131. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Sir Thomas Brimelow, The Foreign Office
  • Earl of Cromer, UK Ambassador to the United States
  • Richard Sykes, Minister, UK Embassy
  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Helmut Sonnenfeldt, Senior Staff Member, NSC
  • Peter W. Rodman, NSC Staff


  • Currency Crisis; Nuclear Understanding; MBFR; NATO

[Omitted here is discussion of matters other than the European security conference or MBFR.]

Brimelow: [Omitted here are unrelated comments.] On MBFR, every model of MBFR that we have studied is advantageous to the Russians. So the question is, why do they show so little interest in it? Our judgment is that it is because it would be disadvantageous to them in Eastern Europe. Therefore, the Security Conference serves their purpose much better. But if they can get the Eastern Europeans reconciled [Page 402] to Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe, I have always thought that they might then show more interest in MBFR. This is why they want a short sharp Conference.

In this draft treaty of theirs,2 there is still this unqualified American commitment not to use nuclear weapons. That would remove the American nuclear umbrella.

Kissinger: That we will never accept.

Brimelow: That is cardinal.

Kissinger: There is no chance of our accepting that clause or anything like it. Actually they have added clauses, like Article III, that legally do not remove the American nuclear umbrella. The areas left exposed are now China and the Middle East.

Brimelow: Removing the American nuclear umbrella, plus their conventional advantage, would increase their political influence around the world.

Kissinger: No question.

Brimelow: I do not think they are contemplating major military moves against anybody, but they are concerned with the balance of force.

We have taken out the unqualified commitment.

You say your tactic is to engage the Russians in discussions.

[Omitted here is discussion of matters other than the European security conference or MBFR.]


Kissinger: Let’s talk about MBFR.

Brimelow: I want to make one remark first about the Hungary question. Mr. Thorn, the Luxembourg Foreign Minister, has been going around Europe saying you were somewhat irritated by the way the question of Hungary was treated.3 Let me explain our position. We in [Page 403] the UK feel no particular attachment toward Hungary’s being a full participant. We can see some advantage in it because of Hungary’s strategic position. But this is not decisive. But we were approached by the Federal Republic who said, “It is important to us that we shall not be the only country in Western Europe covered by MBFR.” When the Benelux expressed interest in participating and then rejected it, the Federal Republic became concerned. I am told by Berndt von Staden that there was a formal decision before the election by the German cabinet that the Federal Republic should not be the only Western country; if the Benelux fell out, the Federal Republic would not be a full participant. So it depends on the Benelux, who say they will not if Hungary will not. I am not sure the Benelux are firm on this, but we felt it prudent to play it along.

We are not convinced that the attitude of the Warsaw Pact won’t evolve, because the East Europeans have certain views and might have a certain influence. We certainly do not go along with the Soviet view that Italy be on the same par with Hungary. But the primary reason has been the attitude of the Federal Republic and the importance it attached to the question.

Kissinger: Let me explain our position. When Rowley4 expressed your views on the tactics, we agreed immediately.

Brimelow: Yes.

Kissinger: Though it took us a time to restrain our more impetuous colleagues.

If Thorn understood me to say I was irritated by the Hungarian problem as such, he misunderstood my point. Because what irritated me was the deeper question—the constant accusations that we have made bilateral deals with the Soviets, and the attempt to engage us by procedures that (a) miss the point and (b) could not restrain us if we did not want to be restrained.

We want to use MBFR for the alliance and for defense. We could not have gotten ABM or MIRV if it had not been for SALT. There was no way we can come up with a serious position on MBFR without having a serious review of defense, and therefore we want an unemotional discussion of defense. The Europeans think we want MBFR as an excuse to get out of European defense. It is just the opposite.

Everyone knows Mansfield will hang his amendment on the first available bill. The fact that it is quiet now is irrelevant. We should be using this time for serious review.

The irritating thing about the Hungary debate is that—if people think Hungary might be used as a backup area to evade MBFR, that’s [Page 404] a serious point—but this attempt to enmesh us in endless procedural discussion—that’s what I was trying to tell the Foreign Minister.

Now, what was the so-called “deal” with the Soviets in September? We thought it clearly advantageous to commit the Soviets to an MBFR discussion and to begin with procedural discussions in effect a year in advance of the substance. We thought it was self-evidently to our common advantage. The Soviets were pressing us to make a substantive proposal—any proposal—and we refused.

On the Benelux: we think it obviously essential not to have Germany the focus of the control provisions. Why should the Benelux tie their policy to Hungary? I think it is to their advantage not to isolate Germany in MBFR.

Brimelow: That’s why I think they will change.

Kissinger: That’s why I saw their Foreign Minister, whom I like.

Maybe we have been too impetuous. We agreed with you.

If this continues, we will be unprepared in MBFR and will get hit by all our critics. Right now our critics are demoralized by the Vietnam experience and are looking around for a foreign policy issue. On this one, everything will be going for them: the balance of payments crisis, the economic question, Vietnamization. The only way to pull the teeth of it is to have an intellectual framework for a defense position. What if the Russians propose a 20 percent cut after the European security conference? Which they might well do if your analysis is correct.

Remember at the beginning of SALT: there was great pressure against MIRV and against ABM. We fought it by keeping the debate so esoteric that Congress was effectively excluded. This is why it’s so frustrating to see the Europeans attacking the President, who alone is preserving NATO. The whole bureaucracy is for cuts. Laird was sneaking troops out by the tens of thousands, and we made him put them back.

We want to get into a substantive discussion.

Brimelow: With the Russians or with the West Europeans?

Kissinger: No, with the West Europeans. If we do it with the Russians now they will beat us to death, given the state of disarray in NATO.

Brimelow: What is your time frame?

Kissinger: We will be having a meeting soon on MBFR of the highest priority. I would be delighted to have your people see the papers. If you want to give your views before our meetings, that is even better. But above all, you have to understand our strategy.

Brimelow: Without arguing against you, there has been a delay since 1968 when MBFR was first proposed, and there have been no substantive talks. And we have entered talks without any agreed substantive position.

[Page 405]

Kissinger: Exactly. That’s why we started it as only procedural. The situation is incredible. Whenever I analyze something, everything I touch turns to mush. We say we have 90 days’ supplies, but when I look at it there are some things we have a 40 day supply of and some things we have a 110 days’ supply of, so that the Defense Department has averaged it. This is idiocy. Obviously, the real length of time will be determined by the shortest critical items. And we and the Germans have entirely different ways of computing the consumption rates. It should not be beyond our capacity to standardize consumption rates in an allied army. And nuclear weapons—we have thousands of them there and [less than 1 line not declassified]

In the name of what can we resist cuts? We need something defensible. It is an odd alliance with the Europeans saying that unless it is guaranteed that the United States will be destroyed, the Europeans will do nothing.

The Europeans must face reality. If we waste this year in internal debates, we will be whipsawed by the Congress and the Soviets. If the Soviets start feeding stuff into Mansfield and the New York Times, we will lose the base for our policy.

The Hungarian thing is a sideshow. What bothers us is that it is symptomatic. They accuse us of private deals but don’t say what the private deal is.

Cromer: There is not so much of this now. The only people doing their homework on MBFR are we and the Germans.

Kissinger: The Germans are not doing anything that I have seen.

Brimelow: The French are not authorized to do anything but they may start.

Kissinger: With the talks starting in the fall, they will start.

Brimelow: Too many people are talking to the Russians bilaterally. There has been no secrecy whatever.

Kissinger: Where does it happen, in the Secretariats?

Sonnenfeldt: Part of it is the insecurity of communications.

Cromer: And cocktail party talk.

Kissinger: If we expose ourselves as we have on Hungary, we are dead. If there are divisions, legitimized by the governments, the Congress will take the softest.

Brimelow: Let me read you a report we received from Helsinki of what Thorn is saying of his talk with you: “Kissinger said we should let the Russians have what they want on the European Security Conference, a short, snappy conference without substance. He also thought the Europeans were illogical if they oppose a consultative commission. But the United States was not supporting a consultative commission.”

[Page 406]

Kissinger: I did not say a word about the consultative commission. All I said was if we have to have a Conference it should be short and banal so that it does not do any harm. I had nothing to convince him of. I was told he was helpful and that he was insisting on seeing me. My basic point was that we should not play the Russian game and have a monumental debate on procedures so that it would look like the Conference was significant. We should make it short and snappy so that we can down-play it. I thought this was your appreciation.

Brimelow: In Bonn on the second of March we had a plenary meeting, and [FRG State Secretary]5 Frank made a brief statement about the Conference on European Security, and expressed doubts about this permanent organ, which could be conceived as a vehicle for intervention based on the declaration, which, if the Russians have their way, would come out of this Conference. I said that since the Russians are now only proposing a conference of Ambassadors based on consensus, it might not amount to much. At this point Bahr said “Without opposing you, I have been turning over the idea in my mind that there might be some advantage of having a permanent organ if it were established in West Berlin.” This was new to us, and it seemed to be new to some officials there.

Kissinger: It’s new to me. Have you heard this? [To Sonnenfeldt]6

Sonnenfeldt: I have heard the argument that a permanent organ has the advantage of keeping the U.S. involved in Europe, but not this.

Brimelow: I have heard that argument, but the new thing is West Berlin. We were very careful not to commit ourselves.

Kissinger: Incidentally, it’s a total absurdity to think I would use the Luxembourg Foreign Minister to advocate a permanent organ when I do not think a permanent organ is a good idea.

Brimelow: We have been very reserved on this until we see what the final declaration looks like. If the Germans are going to want a permanent organ of some kind—and history shows that Bahr is a persistent man when he has an idea in his head—we shall want the declaration to be very carefully considered. And at the commission stage, because only there can you be tough and play hard against Russian ideas. And at this stage we must be very careful not to get exposed to time pressures. And this is our major qualification against the idea of a short and snappy conference.

Kissinger: You must understand my meeting was only ten or 15 minutes. But again, it’s symptomatic. My only point was to convey to him that we wanted to get it over with in order to make it meaningless. [Page 407] If he had replied as you just did, that would fit into our strategy. Our objective is to prevent the Conference from being used against NATO; an organ would be used as a substitute for existing alliances. What you say is true; the declaration is important. But Thorn misunderstood me completely. I had been told he was the most pro-NATO of the Benelux foreign ministers, so I tried to use him to convey to the Benelux (a) the President’s feeling about the Vietnam thing, and secondly, what I told you—our irritation at these constant accusations of bilateral dealings, and what I told you of our strategy of wanting to make the Conference as meaningless as possible.

Sonnenfeldt: Is his English not very good?

Brimelow: It’s all right. He’s a good foreign minister. He’s anxious to keep NATO going; after all, Luxembourg is the weakest country. But he is also a tired and overworked man. At a Western European Union defense committee meeting last week he got everything wrong.

Kissinger: He got my conversation totally wrong.

Cromer: You ought to consult me in the future about your future chosen instruments!

Sonnenfeldt: You think he was taken aback by the full extent of the President’s feelings on Vietnam?

Dr. Kissinger: I was trying to convey that the key was to have a common strategy and to get on with it, and not have this endless nitpicking.

Brimelow: Okay. We can probably get this straightened out.

Kissinger: That would be extremely helpful.

Brimelow: And on the MBFR we should agree on a common position.

Sonnenfeldt: And button down the procedures so that we can get into the substance.

Dr. Kissinger: And as quickly as possible. Though we can slip a few months.


I want to say a few words about NATO in general. We have started a massive governmental effort. What it will produce, God only knows. What we want is, we envisage a process which this year would elaborate some common views on the nature of the political evolution, the military and economic. We should stop pretending we will agree on all categories. But we should agree on those areas where we should have a common position, we should agree on those areas where we have parallel positions, and we should agree on those areas where we can act independently—but we should discuss the limits of that independent action. If everything is ad hoc, there will be no framework.

[Page 408]

We would also like discussions with you on whether we should have preliminary discussions among the allies and then a summit meeting, or whether we should have a series of bilateral meetings. We would like your ideas. We want to give it some intellectual framework. The Prime Minister and the President were eager to do this together in the first instance. The President wants to do this first closely with you.

If MBFR goes the way we want, the defense side should get a lot of that work done through MBFR. The next thing is to get the economic part of it out of the hands of the trade people.

Hopefully, we can avoid this malaise of every time we have contact with the Soviets …

I may use some excuse in May such as the Bilderberg Conference to go to Europe and to go around discussing with the Europeans.

Brimelow: You say we can see the MBFR papers. When will they be ready?

Kissinger: April 1st for some, May 1st for others. Some things you do so much better than we—this is not just flattery—because you have fewer people, and perhaps better people.

[Omitted here is discussion of matters other than the European security conference or MBFR.]

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 27, Chronological File. Top Secret; Sensitive; Exclusively Eyes Only. Tabs A–D, regarding matters other than the European Security Conference or MBFR, are attached but not printed. The meeting took place at the British Embassy.
  2. Brimelow is referring to the Soviet draft treaty with the United States on the prevention of nuclear war, Tab D, which is not printed.
  3. See Document 129. Kissinger subsequently discussed the British role in the Hungarian issue in a meeting with former Secretary of State Dean Rusk and other former Department officials in a meeting on November 28: “Last fall, the U.K. led the charge against us in NATO on MBFR. They made a big fuss about the fact that we had set a date to begin MBFR talks with the Soviets. This is something all the Foreign Ministers had wanted to fix and it is true that when the Secretary was in Moscow he talked with the Soviets and we agreed on a date. This episode left some feeling of acrimony. What really hurt was the argument about Hungary being in the MBFR talks. We were accused of sacrificing the security of Central Europe by dropping Hungary as a direct participant.” Kissinger suggested “that this was not really a policy issue,” but “the British raised it twice at the Presidential level and several times to the Secretary of State.” Kissinger believed that such action “can only be ascribed to a British desire to be a spokesman in NATO against the U.S.” (Memorandum of conversation; National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1027, MemCons—HAK & Presidential)
  4. “Rowley” was Ambassador Cromer’s nickname.
  5. Brackets are in the original.
  6. Brackets are in the original.