60. Editorial Note

U.S. officials learned in early August 1969 about a standdown by Soviet air forces. General Wheeler, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), announced at Secretary of Defense Laird’s weekly staff meeting of August 11 and attended by, among others, Laird; Deputy Secretary of Defense Packard; G. Warren Nutter, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs; General Westmoreland, U.S. Army Chief of Staff; and Admiral Moorer, then the Chief of Naval Operations,” that one of the most curious and unexplainable situations is the current stand-down in Soviet Air Force activity since 1 August. We have also indications that the Fleet Air Arm of the Soviet Pacific Fleet has been inactive. There have been call-ups of Reservists and indications of improved maintenance.” The JCS had failed to “identify any particular reason for these activities,” but it anticipated “no immediate threat to the U.S. or its allies. Such an event hasn’t happened in 10 years. Consequently, we have put all of the Commanders-in-Chiefs of the unified and specified commands on alert.” (Minutes of Secretary’s Laird’s Staff Meeting; Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330–76–0028, Box 9, June–August 1969)

The CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence on August 8 prepared an Intelligence Memorandum entitled “Standdown of Soviet Air Forces.” The memorandum bears Kissinger’s initials. It reads in part as follows: “The virtual cessation of Soviet military air activity in the USSR and Eastern Europe that began on the weekend of 2–3 August 1969 is now in its seventh day, making this the longest and most widespread air standdown ever noted in the Soviet Union.” It also noted, “A stand-down in military air activity is one of the classic indicators of preparations to initiate hostilities. Inactivity, however, is by no means a conclusive sign of such preparations.” The memorandum continued, “Indeed, this standdown had endured beyond the time that would be expected for a pre-hostilities standdown.”

The CIA offered several explanations for the standdown. One possibility was that August 21 marked the first anniversary of the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and the Soviets were “concerned about continued restiveness there.” Another alternative was the continuing tension with China: “During the past few months, there has been unusual military activity on the Soviet side of the border, including a large scale military exercise in late May and early June in which China was apparently the simulated enemy. The buildup of Soviet forces on the border—now double the force of a few years ago—almost certainly is continuing, possibly at an accelerated pace. Although Soviet forces on the border now have an offensive capability, they still do not appear capable of conducting protracted large-scale operations against China.” Ultimately, [Page 235] the CIA concluded “that the USSR will not initiate hostile military action in the immediate future.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 709, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. 1)

Kissinger recalled the Soviet measures in his memoirs. “In late August,” he wrote, “we detected a standdown of the Soviet air force in the Far East. Such a move, which permits all aircraft to be brought to a high state of readiness simultaneously, is often a sign of a possible attack; at a minimum it is a brutal warning in an intensified war of nerves. The standdown continued through September.” (Kissinger, White House Years, page 183)