba.7 I wanted Dobrynin to understand that to a feeling of general concern which we had already expressed, there was now added a growing personal irritation. I did not want to go through the whole exercise again, but I wanted him to understand our position exactly. If nuclear submarines were being serviced in or from Cuban ports, it would lead to the most grave situation between the United States and the Soviet Union. If, on the other hand, nuclear submarines were not to be serviced in or from Cuban ports, then constant needling with the submarine tender and other ships could only complicate our relations without leading to anything very productive.

I further stated that I understood the port visits were going to conclude on December 23rd and that we would watch matters attentively. Dobrynin responded, “Well, we will see … Why don’t you wait till the 23rd and then we can talk again.”

I then made a little speech to Dobrynin on worsening U.S.-Soviet relations and where we should go from here along the following lines:

Worsening U.S.-Soviet Relations8

  • —We both know that relations between our two countries have worsened in the past couple of months.
  • —We seemed to be making some progress earlier this year, but since the summer a series of incidents has served to cloud our relationship.
  • —I can assure you that the President continues to seek better relations and concrete results—negotiation instead of confrontation is no idle phrase. Perhaps in some cases, we have failed to communicate.9
  • —I am willing to grant that from your perspective you might mis-read certain moves; e.g.
    • • The timing of our restriction on attendance at Soviet National Day receptions in relation to your release of our generals.10
    • • The holding of a Soviet ship in the Panama Canal.11
    • • The refusal of entry into Boston Harbor of a Soviet oceano-graphic vessel.12
    • • Secretary Rogers’ attempt to bargain an exchange in the Ivanov case.13
  • —We had a good reason for our actions in most of these cases; in a few, faulty coordination may have been the problem. But I recognize that your version of some incidents could lead you to misinterpretations of our motives.
  • —On the other hand I must state emphatically that your government has pursued some policies that we just cannot reconcile with a building of constructive relations.
  • —To name only the more serious.
    • • The continued flaunting of at least the spirit of our understandings on Cienfuegos despite our conversations and the explosiveness of this issue.
    • • Your moves in the Middle East, in particular the ceasefire violations.
    • • The harassment of Berlin corridors while negotiations are going on.14
    • • Your failure to observe the provisions of the U.S.-Soviet Consular Convention,15 and in particular your dragging out of the case of the generals.
  • —I do not cite these today to get into a debate. I only wish to give you examples of actions which from our perspective have unfortunate motives and threaten seriously to damage our relationship.
  • —You probably believe that these actions are justifiable. Perhaps some are subject to clarification.
  • —The basic point is that distrust has begun to set in on both sides and a dangerous momentum and interaction seem to be occurring.
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Where Do We Go From There

  • —We are at a crossroads in our bilateral relationship. We have the choice between letting this chain of events continue and making a fundamental attempt to set a new course.
  • —Unless we make a mutual and sustained effort to reverse recent trends, the pinpricks in our relations could continue and feed on each other. We could slide into a serious deterioration.
  • —Such a deterioration would mean not only that we would lose the benefit of possible agreements and understandings. It could also mean that suspicion between us could grow to the point that a minor incident could develop into a major one because of a failure in communication.
  • —The President has asked me to reaffirm to you his desire to improve our relations. His October UN speech16 purposely emphasized this subject and spelled out his views—e.g., we have serious differences that atmospherics can’t remove; we also have overriding common interests which require that we forego tactical maneuvering for immediate gains, etc.
  • —Let us make an effort to begin shaping more constructive bilateral relations.
  • —Frankly this will require a serious attempt by your leadership to refrain from making moves that appear provocative to us.
  • —We, in turn, will try to avoid actions that could contribute to misunderstanding.
  • —I suggest we both agree to use this channel whenever we see problems developing in our relations. We will, of course, continue to have basic policy differences. But frank exchanges between us can help to remove imagined differences based on misunderstanding as well as to make progress on the real issues.

Soviet View of USUSSR Relations

The Middle East. Dobrynin responded with a very lengthy exposition on Soviet-American relations. The gist of his remarks was as follows: Dobrynin said that when the Administration came in there was the profoundest suspicion of the President. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union had attempted to establish normal relations. After about six to nine months, the idea had grown that perhaps responsibility in office had made the President more conciliatory and an attempt was made to enter serious negotiations. However, there were a whole host of issues that in the Soviet Union had created the worst possible impression.

Outstanding among those issues was the Middle East. The Soviet Union had engaged in months of negotiations with Sisco which on our [Page 231]side concentrated in effect on legalistic quibbling and never seemed to come to any particular point. Finally, the Soviet Union accepted two major American proposals early in June.17 He could assure me that it was done with the greatest difficulty—that Nasser did not want to go along with it, and that there were many in the Politburo who were of the view that the tactic was entirely wrong. Nevertheless, the two propositions were made.18

Dobrynin continued that up to this time, the Soviet Union has not received a reply to these two propositions. Sisco and Rogers point out periodically that there will be a reply, but there has never been a formal reply. Indeed, no sooner had these proposals been made than the United States decided to go unilateral. Now, this had to create the impression in Moscow that the United States was trying to push Moscow out of the Middle East, and it stood to reason that Moscow could not look at this favorably. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union had looked at the Rogers plan19 as an essentially procedural scheme and therefore had endorsed the ceasefire. He could assure me that Nasser was enormously reluctant but the Soviet Union had insisted on it.

Dobrynin then repeated his well-known argument that the Soviet Union was not part of the ceasefire agreement. It had only been notified of the conditions afterwards. It could hardly be accused of violating an agreement that it did not negotiate and the contents of which were unknown to it when made. Dobrynin said he spent August in a dacha area near Moscow where the major Soviet leaders have houses. When the first claims of violation arrived there, no one believed them, and no one believed that the United States could be serious. He wanted to give me his word, whether I believed it or not, that the violations had not been ordered from Moscow but involved the execution of plans that had been made largely by the military. The Soviet leaders therefore thought that we were deliberately provoking them and starting a deliberate press campaign. Even today, the Soviet Union has not had a reply to its June proposal in the face of a clear hint to the President by Gromyko.

[Page 232]

What Dobrynin wanted to know was whether we were prepared to settle the Middle East and, if we were, was there anything that I could tell him that the people in Moscow could use in their current negotiations with the Egyptians. I had to recognize that this was an extremely difficult matter for them. They were constantly being pressed to supply offensive weapons which they so far had refused. What exactly did we visualize would happen after the Jarring talks started? Would we be prepared to give joint recommendations to Jarring. These and similar questions required an answer. They would affect U.S.-Soviet relations for the future.

SALT. Dobrynin then turned to SALT. He said there, too, the Soviet Union had made an offer on ABM, and the impression had been created not only that it was unacceptable but that direct White House intervention stopped it. For example, when Gerry Smith turned down the offer he said he had just talked to Kissinger and had received personal instructions from Kissinger not to proceed with an ABM limitation alone, leaving the impression that he personally might be quite willing to proceed.

Other Irritants. Dobrynin then mentioned the Soviet irritation at a number of other things; for example, the refusal of American personnel to attend the National Holiday which was a very emotional matter, and then the treatment of the defecting incident of the Soviet sailor. He said he could not understand the American performance. If we had given asylum to the Soviet sailor, he would have had to make a protest, and the matter would have been forgotten within 24 hours.20 But, first, to return him to the Soviet ship, and then to announce daily how profoundly concerned the President was had filled Moscow with outrage. For all these reasons, there was now profound distrust in the Soviet Union.

After Dobrynin ended his presentation, I told him that without wanting to argue details, it was important for Moscow to understand how certain things appeared in Washington. For example, Dobrynin had told me for months that he wanted the White House to play a more active role in our Middle East negotiations. The fact of the matter was, however, that when we did so, we confronted a very ambiguous situation. If the negotiations which he and I had started in March had borne fruit, we could perhaps have made progress. Dobrynin remembered that he had offered a ceasefire in Egypt in March. I had used our influence with the Israelis to get them to agree to a ceasefire. We had even delayed the delivery of airplanes. It therefore seemed to us that that would have been the right moment for a ceasefire without any of the difficulties that later arose. However, in the precise week that the ceasefire was agreed upon, indeed on the day when I wanted to inform [Page 233]him of it, Soviet SA–3 missiles appeared in Egypt, together with Soviet personnel. Therefore, the arrangement failed.

Similarly, during the Middle East crisis in September the Soviet role was ambiguous. No one in Washington thought that the Soviets started it, but at the same time no pressure was put on Syria until it was nearly too late. I wanted Dobrynin to reflect on what would have happened if the Syrians had been more effective and had broken through; whether this would not have brought the world to the edge of war. Equally on Berlin, I did not know a single proposal that we had held up, and the constant accusations that we did so could only produce irritation.

Dobrynin replied that in March the SA–3 deliveries were made by the Defense Ministry and were handled in a completely different channel from the ceasefire proposal. I might not believe that, but he wanted to assure me that this was true. I said that either explanation was worrisome; the explanation that the Soviet Union is not in control of its government, or the explanation that the Soviet leaders are deliberately deceiving us.

Dobrynin then said that with respect to Berlin, he was only repeating what our allies told him. Both the French and the Germans constantly told the Soviet Ambassadors that the United States was holding up progress. He admitted that the British were in a different category, but then the British are almost a sub-organ of the U.S. State Department.

I then commented that we had tried to show great restraint during the Polish affair of last week,21 and that perhaps this might be an example of the restraint which they should exercise. He called my attention to a very tough speech by Frank Shakespeare and also to the fact that the Voice of America had more than quintupled its broadcasting into Poland. He said he knew there was a quarrel between Shakespeare and Rogers,22 but it was hard to convince people in Moscow that these decisions were made in such a haphazard way.

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Areas For Further Discussion

The main problem, Dobrynin said, was to get beyond the immediate irritations. He wanted to assure me that there was great eagerness in Moscow to come to an understanding with the United States. Why couldn’t we break out of the various impasses? Why couldn’t we make progress somewhere? For example, why didn’t we start talking on something on the Middle East? Could I not go through the record of negotiations and see whether there was anything at all that he and I could talk about? Why not take an issue which even Israel said it wanted such as guarantees?

The same principles applied to SALT. I had to understand that any agreement would be a major political step and that once the principle had been decided to have a limited agreement, one could go on to more comprehensive issues. This would enable the Politburo to give clear instructions to technical staffs.

The same was true of Berlin. The Soviet Union thought it had made a major concession on December 10th by speaking of preferential, uninterrupted access. On the other hand, the American Ambassador seemed totally unprepared and had to ask for a recess twice. And when Abrasimov wanted to continue the meeting, he said he had personal business. This was unheard of in the Soviet Union. Soviet Ambassadors have the idea that they’re serving their government—not that private business has precedence. I told Dobrynin that there was no sense in continuing an exchange of recriminations—that we should concentrate on the future. Dobrynin said he agreed and he recognized that this might be the last moment where we could have fruitful discussions.

Middle East. I said that, as far as the Middle East was concerned, I could assure him that the President knew that there was no settlement possible except that excluded the Soviet Union. We had always recognized that a settlement in the Middle East had to get the cooperation of the Soviet Union and we would, therefore, be prepared to discuss it with them. However, I would have to find out from the President whether I should participate in any of these discussions, or whether they should be handled at the Sisco level. Dobrynin said it would be best if he and I had some discussions and then shifted the technical points to the Sisco level.

SALT. On SALT, he said if we didn’t like their proposal, maybe I could offer some compromise; but the major concern was to have some progress. Then, the Summit meeting in September would make real sense. I pointed out that it was essential, however, that we keep our channels straight. I had to tell him in all candor that when we proposed a Summit meeting in the summer23 and then never received an [Page 235]answer for six weeks, that this made an extremely painful impression in Washington. Dobrynin commented that this was based on a misunderstanding and that they had never grasped we had made a concrete proposal. (This remark, of course, was patently absurd because when he came back from the Soviet Union, he gave an answer to the concrete proposal.)24

Vietnam. Finally Dobrynin turned to Vietnam. He said he had always criticized me for the linkage theory, but he was beginning to think that there was something to it. He then read me the attached statement on Vietnam, which he said was in response to the President’s Press Conference.25 The statement which was very conciliatory in tone read as follows:

The events of the last few weeks in the area of Indochina as well as some statements by US leaders can hardly be viewed other than as an evidence that the Nixon Administration is going back on the course it earlier proclaimed, for a settlement of the Vietnam problem by political means. To embark on the path leading to a new expansion of military actions in Indochina means to ignore the entire record of that war as well as to throw far behind the attainment of a settlement in Vietnam.

Negotiations alone, searching for mutually acceptable solutions on the basis of respect for lawful rights of the people of that country are, in the profound conviction of the Soviet leaders, the only thing that can put an end to the conflict in Vietnam. We have reasons to believe that similar views are shared also by our Vietnamese friends. But no progress whatsoever in the negotiations may be counted upon when one side is trying to impose on the other participants its will with the help of military ultimatums.

Clear also is the fact that such course of actions by the US, violation by them of the assumed obligations, in this case—with regard to stopping the bombings and other military actions against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam—can in no way facilitate trust in international relations. Quite the contrary, in view of the idea repeatedly expressed by US officials about a global linkage of problems, it is hard to avoid asking oneself the following question: if the US are leading the way toward complication in the area of Indochina does it not mean that for some reasons they want an aggravation of the international situation as a whole.

The Soviet Government is of the view that the efforts of our countries should be aimed at peaceful solution of disputes and removal of sources of international tension. Our relations cannot but be affected by whether there is progress in peaceful settlement of existing conflicts or this cause is going backward. The Soviet Union will not remain indifferent to whatever attempts are made to implement the threats against the fraternal Socialist country.

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I replied that, first, in the recent communication from Moscow after the bombing of North Vietnam,26 there seemed to be a misunderstanding about what the President had told Gromyko. The President had not said that he would not let Vietnam interfere with Soviet/American relations. The President had clearly pointed out that if the North Vietnamese continued to press military actions, we would have no choice except to react very strongly, and he hoped that, in that case, the Soviet Union would recognize that the action was not directed against it.27

Dobrynin then commented that the Soviet Government hoped we understood the limits of their influence in Hanoi, given the whole combination of circumstances. I said the tragedy was that there was no possibility for military victory anymore by North Vietnam—that if the war went on another two or three years, the outcome would still be essentially the same as it is now. If the Soviet Union wanted to use its influence for negotiations, now was the time. This was the best way to prevent a deterioration of US/Soviet relationships. I would have to tell him, without a threat but in all fairness, that we would simply not sit by while the North Vietnamese were building up for an offensive. On the other hand, the second paragraph of his statement seemed to me perfectly appropriate, and we could agree to it completely as a statement of our principles.

Dobrynin then asked me whether we would agree to a coalition government. I replied that North Vietnam had not asked for a coalition government. It had asked for a government in which they nominated a third, and vetoed the other two-thirds. Dobrynin asked me whether we would accept a coalition government in which we could nominate a third and the other side could nominate a third. I said it seemed to me that the issue was wrongly approached in this manner. We had made clear that we were prepared to accept the solution that reflected the real balance of forces, and we had made some proposals along this line. We would certainly listen to counterproposals, but they had to be realistic and not be a subterfuge for a Communist take-over. If the Soviet Union would be prepared to enter the negotiating process seriously, I could promise them that (1) we would not embarrass them, and (2) that we would make serious replies to serious proposals.

Dobrynin concluded with an eloquent speech on the need to make some progress in our bilateral channel. He said he was ready to meet as frequently as possible. It would be very helpful if I could give him some indication of our general thinking on the Middle East as quickly [Page 237]as possible. He reiterated that we should review the negotiating positions of both sides, and he invited me to dinner on some evening the week of my return from California, though he said he would be prepared to meet earlier.

We finally settled on January 7th for dinner at the Soviet Embassy and agreed that we would both review our negotiating positions on Berlin, the Middle East and SALT, and see whether there were any points in which we might usefully make progress.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 490, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1970, Vol. 3. Top Secret; Sensitive. The meeting was held in the Map Room at the White House. According to Kissinger’s Record of Schedule, it lasted from 1:19 to 4:05 p.m. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 438, Miscellany, 1968–76) Kissinger forwarded this memorandum and another summarizing its highlights to Nixon; a note on the summary reads: “the President has seen.”
  2. On November 6, Time Inc. announced that its subsidiaries—Life magazine and Little, Brown—would start publishing Khrushchev’s memoirs in serial form at the end of the month and in book form in December. (Lawrence Van Gelder, “Time Inc. Says It Is Publishing Reminiscences by Khrushchev,” New York Times, November 7, 1970, p. 1)
  3. George F. Kennan, former Ambassador to the Soviet Union.
  4. See Khrushchev, Khrushchev Remembers, pp. 551–552.
  5. According to Dobrynin’s reporting telegram, Robert Kennedy told him on October 27, 1962: “We want to avoid that [a “real war”] any way we can. I’m sure that the government of the USSR has the same wish. However, taking time to find a way out [of the situation] is very risky (here R. Kennedy mentioned as if in passing that there are many unreasonable heads among the generals, and not only among the generals, who are ‘itching for a fight’). The situation might get out of control, with irreversible consequences.” For the full English text, see Richard Ned Lebow and Janice Gross Stein, We All Lost the Cold War, pp. 523–526. For Robert Kennedy’s memorandum of the conversation, which does not mention how American generals might react, see Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, volume XI, Cuban Missile Crisis and Aftermath, Document 96.
  6. Smith reported on this conversation with Semenov in a backchannel message to Kissinger on December 16. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 427, Backchannel Files, SALT, 1971)
  7. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Nixon and Kissinger met in the Oval Office from 12:52 to 1:10 p.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files) No record of their conversation has been found.
  8. The following sections on “Worsening U.S.-Soviet Relations” and “Where Do We Go From Here” are taken nearly verbatim from the talking points Lord prepared for Kissinger on December 21. (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 490, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1970, Vol. 3) One substantive change is noted below.
  9. The first sentence of this paragraph in the talking points, which Kissinger deleted from the memorandum of conversation, reads as follows: “I won’t pretend that an objective observer would state that this deterioration is entirely the fault of the Soviet Union.”
  10. See Document 37.
  11. See footnote 4, Document 58.
  12. See Document 58.
  13. See Document 33.
  14. See footnote 2, Document 55.
  15. See Document 51.
  16. See Document 28.
  17. See footnote 6, Document 23.
  18. These two propositions modified or extended two formulations in a Soviet paper of June 17, 1969. The first point advanced the time when peace would become effective, accepting that a state of peace would begin at the same time as completion of the first stage of withdrawal of Israeli troops. The second formulation conceded Arab responsibility for control of the fedayeen, by accepting that the parties would agree to undertake everything necessary so that any hostile or military acts with the presence or use of force against the other side will not originate from and not be committed from within their respective territories.” [Footnote is in the original. The Soviet paper is scheduled for publication in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXIII, Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1969–1972.]
  19. See footnote 4, Document 31.
  20. On Kissinger’s memorandum summarizing the conversation, Nixon underlined the corresponding sentence and wrote in the margin: “note—I agree.”
  21. See Document 67 and footnote 2 thereto.
  22. According to press reports, Rogers and Shakespeare disagreed on the proper tone of the administration’s policy toward the Soviet Union. Rogers, who favored a more diplomatic approach, reminded Shakespeare in September that by law the Department of State provided the United States Information Agency with formal policy guidance. (“Rogers Warns USIA Chief Not To Set Foreign Policy,” Washington Post, October 19, 1970, p. A1; and Tad Szulc, “Tough U.S.I.A. Line Drew a Complaint from Rogers,” New York Times, October 25, 1970, p. 3) Shakespeare met Nixon on November 25 to present his side of the story. According to Haldeman: “Following Shakespeare’s presentation, the President assured him that the USIA position was very much along the correct lines, and that Shakespeare had the President’s full support—that he should not seek or engage in a direct confrontation with State, but should continue to work as skillfully as he has in the past.” (Memorandum for the President’s File by Haldeman; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, Staff Member and Office Files, President’s Office Files, Box 83, Memoranda for the President, Beginning November 22, 1970)
  23. On August 24. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XII, Soviet Union, January 1969–October 1970, Document 198.
  24. On September 25. See Document 6.
  25. See Document 59.
  26. See Document 54.
  27. See Document 23.