106. Memorandum From Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1


  • Gerard Smith’s Memorandum on Soviet Provocative Attack Proposal (Tab A)2

Gerard Smith has sent you his own memorandum on how to deal with the Soviet proposal for an understanding on the question of “provocative attack.” This is outside the Verification Panel channels, where a State paper is being circulated on the same subject,3 and which I understand will be on the Verification Panel agenda.

The Smith version is long, confused and as “opaque” as he claims the Soviet motives are. He argues that we really do not know what worries the Soviets, but that they do have legitimate security concerns since they are surrounded by nuclear powers. We should, therefore, consider this approach of the Soviets is a “deeply felt” démarche. However, he concludes that China “seems not to be the dominant preoccupation”!!

He offers two premises for dealing with the Soviet overtures:

We will do with the Soviets only what we would be willing to do with other nuclear powers on the same conditions; this avoids accepting the Soviet thrust toward institutionalizing condominium, and is crucial to preserve the possibility of improved relations with China.
Second, we would not give commitments to retaliate against provocative third country attack.

This leaves the following possibilities: improve technical facilities (hot line), exchange information and consult in the event of “indications of a possible provocative third country attack,” stay in touch through a Joint Commission established at SALT. All of these could be done privately in SALT. In addition, we could agree to a general formula concerning action in event of nuclear attack or threat of attack on nuclear powers (A variant of the guarantees given non-nuclear powers in the NPT.) Smith advises against going this far at this time.

I find this a very ambivalent treatment of a massively important issue, perhaps the real heart of the matter in SALT. I have never been [Page 349]very impressed that the Soviet motive in SALT was only to kill the ABM. This very sensitive bargain they have offered us—tantamount to an alliance against China—may be the most important Soviet political initiative in years. It is not inconceivable that the outcome of SALT will turn on our ultimate response.

What both Smith and the State paper want to do is somehow have our cake and eat it. We respond with a package of garbage that accepts the basic legitimacy of so-called provocative attack, and a commitment to consult over a “threat,” but circumvent the heart of the matter which is whether we will take joint action against China or remain neutral. We would then have the worst imaginable position. Having engaged the Soviets on this absurd subject, we would have to assure our Allies that they were not the object. We then end up with a half-baked anti-Chinese arrangement, which the Soviets could construe was just enough freedom to act against China. In any case, the Chinese would have to conclude that this was the implicit aim of any such provocative attack agreement. If this is our aim, why not go all the way and extract a very high price from the Soviets?

My own feeling is that this should be kept in the deep freeze and that we should not string the Soviets along. At a minimum, we should determine whether SALT will result in anything relating to hardware that we could accept before launching into the strictly political aspects, and this includes the non-transfer provisions proposed by the Soviets.

This is clearly not the route the Soviets want. They want to achieve the political understanding, first, and then fix up some hardware bargain. Logic may be on their side in some ways and it might be best to kill the anti-China concept from the start. We would then learn how much this counted in the Soviet SALT position. In any case, we cannot allow Smith much leeway in this sensitive issue, since his overriding concern is a SALT agreement. Whatever comes out of the Verification Panel meetings, I urge you to hold the line against any new instruction on provocative attack until we have had a full look at the Soviet position.

The State paper, which is much better than Smith’s, will be processed through the regular mechanism of the Verification Panel.4 It, too, leans toward playing with this issue. Both papers are biased in that they reflect Soviet-American considerations mainly, and it might be well worth obtaining the reaction of a few old China hands.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 879, SALT, SALT talks (Helsinki), Vol. XIII, October–December 1970. Secret. Sent for information. Kissinger initialed the memorandum, indicating that he saw it.
  2. Attached but not printed.
  3. The Department of State paper is in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–006, Verification Panel Meeting—SALT 10/19/70.
  4. In an October 27 memorandum to Kissinger prepared after that day’s Verification Panel meeting, Smith argued that his proposal and the Department of State paper were essentially the same and asked for guidance to the SALT Delegation on how to proceed. Kissinger wrote “OBE” on a memorandum from K. Wayne Smith and Sonnenfeldt on providing instructions to Smith. (Ibid., Box 879, SALT, SALT talks (Helsinki), Vol. XIII, October–December 1970)