273. Memorandum of Conversation1

PARTICIPANTS

  • President Ford
  • Henry A. Kissinger, Secretary of State
  • Brent Scowcroft, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs

Kissinger: There is nothing in the Soviet letter [the Brezhnev letter of March 17].2 They misled us all day long. Voronstov briefed the press that we could have an agreement in two months. He called me and said it didn’t meet all our points but was positive. [He describes the letter.] They proposed going back to their January position as a basis.

President: Their idea for reductions has appealed to me.

Kissinger: We have two problems: How to handle the letter so it doesn’t do damage next week; and how to conduct our affairs in the government.

I think we are undermining détente. Except for Angola, I think the Soviets are getting a bum rap. I don’t believe they have massively in[Page 1025]creased their forces. It is a gradual trend and will continue no matter what. They have been quiet in the Middle East. Only Angola was out of bounds.

The next thing which will happen is the Democrats will say SALT has collapsed and we have ruined détente. The Democrats may seize the peace issue.

President: Reagan hasn’t made headway with his charges as long as we are at peace and moving. SALT is in our national interest. The question is how to proceed.

Kissinger: We could have an NSC meeting late tomorrow. Hand out the letter, warn them against all leaks, and say we want a proposal for the next step within two weeks.

Scowcroft: It will leak. I would suggest instead that you call in just the principals, show them the note, and tell them you want to think about next steps.

President: I think it should be principals only. Maybe just here in the office—the three of us, Don, George,3 and George Bush.

Kissinger: I think Ikle also.

President: Let’s have a meeting late Friday4 with those people. Say it is not to distribute or it will leak. Say start a study the first of next week.

Kissinger: I agree with Brent. Say you just want to think about it over the weekend. Then have an NSC next Wednesday. I would even mention the option of suspending the talks. None of them will want to take the heat for it! [There is discussion of notifying Rumsfeld ahead of the others.]

You could then decide whether to go for one or not. If not, you could respond—which I don’t recommend—or string out the talks.5

[Omitted here is discussion of the Middle East, Vietnam, and Congress. At the end of the meeting, Kissinger interjected: “I think we should trim our sails a bit on the Soviet Union. We should keep clobbering them on Angola—partly to keep the [heat] on the Congress.”]

  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Memoranda of Conversations, 1973–1977, Box 18. Secret; Nodis. All brackets, except those inserted by the editor to indicate omitted passages, are in the original. The meeting was held in the Oval Office.
  2. Document 272.
  3. Donald Rumsfeld and General George Brown.
  4. March 19.
  5. During a meeting in the Oval Office that evening, the President assessed the Soviet note on SALT: “Most of you know I feel strongly that I think a good SALT treaty is in the national interest. But this note [Tab A] raises the possibility—if we pursue our present course—that we will be forced to suspend the talks for 1976.” “Another approach would be procedural,” Rumsfeld suggested, “ask them what they would propose to do now. Another approach would be to leave it in Geneva; another would be to defer until next year. Another approach would be Brezhnev visit without SALT. These are illustrative.” Ford concluded: “I think this note deserves careful thought.” (Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Memoranda of Conversations, 1973–1977, Box 18)