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


  • The Soviets and Vietnam—Our Signals

If the situation in Vietnam should deteriorate and assuming we want to signal more explicitly to the Soviets, we need to select a set of actions that convey our meaning without prematurely jeopardizing the summit. This means either slowing down or freezing in discussions or contacts that are of substantial interest to the USSR.

As always in these situations, these things do not come free of charge since we—or important segments of our society—also have an interest in what is being done with the Soviets. The main object, however, would be to signal that we will not “do business as usual.” Consistency alone would seem to dictate some action comparable to what we did in the India–Pakistan crisis, the 1970 Middle East crisis and the 1970 Cuban fracas. Except possibly for the last, none of these involved Soviet actions—acts of commission and omission—quite as directly damaging to us as what is happening in Vietnam. I don’t mean to draw simple analogies: there are many important differences cutting in different directions. In South Asia, the Middle East and Cuba there was a potential for direct US–Soviet confrontation. Soviet capacity to influence what was happening was considerable—in Cuba the Soviets could actually control events. In Vietnam, the Soviets’ involvement is indirect (unless we moved against Haiphong) and their influence is more conjectural; yet Soviet support through matériel and advice is a crucially important asset to the DRV. It is killing Americans, could unhinge the Administration’s whole policy line in Southeast Asia and could injure the President domestically.

I think we should operate on the broad hypothesis that whatever the precise Soviet motive and role in Vietnam, in the end the present [Page 287] Soviet leaders probably have at least as large a stake as the President in not having the US–Soviet relationship degenerate. Consequently, the type of moves listed below should have the effect of inducing the Soviets to exert some pressure on Hanoi. Even if this judgment is wrong it is important to structure the situation in a way that brings home to Brezhnev that he, too, will have to bear some of the cost of what is happening in Vietnam; and that we are sufficiently serious and confident that we are prepared to pay a price ourselves in US–Soviet relations.

US Actions

(Note: 1. Public statements a la Laird and McCloskey2 should be stopped for now.

2. You should background selected journalists on the meaning of the President’s statement at the BW ceremony;3 also Dobrynin.)

The grain sales talks are underway; the key issue is credit. This is perhaps the area that we would be most vulnerable to charges of cynicism—extending credit to the USSR to buy grain while they ship heavy equipment to Hanoi. Unfortunately, it is also the area where we stand to make a commercial gain. Since no agreement is likely without credits, this should become for now our sticking point. In other words, this affair should not reach agreement in the Moscow session (see draft message to Butz, Tab A).4

The maritime talks open on April 17; we will have a rather high level delegation in Moscow (Samuels, Gibson, Dick Davies, Eagleburger).5 The unfortunate aspect will be the visibility—banquet toasts, [Page 288] etc. There is also the angle easing regulations for Soviet ships to enter our ports, which evokes images of Soviet shipping to North Vietnam. Because of the protocol sensitivities of Gibson and State, it may be difficult to change the composition of the delegation. But we can ensure that the talks do not yield agreements in this round, or we could postpone them by a week. At least, we should tell Samuels to avoid comraderie and we could tell him like Butz, not to permit matters to reach completion.

Incidents at sea is still awaiting a Soviet response to beginning a second round. The Soviets will not agree to the first round understandings in any case, until there has been another round. Whenever they reply with a date we can decide at that time whether to let the timetable slide. High–level discussions with Soviet Admirals would be rather unseemly while we charge the Soviets with supporting the North Vietnamese offensive.

Health, Science, Environmental and Space Cooperation do not lend themselves very well to linkage or slowdowns since our rationale is that we and the Soviets benefit about equally and these are more or less in the interest of “mankind.”

Lend–Lease is clearly in our interest and useful in linkage to the other economic questions. The talks start this week and we already have a tough, probably non–negotiable position.

The Exchanges Agreement will be signed on April 11. There is little purpose in stopping it, but we could get word to Beam to keep the rhetoric down.

The Patolichev Visit is the most highly visible project in the immediate future (April 27). He will receive considerable publicity as will the general topic of Soviet–American economic relations. To call it off would be a strong signal, but should be considered if the situation in Vietnam continues. If he does come, you might consider telling him that Vietnam could well set back economic relations since our public would not understand our moving on such things as credit under present circumstances.

SALT . A freeze in SALT would be a strong signal, of course, though this begs the question of who has the greatest interest in the agreement. These talks have remained fairly well insulated from other events, despite Smith’s blunder in telling Semyonov of your message on India-Pakistan.6 Since the negotiations are now so tangled that a signal might not even get through, the best source is probably to continue without change for a week or two. By standing on our SLBM position, and our ABM proposals we, in effect, convey at least some firmness.

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Cuba. The Soviets still have a guided missile cruiser and an F–Class attack submarine in Cienfuegos. They have been at sea exercising with the Cubans. If we want to signal, then some more intensive surveillance and even harassment could be laid on. It has some merit in its own right since the prolonged stay of some Soviet naval vessels seems to be a violation, at least in spirit, of the “understanding.”

High–Level Diplomacy. You will recall that at the end of Brezhnev’s last letter7 he referred to the bombing. He brought it up in his March 20 speech,8 but this particular passage was censored out of the printed version. It is a peg for a Presidential message, but I would think that this should come later in the scenario. If we intended to engage the Soviets over North Vietnam directly at the Presidential level then we should have a clear message in mind. Do we want to tax the Soviets with their supplies? Do we want to threaten some action? Or are we going to press them to use their influence for negotiations? (If you wish, I could begin working on a draft.)9

The Summit. Whatever we decide on sending small signals or escalating our diplomacy, we have to consider that in the next two weeks or so the summit in its broadest outline and in some detail will be set (the advance Party arrives April 19). If we are concerned that by May 22 we may be in a difficult situation vis–à–vis bombing and the situation in the South, we might consider cutting back on the visit. For example, shortening it by a day or so, dropping off the third stop in Baku. This does not mean much but it might be prudent to begin thinking of what the visit would be like if the situation worsens.

We might consider dropping off the Polish visit, since it is marginal in any case. After all Poland does participate in the three power commission for Indochina, though retaliation against Warsaw is a rather cloudy signal.

We may of course find ourselves confronted by a Soviet decision to call off the summit or a threat to do so; and I note that for unexplained reasons the Poles have still not reacted to our acceptance of their invitation. For the moment, it would be imprudent for us to escalate the situation by tinkering with summit plans. That complex of decisions is at least as tough for the Soviets as it is for us and the best course for now is to wait. But we should not for now have Ziegler say anything on the itinerary, whatever the leaks.

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In sum, here is a modest game plan for gradualism:

  • —Ensure that the grain sales talks yield no results for now (message to Butz at Tab A).10
  • —Keep the maritime talks in low key and avoid final agreement; tell Samuels and Gibson.11
  • —Hold off agreeing to date when Soviets propose one for the second round of incidents at sea.12
  • —Stay tough on lend–lease.13
  • —Leave other bilaterals alone for now, but tell Beam to keep rhetoric low when Exchanges Agreement is signed April 11.14
  • —Harassment of Soviet ships in Cuba.15
  • —Use Patolichev visit to take tough line, but not involve the President. Cancel, if situation deteriorates.16
  • —Letter to Brezhnev later this week.17

Could you let me know which, if any of these, you wish pursued, and how. The message to Butz for your approval is at Tab A.18

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 67, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Sonnenfeldt Papers [1 of 2]. Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. Sent for urgent action. The memorandum was forwarded through Haig, who initialed it. Kissinger wrote “OK” on the top of the first page. According to his memoirs, Kissinger requested the memorandum. “To keep up the pressure,” he explained, “I asked Hal Sonnenfeldt, my principal adviser on Soviet affairs, what negotiations with the USSR we could slow down that were of substantial interest to the Kremlin leaders.” (White House Years, p. 1118)
  2. Laird declared in a news conference on April 7 that the Soviet Union was “a major contributor” to the North Vietnamese offensive by failing to limit the use of its equipment to defensive purposes. (The New York Times, April 8, 1972, pp. 1, 11) For McCloskey’s remarks on April 4, see Document 81.
  3. See Document 89.
  4. Kissinger approved the attached backchannel message, which was sent to Butz in Moscow on April 12. The text of the message reads: “Peter Flanigan has already told you of the President’s wish not to have your current grain negotiations completed in Moscow. The President wishes to reinforce this directive in light of the Vietnam situation. Until that situation and Soviet role with respect to it are clarified the President must fully retain option not to proceed with the type of agreement you are negotiating. Tactical judgement as to which issues in your negotiation should be left unresolved is left to you and Palmby. In social and other contacts and particularly in any public statements you should avoid all optimistic language concerning overall US–Soviet relations. You should be aware that the President is deeply concerned about Vietnam and Soviet role relating thereto.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 718, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. XXI) The White House received a reply that afternoon, however, reporting that Butz had left Moscow before the message could be delivered to him. (Ibid.)
  5. Nathaniel Samuels, Deputy Under Secretary of State for Economic Affairs; Samuels, Andrew E. Gibson, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Maritime Affairs; Richard T. Davies, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs; and Lawrence S. Eagleburger, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Plans and National Security Council Affairs.
  6. See Document 28.
  7. Document 72.
  8. See Document 65.
  9. Kissinger wrote “Yes” in the margin near the end of this paragraph.
  10. Kissinger initialed his approval of this recommendation.
  11. Kissinger initialed his approval of this recommendation and issued the following handwritten instruction: “Avoid excessively friendly toasts. Want to delay a week.”
  12. Kissinger wrote “want to think” next to this recommendation.
  13. Kissinger initialed his approval of this recommendation.
  14. Kissinger initialed his approval of this recommendation.
  15. Kissinger wrote “no” next to this recommendation.
  16. Kissinger initialed his approval of this recommendation.
  17. Kissinger did not indicate a decision on this recommendation.
  18. Attached but not printed.