46. Memorandum From Roger Morris of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1


  • NSSM 63, Sino-Soviet Rivalry—A Dissenting View

NSSM 63 seems to proceed from certain basic assumptions about the effect of the Sino-Soviet rivalry on US interests. I would argue those assumptions. In my view, the revised paper still: (a) overdraws the benefits of the dispute for the US, (b) omits significant side effects of Sino- Soviet hostility, (c) fails to probe the most likely form of a full-fledged Sino-Soviet war and (d) puts the fundamental policy choice to the President in the wrong terms. The following are specific points of this criticism (keyed to the sequence of discussion in your analytical summary):2

The Rivalry and US Interests


The paper rests on a judgment that the dispute has kept the Russians and Chinese from concerting anti-US policies and thereby limited the freedom of each to hurt us. I find this a questionable proposition from the history of the last eight years, particularly in the developing world where the Soviets and Chinese have had most targets of opportunity. One can argue, for example, that “concerted” Sino-Soviet policies on the Subcontinent in the ’50s confined both to an equivocal posture which did little to undermine our position with either the Indians or the Paks. It was the dispute that freed the Soviets to follow through their own game with Nehru and Shastri, and thus emerge as the main arms supplier and a dominant influence in the area.

Similarly, it was a Peking already at odds with Moscow which (a) attacked the Indians in 1962 (creating, among other unfortunate results, Delhi’s appetite for Soviet arms) and (b) moved to become a major arms supplier to the Paks in the following period. Our declining [Page 126] position on the Subcontinent since 1963 (Tashkent, the loss of Peshawar, etc.) can be related directly to the increased freedom which the rivalry gave both the Soviets and the Chinese to pursue their own interests unfettered by their partner’s sensitivities.

One can argue in the same vein about Soviet and Chinese moves at our expense in Africa, Latin America, or even in the Middle East. Ideologically cleansed of Peking’s radicalism—and thus seeming less ambitious—the Soviets have been able to carry off a much more effective posture vis-à-vis nationalist clients. The Chinese, unencumbered by the Soviet restraints that surely would have been applied in a “concerted” policy, have been able to exploit LDC radicals—such as the Southern African guerrillas, the Fedayeen, etc.—as they might never have done with Moscow tugging at their sleeves. And in so doing, of course, they have sometimes pulled the Soviets along to compete.

NSSM 63 seems to bypass the origins of the Sino-Soviet rivalry. Whatever else it may have been, this was also a deep-seated quarrel about the tactics of revolution in the poor countries. Having gone their own ways, each side has been able largely to pursue its own strategy in the LDCs. It doesn’t matter if the failure of one is the success of the other. In either case, the results are scarcely to our advantage.

The paper suggests that the Soviet readiness to deal on questions such as SALT or European security is a favorable by-product of the rivalry. I think this too misses a point about the origins of the dispute. It was the prior Soviet recognition of its great power status, and thus of the necessity for dealing with the US on security issues, that was a major factor in alienating the Chinese in the first place. The motives that bring Moscow to the SALT talks are fundamental to Soviet foreign policy since 1949–50, and clearly pre-date the formal schism with Peking. We only have to ask ourselves if the Soviets would really back-track on SALT, etc. if only the dispute with the Chinese were healed. I have great difficulty believing that—and thus in agreeing that the rivalry per se makes the Soviets easier to live with.

The paper also suggests, though much less explicitly, that the rivalry may have moved the Chinese to a less belligerent posture towards us. There is no hard evidence of this so far. The paper argues that Chinese propaganda against the US has diminished while it has increased against the USSR. But this is more likely a matter of priority in resources, or an ideological gambit in Chinese domestic politics, than a subtle signal to us (even for the Chinese). To the contrary, it can be argued that the Chinese have stayed with Hanoi, despite the enormous strains of the Cultural Revolution, largely because they would not cede that game to the Soviets. Likewise, Soviet policy in Vietnam since 1965 (when it counted) has been heavily laden with the need to counter the Chinese. Yet again, in any case, the results are unwelcome for us.

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The Chinese may still try, of course, to maneuver toward us, and there are recent hints of this (which the paper ignores). But for purposes of policy planning over 3–5 years, we cannot assume this will be anything more than shrewd short-run tactics.

In sum, there are serious doubts about the “advantages” of the rivalry. The feud is certainly one more headache for already throbbing brows in Moscow and Peking. And if one assumes (as I do not) that their pain is always in some way our gain, we can watch with pleasure. But it’s just as certain that we have no worthwhile way to exploit the present rivalry.


NSSM 63 goes on to say that a war between the two would “drastically reduce” their capability to pursue policies against us elsewhere. At the same time, the paper judges that the danger of nuclear escalation would make actual hostilities “disadvantageous” to our interests. These are not relevant criteria for judging the Sino-Soviet reaction to us in the event of hostilities. The question is not one of “capabilities” to hurt us, but rather how they would calculate their own interests (and our intentions) if they were engaged in a major conflict with each other.

Here the evidence of history argues that the sheer trauma of a war would quickly immerse both parties in their fundamental paranoia about the outside world. Neither would be disposed to rely on mere diplomatic protection of their flanks. The Soviets would: (a) almost certainly tighten the screws in Eastern Europe in a show of fearsomeness, (b) might well do some sabre-rattling and domestic tampering with the Japanese to protect that flank and (c) call in their credit with Hanoi. None of these steps would be in our interest. I find, incidentally, that one of the paper’s most salient omissions is an analysis of Soviet- instigated side-effects vis-à-vis Japan or North Vietnam. A war with China, for example, would certainly deprive Moscow of what little leverage they have on Hanoi regarding the war in South Vietnam.

As for the Chinese, they too would be impelled to secure their flanks by aggressive diversions in North Korea or North Vietnam, inevitably at our expense. There is just no evidence to suggest (and much to the contrary) that a China-confronted by war with the Soviet Union would pause for a moment to try to court the US.

Moreover, the paper fails to explore one of the most likely scenarios in Sino-Soviet hostilities—namely, a Soviet surgical strike on Peking’s nuclear capacity. That enterprise would undoubtedly add to Soviet prestige in Asia, might make the otherwise insular hacks in the Kremlin dangerously cocky, and would leave us generally on the defensive. The Chinese could respond with an irrational outburst toward Siberia or Soviet Central Asia, but it seems to me more likely that they would choose (as before) the less costly but face-saving course of lashing out anew in Southeast Asia. That brings us unpleasantries I need not describe.
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Not that these prospects should lead us to try to broker a reconciliation of Moscow and Peking (though there is an interesting argument that together—squabbling over tactics and doomed to compromise— they may be less formidable opponents).

But I would repeat that NSSM 63 is misleading to the degree it gives the President reason to rub his hands over the Sino-Soviet clash. The bureaucracy seems to view our relationship to the Moscow-Peking rivalry as a classical three-power gambit—in which, as the textbooks tell us, it’s smart to back the weaker against the stronger and play for the breaks. It seems to me this misjudges the perception of the world from Moscow and Peking. The only safe assumption on the basis of past history is that heightened rivalry or actual conflict would give free rein to the deepest fear and suspicion in both leaderships, and thus only enliven their common belligerence toward us.

The Policy Question

The real policy question seems to me to proceed precisely from where NSSM 63 leaves off. Our influence on the situation is minimal. Our advantages, even in rivalry short of battle, are dubious. The question for the President is: Can we find any opportunity or peril in the Sino-Soviet rivalry which should compel him to change his distinct policies towards each side—each formulated and conducted for its own reasons? I think the answer must be negative.

However, there are two important corollaries of this policy choice which the paper does not make clear:

  • —Whatever the scenario in a Sino-Soviet war, the Russians are going to win it. Thus, we should do nothing that jeopardizes our chances for dealing with the Soviets on questions of vital interest to the US in either Asia or Europe.
  • —And because the actions the President now contemplates vis-à-vis China remain peripheral to the development of the Sino-Soviet quarrel, nothing in that quarrel should deter us from following a sensible relaxation of our posture toward Peking. The Soviets are indeed nervous about these trivial gestures, but we should let them squirm. There is a threshhold of Soviet tolerance in our China policy. But we should be clear that we are still far from it. We should continue to consult our own immediate and direct interests (Asian and Pacific) in trying to do business with Peking.


This much said, however, I feel very much the seminar-paper syndrome. These points are worth exploring at the planning level. And it is surely worth telling the President that (a) the rivalry is a mixed blessing, (b) we are trying to cover the contingencies (most of them perilous) of a Sino-Soviet war, and (c) the rivalry is no reason to change his basic policies toward either China or Russia. But beyond that, the exercise is largely academic.

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The “options” in NSSM 63 are just unreal, and I have difficulty imagining a full-dress NSC discussion could illuminate the issues in a way practical enough to justify the President’s time.

I suggest the Review Group commission an Information Memo to the President (written here) giving the main conclusions of the study— and let it go at that.3

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–040, Review Group Meeting, Sino-Soviet Differences, 11/20/69. Secret. Sent for information. Morris sent the memorandum to Kissinger through Robert Osgood of the NSC staff. A handwritten notation on the first page notes that copies were sent to Sonnenfeldt, Watts, Holdridge, and Kennedy. Attached was another copy of the first page of this memorandum, upon which Kissinger wrote: “But basically this is Option C–2, or is that wrong? HK.”
  2. Reference is to the analytical summary prepared by the NSC staff for Kissinger as part of the NSSM 63 response. See Document 40.
  3. The “Information Memo” was apparently not written.