37. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • The US Role in Soviet Maneuvering Against China

In the last two months, the increase in Sino-Soviet tensions has led the Soviets to sound out numerous American contacts on their [Page 102] attitude toward a possible Soviet air strike against China’s nuclear/missile facilities or toward other Soviet military actions.2 These probes have varied in character from point-blank questioning of our reaction to provocative musings by Soviets over what they might be forced to do against the Chinese, including the use of nuclear weapons. Some of these contacts have featured adamant denials that the Soviets were planning any military moves—thereby keeping the entire issue alive. (Secretary Rogers’ Memorandum on this subject is at Tab A.)3

Our contingency planning for major Sino-Soviet hostilities is well along, and NSC consideration of a basic policy paper on the Sino-Soviet dispute is scheduled for October 8.4

Meanwhile, I am concerned about our response to these probes. The Soviets may be quite uncertain over their China policy, and our reactions [Page 103] could figure in their calculations. Second, the Soviets may be using us to generate an impression in China and the world that we are being consulted in secret and would look with equanimity on their military actions.

A related issue is the shifting Soviet attitude on Chinese representation in the UN. We have had two indications that the Soviets, in an effort to keep the Chinese Communists out of the UN through indirection, are dangling the prospect before us of cooperation on the representation issue. Gromyko, in his UN speech, of course failed to mention Peking’s admission for the first time.5

I believe we should make clear that we are not playing along with these tactics, in pursuance of your policy of avoiding the appearance of siding with the Soviets.

The principal gain in making our position clear would be in our stance with respect to China. The benefits would be long rather than short-term, but they may be none the less real. Behavior of Chinese Communist diplomats in recent months strongly suggests the existence of a body of opinion, presently submerged by Mao’s doctrinal views, which might wish to put US/Chinese relations on a more rational and less ideological basis than has been true for the past two decades.


That you authorize me to ask the Department of State to prepare instructions to the field setting forth guidance to be used with the USSR and others, deploring reports of a Soviet plan to make a preemptive military strike against Communist China.6

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 337, Subject Files, HAK/Richardson Meetings, May 1969–December 1969. Secret. Sent for action.
  2. The Department of State and the White House received hints from a Soviet official of possible joint action against the PRC as early as March 1969, when two Soviet journalists told U.S. Embassy officials in Moscow that “the situation might reach a point where a U.S.-Soviet ‘understanding’ on China would become necessary.” (Telegram 1169 from Moscow, March 20, attached to the President’s March 25 daily briefing memorandum; ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 4, President’s Daily Briefs) Also during March 1969, Kissinger’s daily briefing memoranda to President Nixon contained cables and reports concerning Soviet sensitivity to improving ties between the United States and the PRC. For example, speeches by Senator Edward Kennedy (D–Massachusetts) and former John F. Kennedy aide Theodore Sorensen, suggesting the need for better relations with the PRC, provoked immediate Soviet reactions. Deputy Assistant Secretary for European Affairs. Emory C. Swank, reported from Moscow: “During the past week I have been impressed by suspicion with which some ordinarily sophisticated Soviets have reacted to statements on China recently made by Kennedy and Sorensen.” (Telegram 1325 from Moscow, March 29, attached to the President’s Daily Brief for March 31; ibid.)
  3. In the attached September 10 memorandum to the President, Rogers cited a conversation on August 18 between the Soviet Embassy’s Second Secretary Boris N. Davydov and William L. Stearman, Special Assistant for North Vietnam, INR/REA. Rogers observed: “Davydov’s conversation was unusual for the length of the argument that he presented for such a Soviet course of action [an attack on Chinese nuclear facilities]. None of the other occasional references to the idea in talks with the Soviets which have come to our attention have spelled out such a justification.” Rogers concluded, “the Department’s analysts judge that the chances of this particular course of action are still substantially less than fifty-fifty and that Sino-Soviet conflict, if it does occur, might more likely result from escalation of border clashes. That assessment seems reasonable to me.” Robert Baraz (INR/RSE) drafted the memorandum for the President on August 29, and Green sent it to Rogers at the Secretary’s request on August 30. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, DEF 12 CHICOM) Kissinger wrote his comments on an earlier version of his September 29 memorandum to the President that Sonnenfeldt and Holdridge had drafted: “I disagree with State analysis. Soviets would not ask such questions lightly—though this does not mean that they intend to attack. Redo cover memo for President giving a little more flavor of communist probes. Remember he never reads back up material. But I want us to work with them and give specific guidance. Best would be to send directive to State about [unintelligible] of instructions we received.” (Memorandum from Sonnenfeldt and Holdridge to Kissinger, September 12; ibid., Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 710, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. V)
  4. See Documents 40 and 43.
  5. Kissinger first reported these “two indications” to the President. According to a second-hand account of a conversation with a Soviet diplomat in Canada, the diplomat accepted that the PRC should “eventually” join the UN and hold a seat on the Security Council, but that the ROC should remain in the General Assembly. (Telegram 1615 from Taipei, May 14; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 6, President’s Daily Briefs) The other indication came from a meeting between U.S. Ambassador to the UN Charles Yost and a Soviet diplomat. The Soviet remarked that he hoped the United States would not change its policy toward Chinese representation in the UN. (Telegram 1292 from USUN, May 1; ibid.) Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko’s September 19 speech to the United Nations mentioned almost every Socialist country except the PRC and every issue except UN membership for the PRC. (United Nations, General Assembly, Twenty-fourth Session, Official Records, 1756th Plenary Meeting, September 19, 1969, pp. 7–14)
  6. The President initialed his approval and added a handwritten comment: “Base it on ‘reports which have come here—etc.’” Apparently this was not the first time the issue had arisen. The President responded to such a report on Soviet concerns that the United States might exploit Sino-Soviet tensions in the President’s September 17 daily briefing memorandum, writing: “K—we must be getting through. We must not be too obvious about it.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 10, President’s Daily Briefs) Attached to another copy of Kissinger’s September 29 memorandum is an unsigned and undated memorandum from Kissinger to Rogers, laying out the President’s request as described in this paragraph. (Ibid., Country Files, USSR, Box 710, Vol. V)