284. Memorandum of Conversation1

PARTICIPANTS

  • Leonid I. Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the CPSU
  • Nikolai V. Podgorny, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR
  • Aleksey N. Kosygin, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR
  • Andrey A. Gromyko, Minister of Foreign Affairs
  • Anatoliy F. Dobrynin, Soviet Ambassador to the USA
  • Andrei M. Aleksandrov-Agentov, Assistant to the General Secretary
  • Viktor M. Sukhodrev, Interpreter
  • Mr. Gavilov, Notetaker
  • The President
  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Peter W. Rodman, NSC Staff, Notetaker

SUBJECT

  • The Middle East

Secretary Brezhnev: Did your wife enjoy the ballet?2

The President: Oh, everybody is raving about it. It was so good it almost spoils everything else. We both like the theater, and classical theater much better than modern.

Secy. Brezhnev: Was that your first visit to the Bolshoi?

The President: Yes.

Secy. Brezhnev: It’s cozy and impressive. And how is Dr. Kissinger?

Has he been thinking, as usual?

The President: I don’t know, I never see him.

Secy. Brezhnev: He should be kept under constant surveillance.

Dr. Kissinger: Your Foreign Minister is watching me all the time.

The President: He hasn’t been sleeping much.

Secy. Brezhnev: And nobody knows where he really spends his time.

The President: I haven’t asked his secretary.

[Page 1129]

Chairman Podgorny: He has a secretary? She is the one to ask.

Foreign Minister Gromyko: I must speak in defense of Kissinger.

Secy. Brezhnev: [to Gromyko]:3 You and Kissinger have had a long and dubious record of contacts. [to the President]: And how are you generally? Do you get time for rest?

The President: I’m fine. There is not much time for rest. Like the General Secretary and his colleagues, this takes priority. I have to call Washington about programs—the welfare program, the tax program, all domestic programs. This takes up the morning.

Secy. Brezhnev: Since that is so, we must all take care to save our time. Let us now begin on substantive matters. We should proceed as closely as possible to the program worked out by Kissinger and Gromyko. On the list of fairly acute problems we should take up, we have the Middle East. And perhaps we can say a few words on Korea and Cuba. At the dinner we had, I said that the Middle East is a difficult problem for us both.4 We proceed from the assumption that regardless of the complexity of problems we must make efforts to find solutions to the problems. It is not worthy of states simply to make reference to the complexity of problems. I think we should note at the outset, and perhaps take as a basis, that both you and we as Permanent Members of the UN Security Council adopted in concert the well-known Resolution of November 22, 1967,5 that calls for the Israeli invaders to vacate Arab territory they have occupied. You are aware that our attitude toward the UN and the Security Council is one of respect. If we allow anyone on the outside to feel we are in any measure ignoring that important world organization and aren’t doing our utmost to defend the organization, that means we would be discrediting that organization. And particularly during this summit, even the slightest lack of clarity about our position on the UN would have a most serious negative effect on the world.

But the fact is that though much time has elapsed, Israel is still not showing any signs of implementing the Security Council Resolution. As of this moment, we might appear to some people to be taking an indifferent stand toward this attitude of Israel toward the Security Council Resolution. Whatever words or speeches we make or letters we exchange or statements we make, reasoning through the science of logic, I feel that is the way things look. There are, of course, and quite [Page 1130]naturally, different attitudes on the part of Israel and the Arabs to the position taken by us both. Israel is very pleased with the situation; the Arabs are evincing legitimate indignation. It is impossible not to say that practically all of the states of the world are taking a negative not a positive view of the existing situation.

We are quite sure you are familiar with the situation in that part of the world. We should both proceed from the fact that the situation is explosive [opasno]. If you take the Arab World and Israel as an area, you will see that in this comparatively small part of the world there are now concentrated over a million troops. If we add to that the feelings of wrath, and other moral factors of no small importance, we would be right in taking a serious view of this in our discussion. Unless some joint efforts are made, it is hard to visualize what direction developments may take. No one can really foresee, unless such efforts are made, how the situation will end.

We would suggest that we should place at the very basis of our discussion all these factors, and proceeding from them we should try to find a solution capable of bringing a settlement in the interests of all countries in the area, without privileges or advantages for any country. One can easily imagine how highly our efforts would be valued all over the world if that solution could guarantee peace and tranquility in the region. Our prestige would certainly grow.

If you agree with me, Mr. President, we could begin discussions on this basis, which in our view is the only correct one. There has been a copious exchange of communications between us on this, official and confidential, and we would welcome any observations you may have.

The President: The difficulty is to find a permanent solution, which we can sell to both sides. It is there that we need to find some different formula from what we’ve considered up to date. The UN Resolution, which we also support, would seem to offer such a formula, but in view of the difficulties that have occurred, the Israelis insist on some guarantee for their own defense. They will not agree to total withdrawal [as required by the Resolution]6 unless there are guarantees for their defense.

Another problem: As arms are poured into that area by both sides, the chances for conflict are increased. I know the Soviet Union has shown restraint in this respect, and we’ve tried to show some restraint, despite congressional pressures. Foreign Minister Gromyko discussed this with us and displayed the Soviet interest in trying to cut the arms flow in this area.

[Page 1131]

As I pointed out to Prime Minister Kosygin last night, the Middle East, while not in the immediate sense as urgent a problem as Vietnam, in the long term is much more serious because it involves a potential conflict of our vital interests, those of the US, the USSR and other nations in the Mediterranean.7

I know there is an assumption that it’s impossible for any American President to be reasonable about the Middle East because of the political situation in the US. I emphasized that that is not a consideration which will influence me in my decision in this matter. But we face here a very difficult practical problem. You may believe you have difficulties with some of your friends in the area; our ability to influence the Israelis, particularly since they’ve been so successful in their wars up to this point, is very limited. And I would further point out that, looking at it in a practical sense, if the US is tied totally to Israel and the Soviet Union has its relations with most of Israel’s neighbors better than the US, this is certainly not in our interest.

I say these things only to indicate that it is our desire—because we believe it is in our interest and because I believe it is in the long-term interests of Israel itself—to use our influence to bring about a permanent settlement. The problem is to find a formula which both sides will accept. Up to now we haven’t been able to find that formula.

We had thought at one time that the specific wording of the UN Resolution—which requires not total withdrawal but withdrawal to secure and recognized borders—might provide a formula, but neither side has been willing to be reasonable to find a formula.

I think the attitude of the Soviet Union has been very constructive. When Mr. Gromyko reported to me that if the other circumstances worked out the Soviet Union would be willing to withdraw its military forces—as distinct from advisers—(I haven’t worked out the whole details) that was very constructive. But that requires something from Israel that they simply have not done.

To put it very simply, our ties with Israel poison our relations with Israel’s major neighbors—with the UAR, Syria and many others in the Moslem world who side against Israel.

Now we have prepared a paper on this matter which I will submit to the General Secretary and his colleagues, in response to one that you have prepared. I would not suggest that this is a paper that will solve the problem, but it does indicate our thinking at this point.

[Page 1132]

I simply want to close by saying that I have determined that the interests of the United States are being very seriously damaged by the continuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I favor action in any form to—not to end it, but to cool it. The only question really open to us for tactics is how and when can we move to act. If we can discuss these tactics and find a formula, we may be able to make a breakthrough.

I had thought that one approach might be to try an interim measure at this time, to make some progress. But I’ve been reading Dr. Kissinger’s conversations with the General Secretary and Foreign Minister in Moscow,8 and as I understand the Soviet position, you must have a total understanding on the final settlement before an interim step. To reach a total understanding at this time, for example, on this day, would be extremely difficult.

Secy. Brezhnev: Mr. President, to make myself absolutely clear, you are correct in recalling our conversations with Dr. Kissinger, we did not rule out all interim arrangements altogether, namely the clearing of the Suez Canal, the crossing of Egyptian forces to the other side, etc. But the agreement is in the final package. Certainly if you have a final settlement all at once, you don’t need an interim solution at all. So I said we should reach some understanding on the final settlement and could then proceed to an interim solution, having in mind the final goal.

The President: There is another problem. I will be asked on my return what, if anything, was decided secretly on the Arab-Israeli problem. There will be questions from many sides, the Congress, etc. But I believe we could discuss where we feel we should come out; on that point, as I said, we have prepared our principles here which respond to yours.

I suggest we hand you this. It’s in reply to the paper you gave to us. You could study it, we could come back to it Sunday or Monday. Obviously if we don’t finish it now, we could finish it in the special channel.

I simply want to assure all concerned that I feel very strongly that the issue has to be settled. We are not in a position to settle it today because frankly we’re not in a position to deliver the Israelis on anything so far proposed. But we simply cannot allow that festering sore to continue. It is dangerous to us both—frankly it is more dangerous to us than to you.

[Page 1133]

Henry, is there anything you want to add? [The President then hands over the US draft of “Basic Provisions for a Final Settlement in the Middle East,” at Tab A.]9

Dr. Kissinger: The paper covers exactly the same points in your paper [the Soviet proposal of April 22 in Moscow],10 and states our position on those points. We propose to see to what extent they can be reconciled in further discussions over the summer.

Secy. Brezhnev: The difficulty, of course, Mr. President, is that we don’t know the content of this because it is in English. So I suggest some break before we can return to the matter. But that is not the crux of the matter. By the gist of your remarks, I see a certain element of hopelessness in your judgment. I don’t think we should be so pessimistic and balk at taking active steps. As I see it, you are saying we are up against a blank wall. Both should see it as an explosive situation.

Chairman Kosygin: Mr. President, I have just one question. However much we discuss this matter, we still come back to the basic point, which is the question, Will Israel vacate the territories it has occupied or not? With full guarantees that the old frontiers will not be violated and that Israel as a state will be recognized by all Arab nations. This means under all conditions, Israel will come out from this conflict with advantages not disadvantages. Because Israel will then have come out of the conflict having achieved the goals it set before the conflict. Its goals will be met. Unless both sides take steps to prevent this conflict, matters can get out of hand, despite our best efforts.

The President: I don’t want to leave the impression I consider the situation hopeless. As a matter of fact, I am only raising a problem of timing, which is now difficult for us, if we are to affect the Israelis. As Dr. Kissinger will tell you, I have emphasized on occasion after occasion that I will not allow political considerations to influence our decision. We are interested in the survival of Israel and so forth, but we are also interested in developing good ties with Israel’s neighbors. We want a fair settlement, a fast settlement. The Prime Minister is correct to describe withdrawal to secure and recognized borders as the main issue. The question is how to make it happen when. That is what this discussion is aimed at trying to find.

Chairman Kosygin: But where do you see the possibility for us both to join our efforts to achieve the settlement?

The President: I think both of us would have a great problem if we were to join in any kind of arrangement that was not approved by [Page 1134]those we represent on both sides. While the two great nations, the Soviet Union and the United States, can and must play a major role in pressing the parties to reach a settlement and having discussions, and have a role in guaranteeing a settlement, there is a problem if we were to try to determine what this settlement should be. For us to attempt at this time to impose a settlement on Israel would be an insurmountable problem.

For example, before we came here we talked to representatives of the Israel government just as you talked to the UAR. Perhaps Dr. Kissinger can give you a rundown of what we find, of what is practical and what is not practical.

Secy. Brezhnev: We would not object to that, but if I might make a few observations first.

The President: Sure

Secy. Brezhnev: We want you to understand, Mr. President, we are not imagining that we are meeting here to write out the text of an agreement between the Arab states and Israel, a text we can hand to them and say “There’s the text, now you have to sign.” That is not what we mean. We feel we can cooperate to act on the basis of the Security Council Resolution and work out the principles that could be achieved. We are not saying something has to be done today, or tomorrow, or the day after. But as important major powers, we can make an effort so that both sides can reach tranquillity on the basis of guaranteeing the interests of all states. We can talk about a peaceful settlement in the region on the basis of the Security Council Resolution and can act in accord with one another. This doesn’t mean we want to impede the ties of the US to any of the states in the region. Of course, we cannot deprive you of the right to have good and normal relations with countries like Syria, Egypt and Iraq just as you can’t deprive us of the right. Each state in the region is entitled to have good and normal relations with any state.

What we want is to put an end to the hot bed, to get the respect of all.

Chairman Kosygin: It is also wrong to say you are representing one side and we another. We seek to find a solution fair to all parties.

Secy. Brezhnev: We’re not assuming we can inscribe into some joint document, for example, a joint communiqué, that “On Friday we can do something on the Middle East, on Saturday this, or Sunday that, etc.” But we can endeavor to find ways to act in accord, in order to secure an agreed settlement. If we start injecting irrelevant elements into our thinking, we won’t get very far. Because on both sides we could talk about US military aid to Israel and ours to the Arabs. It would get us nowhere. What we must do is act on the basis of the Security Council Resolution, in full accord with the parties concerned.

[Page 1135]

Chairman Kosygin: If we acted as representatives of the two sides, we would quickly find between ourselves the same problems that now divide the Arabs and Israel. What we want, as Comrade Brezhnev has correctly put it, is to bring about a solution to this problem, which has in many ways been artificially created and to which we think there is a basis for solution, a solution to this festering sore.

Secy. Brezhnev: It is well known that your ties with these countries in the economic and other fields are of longer standing than ours. We don’t buy oil, or have concessions, or important business interests. The only thing we lay claim to is the establishment of peace in the Middle East and we certainly don’t wish to deprive you of your ties. It is wrong of you to be under that misapprehension. We should conduct our discussions on this topic as on others—in a frank and open spirit. We should discuss one underlying topic—how to bring peace with justice for all the parties, naturally including Israel. We supported the founding of Israel and voted for it. We stand by that.

The President: [interrupting the translation]: And many Israel leaders are proud of their Russian background.

Secy. Brezhnev: But even that wasn’t our main consideration. We favored Israel as an independent state. If we severed diplomatic relations, it was only as a token of our indignation at Israel’s aggression. We are certainly in favor of Israel’s being secure as a state, and of joining in giving guarantees.

Chairman Podgorny: Even when the Arabs were overcome by belligerence, when there were utterances that Israel should be liquidated as a state, we said plainly to Nasser that this stand ran counter to our position and our ideology. We told him we favored the constitution of Israel as a state. Nasser withdrew the slogan of the destruction of Israel as a state, and he went on to say he accepted the existence of Israel as a state.

Secy. Brezhnev: You are right in believing we would participate in providing Israel with guarantees of its secure existence. But at the same time, the other states in the region should have equally strong guarantees against a repetition of aggression.

Both of us have the necessary strength and rights to reach an understanding. We could reach an understanding on what could be our final goals, on what we could come out and say openly. We could reach an understanding on the timing of what could be done. But if we both say we have one general goal but don’t want to talk of methods, then the entire thing is placed in doubt.

We made a good agreement at the start to talk in a frank, forthright and honest way. This was a wonderful agreement; it makes for better mutual understanding. In this context, our discussion on this subject has a particular importance. There are in the world today many [Page 1136]who are eager to depict the confrontation as not between Israel and Arabs but between the Soviet Union and the US. I’m sure you understand our words. Israel is the aggressor, not the US or USSR. But many seek to depict it as a war between us. If we gloss over this, Israel will stay in the shade, and the whole question of the Security Council Resolution will be clouded over, but there will be a cold war and confrontation between our two nations.

On the position of the Soviet Government, let me say a couple of words. Comrade Podgorny signed a treaty with Egypt.11 It was not a military treaty but a treaty of friendship and collaboration. There is no clause calling for military intervention. This is the best reflection of the true position of the Soviet Union.

We should talk with frankness and forthrightness. We should talk about where we want to go. The physical registering [of our accord], of course, is another matter. The political position in the US is clear, and we are perfectly willing to take electoral circumstances in the US into account.

Our position in the Middle East is not offensive. As you know, the [formal] time limits of the ceasefire have long since passed without any firing. That was not without our influence.

Chairman Podgorny: We’re urged restraint on all countries.

Chairman Kosygin: The restraining position taken by the Soviet Union is the basis of the whole peace.

The President: Let me remind you frankly of the method I think we ought to follow. It is okay to write this down, but it could be very embarrassing to others in our government.

Secy. Brezhnev: We won’t write it.

The President: It is okay to write it; it is important in order to understand it.

First, the ceasefire was a public operation. But actions since then in the public forum have been a miserable flop. I don’t mean that our Secretary of State and Assistant Secretary of State Sisco haven’t worked hard, but this issue is so inflamed, it will not be settled by debating it in the UN and by each side’s firing verbal broadsides at each other and exchanging papers. What we must do is continue to have these public movements, to cool the situation as much as possible, and to avoid the breaking of the ceasefire.

But, to be very frank, the way the issue will be settled—and that’s why we have this meeting, is for the US and Soviet Union privately [Page 1137]and with discretion to use their influence to bring the parties together to make a settlement. We must be careful because both sides, Israel and the Arabs, are very sensitive if they feel the big powers are seeking to impose a settlement.

But putting it cold turkey, if you continue to help the UAR and we continue to help Israel, there won’t be a settlement; there will be a war. And we know that while we aren’t directly involved, it will involve us. In 1967 it required Mr. Kosygin to come to the UN.12

What I am prepared to do is this: I am prepared to have Kissinger as my special representative. He knows more about it than anyone else. Let me be very candid. We talk about religion. Kissinger is supposed to be Jewish—but he’s an American. I’m a Quaker, but I know you think I am warlike. As an aside, between our friends on the Soviet side, I’m a Quaker first, like my mother. The point is that Kissinger has the total confidence of the Israeli government and the Israeli Ambassador who Dobrynin knows is very influential with the Israeli government. I propose that Kissinger and Dobrynin talk in the special channel on the basis of your paper and our paper, to see if we can set a time. By September, after the conventions are over—at the latest by September—we can try to get to the nutcutting part of the problem. (I don’t know if that will translate!)13

Dr. Kissinger: The question is whose are being cut.

The President: By then, if we have something, Kissinger can come here, or Gromyko can come to the U.S. I think the achievement of a settlement is of the highest importance.

It may be necessary to take two bites of the apple—one in September, one afterward. The important thing is to get a general understanding in principle on where we want to go.

Let me add one other thing. I consider the matter so important that if the General Secretary and his colleagues want to send a message to me, I will discuss it directly with Dobrynin—if it’s a matter that requires my attention.

Candidly, we can’t settle it before the election, but after that we can make progress, in a fair way.

Secy. Brezhnev: Mr. President, I and my colleagues have listened with great attention to all you have said. We agree it is important to reach an understanding on time limits on when we can reach certain [Page 1138]things and do certain things. The questions of form and methods too are important. It is also important that you are prepared to look personally into it whenever it is required.

But there is another important matter. You say we should make efforts to bring both sides together. That is correct in general. But we should have clear in our minds what are the principles on which there shall be a solution. If we don’t, we won’t know where we want to go. If we do have agreed principles, then it doesn’t matter if we have to wait several months before taking certain steps. We can wait some months, then act vigorously. Also, of course, whatever we do, the bedrock foundation of what we do should be the decision of the Security Council. Otherwise the sides might never agree.

Chairman Podgorny: This is especially necessary in view of the tense situation in the area, where tensions may some times get out of hand.

Secy. Brezhnev: Of course, apart from the basic principles, it is necessary also to meet the concern of both the Israelis and Arab states for their security; that is we should also look at some point into the way the security of all states can be guaranteed. This can all be overcome. We can consider demilitarized zones, UN personnel, guarantees secured by the Security Council or the great powers. So if we succeed in giving guarantees as strong as that … But these are all details we shouldn’t talk about now, not until we reach agreement on basic principles.

[Dr. Kissinger is called out of the room.]

The President: The best procedure is this. We can’t decide it now. We will work on the problem through the KissingerDobrynin channel, and contacts directly to the extent they are desired, and try to find a solution.

Secy. Brezhnev: Mr. President, can you tell us three—we can kick the others out to smoke outside—what are the basic principles of a settlement? To secure complete confidence, we can put the interpreter in prison for a year in a comfortable cell!

Dr. Kissinger: [returning] May I interrupt? It is a problem about SALT about the signature. [The President and Dr. Kissinger confer.]

Secy. Brezhnev: Kissinger always has to throw another complicated problem into your lap.

Dr. Kissinger: It is a problem about the signature of the Treaty.

Secy. Brezhnev: Dr. Kissinger agreed with us to have the signing tomorrow.

Dr. Kissinger: Our problem is that the delegation may not get here until 8:00 p.m. Mr. Gromyko was wondering whether to have the signing after the dinner.

Chairman Kosygin: They haven’t left Helsinki yet?

[Page 1139]

Dr. Kissinger: Mr. Gromyko is checking now.14

Chairman Kosygin: Part of the problem is TV coverage.

The President: No. The damn delegation has a piston plane, which takes 2½ hours. Television is all the same. It is not prime time in any event.

The President: I have an idea to suggest to the General Secretary. You know we had moved the dinner back an hour. If convenient, we should move the dinner to where it was in the first instance, 7:30, and then immediately after dinner, drive back here for the signing.

Chairman Podgorny: Right.

Secy. Brezhnev: Agreed.

For. Min. Gromyko: So far it’s not the text that’s being handed over to the Press, just the announcement.

Secy. Brezhnev: Then in the toasts we make, we could say that agreement has been reached.

The President: We could say that because of that we are making the toasts very brief.

Chairman Kosygin: Will you be reading your toast?

The President: No. We’d better go. Could we meet again Monday?15

Secy. Brezhnev: Yes. We have our draft of today’s announcement of these meetings.

Sukhodrev: [reading] “On May 26, talks continued in the Kremlin between L.I. Brezhnev, General Secretary of the CC CPSU; N.V. Podgorny, Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR; A.N. Kosygin, Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the USSR; and Richard Nixon, President of the USA. They concluded the discussion of the question of strategic arms limitation and agreed to sign the agreement on that question. There was also an exchange of views on certain international problems. As at previous meetings and discussions, the exchange of views proceeded in a constructive businesslike atmosphere.”

The President: Fine.

  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 2. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only. The meeting was held in General Secretary Brezhnev’s Office in the Kremlin. According to the President’s Daily Diary, the meeting was from 3:15 to 5:40 p.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files)
  2. The evening of May 25 the Presidential party attended a gala performance of Swan Lake at the Bolshoi Theatre as the guests of Kosygin and Podgorny.
  3. All brackets in the source text.
  4. Brezhnev’s comments on the “explosive” situation in the Middle East are in Document 257.
  5. For text of UN Security Council Resolution 242, November 22, 1967, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. XIX, Document 542.
  6. The bracketed phrase was, for some reason, omitted in Sukhodrev’s translation into Russian. [Footnote in the source text.]
  7. No record of a conversation between Nixon and Kosygin on the Middle East the previous evening has been found. The two men may have exchanged views informally during the Bolshoi Ballet that evening.
  8. Discussions of the Middle East during Kissinger’s secret trip to Moscow are in Documents 141, 150, 152, and 159.
  9. The U.S. counterproposal, “Basic Provisions for a Final Settlement in the Middle East,” handed to Brezhnev by the President on May 26, is attached as Tab A, but not printed.
  10. Not printed; see Document 141.
  11. Reference is to the Soviet-Egyptian Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation signed on May 27, 1971.
  12. For an excerpt from Kosygin’s speech on the Middle East crisis before the UN General Assembly on June 19, 1967, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1967, pp. 534–537.
  13. Sukhodrev translated it literally (do raskalivaniya orekhov). [Footnote in the source text.]
  14. In his memoirs Smith described those last hectic hours in Helsinki. He wrote: “Before we left Helsinki, Garthoff, Grinevsky and Kishilov beavered away for several hours putting the Moscow texts into final form. It was well into the afternoon before the delegations were ready for the Helsinki closing session, a miniplenary at which Semenov and I read into the record various agreed and unilateral interpretations of the two agreements…. Then it was decided that the formal portion of the meeting would be resumed on the flight to Moscow for the purpose of initialing the interpretative statements and the session was recessed to permit a hasty departure.” After initialing the agreed interpretations on the flight, the two delegations celebrated with glasses of beer. Smith wrote: “Beer or no beer, this was an exuberant group of flying negotiators. The climax of three years of hard work overcame any specific reservations the Americans might have about the interim freeze.” (Doubletalk, pp. 433–434)
  15. May 29.