181. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • President Eldjarn
  • Prime Minister Johannesson
  • Foreign Minister Agustsson
  • Ambassador to the USA Kroyer
  • President Nixon
  • Secretary of State William P. Rogers
  • Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • U.S. Ambassador to Iceland Irving

President Eldjarn welcomed President Nixon and his party to Iceland, and expressed satisfaction on behalf of his Government at the opportunity to have this talk with the President of the United States. He said it would be of particular interest for him and his Ministers to listen to what President Nixon might want to tell them.

President Nixon expressed thanks to President Eldjarn and his Government for hosting these talks between himself and President Pompidou, and said that he would express these thanks more formally at President Eldjarn’s dinner the next evening. He explained that certain traditions of protocol had made it convenient for the two Presidents to meet this time in a third country, and Iceland had, by its geographical position, been an ideal site. Iceland was, moreover, an important link in the Atlantic Alliance, and it was the future of this Alliance which will be the main topic of the talks. The United States Government was well aware of the present strains on the Alliance, after so many years, and felt keenly that a new purpose, a new sense of direction were needed and would help to give the Alliance new value, both in terms of mutual security and economic cooperation and progress.

President Nixon stressed that his goal is to lessen tension between the superpowers. He recalled his visits to China and the Soviet Union in 1972, the important agreements concluded with the Soviet Union,

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and the culmination of his efforts in the conclusion of a ceasefire in Vietnam early this year.

He expressed understanding for the natural tendency among people to feel that now, because of the progress made toward relaxation of tension we can afford to let down our vigilance—that the world has changed so much that we can dispense with the Alliance. This is false thinking, President Nixon said, for we had gotten this far toward negotiations instead of confrontation through the strength of the Alliance.

President Nixon stressed that the Alliance must continue to negotiate from a position of strength, and successful results from CSCE and MBFR will depend on Soviet respect for the strength of the Alliance. So long as the Alliance remains strong, they will see that their only option is to negotiate.

President Nixon pointed out that he respected Brezhnev and Chou En-lai, although he did not hold the same views as they, and he felt they returned his respect. He said that this mutual respect held a unique opportunity now to limit arms and then move to the mutual reduction of arms. President Nixon acknowledged there exists today a widespread feeling that we can now relax and unilaterally reduce our strength, thereby concentrating on local problems of housing, roads, welfare, etc. But, he added, if we start reducing our armed strength unilaterally, there will be no mutual arms reduction, and there would then be no need for the Soviets to negotiate. Speaking as a pragmatist, he said, we have to be able to give something to gain something in a negotiation. He stressed again that the leaders of the U.S. and the USSR realize that they must get along, live together and cooperate.

Prime Minister Olafur Johannesson congratulated President Nixon on his achievements in the field of foreign policy. He then pointed out that Icelanders, being an island nation, were rather local-minded and preoccupied with domestic problems. Iceland sets one issue above all others, he said, namely the extension of Iceland’s fisheries limit to 50 miles and the “invasion” of British warships into Icelandic waters.

He confirmed that the relations between Iceland and the U.S. have always been excellent, and stressed that he considered himself to be a real friend of the U.S. He had on many occasions said that Iceland owes the U.S. more than it owes any other nation in the United Nations family. He felt, however, that he had to state frankly that public opinion in Iceland was rapidly changing, that the tide was turning against the U.S., primarily because of the U.S.’s attitude toward the problem of Iceland’s fisheries jurisdiction, which he described as being “too neutral.”

Prime Minister Olafur Johannesson stated further that there was widespread opinion in Iceland that President Nixon would only have [Typeset Page 589] to move his little finger to make the British remove their naval forces and settle the fisheries problem. The Prime Minister stated this might be an overestimation of the power of the President of the U.S. but this opinion in Iceland was widespread, and he felt he wanted to state it frankly.

President Nixon said that the present trouble in Iceland distresses the U.S. very much and asked the Icelandic Government what they expected the U.S. could do. He asked whether Iceland really felt that the Government of the U.S. could take sides in a dispute between two of its allies?

Olafur Johannesson replied by saying that Iceland had asked the U.S. for the lease of one or two of its surplus Coast Guard cutters, but had gotten turned down.

Secretary Rogers replied that the U.S. also had fisheries jurisdiction problems, but was looking to the Law of the Sea Conference to settle the problems. He asked why Iceland also could not wait to let the Conference settle Iceland’s problem. He remarked that the U.S. worked out an arrangement with Brazil on the fisheries problem and asked why Iceland and the British could not do the same. Secretary Rogers also stated that the U.S. has problems with the unilateral establishment of fisheries limits.

The Prime Minister remarked that Canada had just established a 200-mile limit. Secretary Rogers remarked that the U.S. would have problems whether the limit was 50 miles or 200 miles. International law does not recognize either. The Prime Minister interjected by saying that opinions differ on that score.

Secretary Rogers urged that Iceland not press NATO to resolve the fisheries dispute because it could only lead to dissention within NATO at a time when NATO should be united. He urged that both Iceland and the UK try to settle the dispute amicably between them. If discussions at NATO are necessary, let it be in private at the NATO Ministerial meeting in mid-June and not as an agenda item.

Secretary Rogers acknowledged from reports he had received that Iceland was associating the IDF retention issue and the fisheries dispute. He said it was unfair for Iceland to blame the U.S. for its troubles with the UK. He remarked that relations between Iceland and the U.S. were always good and he felt they could not be better. He reminded Iceland of the amount of fish the U.S. buys, the high prices it is now getting in the U.S., and of the concessional air traffic rates Iceland’s airline (Lotleidir) enjoys. He said the economics of Iceland’s relations with the U.S. were overwhelmingly in Iceland’s favor. Secretary Rogers asked that the IDF issue and the fisheries issue not be mixed; that the fisheries dispute with the UK not be allowed to sour the fine relationship that exists between Iceland and the U.S. Secretary Rogers also remarked [Typeset Page 590] that it was unfair to the NATO Alliance to have the dispute over fisheries limits adversely affect NATO.

The Prime Minister, while agreeing with Secretary Rogers’ statement on economic relations, said that public opinion regarding the U.S. is not as high today as it was a year ago because of the neutral attitude of the U.S. in the fisheries dispute and because the IDF did not “repel the British invaders” from Iceland’s territory. He remarked this may not be logical, but it, nevertheless, is public opinion, and as a politician he has to act according to public opinion. He said public opinion is turning against the U.S. because the U.S. has not put pressure on the UK to remove its navy from Iceland’s waters.

Secretary Rogers asked that Iceland not invoke Article VII of the Defense Agreement at this time because of what we are trying to do in Europe. He suggested Iceland discuss the subject at the NATO Ministerial meeting at Copenhagen next month.

The Prime Minister said that British military “spy planes” were flying over Icelandic waters to spy on the Icelandic Coast Guard and thus aid the British trawlers. All this was bound to have its effect on the problem of the Defense Base.

President Nixon said the U.S. did not want two friends blaming the U.S. for their problem. He added that to invoke Article VII, especially before the NATO Ministerial meeting, would be a very unfortunate move because it would tie together the fisheries dispute and NATO when in fact the issues were separate. He said that the fisheries problem must be solved in some way. He did not have a solution, but one must be found.

On the question of the base problem, he added that if Iceland moved toward isolation, this would be damaging not only for the Alliance but for Iceland as well. He reminded the Icelandic side that the situation of détente which we have today was achieved through negotiation based on strength, and added that even the People’s Republic of China wants a strong NATO.

President Nixon remarked that we did not get where we were by “copping out,” but by “playing the game, by being strong.” He stressed that it was absolutely essential to move forward to relieve tension in the world and this required a strong Alliance. Reducing our forces unilaterally would be a mistake regretted even by Iceland because it would set back the cause of achieving a peaceful world. He asked Iceland to consider very seriously the harm it would be doing to Iceland as well as the Alliance if it took adverse action against NATO and the IDF.

The Prime Minister remarked that last May, when Secretary Rogers visited Iceland, he told him Iceland hoped to find a modus vivendi on the fisheries issue, but he regretted to say today that none has yet been found. Iceland will not negotiate with the UK until the UK [Typeset Page 591] pulled back its navy. Secretary Rogers stated that it would be helpful if at least the shooting of vessels ended.

Foreign Minister Agustsson, referring to the Icelandic Government’s plea to NATO in the fisheries dispute, informed President Nixon that NATO’s Secretary General Luns had that same morning (May 30) informed the Icelandic Government that NATO had no power or authority to act in the British-Icelandic dispute, but had promised to use his good offices to try to influence the British Government to pull its naval vessels beyond 50 miles. The Minister added that any help from the U.S. Government in this effort would not only be valuable, it was almost essential in order to calm Icelandic emotion on NATO and the Base.

President Nixon said that he could not give any reply to this request at the moment. He would like to remind Iceland that Iceland and the U.S. need each other. He asked that the Icelandic Government not to do anything more that would be detrimental to U.S.-Icelandic relations, and in particular not let the fisheries dispute poison these relations. He added that it was sometimes necessary for Government leaders to lead public opinion. He remarked it was very important that nothing cause the deterioration of the Alliance.

  1. Summary: Nixon, Rogers, Eldjarn, Johannesson, and Agustsson discussed the Western Alliance, Iceland, the UK-Iceland fisheries dispute, and the IDF retention issue.

    Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, Staff Member & Office Files, President’s Office Files, Memoranda for the President, Box 91, Beginning May 27 (1973). Confidential. The meeting took place in President Eldjarn’s office at the State Council House. In telegram 573 from Reykjavik, May 22, the Embassy assessed the implications of the UK-Iceland fisheries dispute, including the implications for the IDF retention issue. (Ibid., RG 59, Central Files 1970–1973, POL 33–4 ICE–UK) Nixon, Rogers, and Kissinger were in Reykjavik from May 30 to June 1 to meet with Pompidou and other French officials.