79. Memorandum From Secretary of State Kissinger to President Ford1


  • Cooperation with South Africa on Ocean Surveillance

The purpose of this memorandum is to elicit your decision on our response to a South African initiative for a cooperative agreement in the area of ocean surveillance. The initiative is contained in a letter from the Acting Chief of the South African Defense Staff to Chief of Naval Operations Holloway proposing a bilateral US-South African agreement designed to upgrade South Africa’s ocean surveillance capabilities. The letter to Holloway is at Tab A.2

Under the proposed agreement, the United States would agree to issuance of export licenses for the equipment needed to establish an improved ocean surveillance system (e.g., [1 line not declassified] coastal surveillance radars, long range acoustic sensors and data analysis centers). In return, South Africa would provide us with information developed by their improved system. The South Africans reportedly have assured Admiral Holloway that their surveillance system would be operated by a new, non-military South African agency, but its military/intelligence functions are clear and acknowledged.

Concerning the intelligence benefits of the proposed agreement, the intelligence community as a whole has not addressed the issue, but CIA believes that ocean surveillance information provided by South Africa would be of marginal intelligence value. Soviet naval move[Page 188]ments in the Cape sea routes have always been limited. With the reopening of the Canal, CIA believes it unlikely that Soviet use of the Cape routes will again reach even the low level that existed during the period when the Canal was closed. Moreover, the South African capability would be of little use in monitoring activities in the Indian Ocean area. On the other hand, Defense argues we would gain the advantage of a closer military relationship with South Africa.

In our judgment, confirmed informally by both State and Defense, agreement to the South African proposal would be contrary to the policy on issuance of licenses for export of arms, equipment and associated items to South Africa established by NSDM 81 of August 17, 1970 (copy at Tab D).3 NSDM 81 is the most recent statement of an arms embargo policy dating back to 1963. In summary, the NSDM prohibits license issuance for all equipment which has a clear and direct application to combat or to internal security operations. It is the judgment of the Defense Department that the preponderance of items necessary for a modern surveillance system would fall into this category. For example, under the policy guidance of NSDM 81, the State Department earlier this year refused a license for export to South Africa of Sonabuoys, a water borne senser device integral to any modern surveillance system.

It appears, therefore, that an exemption to the general guidelines of NSDM 81 will be necessary to allow our agreement to the South Africa proposal. If such an exemption were to become public knowledge, as we deem likely, it could be expected to have both domestic and international consequences.

Internationally, even a limited exemption to our arms embargo policy would be seen by Third World countries, especially those in Africa, as an abrogation of moral responsibility and a reversal, in the name of narrowly defined national interest, of long-standing policy. Repercussions could be expected at the United Nations, where we consistently have supported embargo resolutions. In general, we could expect the issue to make more difficult in the short run our efforts to exercise a moderating influence in southern Africa.

Domestically, any exemption to the arms embargo policy would bring a strong reaction from elements opposed to the South African regime. The domestic economic effects, on the other hand, would be mildly favorable. Although no thorough analysis is possible in the absence of more information about the South African proposal, Defense informs us that a moderate surveillance system would cost the South Africans about $125 million over a three to four year period and pro[Page 189]vide about 1000 jobs, the majority in New Hampshire. Former Senator Norris Cotton has expressed support for the project.


Our arms embargo toward South Africa pre-dates that of the U.N. Security Council, and, as amplified by NSDM 81, has as its objective a careful balance between conflicting U.S. interests in Southern Africa. It forms a part of our effort to maintain constructive relations with South Africa, while responding to legitimate Black African concerns (supported by a significant domestic constituency) regarding South Africa.

A change in our arms embargo policy, particularly by supplying purely military equipment would be a major shift in our posture toward southern Africa. The change would come at a time when, with the independence of Mozambique, the current Soviet efforts to influence the outcome of independence in Angola, our efforts to convince South Africa to facilitate independence in Namibia, and attempts at obtaining a Rhodesian solution, we are increasingly engaged in southern African affairs. Given these larger considerations, I recommend that you reject the South African proposal, thus confirming our arms embargo for South Africa.4

The State Department concurs in this recommendation.

Alternatively, you may wish to make an exception to our arms embargo policy and authorize the Defense Department to enter into discussions with the South Africans with a view to concluding an agreement on ocean surveillance. If you choose this option you should be aware that your action, should it become public knowledge, will be viewed by domestic and international opinion as an abrogation of our arms embargo policy.5 The Department of Defense supports this option.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–218, National Security Decision Memoranda, NSDM 81. Top Secret. Sent for action. This memorandum is on White House stationery.
  2. For Tab A, see footnote 2, Document 78.
  3. Printed as Document 40.
  4. Ford initialed his disapproval, that is, he approved the South African proposal. In an October 30 memorandum from Kissinger to the President, Ford had previously rejected the proposal. An undated note by Scowcroft on the memorandum, however, reads, “Hal Horan—The President reversed himself on this. He now wants to approve the equipment on a very low key basis. Brent. What do we do now?” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–218, National Security Decision Memoranda, NSDM 81)
  5. Ford initialed his approval. In a November 7 memorandum to the President, Scowcroft requested reconsideration of approval of the South African proposal, citing the potential for numerous adverse consequences: secrecy could probably not be maintained, creating problems with Congress (particularly the Black Caucus), some members of the American public, and American media; black Africa would view the agreement as a reversal of U.S. opposition to apartheid, inflaming radical African nations, and cause nations such as Nigeria and Zaire to distance themselves from the United States; and it might also embarrass NATO members attempting to counter accusations of military cooperation with South Africa. (Ibid.)