214. Memorandum of Conversation1

PARTICIPANTS

  • Ambassador Anatoliy Dobrynin
  • Henry A. Kissinger

The lunch had been arranged at Dobrynin’s request as part of our regular series of meeting prior to the Summit. I had suggested to Dobrynin that perhaps this was not the best time, but Dobrynin felt that we should go ahead as if nothing were happening.

Vietnam

We began the meeting by reviewing the Vietnam situation. Dobrynin suggested that we were making too much of the Soviet role. No matter how many arms the Soviet Union had given, it was considerably less than the American arming of South Vietnam. The fact of the matter was that we were backing the wrong horse in South Vietnam and that if it weren’t for American air power the North Vietnamese would have won long ago. He asked again about the specific terms. He wanted to know whether the ceasefire was in place or whether there were some additional aspects to it. I said that these were matters that we wanted to leave for negotiations, and that I was not prepared to discuss them now.

Dobrynin asked whether the North Vietnamese could maintain the territory they now had. I said the important thing was to make a prior determination whether we wanted to make peace. Specifically, we needed to get some perspective on the long-term evolution. We had no intention of maintaining a position in South Vietnam for all eternity.

[Page 798]

We did have the intention, however, to bring about conditions which permitted a fair political contest. There were only two roads to a solution. Either we would settle all military questions separately, or we would include the political issues—which, however, were too complex to permit a rapid conclusion. We were prepared to go either way, though our preference was the military route.

If Dobrynin looked at our formulation carefully, he would see that it incorporated exactly what Brezhnev had told us and therefore it was a fair and useful approach. As far as the great powers were concerned, it was essential for them not to permit their overriding interests to be submerged by the monomania of smaller countries.

Dobrynin said we had put their leaders into an extremely difficult position. He expected an answer fairly soon and perhaps if we waited together in the Map Room, it would arrive.

Bilateral Issues; SALT

We then reviewed a number of the bilateral issues, all of which were in rather good shape.

With respect to SALT, I told him we were opposed to deferral. He said if there were any new SALT proposals, they would be submitted to me first.2

Vietnam

At this point, his assistant brought the Soviet note [Brezhnev letter, attached]3 which was still in Russian, and his assistant translated it to me. I asked Dobrynin whether the phrase about damage to Soviet [Page 799]American relations meant that new activities could threaten them or whether it meant that a continuation of the old ones would threaten them. If the latter, then I could tell him the existing activities would be continued; if the former, I thought I could assure him that there would be no new activities beyond those that were now being contemplated. Dobrynin said the former interpretation was the correct one. Dobrynin asked me whether he could report to his government that I had given him two assurances: (1) that the scale of operations would not escalate beyond the present level for the time being, (2) that we would not interfere with Soviet ships on the high seas, and (3) that we would take precautions against the bombing of Soviet ships in Vietnamese harbors. I told him he could give all these assurances, and I would confirm it with the President.

I then asked Dobrynin why the note had been silent on the question of the Summit. Dobrynin said that was because we had not asked any questions about the Summit, and therefore the Soviet Government saw no need to make a new decision. I asked whether we should have asked the question about the Summit. Dobrynin said, “No, you have handled a difficult situation uncommonly well.” Dobrynin then said that, as the Summit was still continuing, could we accept some restrictions on our military operations while we were in the Soviet Union? I told Dobrynin I would let him know about those on Monday.4

At this point the meeting broke up.

Attachment

Letter From Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev to President Nixon

Dear. Mr. President:

We have carefully read your letter of May 85 as well as the text of your statement made on the same day,6 in which you announce new measures of military escalation in Vietnam.

[Page 800]

The Soviet Government has expressed its attitude toward those steps in an official statement which is published. I must say frankly that possible consequences of the decision taken by you, the worst from our standpoint, cause our most serious concern.

I have already written to you that, in our conviction, the only possible way of solving the Vietnam problem is a peaceful political settlement reached at a negotiation table. To count on a military solution of the Vietnam conflict is without perspective. To continue this line means to deliberately lead to a still greater hardening of the armed fighting which will put away and reduce chances for attaining an acceptable settlement.

To stake on increasing the military pressure is only capable of producing opposite results as was the case in the past. It is to be assumed that in reply to that the Vietnamese inevitably will be forced to step up their resistance. As a result, the acuteness of the conflict not only does not diminish but, rather, increases.

It is especially important to dwell on such an action by the U.S. as mining the ports and the approaches to the ports of the DRV. It must be clear that this constitutes the most flagrant violation of the generally accepted norms of international law and the freedom of navigation. By this measure the U.S. considerably complicates the entire situation in connection with Vietnam. Directly jeopardised are the safety and the lives of crew members of the ships of third countries, including those of the Soviet Union. We have already addressed you on the two specific cases when as a result of the attack by U.S. air force one ship had been damaged while another completely destroyed and there is a loss of human lives among Soviet seamen. These acts subject Soviet-American relation to a severe test, and this you have to well understand.

It would be very dangerous, Mr. President, not to see the consequences which may entail this course of action by the U.S.

You say that the ships which are now in the DRV ports or en route there, will do so “on their own risk”. I must emphasize that this risk is being made by the unlawful actions by the U.S., and the entire responsibility for attempts to prevent Soviet ships from exercising their right to freedom of navigation and anything that may occur in connection with this will, naturally, be borne by the American side and by it alone.

In your letter, Mr. President, you speak about the progress in Soviet-American relations and about the undesirability for these relations to be thrown back to the “dark shadows of the previous age.” But, indeed, are those actions by the U.S. air force taken in the wake of that letter, not a denial of what had been said several hours ago? In any case, the one and the other are hard to reconcile.

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My colleagues and I expect, Mr. President, that at this moment of responsibility for Soviet-American relations and for the world situation as a whole everything will be done on the American side so that an irrevocable damage not be done to the present and to the future of these relations and to the broad interests of international security.

Sincerely,

L. Brezhnev 7
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 494, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1972, Vol. 2. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only.
  2. In a May 11 memorandum to Kissinger, Sonnenfeldt summarized the current status of all of the outstanding bilateral issues. (Ibid., Kissinger Office Files, Box 67, Country Files, Europe, U.S.S.R., Sonnenfeldt Papers [1 of 2]) A May 6 memorandum from Sonnenfeldt to Kissinger also lists a tentative schedule for the announcing of agreements of these various issues while at the Moscow summit. (Ibid.)
  3. Brackets in the source text. A notation on the attached note reads: “Handed to Gen. Haig by 1st Secy. Sokolov, 4:45 p.m., May 11, 1972.” In his memoirs Kissinger described the meeting and the note passed during it as removing “the last remaining uncertainty” over the summit:” Usually the Soviet Embassy supplied a written translation. In this case Dobrynin’s assistant did the honors in a way which, had the meaning of the letter depended on precision, might well have defeated its purpose. But even a rough oral translation left no doubt that Brezhnev was avoiding any hint of confrontation, despite the letter’s conventional bluster warning against the consequences of our actions. I asked innocently whether Brezhnev’s warning referred to any new actions or to steps that had already been taken. Obviously, replied Dobrynin, his patience seemingly tried by my denseness, the General Secretary could only have meant additional measures to those announced on May 8. Since it clearly pleased Dobrynin to play the professor, I asked why the letter had not referred to the summit. Dobrynin answered that since we had not asked about it in our communication of May 8, the Politburo had seen no need for a response. (For anyone familiar with Soviet diplomatic tactics such delicacy was a novel experience.) I asked whether we should have asked a question about the summit. ‘No,’ said Dobrynin, ‘you have handled a difficult situation uncommonly well.’” (White House Years, p. 1194)
  4. May 15; see Document 226. According to a transcript of a telephone conversation at 5 p.m. on May 11, Kissinger called Dobrynin “to officially confirm on behalf of the President what I told you about our actions” and added he would give to Dobrynin “on Monday certain limitations we will observe during the meeting.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 372, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File)
  5. See the attachment to Document 207.
  6. See Document 208.
  7. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.