141. Editorial Note

On March 16, 1971, Nixon and President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Kissinger met between 9:30 and 9:50 a.m. in order to discuss the draft letter about a strategic arms limitation agreement from the leadership of the Soviet Union (Tab A, Document 140). According to a recording of their discussion, after Nixon read the draft, he and Kissinger had the following exchange:

Kissinger: “I think we may have better than a 50–50 chance.”

Nixon: “I wonder if, well, if we put ourselves in the [unclear], saying that we shall reach an agreement before we know for sure.”

Kissinger: “And then we have the freeze. Oh, you mean on the ABM?”

Nixon: “Well, on the both, Henry. You see, a freeze may—it’s just a document. [Unclear] to cover MIRVs. I mean it’s a—”

Kissinger: “We didn’t ask for a MIRV even in our formal proposal.”

Nixon: “I know, but I, I’m getting at—the point I’m getting at, the point here, is whether we just—puts us any worse off than we are now.”

Kissinger: “I think it would show an initiative of trying to break the deadlock. If they then deadlock on technical—I have the impression that they want an agreement.”

Nixon: “What we’re doing is—say we negotiate an agreement in Vienna that has the opposite effect. It’s still worth doing. With ABM we could still not get, get together on that. Then we would have a freeze on offensive weapons and agree to negotiate more at a later time.”

Kissinger: “Well, what it would do, Mr. President—right now the deadlock is—for example, we have a long New York Times editorial again today, not that that matters, but in which they say we’re being obstinate by linking offensive and defensive weapons. And this is your way to break that deadlock. Whatever we put in the letter would still—you couldn’t possibly cover all the bases because—”

Nixon: “The New York Times just wants a SALT agreement [to] agree to an ABM limitation.”

Kissinger: “That’s right.”

Nixon: “They want it, because that’s the drive of everybody who’s opposed to ABMs, is simply to go back and be done with it. Correct?”

Kissinger: “That’s right. But in that case, we’re doing better than what The New York Times recommended. They accept it because we’re getting an offensive freeze also. You’ll get an ABM limitation with a good chance of one different from what they want, which is Washington—”

Nixon: “Um-hmm. Do you see anything [unclear]—?”

Kissinger: “I mean, we were just—”

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Nixon: “Do they want us to stop?”

Kissinger: “Yeah. We would instruct [Gerard] Smith to stick with—”

Nixon: “Three.”

Kissinger: “—our present program. But, his present instructions are four, and we could let him fall back to three. Of course, what we really need is the radar, and the radar does the same for three and four. Only we’ll get—three gets us fewer launchers.”

Nixon: “Fine. Well, let’s go on that. We’ll do it that way.”

Kissinger: “Ok, Mr. President.”

Nixon: “Fine.”

After discussion of unrelated subjects, they returned to SALT.

Kissinger: “I think that every time we’ve tried to meet, to placate these liberals, they’ve gotten nastier—”

Nixon: “A lot worse.”

Kissinger: “As I see it, every time we’ve met them frontally, they’ve started wailing.”

Nixon: “Damn. I don’t think we need to worry about them now—”

Kissinger: “I don’t think that’s—”

Nixon: “—I think what the problem right now is this: I’m not so sure the SALT thing is going to be all that important. I think it’s basically what I’m placating the critics with. Maybe it’s just as well.”

After discussion of unrelated subjects, they returned to SALT.

Nixon: “Now, about [Nguyen Van] Thieu, we have to remember that our view of the Russians, everything, is all tied into this, and we—”

Kissinger: “If we could—the advantage of a summit, even if it gets a sort of half-baked SALT agreement, whatever the SALT agreement is, it’s a lot better than the nuclear test ban.”

Nixon: “Of course. Of course. Of course.”

Kissinger: “And it—”

Nixon: “I—I agree with you. It would stop—”

Kissinger: “—it would defuse people. They can’t very well attack their President when he’s getting ready for a summit meeting.”

Nixon: “No.”

Kissinger: “And that would get us a few months of, of, of, you know, of quiet here. One thing we might consider that’s in the summer, a meeting with Thieu in which Thieu asks us to end our combat role. That would be an—”

Nixon: “Well, we’ve got to figure all those things out. The combat thing, no draftees—”

Kissinger: “Right.”

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Nixon: “—a whole series of announcements for the purpose of getting the thing cooled off.”

Kissinger: “That’s right.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation No. 468–5) The editor transcribed the portion of the conversation printed here specifically for this volume.

On March 16 Kissinger met with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin in the Map Room at the White House at 12:30 p.m. in order to hand him a draft letter that incorporated elements of both the Soviet text and language discussed with Nixon. According to a memorandum of conversation prepared by Kissinger: “Dobrynin changed the language to substitute the words ‘strategic offensive weapons’ for ‘offensive strategic missile launchers.’ (The reason is probably to avoid limitations on hardening and perhaps building new silos in replacement of old ones).” The substantive part of their agreed-upon draft letter from Nixon to Kosygin reads: “To achieve the breakthrough which we both desire and which peoples everywhere await, I propose that our respective delegations to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks should be instructed immediately to draw up the text of an ABM agreement. The nature of the limitation would be settled by negotiation. The agreement will contain an obligation to continue active negotiations and to reach an agreement on the limitation of strategic offensive weapons. The agreement would be accompanied by an understanding that strategic offensive weapons would be frozen at the level of a fixed date to be agreed. Such a ‘freeze’ would not affect possible modernization of offensive launchers or their replacement by weapons of the same category so long as the total number did not increase. If you agree to this approach I am confident that an agreement can be reached this year.”

According to Kissinger’s memorandum of conversation: “Dobrynin then said he would forward the letter to Moscow and have an answer in a few days. There would be a government meeting on it on March 18th. He asked me whether the freeze had to be negotiated prior to the ABM agreement. I said no, that they should be handled simultaneously, but that it would not go into effect until both were signed.” After a brief discussion of China, the conversation returned to SALT:

Dobrynin then asked me philosophically why we were so interested in limitations on offensive weapons. After all, the Soviet Union was offering us an equitable arrangement of defensive limitations. Why were we so interested in getting limitations on offensive weapons? We were greatly increasing the number of our warheads to a point where individual launchers were not really so significant. Dobrynin said that if several of our MIRVs were targeted on one silo, this would increase the probability of destruction of the silo considerably, even if the individual [Page 431] warheads were smaller. Under those conditions, he did not see what advantage the Soviet Union gained by building a few extra offensive missiles. (He was presumably implying that these offensive missiles had only single warheads.)

“At any rate, I told Dobrynin that our assessment was that our MIRVs did not increase the destructive potential of our offensive forces while the large size of their warheads made their weapons a particular danger to our land-based missiles. I told him, however, that I would be prepared to discuss this as a philosophical issue when we met for lunch. However, I told him that the linkage between offensive and defensive limitations had to be maintained.” (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 491, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1971, Vol. 5)

Kissinger and Dobrynin spoke again on the telephone at 3:08 p.m. According to a transcript of their conversation, Kissinger told Dobrynin that he had just spoken with the President and that “I don’t want you to misunderstand that we will agree to ABM only. He will not unless it’s in the context of the letter.” (Ibid., Kissinger Office Files, Box 78, Country Files, Europe, USSR, SALT)