50. Memorandum From Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

Soviet Policy and Vietnam July—November 1971

There is some evidence that in the period between the announcement of the President’s visit to China and the North Vietnamese refusal to continue the secret talks, Soviet policy toward a peaceful settlement in Vietnam significantly hardened. While the exact advice they gave to Hanoi is not clear, the thrust of the Soviet position in this period was that Hanoi should persevere with the military struggle, lest the United States succeed in promoting a solution through its contacts with Peking.

The shift in the Soviet attitude must be viewed in the context of the Soviet diplomatic counteroffensive which was activated in July—September in the wake of the President’s announcement of the Peking visit.

  • —In the West, the Soviets accelerated the negotiations over Berlin; in late July they urged an end to the negotiations at the secondary levels and that the Ambassadors go into almost continuous sessions, which, in fact, led to the agreement of August 28;2
  • —In the SALT talks, after rigidly insisting on one ABM proposal for almost a year, in early August the Soviets offered three new alternatives, and in September a still further variant;
  • —A number of outstanding invitations for high level visits were accepted; Kosygin to Algeria and Morocco, and later to Canada, Denmark and Norway; Brezhnev to France, and of course Podgorny to Hanoi;
  • —In the East, Soviet overtures toward Japan were strengthened, a new trade agreement was arranged in September; talks were held on Japanese participation in the development of Siberian resources and Shelepin traveled to Tokyo for a Trade Union meeting;
  • —Most important were the hints of a softening of the Soviet position on the Southern Kuriles. According to reports, Podgorny assured the leaders of the Japanese Communist Party that the issue was not closed—potentially a major reversal of Soviet policy;
  • —In the subcontinent, of course, Soviet policy centered on the new treaty signed on August 9 with India3; while at the time this may have relieved internal pressures on Mrs. Gandhi, subsequent events suggest that this treaty was a virtual Soviet guarantee of support in whatever action against Pakistan India chose; Soviet support for Indian military action was reported by some sources after Mrs. Gandhi’s visit to Moscow in late September. One report indicated the Soviets promised a “diversionary” action in Sinkiang if China threatened to intervene.

In short, the Soviets were conducting a policy aimed at encircling the Chinese and strengthening Moscow’s position on the Chinese flanks.

Against this background, Soviet policy in Hanoi, however, was probably ambiguous. On the one hand, a settlement of the war held opportunities for the USSR to strengthen its own position through postwar economic aid, and to lessen North Vietnamese dependence on Chinese supply lines, once hostilities ended. On the other hand, the Soviets were concerned that their own leverage would greatly diminish after the war, and that China would be the predominant power in Southeast Asia. While the Soviets might have had no choice but to tolerate such a situation, an end to the war plus a rapprochement between the US and China would jeopardize the future of the Soviet position in Asia.

One alternative for Soviet policy, therefore, was to encourage the North Vietnamese in the military effort, at least through early 1972 until after the President’s visit to China. This might disrupt the visit, or gain a period of time in which the Soviets could try to drive a wedge between Peking and Hanoi by playing on North Vietnamese concern over contacts between Washington and Peking. Accusations of secret deals and collusion, in fact, became a strong theme in the Soviet propaganda treatment.

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Podgorny’s visit to Hanoi (October 3–8) may well have been a turning point. It occurred after the North Vietnamese, in the secret talks, had rejected our proposals of August 16,4 and before we made our proposal of October 11.5

There were several features to Podgorny’s visit:

  • —For the first time Moscow emphasized, in a Podgorny speech on October 4,6 the imminence of a “military victory”; though he endorsed the 7 point plan, the effect of his remarks was to downgrade the possibilities of a peaceful settlement;
  • —This line appeared in the final communiqué in the form of a Soviet commitment to continue its support—military, economic, and political—until “complete victory;”
  • —Second, Podgorny’s delegation signed a new military aid agreement that reportedly will exceed last year’s, and amount to more than $500 million; the supply of trucks will be an important feature;
  • —An economic assistance agreement was also concluded; for the first time there was a mention of the USSR participation in “long range” economic development—a reference to the USSR position in Vietnam after the war ends.

Subsequent to Podgorny’s visit the North Vietnamese did agree to another session of the secret talks. In the period that followed between the setting of the November 20 meeting and its cancellation on November 17 there is one Soviet event worth noting.

At the time of Dr. Kissinger’s second visit to Peking, Brezhnev addressed the Vietnam issues in unusually frank and critical terms during his visit to Paris. On October 27, he warned: “This problem cannot be solved either by attempts to impose an alien will on Vietnam by means of force, or by way of secret combination behind the Vietnamese people’s back.”7 It is reasonable to assume that if Brezhnev was taking this line in public, in private the Soviets were telling the North Vietnamese that secret bargains were dangerous. Interestingly, Brezhnev ignored the 7 point proposal and limited himself to saying that the only correct way to solve the issue was to end “foreign interference.”

By the time of the cancellation of the secret session, however, the Soviets were again stressing the value of a negotiated settlement. For example, on November 16, the day prior to Hanoi’s cancellation, the [Page 176] Soviet newspaper TRUD stated “the way out of the Indochinese impasse does not lie along the path of war, but at the negotiating table.” Perhaps, by then they knew this was a relatively safe position since secret negotiations were coming to an end.

The evidence is not conclusive that the Soviets actually intervened to sabotage the secret talks. But the burden of their policy seems to have been to play down negotiations, at least for a time, and to stress to Hanoi the dangers of collusion between Washington and Peking.

This would be consistent with a report we received in July which stated that Moscow’s general line, as reported from Eastern Europe, was that “the USSR wanted peace in Vietnam, but did not wish it to be brought about by China. The Soviet Union would almost certainly raise objection to any terms for a solution that would be agreed upon between the US and China.” As was evident from Soviet propaganda in this period July—November, the Soviets were at pains to make it appear that any US proposals were tactical maneuvers growing out of Washington’s overtures to Peking—a line designed to play on Hanoi’s fear that the great powers would reach a settlement against North Vietnam’s interests.

In sum, we can conclude (a) the Soviets do not necessarily oppose any peaceful/political settlement; but (b) they will work against one that is reached without their participation, or that grows out of any Chinese-American contacts; (c) to the extent that the Soviets will work toward a settlement, it will only be one that ensures their own dominance in Southeast Asia, as a component of their broader policy of encircling China; and (d) failing that, they have supported Hanoi’s rigidity.8

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 146, 1972 Offensive—Miscellaneous. Secret. In an attached February 15 covering memorandum to Kissinger, Sonnenfeldt wrote: “We discussed this last week and you asked for a paper that you might use in Peking. It is attached. Although slightly tailored for the purpose envisaged, I consider this a plausible piece of analysis which fits the evidence as we know it.” A notation by Kissinger on the covering memorandum reads: “Take on trip.”
  2. The agreement which led to the Quadripartite Agreement on Berlin, signed on September 3, 1971.
  3. The Soviet-Indian Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Cooperation.
  4. The eight-point U.S. proposal offered on this date was unpublished but later revealed by Nixon in his January 25 speech on Vietnam; see footnote 2, Document 40.
  5. See footnote 3, Document 39.
  6. For text, see Izvestia, October 4, 1971.
  7. For text, see Current Digest of the Soviet Press, November 30, 1971, vol. XXIII, No. 44, pp. 4–6.
  8. In a February 25 memorandum to Kissinger entitled “New Frictions Between Moscow and Hanoi?”, Sonnenfeldt described recent press reports that Moscow was ready to make a deal over Vietnam to prevent further Sino-American rapprochement. “The facts do not justify these extreme conclusions or interpretations, but there is a suggestion of DRV concern over the Soviet position,” Sonnenfeldt concluded. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 717, Country Files, Europe, U.S.S.R., Vol. XIX)