263. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Leonid I. Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU
  • Andrei M. Aleksandrov-Agentov, Assistant to the General Secretary
  • Viktor M. Sukhodrev, Interpreter
  • The President
  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Helmut Sonnenfeldt, Senior NSC Staff Member (Notetaker)


  • SALT; Vietnam (briefly at end)
[Page 1011]

[The meeting began with some light exchanges between Brezhnev and the President concerning Dr. Kissinger’s previous visit to Moscow and the conversations at that time. The President also mentioned that he had shown Ambassador Dobrynin where Brezhnev would stay when he comes to the United States. The President said that Camp David was not as nice as the Kremlin. He went on to say that Franklin Roosevelt, who was crippled, fished in a pond sitting on a carved-out log, and they would put fish in this pond for Mr. Brezhnev. Mr. Brezhnev thanked the President and said that the Ambassador had spoken warmly about the conversation on that subject. Brezhnev said he was grateful for the President’s consideration.]2

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: I was held up because I had to consult with a small group of my colleagues. Mr. Kissinger should sit and be quiet and the President and I will finalize all the outstanding points. On the other hand, on his last visit Dr. Kissinger was very nice and we had nice talks. But that must have been because he spent three days in Moscow and benefited from its good atmosphere. Then after he returned to America he was contaminated.

The President: The trouble was that he gave everything away to the General Secretary and now I will have to take it back again.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: That reminds me of the proverb about the crayfish walking backwards—but we, of course, are only joking.

The President: The general principles that were worked out when Dr. Kissinger was here are very important.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: I and my colleagues agree. It is an important and useful document.

The President: Let us clearly understand, because of our bureaucratic problems, that we worked this out while I was here in Moscow.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: You heard how I put it this morning. I was just “initiating” something; I took account of our talk yesterday, but I had to say something so it would not come out of thin air. But now we will follow the script.

As regards the ABM question, this now appears to be cleared up. Twelve hundred is OK with us.

The President: Fifteen hundred kilometers.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: You mean we should put it in China?

The President: Well, as the General Secretary will find out, I never nitpick.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: Fifteen hundred kilometers is all right. The most important point is not the mileage. You wanted us to move [Page 1012]eastward and so now we agree. It would be easier for us to accept twelve hundred but fifteen hundred is all right too, and we won’t speak of it anymore.3

As regards land-based missiles, how do you view the agreement yesterday in Helsinki?

Dr. Kissinger: On what issue?

Sukhodrev: He is referring to the formula I read out [in the earlier meeting].4

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: I had just read the cable a half hour before.

The President: I have no doubt about the General Secretary’s attitude about the use of implements of destruction. As long as we are around I have no fear. But there are two matters of importance. One, we have to deal not only with present but future leaders. I hope they are practical men and will not engage in acts of madness. But madmen do come to power; the best example is Hitler. We don’t expect one in our country or in your country, but it is still best to have an agreement that is as balanced as possible. Second, I realize the General Secretary has to sell his position to his military. We have a similar problem but I can control ours. But the Representatives and Senators in our Armed Services Committees will watch every line of the agreement to see if we were placed at a disadvantage or who gained an advantage. I would like to make the agreement as balanced as possible to avoid that kind of problem. And it has been raised already. In fact, I was on the phone at 4:00 a.m. this morning to Washington to arrange steps to quiet the opposition if we should sign on Friday.

This is not a matter of lack of trust but a problem of dealing with an opposition. What really would solve the problem for us would be the recognition of the right of modernization, no increase in the size of silos, as already discussed, but where we would unilaterally point out that modernization would not be used significantly to increase the payload size.

Dr. Kissinger: The missile size.

The President: We would spell out “significantly” to be 15%. Otherwise a critic could say on the floor of the Senate that through modernization [Page 1013]one could double the size of the missile. Whether this would really be so I don’t know, but it would still have to be answered.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: Mr. President, if you have completed your thought I should like to say this. We would agree that under the agreement both sides would be entitled to modernization without replacing small missiles with bigger ones, that is to say converting them. Also this would be on the understanding that in the process of modernization of every type there should be no significant increase of either silo or missile. Then there would be no need for a unilateral statement. Because if there are going to be questions, they would also be asked in the Soviet Union: “What kind of an agreement is this if unilateral statements have to be made about it?” You should have a freeze; no new missiles; lesser ones cannot be changed into big ones; and modernization permitted only with insignificant increases in the size of the silos. Of course, the word “insignificant” is very vague, and I don’t mind seeing it refined. It is relative. For example, what is insignificant in the case of a big missile? Perhaps we should define it in terms of a percentage. In short, we could reach an understanding to avoid doubts by Senators and legislators in either country. So we would have an agreement to avoid doubts. As for what Mr. Kissinger suggested at the outset, I don’t understand it and I don’t think we should revert to it.

Now the experts in Helsinki are very literate and competent people, and we should have trust in them. I am sure they know more of the finer points than I because they have studied them more than I. We should agree to accept their formula even without “significant.” The sides could modify missiles without changing dimensions of silos or missiles so both sides would be in the same position. But if you want to keep “significant,” that would be all right too because we are very flexible.5

I would like to add that there is also another political aspect to the question of land-based missiles, and that is that we commit ourselves not only to freezing but to reducing strategic arms. We are ready to [Page 1014]proceed to bilateral consultations with you and to continue the arduous work so that by an important date in the history of the United States [presumably the Bicentennial Anniversary], or even earlier, we could solve this problem of reducing. So I suggest we stick to the formula worked out in Helsinki. I would not like to see a unilateral statement. It would look like one kind of an agreement in Moscow and another in Washington. What kind of an agreement would it be if it leads to interpretations? The obligation should be reciprocal and the President and I should be responsible for what was signed.

The President: I agree. We prefer a joint agreement. That is, modernization is permitted but the size of the silo and of the missiles could not be significantly increased. With the details to be worked out by professors.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: [pause] As I see it, this is almost the same wording as in Helsinki but the wording includes missile modernization.

Dr. Kissinger: We would add that the size of the volume of the missile and the silo would not be increased significantly. Other modernization would be permitted.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: You would allow “insignificant” modernization.

The President: Modernization would be permitted according to what the scientists develop and design, but there could be no increase in silo or missile size beyond the insignificant. Otherwise, it is not a limitation.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: We can agree on this if we elaborate the meaning of the word. What is it—5%? 10%? What percentage?

The President: We had better work out a figure—10%, 15%. It can’t be too big or it won’t be a limitation. We must keep it in the realm of 15%. And, of course, this works for both sides.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: In short, I would sum up then. There is the first part of the agreement that states that both sides freeze the number of missiles. Then there is the second part that says they are not allowed to increase significantly the size of silos and missiles. Then “significantly” could be worked out to say it means not more than X%. But on the exact number of this percentage I would like to consult with my colleagues. So the first part is agreed, but “significant” I have to think over until tomorrow. Also, we have the question of whether this is in the agreement or on the way.

The President: The smaller the percentage the better. The people would understand 10% but not 30%. We are prepared to negotiate. The General Secretary should consult and we will do the same.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: Another question has arisen in my mind in the course of our discussion today. As I look at the formula we received from Helsinki I notice two words: “modernization” and “replacement.” [Page 1015]Modernization is one thing but replacement is another. It appears that both sides are permitted to replace one type of missile for another, and it would have greater volume. It would be better for public opinion if we restrained this, if we had both sides should be permitted to improve existing types of missiles and have insignificant increases in sizes. Our experts say you are replacing Poseidon with God knows what—it was a good thing I am not on our delegation! When we agree to replacement, this entails the possibility that military men will say we should replace one missile with a more powerful one and then the factories would work full blast. But if we say “modernization and perfection” this would not happen. If we say “replacement” we could mean new types and this would just mean the continuation of the arms race. We really should endeavor to take a drastic step.

The President: This only involves land-based missiles. You can’t increase the volume simply by replacing the missile. But this was a Soviet proposal anyway.

Dr. Kissinger: The replacement language has existed since January of 1971. It has long since been agreed.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: OK. I will leave it at that.

The President: I think we have covered it. Now let me see if I can understand the submarine question correctly. We have 950 SLBMs and 62 boats for you and 44 boats and 710 SLBMs for us. But, of course, we actually have only 41 boats and 656 missiles. That’s where we start.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: If I might just sum up that both sides expect that in the process of modernization and replacement, there will be no significant increase in the size of silos and missiles. The remaining task is to find a reasonable interpretation of “significant.”

The President: We will be reasonable. I agree.

What we were discussing earlier was the H-and G-Class submarines. How many are there?

Dr. Kissinger: I won’t tell the General Secretary or he will get angry again.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: On the figures of the submarines: As I said earlier, we have a certain group of submarines dating back to before 1964 with only three missiles each. They have all sorts of defects in their engines and so on. We have agreed to scrap them and replace them with new ones. They are no good to us.

Then we also have a considerable territorial disadvantage. The President was fair enough to say that we could have seven submarines more than the United States. We wanted more but we agreed to 48. That means we build 48 under the agreement and you 44 so the difference is really only four. I want to inject complete clarity. Forty-eight need not be mentioned in the main agreement but in the additional [Page 1016]agreement it would state that we are entitled to 48. And then whatever else we build would be simultaneous with the removal of old ICBMs and old submarines. So, if for reasons of your own, for example Congress, you think you would not want to mention this in the agreement we can put it into the additional agreement.

Now you say you have no intention to build the three submarines. We have no problem about this. But I have here a report from the Washington Post quoting your Secretary of Defense Laird that the United States is planning to build 10 big new submarines and that $10 billion have already been appropriated and that each is to carry 24 missiles and will become operational by the end of the ‘70s. Now, this is incompatible with our agreement, so how are we to understand it? We accepted the 44/710 and the 62/950. But now we are confronted with a new issue. Because by the end of the period the United States will have 10 new submarines with 24 missiles and much more modern than now. This is not an evening out, but on the contrary, the United States will get an advantage.

Dr. Kissinger: First, we had always told your Ambassador when discussing these programs about the new submarine; he had always known that it was going on. Secondly, it won’t be operational until the late 70’s. The first, as I understand it, will be in 1979; two in 1980, and then it won’t be till 1982 or ‘83 that we will have 10. If we have a permanent agreement it would apply at that point. If the new ones come in during the freeze, we would retire the same number of tubes—for every two ULMs, three Polaris. The ceiling would apply.

The President: If you get a permanent agreement this becomes moot; this is the main point. The alternative is that both—and this shows why the agreement is so important—will pour billions more into submarines.

Dr. Kissinger: [To the President] You had intended a big speed-up of our submarine program but then cancelled it because of the SALT agreement.

The President: Yes. Because of the Soviet speed-up I had tentatively ordered the Navy to speed up the submarines, but I stopped it. But if we can get permanent agreement, we wouldn’t pour money into the program. Of course, they would only be replacements under the numbers you are giving here, or lower numbers if we later agree on them.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: I think that approach makes it more difficult for me to take a decision. I now understand why the President won’t build the three submarines since you have initiated a new program. I would have done the same thing. This changes the whole principle. We discussed the principle of evening out. But now you have a new program for new submarines of new size and with new range. You could even shoot rockets from territorial waters or from your home base. This requires earnest thinking on my part. It would be one thing if you [Page 1017]built just one pilot boat. Or if it involves withdrawal of two or one-and-a-half boats for every new one. That would make sense and then our figure—950—would make sense. In fact, I am not even sure that we can build this figure in the present Five-Year Plan. It may be beyond our economic capacity. But in the meantime, you will make a leap forward in range and capacity. I don’t know what you told our Ambassador; I may have forgotten it. But this creates a serious problem.

I do want to reach understanding and bring this matter to completion, but to be frank and speaking with all the respect I have for you, if this program is carried out, you will have a significant superiority.

The President: You have to look at it in two time frames. First, there is no program during the freeze. We would not put any new submarines into the fleet. The first one would be in 1979 and then two in 1980. Now, secondly, if in this period we have a new agreement on the same number, or a lower number, these submarines would be substituted for older ones and the numbers would not be affected. It would mean retiring old submarines with an equivalent number of missiles. There is no advantage intended and none certainly that affects this agreement.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: You mean if we agree to 950?

The President: Yes, we would be frozen. You have the same right.

One argument we hear—and we had many discussions over the months—is that the Soviet Union’s missiles are much larger than ours. So you have a significant advantage there. But we are here as reasonable men to work out a balanced program and that requires some give and take on both sides.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: With all the missiles and all the secrecy you think our missiles are bigger and we think yours are, and a lot of propaganda is raised.

The President: I wish you were right, but I am afraid I am. Actually, they are all too big. That’s my view.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: I am sure you have probably either attended or seen demonstrations and know that the smallest missile is enough to destroy a city. Even a small bomb can paralyze and destroy every-thing—water, electricity, gas and the rest. And then, of course, there is the pollution.

The President: That’s why agreement is so important.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: What do you think about the idea of converting the submarine agreement into a permanent one, I mean the figures? And you and we would be entitled to modernize.

The President: Not now. I would have to go back to consult and that would take some months. It can be considered later, but not now. People can count: 950–710—the United States is behind. No, not now.

[Page 1018]

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: But your productive capacity is much greater. It makes no difference if the earliest date for you is 1979; the main thing is the pilot boat and then they go through the assembly line like pancakes.

The President: We must recognize that we each have great capabilities and if there is a race both lose. Now, for example, you talk about the size of the U.S. economy. In 1960, when Khrushchev was in the United States, we had an advantage in missiles of 10 to 1. Today, it’s even. We respect your power. We are both strong now and neither will leave the other an advantage. That is why we need an agreement or we will bankrupt each other in the arms race.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: I value your frankness, but doesn’t that testify that by 1979, at the end of the agreement, the U.S. wants superiority? But frankly, we won’t let you.

The President: We would be labeled fools if we don’t reach agreement by then.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: It’s not a question of labels.

The President: I would consider this agreement a great achievement for us and all the world. I want to reach a permanent agreement but my time is limited—less than five years. After then, I am out—swimming in the Pacific. Maybe even before.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: Don’t go out before that, Mr. President.

The President: I want the General Secretary and myself to meet again, perhaps in the U.S. or here.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: I have no objection to more than one meeting. In fact, they should become routine events in the natural course of developments.

The President: This agreement is the hors d’oeuvre. Next comes the main course.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: If I might just throw in another idea. Make the agreement last 10, not five, years. In fact, why have we chosen five years?

Dr. Kissinger: You started at 18 months.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: No, first it was three years, then we suggested five.

Dr. Kissinger: No, I think you started with 18 months.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: Now we are bolder, more venturesome. But I am saying things that have not even been discussed in my own circle. I am just thinking aloud.

The President: We should do that—thinking aloud. I may do it too in the next few days. It took a long time to get this far. I know the General Secretary had to sell this agreement to his people, as I had to sell it to mine.

[Page 1019]

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: On the basis of what has already been achieved, we are growing bolder. If at first it seemed to involve great risk, now it looks feasible.

The President: I make this commitment to the General Secretary: Once we make this agreement we will move aggressively to the next phase. Dr. Kissinger will tell you I generally do more than I say.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: I would like to see three examples.

The President: Well, for example, next spring in Washington might be a good time to take the next step.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: It would make no sense leaving Washington empty-handed. You will carry much baggage from Moscow.

The President: I will give him a golf cart if he likes it.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: But I don’t play.

The President: You don’t have to. You can use it on the sidewalk.

Anyway, let’s get a good agreement.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: To sum up: I cannot give you a final answer this morning, but I will endeavor to do it tomorrow morning. You get 41 plus three and 710. But you give us the private assurance not to build three. We get 62 and 950. This is all logical. It’s also agreed we get 48 submarines which we build to compensate for our territorial disadvantage. Whatever other submarines we build will be only to replace older missiles.

But we have to report to my colleagues that you have this other program. They all read this story from the Washington Post too—this program with one submarine operational by 1979, two by 1980 and all ten by 1983. You have indicated that if any of them become operational before 1979 it would only be as replacement for older submarines with an equivalent number of missiles. And if it is after the end of the freeze, you will make no change in the numbers.

The President: That depends on the agreement. It should also be said that if you put modern missiles on your older submarines, they count in your 950, just as we have a limit of 710.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: Even in the event of your new subs becoming operational.

The President: That is a moot question. None will become operational in five years—no chance. Also, as our technology goes forward, so will yours. So it is important to get a permanent agreement.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: I understand the situation and will report to my colleagues. You do confirm 48, on which we agreed?

The President: Forty-eight new ones; actually 62.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: Any built above it will require dismantling of old missiles.

The President: The top is 950. Our own number is really 41.

[Page 1020]

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: We accept what you say, though in the final analysis an extra three won’t make any difference.

The President: But we won’t do it.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: But you will have a good statement to make. The number 48 need not be mentioned in the main agreement, but in the supplemental one.

The President: Fine.

Dr. Kissinger: So—no figures in the main agreement, but figures in the supplement.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: Therefore, it is correct to say we have no other issues on strategic arms. Right?

The President: On the mobiles. We had raised this but since we worked out the situation with regard to the size of missiles, let’s throw it out. Of course, some of our people think you have them.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: we’ve got plenty, haven’t you seen them rolling around the Kremlin? Mr. President, then I’ll consult with my colleagues. I do believe we have reached an understanding, and I will give you an answer in the morning. We could then give instructions to Helsinki or have them come here.

The President: Well, it is better to give them to Helsinki so we can get on with the other things we have here.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: We ought to agree on common instructions.

Dr. Kissinger: How about the first item?

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: Which one is that?

Dr. Kissinger: Well, the definition of heavy missiles. Can we send instruction that the size of the silo and the size of the missile cannot be changed?

The President: We will check the notes and take it from the notes.

[Brezhnev gets up to make phone call which goes on for about four minutes.]

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: Maybe we should leave it till morning because I can only reach one. For now we should leave it as it was in the message received from Helsinki, the one that deals with silos only. In the morning I can give you a package deal.

Dr. Kissinger: So we won’t send instructions.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: You and I have agreed in principle, but we can leave the situation as it is as far as Helsinki is concerned.

[Brezhnev reads brief announcement:

“On 23 May a meeting took place in the Kremlin between General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU, L.I. Brezhnev, and President of the USA, Richard M. Nixon. The talks continued between L.I. Brezhnev and R. Nixon on questions of Soviet-American relations.”]

[Page 1021]

Anyway the 950 and 710 will last until 1978, the end of this agreement. Incidentally, I would like to ask how do you see the end of the limitation agreement?

Dr. Kissinger: Five years after ratification.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: When do you contemplate ratification?

Dr. Kissinger: The plan is to put the offensive agreement to Congress but we expect no problem.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: You have no doubts.

The President: Unless you drive too hard a bargain.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: This is not a point of principle. The important thing is to get ratification.

The President: That is why I met with the leaders of Congress and this morning called them on the phone. We are working on the Congressional business already.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: We have reached an understanding on almost all questions and will give you an answer in the morning.6 One more point. I just got a TASS report from Paris saying that today the delegation of the PRG of Vietnam sent a message to the U.S. and South Vietnamese to resume the work of the conference—the 150th session on May 25. And there is also a similar message from the DRV.

The President: We will have an opportunity to discuss this later. We have had 149 sessions and no progress. When we have concrete assurance of progress then we can consider this.

Gen Sec’y Brezhnev: Well, I was just thinking along the line that while you are here there might be significance in your making a response—a positive response. But I am just thinking out loud.

[After closing pleasantries, the meeting adjourned.]7

[Page 1022]
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 487, President’s Trip Files, The President’s Conversations in Salzburg, Moscow, Tehran, and Warsaw, May 1972, Part 1. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The meeting was held in the General Secretary’s office in the Kremlin. According to the President’s Daily Diary, the meeting was from 7:20 to 10 p.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files)
  2. All brackets in the source text.
  3. In his memoirs Kissinger wrote of this exchange: “Brezhnev opened the meeting by accepting our proposed distance 1,500 kilometers between ABM sites. Unfortunately, unknown to either leader, the American delegation in Helsinki had already settled for the Soviet proposal of 1,300 kilometers that morning. Brezhnev had offered us a better deal than our negotiators had already accepted. It made no difference; we were finally stuck with the version negotiated at Helsinki; the difference was marginal anyway.” (White House Years, pp. 1221–1222)
  4. The U.S. memorandum of conversation ( Document 262) does not record any statement by Sukhodrev.
  5. Kissinger recalled that Brezhnev, “having offered a total freeze on silo size in the earlier meeting, seemed a little baffled that we would not go along with what had been our position months earlier and would take care of our fear of an upgrading of Soviet missiles.” Kissinger himself could still not understand what Brezhnev thought he was doing. He speculated that possibly Brezhnev was simply confused by the technical details and thus unable to grasp the distinction between silo dimensions and missile volume, but he noted that this was the last time they encountered Brezhnev in a SALT negotiation without advisers. (White House Years, p. 1222) Nixon, on the other hand, wrote in his memoirs: “Despite the impatience he affected with the details and numbers, Brezhnev was obviously very well briefed on the subject. He used a red pencil to sketch missiles on the notepad in front of him as we discussed the timing and techniques of control and limitation.” ( RN: Memoirs, p. 611)
  6. In his memoirs Kissinger wrote that “when the two leaders turned to SLBMs, they simply repeated the argument of the earlier session. It was left that Gromyko and I would meet the next morning to see whether we could formulate joint instructions to the delegations.” (White House Years, p. 1222)
  7. In backchannel message Hakto 21 to Helsinki, early in the morning of May 24, Kissinger sent Smith—exclusively for his personal information and to be confirmed after a further meeting that day—the results of the negotiations at that point. The Soviets would accept 1,500 kilometers separation of the second area site from the national capital, and the Politburo was considering a statement that during the process of modernization and replacement of ICBMs, there could be no significant increase in size of silo or volume of missile with “significant” further defined to be no more than 10–15 percent. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 427, Backchannel Files, Backchannel Messages, 1972, SALT)