292. Editorial Note

On May 22, 1972, President Nixon arrived in Moscow where he was met at the airport by Soviet President Nicolai Podgorny and Premier Alexei Kosygin. Nixon then met alone with Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev between 6:15 and 8:10 p.m. at the Kremlin. President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Kissinger was not present and in his memoir lamented that “I was reduced to asking the splendid Soviet interpreter Viktor Sukhodrev to dictate his account to Julie Pineau, my secretary. He obviously did not give his chief the worst of the exchanges—recalling Dean Acheson’s famous dictum that no one ever lost a debate in a memorandum of conversation dictated by oneself.” (White House Years, page 1208)

According to a memorandum of conversation, the exchanges between Brezhnev and Nixon about arms control and the strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) were brief:

“General Secretary Brezhnev: I should now like, so to say, in a particularly confidential way, to express one thought. Despite all the positive significance of the agreements achieved on ABM systems and on offensive types of arms, we have to admit that by themselves such agreements do not lessen the danger of the outbreak of nuclear war. And such a danger cannot fail to cause concern in the minds of many millions of people both in your country and in ours. In the agreements that have now been elaborated by us jointly and will be signed people will not find an answer to this question which is causing them concern. I am now giving you these observations so to say as food for thought, and not for public discussion.

“The President: Even with those limitations that we are assuming we still have enough arms to kill one another many times over.

“General Secretary Brezhnev: Exactly. That is why when we looked into the meaning of all that we have already done, we came to the conclusion that although all this is very useful we ought to raise before you the question of achieving agreement on the non-use against one another of nuclear arms. We placed this question before you in a preliminary way hoping that you would give us your view on this matter. I should like to hope for a positive attitude on your part. I believe that an obligation of this kind could serve as a good example for others and promote the invigoration of the international situation.

“You may of course say that the situation is complicated by the fact that you and we have our allies. But I believe that all this can be settled for the sake of delivering our peoples from the threat of nuclear war. An agreement of this kind would have an important and indeed an epoch-making significance. Naturally, I am not asking you to reply to my question right now. I merely wanted to emphasize the importance [Page 842] of an agreement of this kind. Such an agreement would provide an impetus for the further advance along the road on the physical reduction of the volumes of armaments. I trust you will agree Mr. President that only a radical solution of the problem—the destruction of nuclear weapons—can really rid the peoples of the threat of nuclear war. This would be a tremendous achievement. Our position is that this is what we should strive for.

“The President: I think you told Kissinger that this would be a peaceful bomb. As you admit, there does exist a very serious problem concerning consultations with our allies. But after recently receiving a personal message from you at Camp David, I asked Kissinger quietly to work on this problem with some of my White House staff so that a little later we could discuss the matter to see where we could go. For the time being we do not want to put this question into the hands of our bureaucracy who would immediately find lots of difficulties and obstacles in it. In the early stages we would like to study the matter quietly. I would like to take up this matter a little later but not at a plenary meeting.

“General Secretary Brezhnev: Very well. We have almost a full week at our disposal. During the forthcoming negotiations which I trust will proceed normally and in a good way we shall certainly be able to come back to this matter.

“The President: I do not mean that you and I should waste our time on various words and phrases; that is something that Kissinger, Dobrynin and Gromyko can do. We could give them some general ideas to work on. This applies both to this particular matter and to others.

“General Secretary Brezhnev: We shall seek to achieve agreement in principle and then we could entrust the concrete formulations to others.”

After some discussion about other bilateral issues, Nixon and Brezhnev returned to SALT:

“The President: I think the most important agreements are the ones relating to SALT. I feel they should be signed by the two of us. Also important will be the agreements on space, the environment and trade. I would be prepared to sign all of them. But I understand that you may want some of them to be signed by Kosygin or Podgorny.

“General Secretary Brezhnev: I would say that the most important document will be ‘The Basic Principles of Relations between the USSR and the USA.’

“The President: Yes, of course. And that’s a document that should also be signed by us both. As for the SALT agreements, as I see it, you have the same responsibility in your country for military matters as I have in mine as Commander-in-Chief.” The full text of the memorandum of conversation is printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 257.

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At the first plenary session on May 23, which took place at St. Catherine’s Hall in the Grand Kremlin Palace, the Soviet and U.S. parties discussed a variety of issues. The comments related to SALT read as follows:

Podgorny referred to the President’s remark that in two years of SALT we had learned how difficult it is to negotiate. He believes there is no comparison between SALT and the other matters under discussion. SALT deals with a very special set of problems which are considerably more complicated and of greater importance for the US and the Soviet Union, and for other countries, than the problems involved in working out agreements on cooperation in space or on improving the environment or on trade. For this reason these questions can be resolved more easily. Yet at the same time, they too are issues of importance and he mentions this only to put SALT into proper perspective.

Brezhnev remarked that while they are less important than the security issues involved in SALT, they are very close to the hearts of our people.

Podgorny repeated that SALT involved questions of national security and therefore it is more difficult to deal with.

“The President agreed that any matter which involves national survival must come first. That is why SALT must be approached with care.”

Before the first plenary session ended, Kosygin remarked “that there had been so much talk about SALT all over the world that if a final settlement is not achieved during this visit, people everywhere will have an unfavorable impression.” The full text of the memorandum of conversation is ibid., Document 259.