81. Editorial Note

On May 28, 1978, reporters Bob Abernethy and Bill Monroe of NBC News, Elizabeth Drew of The New Yorker and Carl T. Rowan of Field Syndicate interviewed President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Zbigniew Brzezinski on the NBC television and radio public affairs program “Meet the Press.” Responding to a question as to the viability of détente in light of recent Soviet actions and U.S. criticisms thereof, Brzezinski asserted:

“As far as détente is concerned, I think it is terribly important for all of us to understand what it is and what it is not. There is a tendency to assume that détente is the equivalent of a comprehensive, indeed, total accommodation between the United States and the Soviet Union. That has never been the case.

“Détente really is a process of trying to contain some of the competitive aspects in the relationship, competitive aspects which I believe still are predominant, and to widen the cooperative aspects. In that process at one time or another either the cooperative or the competitive aspects tend to be more predominant.

“I would say today the competitive aspects have somewhat surfaced and I would say categorically that this is due to the shortsighted Soviet conduct in the course of the last 2 or so years.”

Referring to Brzezinski’s use of the word “shortsighted,” one of the reporters asked Brzezinski if he had any reason to believe that Soviet conduct “would cease” to be shortsighted. Brzezinski responded:

“I think that if the Soviet Union realizes that there are genuine rewards in accommodation and genuine costs in unilateral exploitation of the world’s troubles, then the cooperative aspects will expand.

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“I am troubled by the fact that the Soviet Union has been engaged in a sustained and massive effort to build up its conventional forces, particularly in Europe, to strengthen the concentration of its forces on the frontiers of China, to maintain a vitriolic worldwide propaganda campaign against the United States, to encircle and penetrate the Middle East, to stir up racial difficulties in Africa, and to make more difficult a moderate solution of these difficulties, perhaps now to seek more direct access to the Indian Ocean.

“This pattern of behavior I do not believe is compatible with what was once called the code of détente, and my hope is, through patient negotiations with us, but also through demonstrated resolve on our part, we can induce the Soviet leaders to conclude that the benefits of accommodation are greater than the shortsighted attempt to exploit global difficulties.”

Following several questions related to Africa and Brzezinski’s trip to China (see footnote 21, Document 62), the interview returned to the topic of the Soviet Union. Referencing the list of Soviet actions Brzezinski had described, one of the journalists then asked Brzezinski if he would be in favor of linking U.S. trade and technology transfers to Soviet behavior. Brzezinski commented:

“First of all, I don’t think it was a string of horrible things. It was a list of actions undertaken apparently in a combative or competitive spirit in order to gain political advantage in relationship to us. This is the kind of conduct we wish to transform, to moderate.

“Our response to it does operate on many levels. On the one hand we try to negotiate with the Soviets where it is mutually useful to negotiate—for example, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. On the other hand, we are trying to strengthen ourselves where it is necessary, and we have done a great deal, for example, in regard to NATO.

“Beyond that we are trying to develop stronger relationships with various regional powers which do feel threatened by the Soviet Union and which, if encouraged and supported, can themselves help to provide overall global stability. Last but not least, we are enhancing our own long-term relationship with the People’s Republic of China as a contribution to global stability.

“I don’t believe we are wringing our hands. I think we are trying to respond responsibly to a complicated and difficult challenge.” (Department of State Bulletin, July 1978, pages 27–28)

In his memoirs, Brzezinski noted that President Jimmy Carter expressed concern over his appearance on “Meet the Press.” On the morning of May 29, the President informed Brzezinski that he “went too far” in placing blame on the Soviet Union. Brzezinski recounted:

“He went on to say that my comments might even threaten détente and he was wondering whether he shouldn’t write a letter to Brezhnev [Page 392] to reiterate his commitment to SALT. I told the President that ‘it’s really important that we discuss this fully, because this raises a question of fundamental judgment. In my view, the West confronts a basic danger, and how we respond may be decisive to the future of this country.’ I added that I was distressed if my statements went further than he felt they should, and I asked him to review the transcript of what I said and not just rely on the Washington Post reporting of it.” (Power and Principle, pages 220–221)

Summarizing his view of Brzezinski’s “Meet the Press” interview in his diary entry for May 29, the President wrote:

“On Meet the Press, Zbig was very abusive against the Soviets—excessively so—and I chastised him about it. He was quite upset. I don’t want to create sympathy for the Soviets among the European allies, or to drive them away from continued negotiations with us on SALT and the comprehensive test ban. The saving grace about it is that Zbig’s always had a reputation of being anti-Soviet. I told him our relationships with the Soviet Union were much more important than those with China as far as the safety of our country is concerned—the prevention of war—at least for the rest of this century.” (White House Diary, page 197)