85. Memorandum of Conversation1

    • The President
    • Ambassador Dobrynin
    • Henry A. Kissinger

[Omitted here is discussion of strategic arms limitation negotiations and Soviet-American relations as they pertained to the Middle East and China.]

The President2 then turned to Vietnam. He said that prior to the bombing halt, “which you are aware will be one year old on November 1st,” Ambassadors Bohlen, Thompson and Harriman 3 had pointed out that the Soviet Union could do nothing as long as the United States was bombing a fellow Socialist country, and that it would be very active afterwards. The bombing halt was agreed to and the Soviet Union has done nothing.

Of course, the President said, we now had an oblong table to the attainment of which the Soviet Union contributed something, but the U.S. did not consider that a great achievement. All conciliatory moves for the past year had been made by the United States. The President enumerated them.

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The President said he therefore had concluded that maybe the Soviet Union did not want to end the war in Vietnam. They may think that they can break the President; they may believe that the U.S. domestic situation is unmanageable; they may think that the war in Vietnam costs the Soviet Union only a small amount of money and costs the U.S. a great many lives. The President did not propose to argue with the Soviet assessment. As a great power, it had the right to take its position. On the other hand, the Ambassador had to understand the following: the Soviet Union would be stuck with the President for the next three years and three months, and the President would keep in mind what was being done right now. If the Soviet Union would not help us to get peace, the U.S. would have to pursue its own methods for bringing the war to an end. It could not allow a talk-fight strategy without taking action.

The President said he hoped that the Ambassador would understand that such measures would not be directed against the Soviet Union, but would be in the U.S. interest of achieving peace. The U.S. recognized that a settlement must reflect the real situation. It recognized the right of all Vietnamese to participate in the political process. But up to now, there had been a complete refusal of North Vietnam to make its own proposals in order to have any serious discussion.

The President pointed out that all the Ambassador had done was to repeat the same tired old slogans that the North Vietnamese had made already six months ago, and which he knew very well could lead nowhere. It was time to get discussions started. The humiliation of a defeat was absolutely unacceptable. The President recognized that the Soviet leaders were tough and courageous, but so was he.4 He told Ambassador Dobrynin that he hoped that he would not mind this serious talk.

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President Nixon said he did not believe much in personal diplomacy, and he recognized that the Ambassador was a strong defender of the interests of his own country. The President pointed out that if the Soviet Union found it possible to do something in Vietnam, and the Vietnam war ended, the U.S. might do something dramatic to improve Soviet-U.S. relations, indeed something more dramatic than they could now imagine. But until then, real progress would be difficult.

Ambassador Dobrynin asked whether this meant that there could be no progress. The President replied that progress was possible, but it would have to be confined essentially to what was attainable in diplomatic channels. He said that he was very happy to have Ambassador Dobrynin use the channel through Dr. Kissinger, and he would be prepared to talk to the Ambassador personally. He reiterated that the war could drag on, in which case the U.S. would find its own way to bring it to an end. There was no sense repeating the proposals of the last six months. However, he said, in the meantime, while the situation continued, we could all keep our tone down and talk correctly to each other. It would help, and would lay the basis for further progress, perhaps later on when conditions were more propitious.

The President said that the whole world wanted us to get together. He too wanted nothing so much as to have his Administration remembered as a watershed in U.S.-Soviet relations, but we would not hold still for being “diddled” to death in Vietnam.5

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 489, President’s Trip Files, DobryninKissinger, 1969 [Part 1]. Top Secret; Sensitive; Nodis. Drafted by Kissinger. The meeting took place in the Oval Office. The full memorandum of conversation is published in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XII, Soviet Union, January 1969–October 1970, Document 93. See also ibid., volume VI, Vietnam, January 1969–July 1970, Document 139.
  2. President Nixon received two memoranda from Kissinger on October 18 briefing him for his upcoming meeting with Dobrynin. Kissinger, in the longer 6–page memorandum, informed Nixon that “several developments” had probably led Dobrynin to request a meeting, including Sino-Soviet issues, Vietnam, and “Moscow’s undoubted awareness of unusual military measures on our part, preceded by the stern comments I made to Dobrynin on September 27.” If Dobrynin asked about the measures, Kissinger advised Nixon to “simply tell him that these are carefully controlled exercises which in view of the uncertainties of the future you felt it incumbent on you to undertake. They involve no threat.” However, Kissinger’s other three-page memorandum counseled the President, if the subject was raised, to respond that the measures were “normal exercises relating to our military readiness.” According to this memorandum, Nixon’s basic purpose during his meeting with Dobrynin was “to keep the Soviets concerned about what we might do around November 1.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 489, President’s Trip Files, DobryninKissinger 1969 [Part 1])
  3. Charles E. Bohlen, Llewellyn E. Thompson, Jr., and W. Averell Harriman were all former Ambassadors to the Soviet Union.
  4. The day after his meeting with Dobrynin, Kissinger sent Nixon a memorandum analyzing the exchange with the Soviet Ambassador. “Dobrynin’s basic mission was to test the seriousness of the threat element in our current posture and to throw out enough inducements (SALT, Berlin, direct informal contact with you) to make it politically and psychologically difficult for you to play it rough over Vietnam.” Kissinger felt that a key point during the meeting had been the “Soviet acknowledgement of our allusions to possible military actions. Their response was relatively mild (‘shortsighted’ … ‘extremely dangerous.’) But there is no doubt they are concerned and your comments might just give them ammunition to use in Hanoi in lobbying for a more flexible position.” Kissinger concluded, “it will be essential to continue backing up our verbal warnings with our present military moves.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 489, President’s Trip Files, DobryninKissinger 1969 [Part 1]) The October 21 memorandum is printed in full in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XII, Soviet Union, January 1969–October 1970, Document 96.)
  5. That evening, the President called Kissinger and suggested that he should raise the subject of Vietnam with Dobrynin on the following day. Nixon instructed Kissinger “to shake his head and say ‘I’m sorry, Mr. Ambassador, but he [Nixon] is out of control. Mr. Ambassador, as you know, I am very close to the President, but you don’t know this man—he has been through more than the rest of us put together. He’s made up his mind and unless there’s some movement,’ just shake your head and walk out. He is probably just figuring out what was said [at that afternoon’s meeting].” Kissinger suggested typing up what the President said on a piece of paper and giving it to Dobrynin. The President agreed, noting that Dobrynin would ask, “What does this mean? Are you threatening me?” Nixon instructed Kissinger to respond, “Please now, Mr. Ambassador, the President isn’t threatening you. He just wants a little movement.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, Kissinger Telephone Conversations, Chronological File)