173. Backchannel Message From Helmut Sonnenfeldt and Jack Merritt of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1


  • Ambassador Smith’s Request for Clarification of NSDM 1172


  • SALT 7713
Smith’s interpretations in Reftel seem to us to involve substantial departure from the intent of NSDM 117 as written and to introduce complicated new issues. Following are our views based on studies and discussions leading up to NSDM 117. In view of urgency reflected in SALT 771, we believe Smith will need prompt guidance either directly from you or from here after your approval.
(Reference paras 2 and 3 reftel.) While Smith’s interpretation of the words “agreed location,”4 as such, is valid, his interpretations and proposed deletions of instructions to the Delegation would allow the Soviets a real choice between a Moscow defense or three sites East of the Urals.
Both in the interagency papers and in all our memoranda to you it was made clear that we would not want to permit a real choice and that it would be made clear to the Soviets that this essentially cosmetic formulation was advanced with the understanding that we would select Safeguard and they would select Moscow. Verification Panel discussion of this was brief but thrust also supports this view.
While it may be unlikely that the Soviets would exercise the option, it has been generally agreed that we would not want to allow the Soviets any new sites, even East of the Urals, because of the potential both for subsequent cheating and the impetus given to new ABM systems. Smith himself argued that it would amount to “rearmament.”
In view of this history, as we understand it, the response to Smith would in our view have to be that the “alternative” ABM deployments mentioned in NSDM 117 are not in fact intended to be real ones and that whether the outcome is three to one or two to one, it is only acceptable if on our side the ABM locations are at ICBM fields and on the Soviet side the ABM location is Moscow. Unless you wish to communicate directly with Helsinki, please indicate whether you wish this position conveyed to Smith or, if not, how he should be instructed.
(Reference para 1 reftel.) Smith’s interpretation5 raises the issue of post-Helsinki right of both sides to change (e.g. from Safeguard to NCA). (Nitze has been pressing at the staff level to make a negotiating record which permits the right of the US to this choice.) The actual wording of the NSDM (and the intent with respect to language to be given the Soviets) was to neither raise nor foreclose the issue. As a practical matter it seems farfetched that either side, having accepted ABM agreement would soon raise question of shifting deployment to different location. However, since it conceivably may at some point become our desire to shift from Minuteman fields back to NCA, agreement should not be worded so as to foreclose such an option. Particularly if you agree that there should be no preagreement choice, we recommend that Smith be told not to bring up the issue of post-agreement choice. If Soviets do bring it up, the matter would clearly require examination and Smith should refer it to Washington. If you wish us to forward instruction to Smith, please provide guidance.6
(Reference para 3 reftel.) As for the assertion that there are ambiguities in the NSDM with respect to modernization, we agree. It was not intended to limit modernization nor to limit the numbers and types of radars in a “modern ABM radar complex.” We recommend that you authorize this interpretation.7
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 427, Backchannel Files, Backchannel Messages, 1971, SALT. Top Secret; Nodis. Kissinger was en route to Beijing. The text printed here is the copy approved for transmission and does not have a message number.
  2. Document 171.
  3. In telegram USDEL SALT 771, July 7, Smith asked for clarification of several NSDM 117 ABM provisions. Smith sent the same message via backchannel to Kissinger with the additional request “that you can see your way clear to advising your people that you concur.” (Both in National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 427, Backchannel Files, Backchannel Messages, 1971, SALT)
  4. Smith’s interpretation in telegram USDEL SALT 771 allowed for the NCA Moscow or ICBM fields east of the Urals for the Soviet Union and NCA Washington or ICBM fields west of the Mississippi for the United States. Smith concluded that “the words do not mean that precise locations on one side would need to be sumitted to the other side for approval prior to deployment.”
  5. Smith’s interpretation meant giving the United States and the USSR post-agreement freedom to choose different ABM systems than described in NSDM 117 and the right to change ABM deployment.
  6. “Yes” is written in the margin. Further instructions for the SALT Delegation were provided in NSDM 120 ( Document 180).
  7. “Yes” is written in the margin.