226. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • U.S.
  • The Secretary
  • Ambassador Marshall Shulman
  • Mr. William D. Krimer, Interpreter
  • USSR
  • Foreign Minister A.A. Gromyko
  • First Deputy Foreign Minister G.M. Korniyenko
  • Ambassador A.F. Dobrynin
  • Mr. V. Sukhodrev

Foreign Minister Gromyko welcomed the Secretary and said he was glad that they had a chance to have a chat. The Secretary said that he was also glad to have this opportunity.

Gromyko said that since New York was the Secretary’s home, it would be only logical for the Secretary to start the conversations and he would therefore ask him if he had anything new to convey.

[Page 659]

The Secretary said he would be glad to start. As Gromyko knew, the Secretary had met several times with Ambassador Dobrynin and had expressed to the Ambassador his deep concern and that of his government and President arising out of the Cuban situation.2 He had very frankly laid out the deep concern that we have as to the effect failure to resolve this matter satisfactorily would have on the relations between our two countries and, in addition, upon the ratification of the SALT treaty. The Secretary had tried to be very clear, pragmatic, and accurate in everything that he had said to the Ambassador. In addition, during their last conversation, the Secretary had made specific suggestions as to steps that might be taken to resolve this problem. He was sure that Gromyko had been informed and that he now had had sufficient time to reflect on these suggestions. The Secretary said he would appreciate hearing Gromyko’s views and response to what he had suggested.

Gromyko said that he would start out by pointing out that the Soviet leadership had been very much surprised by the noisy campaign raised in the US with regard to the small training center the Soviets had in Cuba. This has caused not only surprise but also consternation. The statements made in the US in this connection have no basis in reality of the true state of affairs. Therefore, the Soviet leadership was asking itself whether this had been done artificially and deliberately by the US Administration; if that was so, they would ask: Why? After all, in the course of many meetings between our two countries on various occasions, statements had been made about the importance of developing the relations between our two countries and, above all, a treaty had been signed, a treaty of exceptional importance. After the summit meeting in Vienna,3 a campaign had been launched in the US which was totally unfounded. If that campaign had been launched on the basis of certain information received from US intelligence agencies, he could only tell the Secretary that the US Government, President Carter, and the Secretary personally had been badly misled; some sort of myth had been created, a myth that had no real basis in fact. Therefore, there was no question at all of the Soviet Union’s having to change something in their presently existing arrangements. The Soviet Union had not undertaken anything that would have been in violation of the well known understanding achieved in 1962;4 therefore, there was nothing that they needed to change and this question did not arise at all. In the Soviet view, the question should not be put in those terms at all.

Gromyko was well aware of the considerations which the Secretary had expressed to the Soviet Ambassador. However, the Soviet [Page 660] leadership could only proceed from those considerations which he had just presented to the Secretary, i.e., there was no need whatsoever to introduce any kind of changes into existing arrangements, and therefore the Soviet leadership did not intend to do so. However, the suggestions the Secretary had made to Ambassador Dobrynin were aimed at introducing such changes.

Gromyko thought that there was a way out of this situation. He was firmly convinced that there was an appropriate way out. In a certain sense, he could understand that the Secretary found himself in a delicate situation as a result of certain statements made by the US Administration. However, since the Soviet side had had no hand in bringing about that situation, since those statements had been made by the US side, it would be up to the US to find an appropriate way out. He did believe that such a way out could easily be found. The US Administration had at its disposal the official statement the Soviet Union had made on Cuba, to the effect that there were certain Soviet facilities in Cuba, i.e., a training center. If the Secretary deemed it useful, he could make that Soviet statement public. He could say that some information had been received which required verification as well as certain clarification, that this had now been accomplished and apart from the clarifications provided, an official statement had been made by the Soviet Union. He was deliberately saying “statement” rather than “understanding between the Soviet Union and the US,” because this matter was one that concerned only the Soviet Union and Cuba. Nonetheless, the Soviet Union had made a statement to the effect that it had a training center in Cuba, and, further, the US Administration could state that it had taken note of that Soviet statement. This is what the Secretary could do if he was sincerely seeking a way out of the situation.

To reinforce what he had said about the noisy campaign in the US, Gromyko cited the following data regarding the number of US military personnel stationed in countries adjacent to the Soviet Union as of September 25, 1979 (Gromyko referred to a paper brought to him by Ambassador Makarov),5 he noted that in Turkey, i.e., close to the borders of the Soviet Union, the US had stationed approximately 5,000 men. He was in possession of the appropriate breakdown of that figure into ground personnel, air force personnel and naval personnel. In Japan, the US had 44,500 troops. Here, too, he had the relevant figures for ground forces, air forces and naval forces. After all, Japan was a neighbor of the Soviet Union, separated from Soviet territory by a narrow strip of water, just as Cuba was separated from the US by a narrow strip of water. In South Korea, the US had approximately 40,000 men, again broken down into the three categories. As for the overall [Page 661] number of US troops on foreign territory, that number was 465,000 all told. Gromyko asked rhetorically whether the Soviet Union was raising questions in connection with these large numbers of US forces, such as the questions raised by the US with respect to the instruction center in Cuba. Was the Soviet Union referring to various understandings and making a noisy campaign out of it? The US had presented demands to the effect that the Soviet Union must do such and such with respect to these armed forces in a country adjacent to the US, and yet those forces were there for training purposes only, unlike the combat forces of the US.

If the matter were approached with minimum objectivity, the Secretary would realize how the US appeared in the eyes of any objectively thinking individual, and not only in the eyes of the highest Soviet leadership or L.I. Brezhnev personally. As Gromyko had said at the outset, the Soviet leadership could only reach one of two conclusions in this connection. Either this whole matter had been artificially and deliberately concocted by the US Administration for reasons which he could not fathom, or the US Administration had been badly misled. Personally, he would not want to ascribe any personal motives to the President or to the Secretary, or to assert that the US had deliberately concocted these statements or allegations at some desk in the White House. Gromyko said he was simply analyzing the questions that had arisen without ascribing any malicious intentions to anyone specifically.

Gromyko asked the Secretary to tell President Carter (since he would not have an opportunity of seeing the President during his current visit) that in Moscow the Soviet leadership generally, including L.I. Brezhnev personally, had given appropriate attention to this entire matter. Brezhnev was surprised and perplexed as to the reasons why all of this was being done without any foundation. Brezhnev had asked Gromyko to convey to the President and to the Secretary that the Soviet leadership as such, and Brezhnev personally, cannot meet the wishes and demands made in this connection. The Soviet leadership was firmly convinced that the United States has no grounds whatsoever to interfere in an affair that concerned only the Soviet Union and Cuba. Gromyko personally was convinced that there were no legitimate grounds at all for this matter having been raised in the first place. He was saying all this without any ill feelings toward the United States. Quite the contrary, the Soviet leadership had taken a very positive view of everything that had been achieved in Soviet-American relations recently, and the Soviet leadership and Brezhnev personally had expected that the President of the United States and his Administration and all other US organizations involved in foreign policy would follow the path that had been charted in Vienna, an achievement that had been preceded by an enormous amount of preparatory work. Now every [Page 662] thing was viewed with a certain lackadaisical attitude, as if this was simply a minor social or diplomatic matter. After all, if one took an objective look at everything achieved in Vienna, particularly the treaty signed in Vienna which was of enormous importance, this present matter would appear in true perspective as a tiny bug, moreover as a tiny bug presented in an incorrect light.

Gromyko said he could understand that certain domestic considerations might have influenced the Secretary’s actions but he would ask, how did this concern the Soviet Union? It was a different country, after all. The Soviet leadership preferred to view all these matters from a statesmanlike perspective and from the perspective of the relations between the two major powers in the world. If we were to embark upon the path of trying to adjust to each other’s domestic political squabbles, tendencies, and trends, then both countries would lose control of foreign policy and the ship of Soviet-American relations would surely flounder on the rocks. That could have gloomy and dangerous consequences indeed. Why proceed in that manner? We need to keep our relations on an even keel, and not seek to create entirely unnecessary complications.

Gromyko said that just before leaving Moscow he had a conversation with Brezhnev, in the course of which Brezhnev had spelled out very clearly and lucidly the thoughts Gromyko had just presented, and had asked that these views be conveyed to President Carter. Gromyko would emphasize again that the Soviet Union had no malicious intentions toward the United States and would ask where any individual could be found who was so naive or myopic as to believe that a small training unit was a grave threat to the security of the United States. In the Soviet Union, at least, there were no such people.

At the same time, Gromyko wanted to use this opportunity to convey Brezhnev’s best wishes and regards to the President and to the Secretary personally, and Gromyko would join in presenting his best wishes and regards.

The Secretary said he would convey this message to President Carter. He would now want to respond to the substance of Gromyko’s remarks. First, he would explain very clearly just how we had come upon this matter and how we had acted. He wanted to make it crystal clear that there was no ulterior motive on our side in raising this issue. It cannot help us in any way; it can merely hurt both of us. The Secretary repeated this and stressed that it could only cause a severe deterioration in the relations between our two countries, which he believed were as important to the Soviet Union as they were to us. Secondly, in his judgment, if we did not resolve this matter satisfactorily, it would kill the SALT treaty. We believed, as the Soviet Union did, that the SALT treaty was a major, historic achievement of fundamental impor [Page 663] tance to world peace. As he had said in his speech at the United Nations, this was a matter of great fundamental importance. Therefore, it would be wrong, and indeed unthinkable, to say that we had dreamed up something when it could only damage relations between us and damage the prospects of the SALT treaty.

Now the Secretary wanted to turn to how we had come upon this problem. Information we had received recently, during early July and in August, tending to indicate that there was in fact a combat unit located in Cuba, namely a Soviet combat brigade. When the information we had received had led us to this conclusion, we had said that we must check that conclusion, and it had led us to search further. This was an extremely serious matter and, therefore, we had to be sure that we were right in our conclusion before raising it with the Soviet Union. For this reason, we took additional steps to ascertain the actual state of affairs, and on August 20 and August 23 our conclusion had been reached on the basis of the evidence we had, that this was indeed a combat brigade. Further information had indicated that this unit was not now involved in the training of Cuban forces. Consequently, we were faced with a very serious situation. The fact that there was a combat unit and that, from all the information we had, there was no evidence that this unit was being used as a training unit with Cubans, presented us with an obvious and very difficult problem which we could not keep secret and which then became a matter of public knowledge. It was the characteristics of the unit stationed in Santiago de las Vegas, which we have recently identified, that led us to conclude that it was a combat unit.

In trying to resolve this situation, and so as to prevent a serious deterioration in the relations between our two countries and prevent imperiling the SALT treaty, we had tried to see if there was a practical way to resolve this matter that would be acceptable to both sides. We concluded that a practical way would be to ask that the Soviet Union take certain unilateral steps consistent with its statement that this was a training unit to remove the elements that had led us to our conclusion. We had spelled out the following steps:

1. Eliminate brigade headquarters organization.

2. Remove from the Soviet brigade equipment and armament which gives a combat capability.

3. Discontinue Soviet unit field exercises, including combined arms exercises.

The Secretary wanted to point out further that a positive Soviet response to these suggestions would not need to be embodied in a formal agreement between us. We would not challenge any portrayal of such steps as unilateral actions. As long as these steps are taken and remain in effect, we would state that these steps met our concerns and that this [Page 664] concludes the matter. We would expect that the Soviet Union, for its part, would not take exception to such a statement.

It seemed to the Secretary that this would be a practical way of dealing with a difficult problem that must be resolved if we want to achieve what he believed both countries wanted to achieve, i.e., improvement of the relations between us and final ratification of the SALT treaty. We made this proposal after a great deal of thought and had taken into account the sensitivities of the Soviet Union, as well as the problem and sensitivities that this situation had created for our nation.

In Vienna President Carter had indicated to President Brezhnev the great sensitivity in the United States to Soviet forces in Cuba as well as the broader effects in this hemisphere of what was happening in Cuba. He emphasized how important it was that each of our countries take into account the sensitivities of the other. Therefore, he thought Gromyko would understand the special nature of this problem arising out of the facts presented. He would very much hope that Gromyko would further reflect on this situation and on what we had suggested before rejecting what we had proposed, thereby creating a very deeply troubling situation for all of us.

Gromyko said that from everything the Secretary had said it followed that the US side was interested not in actually establishing the facts and the true situation, but wanted to adapt the situation to its allegations, to the myth and inventions that had been concocted. He had carefully listened to what the Secretary had said and saw that basically the Secretary had repeated what had been said before, even though in different words. As for himself, he had presented the Soviet evaluation of this matter and would once again assure the Secretary that he did not want to leave anything unsaid or conceal anything, and that he did not harbor any malicious thoughts or hostile plans against the United States. It would indeed be absurd for the Soviet Union to harbor any such plans. Yet, he would note that a great deal had been said in the United States about the alleged danger to the security of the United States presented by the existing Soviet training unit in Cuba. All this was sheer fabrication and nothing else. If Gromyko were to say anything further on this matter, he would simply be repeating what he had already told the Secretary and he saw no need in doing that. He would only add that if the US Administration failed to put an end to all the hullabaloo and propaganda created around that issue, Soviet-American relations would certainly be harmed. The consequences of such deterioration would, of course, be the responsibility of the United States and not the Soviet Union. The Soviet view was quite different. It was that both the Soviet Union and the United States should very solici [Page 665] tiously and carefully nurture everything good that had been achieved in Soviet-American relations in recent times.

The Secretary said he would not repeat himself, but would clarify that there was no question of our having charged that this matter was a violation of the ’62 understandings between us. We had made it quite clear from the outset that the Soviet brigade as such, in its present configuration, posed no threat to the United States. We had tried to be honest and had not tried to build up this matter out of all proportion.

Gromyko said that he had not yet touched on one aspect of this matter. The training center in Cuba had now been there for 17 years, and over all these years no one had raised any questions about it. For this lengthy period of time everything had been regarded as normal. Why, then, had it been necessary to raise so much noise about it now? Why expand the importance of this matter out of all proportion? This aspect had not failed to attract the attention of the Soviet leadership, and it had tried to find answers and explanations, but had not succeeded. In fact, there could be no answer to this question. Why was this being done, since it harmed the relations between us and also harmed the prestige of the United States? That was the Soviet view of the matter, although the Secretary might see it somewhat differently. Nevertheless, this view was quite prevalent throughout the world.

The Secretary wanted to ask Gromyko a direct question. From our analysis over the years, we cannot specifically trace this unit all the way through. On the other hand, our information showed that during 1975 and 1976 at this location there had been an increase in construction and, after that time, all indications of training with Cuban forces, which we had witnessed in the past, had disappeared. It was this that had led us in July to investigate further into this matter again, coupled with photos of the equipment of this unit and a configuration that was used only for a combat unit.

Gromyko said that this kind of reasoning could lead to absurdity. For example, the United States might notice that the trousers of Soviet soldiers had increased in width or length and would then come to the conclusion that this, coupled with a different kind of boot worn now, had created a new situation. Logic of this kind was absolutely unconvincing. After all, what did that change? As the Secretary probably knew, US and NATO troops had also carried out maneuvers in different compositions. Sometimes officers stand at a table on which a map has been spread, and move around little symbols, each symbol standing for a corps, or an army, or a brigade, and yet these were only little flags or markers and did not in any way reflect the true situation on the ground. The Secretary had said that our information had indicated that in the past more Cuban troops had been involved with this unit, and that fewer Cubans were involved now (the Secretary inter [Page 666] rupted to say: “not fewer troops now, but none”). If Gromyko had understood him correctly, this had led to the supposition that this was now a different unit and yet, whether 200 or 100 Cubans took part in exercises really had no bearing upon the nature of the unit. He would ask whether American armed forces units were frozen for years or for decades. Quite obviously they were not. In fact, using the previous simile, the soldiers’ trousers might become narrower again without this indicating any change in the true situation. Could the Secretary really seriously argue that the number of Cuban troops exercising with the Soviet unit had changed its nature? What importance could this possibly have? He would ask the Secretary to give this further reflection. Quite possibly a US military person whose full-time job it was to observe Cuba had come to the conclusion that Cuba was the alpha and omega of his military career. But this could not be taken as a serious argument, not even to mention the question of the accuracy of the information obtained. The nature of the training center depended upon the various tasks assigned to it, but what sort of problems could such a small unit raise in terms of threatening the security of the United States? Gromyko was sure that he was right in saying that if this matter were viewed objectively, none of the arguments made on the US side would stand up.

The Secretary said he had nothing further to add, except to point out that he had not spoken of seeing fewer Cubans, but no Cubans at all. He said that he would report this conversation to his President and hoped Gromyko would do the same with respect to President Brezhnev. Gromyko said that he would naturally do so.

Both the Secretary and Gromyko noted that they would meet again on Thursday6 at 3:00 p.m.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 16, Soviet Brigade (Meetings With Soviets), 9/79. Secret. Sent via Alpha Channel. The meeting took place at the Soviet Mission to the United Nations.
  2. See Documents 221224.
  3. See Documents 199201, 203, 204, 206, and 207.
  4. See footnote 4, Document 219.
  5. Not further identified.
  6. September 27; see Document 227.