150. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Carter-Gromyko Plenary Meeting


  • U.S.
  • The President
  • Secretary Cyrus R. Vance
  • Secretary Harold Brown
  • Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski
  • Ambassador Warnke
  • Ambassador Toon
  • Mr. David Aaron
  • Mr. Reginald Bartholomew
  • Mr. William D. Krimer, Interpreter
  • U.S.S.R.
  • Foreign Minister A.A. Gromyko
  • First Deputy Foreign Minister G.M. Korniyenko
  • Ambassador A.F. Dobrynin
  • Mr. V.G. Makarov
  • Mr. V.G. Komplektov
  • Mr. A.A. Bessmertnykh
  • Mr. N.N. Detinov
  • Mr. V.M. Sukhodrev, Interpreter

The President first wanted to tell the Minister that he was glad to have him come back to Washington for this meeting. He was happy to note that relations between our two countries appeared to be rapidly improving. He believed that a matter of first priority for our two states was successful completion of the work on the SALT Agreement. As far as we were concerned, this could be accomplished this morning. The President also wanted Gromyko to know that a comprehensive detente remained a major aim and keystone of our policy. We wanted our relations with the Soviet Union to be based on mutual respect and mutual advantage. There had been mention of competition as well as cooperation between us. The President wanted to put major emphasis on cooperation.

The President noted that there were a number of differences between us which had resulted from competition. He proposed to mention them briefly.

[Page 464]

Middle East

The President believed that both our countries wanted to pursue peace in that region. Each of us had close relations with the countries involved in the Middle East dispute. We felt that the Camp David discussion2 had produced a viable mechanism for working out a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, the main combatants in that area. He expressed the hope that the Soviet Union could help to move this process along, and that within the bounds of its own foreign policy it would support the Camp David agreements. We did not have any military forces in that area and, in fact, our observers in the Sinai might be removed once that peace treaty went into effect.

MBFR Negotiations in Vienna

The President said he was discouraged by the lack of progress at the Vienna negotiations. The same was true of some of our allies; some of them, in fact, wanted to end the talks. The main difference between us concerned our present assessment of the Warsaw Pact forces, and we would like to see this difference resolved. One possibility, which the President had discussed with the leaders of Western countries when he was at the Bonn economic meeting, was to work out an appropriate definition of military forces to be counted. The present difference of 180,000 between our assessment and the number provided by the Warsaw Pact countries was possibly caused by a different definition of which troops were to be counted. The President repeated that he would like to see it resolved.

US–PRC Relations

Another matter of concern which President Brezhnev had expressed to President Carter and to Senator Kennedy3 was our future relations with the People’s Republic of China. We had nothing to conceal in this respect, and the Shanghai communique4 showed that all we had in mind was to establish peaceful relations with the PRC. It would be a mistake for us to use our relations with the PRC against the Soviet Union. We have no thought of doing that. We did want to have peaceful relations with China, but would not permit anyone to drive a wedge between us and the Soviet Union.

[Page 465]

Trade and Science

The President expressed his hope that we would be able to increase our trade with the Soviet Union. As Gromyko knew, he had recently approved US investment in a plant to produce oil-drilling equipment in the Soviet Union.5 As for science, he had instructed his Science Advisor, Dr. Frank Press, to proceed with scientific exchanges.


The President said he would like to see us move rapidly to conclusion of a complete test ban treaty.


He had one general comment with regard to Africa. The most serious threat to good relations between us and the Soviet Union in the future, in his view, resulted from Soviet activities in Africa. In the Horn of Africa the circumstances were now more stable and had improved since he and Gromyko had met the last time. We were trying with enthusiasm in the United Nations to bring about agreement on the Namibian problem, but even more threatening was the dispute concerning Rhodesia. We had noted the large contribution in the form of advice, instructors and weapons which the Soviet Union was giving the Patriotic Front forces. We were engaged in trying to bring about a peaceful solution for the conflict between the government of Rhodesia and the Patriotic Front. We would welcome the cooperation of the Soviet Union in bringing about that peaceful solution. If there were any Soviet military involvement in the area, that could have very serious consequences. We hoped that the Soviets would cooperate with us in bringing the parties together to decide on their future leaders. We had no preference among them, except to ensure that they were acceptable to the people of Zimbabwe and Rhodesia.

That completed the President’s brief review of overall relations between our two countries. He would be glad to hear Gromyko’s response and any other comments he might want to offer.

Gromyko noted that he and the President had agreed that they would discuss SALT II matters separately. At this time he wanted to say a few words about the relations between our countries, expressing views on behalf of the Soviet leadership and President Brezhnev personally.

[Page 466]

Overall Soviet-US Relations

Gromyko had to tell the President quite frankly that over the recent period our relations had worsened. It was true, of course, that he did discern a somewhat more positive note in recent statements by the President’s representatives, in the President’s comments today and in some press articles, indicating that in the most recent period, during the past month perhaps, there had been somewhat of a turning point for the better. That might be so, but he had to say that he had not discerned anything truly substantive to indicate an improvement in our relations. The fact that our relations had become worse as compared to the past was known to the whole world, and this could not fail to concern and perplex the Soviet Union. He wanted to convey this to the President in all frankness. He had taken note of the President’s pronouncement, contained in his message to Brezhnev, where the President had used words to the effect that we should not try to place the blame for the worsening of relations between us, but should look ahead. This was quite understandable, but he would point out that the Soviet Union was not prepared to assume any blame for the worsening of relations and he wanted the President to know that.

Gromyko noted that in those matters where our respective views did not fully coincide, or did not coincide at all, affairs could be conducted in a number of different ways. Differences could be discussed without crossing a certain line, throwing back the relations between us. These relations had been laboriously built up between the Soviet Union and the United States and the process had not been easy. Quite the contrary, it had been an arduous and difficult road. On the one hand, relations between us could be conducted with the use of fine instruments, seeking ways to bridge gaps and to come to mutual understanding. On the other hand, one could also use an axe, raising and dropping it repeatedly to sever the threads that existed between us. Again, speaking quite frankly, he would point out that in his view the latter method was the one used by the United States quite frequently in the recent past. Of course, such a situation could not but have a negative impact on the delicate process called international detente. He would hope that in all assessments of each other’s policy neither side would fail to observe a certain sense of proportion and not go beyond a certain limit. As seen by many people, one or two statements by the leaders of one of our countries were quite enough to derail detente. Of course, it would not be much of a detente if that were really true. He regarded detente as a process that goes much deeper, one that was based on the hearts and minds of literally hundreds of millions of people. He did believe that if one plotted detente as a curve on a graph, on the whole that curve was pointing upward. There were ups and downs, to be sure, but on the whole if one felt the pulse of hundreds and hundreds of millions of [Page 467] people all over the world, detente was on an upward track. It was a process that needed to be developed and was developing, but the greater the effort applied in that direction the better and stronger it would be. For its part, the Soviet Union was fully prepared to do all in its power to promote everything that furthered detente, and to preserve in our mutual relations everything that had been achieved in the past, and boldly go further.

Gromyko wanted to assure the President that in all its actions the Soviet Union was not trying to undercut relations between the United States and third countries so long as these relations were not directed against the Soviet Union. He and the Soviet leadership felt that conditions were now ripe for going ahead, improving and strengthening our relations.

Gromyko noted that in his statement today the President had not referred to one thought which he had repeatedly expressed in the past. Perhaps that was only an oversight, but it was an axiom of foreign policy that the nature of relations between the Soviet Union and the United States to an enormous extent determined the general world situation, the state of detente, the state of East-West relations and the international atmosphere as a whole. That was indisputable, and it was an idea the President had put forward in the past and one with which the Soviet Union agreed wholeheartedly.

The President wanted to repeat that, as he had said earlier, good relations with the Soviet Union were a keystone of our foreign policy.

Gromyko said that was one aspect of the matter, the other being that these relations determined the general situation throughout the world. That was not necessarily to everyone’s liking, and he was aware of the many epithets being directed at each of us, but particularly at the Soviet Union, referring to superpowers, to attempts at exercising hegemony, etc. He felt that neither of our countries was to blame in that respect, for neither of us had elected ourselves as superpowers. That had resulted from the objective process of historical development.

Gromyko wanted to speak briefly on some specific aspects the President had touched upon.

Middle East

With regard to the Middle East situation he had to say that the Soviet Union took a different approach to the actual state of affairs in that area. He would note that both sides agreed that the situation there was complex and dangerous. As for methods to resolve Middle East problems and the specific political steps necessary to ensure a settlement of the Middle East problems, our respective standpoints were entirely different. Regarding the Camp David meetings, of course the President would know that the Soviet Union did not share his views [Page 468] concerning the results achieved and would not associate itself with the process and methods used. The Soviets were against separate “deals.” Gromyko would say that the United States had acted rudely toward the Soviet Union despite the common understanding achieved last year, to the effect that we would take concerted action with respect to the Middle East. He noted that the United States had gone a separate way, demonstratively disregarding the previous understanding with the Soviet Union.

As for Camp David, if anything was accomplished there, it was that Israel had obtained what it had been striving for from the very beginning, while Sadat had received nothing and had in fact lost everything he had. At the same time Syria and Jordan and the Palestinians had been completely circumvented, producing great disarray in the ranks of the Arabs. Was this really the path to peace and calm in the Middle East? The Soviets did not believe so, and no one could convert them to the views of the United States or Sadat or Begin on this score. They had their own assessment and views. That the Soviet Union wanted peace in the Middle East was well known throughout the world. It wanted to see the states in the Middle East live in peace as independent sovereign states, and this, of course, included Israel. The Soviet Union had stated this hundreds of times for all the world to hear, and its position was well known. It was equally well known that the Soviet Union wanted to do all in its power to safeguard the legitimate rights of the Palestinians. Now he could only say that they would have to wait and see how events developed in the future.

Gromyko asked the President not to consider him a pessimist. The Soviets were optimists and firmly believed that eventually all the problems would be resolved for the people of the Middle East. The Soviets had never had any idea of pushing Israel into the sea. On the contrary, they had upheld Israel many times in the international arena, certainly to a much greater extent than the Israelis themselves were doing by their ill-considered extremist statements. Gromyko concluded his discussion of the Middle East by saying he supposed each of us would retain our own concepts with regard to the Middle East.

MBFR—Negotiations in Vienna

Gromyko said that, of course, he, too, was disappointed that no real progress had been achieved in Vienna so far, although he would point out that when these negotiations first began, he had not thought that agreement was just around the corner. He thought that these negotiations would be lengthy, because the matters dealt with were important and sensitive for both sides.

Gromyko wanted to draw the President’s attention to one particular aspect of this entire subject. Statements were being made to the ef[Page 469]fect that the Socialist countries must reduce their armed forces and armaments in greater proportion than Western countries. The Soviet view was that reduction of levels must be accomplished in such a way as not to alter the existing correlation of forces between East and West. The Soviets felt that this was the only real road that could lead to agreement. He repeated the words “without altering the correlation of forces.” Surely this could not have a negative effect on any of the countries involved, because if the reductions were accomplished in this manner, the degree of security enjoyed by both sides would remain unchanged. In passing, he would point out that almost four months had elapsed since the last proposal by the Eastern countries, but the Western powers still had not responded.


Gromyko wanted to state at the outset that the Soviet Union was not all opposed to normal relations between the United States and China, just as it was not opposed to normal relations between any two or more countries. However, the Soviets were resolutely against any country, including the United States, developing relations with China in order to use them to the detriment of the Soviet Union. The President would probably not agree with this, but the Soviets were gaining the impression that the United States was trying to “play the Chinese card” to the detriment of Soviet interests. It was entirely possible that up to now this process had not gone beyond the framework of stated policy. However, the Soviets did see certain phenomena that were perplexing. In this connection, he would particularly mention the conclusion of a treaty between Japan and China. He could not believe that Japan had proceeded to conclude that treaty without some form of consultation with the United States and advice from the US Government. If this had indeed taken place, it would seem to him that the action taken was excessively hasty. This was not the road that should be taken in relations with China. In addition, he had noted reports appearing from time to time in the press to the effect that China intended or had already begun to purchase large quantities of arms from various countries, perhaps from some of the US allies and perhaps from the United States as well. He could not assert that he had a mountain of information on this subject, but such was the impression of the Soviet leadership. In this connection he could only say that if something like this was indeed taking place, it would be a very major problem that could seriously impact the relations between our two countries.


Gromyko said it was a fact and a truism that trade played an important role in the relations between our countries. Both sides had said so repeatedly. Unfortunately he had to note that trade between us, [Page 470] which had been not too highly developed in the past, had regressed still further. He felt that this was detrimental to both countries and believed it to be a mistake. Of course, he was aware of and appreciative of some of the actions the President had taken to correct that situation. But, what was needed here was to open the gates to that volume of trade between us that would be worthy of our two nations. When he spoke of trade, he meant trade of mutual advantage with full recognition of the significance it had for overall relations between us.


Gromyko said that the Soviets could not understand the origin of the fears current in the United States with regard to the actions of the Soviet Union in Africa. He asked rhetorically what had been so terrible about what the Soviet Union had done in Africa. He answered that the Soviet Union had done nothing, it did not have a single base on the African continent, nor a single military detachment. As for Southern Africa, the Soviets had not dispatched a single individual to that area, not even diplomats. As for the influence of Soviet ideology, was not the United States spreading its own ideology every day, every hour and every minute? The Soviets could not be expected to erect barriers against ideology, and certainly no one could stop them from being what they were. However, they were not interfering in anyone’s affairs.

With respect to Rhodesia, Gromyko pointed out that the Soviets did not have a single individual in the area. The President had spoken of the Soviets instructing the national liberation movement there. He would ask: “Whoever saw a Soviet soldier or instructor in Rhodesia?” No one could even produce a single white man who could be falsely accused of being a Soviet soldier or instructor. Regarding the various factions in Rhodesia, when Mugabe and Nkomo6 had met, Gromyko had expressed satisfaction, hoping that something would come out of their meeting. A few days later he had heard that they had been unable to reach agreement. In principle, the Soviet Union would like to see the local people take power into their own hands. He thought he had mentioned to the President during their last meeting that 24 out of 25 people in Rhodesia being black, that made it very easy to decide in whose hands power should rest—obviously not in the hands of the one, but in the hands of the 24. The Soviet Union resolutely opposed any attempt to tie the hands of the local people in order to preserve the colonial racist regime in Rhodesia. He was certain that the United States would only gain in prestige if it were to take a position in favor of the vast majority in Rhodesia and would come out against the pitiful [Page 471] handful of racists there who were trying to drown in blood the national liberation movement in Rhodesia. Of course it was up to the United States to act as it saw fit, but time in any case was working against the racists. He believed the President would appear in a very good light if he took a stand in support of the local people in that area. That would be a major noble act on his part.

As for Namibia, Gromyko believed the situation there to be somewhat similar. At long last he had seen a representative of Namibia in the United Nations, whereas he still did not know what a Rhodesian looked like. In Namibia the racist South African regime was trying to crush the liberation movement by staging farce elections. What was the purpose of all that? It was clearly flouting the will of the United Nations and yet, the countries friendly to South Africa kept silent. Regarding Namibia, too, Soviet policy was the same as with regard to Rhodesia—not to interfere in any way other than to make Soviet views known publicly in the United Nations or from Moscow. He thought that if the Soviet Union and the United States could act together, all these problems in Rhodesia and Namibia could be resolved promptly. The whole world would only thank us, and the only ones displeased would be the small groups of local racists in both these countries, who were engaged in exploiting the local population.


Gromyko noted that the CTB negotiations were indeed moving forward, but rather slowly. The main thing he would want to point out was that whenever the situation at these negotiations appeared to improve, US representatives would introduce new proposals that threw cold water on the whole process. There was a time when the United States had argued in favor of a five-year term for a CTB treaty. At that time the Soviet Union was more in favor of a three-year term, although it did not oppose five-years. It simply thought that it was easier to work out a three-year treaty. Then, quite suddenly, in the United States various officials began to assert that five years was too long, that such duration would interfere with certain national plans for testing nuclear weapons, while a three-year term would not. That position was hardly convincing. The Soviet Union had finally expressed agreement to the five-year term, but then the United States changed to three. All these zigzags were most perplexing and difficult to understand. The Soviet Union would take this into account in the future. For their part, the Soviets could also talk about national plans, but they stand on a different position. Things would be very difficult indeed were they to reply in kind. Nevertheless, since the United States had changed its position, obviously the Soviets would have to take this into account, because there were two other parties to the negotiations. Basically, they would like to see this agreement completed. It would be a limited agreement, [Page 472] of course, because apart from the three particular powers, other nuclear powers would not be signatories to the agreement. Nevertheless, it would have a positive impact on the international situation.

In conclusion, Gromyko said that these were the specific considerations he had wanted to convey to the President, and in general wanted to tell the President on behalf of the Soviet leadership and L.I. Brezhnev personally that the Soviet Union’s policy was aimed at good relations with the United States and remained as set out and formulated in Brezhnev’s message to the President. The Soviet Union would do all in its power to maintain and develop good relations with the United States.

The President noted that the time at our disposal was limited and he would prefer to let Secretary Vance and Ambassador Toon respond in detail to what Gromyko had said. He would say a few sentences, however, so there would be no misunderstanding.

First, the President would tell Gromyko that we recognized the greatness of the Soviet Union and its profound influence throughout the world. We also recognized that whenever we could work together to alleviate conflict, this produced important results. We were dealing with other nations with a respect for their independence, and this was true of our relations with China, Israel, Egypt and others. We had no wish to impose our will on any nation. The President had already mentioned that in some instances the Soviets and we wanted the same thing, for example peace and autonomy in the Middle East. But, we approached these goals from a different perspective, doing so openly and without attempting to mislead anyone.


The President noted that the MBFR negotiations had now dragged on for five years. What was needed was an agreed data base, on the basis of which progress could be achieved. We agreed that the forces of East and West should be equivalent, but we disagreed on the numbers the East had put forward. This difference should be resolved, and one possible way of resolving it would be to define what troops should be counted. The President had already said that he had discussed this possibility with Western leaders during his visit to Bonn.


The President thought it desirable to reemphasize that we were not planning to play the Chinese card against the Soviet Union. This would be furthest away from our plans, would be deeply resented by China as well as the Soviet Union, and the US people would not permit that. He would make one other point in this connection: the Chinese had never attempted to obtain arms from us. What other nations in Europe did [Page 473] was of course their concern, but we had done nothing to encourage such arms sales.


The President believed that our purpose in Africa was the same as that of the Soviets, that is to ensure majority rule. We preferred to do this peacefully, while the Soviet Union did so by supplying weapons. We had noted large sales of weapons to Zambia and Mozambique, and this concerned us. As Gromyko knew, Cuba had 40,000 persons in Africa. Cuba was heavily influenced by the Soviet Union. The Soviets were making large payments to Cuba, exceeding five million dollars a day. The Cuban presence was also of concern to us.


In this connection the President said that a three-year term for the treaty would suit us better. He hoped we were in harmony on this and would proceed to conclude the treaty without delay. He did not, however, want to conclude it before concluding a SALT Agreement. It would be better if he submitted a CTB Treaty to Congress together with a SALT Treaty. We believed that there should be no testing other than laboratory testing, and that there should be adequate verification.7

[Omitted here is discussion of SALT; see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXXIII, SALT II, 1972–1980, Document 218.]

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Presidential Advisory Board, Box 81, Sensitive XX: 9/20–78. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Krimer. The meeting took place in the Cabinet Room at the White House. An unknown hand made minor edits to this version of the memorandum.
  2. See Document 144.
  3. Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts).
  4. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XVII, China, 1969–1972, Document 203.
  5. See Document 141.
  6. See footnote 3, Document 89. An unknown hand drew a question mark in brackets above “Mugabe.”
  7. In their final meeting, held in the Secretary’s conference room on October 1, Gromyko and Vance each restated their country’s respective positions and proposals on SALT II. They agreed to meet in the second half of October in Moscow to continue negotiations. (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/Vance Meeting, 9/78) After the meeting, Vance and Gromyko met privately for a few minutes, during which time Gromyko asked if there was any new material regarding the Woodbridge Case. Vance indicated that the United States wanted to propose an exchange. If he and Gromyko could reach a basic agreement, Vance believed that the details could be ironed out with Dobrynin. (Ibid.)