148. Conversation Among President Nixon, the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger), and the Assistant to the President (Haldeman)1

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to SALT.]

Kissinger: Although if the Soviets don’t make a major move with us, Mr. President—

Nixon: Ho!

Kissinger: I’m afraid we have to go hard on them. Because what they are doing now in strategic deployment is scary.

Nixon: Well, I was all set for that.

Kissinger: Of course, they’ve got—

Nixon: I think that, however, is about right. See, now, I—I’m going to have a press conference two weeks from Thursday,2 this last Thursday.

Kissinger: Hmm.

Nixon: That’ll be the time—

Kissinger: By that time we’ll know.

Nixon: —we’ve got to know. And then, at that time, if they haven’t moved then, Henry, I’m going to have to lay it out there. That’s when we’ll get the question on SALT.

Kissinger: I think that’s right—

Nixon: [unclear]—

Kissinger: What they’re doing is scary. Now, they’ve got 61 new large missiles.

Nixon: Um-hmm. I know.

[Page 443]

Kissinger: They’re putting them closer together than they were, from which you have to assume—

Nixon: Closer?

Kissinger: —that they are thinking of them for a first strike, in which case it doesn’t matter how vulnerable they are. And secondly, that they’re going to defend them. Because, then, it doesn’t matter how closely-spaced they are. Also—

Nixon: Defend them with ABMs, you mean?

Kissinger: With ABMs. Also, this now gets technical, but they have asked, on this ABM agreement, that the ABMs be confined to the two capitals.

Nixon: Right.

Kissinger: Now, it so happens that the ABMs that protect Moscow would also protect those new missiles.

Nixon: I gather they—

Kissinger: They’ve put them into the ring, or close to the ring. Not into it, but within 50 miles of the ring. All they have to do is move the missiles 50 miles, and they’ve got them protected. And finally, they have now developed a new ABM missile. We used to think—ABM, uh—

Nixon: Warhead?

Kissinger: No, missile and radar. Above all, radar. We used to think that it was safe to make an agreement with them on ABM because it would take them 4 years to build the radars, and we could always see that they were building a radar, and then we could take countermeasures. Now, they’ve developed a radar that’s almost as good as the big one, that they can build in 6 months. And, therefore, we don’t—they could rapidly deploy an ABM system without our being able to do much about it in the time that’s available.

Nixon: Why then are we even considering the submarines—?

Kissinger: Well, Mr. President, because it may put a—if they agree to the freeze on offensive missiles, then they will not be able to complete the ones they have started, and that would be a good trade for us. But, I have to tell you in all candor that we are at the absolute limit of what we can risk, now, with the Soviets.

Nixon: Well, who agrees with you on that? Who agrees with you?

Kissinger: I think Laird agrees with me. Packard, who is serious, would agree with me. The JCS will agree with me. And I think CIA will come to agree with me.

Nixon: Well—

Kissinger: I mean, this is ominous—

Nixon: So how do we get—how do we get it to the country? Huh?

[Page 444]

Kissinger: I’d go—I think you could go on television and say this and—

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to SALT.]

Kissinger: And he doesn’t know about the new missiles. But if you analyze—I’ve become convinced, Mr. President, we cannot accept the Soviet proposal. Their proposal is Moscow versus Washington, and no offensive limitations—

Nixon: You haven’t told him anything? Dobrynin doesn’t know you’re not going to accept it then?

Kissinger: No, I’ve told him we want Safeguard. He knows we want Safeguard.

Nixon: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Kissinger: But the proposal that Smith is pushing is the following:3 we would have to tear down the only thing we’re building with the right to build something that Congress will never appropriate, namely a Washington defense. And they can continue to keep what they already have.

Nixon: Which—which defends some of their missiles, right?

Kissinger: Which defends 500 of their missiles. Plus—plus, permitting them to continue their offensive buildup. Once the American people understand that, I think—

Haldeman: What, what do we get from them in this respect?

Nixon: Clever bastards, aren’t they?

Kissinger: I mean it’s a really ridiculous proposal. But of course—

Nixon: On our part, it’s ridiculous? Oh—

Kissinger: Yeah. Well, what I’ve told—what I’ve told Dobrynin, what Smith doesn’t know, is that we won’t accept it. What we want is Safeguard. That at least enables us to keep what we’ve already got, and it protects some of our missiles. Next week, if—if they accept our—

Nixon: If we find that out next week, then we got to start the big push for more national defense. That also means, of course, then we’ve got to go for more taxes. It’s a tough row.

[Page 445]

Kissinger: Well, of course, Buckley4 doesn’t know even about these new missiles. [unclear] I told you they’ve restarted building ABMs.

Nixon: Yeah, I know. They’re improved.

Kissinger: We know they’re improved. They may not be—

Nixon: Well—

Kissinger: —as good as ours, yet, but—

Nixon: Doesn’t that—doesn’t that really—really, though, putting yourself in their position, it doesn’t mean that we may not still get an agreement that we can take. Because they may be doing just exactly what we’re doing. They know goddamn well that they’ve got to have something to give in order to get something—

Kissinger: That’s right. No, that’s why I say, we—if we get the agreement we proposed to them—

Nixon: Um-hmm.

Kissinger: —that will be tolerable. But we cannot give up much of our proposal. If they let us keep Safeguard, and if they stop—if they stop building offensive weapons after January 1st next year, then I think we have a pretty good deal for both sides. That would be a fair exchange. That’s where we are—we are not too far from having that. If they accept anything, I think they may accept that.

Nixon: The real—the real point here, what you’re talking—what we’re really talking about here, though, is something different. And I know that this kind of an agreement isn’t worth a damn.

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: Any kind of agreement with the Soviet—

Kissinger: I agree.

Nixon: We’re having it for political reasons.

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: Because the American people are so peace-loving, they think agreements solve everything. If we can do it for political reasons—this is where I would disagree with Buckley, who won’t understand it—if we can do this, and get sort of the peace issue going with us, we—the Democrats—

Kissinger: No, no. Buckley isn’t against a SALT agreement.

Nixon: The Democrats—I know. But I am—but I’m—I’m a lot more hard-line than he is on this kind of thing. Once we get it in, and then, should we then survive in the election—

[Page 446]

Kissinger: Then it’s separately—

Nixon: —then by God, we have got to lay the facts before the Soviet and before the American people and go all out—

Kissinger: I agree.

Nixon: —on more defense. That is really what—

Kissinger: That’s how I see it, Mr. President.

Nixon: The whole point of this, as you know, that—

Haldeman: Well, and that’s the argument to the defense, to the hard-line sophisticates, is that that’s their only hope. Because—

Nixon: Yeah, Bob

Haldeman: —if Nixon’s defeated, you know damn well—

Nixon: Well, there the point is, the reason that we can’t get the defense now is that the goddamn Congress won’t give it to us.

Haldeman: It won’t give us the money.

Nixon: That’s right. We’re having a hell of a time. They’re going to be cutting this Defense budget—

Kissinger: But, what it may suggest, Mr. President, is that we’d be better off having the Democrats cut us than compromising with them ahead of time on some of these defense items.

Nixon: Oh, hell. I wouldn’t compromise.

Kissinger: Simply as a strategy.

Nixon: That’s right. And vote against the cuts.

Kissinger: And vote against the cuts and then accept them.

Nixon: And I’ll simply say that the cuts in defense are, are—endanger our national security. Let them be against national security—

Kissinger: That we’ve already submitted the minimum budget. In other words, not going—

Nixon: I’ll cover that in the next press conference, too. We’ll lay that right straight out there, tough.

Kissinger: I mean, I—I would not—I think your reelection, and that’s, I have—

Haldeman: Then you’ve got to get a few Republicans to stand with you on it.

Nixon: Yeah, well, we won’t win.

Haldeman: No, but I mean—

[unclear exchange]

Nixon: We’ve got to stand up for a strong national defense, that’s right. God, it’s a—it’s really a—

Kissinger: Well, we can afford the SALT agreement we are now discussing. That won’t—

Nixon: Sure it won’t—

[Page 447]

Kissinger: That won’t be a disadvantage. It won’t mean a damn thing. But at this stage, we’ve got to defuse—we’ve got to break the back of this generation of Democratic leaders.

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: The [Cyrus] Vances, [Clark] Cliffords

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: —and company have to get out of public life. That is, the new ones, nowadays. We just don’t have all [unclear].

Nixon: Well, the other thing, too, we’ve got to break, we’ve got to destroy the confidence of people in the American establishment, too—

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: And we certainly as hell will.

Kissinger: Well, if—

Nixon: If we succeed in these ventures. Now, on this China thing, that’s why I say now, if it goes and the Soviet thing goes, we’re not going to let these bastards take the credit for it. We’ve got to take credit every time we turn around.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to SALT.]

Kissinger: But we’ll know by Wednesday,5 I would think, what—where the Russian thing is going. I mean, if we know that the week after next we have a SALT announcement—

Nixon: Well—

Kissinger: —then that’s going to be a tremendous thing—

Nixon: And, hell, that’ll take—that will take care of China for a while? And—


Kissinger: If we get this—

Nixon: If we could get—to be perfectly frank with you, Henry, maybe we want it after the demonstrations.6

Kissinger: I think it’s better that way.

Haldeman: I would.

Kissinger: Well, we couldn’t.

Nixon: Why is it better? Why have the demonstrations afterwards?

Haldeman: Let them have them. Let them run their course through May 5th. We can’t make it by then anyway. Can you?

Nixon: Yes—

[Page 448]

Kissinger: No. I think you can get the SALT announcement, not next week; I think you could get it the week after next by around the 30th.

Nixon: You mean before the demonstration?

Kissinger: No—

Haldeman: No. No, you’ve got one demonstration—the big demonstration’s on the 24th. Then you have—

Nixon: When’s that—?

Haldeman: This—A week from today.

Nixon: Right.

Kissinger: That’s—

Nixon: Well, it’s my view that—it’s my view, I’ve just decided—I told you, Henry—I decided, Henry, not to do—I was going to have an office press conference next week. Then, I decided not to—

Kissinger: I think—

Nixon: I think this serves as two press conferences. [unclear]—

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: Don’t you agree?

Kissinger: Absolutely.

Nixon: Now, two weeks, however, from now, I’ll have a press conference.

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: I’m not getting frozen into it, but I—about the time, I’ll want to hit television.

Haldeman: You won’t be—we are just about getting to the point where you have to do one on TV.

Nixon: TV? That’s right. You get back to TV leadership. Now—

Haldeman: And that’ll have been three weeks after your—

Nixon: That’s right.

Haldeman: —your troop announcement.

Nixon: Three weeks after the troop, which is about right. See, we’re trying to hit about every three weeks.

Kissinger: No, that’s—that fits very—

Nixon: Now, if that—by that time we might have SALT.

Kissinger: Yeah. Or at least we would know whether we won’t have it—

Nixon: We’ll know. We’ll know if we won’t have it.

Haldeman: If we do have it—

Nixon: Yeah.

Haldeman: —I sure wouldn’t announce it at the press conference.

[Page 449]

Nixon: Oh, hell no! Come to think of it, you know what I could do? [laughs] Well, we—it depends on how we want to play it. Rather than having a press conference, we may just go on—

Haldeman: TV.

Nixon: —go on TV for five minutes at night.

Haldeman: Yeah.

Nixon: See, Henry?

Kissinger: Yeah.

Nixon: Five minutes at night at prime time to, to make an announcement—

Haldeman: All from here.

Kissinger: Another possibility—but I think Bob is right. The more likely thing is that it would be around May 7th. This stuff probably will have to go back and forth once, and they [the Soviet Politburo]meet every Thursday.

Nixon: Okay. Right.

Kissinger: But we’ll know all of this when Dobrynin is back.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to SALT.]

Nixon: I think you can tell me when he [Dobrynin] gets back whether he’s going to diddle you.

Kissinger: I’m not going to let him diddle me. I’m—My judgment, Mr. President, if you agree, is that we should go for broke with this fellow now. And then—

Nixon: Oh, hell yes.

Kissinger: I’ll just tell him this is—I’ll break the contact, I won’t see him anymore, because if we can’t settle a simple exchange of letters, then let him work with the State Department.

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: I mean, that’s a daring ploy, but they want this contact.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation No. 481–7. No classification marking. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Nixon met with Kissinger and Haldeman from 2:36 to 3:30 p.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files) The editor transcribed the portion of the conversation printed here specifically for this volume.
  2. Nixon held a news conference on April 29 at which there were no questions directly related to SALT. However, in response to a question about negotiations over the future of Taiwan and relations with China, Nixon referred to SALT: “We are seeking good relations with the Soviet Union, and I am not discouraged by the SALT talk progress. I can only say that we believe that the interests of both countries would be served by an agreement there. We seek good relations with the Soviet Union; we are seeking good relations with Communist China.” (Public Papers: Nixon, 1971, p. 600)
  3. In backchannel message 834 to Kissinger, April 14, Smith suggested the following: “If serious consideration were being given to attenuating or breaking [offensive/defensive] linkage, a different approach would likely be in order; e.g. an indication to USSR that for such a move in Soviet direction of ABM-only, an ‘equivalent’ Safeguard/Moscow deal might be in order. Perhaps one could leverage a move toward soviet ABM-only position in to a more advantageous Safeguard/Moscow arrangement that could be negotiated in context of offensive/defense deal.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 427, Backchannel Files, Backchannel Messages, 1971, SALT)
  4. William F. Buckley, chief editor of The National Review.
  5. April 21.
  6. Reference is to demonstrations protesting the Vietnam war.