168. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) to President Carter1


  • Oral Message from Brezhnev

The enclosed oral message from Brezhnev is designed to induce you to influence the Western Europeans not to sell any arms to the Chinese (the translation is by the Soviet Embassy;2 am asking Cy for an official US translation of the Russian text). In addition to sending a copy to Cy, should I send a copy to Harold?

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My initial reactions are as follows:

1) If we accommodate the Soviets, both we and NATO will have bowed—for the first time—to Soviet pressure.

2) We would be engaging in a blockade of China to the benefit of the Soviet Union, and this would destroy the chances of any collaborative US-Chinese relationship.

3) It is noteworthy that the Soviet Union armed China when China was hostile to the US, and it has ignored all your expressions of concern regarding Cuban and Soviet arms in Africa as well as elsewhere.

4) The Soviet Union also rejected any linkage between its conduct in Africa and SALT, but it is hinting at linkage between our relations with China and SALT.

5) In the light of the above, I recommend that you ask Cy, Harold, and me to draft an ambiguous response, suggesting that this matter, as well as others, is something that can be discussed at the Summit, in the context of reciprocal efforts to improve US-Soviet relations, and without prejudice to the right of every state to acquire purely defensive weaponry.


Letter From Soviet General Secretary Brezhnev to President Carter 3

Dear Mr. President,

Availing myself of our established practice of confidential exchange of views on urgent problems of international life and bilateral relations, I would like to touch upon one important question related to China. We have already had an opportunity to express our viewpoint concerning the forthcoming establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and the PRC. This time I shall speak of a different thing, namely, of the plans of some Western states to supply China with weapons, military equipment and technology which is intended for military purposes or can be used for those purposes.

This question is not a new one. Recently it has been a subject of discussion in various NATO bodies, at other forums of Western countries [Page 505] and it may be dwelt upon at your forthcoming meetings with the leaders of some Western states. On our part, we have already drawn the attention of a number of states allied to the US to the acuteness of the question of arming China. So far they are slow about giving official replies which is evidently not coincidental. Meanwhile the time runs and the things move in the direction of concluding concrete deals for deliveries of weapons to China, including the transfer of sensitive technology.

It should be obviously clear to you that intentions of the US allies to sell weapons and military equipment to China cannot but make us consider possibilities of appropriate reaction on our part. Indeed, the question here is of arming a country with the biggest ground forces, a country whose leaders proclaim for all to hear the inevitability of a new world war and are driving in practice at unleashing such a war.

It would seem that the US, which along with the USSR share special responsibility for the maintenance on international peace and security, should neither bypass facts and trends of such kind. It is the more true that international relations are now, so to say, at a crossing of roads leading to peace, stability and cooperation and roads leading to confrontation and increased threat of a war pernicious in its consequences. So, the promoting of the armament of China in whatever form and under whatever pretext as a cover, predetermines objectively the development of international situation in a direction dangerous for the cause of universal peace.

To all appearances, some people yield to the temptation “to play up” to such orientation of Peking’s foreign policy course which is hostile to neighboring countries and increases the threat to international security. I will say straight, this is a game dangerous for all. It is built on a very shaky ground—on momentary political considerations. Not too distant lessons of history, both in Europe and in the Pacific, do not allow to forget that such plans bring results which in no way conform to the calculations of those who embark on the road of arming a big country which in the end decides for itself in what direction to turn its military might.

Sometimes one hears that the sales of weapons and transfer of technology to China promise some commercial, although rather problematic so far, advantages. I must say with all conviction that the considerations of a responsible policy, concern for broad interests of the world not only of today but also of tomorrow outweigh many times references to such commercial considerations.

Of course, we take note of the statement by the US side that the United States will not sell weapons to China and does not intend to encourage other countries to do so.

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But even in the light of these statements, which we would like to take seriously, we have a number of questions. Indeed, a number of US allies are preparing—and this is an open secret—deals for deliveries of arms and transfer of technology to Peking. For us it is not so important who exactly signs this or that contract. Much more important is another thing: a state pursuing a policy hostile to the interests of peace gets modern weapons, made under US licenses for that matter, which include many components and systems of American manufacture, and such modern technology that can be used for the up-building of military strategic potential. Therefore, to call things by their own names, one has to conclude that the US is by no means standing away from promoting the cause of arming China.

One also can hardly avoid the impression that in this question there exists a certain coordination of efforts of the NATO countries. And it is well known that the US has not the least role to play in the NATO and its voice is closely heeded by the other partners.

In view of the aforesaid you, Mr. President, may well understand that a question arises before the Soviet Union, how should we react to the policy of arming China with the help of the US and other Western countries.

The armament of the neighboring country pursuing openly hostile course against us places us in a position where the necessity arises to undertake what we shall consider required so that plans and actions directed against us do not take even more dangerous turn, and to take due care of our defense with ensuing consequences. Our duty before our people demands it.

You evidently realize that all this could not but affect further steps in the area of limiting the arms race and of disarmament with regard to which both the Soviet Union and the United States as well as a number of other countries are exerting efforts, known to you, with the obvious advance to agreement. And indeed, a certain level of trust is needed for the solution of these problems which would make it possible to relieve the burden of armaments weighing on the peoples. There can hardly remain any doubts that contributing to the armament of China does not strengthen but, on the contrary, erodes trust in our relations which is being built with such difficulty.

In view of the all said you may well understand that in the conditions where concrete steps are being taken for levelling off the Soviet-US relations, for giving them a new positive impetus the present position of the United States with respect to deliveries of weapons and transfer of technology to China causes quite definite alertness on our part and desire to see this position more circumspect and weighed.

I hope that you, Mr. President, will appreciate my frankness and will take most seriously the questions raised by me both in determining [Page 507] further course of your country and in your contacts with the leaders of countries allied to you.


L. Brezhnev4
  1. Source: Carter Library, Plains File, President’s Personal Foreign Affairs File, Box 4, USSR (Brezhnev Drafts/Letters), 4/77–9/80. Secret; Eyes Only. Carter wrote in the memorandum’s upper right-hand corner, “Pers[onal] File. J.” Carter, in his memoirs, quoted his diary entry written after receiving this letter from Brezhnev: “On the 27th I got a very discouraging letter from Brezhnev, showing that they [the Soviets] are almost paranoid about the People’s Republic of China and demanding that I prevent our Western allies from selling any defensive weapons to the PRC. We’ll delay for a few days before giving him an answer. . . . Had an excellent meeting with Cy Vance. He spent the night with us at Camp David, and I went over a broad gamut of foreign affairs questions with him. He and I agree that the most significant responsibility we have is to balance our new friendship with the PRC and our continued improvement of relations with the Soviet Union. . . . As we moved toward a most-favored-nation relationship with the PRC, we must face the need to do the same thing with the Soviet Union.” Ellipses in the original. (Keeping Faith, p. 201)
  2. Brzezinski placed an asterisk here and wrote “it’s poor” at the bottom of the page.
  3. Secret; Eyes Only. Printed from an unofficial translation.
  4. Printed from a copy that bears this typed signature.