142. Memorandum From the Counselor of the Department of State (Sonnenfeldt) and the Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (Hyland) to Secretary of State Kissinger1


  • Moscow, Peking and Vietnam

The line taken by James Reston2 may become an increasingly strong one in coming weeks. Both Liberals and Conservatives seem to agree that we should invoke “détente” with Moscow and Peking: the Liberals see our objective as arranging the “elegant” demise of the South Vietnamese Government, while the Conservatives simply want to discredit the policy of rapprochement. There are several problems with any new démarche to Moscow or Peking:

—There have been no genuine signals from Hanoi, as reported by Reston; on the contrary, the North Vietnamese/PRG line is basically intransigent; even the precondition of Thieu’s removal is couched in proclamations that the tide is irreversible, that “total victory” is obtainable, and that there must be a general uprising.

—Even if Peking and Moscow were disposed to be of assistance for reasons other than Vietnam, their ability to influence the situation is questionable; Hanoi’s offensive is gathering momentum once again, and unless its military forces are checked in the next several days, the prospects for making a “deal” are virtually nil; moreover, why at this moment of success should either Peking or Moscow jeopardize its position in Hanoi, which each has been so careful to protect all these years?

—On the other hand, if some dialogue should develop, what would our position be: we would be in some danger of dealing for the removal of Thieu, at the very moment we are trying to gain support for stabilization; if either Moscow or Peking should, by some chance, respond with assurances that negotiations could begin immediately after Thieu’s removal, then the Restons will raise the cry for just that. We should bear in mind that after Lon Nol departed, there was absolutely no genuine effort made by any party to negotiate a humanitarian end in Phnom Penh. Moreover, the PRG representative recently made it clear [Page 549] to Don Fraser3—whom he had every reason to want to conciliate—that they would not accept a ceasefire.

—Finally, Soviet (and Chinese) inaction in response to urgings from us that they play a constructive role can be used to discredit détente even more perhaps than our failure to call on the Russians to live up to it in the first place.

(One might also make an “objective” argument: ever since 1972, if not indeed since 1969, it has been clear that we were disengaging from Vietnam and that in the end this would lead to the takeover of the country. Our early approaches to the Russians as well as the Chinese could be seen as in the first instance designed to facilitate our withdrawal. In a sense the new relationships with both the USSR and China can therefore be said to have been based on the presumption of the “loss” of Vietnam. At any rate, that is how it must have seemed to Moscow. On this interpretation it would be an incongruous act for us now to hold it against the Soviets (or Chinese) that history is taking its long-anticipated course and to challenge one of the original premises of détente. Again, on this interpretation, the Soviets would be violating the premises of détente only if they sought to create a special, advantageous position for themselves in the place we vacated.)

The arguments against the Reston line therefore are: (1) neither Moscow nor Peking are in control; (2) neither has any incentive to deliver Hanoi on anything but terms of GVN capitulation; (3) we would jeopardize our entire strategy by becoming involved in a negotiation to remove Thieu; (4) no such bargaining can even be contemplated in the face of a massive offensive which is clearly beginning again; (5) our détente policies would be ever more discredited once the Soviets and Chinese had ignored or rebuffed our initiatives.

Against all of this, on the other hand, we should ask: do we have an interest in establishing a record to answer criticism such as Reston’s?

—It can be argued that we will turn détente into a farce if we refuse to invoke it, even if we know it to be in vain; can we expect any respect if we allow both Peking and Moscow to escape any and all responsibility?

—Even if they could not foresee the debacle of last month, it is completely inconceivable that they did not know that Hanoi would embark on some offensive, which regardless of its limited nature would be a violation of the Paris agreements (both Peking and Moscow had high-level military delegations in Hanoi in December and received notes from us in February).

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—While it may be naive to criticize Peking and Moscow for maintaining supplies to Hanoi, that is not the same as allowing them to evade action now that Hanoi has occupied much of South Vietnam.

—In other words, another appeal on a ceasefire as the prelude to some form of negotiations could be made; it would also be an opportunity to make the record that demands for Thieu’s dismissal were totally unacceptable and completely phony.

—The final argument, as far as Moscow is concerned, is that if, in fact, there is some nervousness in the Soviet leadership about our ultimate reaction to Indochina, then this may be an opportune moment to make a démarche (the removal of Shelepin indicates that Brezhnev is certainly still in charge, but, at the same time, that the politics of succession are also being activated).4 Not coincidentally, the firing of Shelepin, of all people, could have been intended by Brezhnev as a sacrifice on the altar of détente.

(There may also be an “objective” argument that is the reciprocal of the one cited on the first side of the ledger: if one of the premises of détente is that we would disengage from a position like Vietnam then perhaps it is equally a premise that someday somewhere the Soviets will be expected to do likewise [Cuba?].5 A way might be found to confront Brezhnev with this implication.)

Thus, on balance, a warning shot on Indochina probably ought to be made, to reduce our vulnerabilities on Soviet and even Chinese policies. A sophisticated presentation to Gromyko could be made by Stoessel, which would give it more visibility.

Stoessel’s presentation could concentrate on the following points:

1. Moscow has a responsibility to weigh carefully the implications of a blatant violation of agreements to which it is a signatory; the argument that Thieu violated the accords can in no way justify a massive military attack; both Hanoi and Moscow were at liberty to seek redress through diplomatic channels.

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2. The USSR is committed to avoid any action that encourages the use of force in two solemn agreements with the US; while we are not charging Soviet connivance in the offensive, we are insisting that the USSR take action now to halt further military action.

3. To insist on the removal of Thieu is merely a disguise for refusing a ceasefire and the opening of any negotiations; if this is the real Soviet position, we can only assume that they prefer a military outcome.

4. The Soviet leaders must recognize that in the US many voices are being raised questioning the value of détente, if it does not lead the USSR to use its influence in favor of ending the fighting and urging negotiations, without unrealistic conditions.

5. Our ability to conduct a positive policy toward the USSR cannot help but be affected by how American opinion interprets Soviet behavior in this crisis.6

In sum, there are pros and cons to making any further approach to Moscow beyond the general démarche sent in the wake of the President’s speech.7 On balance, there would seem to be some slight advantage in making a stronger record, rather than remaining vulnerable to attacks on our passivity, provided that we make a fairly straightforward case, as outlined above.

There is also an argument to be made for approaching the Chinese along the same lines; we would presumably want to add the note that if the Chinese expect us to deal effectively with the Soviets in Europe, then it cannot be in their interest to support a major catastrophe in Saigon, that will arouse latent criticism of our China policy (e.g., Reston) and drive us toward isolationism.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Lot File 81D286, Records of the Office of the Counselor, Box 7, Soviet Union, Apr–May 1975. Secret; Eyes Only. Sonnenfeldt initialed the memorandum; Hyland did not.
  2. See Document 141 and footnote 2 thereto.
  3. Representative Donald M. Fraser (Democrat, Minnesota) was an outspoken opponent of U.S. involvement in Indochina.
  4. Aleksandr N. Shelepin, Chairman of the All Union Central Council of Trade Unions, was ousted as a member of the Politburo at the meeting of the Central Committee on April 16. Shinn assessed this development in an April 18 memorandum to Sonnenfeldt, which noted that the meeting “may well have marked the denouement of an intensive internal Soviet debate on détente. Brezhnev clearly came out on top and his policies were reaffirmed. The rejection of a more doctrinaire, assertive posture was epitomized by the removal of his antagonist of long-standing, Shelepin, from the Politburo. At the plenum, a consensus was struck on continuing the ‘peace program’ of the 24th Congress, which was carefully justified in orthodox, ideological verbiage.” (National Archives, RG 59, Lot File 81D286, Records of the Office of the Counselor, Box 7, Soviet Union, Apr–May 1975)
  5. Brackets in the original.
  6. No evidence has been found that Stoessel delivered such a démarche in Moscow.
  7. Reference is to the President’s address before a joint session of Congress on April 10 to review U.S. foreign policy, including the crisis in Vietnam. For the text, see Public Papers: Ford, 1975, No. 179. On April 10 and 11, the United States delivered identical notes to the Soviet Union, China, the United Kingdom, France, Hungary, Poland, Indonesia, and Iran, calling on those governments to support an immediate cease-fire in Vietnam. For the text of the note, see Department of State Bulletin, April 28, 1975, p. 539. Stoessel handed Gromyko the note in Moscow on April 11. (Telegram 5069 from Moscow, April 11; National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy Files)