51. Conversation Among President Nixon, Secretary of Defense Laird, and the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

Laird: There are several things that I did want to bring up [unclear]. I’m going to be meeting, as I told Henry, on Saturday for the Defense Planning Committee meeting—

Nixon: NATO.

Laird: —NATO, with all the Defense Ministers, and also the Nuclear Planning Group.2 And those will be going on for four days, two at each. Two at Brussels and two in Germany. Saturday, I’m coming back to meet with a group of cabinet administrators from all over Europe. But it’s a personal sort of a thing. they’re all former parliamentarians who were friends over a long period of time. And we had a prayer group—

Nixon: —Where will that be?

Laird: And that will be in France. It’s going to be out in the country in France, it’s just a day meeting. People like Harmel and Helmut Schmidt. And one of the subjects we’re talking about is what we can do in the field of curtailing violence, and there are other topics. It doesn’t have anything to do—

Nixon: —Good. Excellent.

Laird: But it’s just a talk sort of a thing. So I’ll be there one day, and that will be next Saturday, and then I will be home next Saturday night. But there are, this is a rather important time to be meeting with all these people, with what’s been going on in the last week or so over here. And I think we can give them certain assurances [unclear] a great deal of turbulence as far as—

Nixon: —I think so.

Laird: —And they will want to go forward with discussions on how you will proceed with the Mutual and Balanced Forced Reduction, [Page 134]especially. And they want to take a position to recommend to the Council meeting, which comes the next week. Make a recommendation. And I think we can lead that to the point, take these models that they’re using and they’re in NATO and the fact that we have a better study going on here,3 which we will share with them and we will be ready to share with them, maybe by the first of July.

Kissinger: That’s really essential, Mr. President, because what they’ve got is so superficial.

Laird: Right.

Kissinger: And also, our experience in SALT really shows that when we do it on a well-prepared basis, we didn’t stampede into those talks after a lot of pressure. And we’ve got a really first-class study. A lot of it was done by Mel’s shop, which we’re now sanitizing. And it’s, that would be the basis of the Alliance position, which we’d be a hell of a lot better off than the superficial work they’ve done.

Nixon: Sure.

Laird: And that’s my point here, Henry, that I make to you, that I want to stress the idea of not stampeding ahead on this thing, because some of them really want a [unclear].

Nixon: Brezhnev is clever, clever. Kosygin [unclear] the other side [unclear]. You go first, boys, the hell with their issues, it would be very different. We can get some sort of agreement at some time with the Soviet, Warsaw Pact, but only on the basis of, well, we both have our forces and we intend to continue them until we get an agreement. You’re not going to do it by either side going first with some half-assed, either unilateral action or some jackass statement. Either one, right? we’ve got to control the game, in other words. That’s what it really gets down to. The Soviet will control their game, that’s for sure.

Laird: Well, and I think it’s important not to get tied up in the context of the European security conference. And I think that, Henry and I have talked about that.

Nixon: What about that? I noticed that briefing paper this morning4 we should, what do the Europeans want? Are they trying to tie it up or separate it?

Laird: Some of them will want to tie it up with it. But I think that we can—

Nixon: —What should we want?

[Page 135]

Kissinger: Mr. President, it’s strongly in our interest not to tie it up with the European security conference. The Soviets are eager to get a European security conference, we can sell it to them separately. AEuropean security conference also is going to have the most vapid sort of generalities, which will then be used to undercut the whole NATO effort. And it’s in our interest to get the Russians to negotiate something concretely, like force reductions rather than trade and cultural things and that sort of—

Nixon: —Good point.

Laird: It really is important—

Nixon: —In another word, you have in mind that the, what would be the format of such negotiations we’re talking about? How would it, how would it be done? How do we see the picture? You’ve got to have a conference in order to negotiate.

Kissinger: Well, I think we ought to do it the way we did it on SALT. We ought to express a general readiness, then we ought to find a negotiating forum. I don’t think we’ll be ready to talk much before fall. Then we also have—

Nixon: Do you agree, Mel?

Kissinger: Then we ought to have a—

Laird: —We won’t be ready.

Nixon: The thing is, though, let’s be sure that both Mel and Bill5 take that position with these people when they go to Europe, because I think the Europeans, particularly after this announcement tomorrow,6 they’re all going to say, “Well now, what the hell?” Let’s get—

Kissinger: —Well, I’m not so sure, Mr. President.

[Page 136]

Nixon: They may panic.

Kissinger: I’m not so sure because the Europeans were for this force reduction idea as a way of keeping our forces there, figuring that the negotiations wouldn’t get anywhere. That’s why they, many of them came around to it.

Nixon: Negotiation of what?

Kissinger: The Euro—

Laird: —The force reduction. They—

Nixon: —No, no. I am talking about after the announcement on SALT tomorrow.

Kissinger: Oh.

Nixon: Now anything is possible with the Russians, get my point?

Kissinger: The Russians, I don’t read the Gromyko thing as if they’re ready to negotiate.

Nixon: The Kosygin?

Kissinger: The GromykoBeam conversation.7

Nixon: Well—

Kissinger: So, let, all they’re left at is let’s both review our positions.

Nixon: Well, Kosygin made some statement with—

Kissinger: —Well—

Nixon: —that asshole Trudeau.8

Kissinger: But my guess is if we meet in September and have the first session the way we did it on SALT, on principle, and then—

Nixon: —Now when you say, “we’d be,” who’s “we”?

Kissinger: Well—

Nixon: The Europeans meet first for a private meeting?

Laird: Well I think there should be meetings between the U.S. and the Russians first before you go to a Warsaw Pact–NATO meeting.

[Page 137]

Nixon: I see.

Laird: That meeting will be to carry on the same kind of consultations—Kissinger: We need June to work out before, there’s a trip before. Because we’ve got every ally there.

Laird: Yeah.

Kissinger: You’re going to have the damnedest gap—

[unclear exchange]

Nixon: [unclear] is what do we do? What are you going to say?

Laird: Well, I’m going to say that we have this study going—

Nixon: I think you ought to say it, you and Bill, you both should use the same line.

Laird: It’s most important that we’ll share this study with them in July.

Kissinger: In June. In July—yes.

Laird: Well, I’d like to put it out in July—

Kissinger: In July. July, no You’re right.

Nixon: The more you can put off anything the better.

Laird: Yeah [unclear]. This study will be in July.

Nixon: Cause also, I think you need that much time.

Laird: Sure. Then we can lay that before them at that time, and that’s the only thing that will take place, we’ll share any discussions we have at this point. We can work out our [unclear] and our negotiating position at that time. They’ve got to see the study. They’ve got to see the study. The problem is that they’re going to run into this thing. They ‘re going to, some people will try to stampede at you in Lisbon. If we can get the Defense Ministers to stand pat [unclear] just to stampede [unclear] Lisbon.

Kissinger: I’ll talk to Bill also.

Laird: I just felt—

Nixon: —When do you leave? When do you leave?

Laird: I’m going to leave Saturday. See, I don’t have much time.

Nixon: When does the, yeah.

Laird: And Bill will leave the day that I get back.

Nixon: Oh.

Laird: I’m not going to go to Lisbon. I don’t believe I should be gone, see. I told Bill that I could not go to Lisbon because—

Nixon: When does Bill go? And I think we better get, I better talk to Bill before—

Laird: This Sunday?

[Page 138]

Kissinger: A week from Sunday.

Nixon: Oh, yeah.

Kissinger: So we have the whole week next week.

Laird: we’ve got all next week, but he’s in Toronto [unclear].

Kissinger: But luckily, however, [unclear] Bill.

Laird: But I can see no reason for my going to Lisbon, because that’s another weekend with all these [unclear].

Nixon: It seems to me you ought to go [unclear] talk to Bill as to what You’re constantly talking about, so that he’ll know. Next week, we’ll be sure that we’re all on the same wavelength. You feel that we ought to wait till July, right?

Laird: Well, I’ll talk to him before I go.

Nixon: Right. And the line you’ll take is July is the, that you’ll try to keep the Europeans from going off or anything weird. [unclear] right, and that’s the way to get a deal, too.

Laird: And I don’t think it should come down to, for sure, as to the method of the kind of negotiations, whether it should be strictly Warsaw–NATO context. We shouldn’t agree on that now.

Kissinger: We should decide that in June.

Laird: Right.

Nixon: Yeah, but if they raise the European security conference between [unclear] that should be recommended for everything.

Kissinger: And the Russians are not all that eager to link the two for some—

Laird: They weren’t for a while.

Kissinger: But now they are.

Laird: They’ve backed away from it now.

[Omitted here is discussion of matters unrelated to the European security conference or MBFR.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation 501–18. No classification marking. The conversation took place in the Oval Office. The editors transcribed the portions of the tape recording printed here specifically for this volume.
  2. The NATO Nuclear Planning Group met May 25–27 in Mittenwald, Germany. On May 28, Sonnenfeldt summarized the main points that Laird made with Carrington, Schmidt, and Brosio: “We are determined to maintain our NATO commitments, despite the Mansfield amendment,” and “the US wanted to go slow on MBFR; our studies would be available to NATO by late July after an NSC meeting in late June. We should explore bilaterally for now; the Europeans should not be discouraged (Carrington and Schmidt) by the atmospherics of détente; it was more important than ever to maintain a strong Western position.” (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 227, Agency Files, Defense, Vol. XII)
  3. Reference is to the evaluation report, “Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions Between NATO and the Warsaw Pact,” April 12. For discussion of the evaluation report and the decision to sanitize it for presentation to NATO, See Document 47.
  4. Reference is to Kissinger’s daily briefing memorandum for the President of May 19. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 33, President’s Daily Briefs, May 17–31, 1971)
  5. Secretary of State Rogers.
  6. On May 20, Nixon announced an understanding between the United States and the Soviet Union to work to conclude a strategic arms limitation agreement (SALT) by the end of the year. For the text of Nixon’s remarks, see Public Papers: Nixon, 1971, p. 648. Nixon expressed his concern again about the European reaction to the SALT announcement in the context of MBFR in a conversation later in the evening on May 19 with Kissinger, Scali, and Haldeman: Kissinger: “In the first press conference, I won’t use the word ‘linkage,’ but I’ll say, ‘The President has consistently taken the position that success and progress in one negotiation is bound to improve prospects in other negotiations. This is particularly true when the fields are so related as they are with Mutual Force Reductions and SALT, both of which are in the arms control field. So if we can make progress in that field, we think that this will create a good basis.’” Nixon: “What does that do now, Henry, to NATO?” Nixon continued: “Does that shake the hell out of them?” Kissinger: “What, the agreement? If you don’t make it sound as if a condominium is starting between the Soviets and us.” Nixon: “Right.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Oval Office, Conversation 501–29)
  7. See Document 54.
  8. Kosygin visited Canada October 17–26; at the end of his visit, he and Prime Minister Trudeau issued a joint communiqué that Canada and the Soviet Union “declared themselves in favor of a properly-prepared conference on security and cooperation in Europe with the participation of all European states, Canada, and the United States.” With regard to balanced force reductions, the statement reads: “Since the military confrontation in central Europe is particularly dangerous, it was agreed that early steps should be taken to seek a general agreement on the mutual reduction of armed forces and armaments in that area without detriment to the participating states.” (Keesing’s Contemporary Archives, 1971–1972, p. 24948–24949)