120. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1

SUBJECT

  • Soviet Reaction to the Vietnamese Situation

From the beginning of Hanoi’s offensive until April 10, the Soviets dealt with the military situation in a guarded, reserved manner. Reporting in the Soviet press and in Soviet broadcasts was not extensive, and confined to news report from Hanoi, Paris or Washington. The impression created was one of a limited military operation that was succeeding. Much more emphasis was on US unwillingness to continue the Paris talks and the US bombings. There were no “official” government statements or TASS statements, even though Moscow usually [Page 387]endorses various North Vietnamese protests. The DRV statements were reported but no authoritative announcements were forthcoming from Moscow, although one Soviet official claimed a TASS statement was to have been released on April 8.

The Soviets have been careful to avoid reporting or commenting on any statement concerning the role of Soviet equipment. Though they reported Secretary Laird’s statement, they cut out all references to the USSR.2

The first major pronouncement came on April 10 in the communiqué signed by Brezhnev and Erich Honecker as the East German Party Leader was ending his unofficial visit to the USSR.3 In this document the people of the USSR and the GDR (i.e., not the governments) “decisively condemned” US aggressive acts, and there was an expression of “concern” over the situation and solidarity with the Vietnamese, the Laotians and the Cambodians. By Soviet standards, this was not a major statement even though in Brezhnev’s name. Considering the situation it was a minimal effort.

Two days later on April 12, the Soviets finally went on the record more definitively in a report issued after the DRV Ambassador called on Brezhnev (somewhat unusual in itself).4 The Ambassador thanked Brezhnev for the “large, valuable assistance” to the DRV “for the construction of socialism” (that is, not military aid), and for Soviet support for the struggle of the people of Vietnam.

Brezhnev is reported to have extended “wishes for further success in defending the freedom and independence of their (the Vietnamese) motherland and the construction of socialism” (i.e., only the DRV). The key passages from Brezhnev, however, were to “continue to give assistance and support” to “all patriots” of Indochina,” and to “resolutely condemn” US aggression in Indochina and “demand an immediate end to the bombing of the DRV.”

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This seems a rather limited statement that might have been issued any time in the past years. The only slight escalation is the demand for an immediate end to the bombing. Among the omissions in the statement that are perhaps most significant, there are no references to: the Paris talks, halting the war, a political settlement or American withdrawal, and DRV plans to end the war. Considering that this meeting occurred almost two weeks after the offensive began, it would seem a very cool Soviet treatment.

However, on his Turkish visit,5 President Podgorny on the same day went beyond Brezhnev in bringing up the question of negotiations. Podgorny criticized Vietnamization and “hypocritical phrases” such as our “love of peace.” He said “one cannot fail to note that the US is actually evading talks in Paris and is expanding its air war against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.”

Perhaps more significant, he stated flatly: “The Soviet Union believes that a political settlement of the problem of Indochina (based on) the proposals of the DRV offer a reliable and constructive basis.” He added that the “interventionists should leave and allow the people to shape their destiny.” He claimed that support (undefined) for the “just struggle of the people of Indochina promotes international détente …” (a rather odd formulation).

In other words, Podgorny and Brezhnev have both generalized their support, and Podgorny emphasized a political settlement.

Other Soviet Moves

This rather careful reaction must be viewed against the background of Soviet policy moves in the past few weeks.

It is a reasonable assumption that Moscow would have had a fairly good notion of what Hanoi planned. And Soviet actions in the period preceding and during the offensive take on a certain significance. Two events are worth noting: the Brezhnev speech of March 20 and Soviet Marshal Batitskiy’s mission to Hanoi just prior to the offensive.6

The most important fact of Marshal Batitsky’s mission is the contrast between the emphasis given by Hanoi to his presence and Moscow’s deemphasis. This suggests a political decision in advance of the offensive to disassociate the USSR from it. Brezhnev, in his March 20 speech, said the USSR “wrathfully condemns the bandit bombings of DRV territory and demands an end to them.” This passage was cut out [Page 389] of the printed version. The censoring of the General Secretary suggests that he or his aides knew he would look silly calling for an end to bombing that was not taking place but that later his “demand” to end DRV bombing might look weak.

It is doubtful that the Soviets had any control over the scope or timing of the North Vietnamese offensive. Aware of the general nature, however, they took precautionary measures to limit its damage to the summit prospects. Thus Brezhnev’s optimistic appraisal of the summit in his March 20 speech was reinsurance, as is Soviet agreement to begin the grain talks, lend-lease talks, and to receive in Moscow an American delegation for a second round of the maritime talks. In addition, the Soviets have agreed to resume the talks on incidents at sea, and have proposed moving up the date from May 1 to April 24.

Brezhnev’s reception of Secretary Butz was an unusual gesture in itself (and publicized). He was very general on Vietnam, and he pointed up the warm welcome awaiting you in Moscow.7

This does not mean that the Soviets see no gains in the offensive, but the game they may be playing is an intricate and delicate one. To the extent that the bombings of the North increase and are prolonged, the Soviets have to react politically much as they did before the China trip. This risks deterioration of relations with the US. On the other hand, if the American-South Vietnamese position is badly damaged then the Soviets might believe you would be in a weak position at the summit. However, the Soviets have to allow for failure. In this case, by limiting their own political support to Hanoi they might count on escaping without severe consequences for their relations with the US. And should Hanoi intend to resume “serious” negotiations, the Soviets would want to play a diplomatic role, now or at the summit.

Summing up, it seems from the overt evidence that the Soviets held their fire until the military situation began to clarify and, once it became apparent that the offensive had not scored major success, began to ensure that their relations with us would not be damaged, and their association with Hanoi would be limited.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 718, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. XXI. Secret. Sent for information. A notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it. Sonnenfeldt forwarded the memorandum, and the texts of Soviet statements analyzed in the memorandum, to Kissinger on April 13. (Ibid.) According to an attached routing form, the memorandum was “noted by Pres” on April 20.
  2. As reported by the Embassy in telegram 3265 from Moscow, April 10. (Ibid., RG 59, Central Files, 1970–73, POL 27 VIET S)
  3. See footnote 6, Document 92.
  4. On April 13 Pravda published the text of the joint statement on the meeting the previous day between Brezhnev and Ambassador Vo Thuc Dong. (Current Digest of the Soviet Press, vol. XXIV, No. 15, May 10, 1972, p. 16) In its analysis of the meeting on April 13, the Office of Current Intelligence (CIA) pointed out that the Soviets had deleted from the public statement any reference to the North Vietnamese request for more aid. “It is uncertain how far this will develop,” the analysis concluded, “but authoritative Soviet comment thus far suggest to us that Moscow does feel somewhat constrained by the need to take into account US sensitivities on the eve of the summit. We believe Secretary Butz’ unprecedented meeting with Brezhnev was laid on in anticipation of the meeting with the North Vietnamese. The Soviets probably realized that they could not continue to temporize with the North Vietnamese and wished to soften the impact of what the Soviets felt compelled to say on Hanoi’s behalf.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 718, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. XXI)
  5. Podgorny visited Turkey April 11–17; for text of the joint communiqué, in which the two sides expressed “serious concern” on the situation in Vietnam, see Current Digest of the Soviet Press, vol. XXIV, No. 16, May 17, 1972, pp. 8–9 and 32.
  6. For discussion of Brezhnev’s speech, see Document 65; for an analysis of the Batitskiy visit, see Document 90.
  7. See Document 101.