227. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Soviet Brigade in Cuba


  • U.S.
  • The Secretary
  • William D. Krimer, Interpreter
  • USSR
  • Foreign Minister A.A. Gromyko
  • V.M. Sukhodrev, Interpreter

The Secretary told Gromyko that he had been informed that Castro was going to make a big statement tomorrow. He asked if Gromyko knew anything about this.

Gromyko said he did not know Castro’s plans for tomorrow, but had heard that Castro intends to make some kind of speech or statement; frankly, he did not know the content of that speech or when it would be delivered.

The Secretary said he had been told it would be sometime tomorrow. The Cuban Interests Section had invited our press to come and listen to a major address by Castro.

Gromyko said that was possible, of course, but he did not know, since he did not have a direct line to Castro from here.

The Secretary said that he had listened with great care to Gromyko’s speech at the UN. In fact, he had clapped upon conclusion of the speech. Some people had asked the Secretary for his views of Gromyko’s speech, and the Secretary had said that he had seen some positive parts as well as some other parts that he would wish to study further.

Gromyko said he had been informed about the Secretary’s comments. Now he would ask the Secretary what the world was standing on today.

The Secretary said that he would express some of his reflections since their last meeting on Monday.2

The Secretary had reflected on what Gromyko had said at their last meeting and, as he had indicated, he had listened carefully to what [Page 668] Gromyko had said in his speech. He understood Gromyko’s sensitivities and hoped Gromyko understood ours.

The Secretary said he would not repeat the ground they had covered earlier. We have sought to find a practical solution for this issue, which takes account of both Soviet sensitivities and ours. Unfortunately, the position Gromyko had taken does not lead to a satisfactory resolution of the problem. Without a reasonable measure of cooperation from the Soviet side, it is not possible for us to work out a resolution of the problem that would prevent a serious deterioration in our relations, as he had indicated the other day. We had suggested action which the Soviet Union might take to make it clear that this is not a combat unit. We had indicated that the Soviet Union could present these actions in any way it wishes, and we would not, for our part, represent them as the result of any agreement or as anything other than a voluntary action on the part of the Soviet Union. Such actions would make it possible for us to declare that our concerns had been allayed, and to press ahead vigorously with other matters, including the ratification of SALT.

As the Secretary had indicated the other day, Cuba, as Gromyko so well knew, is a highly sensitive issue with our people. We have sought to avoid confrontation with the Soviet Union on this issue, but several times now, in less than two decades, the discovery of Soviet military activities on the island has created the confrontations we have sought to avoid. We accept the reaffirmation of the 1962 understanding and note Gromyko’s statement that this unit has not changed appreciably since 1962. We accept the fact that it has no capacity at the present time to move beyond Cuba. The possibility remains, however, that its organization might form the basis for expansion or that the Soviets might provide the airlift or sealift for its movement to other parts of the hemisphere.

To come to the nub of the question, it is evident that Soviet/American relations are poised at a fork in the road. If we are able to work out a mutually satisfactory resolution of the present problem, it will, in the Secretary’s judgment, make it more possible to do a number of things, to complete the ratification of SALT, which we both desire, to press for early action in MFN and to work for a broad improvement in our relations on many significant fronts. If, however, we are not able to work out a mutually satisfactory solution to the problem, he was concerned that all the work he and Gromyko have done to try to stabilize the strategic military competition and to bring about a more sensible, a more stable and a more productive relationship between our two countries will be jeopardized. The President will have to consider what actions would have to be taken under the circumstances. The Secretary was concerned that, if this is the direction in which we will be moving, [Page 669] then it will be difficult to preserve the proper relations between our two countries.

The Secretary expressed the hope that Gromyko might have, on the basis of his reflections since their last meeting, some thoughts on practical steps that could move us in the direction of a constructive and mutually satisfactory resolution of our problem. Steps which the Soviets could take along the lines we have suggested would speak more loudly than words and would be a considerable help in defusing the issue. As he had said earlier, we would, of course, not represent such steps as resulting from any sort of agreement between us.

That, in brief, was where the Secretary saw us at this point after reflecting carefully about the situation and where we stood at this moment.

Gromyko said that, from what the Secretary had just said, he drew the conclusion that the Secretary had nothing new to say as compared to what he had brought with him for their previous conversation.

The Secretary acknowledged that in the way of suggestions he did not have anything new. He had given the situation a great deal of thought.

Gromyko said that the considerations and comments the Secretary had made at their previous meeting had been the subject of Soviet reaction at that time, and Gromyko had voiced their thoughts regarding the Secretary’s suggestions. He did not want to repeat himself, but would confirm what had been said then on their side.

The Soviets cannot accept any of the conditions the Secretary had suggested. He would restate this now.

Gromyko said he had to say that the Secretary was evidently proceeding from some sort of erroneous premises. He was evidently convinced that U.S. hints to the effect that certain questions might be resolved not in the way the Soviet side would want to see them resolved (and here he was specifically referring to ratification of the SALT Treaty and to MFN), that they would be decided in a different, i.e., negative way if the Soviets adhered to their position, would lead the Soviets to change that position. Gromyko would not recommend that such hints be voiced. They did not make any impression on the Soviets other than a negative impression. The Soviet side had always stressed that the Treaty is a bilateral matter, that it was needed equally by both the Soviet Union and the U.S., and that this matter could not be held hostage for exerting pressure or influence on the Soviet Union. A method of that kind was quite inappropriate and Gromyko thought that the Secretary was aware this was the case. The same thing applied to the question of MFN.

The Secretary said he wanted to speak to that. He believed that Gromyko had not carefully listened to what the Secretary had been [Page 670] saying. We, that is, the U.S. Administration, continued to fight for SALT ratification because we believed that the Treaty was in our interests as well as in the interests of the Soviet Union. As a practical matter, as he had said earlier, our ability to win that fight will be made much more difficult or impossible—not because of us, but because of the absence of enough votes in the Senate. The Secretary had not stated that as a threat, but simply as a description of concrete facts.

Gromyko said that to that he could only say: “Why try to rectify the situation at the expense of Soviet interests?”

The Secretary said he would respond to that later; he did not believe that what he had suggested was against Soviet interests.

Gromyko said that the Secretary had implied that Soviet personnel in Cuba can be used for something that should not even occur to any individual with common sense, with respect to Latin America and elsewhere. That was surely quite a fantastic speculation. The Soviet side could only express total surprise that such thoughts could even occur to the Secretary. If the U.S. government had advisers or experts or anyone else who suggested such possibilities, Gromyko could only say that they do not know the Soviets, that they do not know Soviet policy. Consequently, they were bad advisers, indeed, bad experts. If such ideas were shared by those who guide U.S. foreign policy in terms of U.S./USSR relations, he could only express regret. Was it not possible to live in Washington without constantly inventing and placing in motion something or other against the Soviet Union and its foreign policy? At present this concerned the Soviet Union and Cuba, but Gromyko could not recall even a brief period of time in which some legend or other, hostile to the Soviet Union and its policy, was not current in the United States. Why was this being done? He recalled that when they had been in Vienna, Brezhnev, Gromyko himself, the Soviet Minister of Defense and others, all had the impression that the fundamental matters of both sides were prevailing, and that both sides recognized the necessity of searching for agreed solutions leading to detente and to safeguarding world peace. And yet, after the Vienna Summit and after the two heads of state returned to their respective countries, there had surfaced all sorts of hostile legends aimed against the Soviet Union. Perhaps those who invent such legends and myths are extremely well paid for doing so. Such was certainly not the situation in the Soviet Union.

In essence, Gromyko wanted to emphasize that there was no need to correct anything with respect to Soviet personnel in Cuba. The Soviets harbor no malicious intentions against the United States and do not undertake anything against the interests of the United States or any other nation. They did not engage in any nefarious activities and have no malicious plans of any kind. The Secretary could rest assured that [Page 671] neither the Soviet Union nor Cuba harbor any hostile intentions against the United States. It would therefore be good if President Carter and Secretary Vance and all others having an input into the making of foreign policy approach problems with a cool head, in a carefully weighed manner and without emotions. If that were done, they would surely agree that it was unthinkable for the Soviet Union to do anything in Cuba to harm U.S. security. For the Soviets this was self-evident and so elementary that even elementary school children, given the facts, would come to that conclusion. Anything else was inconceivable, and he thought that the Secretary understood that very well.

Gromyko noted that the Secretary kept referring to sensitivities; but, he would ask, should not sensitivities be controlled? After all, the human being was distinguished by reason. The Secretary had spoken of the difficult situation in the United States and of conditions, such as can be used to harm ratification of the Treaty and proper resolution of the MFN issue, etc. He would have to say that considerations of that sort appeared to be based on some sort of fatalism. Was the U.S. Administration only in a position to register events, or could it choose to act in one direction or another? Could it not encourage and nourish desirable trends and counteract harmful and incorrect assertions by restoring the truth and allaying the concerns of people who were affected by deliberate distortions? Gromyko was sure the Administration could find a way out and put those who concocted harmful stories in their place.

Gromyko noted that the Secretary had frequently spoken of the sensitivities of U.S. people to this question. However, for some reason the Secretary seemed to forget that the Soviets, too, were people, political figures who also have their own political interests and sensitivities. Speaking of sensitivities, if the Soviet side were to repay in kind, it would have to refer to the deployment of American combat forces close to the territory of the Soviet Union. This concerned several countries—Western Europe, Turkey, France, Japan, South Korea and others. Surely the Soviet Union would have genuine grounds, and not just concocted grounds, to refer to sensitivities in this respect. However, he believed that statesmen should regard issues from a broad international perspective and they should show understanding for each others’ positions. The Government of the United States had manifested such a broad approach in discussing certain questions with the Soviet Union in an appropriate context. It had done so in consideration of the international situation in the world as a whole and had considered these matters together with the Soviet Union. Now, however, things were presented in a distorted light and questions are being put in a way that was completely and absolutely unacceptable both for the Soviet Union and for Cuba. He would remind the Secretary that the United States it[Page 672]self had troops in Cuba, that it maintained a military base on that island against the wishes of the Cuban government. Under these conditions the U.S. Administration had nevertheless chosen the path of upholding a legend whose sharp edge was aimed against the interests of the Soviet Union. Why such a legend? Who invented it? Why is all this being done?

Gromyko said that he and his colleagues do not believe that this was the way to increase the prestige of the United States or respect for American foreign policy. The Secretary might believe otherwise, but the Soviets did not, and he thought that they did know a few things about foreign policy. Did Washington really believe that its prestige would be boosted as a result of its current stand? He did not think so, nor did he think that this was any way to cure any harm that had been done to the prestige of U.S. foreign policy. He would ask the Secretary to reflect on all this with a cool head and make an effort to free himself of emotions, keeping in mind the fundamental interests of our respective governments, the world situation as a whole and the fundamental interests of peace.

Gromyko recounted the numerous occasions when President Carter and the Secretary personally had stated that everything had to be done to prevent the outbreak of another war. Those statements had certainly been fully in line with Soviet views. Should, then, this artificial issue be allowed to poison the international atmosphere everywhere, in the UN and here in the U.S. as well as in other parts of the world? This was something that he could not understand and could not accept.

Gromyko recalled that during their last conversation he had mentioned that there was a way out of the situation. He had tried to put himself in the Secretary’s shoes. What would the U.S. Administration lose if it were to say that a certain matter had come up requiring clarification, and that after appropriate study and coupled with an appropriate statement by the Soviet side, which had helped to clarify the situation, the Administration had concluded that no threat of any kind existed for the United States or any other country as a result of the presence of Soviet training personnel in Cuba who had been there many years, that there was no question of any sort of threat to the security of the U.S. The Administration could state that that statement by the Soviet government, which had not been made before, had made it possible for the United States government and for President Carter to get to the bottom of the facts and find a solution to this matter. Thus, the solution would be based on unilateral statements by the governments of the Soviet Union and of the United States.

Gromyko had still another consideration that he wanted to bring to the Secretary’s attention. In his remarks the Secretary had expressed [Page 673] the thought that the Soviet Union ought to conduct itself in such a way as to ensure that everything was laid open to U.S. verification. He would ask where did such an idea come from, the idea that the Soviet Union must open up all its facilities, open up its lockers as it were for the U.S. to see everything? After all, the U.S. was not opening up its lockers, not only on the territory of the U.S., but also in other countries where it had stationed its combat forces. (The Secretary interrupted to point out that the presence of our forces had not been concealed but publicly announced.) Gromyko asked rhetorically if the U.S. was not asking for too much. The Soviet Union also made announcements of those things it believed necessary to announce. American demands were simply much too immodest. After all, there were matters of principle that were involved, and not that the Soviet Union wanted to conceal something. In the SALT II Treaty we had embodied the concept of verification by national technical means, and he would suggest that each country do what it could to strengthen that principle. Had the Secretary forgotten it in this instance? After all, that principle had been applied to much more serious obligations, but here the U.S. was trying to open up everything through the back door as it were. There was something here that was impossible to understand.

The Secretary said he would respond. First, we also believed, as both sides had stated at the meeting in Vienna, that fundamental interests must prevail, that the decisions taken by both sides must be in line not only with our own fundamental interests, but also with the interests of a better, more stable and enduring relationship between us; and we have proceeded in that fashion. We had proceeded with the hearings on SALT ratification and, as the Secretary had indicated earlier, we had appeared to make excellent progress before Cuba. Indeed, it had then become clear that we had more than two-thirds of the votes in the Senate in favor of the Treaty. Then, this issue arose and became a practical, real obstacle that we cannot ignore. Gromyko had spoken of the need to be cool-headed. Both President Carter and the Secretary had acted in a cool-headed manner and without emotions. He believed it ought to be clear that both sides should act on the basis of facts and not emotions, that both sides must exercise caution to view things in their proper perspective. The Secretary had indicated that the Soviet unit in Cuba posed no threat to the United States. We had indicated that at present it does not have any sealift or airlift capabilities. These facts were not based on emotion, but on cool-headed thinking to keep matters in a proper perspective, so as to be able to discuss issues in a practical fashion. Another reality was that Cuban policy was seen as detrimental to the U.S. in certain Central American and South American regions. This stems from the fact of extensive military assistance received by Cuba from the Soviet Union. Moving on, the Secretary wanted to stress that we had not suggested anything other than confir[Page 674]mation of what Gromyko had said, i.e., that this was a training unit. The Secretary had stated that there was a major difference between the Soviet statement that this was not a combat unit and what our intelligence information reflects; this was the problem, a real problem.

The actions we have suggested would confirm that the Soviet troops in Cuba were not combat troops, but training troops as Gromyko had said. The combat nature of the unit is one of the key issues which, if not resolved, can produce a deterioration of relations between us. Lastly, on the question of U.S. combat troops, we do have such troops stationed abroad, we have not tried to hide that fact, it is a matter of public information. These troops are stationed on the territory of other countries on the basis of their treaties and agreements with the United States, just as the Soviets had such agreements with the Warsaw Pact countries. Our troops in South Korea are there to safeguard the peace and it is no secret that by agreement we had troops stationed in Japan. Thus, these are in a different category from the kind of situation we are dealing with in the case of Soviet troops in Cuba.

The Secretary wanted to come back to the difference between us as to whether this was a combat unit or not, and how to get around that problem.

Gromyko asked rhetorically who was in a better position to know the true facts—those who fed distorted information to the Secretary or the Soviet Union?

The Secretary said it was very hard when we saw pictures of the equipment to ignore that fact.

Gromyko said that Americans had incorrectly read the materials they had received. He could only regret that, but would point out that the Soviets were in a better position to know.

Gromyko suggested that the Secretary ask himself the question of why the Soviets would take some unit, which the Secretary had described as allegedly existing in Cuba, to threaten U.S. security, and also ask why the Soviets would need this, and why all this was being done.

The Secretary said that he could see one good reason for having the unit there. Castro could have said to the Soviet Union that he had deployed Cuban forces in Africa and that therefore he wanted reassurances at home, and had asked the Soviet Union to send its forces there. That would be perfectly logical.

Gromyko said that the Secretary must have read a mystery story that was very artistic. He asked if the Secretary was addicted to mystery stories.

The Secretary replied that he used to read them but lately did not have time for them.

[Page 675]

Gromyko said there were much more serious matters our two countries should be dealing with than the scenario or some kind of a detective story. He said that when he returned to Moscow he would have to tell the Soviet leadership and Brezhnev personally that something had occurred that had never been contemplated by the Soviet authorities that the Secretary and the U.S. Administration were laboring under a delusion and that he had done his best to assure the Secretary of State that the very thought of harming the security of the United States could not have occurred to the Soviet leadership. He was certain that Brezhnev would tell him that he had been right in doing so. If such a thought had indeed occurred to the Secretary, Gromyko would assure him that it was groundless. It was a strange thing that many more serious problems related to halting the arms race, questions of the SALT Treaty—when and if it would enter in force, questions of SALT III, European matters, NPT, CTB and other most important matters which should have engaged the efforts of both sides, had been subordinated to a matter which did not exist. All this was very difficult to understand.

The Secretary said that he wanted to ask Gromyko one or two further questions. Was Gromyko saying that this was not a combat unit, that the Soviet Union did not intend to give this unit combat capabilities by airlift or sealift? Was that what Gromyko had been saying?

In reply to the Secretary’s question, Gromyko said that the Soviets have only a training center in Cuba and did not intend to change the conditions under which that center operated. That is what he wanted to state officially. He could not state the matter any clearer. In fact, he could state that the Soviet Union will not change those conditions. That was even stronger than saying that it did not intend to change conditions.

The Secretary had said that he wanted to be clear. He wished it were a simple matter, but it was not. Could he (Vance) assume that what he had said does reflect the Soviet position accurately?

Gromyko repeated that the Soviets had said that they have only a training center in Cuba, which engaged only in training functions, and that the Soviet Union will not change that situation. It seemed to him that he and the Secretary were talking along the same lines. It was true that he was stating this to the Secretary unilaterally, and that he was also stating it quite definitely.

The Secretary said that one of the important factors would be the fact that the unit in question does not have airlift or sealift capabilities and that the Soviet Union did not intend to change that.

Gromyko said that was correct and that the Soviets will not change the function of the training center.

[Page 676]

The Secretary pointed out that he had spoken of a Soviet unit which runs a training center.

Gromyko said that he had used the Soviet terminology in speaking of a training center. The term “unit” had been used by the Secretary, but he would prefer to use the Soviet’s own terminology. They had a training center in Cuba and will not change its function. In saying “will not” he was putting it stronger than if he had said “does not intend.”

Gromyko asked the Secretary if he really believed that he could be talking here to the Foreign Minister of the USSR, representing the Soviet Union and saying these things to the Secretary plainly on behalf of the Soviet Union and the Soviet leadership, while at the same time the Soviet Union planned to threaten the security of the United States? The mildest comment he could make on any such idea was that it was entirely too bold. On the other hand, if the Secretary were to say that our two countries had some agreement between us, the Soviet Union would be forced to refute this for reasons of principle. The Soviet Union had provided a unilateral clarifying statement, that statement was strictly of a unilateral nature and was made as a result of the Soviet desire to allay any concerns President Carter and the Secretary might have with respect to Soviet behavior.

The Secretary said that we had not suggested an understanding, and had spoken only in terms of unilateral statements.

  1. Source: Department of State, Special Adviser to the Secretary (S/MS) on Soviet Affairs Marshall Shulman—Jan 21, 77–Jan 19, 81, Lot 81 D 109, Box 10, GromykoVance Memcons re Cuba—9/24–27, 1979. Top Secret. The meeting took place at the U.N. Building.
  2. September 24; see Document 226.