109. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Vance-Gromyko Meeting


  • US
  • Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance
  • William D. Krimer, Interpreter
  • USSR
  • Foreign Minister A.A. Gromyko
  • Mr. Viktor M. Sukhodrev, Interpreter

Minister Gromyko welcomed the Secretary at the Soviet Mission and asked him how he wanted to proceed.

The Secretary first wanted to convey to Gromyko President Carter’s personal regards, and tell him that the President looked forward to their scheduled meeting Saturday morning.2 That meeting would take about 2 hours, or however long might be necessary, and the Secretary would suggest that after that he and Gromyko go back to discuss the matters remaining after the meeting with the President. Tonight the Secretary planned to return to Washington and would come out to the airport to meet Gromyko at 5 p.m. tomorrow.

Gromyko said he planned to arrive about that time unless the skies cracked open or something else happened.

The Secretary pointed out that the meeting on Saturday was planned for the ungodly hour of 8 a.m. in view of the President’s plans to leave town immediately after their meeting.

Gromyko agreed and said he would plan to meet with the President for two hours or more and then with the Secretary. He would want to discuss the main question between our two countries, the one he and the Secretary had discussed in Moscow and earlier in Washington. There would not be much time to discuss other matters, although he supposed that the President or the Secretary would have some general remarks bearing on Soviet-American relations, and he would also have a few words on that subject. He asked the Secretary who would start off the conversation on Saturday.

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The Secretary replied that he had not discussed this with the President, but would find out after returning to Washington. Did Gromyko have any preference?

Gromyko said he had no preference, but it should be borne in mind that in Moscow the Secretary had spoken first. This time Gromyko might express a few considerations to which the President might want to reply.

The Secretary said that would be a good way to proceed.


Gromyko said he did not want to discuss substantive matters today, since he would get to them on Saturday. However, he did want to tell the Secretary now in a preliminary way that unless a solution was found to the question of one new type of missile for each side, on the basis his government had suggested, there would be no agreement. If the Soviet side were to accept the US proposal in this matter, the two countries would find themselves in entirely different situations in terms of their respective security. He was not saying this as a bargaining point. It was the objective situation of the Soviet Union that compelled his authorities persistently to advance their proposal that each side be permitted to develop, test and deploy one new type of ICBM with a single reentry vehicle.

As for the Backfire issue, Gromyko would have some considerations to express when the two sides got down to substance in Washington, in view of the fact that in Moscow the Secretary had emphasized that for the United States this was a question of major importance.3 He could not help noting, however, that in terms of substance this was not an issue at all. In fact, the Soviet Union had probably been wrong to engage in discussion of this subject. That had been a mistake from the very beginning. While he did not want to discuss the substance of this matter now, he simply wanted to put the Secretary on notice on this score. The Soviet side had stated that the Backfire was not a strategic weapons system, and as he had said before, this system should not have been discussed at all. Nevertheless, he had told the Secretary in Washington and in Moscow that the Soviet Union was prepared to make a unilateral statement regarding the Backfire. After that, Soviet authorities had thought that reason would prevail. Unfortunately this had not been the case, and in the US Congress the question had escalated and become over-emphasized. It seemed that one Congressman had said something, a second one took up where the first left off, etc., until the issue had been blown up out of proportion. Now he [Page 354] and the Secretary would have to sit down and try to unravel this knot, although he felt there should have been no need to do that at all.

Further, he and his authorities in Moscow had noted that the US Government recently appeared to be of two minds about the very idea of a new accord. Sometimes, it seemed, the US Government simply left matters to drift, to be driven by the wind. Some sort of a passive attitude was displayed toward the new agreement. At times it was difficult to understand whether a statement by a US official spoke in favor of the new agreement or against it. When he and the Secretary had discussed SALT matters in Moscow, it had appeared that the United States was in favor of concluding a new agreement, and the same had been true last year in Washington, when President Carter had spoken in favor of doing so. On the other hand, it was very difficult to regard recent official statements of the US as arguing in favor of the new agreement.4 He would ask the Secretary to clarify the true position of the US Government. In this connection, he would note that Vice President Mondale’s speech in the General Assembly yesterday5 had caused some dismay on the Soviet side. He did not want to go into detail now, since he would speak in the General Assembly tomorrow, and would take into account the Vice President’s speech, but without indulging in emotions, unlike yesterday’s speaker. Our two countries had interests that were much more important than some of the issues mentioned yesterday. These interests had to be taken into consideration, applying logic and reason. Surely the Secretary understood that peace could not be built without the participation of the United States and the Soviet Union. Gromyko’s authorities understood very well that ensuring genuine world peace and security required the participation of both our countries. As for war, neither of our nations wanted or needed a war. Both sides realized full well what a war would mean today, taking into account the development of modern technology. Therefore, it was quite unnecessary to build up some sort of artificial myths and fears and then put stock in them. What was needed was a calm, considered and thoughtful approach, one that applied reason. He would point out, therefore, that if yesterday’s speech had been aimed at putting pressure on the Soviet Union, and if some other statements pursued the same objective, nothing would come of it. Attempts had been made many [Page 355] times before to frighten the Soviet Union with speeches of this kind, but they never had any effect. Nor had the Soviet Union engaged in attempts to frighten anyone; the Soviet authorities did not like to pursue their objectives by such methods. What was essential was reason, a calm and patient approach, and complete awareness of the fact that the kind of peace that would prevail in the world depended on our two countries, as did the question of whether there would be peace at all.

The Secretary said he would respond very briefly. First, he wanted to make clear that, as he had indicated in Moscow and on many other occasions, we believed deeply that it was in the best interests of our two nations and in the best interest of the world that a SALT TWO agreement be reached as soon as possible. What we were both seeking was an agreement that would enhance the security of each of us by limiting and subsequently reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons, and by putting constraints on the qualitative improvement of strategic nuclear weapons. What we were both seeking was equal security, and we were seeking to move toward equal security by stopping the arms spiral and by reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons which, as President Brezhnev had said, were now many times more than was needed to destroy the whole world. Therefore, there should be no question at all that we have the same objective: i.e. to achieve a SALT TWO agreement at an early date and then move on to discussions on how to achieve further reductions at SALT III negotiations. That was clearly the view of President Carter, the Secretary himself, and the US Government. He was sure that President Carter would make this clear to Gromyko on Saturday.

The Secretary would agree that peace in the world was in the hands of our two countries. We had the awesome responsibility to see to it that we reached the kind of agreement that would ensure peace and would give us, our children and our grandchildren prospects of a better life in a peaceful world.

Not wishing to go into substance, the Secretary nevertheless wanted to touch briefly on the two questions to which Gromyko had referred. As far as the question of new missiles was concerned, as Gromyko knew, it had been our belief that there should be no new ICBM’s for the period of the Protocol to the Treaty. At the same time, we recognized the importance to the Soviet Union of one exemption to the [Page 356] ban on new types of ICBM’s. For that reason we had indicated that we would be willing to agree to one exemption for each side, provided it was an exemption for the period of the Treaty and that each side could make its own determination of whether the new missile that each would be permitted to develop and test would have a single reentry vehicle or MIRVs, depending on the needs of each side. We felt that we had made a major move in agreeing to consider the exemption to the ban on new types, but in so doing we felt it essential that each side have the right to determine, if we went along that route, whether or not the new type of missile was to be MIRVed.

Insofar as the Backfire was concerned, the Secretary would prefer to leave that issue for the discussion on Saturday.

African Affairs

Speaking off the record and instructing his interpreter to stop taking notes, the Secretary expressed to Gromyko the concerns felt in the United States, among the general public and in Congress, over Soviet and Cuban activities in Africa. He pointed out that while we recognized that Soviet and Cuban assistance to Ethiopia had initially been caused by the Somali invasion of Ogaden, once this situation no longer existed, it was difficult for us to regard the continued presence of large numbers of Cuban troops in Ethiopia as anything other than cause for serious concern. Recognizing that Cuba was a sovereign state, it was felt nevertheless that the Soviet Union was in a position to exert appropriate influence upon the Cubans. Failure to do so had led to the perception that the involvement of the Cubans in Ethiopia was a joint undertaking by the Soviet Union and Cuba.

After the Secretary’s off-the-record remarks, Gromyko suggested they join their two SSOD Delegations for a short period of time, and subsequently return to the issue the Secretary had raised. Gromyko, too, had something to say on African affairs.

The Secretary and Gromyko joined their two Delegations to the SSOD and introduced their members to each other. They then returned to their private discussion.

Gromyko told the Secretary that, as seen from Moscow, recent American behavior in African affairs was bringing the Soviet leadership to the conclusion that the United States was getting more and more involved in African affairs, either directly or through other states. Speaking frankly, this was viewed by the Soviet authorities as direct interference in the internal affairs of countries in that part of the world. What he had in mind in this connection was US participation in the airlift of troops, certain landing operations, and certain things being done in Zaire. At the same time, attempts were made to cast a shadow on the Soviet Union in this connection. He would point out that the Soviet Union did not have a single soldier or rifle in that area, and had no intention of sending any there.

As for Ogaden, Gromyko would point out that the matter there was not entirely settled. He did not know what President Siad Barre of Somalia had told the United States. He had told the Soviet Union, however, that he had made a mistake with regard to Ogaden. The Soviets had told him that in that case he should sit down at a negotiating table [Page 357] and sign an agreement to close the matter. The trouble was that he had not done so, and did not want to do so. He had gone to China instead, although Gromyko did not know for what purpose. The truth of the matter was that the Soviet Government had persuaded the Ethiopians not to invade Somalia. (The Secretary acknowledged that he was aware of this.) In connection with the Secretary’s remarks about Cuban forces in the area, Gromyko would say that their numbers, as reported in the US press, had been grossly exaggerated. He repeated that the Ogaden matter was not yet closed. For his part, he would not preclude the possibility of further bloodshed there.

As for Eritrea, he would point out that if the Soviet Union had not restrained the Ethiopians in that regard, blood would have flowed in veritable rivers. The Soviet Union was in favor of Eritrea receiving the broadest possible autonomy; however, that autonomy should be within the framework of a unified and sovereign Ethiopian state. (Gromyko asked the US interpreter to be sure that he had this last sentence down verbatim.) The Soviet Government had informed Mengistu that it favored a very broad autonomy for Eritrea, and had also accordingly informed the Revolutionary Council headed by Mengistu. In fact, the Soviet Government was still continuing to impress this idea upon the Ethiopians. It would be hard to say what might have happened if the Soviet Government had not done so. If anyone had told the Secretary that there were Cubans in Eritrea, Gromyko could only point out that this was pure fabrication. The Soviet leadership had talked to the Cubans in terms of the broad autonomy of which Gromyko had just spoken, and the Cubans had refused to get involved and had said so officially to Mengistu and the Revolutionary Council. They did not have military forces in Eritrea and did not intend to send a single soldier there. Such was the true situation.

Gromyko said that with regard to the African question, the Soviet leadership was getting the impression that some artificial pretexts were being established, perhaps not by the United States but by its Allies, to do certain things in Africa that should not be done. With regard to Namibia and Rhodesia, as he had told the Secretary earlier, there was not a single Soviet representative in those countries, not even a news correspondent. As for the fact of arms travelling, he would ask the Secretary if he could vouch for every single machine gun or rifle that had been sold by the United States to someone or other perhaps years ago? He was sure that the US could not account for many of these arms, any more than the Soviet Union could. That was an entirely different matter, however, one that had recently been the subject of initial discussions between our two countries, discussions Gromyko welcomed.

Summing up, Gromyko asked the Secretary not to link the African situation with SALT. To do so could only degrade the general situation, “both yours and ours.”

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Espionage Case

Gromyko wanted to say a couple of words regarding two of his people held in custody in the United States.6 He would ask the Secretary if they could be released as requested by the Soviet Government, or did the US really intend to unleash a new kind of war between intelligence services? The Soviet Union was asking the United States to release these men; they had not been caught red-handed and no one would be in a position to charge them with anything specific. If there were anyone wanting to throw charges at these men, Gromyko would only point out that any country could find ways of fabricating such charges. He hoped the Secretary would approach this from the standpoint of good common sense, realistically and objectively, and would not compel the Soviet Union to take measures in response, measures that would certainly not be to the liking of the United States. The Soviet Union had not taken such measures so far, displaying the utmost restraint in this matter. He asked the Secretary to inform President Carter accordingly.

The Secretary said he would do so, and would discuss this matter with Gromyko when they met in Washington.

  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, Gromyko to US, 5/26–27, 1978. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Krimer. The meeting took place at the Soviet Mission to the United Nations.
  2. May 27; see Document 115.
  3. For the memoranda of conversation covering the SALT discussions in Moscow, see Documents 99101.
  4. During Carter’s May 4 news conference, he indicated that a new SALT treaty was not imminent. For the text, see Public Papers: Carter, 1978, Book I, p. 852.
  5. On May 24 Mondale addressed the U.N. Disarmament Sessions and outlined what he hoped would be the future of arms limitation. For the text of his speech, see “Excerpts From Vice President Mondale’s Address to the U.N. Disarmament Session,” The New York Times, May 25, 1978, p. A16. For more information on the decisions made at the special session of the General Assembly, see Yearbook of the United Nations, 1978, pp. 17–49.
  6. Reference is to Rudolf Chernyayev and Valdik Enger, employees of the U.N. Secretariat who were arrested on May 20 on espionage charges. See David Binder, “2 Russians Arrested by FBI for Spying,” The New York Times, May 21, 1978, p. 1.