103. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Vance/Brezhnev Meeting


  • U.S.
  • Secretary of State Vance
  • Ambassador Malcolm Toon
  • William D. Krimer (Interpreter)
  • U.S.S.R.
  • General Secretary Brezhnev
  • Foreign Minister Gromyko
  • Ambassador A.F. Dobrynin
  • A.M. Aleksandrov-Agentov
  • V.M. Sukhodrev (Interpreter)

General Secretary Brezhnev opened by saying he had been informed that Secretary Vance and Gromyko had held some hard discussions. This is natural because the subject was very serious indeed—nuclear weapons. It was not important whether one talked of reduction or limitation or shortening or shrinking weapons. The important thing was that they were nuclear weapons and that in the absence of a treaty on this matter, war was not precluded. He thought the Secretary would understand why people throughout the world were demanding that nuclear war be made impossible.

Brezhnev apologized for having started in this way and said first of all he was pleased to welcome the Secretary in Moscow. Quite a few things had happened since the Secretary’s last visit, in the life of our two countries and throughout the world. He would speak with the same frankness with which he had set forth his thoughts last year. The past year had not given us any cause for joy as concerns Soviet-U.S. relations. They were developing rather unevenly and, on the whole, their present state did not correspond to the wishes of either of our countries as they had been expressed in the past.

Digressing from his typed notes, Brezhnev recalled that when President Nixon had first come to visit Moscow, he had come to Brezhnev’s office directly from the airport and just the two of them, plus one interpreter, had held their first conversation.2 President Nixon had pointed out that both our countries had amassed so many nuclear [Page 333] weapons that they were able to destroy each other seven times over. These were his very words, every comma. He was recalling this not in order to defend Nixon, but to emphasize that due to actions of the United States the arms race had escalated even further since that time. Each of us now had larger quantities of weapons and each could destroy the other ten times over. In a very short period of time the two of them had succeeded in concluding and signing an agreement on nuclear weapons that was still in effect today (Brezhnev first said the agreement expired in October, but corrected himself after prompting by Gromyko).

Brezhnev said that it was no accident that he referred to the complexity of our negotiations. There was so much talk in the world today about nuclear weapons, about war, about the neutron bomb. It was even difficult to tell sometimes where the truth was to be found.

Referring to his notes again, Brezhnev said there is no doubt that the main obstacle in the way of developing better Soviet/American relations is the continuing arms race. Unless the arms race is stopped and, indeed, reversed, neither of our two peoples would be able to sleep quietly. He was deeply convinced that nothing would contribute as much to better relations between us and to a more peaceful world than conclusion of a new agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union on limitation of strategic offensive arms. He would say quite frankly that preparation of that agreement had somehow been dragged out “to an ungodly extent”. He had been informed by Gromyko and Marshal Ogarkov that in the course of the present talks it had proved possible to reach agreement on one (he emphasized: “only one”) basic outstanding issue, while some headway had been made toward resolution of others. The one question that had been resolved was the understanding on the text of the treaty article on non-circumvention, which would read as follows:

“In order to ensure the viability and effectiveness of this Treaty, each Party undertakes not to circumvent the provisions of this Treaty through any other state or states, or in any other manner.”

Secondly, he understood that the U.S. side had agreed in principle that the treaty would provide for the right of each side to test and deploy one new type of ICBM, on the understanding that the aggregate number of ballistic missiles equipped with MIRVs would be limited to 1200. However, the Soviet side had always spoken of a new type of ICBM with a single reentry vehicle, while the U.S. side now wanted to have the opportunity to develop a new ICBM with MIRVs. The Soviet side could in no way agree to such a solution because, after all, these were qualitatively different categories of missiles, notably from the standpoint of their impact upon strategic stability.

[Page 334]

Third, Brezhnev noted that the positions of the two sides had come closer together on the scope of possible reductions in the aggregate level of SNDVs. The Soviet side had agreed to reduction of that level during the terms of the treaty from 2400 to 2250 over an 18-month period beginning December 1980. As for the time period for completion of reductions, which had been proposed by the U.S. side—12 months beginning January 1980—it was completely unrealistic for the reasons repeatedly explained to the Secretary by the Soviet representatives.

Brezhnev had also been informed that an understanding had been reached on how to resolve the remaining differences in the text of the Joint Statement of Principles. It was now necessary for the two delegations in Geneva to complete that work as quickly as possible, thereby putting another question to rest.

Brezhnev said he would not address the question of the so-called Backfire bomber. Gromyko had set forth the Soviet position repeatedly; it was that the Backfire was completely unrelated to the treaty under negotiation, and Brezhnev had nothing to add to Gromyko’s statement.

It was important now to apply strenuous efforts on both sides to find mutually acceptable solutions for those issues which still remained unagreed or not completely agreed. He would hope that the U.S. side would display the necessary realism, just as the Soviet side was doing, and that this would at last make it possible to complete work on the treaty.

Brezhnev said it would also be of great importance if our two countries could join efforts in other directions as well, particularly in putting an end to the arms race. The Soviet Union regretted that the United States had not agreed to the Soviet proposal for mutual, complete and unconditional renunciation of the production of neutron weapons. In advancing that proposal, the Soviet side had not proceeded and was not proceeding from unilateral interests but with the sole objective of ridding mankind of still another weapon of mass annihilation, a particularly inhumane weapon, and of preventing a new spiral in the arms race. Recent statements by President Carter concerning deferral of a final decision regarding the production of neutron weapons3 could not, of course, be regarded as settling this matter. Nevertheless, taking into account President Carter’s statement, the Soviet Union was now weighing the possibility of refraining from producing neutron weapons unless the United States began to produce them first. He was informing the Secretary of this in a strictly confidential manner, but the Soviet Union would probably soon announce its decision on this score.

[Page 335]

Brezhnev said he would not address the other specific matters the Secretary had discussed with Gromyko. He merely wanted to emphasize the most important factors needed to ensure a positive trend in the relations between our two countries: reciprocity in taking into account the legitimate interests of the other side, strict observance of the principle of equality and mutual benefit, and non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. Without that, it would not be possible to advance our bilateral relations or to achieve satisfactory solutions to major international problems.

In conclusion, Brezhnev wanted to touch on one more matter. Representatives of the United States side and President Carter personally had stressed the desirability of a meeting between him and President Carter. As for the Soviet side and himself personally, he would welcome such a meeting; there should be no doubt whatsoever on this score. In this connection, they were only concerned that a meeting might be held without producing the kind of results that people throughout the world had every right to expect from the meeting of the heads of two such countries as the United States and the Soviet Union. In other words, such a meeting should be well prepared and productive. He would be pleased if the Secretary could convey this to President Carter.

Departing from his text, Brezhnev said that those who wrote articles, delivered speeches and traveled a great deal should never forget that if only one bomb should go off, there would as a consequence be nothing left on the face of the earth. The leaders themselves might perhaps find a safe place to hide, but what about nations, peoples, cities and industrial plants? And yet, people keep on writing reports, paper after paper, and each author probably congratulates himself for having found a happy phrase. Brezhnev was fully prepared to meet President Carter for the purpose of declaring that both are against war, against nuclear weapons, and for disarmament. They could sign a paper to that effect, a document that could be exhibited to the whole world. That would represent true courage and genuine action.

The Secretary said that the President had asked him to convey his warm personal regards to Brezhnev, and to express his strong determination to do everything in his power that this meeting should be as productive as possible.4

Brezhnev interrupted, thanking him for the President’s good wishes and said he welcomed the statement that we are all human. He noted the President’s public statements to the effect that he was for developing good relations with the Soviet Union, that he would seek to [Page 336] improve them, and that he was against the arms race.5 Nevertheless, a couple of days later at some university the President had delivered another speech. The Soviet leadership had read both statements and was asking itself: Where is the truth?

The Secretary said that President Carter shared Brezhnev’s concerns and views about the danger of a world overloaded with nuclear weapons. As Brezhnev had pointed out, each of us had many times more weapons than either of us wished to have.

Brezhnev (interrupting) said the trouble was that when it came to nuclear weapons, including silo launchers and MIRVs, the important thing was not just to look at their numbers, whether such numbers were 2400 or 2250. He would ask what would happen if just one bomb were to be dropped on a major city, for example a bomb with a yield of 3 million tons. There would be nothing left of that city, and yet here we were talking about 2400 or 2250.

The Secretary continued that President Carter believed that this meeting could be an important step toward the realization of the foreign policy objectives to which he is committed: namely, a more peaceful world based on the reduction and control of arms; a deeper understanding with the Soviet Union; a resolution of regional conflicts; and restraint on the part of the major powers. President Carter shared the general views Brezhnev had expressed a moment ago, the views Brezhnev had said he would like to see stated in a joint paper.

The Secretary said that the President shared Brezhnev’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons. In his Inaugural Address, President Carter had emphasized his commitment to working for a world without nuclear weapons.6 The President believed deeply that a SALT II agreement should be completed and signed as soon as feasible.

The Secretary said that with respect to the SALT II issues he agreed generally with Brezhnev’s summary of the positions discussed. He pointed out that there was another important issue that had to be resolved—it was necessary to agree first on the definition of new types of [Page 337] missiles. However, he believed that the two delegations in Geneva should be able to work on this matter and resolve it promptly. Of course, there were also other matters which had to be resolved by the two delegations in Geneva, such as the bomber counting rule, the definition of cruise missile range, etc. Some of these were technical matters and the delegations should be instructed to resolve them promptly.

The Secretary said that President Carter had asked him to present a broad review of the present state of relations between our two countries, and to express to Brezhnev frankly those issues which were the source of deep concern to him and to the American public at large. He had asked the Secretary to stress that the United States seeks a detente that is increasingly comprehensive and genuinely reciprocal. Unless we can move in this direction, some of the central factors in the relationship, including the successful ratification of SALT, would be adversely affected by the consequent deterioration in the political environment. Therefore, he wished to stress that mutual restraint lies at the core of a detente relationship. We regard the US-Soviet relationship as central to world peace and global stability. This relationship must, therefore, be one of mutual restraint, in accordance with the Basic Principles of Relations signed between our two countries in May 1972. If these principles are not observed, it will lead to an unregulated and increasingly dangerous competition.

Brezhnev interrupted to ask what sort of restraint the Secretary had in mind.

The Secretary said he would come to that, but in that connection wished to have a clarification of Soviet objectives in Africa, and in particular southern Africa. This is needed in order to provide a positive political framework for pursuing other issues of importance to both our countries. We would regard it as a matter of importance that the Soviet Union not be drawn into an effort to resolve the Eritrean issue by force. It is clear that the continued presence of Soviet military and Cuban combat personnel in the Horn of Africa will provoke a reaction from Ethiopia’s neighbors that could only lead to further tension and conflict. We strongly believe that the early withdrawal of all external forces from Ethiopia would avert the dangerous trends now building up in Africa. We would hope that the Soviet Union would use its influence to this end. While we had no objection to Soviet cooperation with the Patriotic Front and the Front Line countries in southern Africa, the Secretary wished to make it clear beyond any doubt that intrusion of external forces into southern Africa will jeopardize detente as a whole, and seriously fray the relationship between our two countries.

Brezhnev interrupted to say that he would respond.

The Secretary said it might be helpful if he were to outline our objectives in southern Africa, particularly in Rhodesia and Namibia. We had [Page 338] been working together with the British trying to bring about a situation in which there would be a peaceful transition to majority rule in the near future, hopefully before the end of this current year, a transition that would result in an independent Zimbabwe. We know that for this to be successful, for a lasting peace to be established there, the Patriotic Front must play a role in the transition process, and be given the opportunity along with others to put their candidacy before the people of Zimbabwe. We believe that in a free election Joshua Nkomo would probably be elected President of Zimbabwe. We recognize that Bishop Muzorewa7 enjoyed considerable support, but believe that Nkomo had a stronger political base and, therefore, would win in a free election. In short, with reference to Zimbabwe, we recognize that the people there had to make their own choice, and what we were trying to do was to help see to it that there be a peaceful transition and that the people of Zimbabwe be free to express their will in an election before the end of this year.

Brezhnev , interrupting, said that is correct.

The Secretary continued that as for Namibia, here, too, our only objective is for the people of Namibia to decide their own future and choose their own leaders. The Secretary believed, and he understood that the Soviet side also believed, that free elections must be held in accordance with UN Resolution 385.8 We oppose a so-called internal solution in Namibia, and believe that the transition period and the election must be under the supervision of the United Nations, to make sure that it would be fair and free. The Secretary wanted to conclude this point by saying that there could not be a lasting solution to the Namibian problem unless SWAPO played a full part in the political process. He had recently talked with Nujoma9 about his concerns and how they could be met. The Secretary concluded by saying that he had made this digression to explain our views with regard to southern Africa, and he hoped that this would help give the Soviet Union a better understanding of our objectives in that area.

Brezhnev stated his belief that African affairs and the relations of the Soviet Union with African countries had no bearing on relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, no more bearing than, for example, the relations of the United States with Chile or Iran or any other country. Attempts to create an artificial linkage could only interfere with the development of good relations between our two coun[Page 339]tries. If such an intention did indeed exist, then, of course, one could link anything with anything else. But, in general, the Soviet leadership did not understand how anyone could discern a cause for alarm in the relations between the Soviet Union and African countries, nor why all sorts of pernicious plans were ascribed to the Soviet Union for the sole reason that at the request of friendly Ethiopia the Soviet Union had helped that country defend itself against the aggression to which it had been subjected. From the point of view of international law and from the point of view of morality, the Soviet actions there had been fully justified. No Soviet military forces had been in that area, and none were there now. The Soviet Union did not want to get something for itself there. As for the Cubans, Cuba and Ethiopia were sovereign states. The Soviet leadership could not speak for them and did not want to do so. He would only say that he saw nothing threatening anyone in the actions of the Cubans in Africa. In the United States, things had progressed so far that all sorts of apprehensions were now being voiced, to the effect that the Cubans and the Russians would penetrate even countries like Rhodesia and Namibia in order there to concoct some sort of intrigue against the Western powers. He would say that this was totally in the realm of fantasy. In the meanwhile, he would also note that it was not Gromyko or Ustinov who were traveling to these countries, but Secretary Vance and the British Foreign Secretary.10 He would suggest, therefore, that there was no need to pile up artificial difficulties in the path of developing our bilateral relations. There were so many complex questions involved in them already that God’s help would be needed to cope with the real problems we had.

The Secretary said it was the view of the President and himself that the depth of our feeling concerning developments in Africa derived not only from our national interests but from our entire national experience. Any efforts that resulted in fanning the flames of a major racial war in southern Africa would only provoke the most profound and adverse reaction on the part of the American people. It was for this reason that we believe the relationship between our two countries is at a watershed. We are willing and ready to try to improve our relations, to widen the scope of cooperation to other areas, and to work together on the widest possible range of issues; but progress in this direction was more difficult, if not impossible, by a selective detente.

Brezhnev interrupted to say that most-favored-nation treatment had not yet been accorded the Soviet Union. The Soviet Government had heard promises and words, but nothing had been done. Senators like Jackson (Brezhnev forgot the name and had to be prompted by Dobrynin) were visiting China and praising China to the skies. They were [Page 340] saying that the United States must cooperate with China and must be on China’s side. That was the business of the United States and the Soviet Union would not interfere. But, it would express its own views on these matters. He had not wanted to say that, but it seemed to him that eventually the United States would turn over Taiwan to the Chinese. It would turn over its own allies, sell them down the river. Well, there is nothing eternal under the moon.

The Secretary said we had made it very clear that the security of the people of Taiwan was of critical importance to the United States. We had told this to the Chinese so they would have no illusions on this score. In fact, it was the Secretary’s frankness in discussing this and making our position clear to the Chinese that had made his visit to China a few months ago difficult.

The Secretary wanted to say one more word regarding the African situation. It was true that he had traveled to Rhodesia and Namibia, but the purpose of his trip had been to bring about peaceful transition and free elections. Not a single US soldier was involved in that area.

Brezhnev said that lots of questions remained unanswered, nevertheless. There were no US soldiers there, the people there were trying to settle their own affairs, and yet the American Secretary of State was traveling to that region for reasons no one could understand. Since he was traveling there, that meant that he was interfering in some way in internal matters; the Secretary would know best what these matters were.

The Secretary replied that President Brezhnev would know that he had gone to Rhodesia at the invitation of the Front Line states after their consultations with the Patriotic Front. He had been asked to help in bringing about a peaceful transition and free elections.

Brezhnev said that might very well be so, but he would advise the Secretary to focus his attention first of all on the question of nuclear weapons, on banning the production of all types of new weapons. He would advise him not just to travel around the various countries, but to focus his attention on questions of paramount importance. Otherwise, they could simply have a pleasant talk here, drink some tea, but what would the Secretary be leaving with; and, for that matter, what had he brought with him?

Brezhnev said he had been given a piece of paper which was the draft announcement concerning the meeting today. It mentioned Secretary Vance being received by Brezhnev and not much more. Not much more could be said because the Secretary had not brought enough with him. Day in and day out the Soviet leadership read statements made by various US officials, sometimes by Brzezinski and sometimes by others, and many of these were contradictory. He would ask the Secretary to tell President Carter the terms on which Brezhnev would be prepared [Page 341] to meet with the President. If President Carter really wants to preserve mankind from the threat of nuclear war, Brezhnev would be prepared to meet with him anywhere—in Washington, Moscow, or Geneva, or even Minsk. They could work out a joint statement along the lines of renouncing nuclear war and nuclear weapons, and publish it immediately for all the world to read. That would really contribute to good relations between our two countries. Otherwise, with the arms race going on and Senator Jackson walking about yelling his head off on all sorts of subjects, nothing much would result. Brezhnev did not want to talk about petty matters in his talk with Secretary Vance. He wanted to talk on a broad scale. He was convinced that the Secretary thought just as he did in this respect.

The Secretary said he did agree that it was necessary for us to focus on the major issues. He was sure that President Carter would welcome a meeting with Brezhnev. It was not clear to him, however, whether Brezhnev was suggesting that such a meeting be held before conclusion of a SALT agreement, if the general kind of agreement Brezhnev had referred to could be the result of such a meeting.

Brezhnev hesitated, turned to Gromyko, and then said he believed the meeting should be held in connection with signing of the SALT agreement.

The Secretary wanted to offer some further comments on another matter involving nuclear weapons. He wanted to stress the importance we attached to concluding an agreement on a comprehensive test ban. Early next month we would resume negotiations on this subject in Geneva. The Secretary would hope that progress could be achieved, since it would enable us to reach a durable and comprehensive test ban.

Brezhnev said that the Soviet Union wanted to achieve the same thing.

The Secretary said that the United States would like the comprehensive test ban negotiations to be completed as soon as possible. If completed, perhaps it could be signed by President Carter and by Brezhnev at the same time as the SALT agreement.

Gromyko interjected that two agreements were better than one.

The Secretary turned to the important question of European security. He wanted to express the hope that the recent Western initiatives in the Vienna negotiations on mutual and balanced force reductions would be met by a commensurate response from the Warsaw Pact side. He hoped that the recent Western initiative, which he had discussed with Gromyko yesterday, would be seriously studied by the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries, and it was his understanding that this was now being done and that a response would be provided as soon as possible.

[Page 342]

Reading from a paper, Brezhnev replied that the NATO countries had recently tabled an updated proposal which was now being carefully studied and would be answered in due time. The first impression of the Soviet side was that this proposal of the Western countries contained some elements which took into account certain considerations of the socialist states, although it clearly retained the overall nature of a onesided approach, and still manifested a desire to use the Vienna talks not so much to lower the overall level of the opposing military forces, as to change the ratio between them in favor of the Western countries, to the detriment of the socialist countries. They would certainly continue to work and do all within their power, within reasonable limits, to reach an understanding and to reduce military tensions in Europe.

Brezhnev said that all that was left to do now was to convey his best wishes to President Carter, to express his hope for detente and for improvement of the relations between our two countries. This was certainly feasible and he was certain it would be supported by the people of the United States.

Brezhnev had his interpreter read the text of a unilateral statement he proposed to release to the press.11

The Secretary said it sounded all right to him. He would add a few words, realising that the hour was late. (Brezhnev was beginning visibly to tire.) The Secretary said we realized the importance the Soviet Union attached to the question of an exception in the new missile category. We have discussed this issue at length and have made some progress in the direction of a solution to this issue. We had also resolved the non-circumvention question, and had thus laid the basis for agreement on the text of the Joint Statement of Principles. He would point out that we had come here with serious intent, had made some progress, and now faced the task of completing work on the remaining issues.

With reference to SALT, the Secretary wanted to stress that SALT did not exist in a vacuum. The ratification process in Congress was bound to be affected by the general political atmosphere and by public opinion in the United States. These would be affected by Soviet actions.

(Brezhnev appeared to be getting tired and his attention began to wander.)

The Secretary said he wanted to make another point. In place of an unrestrained political and military competition, the United States would prefer and would welcome closer cooperation with the Soviet Union in dealing with the many global problems that confront man[Page 343]kind in the Third World. The North/South relationship would become more constructive if the Communist countries were prepared to cooperate more closely with other developed countries in helping the developing countries overcome the many difficulties they faced, such as in agricultural development, the expansion of trade, the establishment of a common fund, and the development of useful forms of technology. It is our view that such cooperation would not only provide additional opportunities for closer friendship between the United States and the Soviet Union, but would defuse tensions in the world and benefit mankind as a whole.

Brezhnev remarked that questions such as these could be discussed for many months.

The Secretary agreed that they would take a lot of time and was suggesting this for future consideration.

(Because of the fact that Brezhnev was obviously tiring, the Secretary decided to pursue the issue of the Soviet’s unacceptable position on the neutron bomb with Minister Gromyko. This was done in a subsequent conversation with Gromyko.)

  1. Source: Department of State, Office of the Secretariat Staff, Special Adviser to the Secretary (S/MS) on Soviet Affairs Marshall Shulman—Jan 21, 77–Jan 19, 81, Lot 81D109, Box 8, Vance to Moscow, 4/20–22, 1978. Secret; Sensitive; Nodis. Drafted by Krimer. The meeting took place in Brezhnev’s office in the Kremlin.
  2. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XIV, Soviet Union, October 1971–May 1972, Document 257.
  3. For the text of Carter’s April 7 statement, see Department of State Bulletin, May 1978, p. 31.
  4. For Carter’s instructions to Vance, see Document 96.
  5. In a March 3 interview, when discussing SALT negotiations, Carter indicated that progress was being made and that there was no competition between the two countries in an arms race. (Department of State Bulletin, March 4, 1978, pp. 459–460) However, in his speech at Wake Forest University on March 17, Carter insisted that there was an arms race and that the United States should remain competitive. (Department of State Bulletin, March 17, 1978, pp. 529–538)
  6. In his inaugural address, Carter stated: “The world is still engaged in a massive armaments race designed to ensure continuing equivalent strength among potential adversaries. We pledge perseverance and wisdom in our efforts to limit the world’s armaments to those necessary for each nation’s own domestic safety. And we will move this year a step toward our ultimate goal—the elimination of all nuclear weapons from this Earth. We urge all other people to join us, for success can mean life instead of death.” (Public Papers: Carter, 1977, vol. I, p. 3)
  7. See footnote 3, Document 89.
  8. U.N. Resolution 385 condemned South African occupation of Namibia and its treatment of Namibians. It also called for free, democratic elections in Namibia. For the complete text, see Yearbook of the United Nations, 1976, pp. 782–783.
  9. Sam Nujoma, President of SWAPO.
  10. See footnote 1, Document 97.
  11. The joint communiqué, released on April 22, dealt primarily with arms limitation issues. For text of the communiqué, see Department of State Bulletin, June 1978, p. 26.