161. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Washington Post Luncheon


  • Department of State
  • The Secretary
  • George S. Vest, Special Assistant for Press Relations
  • Washington Post
  • Benjamin Bradlee—Executive Director
  • Howard Simons—Managing Editor
  • Philip Geyelin—Editorial Page Editor
  • Meg Greenfield—Editorial Page Duty Editor
  • Steve Rosenfeld—Editorial Page
  • Richard Harwood—Assistant Managing Editor For National Affairs
  • Philip Foisie—Assistant Managing Editor For Foreign Affairs
  • Lee Lescaze—Assistant Foreign Editor
  • Ronald Koven—Correspondent
  • Murray Marder—Correspondent
  • Marilyn Berger—Correspondent
  • Dan Morgan—Correspondent

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to the Soviet Union.]

Question: What’s happening to détente and what are the Soviets up to?

The Secretary: There has been much argument over who has gained what in the process of détente. You should keep in mind that the Soviets could ask themselves rather searching questions about whether they have gained enough in the process. Grain, yes, they did gain. It was not discussed at the Summit between the President and Brezhnev. But they did put one over on us because of a bumbling bureaucracy. But except for the wheat deal what have they gotten out of détente?

In this country some liberal groups seem unwilling to accept any monument to an achievement by this administration.

I think we have to assess in which direction Soviet attitudes are moving. I think I can detect a certain chill in Soviet attitudes. They are faced with a lot of problems when they look at the course of affairs inside the U.S. and even a compromise with Jackson on MFN may not [Page 686] save détente; without a compromise it is hard to foresee what might happen to détente. As for the form of a compromise, I can’t say now, that is really up to Jackson and Ribicoff.

On SALT, I agree with your editorial.2 Jackson’s pressure was a major factor in increased Jewish emigration from the Soviet Union, but beyond a certain point it is not helpful. On SALT, I don’t negotiate with Jackson. We will pay no price in that area in order to get MFN. SALT affects the future of this country for the next fifteen years and we just will not play with it.

I have no difference with Schlesinger—although people try to impute problems to us.3 He has a different constituency from mine. I have no evidence that he does not see the basic problems of SALT in the same way I do. We have breakfast together every week, plus other frequent meetings together with Colby and Moorer. And there are verification panel meetings which are used to bring out all technical viewpoints. I consider him an ally.

As for a chill with the Soviets, I should emphasize that there are no Soviet actions yet that you can really judge by, it is just a gut feeling, the way communications are addressed, the number of them and this rather lengthy absence of Dobrynin. What could happen next? It could take some form of stiff opposition from the Soviets in all international forums, but most immediately in the Middle East making it difficult to proceed as we do, a push for reactivation of the Geneva Conference, increased détente efforts with the Europeans and an effort to create differences between us and the Europeans. I repeat, it has not showed up as yet. Maybe they’re only waiting for me to get there. Gromyko’s pattern on the Middle East was frantic and a little undignified: in each capital he arrived after me, after the decisions had been made. The Soviet media commentary on the oil embargo which backed a hard line, is it a sign? Maybe. Certainly progress in SALT would be a litmus test—absence of progress on SALT would not be. It depends on how big a bite we want. But we can have a SALT further agreement in time for the Presidential visit to Moscow.

In SALT there would normally be three phases. First, technical discussions, second a conceptual break-through, and the time need not be too long between the second and third phase, final negotiations. However, we have not yet made the conceptual break-through.

You ask if the détente has not loosened the alliance. Well in CSCE, the Europeans have been almost as obnoxious to the Soviets as any one [Page 687] else. The truth of the matter is that détente with its illusion of peace, or perhaps the reality of peace, leaves the nations free to be tougher with the Soviets.

The reaction to the alert during the Middle East war must raise questions in the Soviet minds about how long the U.S. can sustain stiff positions. This is a factor we have to bear in mind. On balance, I expect the Soviets to continue to opt for détente.

You asked what are the benefits for the U.S. in détente? It has enabled us to end the Viet-Nam war, temporarily to calm down the Middle East war, to stabilize the situation in Europe, and to start on the path toward controlling the arms race. The two super-powers have begun to regulate their relationship and to make a beginning of working on problems without pushing to extremes.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to the Soviet Union.]

As for the Soviets and the Middle East, I don’t think the Soviets have made up their minds what they want in the Middle East, or what they are prepared to pay in that area. They are in the process of reassessing their policy. They have three choices. One, they can force the issue and drive us to another air lift for Israel, which would be difficult to sustain. Two, they can wait for us to fall on our face. The further down the road we go, the more difficult the tasks become. We have scrupulously avoided saying we support the ’67 frontiers. Three, they could go ahead and accept peace in the area, which is incidentally, quite unlikely. A settlement between Israel and Syria will take a miracle. Israel now has placed settlements on the edge of the Golan Heights. Syria operates on the theory that all of Israel historically belongs to Syria. The chances are slightly better than 50–50 that I can succeed in obtaining a disengagement there.

My timetable for the immediate future is, first, a visit to Moscow later this month with a stop in London on the way back. I do not plan to add a visit to the Middle East on the way back from Moscow. That would be too much of an indignity for the Soviets. I expect to come back from Moscow, deal with a Syrian emissary, and then hope for vacation.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to the Soviet Union.]

Back to the Soviet Union, I do not believe the Soviet Union exercised the restraint it could have in the Middle East. On the other hand, if the Soviets perceived that the Arabs would lose the war and didn’t want to further diminish their influence, it could be understood why the Soviets played out their hand as they did. The U.S.-Soviet relationship is delicate, partly antagonistic, partly collaborative, and where the balance is, I cannot judge. I do not think the Soviets provoked the Middle East war. Arab leaders assured me of this. But the Soviets did provide the objective conditions in which the war could happen. I [Page 688] would not be surprised as a result of Gromyko’s visit to Egypt to see more Soviet arms sent to Egypt. I make this comment based on no intelligence sources whatsoever.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to the Soviet Union.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1028, Presidential/HAK MemCons, MemCons—HAK & Presidential, March 1–May 8, 1974 [3 of 4]. Limited Official Use. This meeting, held at the Washington Post building, was conducted on a deep background basis.
  2. Not further identified.
  3. See “Trade, Detente—and Soviet Emigration,” Washington Post, March 10, 1974, p. B6.