117. Intelligence Memorandum Prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency1


I. The Politics of Aid: Moscow, Hanoi’s Offensive, the Summit

Two basic factors must underly any analysis of Soviet involvement in Vietnam. First, the USSR would like to see an eventual Communist victory in Vietnam. Conversely, some decisive Southern victory in the conflict would be felt as an important setback to Soviet interests, given the high degree of Soviet commitment and support to Hanoi’s cause.
Yet this proposition must be qualified. The USSR certainly does not attach the same priority to the struggle that the DRV does. In 1954 the Soviets worked out a deal with the French that fell well short of North Vietnam’s objectives; by 1964 Khrushchev was all but ignoring the area. His successors have proven truer and more consistent allies to Hanoi, but—even given the interests shared on the two sides—Moscow can hardly be expected to subordinate all its international concerns to this single problem.
The second proposition is that Soviet room for maneuver is limited. It is dealing, not with a puppet, but with a distant, independent [Page 372]client to which, in the Communist context, it has obligations of some weight. Furthermore, this client has, in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), another patron that is eager to pillory the Soviet Union for any faltering in its support to Hanoi’s cause and that gives North Vietnam military and economic aid of its own. The Soviets should derive some leverage from their position as supplier of complex, advanced weapons, but even here the Chinese could confound their attempts to apply this leverage by replacing them in this function as well, albeit incompletely and with difficulty.2
Last, in this concrete situation theoretical leverage does not have much practical effect. The North Vietnamese themselves are immensely jealous of their independence, and they assiduously work their relations with their two big supporters not only to maximize the aid but also to minimize the influence of the donors.
We lack direct evidence of the real tone of the Soviet-North Vietnamese relationship, although we do occasionally receive indications, mostly indirect, on this matter. Relying on these and on deductions from the above propositions, we surmise that these relations are somewhat as follows. The Soviets feel a special obligation to help in the air defense of North Vietnam, as a socialist state under bombing by the imperialists. As for military supplies intended for use in the South, the bulk are by now routinely supplied; and, beyond this, Moscow is anxious to help the DRV overcome the advantage in modern weapons that the other side has enjoyed. Hanoi for its part probably submits its aid requests with a minimum of explanations. Hanoi’s leaders have consistently said that they need no advice from outside strategists, and they have excoriated any North Vietnamese who seem to be coming too heavily under outside influence. Moreover, they are always wary of getting caught in a bargaining relationship with their patrons, and they thus almost certainly avoid being drawn into the kinds of consultations that might grow into joint planning. The Soviets can draw many conclusions from the kinds and volume of aid requested, as well as intelligence from their people in North Vietnam, but they have no apparent mechanism for advising on strategy and tactics—that is, on matters beyond those affecting training in and use of their equipment. They also recognize that, given Hanoi’s sensitivities and its Peking option, they would be treading on delicate ground if they sought to intrude into this sphere.
If these views are correct, then it is likely that over the last year or so, and particularly after the DRV’s heavy losses of equipment in Lam Son 719,3 the Soviet Union has been delivering to North Vietnam large shipments of weapons and supplies, some of which are undoubtedly being used in the present offensive. The signing of a number of military aid agreements has been announced during this period, including one in August 1971, another in October, and the most recent in December (the Chinese have kept pace throughout with similar announcements of aid deals). We cannot associate Soviet decisions on particular weapons or volumes with individual agreements, but Moscow would clearly have been aware that Hanoi was building up large inventories of tanks, for example, and long-range artillery. This process almost certainly began before the Soviets were aware of President Nixon’s planned visit to Peking and before their own summit was scheduled. The Soviets could easily infer that the North Vietnamese were preparing for large-scale conventional action, which would occur during a dry season. They may have been told as much, but they were probably not kept abreast of the details of Hanoi’s evolving plans for a multi-front offensive.
When, with this buildup in process, summit diplomacy began to develop from July onward, first in Peking and then in Moscow, the Soviets must have had to consider the relationship between their diplomacy and the Vietnam war. By November, with the breakdown of secret US-North Vietnamese negotiations, their task had become how to relate what they knew of Hanoi’s military plans to the May summit.
At least by the first of the year, Moscow almost certainly knew that an offensive was in the offing and could foresee several outcomes. First, a North Vietnamese offensive might score victories of a scope to have major repercussions on South Vietnam’s stability. This would be welcome for its own sake and (the Soviets would reason) would put them at an advantage vis-à-vis President Nixon in Moscow. At the summit, in any discussion of a Vietnam settlement, it would require the United States to be the supplicant. This would be a desirable result unless the United States reacted so negatively as to postpone or cancel the summit. The Soviets would see some benefits even in this reaction, in that they would anticipate a weakening of the President’s domestic political position.
It is possible to argue that these advantages are so great that the USSR hoped that a North Vietnamese offensive would provoke the [Page 374]United States to put off the summit and even contrived to arrange matters to this end. Putting aside for the moment the question of its ability to control events in this fashion, it is doubtful that Moscow sees this as the preferred outcome. Its interests in a successful summit is substantial. It has a stake of some importance in certain bilateral matters, especially arms control and trade. It has an interest in improved US-Soviet relations as the centerpiece of a détente campaign, which is meant to forward its interests in Western Europe. Most important, it is a matter of deep concern not to encourage the rapprochement between its major antagonists (China and the United States) to proceed to a stage of active anti-Soviet cooperation, a contingency to which the Soviets have shown themselves acutely sensitive.
Second, the North Vietnamese might suffer a major defeat. This would clearly be a bad outcome from the Soviet standpoint. Its only virtue would be to deflate the importance of the Vietnam issue as a problem in Soviet-US relations, thus leaving more time for the bilateral matters that are Moscow’s primary incentive for a summit. But if this defeat had been accompanied by heavy US bombing deep into North Vietnam, the Soviets would have a hard time justifying any summit at all.4 Thus this outcome could be a double defeat for the USSR.
Third, major action could have eased off with no decisive result. This would be, in terms of summit considerations alone, a manageable result, since Vietnam would then not play a critical role in the Soviet-US encounter.
Fourth, the outcome might be undecided and still hotly contested at the time of the summit itself. This would run the major risk of the first case—a US postponement or cancellation—and would put Moscow under pressure to do the same. If the summit nonetheless took place, this situation would almost guarantee that Vietnam would dominate the political atmosphere. Vietnam, to the Soviets, is the wrong issue for this meeting.
This review shows how hard it would have been for the Soviets to make confident calculations of the best way to relate the evolving conflict in Vietnam to their summit diplomacy. In fact, however, there was little they could do about Hanoi’s plans. The Soviets have long been committed to the military support of North Vietnam, and [Page 375]they began to be committed to the aid that supports the present offensive before they arranged the Moscow summit. For the Politburo, it would have been a momentous decision to change course in the latter part of 1971. Supporters of a summit would have had the greatest difficulty in mustering a majority behind the proposition that North Vietnam should be pressed to call off its offensive plans. In fact, it is doubtful that they would have prevailed, especially since it would have been argued that Hanoi would not have turned aside from its plans in any event. No matter how the individual Soviet leaders appraised the situation, it would be uncharacteristic of the present leadership, which is closer to a collective than to the Khrushchevian model, to consider such radical alternatives.
In sum, the Soviets, through their long commitment to North Vietnam and the momentum of their military aid program, probably began to underwrite the expansion of North Vietnam’s offensive capabilities before the summit was in view and without being fully consulted on Hanoi’s specific intentions.5 They see dangers to their interests in the way in which Vietnam and the summit have become related, but the alternatives available to them as this relationship developed were even more unpalatable. As of now, they want both a North Vietnamese victory and a summit, but they find that the key choices are beyond their control.

[Omitted here is the remainder of the memorandum, including Appendix A on Soviet military visitors and the North Vietnamese Offensive, and Appendix B, which consists of statistical tables on military and economic assistance to North Vietnam from the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe.]

  1. Source: National Security Council, Washington Special Actions Group Files, Meeting Files, 4–17–72. Secret; Spoke; Sensitive.
  2. In terms of total value, Chinese military aid in 1965–71 was about 40% that of the USSR. In the last two years, however, the Chinese have supplied almost 95% as much military aid, by value, as the USSR. This is mainly because the DRV’s air defense needs, met primarily by the USSR, declined for several years after the bombing halt of 1968. [Footnote in the source text.]
  3. Reference is to South Vietnamese offensive of February and March 1971—supported by American advisers and aircraft—to disrupt the Ho Chi Minh Trail at Tchepone, Laos.
  4. In this connection a Soviet KGB officer in Vientiane, evidently acting on instructions, told an Agency officer on 10 April of his concern that US bombing of North Vietnam could force Moscow to cancel the summit. This line, while obviously intended to persuade the United States to stay its hand, probably does reflect a genuine concern about the political damage to the USSR’s position, vis-à-vis other Communist states, of summit negotiations under these conditions. [Footnote in the source text.]
  5. The visit of Marshal Batitskiy (16–27 March) came far too late to fit into any scenario of major decision-making. The composition of his delegation suggests that his purpose was to advise on the air defense of North Vietnam, probably in connection with renewed US bombing expected as a consequence of the North Vietnamese offensive. Batitskiy’s and other recent Soviet visits are discussed in Appendix A. [Footnote in the source text. For further analysis of the Batitskiy visit, see Document 90.]