175. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • China and Vietnam


  • United States
  • Acting Secretary Christopher
  • Ambassador Shulman
  • Mr. Curtis Kamman (notetaker)
  • USSR
  • Ambassador Dobrynin
[Page 519]

Summary: The Acting Secretary called Dobrynin in to hand him an oral note on the situation in Indochina (text attached) which emphasized the importance of continued restraint in the area and pointed out the potential adverse effect on our relations of a protracted Soviet military presence in the area. Dobrynin recalled that this subject had been raised several times; he suggested that we were trying to tie the hands of the Soviet Union to act under its treaty with Hanoi. He could not exclude the possibility that if the Chinese continued to advance in Vietnam, the Soviet Union would have to respond to a Vietnamese request for assistance. He asserted that the Soviet Union had already displayed considerable restraint, and he urged us to press the Chinese harder.

The Acting Secretary sketched out his forthcoming trip to South Asia in response to Dobrynin’s questions. Both he and Dobrynin expressed concern about the possibility that Pakistan might proceed with Bhutto’s2 execution.

Turning to the purpose of the meeting, the Acting Secretary handed Dobrynin an oral note (text attached) which Dobrynin read carefully for about five minutes.

The Acting Secretary said he would be meeting the Chinese Ambassador later in the afternoon. He also thought Dobrynin might appreciate a full text of the U.S. statement in the Security Council on Vietnam, a copy of which he handed Dobrynin. He pointed out that the statement reflected our approach of dealing with the situation in a balanced way.

Dobrynin asked what would be said to the Chinese Ambassador. The Acting Secretary said we would urge restraint and ask them to withdraw from Vietnam.

Dobrynin said he would report our views to Moscow; meanwhile, he would offer a preliminary reaction based on what he anticipated the reaction would be in Moscow.

He expressed surprise at U.S. persistence in making the statement in the last paragraph of the oral note—it seemed as though the U.S. were trying to tell the Soviet Union to refrain from doing things it was not in fact doing. The USSR was not attacking anyone. Vietnam had a sovereign right to decide how to deal with a threat on its own territory, and this could only be a bilateral matter between Vietnam and the USSR. The U.S. has continually pressed the Soviet Union “not to be there.” The USSR has shown no interest in “being there.” If the Chinese would withdraw, the problem would go away.

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Dobrynin reacted to the statement in the note about Soviet propaganda on American complicity in the Chinese decision to attack, a view he said was not just propaganda but reflected real questioning in Moscow about the U.S. attitude. He recalled Deng’s statements about Chinese plans during his U.S. visit, and there had been no U.S. response to these statements. It was not only the Soviet Union that had doubts about this matter—many in the Washington diplomatic corps held the same opinion.

Dobrynin said he understood what we were saying about Cambodia, but this wasn’t the issue now. The issue was an attack by a larger power on a small country that had suffered for over 30 years. Why would such a country as Vietnam have any reason to provoke China?

Dobrynin added that persistent U.S. warnings about possible Soviet involvement in Vietnam made him wonder about our motives. If the Chinese continued their advance, he would not completely exclude the possibility that the Soviets would have to respond to a Vietnamese request for assistance under their treaty. The Chinese currently had penetrated 20 miles into Vietnam, and there had been no stronger U.S. statement than mere expressions of concern.

Dobrynin welcomed the idea that the U.S. and USSR should consult, but he wondered if we were prepared to do this as two major powers. The Soviet Union was already displaying restraint.

The Acting Secretary responded by reiterating that our policy was even-handed. The origin of the problem went back thousands of years, but the immediate cause was that Vietnam had overrun Cambodia. This was the first step. We had brought the matter to the UN and had tried to prevent this outcome, but we were blocked in the Security Council. The second step was the Chinese attack on Vietnam. We had opposed this action from the very first moment. Moscow may doubt this, but Dobrynin should know that we urged the Chinese against this course.

Subsequently, we had brought both conflicts back into the UN. Some countries did not want to discuss both, but we felt this was essential.

With regard to the note, the Acting Secretary said we must be concerned about the future. The actions we were calling to the Soviets’ attention would have a deep effect on our relations if they occurred.

Dobrynin said the Chinese attack had already had an effect on our relations—a rather bad one. He urged us to address the Chinese. The Acting Secretary said this was the purpose of his meeting with the Chinese Ambassador.

Dobrynin assured the Acting Secretary he would send our note to Moscow verbatim. He worried that we might give Moscow ideas if we [Page 521] continued to warn against doing one thing or another. He said the Soviet leaders were responsible people, but the persistence of the theme contained in the note has a bad impact in the Soviet Union. The threat in Asia is China and the risk that it will advance further—and yet, the U.S. advises the USSR not to do anything. Dobrynin thought the Vietnamese would block the Chinese advance, but nevertheless Hanoi could ask the Soviet Union publicly to take action. So far Hanoi had not done so, but it must be remembered that the fighting is taking place on Vietnamese soil.

The Acting Secretary interjected that the first attack had occurred on Cambodian soil. The Vietnamese had overrun the entire country.

Dobrynin reiterated that Cambodia was not the problem. He felt the debate in the Security Council simply heightened emotions and would not necessarily lead to a solution.

The Acting Secretary said he had a higher regard for the UN than Dobrynin. Dobrynin recalled his own assignment in New York, and he advised the U.S. to be more impartial.

Dobrynin said the Soviet Union had shown restraint, had not allowed itself to be provoked into a major conflict. The Acting Secretary said we should not allow the situation to spiral into greater conflict. Dobrynin said the U.S. was asking the Soviet Union not to aid the victim.

Shulman urged Dobrynin to look closely at the language of our note. We were not saying the USSR should refrain from any assistance whatsoever. The point was to urge Moscow to consider the larger consequences of the form of its response to events in Indochina.

Dobrynin said he thought Moscow had understood what we were saying, since it had been raised three or four times. He argued that the U.S. has forces in the Philippines, a sovereign country, and the USSR raised no objections to this. Vietnam was also a sovereign country. Did the U.S. maintain that it had rights which the Soviet Union did not have?

Shulman reiterated that we were trying to anticipate future sources of strain on our relations, and that the Soviets should look closely at the language of our note.

Dobrynin nevertheless thought the U.S. was trying to constrain Soviet options to act under the treaty with Vietnam.

The Acting Secretary said we had a responsibility to avoid future hazards; this was the purpose of our approach.

Dobrynin asked rhetorically whether the U.S. preferred that the Soviet Union attack China, since it wished to take away the option of coming to Vietnam’s assistance. The Acting Secretary said he wanted it to be clear for the record that the U.S. was not in any way encouraging the Soviet Union to attack China.

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The conversation ended with Dobrynin recommending as he departed that we look at the statement by Senator Mathias3 about U.S. policy in Indochina and its relationship to U.S.-Soviet relations.


Oral Message From the U.S. Leadership to the Soviet Leadership

The United States continues to view the situation in Indochina with the utmost concern and, as emphasized in President Carter’s message to Chairman Brezhnev,4 we believe that both of our countries must act responsibly and effectively in bringing an end to the conflict in Indochina and in dampening the high tensions there.

As Ambassador Young said at the UN and as we have said to you here and in Moscow, we cannot accept the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia.

While it has been our consistent desire to treat the dangerous situation in Indochina in such a way as to minimize the risk of heightened tensions, in all frankness this approach is made more difficult for us by the steady outpouring of official Soviet propaganda seeking to implicate the United States in some way in the Chinese decision to use military force against Vietnam.

As the Soviet Union knows, we strongly counseled China to exercise restraint and not to attack Vietnam. We are today making another appeal to China in this regard, and Secretary Blumenthal in Peking will personally and on behalf of the President urge that China withdraw its forces.

Continuation of the conflict in Indochina can only lead to the expansion of region-wide tensions and instabilities. Such concern is shared by other countries in the area, and has been reflected in public statements by the Governments of Japan, Australia, New Zealand, as well as the ASEAN Foreign Ministers in their statement of February 20, 1979.

We believe some constructive proposals for defusing this dangerous situation are emerging from the Security Council discussion [Page 523] now under way. There is a clear expression of international sentiment in favor of a peaceful resolution of the current conflicts in Indochina. There have been offers of good offices by Secretary General Waldheim and the ASEAN states. We believe that progress can be made through channels such as these and we would be pleased to consult with Soviet government as well as other concerned nations in support of such an effort.

Accordingly, and in full view of the seriousness of the situation as mentioned above, I wish to convey the following message to your government:

—As you know from the President’s message to Chairman Brezhnev and from Mr. Vance’s previous discussions with you, the United States would be seriously concerned if there were to be protracted use of Vietnamese facilities by Soviet naval vessels or Soviet aircraft, or if there were to be a presence of organized Soviet military units in Vietnam. This would oblige us to review our security relationship with all the affected nations in the area.

  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 4, WMC/Dobrynin, 2/24/79. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Curtis Kamman (S/MS). The meeting took place in Christopher’s office at the Department of State
  2. Reference is to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, former Pakistani Prime Minister and President.
  3. Charles Mathias (R-Maryland). Reference is presumably to Mathias’ February 26 statement; the text is printed in Congressional Record, vol. 125.3 (February 19–March 6, 1979), p. 3161.
  4. See Document 172.