53. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Leonid I. Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Central Committee, CPSU
  • Andrei A. Gromyko, Minister for Foreign Affairs
  • Anatoli F. Dobrynin, Ambassador to the USA
  • Andrei M. Aleksandrov, Assistant to Brezhnev
  • Georgi M. Kornienko, Head of USA Division, Foreign Ministry
  • Andrei Vavilov, Foreign Ministry
  • Viktor M. Sukhodrov, Foreign Ministry, Interpreter
  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Helmut Sonnenfeldt, NSC Senior Staff
  • Philip Odeen, NSC Senior Staff
  • William Hyland, NSC Senior Staff
  • Peter W. Rodman, NSC Staff
  • Richard Campbell, NSC Staff
[Page 156]


  • Nuclear Treaty; SALT Principles; Middle East; Communiqués of HAK visit and Brezhnev visit

Brezhnev: I have one major question. The rest—the Middle East,2 the principles—are minor matters. Can we trust him—Gromyko?

Kissinger: I have often wondered. He knows more than any other Foreign Minister.

[Omitted here is material unrelated to the Middle East.]

The Middle East

Brezhnev: Let us turn to an easy question now, the Middle East. Let us send Dr. Kissinger to the Middle East for two weeks.

Gromyko: President Nixon and I will write out a brief lucid instruction, and it is done with.

Kissinger: You know the story of the scorpion who wanted to cross the Suez Canal. He asked a camel if he could ride on his back. The camel said, “If I do and you sting me, I will be dead.” The scorpion said, “I will drown also, so you have every guarantee.” So the camel took the scorpion on his back and they started across. In the middle of the Canal the scorpion stung the camel and as they drowned the camel asked, “what did you do this for?” The scorpion said, “you forgot this is the Middle East.” [Laughter]

Gromyko: Very good.

Brezhnev: I have heard a different version, a scorpion—on the back of a frog. And the frog said, “That is just my nature!”

Kissinger: There is a story about an Arab lying in his tent trying to take an afternoon sleep. There were a lot of children making a lot of noise. So he told the children, “In the village they are giving away free grapes and you should go there.” So the children went away to the village. It got very quiet. Just as he was falling asleep he said to himself, “You idiot, what are you doing here if they are giving away free grapes?” So he went to the village. [Laughter]

So I think it would take three weeks.

[Page 157]

Brezhnev: Three! Since this is the evening of jokes, I will tell you one.

Kissinger: I was hoping to trigger you—you are much better at it.

Brezhnev: Sometimes in our negotiations something happens that applies to Jackson. Two Jews meet. One asks, “Abraham, why are you not going to Israel? You applied for a permit and everything seemed to be settled.” The other replied, “Some goddamn fool wrote an anonymous letter on me alleging I am not a Jew.” [Laughter]

So with the communiqué we still have time, and Mr. Nixon can still take a look at it. The experience of the Moscow Summit shows it can be done.

Sonnenfeldt: Kornienko and I spent all night on it.

Brezhnev: Is not that a pleasant way? Let me tell you another story: Two Jews meet: One asks, “Abraham, did you hear that Isaac’s dacha burned down?” Abraham says, “So what, it is none of my business.” “It is really none of my business either,” the first one says, “but it is pleasant nonetheless.”3

Kissinger: When your Ambassador and I drove in from the airport we discussed our mutual interest, first, that there should not be a war at all, and, . . .

Brezhnev: Let me suggest, we could discuss the principles we handed over4 some later time, and just discuss the general situation now.

Kissinger: I would be prepared.

As a result of this I asked our intelligence people to make an analysis of what they know, and I would be glad to discuss this with you.

Brezhnev: Please, I do think it is important.

[Page 158]

Kissinger: Because we have a major and an immediate interest. The major interest is to avoid war altogether; the immediate interest is to avoid a war before the General Secretary’s trip to the United States.5

The general assessment of our people is that it is unlikely that the Egyptians and the Syrians will start military operations in the next six weeks. And we also know from our sources that at a high level you have been urging restraint. We have this from our own sources too. Some of your lower level people are sometimes more adventurous.6

Brezhnev: That is absolutely true; at the high level we are urging restraint. Then I guess we should discuss which one of us has more adventurists in our midst, the Soviet Union or the United States.

Kissinger: I am sure we have some too.

Brezhnev: We withdraw that from the discussion anyway.

Kissinger: We have some military information—I do not know if you want to go through it—of various movements in the Arab world.

Sukhodrev: Troop movements?

Kissinger: Airplanes, military forces. I can run through it.

Brezhnev: Yes.

Kissinger: Within Egypt, they have moved what we call SA–6 surface-to-air missiles to within 20 miles of the Suez Canal. They have received 30 Mirage fighters from Libya. They have moved TU–16 bombers, which you gave them, from Aswan to Cairo. There is a high state of alert in the Egyptian Air Force, and reservists have been recalled. They have moved some commando units closer to the Suez Canal. We have information that at the Arab Chiefs of Staff meeting, April 21–25, there was an atmosphere of despair and foreboding because of the Egyptian determination to go to war regardless of the consequences. A Moroccan squadron of planes has gone to Syria. Two squadrons of Algerian MIG–21 aircraft have gone to Libya. They also may have sent MIG–16 and 19’s to Syria. But you would know that better than we. They also plan to send Sudanese ground forces to Egypt and there is a vaguer plan to send some to Syria.

So there are these movements of these other Arab forces. Our assessment is it is still largely psychological. But we do take it very seri[Page 159]ously, and there is a possibility that there is a plan to do something before the summit to force us into joint action.

As I told your Foreign Minister, I am planning to meet Ismail next weekend in Paris, probably Paris.

Brezhnev: That’s not bad intelligence. Israel also is recalling its reservists and has banned holidays and vacations for doctors. And they have deployed advance hospitals with a capacity for 1,000 wounded. I’m not familiar with other substantial latest developments, but we can both note from our discussions that certain preparations are under way. And on the part of all these countries together—Egypt, Israel, Syria, Libya and others—they can be assumed to have concentrated an army jointly of some million men. I’d say if we were to pool the intelligence available to both sides, we would be close to an accurate estimate. That is, of course, what amounts to a serious problem. I wouldn’t go so far as to take it for absolute truth, but according to TASS in Syria and Lebanon all sorts of committees are being formed and all sorts of military meetings are being held—not just to have a few drinks but to discuss military matters.

In any event, there are grounds to draw the conclusion that in this area where we would both like to see a just peace and guarantees for states, the course of events is proceeding in the wrong direction. If you take a superficial look at this general picture, the United States would seem to be taking a tranquil attitude toward these events, obviously drawing its own conclusion as to the possible results of a new military flare-up. I can conceive of the idea that perhaps they are thinking that the Russians can do everything in that area.

Kissinger: What do you mean?

Brezhnev: I’ll explain. In the sense that we can tell the Arabs not to fight. All that has been done until now in the direction of urging restraint has had its positive results in the sense of contributing to such restraint. And our influence could go on having a positive effect in that direction, provided the Arab states could see prospects ahead for a basis being found for a peaceful solution to the problem. But the mistake of the US—and obviously ourselves too—may lie in fact that neither side can count on its influence being effective if the sides there don’t see prospects for a peaceful settlement. If we don’t take steps in that direction, i.e., practical steps toward a settlement, we can’t count on a peaceful solution. All our hopes in that area will be proved untrue. Because the Arabs have before them the task of returning their lands and in those circumstances if Israel, counting on the success achieved in the short war, remains in place, we might not be able to maintain the status quo in the situation, and then we may be confronted by events that will present us both—the US and the Soviet Union—with complex problems.

[Page 160]

I want to be quite frank. And in that spirit of frankness I want to say that all good things done by us in the direction at the Summit of achieving détente and avoiding a confrontation will all be scrapped, and no one will believe us any more. No one can say what practical nature such a war will assume. Secondly, beyond all doubt in that case the whole world will be in turmoil over this war—propaganda, mass media, everything.

That is how we view the general situation. It’s our feeling that you and we can prevent such a course of events only if we can work out some principles and measures aimed at putting both sides on the right track.

Such, as I say, is our view of the general situation. We had a brief opportunity to exchange a few words on this yesterday. It will certainly be very strange indeed and incomprehensible if two big states as the US and the Soviet Union should prove to be so impotent as to be unable to solve this problem. This is something no one in the world could understand. That is, I feel, the political basis upon which we should try to think about some practical measures. On this topic we have officially stated 150 times, and I wish to confirm this again, and you can say this to President Nixon: This isn’t a question involving the specific interests of the Soviet Union and the United States. It is a question concerning the need to restore order and assure a tranquil life for all the states in the area.

I’d also like Dr. Kissinger to communicate to President Nixon another important fact: We’ve never spoken with the Arab states—nor do we intend to take any action in that regard—in the sense of impinging upon the economic interests of the Arab countries regarding the interests of third countries. If I’m saying something that is not true, this will one day come out anyway. I stress this fact because we know there exist certain traditional ties regarding oil and other areas, and that is entirely the business of Britain, France and the US. And that is something we don’t interfere in at all. Our only interest is to preserve the peace.

Let’s reflect on this a little bit. In June, I’m supposed to be the guest of President Nixon personally, and I’m certainly counting on good results from that. Then, suddenly a war breaks out. Last year, you started a vicious bombing campaign in Vietnam and resorted to measures you had never done before, but nevertheless we gave President Nixon a warm reception in the Soviet Union. And our entire Party took an understanding attitude toward this. But if war breaks out now, the country will take an entirely different attitude.

Kissinger: That’s a delicate way of putting it.

Brezhnev: And in this country too, there would be a different attitude: a wave of protest among the working class and the intelligentsia. [Page 161]All this cannot allow us to simply turn a blind eye on this question. And all of the calculations and hopes that somebody might exert a beneficial influence or that one side may prove stronger, may be toppled. It is very easy to make a mistake in this field.

I don’t have much more to say. It’s quite enough for a general discussion.

Kissinger: I appreciate the General Secretary’s remarks and the spirit in which he made them.

First—this isn’t exactly relevant to what the General Secretary said, but it is important to his trip. We will make an absolutely maximum effort to prevent actions by minority groups inconsistent with the spirit of the development of Soviet-American relations, and will not allow any special groups to interfere with our foreign policy. This is separate from what the General Secretary said.

Brezhnev: To that I approach in this way: I am not going on a visit to any groups in the United States. I am going to visit the President. I am not interested in any actions by groups of 100 to 200 people somewhere; though they can be unpleasant. Any country, by normal international standards, tries to treat guests in a normal way regardless of the color of their skin or flag. No one will try to overturn my car. Nor am I going in the expectation of having the American people rise up with red flags. I have been abroad and seen people raise their own flags. Here too, foreign visitors come—the King of Afghanistan, Emperor Haile Selassie, King Hassan—and we fly our flag and theirs. If someone shouts catcalls, that’s their business. When I visited France, there was concerned discussion of anti-Sovietism—not because they were afraid of me but because they thought they should treat guests civilly in accordance with international law.

They don’t have to shout hurrahs. I’m quite sure indeed there are certain groups in the United States that would be very eager to inflict inconveniences during my visit or commit some act. But in that respect I value very highly the concern of President Nixon to avoid that.

Kissinger: Mr. General Secretary, let me turn to the specific problem of the Middle East. We agree substantially with your analysis of the situation. We agree there are great dangers, produced by the despair of the Arabs produced by their lack of a sense of proportion, on one hand, and the intransigence of the Israelis on the other side. The trouble is, the Arabs cannot win a war, and the Israelis cannot achieve a peace by their own efforts and on their present course. Now, in this situation, it is clear that unless some new element is introduced into the situation, the stalemate will continue. And again we substantially understand your point of view. But we have to be realistic in recognizing the scope of effective action. You have referred to the fact that some people overestimate what you can do with the Arabs, and this is prob[Page 162]ably true. But some people also overestimate what we can do with the Israelis, especially in a short period of time. The present situation is intractable because both sides would rather go to war than accept the program of the other.

Brezhnev: I would like to speak about our influence over the Arab governments. I spoke in the sense that it is hard to exert influence when there is no prospect for the liberation of occupied territory. The Arabs will ask us what we are in favor of. What are we proposing? If, on the other hand, the U.S. supports the present position of Israel, of course Israel will fly with wings in the air shouting “America will help us; what have we to fear?” So there are two sides to the question of influence.

When the United States really took the path of searching for peace in Vietnam, then we really started using our influence in Vietnam. We sent Katushev, and when that wasn’t enough, Podgorny, then Katushev again. And those efforts were contributions to the achievement of the agreement to end the war. But if you say you can’t influence Israel, how can you count on us to influence the Arabs?

Kissinger: We can influence Israel, and we are prepared to do so, up to a certain point. What is important is to know what that realistic point is. We can’t influence Israel in the direction of the maximum Arab position.

I told your Ambassador: When I met Ismail he said Israel had to withdraw. I asked “In return for what”? He said, an end of the state of belligerence. When I asked him what this was, it was indistinguishable from the present ceasefire. Then after that, Israel still had to have negotiations with the Palestinians. Only then would there be a state of peace. It is hard to convince the Israelis why they should give up the territory in exchange for something which they already have, in order to avoid a war they can win—only to have to negotiate then with the most intransigent element of the Arabs.

I give this example to show the complexity of the situation.

So we have been looking for some realistic formulation—not an Israeli one but perhaps one somewhat more flexible than the Arab one—that will perhaps start a process that will give the Arabs some hope that progress is being made. And we are prepared to discuss this with the Egyptians and with you. One difficulty is, when I look, for example, at the principles you handed us—and we won’t have time to discuss them tonight—I see this is essentially the Egyptian position. If we on our side give you then a set of proposals that is the same as the Israeli position, then there will be total deadlock. What we should do is to work out principles that are sufficiently general to urge on both sides and get negotiations going simultaneously on a provisional solution and an overall solution. At the same time we can try to work out concrete provisions for certain parts of it. If we discuss the situation only abstractly, [Page 163]it will only result in a continuation of the status quo or some irrational outburst of violence.

Brezhnev: I’ve been listening very attentively, and I would like again to introduce one element and to say that as I see it, the Arab world—that is, those directly linked with the military actions of Israel—and Israel itself is waiting to see what will happen after the Brezhnev visit to the United States, and what Nixon and Brezhnev will have to say on the situation in the Mideast, and how what they say can influence the settlement of the conflict. If they simply read, instead of realistic things, a mere weak brew, it will be hard for them to find anything on which to act. Now they know preparations for this are under way, and this is a restraining factor. If on the eve of my visit, or during my visit, no signal is given to Golda Meir or Sadat or Assad, then it is very difficult to foresee what will happen. After all, all these are sovereign states—not our colonies, not your colonies. What can be expected in the U.S. is heating up in connection with this visit. Not so in this country. How then can Brezhnev go to the U.S. if we don’t have something realistic? We’ll lose the very ground from under our feet, and lose all the progress in our efforts for peace. It is a very complex problem, and it needs every effort.

When we sign the main document, the agreement on the prevention of nuclear war,7 everyone will understand what it means. There will be explanations, but the document is clear. It means there will be no war. But here, on this problem, if we pass over it in silence or have only a weak brew, it will have a harmful effect from the political point of view. Our interests are involved because this is very close to our borders, and the U.S. is very close. So it is impossible not to take some steps, or else President Nixon and I might find ourselves in an impossible situation. After all, nothing in this world is eternal—similarly the present military advantage enjoyed by Israel is not eternal either. Israel is somewhat concerned that some have severed diplomatic relations with her, and the front around her is growing tighter. But now she’s easy because she enjoys the support of the United States—but is that an eternal category? Maybe it will be shown as a result of my visit that both the U.S. and the USSR are quite impotent in the Mideast, but in practice that is not so.

All I’ve been saying on this score is something on which I’ve not consulted my colleagues. They are my own feelings and thoughts.

Kissinger: One problem about the Mideast is that there have been endless theoretical debates, and every side wants their total program. We are interested in concrete discussions, but they have to be in some [Page 164]realistic framework. You fear the Arabs may start a war if their objectives are not satisfied, or it is also possible Israel will start a war if they fear their concerns are not met.

Last night in the tower you spoke of the spirit of compromise. I agree we should have concrete discussions on a set of principles which we can try to urge on the parties to implement.

Brezhnev: Yesterday I was very modest in my discussion with you, because I felt it was a subject for fuller discussion.

Kissinger: No, I don’t consider it a formal statement.

Brezhnev: We were talking on a different plane.

Kissinger: Good, I agree.

Brezhnev: That’s all very true, but also it has to be borne in mind. But for six years we have been saying principles, principles, principles, but going no further.

Kissinger: I agree. That’s what I’ve been saying about SALT. It would be useful if one could think of some concrete steps that could be taken immediately, that could at least start the process.

In the case of our Berlin negotiations, Mr. General Secretary, we went through many years of abstract discussions, but then settled it in six months, nine months—by becoming very concrete and both sides making some concessions. I think the same procedure might work in the Mideast.

Gromyko: In the case of West Berlin, it took about three years.

Kissinger: But when we started getting serious between us, it took about a year.

Gromyko: The general bilateral talks took three years; the formal talks took one year. But that’s just a factual statement of the case.

Brezhnev: But finally, can we at least agree on a first point, a second point, a third, a fourth, and a fifth point? Because now we have no points; all we have is this weak brew.

Last year we had a discussion that seemed to inspire us with hopes that in 1973 some concrete measures might be possible.8 Now we’re already in the fifth month of 1973 and we’ve not yet even begun to talk about concrete measures.

So where do we go from here?

Kissinger: Well, of course, we have your proposed principles. And I will see—I expect—Mr. Ismail the end of next week. And I will inform your Ambassador of the results, as I did last time. And perhaps out of these discussions some concrete statement can be developed that can [Page 165]be urged on both sides. And in the meantime we can discuss in a preliminary way the principles you gave us. But I would frankly like to hear what Ismail has to say before I make a final judgment.

Brezhnev: So you feel that it would be best first to wait for the results of your meeting with Ismail before becoming very concrete?

Kissinger: Yes. And frankly, this is what Ismail said to me last time I met him.

Brezhnev: I too have met our Ismail, another Ismail [referring to Egyptian War Minister Ahmed Ismail’s visit to Moscow following Hafiz Ismail’s visit]. I will probably become an Ismail too. And you too will become an Ismail. And then we will be two Ismails.

[Omitted here is material unrelated to the Middle East.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 75, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Kissinger Conversations at Zavidovo, May 5–8, 1973. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. The conversation took place in Brezhnev’s Office at the Politburo Villa in Zavidovo. All brackets except those that indicate omitted material are in the original.
  2. On May 1, President Nixon sent Brezhnev a personal message, noting that Kissinger would shortly be meeting with him to review the state of preparations for their forthcoming summit talks in June. Kissinger would be prepared to review all subjects of mutual interest, including the Middle East. (Ibid., Box 68, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Dobrynin/Kissinger, Vol. 17, [May 1973–June 7, 1973]) On May 3, Brezhnev replied, stating that one important matter to discuss at the summit would be the “extremely dangerous” situation in the Middle East. He argued that it was important to reach mutual U.S.–Soviet understanding regarding the principles on which a Middle East settlement should be built and suggested that work on such principles be done while Kissinger was in the Soviet Union. (Ibid., Box 72, Country Files, Europe, USUSSR, BrezhnevNixon Exchanges, 1973)
  3. Describing his trip to Zavidovo in his memoirs, Kissinger wrote: “Brezhnev’s idea of diplomacy was to beat the other party into submission or cajole it with heavy-handed humor. My tactic was to reduce matters to easy banter to avoid personal showdowns and to give emphasis to our sticking points when I turned serious.” (Years of Upheaval, p. 282)
  4. Attached, but not printed. The principles called for “the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from all Arab territories occupied in 1967” and stated that “the international lines of demarcation, which existed between Israel and the neighbouring Arab countries as of June 4, 1967 shall be recognized as the final boundaries between them.” Commenting on this exchange in his memoirs, Kissinger wrote: “Brezhnev had offered me no program. I thought the veiled threat of war was a bluff because in our view a war would lead to a defeat for the Arabs from which the Soviets would not be able to extricate their clients. Gromyko had given me a set of principles at Zavidovo, but they were identical to the Arab program. Since Brezhnev in his talk with me had not been prepared to retreat one inch from it, we had deferred discussion until the June summit.” (Years of Upheaval, p. 296)
  5. Brezhnev and Gromyko visited Washington and San Clemente June 18–26. See Documents 72 74.
  6. In a May 8 meeting with Kissinger, Gromyko insisted that Kissinger was “underestimating the danger of the situation” in the Middle East, and that the United States was unwilling, for reasons of its own, to try to find a real solution. “If the United States thinks that the Soviet Union will be a partner to agreements promoting the Israeli occupation of lands,” said Gromyko, “it shows that we are talking in two different languages; and we might as well draw an X through this paper.” (Memorandum of conversation; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 75, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Kissinger Conversations at Zavidovo, May 5–8, 1973)
  7. See footnote 3, Document 58.
  8. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 284.