119. Memorandum From K. Wayne Smith and Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1


  • Recent Soviet Hints on Tacit Limitations for Offensive Systems

Two cables in this morning from Helsinki (510—Tab A; 508—Tab B)2 indicate that the Soviets are mounting a major campaign to interest us in possible tacit restrictions on offensive systems under an agreement dealing only with ABMs. Pleshakov has sought to convey a special sense of urgency about halting U.S. ABM deployments while Grinevsky indicated that Semyonov may have more to say on the question of “modern large missiles” during the trip to Leningrad this weekend.

As always, one can speculate about what the Soviets are up to.

  • —They may simply be trying to position themselves in an optimal position for the end of the Helsinki phase so that, if things become public, they cannot be properly accused of having made only one-sided proposals.
  • —They may be trying to arouse the interest of susceptible elements in our own Government and cleared community (some 100s of people) so as to complicate our internal debates while they have theirs.
  • —The Soviets may finally have woken up to the fact that the President won the last Safeguard debate in the Senate and that the newly-elected Senate will do even better. Thus, their pleas for unilateral restraint and hints of tacit agreements may be intended to do what the Safeguard opponents failed to do in the Congress.
  • —Most intriguing perhaps, but also most complicated analytically, is the possibility that the Soviets may in fact be approaching the end [Page 376] of their land-based missile construction—or at least a point at which new decisions will be required if they are to continue—and that they are groping for some sort of a deal without tying their hands.

As regards this last possibility, which as you know has caught Gerard Smith’s interest, it is not clear why, if the Soviets are actually levelling off on launcher construction and want to kill Safeguard they don’t simply accept our Option E3 at least in principle. They could put in numbers that reflect their actual force levels and get us tied up hand and foot.

In any event, we should be extremely careful not to get in last minute temptations for deals whereby our programs are constrained explicitly “by agreement” and theirs only tacitly “by understanding.” In particular, even if for the moment our intelligence indicates a slowdown or even halt in Soviet land-based missile starts, we should not allow ourselves to be drawn into restraints on our Safeguard program. For one thing, we do not know whether the Soviets have really stopped. Beyond that, we have not completed our survivability studies and therefore do not know our own best choices on various assumptions concerning Soviet warhead development, which distinctly has not stopped.

Soviet hints that our continuation with Safeguard may swing internal Soviet arguments in favor of more ICBMs and against SALT can hardly be credited. Although Soviet ICBM launcher numbers have some relation to our ABM levels, warhead development has more. And the arguments on SALT, whatever they may be in Moscow, are almost certainly affected by a host of factors quite apart from our snails-pace advance on Safeguard.

In sum, we are bringing these messages to your attention and want to alert you to last minute pressures to “break soft” in Helsinki by leaving dangling all sorts of enticing notions about tacit agreements and restraints.

Finally, if the Soviets really want to make a deal, they know our phone number after Helsinki breaks up. They have never been shy to use it when they really had something to communicate. It still might be worth while for Smith to suggest to them that if they have anything specific to say about limitations on offensive systems during the recess after the Helsinki phase has ended, they should do so because it would be useful for us to know about it and to be able to take it into account in our planning for the next phase of the talks.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 714, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. XI, December 1970. Secret. Sent for information. A notation on the memorandum indicates that Kissinger saw it. This memorandum is attached as Tab B to a December 14 memorandum from Sonnenfeldt to Kissinger that recommended Kissinger send a backchannel message to Smith. Kissinger initialed his approval of this recommendation. The text of the proposed message reads as follows: “You will have received the formulations regarding ABM-only and FBS that were decided on over the weekend. The basic consideration was to leave our position sufficiently flexible for the next round as well as for any approach the Soviets may elect to make during the recess.” Kissinger continued, “We will want to give careful consideration to the significance of these approaches at an early stage after adjournment in terms of our intelligence regarding Soviet ICBM construction, the survivability study and other factors such as the situation in Moscow in this pre-Congress period.” For the new instructions to the delegation, see Document 120.
  2. Both dated December 11, attached but not printed.
  3. See Document 100.