207. Memorandum of Conversation1

PARTICIPANTS

  • Soviet Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin
  • Henry A. Kissinger

When Dobrynin entered the office, I told him that I regretted taking him away from dinner. Dobrynin said that he knew my habits by now. He knew that when I called him before a speech it would not be [Page 780]good news. I said that the best way to handle the matter was for me to show him a copy of the letter which the President was writing to Brezhnev (attached).2 He asked whether I had a text of the speech.3 I said no, I wouldn’t have it, but I would send it to his office just before 9:00. He said it was odd that I didn’t trust him to keep it secret for even 15 minutes.

Dobrynin then read the President’s letter. He said there were many ambiguities in it; for example, what did we mean by stopping seaborne supplies? Did we really mean interference with Soviet ships? That, of course, would be an act of war. He said he could almost certainly predict what the reaction in Moscow would be and it would be very unfortunate. It had taken him years to get matters to the present point, and now all was being jeopardized. And what was worse, he said, once Soviet policy got set in a certain way it was likely to stay that way for quite a long time. He asked whether there really was no alternative.

I told him that if he read the records of my conversations with Brezhnev he would find that I had told them and told them that we were going to do something drastic. Dobrynin said he wasn’t surprised, although the particular action was perhaps one that would not have occurred to him, but it would be much harder to understand in Moscow. He said that if he could explain American conditions in Moscow, it might be easier, but he was far away. He seemed very resigned to a drastic Soviet response.

He asked why we were turning against them when Hanoi was challenging us. I replied that he should put himself into our position. What would the Soviet Union do if we armed Israel two months before a Soviet Summit and encouraged an attack or at least tolerated an attack which would threaten the Soviet force in Egypt. Dobrynin became uncharacteristically vehement. He said, “First of all, we never put forces somewhere who can’t defend themselves. Second, if the Israelis threaten us, we will wipe them out within two days. I can assure you our plans are made for this eventuality.” He then relapsed into a more diplomatic attitude again, and said that now matters would take a rather bad turn.

At this point, we received a text of the President’s speech and I showed it to Dobrynin. He read it through and asked for clarification, specifically on what we meant by stopping seaborne supplies. I told [Page 781]him we would take all measures but that we would confine our actions initially to territorial waters. Dobrynin also pointed out that a phrase which was in the speech at that point, according to which I was sent to Paris to meet with Le Duc Tho on May 2nd4 based on Soviet assurances, was very strong and would be taken very ill in Moscow. I told him I would see whether I could still get it taken out and left him for a few minutes to go into the President’s office. The President agreed to delete the phrase, and we also had it taken out of the press copy. Dobrynin said that, well, at least we had achieved a minor success, and we had come closer to getting somewhere than we had in the entire period that he had served as Ambassador in Washington.

At this point the meeting broke up.

Attachment

Letter From President Nixon to Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev 5

Dear Mr. General Secretary:

Since my message to you of May 3,6 there has been no change in the grave situation in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese offensive is continuing and their preparations for new offensive actions, especially in the northern part of South Vietnam, are moving ahead intensively. Because of Hanoi’s total intransigence, negotiations are blocked in all channels, private and plenary. Your message of May 6,7 which I have read with the greatest attention, unfortunately does not change this situation; it confirms it. The issue was not, as you suggest in your message, whether the resumed negotiations would “yield results immediately.” The issue was whether there would be any indication, however minimal, of a North Vietnamese willingness to halt the offensive and to resume negotiations. In all respects, Hanoi has maintained its maximum demands and, as noted above, nothing has changed on the battlefield. It is clear that Hanoi wants the present government of South Vietnam overthrown and replaced by one subject to its own dictates. It is asking us to collude in this endeavor and, failing that, seeks to accomplish the same end by military action.

[Page 782]

But, as I have made clear to you earlier, Mr. General Secretary, this will not happen.

In this situation, I have now determined upon a course of action. It is intended to end the aggression and to permit political processes to operate in South Vietnam so that its people can freely determine their own future.

To this end, I am today taking actions that will deprive the aggressor of the means to wage aggression, of the means to disrupt the peace of the world. I am announcing a series of measures which will effectively preclude further supplies of aggression from reaching North Vietnam. These measures include the mining of the approaches to North Vietnamese ports and action by U.S. naval forces to prevent seaborne delivery of supplies to North Vietnam. Additional action will be taken to interdict rail and other means of transportation in North Vietnam.

Since these measures are directed solely at the ability of the aggressor to continue his offensive actions and are in no way directed at third countries, special care has been taken that all foreign vessels currently in North Vietnamese ports will be able to depart in safety within three daylight periods. Thereafter, ships remaining in North Vietnamese ports or attempting to approach them will do so at their own risk. It is my hope, Mr. General Secretary, that incidents involving third countries will be avoided.

The actions that are being implemented will end as soon as an internationally supervised cease-fire is in effect throughout Indochina and prisoners held by both sides are released. In addition, when these steps have been taken, all U.S. military acts of force throughout Indochina will end and all U.S. forces will be withdrawn from South Vietnam within four months.

These are our terms for an end of the war. They would permit the United States to withdraw with honor. They would end the killing and bring prisoners home. They would not require surrender and humiliation on the part of anybody. They would permit all the nations which have suffered in this long war to turn at last to the urgent works of healing and peace. They deserve immediate acceptance by North Vietnam.

Mr. General Secretary, the actions of which I am informing you by this message are not taken to impose defeat upon North Vietnam but to end the conflict and thus permit a settlement through negotiations. I know that these are objectives which our two countries share, because, as they are reached, a cloud will be removed from our relations.

These relations have, by our joint efforts in recent months, reached the threshold of a new era, an era of cooperation for the benefit of our two peoples and for peoples everywhere. Mutually advantageous programs have been or are being worked out in a wide range of cooperative ventures; the prospect for greatly increased commercial relations, [Page 783]including necessary credits, is bright. An unprecedented agreement to curb the competition in strategic arms is within reach as a result of the spirit of compromise displayed by both sides. A significant set of principles providing a positive and constructive framework for our relations has been worked out. Our forthcoming meeting will serve not only to complete successfully the efforts now in progress but to give impetus to even more far-reaching programs of cooperation in many areas and even more intensive efforts to bring about a peaceful world.

Let me repeat here what I am saying in my speech: Our two nations have made significant progress. Let us not slide back toward the dark shadows of a previous age. We do not ask you to sacrifice your principles or your friends. But neither should you permit Hanoi’s intransigence to blot out the prospects we together have so patiently prepared. We can build a new relationship that can serve not only the interests of our two countries but the cause of world peace. Let us continue building it.

With these hopeful and broad vistas before us, I do not intend to let the situation forced upon us by the actions of the leaders in Hanoi divert us from the path upon which our two countries have embarked. And it is precisely for this reason that I am determined to end the disruptive and wasteful conflict in Vietnam.

In conclusion, Mr. General Secretary, let me say to you that this is a moment for statesmanship. It is a moment when, by joint efforts, we can end the malignant effects on our relations and on the peace of the world which the conflict in Vietnam has so long produced. I am ready to join with you at once to bring about a peace that humiliates neither side and serves the interests of all the people involved. I know that together we have the capacity to do this.

Sincerely,

Richard Nixon
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 494, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1972, Vol. 2. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. Kissinger’s Record of Schedule indicates that the meeting lasted until 9 p.m. but that Kissinger stepped out from 8:50 to 8:55 p.m. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 438, Miscellany, 1968–1976) According to Nixon’s Daily Diary, the President and Kissinger met from 8:50 to 8:55 p.m. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files) The meeting was held in Kissinger’s office. Kissinger described both his meeting with Dobrynin and the brief exchange with Nixon in his memoirs. (White House Years, pp. 1187–1189) Dobrynin also discussed his meeting with Kissinger in his memoirs. (In Confidence, pp. 246–247)
  2. Similar letters were sent on the same date to French President Georges Pompidou, Premier Chou En-lai of the People’s Republic of China, British Prime Minister Edward Heath, and German Chancellor Willy Brandt and are in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 494, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1972, Vol. 2.
  3. See Document 208.
  4. See Document 183.
  5. Top Secret.
  6. Document 190.
  7. Document 200.