29. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Secretary of State and Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Dr. James R. Schlesinger, Secretary of Defense
  • William P. Clements, Deputy Secretary of Defense
  • The Joint Chiefs of Staff
  • —Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, Chairman
  • —Gen. Creighton Abrams, USA
  • —Adm. Elmo R. Zumwalt, CNO
  • —Gen. Robert E. Cushman, USMC
  • —Gen. John D. Ryan, USAF
  • Major General Brent Scowcroft, Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs


  • Kissinger Trip to the Soviet Union2

Kissinger: We began détente in 1970 in an environment when we had to defend the budget for the Vietnam War and fight constantly against the unilateral disarmers. Détente gave us: first, domestic maneuvering room; secondly, an opportunity to get control of our allies, and thirdly, to get into a position where we would not get the blame for every confrontation that occurred.3 It would be seen that we would bend over backwards. So paradoxically, it has kept the Defense budgets not high, but at an acceptable level; it has kept our allies in line; and it let us end the Vietnam War in an acceptable way. Détente—even with a President who is so hated—has resulted in the liberals going to [Page 154] the right of the Administration. If détente were ended, they would immediately go left and hit us for its failure.

We held off on trade until 1971, when they started to move on SALT. We played tough on Berlin, on Jordan, and on Cienfuegos.

We had given the Soviet Union a list of areas where progress had to be made: Middle East, Berlin, Vietnam, Cuba—we had good restraint. If I were in the Politburo, I could make a case against Brezhnev for détente—much more so than against us. Only the wheat deal4—and that is just a bureaucratic snafu.

On SALT, we were in a period of declining defense budgets; we had no programs which we gave up. The defensive agreement was a conspiracy of the bureaucracy. This is no intellectual defense of the defensive agreement, except that we didn’t lose by it.

Where are we now? In the Middle East, the Soviet Union must be beside itself. This is very worrisome. They could turn hard line.

Schlesinger: What would they do if they went hardline?

Kissinger: They could make trouble in the Middle East, in Europe, and especially domestically.

Clements: What the Soviet Union wants is the Suez Canal open. They can’t screw up the Middle East until they get the Canal open.

Kissinger: I see no evidence of that. The Soviet Union always talks in terms of an overall, not partial settlement. They do that to force us either into affirming or changing the ’67 boundaries—either way we would get one side down on us and get them back in.

What this means is we can’t thwart the Soviet Union in every way at the same time—on MFN, in the Middle East, in SALT. It is not just a position they can’t accept, but one which will result in Brezhnev being attacked for having been fooled.

We want the defense budget as high as the environment will allow; we want to be tough when we need to do so; but keep the détente or peace symbol for ourselves.

Schlesinger: How about Europe? Hints that we may withdraw troops may be useful.

Kissinger: The Atlantic area is the key to our security. If we think that by competing in the Third World we can do anything but bring about the destruction of the Western World, we are wrong.

In Europe, we have weak governments that are appealing to all sides. They kick the U.S., they spend a little more on defense for the right and to get American protection free. Every decision the EC has made has been anti-American.

[Page 155]

Take Japan (and Canada). All the Europeans get is the Japanese maneuvering between us and the Europeans and thus encouraging Japanese nationalism. The EC-Arab meeting5 reflects their insecurity. They just maneuver. And this will come at the very time when we will be in trouble in the Middle East on the issues of Palestine and Jerusalem. We can’t tolerate a Europe united against us. The defense people there are still good—and there are others.

The Europeans can’t be organically anti-American. If they are, why are American troops in Europe? The defense of Europe is essential to the U.S. How we defend it, however, is open. Our withdrawal could turn Europe neutralist; if they are going that way anyway, we may have to threaten some withdrawal. That would be a last resort. We have given up troop withdrawals. We have to appeal to the good types in Europe.

French policy can be viciously shortsighted. In the 19th century, they succeeded in unifying both Germany and Italy. Between the wars they surrounded Germany with weak states. They weakened and humiliated Germany but didn’t take steps to prevent them from doing anything about it. The Maginot line was an invitation to Germany to turn east against the small states.

We don’t want troop withdrawal. That is too drastic.

Schlesinger: An excellent formulation. We must have a common outlook on Europe and on the world as a whole.

I think on SALT6 we understand that we must not use too-tough words now. Essential equivalence we need for a permanent agreement; but we know we need maneuvering room now.

Kissinger: There is no differences between us on equivalence. We have had words on tactics, but not on the overall strategy like bomber throw-weight.

I will make no agreement with the Soviet Union. You will not be faced with a fait accompli. It is essential not to be too mechanial over what we consider equivalence. I look at overall equivalence, not equality in subcategories.

Schlesinger: I speak for the JCS—we don’t want to force them into a mirror image.

Kissinger: We will be looking it over to bring back something to talk about.

Schlesinger: On the budget, we may have seen an irreversible change.

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Kissinger: I hope you are right. As a historian though, I think the liberals will turn if détente ends after the next election.

Schlesinger: How about the Far East—the Chinese, Japan, Korean deployments?

Kissinger: Our best NATO ally is China. They understand the nature of politics and power. They are tough realists. Huang Chen complained to me about the Mideast alert, without instructions, and Mao bawled him out in front of me.

They want us to stay in Asia. That is why I am leary of pulling the B–52s out of Thailand.

Schlesinger: We have a new idea—to float the squadrons in and out.

Kissinger: The Chinese want a visible American presence in Asia. The Japanese are not organically anti-American. Japan can shift courses very rapidly. We can’t assume that democracy after ’45 is a permanent phenomenon. They will be okay as long as the balance of power stays—if it shifts, they could change overnight.

Our deployments in the Pacific and our overall strength are essential to keep Japan in line.

The Chinese are not our allies—they would be very aggressive if they weren’t so scared of the Soviet Union.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to the Soviet Union and SALT.]

Zumwalt: We have a special technical problem. It is dangerous to make arms control decisions that haven’t been worked through the JCS.

Kissinger: They couldn’t possibly propose anything which could be accepted without being scrubbed down.

Zumwalt: It is still questionable whether we will come out in the long term. Decoupling MIRV from equivalence could be dangerous. If they are separated, it must be done very carefully.

Kissinger: There is nothing going on in any channel of which you are not aware.

  1. Source: Ford Library, National Security Adviser, Memoranda of Conversations, 1973–1977, Box 3, Memoranda of Conversations—Nixon Administration, March 11, 1974—Kissinger, Schlesinger, Joint Chiefs. Secret; Nodis. The meeting took place at the Pentagon.
  2. Kissinger met with Soviet officials in Moscow March 25–27 in preparation for Nixon’s meetings with Brezhnev in late June and early July. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XV, Soviet Union, June 1972–August 1974, Documents 165170.
  3. During a March 8 meeting with Scowcroft and the Republican congressional leadership, Kissinger and Nixon underscored the desirability of détente. Kissinger said: “A moderate Soviet policy is important—therefore the President’s relationship with Brezhnev is important—and MFN. We can’t put it to them in every area and expect them to continue to take it.” Nixon added: “Remember, if the Soviet Union and China had wanted the Vietnam War to go on, it would have, and the POW’s would still be there. Our interests are opposed to those of the Soviet Union in most areas of the world—but we discuss with them our differences and we seek to avoid any of these issues from provoking nuclear war.” The full memorandum of conversation is printed in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXVI, Arab-Israeli Dispute, 1974–1976, Document 31.
  4. See footnote 4, Document 20.
  5. Reference is to the EC summit meeting held in Copenhagen December 14–15, 1973. Representatives of four Middle Eastern nations also attended the summit.
  6. The SALT talks resumed in Geneva on February 19.