155. Editorial Note
On May 11, 1971, at 9:10 a.m., President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Kissinger spoke with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin about the apparent disconnect between decisions made in their private channel and conversations between Gerard Smith and Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Semenov, the respective heads of the United States and Soviet Delegations to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, in Vienna. According to a transcript of their conversation, Kissinger and Dobrynin had the following exchange:
“K: I just had a talk with Gerry Smith and apparently our channel is not working properly. Semonov is going along accepting my proposition to you which Gerry Smith doesn’t know about. Semonov has not said what it is but it’s the main lines of my proposition to you. The President will be beside himself because we haven’t got a reply yet to our proposal.
“D: Semonov didn’t have instructions and I have a telegram that says it.
“K: Semonov on a boat trip went into great detail and Smith is so surprised that he has propositions we didn’t make to him. Proposed ABM agreement, a freeze on offensive missiles—Smith never heard of it. He hinted that you would accept a ceiling on longer ones within this. Smith thinks he will conclude this simultaneously. He didn’t object to the proposal but it isn’t easy that when he makes a proposal to the Council of Ministers and gets no answer.
“D: He has no authority.
“K: We are in the position now that as far as Smith is concerned a Soviet proposition exists and the President doesn’t have a response to his proposal.
“D: They haven’t discussed it in the govt. I know what I am telling you. The Minister directed him and he is not authorized. Gromyko is not deceiving me.[Page 484]
“K: The President can only conclude one of two things. Either there’s confusion in Moscow which we don’t believe or a deliberate attempt to mobilize his people against him or by-pass him.
“D: It’s not so. On this matter, Semonov has no authority. What he makes a hint—I don’t know.
“K: In order to keep our channel intact and avoid on either side a refusal [omission in the transcript]. Now we are in a position that as far as I am concerned it has to be treated formally. Smith is telling everyone what Semonov said. That there should be an ABM agreement and a less formal phrase—we have discussed it and it’s all right. A ceiling which would include large missiles and radar limitations.
“D: I don’t know what’s going on. Does he really make a proposal or just a talk and he picks it up piece by piece.
“K: He talked with Smith alone.
“D: Was it a proposal or picked up by Smith?
“K: Smith thinks it’s a proposal and since it’s never been discussed by me and Smith never knew or authorized to discuss it—if Smith had proposed it—well, you know. But it’s so close to what you and I have discussed—what is the Soviet position and secondly, you may do this deliberately but the President will take this as a personal affront.
“D: It’s not necessary.
“K: What would Brezhnev think if he proposed to us through a channel and we went to a subordinate official and made a reply?
“D: Only two days ago we got a copy of a telegram where he was denounced in strongest way. I have known Gromyko for 20 years. I am just telling you. It’s for my information but it was not for yours. I have the telegram. Direct information from my talk with Haig. It’s not to mislead me. Why would they? It’s for my information and it’s for the record.
“K: We have the serious problem now—
“D: [omission in the transcript] reply.
“K: We have to construct a reply from Smith to Semonov and I can’t say it’s not the Soviet position because no one knows I have talked with you.
“D: I know the story and you must say what you will to the President. Semonov when I was in Moscow he was told not to talk.
“K: I don’t understand it. You can reject the proposal but why when we are trying to do so many things—Smith talked about the summit but he might have gotten that himself.
“D: Only two days ago I [omission in the transcript] that emphasized the same point. If you do not believe it—
“K: There’s no sense in your lying. I just want to be sure you want to work with me.[Page 485]
“D: This case they discuss through you and me. No reason for misleading me.
“K: I now have a message. The problem you have to remember and Moscow must understand is that Smith wants to go to Vienna and give an answer to Semonov.
“D: Semonov probably wants to correct it and made it worse.
“K: He went further. Spelled it out in detail. In a telegram two junior members went into detail with Garthoff. I will show you.
“D: I believe you. He didn’t reply to what you proposed.
“K: He replied without saying what it was.
“D: We didn’t discuss the text.
“K: No, not a text. He made a proposal identical to what you and I discussed with details.
“D: Formally or in discussion?
“K: In private discussions with Smith. He described it as elaboration of what he said at dinner. Two junior members spelled out what Garthoff said—freezing and Safeguard sites and discussed what Safeguard site might be acceptable.
“D: They have that on instructions. Probably we don’t understand what they are talking about. Their delegation there has own instructions—they know nothing about our discussions.
“K: They don’t mention our discussions. They made a proposal. If we defend ABM 4 is not acceptable but 2 would be acceptable. Deliberate that Soviet position only refused 4 and 3. How about 2? They said it was deliberate that they mentioned 4 and 3.
“D: You have to understand if you based on 4 or 2 they have [omission in the transcript].
“K: You can argue with me but the fact is our government believes you have made a formal proposition to which we have to reply and the President believes he made a proposition to you and you are replying in a bureaucratic channel and he will think you are trying to box him in. It’s not going to be considered a friendly gesture.
“D: What can I say when I tell you it was not an intention? What else can I tell you? Just a delegation fishing. 4 or 2 sites when I know for sure—otherwise why would we wait so long?
“K: Unless you want to ignore the President.
“D: We are not children. We know who is boss.
“K: It’s incomprehensible to me.
“D: We know who is boss in the WH.
“K: I will grant that this was done in good faith on your side. The fact is we now have a problem because we have to give Smith a formal instruction. I don’t know really. We can play it your way. Make a [Page 486] proposal to Semonov that we have made to you. No sense any more in discussion. We have to make a reply. I can’t say that this—to ignore Semonov.
“D: I know he has no authority.
“K: Why don’t you do the following? It’s a Soviet problem.
“D: No problem.
“K: What should we do?
“D: Was it an official proposal or a guess of Smith? Semonov can discuss many things for 5 hours and you can construe what you want and he will say he said nothing. Was it formal?
“K: No. Semonov made the proposal that Haig showed you.
“D: It said that Mr. Semonov hinted. This point—Semonov will say they didn’t understand me.
“K: It if stopped there, no problem. On Friday—I will [omission in the transcript] you. Take the proposal that Semonov made because it’s very important.
“D: Who said?
“K: I will get you the memos. On Sunday on the boat Semonov went into great detail. Smith talking with—all right first. I will read the first paragraph. May 6—‘At dinner for the Soviet delegation May 4 Semonov from a written brief and [on] new instructions introduced coupling of offensive [restraint of ICBMs with ABM only agreement.]’
D: “I received a telegram on that. What happened next?
K: “This is May 6. ‘At Soviet Reception Timberalv and K[ishilov] took initiative in taking Garthoff aside on new Soviet proposal and they emphasized [high importance of reaching initial SALT agreement this calendar year, and need for U.S. to consider seriously and respond affirmatively] to the general approach [indicated by ‘very significant’ Semonov statement to Smith on May 4].’ On the evening of the 6th.
“D: What these two boys really—Semonov wouldn’t show them the telegram.
“K: On Sunday Semonov spoke with Smith for 5 hours and gave him the details of what he considers the new Soviet proposal.
“D: He went more and more?
“K: He did that on a boat and not a plenary session and there’s not a record but when a Deputy Minister speaks for 5 hours he must have something to say.
“D: It’s not necessary. The thing is Semonov could speak for 5 hours is well known in my govt. He can talk on anything he likes. He wouldn’t know anything about the military thing but he can philosophize many things. They will be very strongly scolded and he is my friend. Was it a proposal or did Smith think so?[Page 487]
“K: It’s now a difficulty because Smith thinks he has and we must now respond. If I do nothing else now you will get a formal answer to Semonov from Smith.
“D: A telegram coming in now. Will you hold a minute?
“D: So I will sum up this way. Smith gets a definite proposal and Semonov continued to elaborate. But he didn’t say we are ready to make this proposal.
“K: He thinks that if we now say all right we accept an agreement on ABM and freeze, he thinks there will be an agreement. Smith feels we can get an agreement along the lines of what you and I talked about. Simultaneous freeze.ABM vs. Moscow. That’s what he thinks.
“D: No authority because it contradicts his instructions. If I mention this to Gromyko, he will say Smith invented it.
“K: Smith believes it’s an ABM agreement with offensive freeze concluded simultaneously with limitations on radar and limitations of testing of surface to air missiles (which we haven’t discussed).
“D: He has instructions not to discuss specifics.
“K: I just finished talking with Smith. This is not something he asked Smith to raise with him and not our major issue.
“D: I have the telegram. This is a copy from Moscow on what Semonov reports. Acting in accordance with instructions and said nothing more. [omission in the transcript]minister and discuss with Smith what we didn’t talk through Smith and Semonov (?). Semonov emphatically denies he talked with Smith about it.
“K: I don’t know what to do now.
“D: I could tell you from this telegram that answer to what you proposed is still not approved. This telegram is the second from Gromyko. He emphatically denies it here.
“K: What’s going to happen—if we don’t straighten this out we will be forced to give a formal answer in Vienna and it will be total confusion.
“D: Smith is confused and trying to present a case he didn’t know.
“K: A case he didn’t advocate before. He had other ideas before.
“D: Safeguard against Moscow.
“K: Then he wouldn’t get if Semonov—
“D: Everything you mentioned was his interpretation.
“K: Semonov made those points on the boat.
“D: He has his instructions. I don’t know whether—I don’t know. Semonov has to follow instructions or he will lose his job. When he denies it I am sure Semonov will not on a second time report the same story. What he could do if they discussed in detail, he will see how [Page 488] Smith will react and then report back to Moscow. What’s important and you should ask Smith was there an official proposal?
“K: No text. I will get his memo.
“D: It would be helpful to me.
“K: I will have it by the end of the day.
“D: A brief summary.
“K: I have to tell you that the—your formal position I understand but the fact is that Smith believes sincerely and since he doesn’t know I ever discussed it and he has had different ones—
“D: I can now finish this telegram. Semonov said he discussed only what was discussed before. He emphasized that he was on previous position which I gave to you before and that freezing would be settled after ABM. You check it. Semonov said simultaneously or before.” (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 368, Telephone Conversations, Chronological File). The bracketed insertions the memoranda Kissinger quoted in this transcript were taken from the original telegrams, USDEL SALT 697 from Helsinki, May 6, and USDEL SALT 698, May 7. (Both in National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 78, Country Files, Europe, USSR, SALT, Jan. 9–May 20, 1971) The full text of this transcript is published in Soviet-American Relations: The Détente Years, 1969–1972, Document 151.
On May 12 and 13 Kissinger met with Dobrynin to work on the text of President Nixon and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin’s joint letter about reaching a SALT agreement. Kissinger wrote highlights from those meetings in a May 18 memorandum to Nixon:
“May 12—Dobrynin gave me the text of the letter which dropped the National Command Authority stipulation. I suggested the substitution of ‘elaborated’ or ‘worked on’ for ‘discussed’ (with regard to the freeze) in order to strengthen the simultaneity requirement. Dobrynin agreed that the text of the letter was clear in this respect, and so was the public announcement. He said that if I insisted that he go back again it would cause another two weeks delay. Dobrynin stated that Moscow preferred a single document instead of the exchange of two separate letters which would raise the question of who had taken the initiative.
“May 13—I told Dobrynin that you found the joint letter and announcement acceptable but that we still preferred to substitute ‘elaborated’ or ‘worked on’ for ‘discussed.’Dobrynin said the real issue here was whether Gromyko felt he was able to decide this or had to go up to the Politburo. Dobrynin then suggested I give him an oral note along the lines of his explanation which left no doubt that in the view of the Soviet Government there was no question about the simultaneity of coming to a conclusion.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, [Page 489] NSC Files, Box 491, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1971, Vol. 6 [Part 2])
On May 13 at 4:30 p.m. Kissinger and Dobrynin spoke on the telephone to finalize the text of the joint public statement that Nixon and Kosygin would make on May 20. According to a transcript of their conversation, they had the following exchange:
“K: The one thing we didn’t settle was the public statement. We agreed to concentrate—
“D: I will look. Just a minute. What’s the question?
“K: Where to put the word this year—after concentrate or—
“D: I prefer this year as we have it. If you could do it it would be nice.
“K: To concentrate this year.
“D: Then on working out.
“K: It would be more effective if we said to concentrate working out this year.
“D: I prefer the first one.
“K: OK. Will you point out to your colleagues that I have tried to cooperate?
“D: They know. It’s no need because it’s the only negotiations that all members of my govt. have been working each day. I have worked for 9 years and it’s the first time that the whole govt. has worked on each sentence.
“K: If you get a big promotion it will be because of my showing you attention to your govt.
“D: It’s sometimes better not to have attention. I do not complain. It’s a little dangerous.
“K: I have been called to the President. I will send you both statements as we will use them.
“D: I will look at them.
“K: Don’t make any more changes.
“D: It’s only my—
“K: My principal will get mad. I will hand you the memo I read you. But not now. When we exchange the letters.
“D: No special problems. You read it to me and I will write it down.” (Ibid., NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files, Box 78, Country Files, Europe, USSR, SALT)