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


  • Agreement on the Prevention of Nuclear War

I. The Background

Brezhnev first broached this idea in April 1972 before the last summit and gave you an initial draft.2 His original concept was a pure bilateral nuclear non-aggression treaty, and the first few Soviet drafts made this clear. He also had in mind that we would act jointly against any third country that threatened nuclear war. Finally, he foresaw that on the basis of this agreement, even if a war started in Europe, the territories of the US and USSR would be excluded.

Thus, the original Soviet proposal, in the form of a treaty, contained the following key points:

“Article I

“The Soviet Union and the United States undertake the obligation not to use nuclear weapons against each other.

“Article II

“The Soviet Union and the United States shall prevent such a situation when, as a result of actions by third States, they would find themselves involved in a collision with the use of nuclear weapons.

“Article III

“Both parties, in case of military conflict between other States, shall apply all efforts to prevent a nuclear war from being unleashed.”

You rejected this approach out of hand. Over the next several months our strategy was to use the idea of doing something in this field as a means to regulate Soviet conduct, especially with regard to Vietnam.

By last fall, however, it was apparent to Brezhnev that his crude approach stood no chance of an agreement. In my conversations in [Page 479] Moscow in September,3 I emphasized your point that he was asking for a revolutionary change in post-war military relationships, and that in this light the reaction of third countries would be of utmost importance. If we did not respect their rights, we risked bringing about a world crisis.

These were the points I made to the Soviets as your position:

“—We believe it important to avoid any formulation that carried an implication of a condominium by our two countries;

“—We believe it important that an agreement between our two countries should not carry any implication that we were ruling out nuclear war between ourselves but were leaving open the option of nuclear war against third countries;

“—We think it important that in concentrating on the prevention of nuclear war we should not at the same time appear to be legitimizing the initiation of war by conventional means;

“—We think it important that past agreements, whether alliances or other types of obligations, designed to safeguard peace and security should be enhanced by any additional agreement between ourselves relating specifically to the prevention of nuclear warfare.4

“—Within this framework the President is prepared to continue the exchanges in the confidential channel with the objective of developing a mutually satisfactory text. Negotiations in this channel are always conducted with a view to reaching some agreement.”

I believe that after this presentation, Brezhnev began to realize that if he wanted an agreement, he would have to take our major points seriously, and that the summit would depend on his moving toward our position.

Recent Developments

Subsequently, the Soviets presented new drafts that began to take into account our position. At that time, we also involved the UK in our drafting, and used some of their points to good advantage.5

The major points at issue in the period before the Zavidovo meeting were:

—The Soviets still wanted to state categorically that we would not use nuclear weapons against each other. The Soviets wanted to be free to use nuclear war against China and we obviously could not permit this. We wanted to formulate a general objective, applying to all countries, of preventing nuclear war. (Article I)

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—Second, the Soviets wanted to decouple the nuclear aspects from refraining from the threat of force (Article II), while for us it was essential to weave a tight connection between excluding the danger of nuclear war, and refraining from all use of force as a prerequisite. This was particularly important in regard to NATO where our defense posture rests on our potential use of nuclear weapons in case of overwhelming Soviet conventional attack.

—Third, the Soviets wanted to consult in case of a conflict between two third countries that raised the threat of nuclear war; this could only apply to China, France or the UK (The Chinese were very sensitive on this point). We took the position that there could be no right of intervention by either the US or USSR in such a case (Article IV).

—Finally, the Soviets wanted to limit the obligations that remained unaffected to formal agreements and treaties while we had to cover other US obligations that might come from Presidential directives, moral commitments or doctrines (Article VI).

In each of these issues, we prevailed in Zavidovo after I read out to Brezhnev your instructions.6

II. The Agreement

The heart of the Agreement is in the first three Articles:


The United States and the Soviet Union agree that an objective of their policies is to remove the danger of nuclear war and of the use of nuclear weapons.

Accordingly, the Parties agree that they will act in such a manner as to prevent the development of situations capable of causing a dangerous exacerbation of their relations, as to avoid military confrontations, and as to exclude the outbreak of nuclear war between them and between either of the Parties and other countries.


The Parties agree, in accordance with Article I and to realize the objective stated in that Article, to proceed from the premise that each Party will refrain from the threat or use of force against the other Party, against the allies of the other Party and against other countries, in circumstances which may endanger international peace and security. The Parties agree that they will be guided by these considerations in the for[Page 481]mulation of their foreign policies and in their actions in the field of international relations.


The Parties undertake to develop their relations with each other and with other countries in a way consistent with the purposes of this Agreement.

In these three provisions we have accomplished our major objectives.

The text

—clearly requires violation of the Agreement if the USSR wants to use nuclear blackmail against us, our Allies or third countries;

—fully protects all other countries;

—restrains the Soviets from threatening any use of force without destroying this agreement;

—fully preserves our right of self-defense and all our commitments, with special, though not exclusive, emphasis on those to our Allies.

In sum, this agreement places a major constraint on the Soviet Union; no piece of paper guarantees Soviet behavior, of course, but it is of significance that Brezhnev is prepared to sign this version, which is light years away from his original project.

III. The Interpretation of the Agreement


In discussing the significance of this agreement Brezhnev will lean toward an interpretation that comes close to his original objectives and that

(a) stresses the renunciation of all use of nuclear weapons between us;

(b) implies that as the two Superpowers we are obligated to act as a sort of nuclear policeman, consulting and acting together in all crisis situations;

(c) presses for some action to follow this up, probably by joining with the USSR to sponsor a UN resolution calling on all states to accept the provisions of our agreement.

All of this would be contrary to our interests.


In essence, your interpretation in private, with the Soviets, with the Allies and the Chinese as well as in purlic must meet the following points:

—this is no condominium;

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—this is not a simple bilateral non-aggression pact but an agreement predicated on non-use of force by either one of us against each other and against any third country; while the agreement is bilateral, the obligations are multilateral; 7

—this is not a simple agreement to ban use of nuclear weapons (as the Soviets have unsuccessfully sought for 27 years) but a statement of an objective and of the kind of conduct required of both of us eventually to reach the objective. The objective is to preclude war of any kind including, of course, the most disastrous kind, nuclear war;8

—our alliance relationships, including our strategy of flexible response in NATO, is fully protected. That is, the Soviets have acquired no free hand to launch conventional aggression without running the risk that we will use nuclear weapons in response;

—any other country that relies on us can continue to do do;

—The Soviets cannot attack China, regardless of pretext, without violating this agreement;9

—we have a right to demand consultations if we think the Soviets are threatening or planning to use force against any third country.10


NOTE: In your comments you should not

—make direct reference to the protection we have obtained for China;

—refer explicitly to our continued right to use nuclear responses to conventional aggression against NATO;

—the fact that we have had extensive consultations with China, the UK or any one else.

Your Talking Points11

In your most recent letter to Brezhnev you carefully spelled out our view,12 and you may wish to reiterate the major points.

—It is important that both sides adhere to similar interpretations so as not to put any cloud over our accomplishments.

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Thus, you should stress that for our future relations, it is important that the interpretations of this agreement do not diverge.

—The main significance of this agreement is that we have taken a step toward not only reducing the danger of a devastating nuclear war, but also toward creating the conditions in the world where wars of any kind and the use of force will no longer afflict mankind.

—This was possible only because we have agreed to respect fully the rights and interests of other countries; this is a mark of statesmanship; and the General Secretary deserves credit for his vision.

—It is important that you and he understand how we see this historic achievement.

—We have not agreed to ban nuclear weapons but have taken a step toward the conditions in which the danger of war, especially nuclear war is reduced, not only between our two countries, but between either of us and other countries. We have thus set ourselves an historic set of objectives.

—We have made clear, both in the second paragraph of Article I and in all of Article II, that the ultimate objective of excluding nuclear war can only be attained if both of us refrain from all kinds of threats or use of force against each other, against each other’s allies, and against any third country.

—Thus, we have not established a condominium but have reassured the world that we will act responsibly.

—In accepting the obligations to consult with each other, in certain circumstances we have agreed not to impose our will on other countries or force solutions on them.

Thus, the agreement is of major historic importance, and the General Secretary will be remembered by his own people and ours for the courage in taking this step.

—It demonstrates that the Basic Principles of last year did in fact mark a turning point in our relations.

—We can take with great satisfaction that we have given these principles substance.

The impact of this agreement will be further enhanced, however, if we can demonstrate to the world and to our own peoples that we can go further in the limitation on strategic arms.

We have entered into this agreement on the assumption that permanent limitations on SALT will be achieved.

The text of the final Agreement is at Tab A.13

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 75, Country Files—Europe—USSR, [Discussions with Brezhnev]. Secret; Sensitive.
  2. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Documents 159 and 221.
  3. See Document 42.
  4. Nixon underlined most of the preceding four points.
  5. See footnote 3, Document 25; Document 85; and footnote 4, Document 95.
  6. Documents 104, 105, 107, 108, and 109 are the records of Kissinger’s discussions about the agreement on the prevention of nuclear war with Brezhnev and Gromyko in Zavidovo, May 5–8. For Nixon’s instructions, see Document 107.
  7. Nixon underlined all of the preceding two points.
  8. Nixon underlined the last sentence of this point.
  9. This point was crossed out, then reinstated with the marginal note “stet.”
  10. Nixon underlined this point.
  11. Nixon underlined most of these talking points.
  12. Document 120.
  13. Printed as Document 122.