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151. Memorandum From Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the National Security Council Staff to Secretary of State Kissinger1

SUBJECT

  • Soviets and the Middle East—Gromyko’s Talk with the President of September 28, 1973

I did not in my earlier memo on this subject refer to Gromyko’s conversation with the President.2 There are two aspects to it which with hindsight are troubling.

My own reaction, at the time, to Gromyko’s rather flat warning that we might wake up one morning and find that another Arab-Israeli war had broken out was that it was a not unusual piece of rhetoric designed to underline the Soviet contention that there is a need for urgency in seeking a settlement and for US efforts to induce a more flexible Israeli position. Now, however, this warning must be seen against the background of both Egyptian and Syrian military moves in that very period of time. In the Syrian case this seems to have gone back at least to the air battle of September 13. In both the Egyptian and Syrian cases—leaving aside general statements of Egyptian intent to liberate the Sinai during the non-aligned conference—the military preparations seemed consistent with major maneuvers. However, there was the unusual codeword employed by the Egyptians early on September 28, Egyptian time, which one must assume was picked up by the Soviets as well as ourselves. Whether Gromyko was aware of this, and other unusual aspects of the Egyptian and Syrian alerts, is of course an open question.

The second aspect of the conversation relates to Gromyko’s effort to elicit from the President an indication of the timing of any new US negotiating initiative or at least readiness to enter into further diplomatic exchanges with the USSR. Again, at the time, this seemed consistent with past Soviet efforts to urge us to take diplomatic action. Yet it may be possible that Gromyko was in fact seeking assurance that we did not plan any early diplomatic initiative. When the President intimated that your proposed Soviet trip, which would be the next occasion for further high-level exchanges on the Middle East, could probably not take place until late December–early January (though before [Page 436]February), this may have been interpreted in Moscow as meaning that there would be no promising diplomatic activity in the interim. If conveyed to the Arabs, this view could have produced at least these conclusions: (1) that early military action would not seem to be sabotaging diplomatic efforts, (2) conversely, that there would be no US initiative that might make military action awkward, and (3) that, however, there was an incentive to seek a more advantageous military position before the negotiating season would resume around New Year.

Whether the Soviets themselves reached these conclusions and then would have positively acted upon them to encourage the Arabs is quite another matter. The Soviets were plainly aware of the serious difficulties the President was encountering in Congress with regard to MFN and “détente” generally. Although assured of the President’s determination to maintain his course, Gromyko could have had little question that the President’s Congressional problem would be greatly compounded by a Middle Eastern war. Dobrynin certainly would have made that judgement. But how that judgement might have been weighed in Moscow and figured in Soviet pre-hostility contacts with the Arabs will probably never be known.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 68, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Map Room—D [1 of 2]. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only.
  2. Document 142. Regarding the September 28 discussion, see Document 92.