50. Conversation Among President Nixon, the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger), Secretary of Defense Laird, Acting Secretary of State Johnson, and the Republican Congressional Leadership1

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

Nixon: So important to our negotiations on Mutual Force Reductions of course, which everybody’s been talking about.

Johnson: Yeah.

Nixon: So that’s another thing, which is down the road, the European Security Conference. Eventually there will be one. Eventually. We don’t know when. Not in the immediate future, but we all assume that something will happen.

Johnson: And, it’s all part of that. I think that’s—

Nixon: Yes.

Johnson: You all know about Brezhnev’s speech last Thursday.2 Ambassador Beam went in to see Gromyko yesterday3 and questioned Gromyko about what was the meaning of that speech, and whether or not the Soviets were serious in wanting to go, move ahead with negotiations on Mutual Balanced Force Reductions that would involve not just Soviet [unclear] troops but troops on both sides.

Nixon: The whole of Eastern Europe.

Johnson: The whole Eastern Europe.

Nixon: Right.

[Page 127]

Johnson: And Gromyko’s answer was affirmative, that they’re prepared to do so. And, they’re prepared to do so outside of, the interesting thing, outside of the conference on European security.4

Nixon: Hmm.

Johnson: they’re prepared to do so—

Nixon: Bilaterally?

Johnson: Bilaterally between NATO and Warsaw. Presumably they, we didn’t get into specifics.

Nixon: I see.

Johnson: But he confirmed that they were looking to do so outside of a conference on European security and before a conference on European security. This is a very significant lift, I think. And—

Nixon: Before taking up the whole complex of issues—

Johnson: The whole complex of issues.

Nixon: Take this particular issue and they’ll sort it out.

Johnson: He seemed to indicate this. Like most public statements, it’s, there’re ambiguities of course and, but this—

Nixon: —is quite normal with ours, too. [laughter] Johnson: And, so we made the statement last night on this. Just to summarize the facts. I didn’t see the New York Times this morning. Chalmers Roberts at the Post has a bit of summary of this for those of you who are interested.5 The next step of course, we will be talking to our, in the NATO Council on this during the course of this weekend. And then Secretary Rogers and Secretary Laird will be taking this up at the Lisbon meeting next month, in the early part of June. So, now of all times, we’ve got the Soviets moving towards talking about a mutual reduction. It’s, in our view, clearly not the time to do anything unilaterally.

[Page 128]

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

[Unknown participant]: Mr. President, what’s the significance of the Brezhnev statement that seems incredible to me and, as I see it, he made it and the timing was completely amazing.

Laird: Well, it was really a follow up of his March 30th statement before the Party Congress.6 He merely enlarged on that statement in the Georgia speech. Because, that statement that he made on March 30th was really the first indication of a response to the NATO Council’s statement of last December.

Johnson: we’ve been, for three years we have been pushing. We, ourselves, the United States, and NATO have been trying to, been pushing on the discussions of what we call MBFR—Mutual Balanced Force Reductions. And this March 30 speech of Brezhnev was the first breakthrough I’d say we’ve had. And this Georgia speech last Thursday was, as Mel says, it was an enlargement on this. Now, why, don’t ask me why, the Soviets do things. I understand that there’s some who are tending to give us a little credit for that speech. We could take some—[laughter]

Nixon: Yeah.

Laird: All right. Well, I think—I think it’d be very helpful. I think it may be helpful now but we have to be careful about what it means too because it could be an effort to stampede us into this thing. And I think we want to be very careful about how we interpret it. It may help us campaign up at the Congress.

[Unknown participant]: Yes.

Laird: So we can look at it squarely on that basis.

Nixon: Well, it could be a, first burst of the idea. I know something, I mean, Mike [Mansfield] said that we pulled that just at the right time. [laughter] We got influences some places but I’m afraid not in that one at the moment. But, what I think is, what I think, I think Mel is, with his usual, waiting to see what’s going on. To me, [unclear]. It isn’t just a, I don’t think Brezhnev’s speech was really directed towards what’s going on in the Senate.

[Unknown participant]: No.

Nixon: They actually follow this and so forth. It’s like the, despite Stu Symington’s, Bill Fulbright’s suggestion that it’s really the Congress that brought all this about. He didn’t agree, but he didn’t seem to totally [unclear] the situation. But nevertheless, what is also quite right, see, Brezhnev’s speech moved in this direction. With the NATO meeting coming up in a couple of weeks, it could well have been that it was sort of directed toward that, if it was directed toward anything. [Page 129]The idea being that we, that they fake it. We get the impression that, well, if they’re going to do down, why don’t we.

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

Nixon: Now here with this one, I think that really they are trying to upset, I do not, let me put, putting it all in its fairest context, I think we could say, and I think Alex would agree, I think we could say that the Soviet, at this time, very well may want, in previous years they may have used: “Well, let’s reduce our forces and so forth,” for the purpose simply of disintegrating in Europe the Alliance. But at the present time, they may well want to reduce the burden that they have with their danger to the West, because if they look, if they see from the East. It may be that there are other reasons that they want to. They may also have budget problems as we see, but they do have a problem with regard to their flat economy over the past four or five years. But whatever the race, reason may be, all based on the track record, there has never been an instance where the Soviet actually asked to either reduce its force levels or reduce a weapons system or not go forward with a weapons system, lacking a direct reciprocal deal. That’s really what it gets down to. And so, in our case, here, I think we should take the Brezhnev speech on face value. I think there may be, we don’t know [unclear]. But he has come out and in his speech, to the Party Congress, it [unclear] use the term “conciliatory.” At least was, well, it was not conciliatory, if you read what it was really saying in terms of some of the demands and so forth. It was one that was the least inflammatory by far of any speech ever made by a Soviet leader, including even Khrushchev’s speech on peaceful competition. Now, what does that mean? What it may mean to us, and only time will tell, is that the Soviet, for reasons that have nothing to do with their believing that we in good faith want to do this or that, or that the Europeans no longer threaten, or this or that. They aren’t worried about that. And they don’t think that we threaten. It may be that the Soviet, because of their internal problems on their economy, because of the problems they have in Eastern Europe which are quite significant. We don’t know how much. You remember the German riots7 and so forth and so on, and over a period of time. And because of their problems in the East vis-à-vis the Chinese, they may look at their situation in the West and say this is the time when we can, on a reciprocal basis, perhaps reduce the level of tension here. Reduce the level of forces. Reduce the cost to us. And, now, if for their reasons, they want to do that, and we want to for our reasons, then we’re in a very, it seems to me, strategic position at this point. But we must not, we must not assume, I mean the [Page 130]greatest danger would be to assume that the way to get that, to reciprocate, would be for us to prove our good faith by going first. The moment we do that, then forget it. That means it’s over.

Johnson: Yeah. We have no basis for negotiation.

Dole: Mr. President, in addition to the Mansfield Amendment there’re about three or four substitutes floating around which may be as harmful as the Mansfield Amendment. I’ve been out of town the last few days but I read about it in the paper. [laughter]And—

Nixon: We weren’t referring to you a moment ago. [laughter]

Dole: But, I understand that, I assume we’re opposed to any of the substitutes. Is that right, Mel?

Laird: Absolutely.

Dole: [unclear] says we don’t, if they don’t [unclear].

[Unknown participant]: Probably the one that may be the most difficult is the new Mathias Amendment as of yesterday which is cosponsored by [Jacob] Javits, [Hubert] Humphrey, and [unclear]. It just says that, “The Congress renews its support for the North Atlantic Alliance, reaffirms the policy of the United States with full partnership in defense of Europe, and the President’s request to enter in the negotiations within the NATO framework to achieve Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions in Europe between NATO and Warsaw Pact forces. The President requests, in addition to regular consultations, to negotiate within NATO on the reduction of U.S. forces while financial arrangements, which remain in Europe, consist of a balance of payment situation in the United States. And then he’ll report to the Congress on September 5, 1971, nearly six months hereafter, on the project’s success.” That one of course is—

Nixon: [unclear].

[Unknown participant]: [unclear].

Laird: Well, that’s the Humphrey—

[Unknown participant]: This is a side Humphrey has.

[Unknown participant]: Humphrey may not put his name on it much.

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

Nixon: As far as Europe is concerned, what we are doing there is to, we already prevailed upon the Europeans to take a far greater responsibility in terms of their own defense. Upgrading their forces and so forth, which is very important in terms of getting a good bargaining position for the Mutual Balanced Force Reduction. Now let’s look at the Soviet thing. The, it’s rather interesting to me that the Senate has finally discovered that for the past two years, ever since we’ve been in, we’ve been talking to the Soviets about this. we’ve been talking to [Page 131]them through State Department channels, through other channels and so forth. We are ready. The Europeans certainly are going to be ready. You can be sure that every possible effort is going to be made, one, in conjunction with our NATO allies to get them to assume more of the burden for their own defense. And second, every possible effort, having done that with our NATO allies, is being made to, from that position of strength, to develop the modalities of the possible negotiation with the Soviet. And it will come. I’m convinced it’s going to come. The question is, is it in the national interest to have on our part, on the part of our government [unclear]. We won’t be keeping any of this secret. We won’t. Nothing is secret when going to the NATO conference. It all leaks out. Very little is secret when you talk with the Russians. But on the other hand, is it really in our interest to come back every six months to the Senate of the United States and to report that the Soviet says nothing? You report about, when you talk to our NATO allies and they fail to do this and they tell you what we’ve done. Is that really in our interest? The way to do it? In other words, the real question: Do you want it done or do you want to have it talked about? Henry, you want to say about—

Kissinger: Actually, the Mathias Amendment asked us to do that and in defense of MBFR, to negotiate with the Europeans to reduce our forces and then to report every six months about that. Anyone who has worked with the Europeans knows that the most important way we can get them to do more and maintain our relationship is to give them some sense of stability. If they are told that it is the policy of the United States to reduce its forces and to negotiate them in front of it and to report back to the Congress every six months on unilateral reduction, which is the second part of this, any possibility for a stable NATO policy is down the drain. And therefore, the difference between that and Mansfield is really only the difference in numbers. It’s that they don’t give a number. It’s a [unclear] with apparently additional disadvantages but there’s one, some turmoil because we’re under the gun every six months to report about unilateral reductions. What we have been trying to do in this administration is to get away with talking with the Europeans. When you were over there, you said, we don’t want these forces there just for political and symbolic reasons. We want them to make sense. we’ve got them to address the question of what makes sense. we’ve got them to put more money into it. If now we have the charter, not what makes sense but how can we reduce unilaterally, I think that whole policy will be in severe jeopardy. That is the part of the Mathias resolution that’s going to give us even more trouble than the one of reporting every six months about the negotiations with the Russians, which is also—

[unclear]

[Page 132]

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

[Unknown participant]: Do you want to put yourself in the position, Mr. President, if the Senate then adopts the Mathias substitute, of having it be interpreted as a defeat for the administration? Seems to me it could be a victory for the administration. And then, in conference taken out. Take out the report requirement.

Nixon: No they, it would be if it were, except for the interpretation I think we have to put on it in terms of the Mathias Amendment. Apart from it, it’d be a victory for the administration, it would raise havoc in our relations with the Europeans, and would be, in my opinion, it would be seriously detrimental to our long range objective of getting a mutual force reduction with the Russians. Now if that’s what the Senate wants, let them [unclear] the Mathias Amendment. But it’s cold turkey. As far as we’re concerned, we’re against it. We have to be against it. I can understand individual senators reaching different conclusions but we can’t. We can’t. But we could talk about this [unclear]. If you get down to the tactics of what is it that we, what is a victory for the administration, I agree. Well, we got Mathias and that isn’t as bad as Mansfield. But you look at Mathias and what it does in terms of our overall bargaining position. Our bargaining position within NATO. Our bargaining position vis-à-vis the Soviet. And however we interpret it here, in the day-to-day battle of confidence and all the rest, the Mathias Amendment would have a very detrimental effect in our relations within NATO and also looking down the road in the bigger game, the bigger game further down the road, the dealing with the Soviet. I don’t know. What’s your—?

[Unknown participant]: Oh, I entirely agree Mr. President. Entirely agree. Yes. Yes.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation 58–1. No classification marking. The editors transcribed the portions of the tape recording printed here specifically for this volume. Attending the meeting from Congress were Robert Griffin (R–MI), Norris Cotton (R–NH), Peter Dominick (R–CO), Gerald Ford (R–MI), Leslie Arends (R–IL), John Anderson (R–CA), Barber Conable (R–NY), Richard Poff (R–VA), Bob Wilson (R–CA), John Rhodes (R–AZ), Robert Stafford (R–VT), H. Allen Smith (R–CA), and Robert Dole (R–KS). Also attending were Peter Peterson, Shultz, Ehrlichman, MacGregor, Timmons, Dent, Ziegler, Harlow, and LeBieu. The conversation took place in the Cabinet Room.
  2. See Document 49.
  3. Telegram 3243 from Moscow, May 17, contains an account of the discussion. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 715, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. XIII) For a summary of the discussion, See Document 54.
  4. Telegram 3243 from Moscow reported that Gromyko said “the question of force reductions deserved serious attention. With respect to the Rome proposals [of NATO], Moscow proceeded from the assumption that the West had once posed the question in the context of a CES. While the USSR deemed it a positive fact that NATO had referred favorably to a CES, Gromyko said they had expressed the view that discussion of this question at a CES, at least at the first meeting, would complicate the situation and put too heavy a burden on the conference. Therefore, the Soviets posed the question in terms of the possible reduction of foreign forces in Europe. This is simpler way. It could be done by a special body of the CES or in any other forum. If the Western powers agree that the question should be examined outside a CES, this would be much simpler and more productive.”
  5. Roberts reported that Gromyko in his meeting with Beam on May 17 “offered to separate talks on cutting East-West military forces and armaments from the Kremlin’s long-sought European security conference.” See “Soviets Offer to Separate Troop Talks,” Washington Post, May 18, 1971, p. A1.
  6. see footnote 4, Document 49.
  7. Nixon is apparently referring to the June 1953 uprising in East Germany.