81. Editorial Note
On January 1, 1971, President Richard Nixon went to Camp David to prepare for an upcoming televised “conversation” at the White House. (President’s Daily Diary; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files) In a meeting there with White House Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman the next afternoon, Nixon reviewed his “general homework,” including plans to explore the political utility of his foreign policy. As Haldeman recorded in his diary that day: “He made one interesting point, which is the need to get to work on our foreign policy PR because this is our strongest point, and especially since the death of de Gaulle, we have a real opportunity to build the P as the world leader. Muskie and all the rest of them will try to move in on this field, but we must continue to dominate.” According to Haldeman, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Henry Kissinger, who remained in San Clemente to prepare the President’s annual report on foreign policy, was “very worried” about the “defection” of his former staff member, Anthony Lake, who had recently accepted the position as foreign policy adviser to Senator Edmund Muskie, the leading Democratic candidate for President. “The P had to give Henry a big pitch,” Haldeman wrote on January 3, “trying to make the point that these people are just seeking power and that there’s no reason to be disturbed about that kind of thing, it’s too late to worry about it after it’s happened.” (Haldeman, Haldeman Diaries, pages 229–230)
The President, meanwhile, carefully studied an “index” on foreign policy that Kissinger and his staff had prepared for the televised “conversation.” Nixon underlined a number of passages on SALT, Cuba, the Middle East, and Germany; he also collected his thoughts on these issues in the margin. On relations with the Soviet Union, Nixon wrote: “We don’t like Mideast, Caribbean—they don’t like V[iet] Nam.” On the issue of Soviet naval presence near Cuba, he noted: “Servicing Nuclear subs in or from Cuban ports is not consistent with understanding.” And on the possibility of a settlement in the Middle East, he wrote: “U.S. & Soviet are key. Both must cooperate.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 377, Subject Files, President’s TV Interview, 4 January 1971)
On January 3, the President prepared a set of handwritten notes for his television appearance. Although he supported “reducing tensions” over Berlin and ending the American “combat role” in Vietnam, [Page 246] Nixon observed that the United States could not “guarantee peace all over world” and that a “U.S.-Soviet guarantee” in the Middle East was “not realistic.” (Ibid., President’s Personal Files, Box 63, President’s Speech File, January 4, 1971, Conversation with the President) Nixon also drafted a separate set of notes, which included the following sections on Soviet-American relations:
“1. It is a period of negotiation not confrontation.
- “• We have differences about S.E. Asia, Mideast, Europe, Arms Control, Caribbean—
- “• But we discuss the differences—trying to find agreement—to avoid ultimatums, rhetoric—
- “• We are moved by cost of arms—danger of war—possibilities of trade—
- “1. The talks are essential because our vital interests are involved—
- “2. We have offered a comprehensive agreement—
- “• The definition of strategic weapons—disagree—
- “3. We now explore a limited agreement—
- “4. It will take time—I’m still optimistic about eventual settlement because alternative of arms race, nuclear destruction is unacceptable to both sides.”
- “1. Cease fire 5 months—
- “2. Talks begin—
- “3. We will help maintain balance—guarantee the peace, responsible assistance.
- “4. U.S. & Soviet must cooperate if peace.” (Ibid.)
The hour-long “Conversation with the President”—which was conducted by a panel that included John Chancellor (NBC), Eric Sevareid (CBS), Nancy H. Dickerson (PBS), and Howard K. Smith (ABC)—began in the Library at the White House at 9 p.m. on January 4. Dickerson asked the President whether, contrary to his hopes for an “era of negotiation,” Soviet-American relations had recently “returned to something of a cold war situation.” After expressing concern about developments in the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Berlin, Nixon emphasized the “plus side” of the ledger:
“Over the past 2 years the United States and the Soviet Union have been negotiating. We have been negotiating, for example, on arms control. Those negotiations will begin in Helsinki [Vienna] in March. I am [Page 247] optimistic that we will reach an agreement eventually. I do not suggest now that we are going to have a comprehensive agreement, because there is a basic disagreement with regard to what strategic weapons—what that definition is.
“But we are now willing to move to a noncomprehensive agreement. We are going to be able to discuss that with the Soviets in the next round at Helsinki [Vienna]. I am not predicting that we are going to have an agreement next month or 2 months from now or 3 months from now. But in terms of arms control, we have some overwhelming forces that are going to bring about an agreement eventually, and it is simply this: The Soviet Union and the United States have a common interest in avoiding the escalating burden of arms—you know that they have even cut down on their SS–9 and big missile deployment lately, development—and, second, the Soviet Union and the United States have an overwhelming common interest in avoiding nuclear competition which could lead to nuclear destruction.
“So, in this field, I think we are going to make some progress. In the Mideast it is true we are far apart, but we are having discussions. On Berlin we are far apart, but we are negotiating. And finally, with regard to the rhetoric—and the rhetoric in international affairs does make a difference—the rhetoric, while it has been firm, has generally been non-inflammatory on our part and on theirs.
“So, I am not without the confidence that I had at the beginning. I always realized that our differences were very great, that it was going to take time. But the United States and the Soviet Union owe it to their own people and the people of the world, as super powers, to negotiate rather than to confront.”
When Dickerson wondered whether, given his interest in “personal diplomacy,” it would be a “good time” for a summit, Nixon replied: “If it appears at some time that a meeting of that type would be what is needed to bring about the final consummation in one of these areas, for example the SALT talks or the Mideast or the rest, we will certainly have such a meeting. But unless there is the chance for progress, a summit talk is not in their interest and it is not in our interest, and not in the interest of world peace.”
Smith raised the question of Soviet “adventurism” in the Middle East, where local conflict could escalate into global confrontation. The President maintained that the “key to peace” was held not only in the region but also elsewhere:
“If the Soviet Union does not play a conciliatory peacemaking role, there is no chance for peace in the Mideast. Because if the Soviet Union continues to fuel the war arsenals of Israel’s neighbors, Israel will have no choice but to come to the United States for us to maintain the balance to which Mr. Sevareid referred. And we will maintain that balance.[Page 248]
“That is why it is important at this time that the Soviet Union and the United States as well as Britain and France all join together in a process of not having additional arms and additional activities go into that area, because that will only mean that it produces the possibility of future confrontation.”
Chancellor then asked how the United States would react if the Soviet Union introduced a submarine missile base in Cuba. Nixon took the opportunity to clarify his position:
“I can tell you everything that our intelligence tells us, and we think it is very good in that area, because, as you know, we have surveillance from the air, which in this case is foolproof, we believe.
“First, let us look at what the understanding is. President Kennedy worked out that understanding in 1962 that the Russians would not put any offensive missiles into Cuba. That understanding was expanded on October 11th of this year by the Russians when they said that it would include a military base in Cuba, and a military naval base. They, in effect, said that they would not put a military naval base into Cuba, on October 11th.
“Now, in the event that nuclear submarines were serviced either in Cuba or from Cuba, that would be a violation of the understanding. That has not happened yet. We are watching the situation closely.
“The Soviet Union is aware of the fact that we are watching it closely. We expect them to abide by the understanding. I believe they will.” (Public Papers: Nixon, 1971, pages 6–23)
The next morning, Kissinger received the “objective” views of observers outside the White House. Chalmers Roberts of the Washington Post called at 9:15 a.m. to discuss the President’s broadcast:
“R: Henry, in his conversation last night the President was talking about SALT and he used the term non-comprehensive agreement. Since he is using it I was wondering if there was some new move here.
“K: No. According to our definition the 1st two were comprehensive but the one now is not.
“R: Those were the ones including the MIRV? “K: Yes.”
Kissinger further assured Roberts that “non-comprehensive” did not refer to an “ABM-only” agreement. Roberts also raised the Soviet-American “understanding” on Cuba.
“R: What other foreign policy matters were brought to the fore last night by the President?
“K: You tell me. “R: The Cuban thing. He said it on the record that servicing subs was a violation of the agreement.[Page 249]
“K: He said in and from Cuban ports.
“R: The form was a little more direct.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Henry Kissinger Telephone Conversation Transcripts, Box 8, Chronological File)
As soon as Roberts hung up, Rowland Evans, a syndicated columnist, called Kissinger to discuss Nixon’s televised “conversation,” including his comments on the Middle East:
“E: I thought he moved toward center with the Soviet Union. His tone was not bellicose and …
“K: Is that bad?
“E: The emphasis on the positive rather than the negative. We don’t have our problems solved but we are willing to negotiate and talk. It was positive from the way the President worded it.
“K: That was intentional.
“E: He spoke of non-comprehensive agreement.
“K: That was terminological. Our first two proposals were comprehensive …
“E: I believe we will be talking to the Russians within 3–4 weeks on the Middle East.
“K: It may take a little longer.” (Ibid.)
Nixon called Kissinger that afternoon to listen to reviews of his performance. The two men agreed that the reaction, public and private, was positive:
“K: Henry Brandon said it was a spectacular performance and that you are better at it than Kennedy, more articulate and more disciplined.
“P: Really? That’s like talking against Christ.
“K: He said why don’t you do it more often? I told him you do it so well because you spend days preparing for it and don’t take these things lightly.
“P: That for him is a tremendous acknowledgement.
“K: And Chalmers Roberts wanted clarification on SALT so he called me, but he was extremely complimentary.
“P: I thought I was quite clear on SALT.
“K: No, it’s the non-comprehensive …
“P: That we are ready to move from that to limited?
“K: Yes, but we haven’t said it before: now we have to avoid Gerry Smith running wild with it. But I said it was against accidental war and he was satisfied with that. He thought you were precise with the right combination of conciliatoriness and firmness with the Soviets. Altogether it was a great plus. And Rowland Evans called me and he felt the same way. They may never write this …
“P: I don’t care about that.[Page 250]
“K: He wants to know what it means about the Middle East. I said generally the President’s words were self-explanatory.
“P: But you can always elaborate a little.”
Nixon thought his televised “conversation” had achieved at least one objective: “for the next two or three months you’re not going to hear people crying about why don’t you have a press conference?” Kissinger, however, urged him to take the initiative, first with his State of the Union address, and then with his second annual foreign policy report:
“K: That will be ready by February 15, so that is going to be a strong month, and then these other things planned for April. And by that time … I am seeing Dobrynin soon. We can get a good feeling for what’s obtainable. I’ll see him this weekend.
“P: That’s a good idea; he probably will have seen this.
“K: You can bet your bottom dollar he will have. I noticed Kosygin picked up almost the same language at the year-end backgrounder that I gave.
“P: You noticed how I handled the summit thing too? Dobrynin will appreciate this. He knows we are discussing it, but I said there has been speculation but when we have something to discuss then we will do it; if we don’t we won’t.” (Ibid.)
On January 6, Roberts reported that, according to “authoritative sources,” the President’s position on SALT and Cuba remained unchanged. (Chalmers Roberts, “U.S. SALT Position Unchanged,” Washington Post, January 6, 1971, page A8) Five days later, Evans published a column on Nixon’s “sober conviction that Moscow holds the key to peace in the Middle East.” (Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, “Moscow: Key to Mideast,” Washington Post, January 11, 1971, page A17)