63. Memorandum of Conversation1

  • SUBJECT
    • China: US Reaction to Soviet Destruction of CPR Nuclear Capability; Significance of Latest Sino-Soviet Border Clash; Internal Opposition. Vietnam: US and Communist Intentions; Soviet Views. SALT: Reason for Soviet Delay. Laos: Soviet Role
  • PARTICIPANTS
    • Boris N. Davydov, Second Department of the Soviet Embassy
    • William L. Stearman, Special Assistant for North Vietnam, INR/REA

The reported conversation was during lunch at the Hotel America (Beef and Bird Restaurant) in Washington on August 18, 1969. Davydov, whom I have known for several years, was the host. Expectedly, he began the conversation with questions on our Vietnam policy, but quickly changed the subject to China with a rather startling line of questioning.

China

Davydov introduced this subject by asking about our intentions towards China. Specifically he wanted to know if recent US moves to improve relations with the CPR were aimed at an ultimate Sino-American collusion against the USSR.2 I assured him that this was not the case and that the modest steps we are taking to improve relations with China should certainly not be interpreted this way. I told him that his knowledge of both the US and China ought really to rule out, in his mind, any serious possibility of such collusion. Davydov had posed this question in a previous conversation; so it was no surprise. His next [Page 239]question, however, was totally unexpected and has not, to my knowledge, ever been raised by the Soviets with any other US officials.

Davydov asked point blank what the US would do if the Soviet Union attacked and destroyed China’s nuclear installations.3 I replied by asking him if he really meant this to be a serious question. He assured me that he was completely serious and went on to elaborate. He said, in essence, that two objectives would be served by destroying China’s nuclear capability. First, the Chinese nuclear threat would be eliminated for decades. Second, such a blow would so weaken and discredit the “Mao clique” that dissident senior officers and Party cadres could gain ascendancy in Peking. He pointed out that the Cultural Revolution proved there was a great deal of internal dissent in China and that there was widespread dissatisfaction with the policies of Mao and Lin Piao.4 (He later added that basic changes could only be made by people in the upper levels of the Army and Party and not by any regional revolt of minority groups or “tribesmen.”) He then rephrased his original question by asking: “What would the US do if Peking called for US assistance in the event Chinese nuclear installations were attacked by us? Wouldn’t the US try to take advantage of this situation?”

I replied that I was obviously in no position to predict exactly what the US would do in such a hypothetical contingency, but added that one could count on two things. One, the US would view any outbreak of major hostilities between the USSR and China with considerable concern as no one could predict the consequences. Two, the US would most certainly want to keep out of any such conflict. Davydov insisted that a strike against the nuclear facilities would not affect the US and there was nothing to fear from this; furthermore, he believed that this would not cause the Chinese to attack the Soviet Union because they would fear a more massive Soviet attack in retaliation and because Mao’s position would be weakened by this blow.

At this point I asked Davydov whether he thought Chinese nuclear capability could ever come close to that of the Soviet Union in the foreseeable future. He answered that in the not too distant future [Page 240]this capability could become a serious threat to the Soviet Union. He reminded me that there was a time when the US seriously doubted the ability of the Soviet Union to catch up with it in the nuclear field and look what happened.

He again sought to elicit information on how we envisage the development of USCPR relations. I told him that, at the present pace, it might be some time before these relations reached the present formal level of Soviet-Chinese relations. After all, these two countries still maintain diplomatic relations and, malgré tout, recently concluded an agreement on river navigation.5 Davydov said that the maintenance of embassies in the respective capitals wasn’t that significant and that Chinese behavior during the recent river navigation talks had been curious. At one point the Chinese broke off the talks without explanation and then resumed them a day later.

I asked him about the significance of the most recent border clashes, and he explained that this encounter with a “mob of peasants” on the Sinkiang border had nothing to do with the Soviet transportation network and could not be related to Chinese nuclear installations in Sinkiang. In general he felt that all of these border clashes were provoked by the Chinese to detract attention from internal problems. He said that Chinese border guards had been provoking their Soviet counterparts since 1963 when there were even instances of the Chinese biting Soviet guards. The Damansky Island “provocation” was the last straw as far as the Soviets were concerned, and the Chinese had to be shown that they couldn’t continue to get away with these acts.6 He inferred that there was a certain advantage to the Soviet Union in these provocations by saying that he actually feared the day when the Chinese began putting on a reasonable, peaceful front behind which they could quietly continue increasing their nuclear strength without raising any alarm.

Coming back to US reaction to the destruction of Chinese nuclear installations, Davydov asked if the US wouldn’t really welcome this move since Chinese nuclear weapons could threaten it too; furthermore, the US was supposed to oppose the spread of nuclear weapons. [Page 241]I answered that while we very much favor limiting the number of nuclear powers through the NPT, an attack on Chinese nuclear installations was quite another thing altogether.7

[Omitted here is discussion of the war in Vietnam, SALT, and Laos.]

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, DEF 12 CHICOM. Secret; Sensitive. Drafted by Stearman. On August 21, George C. Denney, Jr., Acting Director of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, forwarded this memorandum to Helms and Vice Admiral Vernon L. Lowrance, Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Denney’s covering memorandum to the latter reads as follows: “You might be interested in the attached memorandum of conversation, which Under Secretary Johnson has asked me to draw to your attention. He is, of course, anxious that all field posts of all agencies be alerted to report immediately any further indications that the Soviets might be considering a preemptive strike on China’s nuclear facilities.” No record of a response was found. (Central Intelligence Agency, ODDI Registry, Job 80–R01284A, Box 26, Communist China, 1967–69)
  2. President Nixon made an around-the-world trip from July 22 to August 3, during which he discussed China with the leaders of Pakistan and Romania. See Documents 59, 62 and Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XVII, China, 1969–1972, Document 20.
  3. Kissinger recalled in his memoirs that he took the contents of this conversation “sufficiently seriously” to convene the WSAG; see Document 64. Such hints by Soviet officials, he wrote, meant that Nixon’s “conviction expressed at the August 14 NSC meeting that we could not allow China to be ‘smashed’ was no longer a hypothetical issue. If the cataclysm occurred, Nixon and I would have to confront it with little support in the rest of the government—and perhaps the country—for what we saw as the strategic necessity of supporting China.” (White House Years, p. 183)
  4. Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung), Chairman of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and Lin Biao (Lin Piao), PRC Minister of Defense and Vice Chairman of the CCP Central Committee.
  5. Talks between the Chinese and the Soviets on border river navigation, which had begun on June 18, ended on August 8 with the signing of an agreement to hold further talks in China in 1970.
  6. Competing claims to Damansky Island sparked a series of battles, beginning on March 2 and continuing into autumn 1969, which took the PRC and the Soviet Union to the brink of war. The Sino-Soviet dispute included numerous clashes between Chinese and Soviet troops along the border separating the Chinese region of Sinkiang and Soviet Kazakhstan which intensified in May and June of 1969.
  7. During a second conversation with Davydov in Washington on November 10, Stearman “noted that the question he had put to me (i.e., how would the U.S. react to a Soviet attack on China’s nuclear installations) was highly unusual. I then probed to find out why he asked the question in the first place. In replying he was evasive, but gave the impression that he had tried to get a (relatively low level) U.S. reaction to what he termed ‘one of a number of contingency plans’ which the Soviet Union was considering during that period of Sino-Soviet tension. When asked if he had posed this question on his own initiative, he was again evasive, but did not give the impression that this was the case.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL CHICOMUSSR)