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

SUBJECT

  • The Soviet Leaders

This memorandum seeks to capture the flavor and style of the principal Soviet leaders with whom you will be dealing, Brezhnev in particular, as well as Kosygin and Gromyko, based largely on personal encounters. Your background book already contains much useful biographic and historical information on these men and their colleagues.

Brezhnev

For Brezhnev, the meeting with you is a long-sought goal, both politically and psychologically. Even since Stalin, Soviet leaders have seen an encounter with the American President as a boost to their authority and a recognition of their stature. Brezhnev, like his predecessor Khrushchev, finds this useful in terms of the never-ending power struggle within the leadership. And whether he admits it to himself or not, to be seen in your company fills a deepseated personal need to be accepted as an equal.2

In Brezhnev’s case, other impulses have lately come to the surface. He resents his image as a brutal, unrefined person; he is trying to live down his long history of drunkenness. He has come to enjoy the perquisites of office—he enjoys fancy cars, natty clothes and a certain elevated lifestyle. He is self-conscious of his looks, heavy eyebrows, for example, and has made an effort to look after his grooming. In short, he has some of the characteristics of the parvenue and the nouveau-riche. Yet he is proud, as Khrushchev was, of his proletarian background and of his successful march up the ladder of power.3

Like many Russians, Brezhnev is a mixture of crudeness and warmth. Yet, self-conscious about his background and his past, he eschews Khruschevian excursions into profanity. His anecdotes and imagery, [Page 871]to which he resorts frequently, avoid the languages of the barnyard. His humor is heavy, sometimes cynical, frequently earthy,4 but—in your presence at least—not obscene. His impulses are elemental, but he tries to keep his demeanor and his words within the decorous limits of a middle-class drawing room.

He is nervous, partly because of his personal insecurity, partly for physiological reasons traced to his consumption of alcohol and tobacco, his history of heart disease and the pressures of his job. You will find his hands perpetually in motion, twirling his watch chain (gold), flicking ashes from his ever-present cigarette, clanging his cigarette-holder against an ash tray. From time to time, he may stand up behind his chair or walk about. He is likely to interrupt himself or you by offering food and drink. His colleagues obviously humor him in these somewhat irritating habits.

Brezhnev is obviously intelligent and shrewd but probably not as acute in these respects as Khrushchev. Like the latter he is alert to any real or imagined polemical thrust and, though less combative than Khrushchev, is not likely to let it pass. For example, when I said (in not uncomplimentary fashion) that we noticed that when he moved, he moved massively, he immediately took this as a thrust at his Czechoslovakian invasion and felt compelled to comment.5

Brezhnev’s reputation was one of laziness and impatience with details. We know [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] that in years past he liked to sneak off to soccer games or other diversions,6 and in Khrushchev’s day would get other Politburo members to cover up for him. But he clearly masters the significant issues and understands Soviet interests. He has stopped his earlier practice of bringing copious notes to meetings, except for formal documents he plans to hand over. Although these are obviously drafted by his staff, he is familiar with their contents, presumably having participated in Politburo discussions of them.

Although top dog, Brezhnev still gives the impression of being on a relatively short leash.7 He is free to expound an agreed position of the collective, perhaps adding some nuances and emphases of his own, but once he has exhausted his guidance he evidently is required to go back for more, as well as for any changes necessitated by the course of negotiations. He also seems to be under some obligation to report back. [Page 872]At the same time, if Brezhnev believes a particular change in position is necessary, it appears he has the authority to persuade the Politburo to agree to it. In any case, situations could well arise where Brezhnev will say that he must check back with his colleagues. This may be a tactic, but it may also reflect the actual situation.

Typically Russian, when Brezhnev wants something, he will resort to the bearhug.8 He will be voluble in explaining how much in your own interest a certain position is; he may intimate that it took a great deal of effort to get his colleagues to agree to a concession; he may even brag that he overruled this or that bureaucratic interest group—he likes to poke fun at his Foreign Ministry, although in fact Gromyko and several of its members do a great deal of Brezhnev’s backstopping. He will invite you to “improve” on his own efforts and tell you how much the history books will praise you for the effort. This was the ploy he tried on me when he handed over their draft of principles in U.S.-Soviet relations. He urged me to “strengthen” it, assuring me plaudits if I did so; on the other hand, historians would censure me if I weakened his draft.9

Again, typically Russian, when Brezhnev thinks he has made a major concession or breakthrough, he will get impatient to get the matter wrapped up.10 He may stall for days, but once he moves he will want things settled at once so as to take up the next subject. He almost certainly will not want to get involved in drafting exercises or the shaping of precise formulations himself, preferring to delegate this to his associates, probably Gromyko. (Brezhnev, the politician/party bureaucrat, has little in common with Gromyko, the expert/diplomat. He likes to tease him, à la Khrushchev, but like the latter, he obviously respects the durable Foreign Minister’s talents and relies on him.)

Brezhnev will probably remind you of a tough and shrewd union boss, conscious of his position and his interests, alert to slights. He will be polite sometimes to the point of excessive warmth, including physical contact. He may lapse into orations, sometimes standing up to deliver them. He will be knowledgeable, but uninterested in detail (though his underlings will be extremely careful with fine print.) He may try to test you at some point with a vigorous and ideologically-tinged [Page 873]statement of his position, but he will let you do the same, though perhaps trying to get you off-stride by offering you tea and sandwiches when you break for interpretation.

He will try to flatter you, usually when he wants you to be “statesmanlike” and “generous”, and in fact he sometimes betrays an almost reverential view of “the President.” He will tell you that he wants you re-elected.

As he has gotten older, he has permitted himself to wonder aloud about his reputation. He wants a “good” image, although he probably does not mind in some respects the older image of a brutal man, and he wants to be seen as good for Russia in the history books.11 He will talk about his family, being especially proud and fond of his granddaughter (married while I was in Moscow) who grew up in his house.

As with other Russians, the War remains an earthshaking experience for him. He has lately taken to having his role inflated in publicity. He is proud of his service, of having been a general, of being a veteran.12 He knows something of the human disaster of war—one should credit him with genuine abhorrence of it, though, of course, he uses fear of war in others to obtain political ends.

He clearly enjoys power, telling me that in recent years he feels like he’s forty years old.13 He revels in the role of leading a great power and believes that great powers have certain privileges. Though he will never admit to the legitimacy of what we do in Vietnam, he is not without some sympathy for it. He certainly has no conscience pangs about what he did in Czechoslovakia.

One final aspect of the man; he deeply resents the Chinese. There is an ethnic element, a deepseated folk-suspicion and contempt of another people. He evidently finds them baffling and enigmatic. In private, at least he may appeal to the similarities that Russians and Americans have, compared to the Orientals. Some of the things he will say are, of course, intended to stir up one’s own resentments. As a political leader, he will do business with Peking when it suits his purposes. But the antagonism runs deep, fed no doubt by the knowledge that the Chinese regard him as a crude thug who has no right to claim Lenin’s or even Stalin’s inheritance.14

[Page 874]

Chou and Brezhnev

The Chinese and Russian styles, as exemplified by Chou En-lai and Leonid Brezhnev, make for a fascinating contrast.

Chou is Mandarin—cool; Brezhnev is Slavic—warm. Chou is subtle, refined and indirect. Brezhnev is obvious, elemental and head-on. The Chinese has an intellect at home in universities and drawing rooms.15 The Russian has the ruthless intelligence of a labor leader earned from brawls on the docks. Chou’s mind and body are elegant and disciplined, a coiled spring. Brezhnev is stocky and spontaneous, restless and fidgety.

Both men have been brutal when necessary, but Chou’s charm makes you forget this quality, while Brezhnev’s heavy-handedness constantly recalls it. The one is sophisticated and proper; the other gruff and gregarious. Chou masks his cunning with his polished demeanor. Brezhnev doesn’t mind reminding you of his shrewdness. Chou, while charismatic and cordial, keeps his distance, stays cool and hides his emotions. Brezhnev with his own animal magnetism, crowds you, easily changes temperature, and wears his emotions openly.

Indeed, one can say that the contrasting styles of Chou and Brezhnev are reflected in Chinese and Russian food. Chinese cuisine is delicate, meticulous and infinitely varied. Russian meals are heavy, straight forward, predictable. You eat Chinese food gracefully with chopsticks; you could eat most Russian food with your hands. One walks away from a Chinese meal satisfied but not satiated, and looking forward to your next experience. After a Russian meal one is stuffed, if not logy.16

All of this suggests that dealing with the Russians is less pleasurable than with the Chinese, depending on one’s taste. It should not suggest, however, that it is any less challenging.

Brezhnev and his colleagues will not have the place in history that Mao and Chou are assured. But they have survived their own long marches through savage infighting that takes place among Soviet leaders.17 They have clawed their way to the top and pushed aside (and put away) formidable men in the process. If the Chinese Communist leaders have been sustained in their struggles by their vision of the future, the Russian leaders have prevailed through tough jockeying and canny maneuvering. Mao and Chou may have matchless strategic vision; Brezhnev and his cohorts have clearly displayed great tactical skills.

[Page 875]

Furthermore, Brezhnev and company lead a superpower, one equal in many respects to our own nation.18 They speak with the weight of current strategic equality, while the Chinese strength derives from a combination of their long past and their inevitable future.

Brezhnev has important business to do with you now. He cannot afford to show patience on some issues, like Chou can. On the West, he has put his personal stamp on détente efforts; the sinking of the German Treaties and a souring of U.S.-Soviet relations would almost certainly invite internal challenges to his leadership position. On the East, he faces deep historical and personal antagonism, the spectre of 800 million talented and dedicated people, a growing nuclear arsenal, ideological rivalry, and territorial disputes. Moscow has to get a grip on the Teutonic past so it can deal with a Mongolian future.

Given the stage of our bilateral relations and personal inclination, Chou could spend time with us on history and philosophy. Brezhnev will want to talk about concrete issues—the format of a European Security Conference, the major elements of a SALT agreement, the mines in Haiphong Harbor, the drawing of lines in the Middle East. Although he obviously won’t know all the details like Gromyko, he will be well briefed and in command of his material, prepared to press you on specific questions. He will want results and agreements, and he will not hesitate to do some tactical elbowing in the process.

Finally, while Chou must invoke Mao’s authority and on major issues actually consult, he is at present in complete operational command. Brezhnev, on the other hand, while the dominant leader, still must lean on his colleagues for assistance. For your visit, the two most important will probably be Kosygin and Gromyko. Some brief comments on them therefore are in order.

Kosygin

Kosygin is clearly subordinate to Brezhnev in power and authority; he will not be charged with conducting conclusive talks on sensitive issues, but he will speak on them. His forte is in the economic area, though he is fully informed on all other questions. Indeed he almost certainly masters the details more completely than Brezhnev.

Kosygin has the reputation of being more liberal than Brezhnev. This is a superficial judgment. He is a manager-type and therefore tends to be pragmatic on operational questions. He wants to get things done and gets impatient with interference from party watchdogs and bureaucrats. He is fascinated by technology and economic issues and for that reason favors trade and other exchanges with the West. But in [Page 876]other respects, Kosygin is rigid and orthodox. It is almost as though he compensates for his managerial pragmatism with an almost theological orthodoxy on ideological matters. Moreover, on questions such as Vietnam, Kosygin has often been far more polemical than Brezhnev.

In connection with Kosygin’s greater polish, it is worth keeping in mind that he has been accustomed to function at the upper reaches of power for more than thirty years and has been exposed to many outside contacts. Brezhnev was still clawing his way to the top when Kosygin was among the top twenty or so leaders.

One of Kosygin’s strengths has been that he probably never aspired to the very summit of power. (In any event he has never had the power base within the Party machine.) Successive leaders beginning with Stalin have valued his competence. This does not, of course, mean that he has not participated in Kremlin politics. Obviously, he played a role in the coup that overthrew Khrushchev and he probably would not hesitate to participate in one against Brezhnev, but not out of personal ambition. His past friction with Brezhnev was probably due in part to temperament, but more likely to Kosygin’s impatience with clumsy Party interference in management of the country and to Brezhnev’s irritation about Kosygin’s circumvention of Party apparatchiks, including himself.

Kosygin is a very hard worker, despite various health problems. He is almost puritanical in his personal life and conservative in personal habits. His commitment to duty was illustrated when his wife was near death some years ago. Kosygin went ahead with his day’s chores, standing on the tomb to review a Red Square parade. The message of her death reached him there. Since being widowed, he has, if anything, spent even more time at work.

Kosygin is shrewd in his perception of other people’s character. While Brezhnev can instinctively play to people’s weaknesses, hopes and ambitions, Kosygin does it with skillful calculation. He knew, for example, that Secretary Stans was greatly interested in certain commercial deals and Kosygin managed their conversations with that interest in mind. When Kosygin met Harriman in 1965, he shrewdly played on the latter’s interest in various arms control agreements, holding out lush prospects if only we were reasonable on Vietnam. He sees innumerable American businessmen and has them salivating for the prospect of huge contracts, knowing that they will return to the U.S. to put the heat on the Administration to grant credits and export licenses.

Kosygin has the reputation of being dour. In fact, he can smile engagingly, where Brezhnev tends to leer.19 Where Brezhnev fidgets, [Page 877] Kosygin is composed. Where Brezhnev may gesticulate expansively, Kosygin seems more contained. Where Brezhnev can be effusively friendly and crudely intimate, Kosygin is more reserved. But he is capable of warmth and occasionally unbends to make personal remarks. When he does so, it is with far more grace than Brezhnev.

Kosygin speaks with precision (his Russian is the purest, as is typical of Leningraders) although he can of course be ambiguous if the situation demands.20 He has the respect of his colleagues; his subordinates, in particular, speak of him with considerable admiration.

Although Brezhnev’s temperament is more voluble, Kosygin probably has more deepseated convictions. Kosygin is imbued with his ideology. He will mince no words when he states a position. And when he thinks and feels that justice is on his side he will speak with great vigor and bluntness. On foreign policy, this applies especially to Vietnam and Germany. However, he is unlikely to personalize such issues the way Brezhnev tends to do. And he will put his case in rational and concrete terms, where Brezhnev will let more subjective prejudices show through.

Gromyko

You have known Gromyko for many years. He is, of course, not on a par with Brezhnev or Kosygin in terms of power, responsibilities and stature. In their presence he will defer to them, though not with the kind of servility that lesser Soviet leaders often display to their senior comrades.

Above all, Gromyko is a skilled and knowledgeable foreign affairs expert. He is on top of the issues and knows them backward. Although the butt of their jokes—he often acts as straight man—he undoubtedly has the respect of the top leaders, Brezhnev especially.

He has no power to make decisions, but he frequently knows fall-backs already decided on by the top leaders (in contrast to other Soviet negotiators who know only the day’s instructions) and hence can display a good deal of flexibility in negotiations.

Gromyko is very intelligent and a smart debater. He has a satirical humor, sometimes biting, though he can be as heavy-handed as any of the leaders if that happens to be the style of the moment.

If Brezhnev has the choice of an advisor in his meetings with you, he may well pick Gromyko as the man who not only has known you the longest but has known every President since Roosevelt and every Secretary of State since Hull.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 487, President’s Trip Files, For the President’s Personal Briefcase, May 1972, Part 2. Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. A notation on the memorandum indicates the President saw it. According to a May 16 memorandum from Kissinger to Nixon, this was part of the first briefing book for the summit. (Ibid., RG 59, S/P Files: Lot 77 D 112, Box 335, Lord Chronology, May, 1972)
  2. The President underlined “a deepseated personal need to be accepted as an equal.”
  3. The President underlined most of this paragraph.
  4. The President underlined “His humor is heavy, sometimes cynical, frequently earthy” as well as the previous two sentences.
  5. See Document 134 for a record of this conversation.
  6. The President underlined “in years past he liked to sneak off to soccer games and other diversions.”
  7. The President underlined this sentence.
  8. The President underlined this sentence.
  9. See Document 134 for a record of this conversation. For the final text of the “Basic Principles of Relations Between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” issued on May 29, 1972, at the summit, see Public Papers: Nixon, 1972, pp. 633–635.
  10. The President underlined “when Brezhnev thinks he has made a major concession or breakthrough, he will get impatient to get the matter wrapped up.”
  11. The President underlined “he wants to be seen as good for Russia in the history books.”
  12. The President underlined “the War remains an earthshaking experience for him” as well as this sentence.
  13. The President underlined “in recent years he feels like he’s forty years old” and wrote in the margin: “told his wife for the last five years [he] felt forty.”
  14. The President underlined this sentence.
  15. The President underlined the previous three sentences.
  16. The President marked this paragraph.
  17. The President underlined this sentence.
  18. The President underlined this sentence.
  19. The President underlined the two previous sentences.
  20. The President underlined this sentence.