27. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Meeting in the Oval Office, 4:00–4:40 p.m.


  • The President
  • The Vice President
  • Secretary Vance
  • Dr. Brzezinski
  • Robert Hunter (NSC Notetaker)
  • Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin

The meeting began with an exchange of pleasantries concerning the Ambassador’s trip to Moscow.

The President said he was looking forward to the next few months, and hoped that the two sides could work out difficulties on SALT. He had been disappointed at the Soviet reaction to the US proposal. We had gotten together our position, and put it forward for Soviet reaction. He hoped he would not be permanently disappointed. He felt that with over a month’s work, with the exchange of letters with Brezhnev,2 and the Secretary’s talks with the Ambassador3—in which the US had put forward its position—it was hard to understand Soviet concerns, expressed both publicly by Gromyko and also in their abrupt and surprising rejection of the U.S. proposal.

The Ambassador asked if the President was surprised by the Gromyko press conference.4

The President joked that it was Gromyko’s first in a long time. Dobrynin joked that he was just following the trend in the US Administration,5 and the President countered that that would be great.

The Ambassador said that it was important (at SALT) to begin with something.

The President asked what we should do now. Discussions would continue in May in Geneva between Secretary Vance and Gromyko. We [Page 131] had gone back and assessed the relative strength of the two nations, from our viewpoint, in 1985. We felt that our proposal was equitable, but we couldn’t know Soviet plans. Where should we go from here? If we relegate the matter to technicians, there will be no progress. We are not in a great hurry, but we do want progress.

The Ambassador said that when there was a framework for negotiating, then experience shows that it is necessary to agree at the President’s level—or the Secretary’s—otherwise there would be no agreement.

The President asked if it would be all right at the level of Secretary Vance.

The Ambassador said that the decision ultimately rests with the President. In the Soviet Union, it is Brezhnev. As long as the decision is at the top level, working through the Secretary’s level would be all right. Though he (Dobrynin) could pass comments back and forth to Brezhnev, as before.

The President asked whether Brezhnev is considering making other proposals, other than seeking agreement on the basis of ratifying Vladivostok agreement.

The Ambassador replied that Brezhnev is waiting for new ideas from the President. He had pointed this out in his letter,6 he waits to see if we have changes (?) to the Vladivostok agreement. He wants an agreement. Dobrynin is 100% sure of that. But what basis should it be on? The Soviet Union did not feel capable of accepting the comprehensive proposal as the basis for agreement. It was so different from what had been agreed and negotiated for more than two years. This was a matter of deep conviction, that after that something new should not just be brought up.

The President said we had proposed two options, one of which (the second one) was very close to Vladivostok.

The Ambassador said that it put cruise missiles aside altogether. He understood that the US is for reductions, but SALT is about “Limitations”. The second US proposal would permit cruise missiles to go unchecked. The US proposed to permit this fourth dimension to be developed without checks. How could this be explained to the Soviet people?—that here was a wonderful SALT II agreement, but it permitted a new strategic system? What kind of agreement would that be?

The President asked if Brezhnev did not consider our second proposal worthy of discussion.

The Ambassador said that if cruise missiles were ignored in it, then it was not. They had never decided to let cruise missiles go unchecked.

[Page 132]

The President said there seemed to be a difference of opinion between Soviet negotiators and Secretary Kissinger. Kissinger said that cruise missiles were never discussed at Vladivostok. Subsequently there had been talks on it, but there had never been an agreement shared by both sides.

The Ambassador replied that a green light had never been given to cruise missiles at Vladivostok. The President agreed. The Ambassador continued that there was already agreement on ALCMs, which if on bombers would mean that the bombers would be counted under the 1320 MIRV limit. The only disagreements remaining were on SLCMs and land-based cruise missiles.

Secretary Vance said this was in January 19767 and (in response to a question from the President) that the range was 2500 kilometers.

The President indicated that Kissinger had agreed to this. Secretary Vance added that this had been subject to working out all other aspects of the agreement; it was only part of a package. Dr. Brzezinski added that having an agreed package meant agreement on Backfire, as well.

The President indicated that there was a basis for negotiation here.

The Ambassador said they were prepared to accept an approach whereby cruise missiles were counted as MIRVs (i.e. the bomber approach).

The President said, assuming that negotiations went forward on the second US proposal, we would have no objection to negotiating with cruise missiles involved, and with (the?) assurances from Brezhnev on Backfire. Then we could both go on to ratify the agreement. Would the Ambassador be frank, and tell what position the Soviet Union would take on lower levels as goals for later. He would be happy to have a letter from Brezhnev saying that here are some divisions of numbers with regard to submarines, ICBMs, bombers, and MIRVed missiles, for 1985 or for 1982. This would be welcome as a basis for negotiations. What bothered the President was the position and attitude taken by the Soviet government. It has made no proposals. He would welcome some as a basis for negotiating.

The Ambassador answered that there was a Soviet proverb about taking the bird one has, instead of looking for another in the sky. There had been three years of negotiating on SALT II. The small differences that still existed were less than those in the new US proposal (i.e. comprehensive proposal). It would take years to negotiate. Inside the Soviet Union there would be real problems. He could state definitively that there would be no agreement on that basis this year; the issues were simply too complex. It was important to finish first things first. When [Page 133] October comes, it should be possible to reach agreement: ALCMs had been done, land and sea-based cruise missiles could be deferred to SALT III provided there were agreement not to test them. And mobile missiles could be put in or left out. The Soviet Union is prepared to go forward on this basis.

He continued that this agreement would be worthwhile now. On the idea of levels of weapons and MIRVs, there could be a declaration. Brezhnev would be willing to sign one, or this could be done in any other way that the President would decide with Brezhnev: to the effect that negotiations would begin immediately (after SALT II) on lower levels. It could say now that reductions agreed in SALT III could go into effect in SALT II. They were already (set?) to go down, though not immediately to 1800. To some people in the Soviet Union, that proposal seemed suspicious. The cuts would be too deep into the Soviet forces, but little for the United States. There were too many questions. The political atmosphere between the two countries was not as good as he wanted to have in the future. If that went unresolved, it could lead to other difficulties.

There had been nearly three years of negotiating on SALT II, and it was 90% or so completed. So let’s discuss the two or three issues that are left. The Soviet Union is prepared to include a statement, regarding negotiations of actual reductions, which could take place in the time period of SALT II.

Secretary Vance asked if it could be said under the SALT II agreement that numbers would be less than 2400 (missiles and bombers) and 1320 (MIRVs)? Dr. Brzezinski added that a deadline for reductions was also important.

The Ambassador replied that negotiations on SALT III could go forward as soon as SALT II was signed. SALT III could negotiate a particular figure, which would be put into effect in the SALT II period, without waiting until it expired.

Dr. Brzezinski said that to create mutual confidence, this would need to be rapid. It was also desirable in a continuing process to deal with those weapons causing the greatest anxieties. Therefore there were both reductions and a freeze in the US proposal. It was also important that both sides show restraint while moving to reductions.

The Ambassador replied that within the framework agreed upon, this (reductions) couldn’t be done if the US got an advantage.

The President indicated that it was not our intention to do that. The Ambassador said it looked that way to the Soviet Union. The President said he understood that that was their reaction. But he hoped that if they saw something that they thought was not equitable, they would say so. On the SS–17s, 18s, and 19s, we thought in putting together our [Page 134] proposal they might want to go up to 550—maybe they would want to go to 1000, though we hoped not.

He hoped they would be willing to accept the 1800 level (?). We were not trying to get an unfair position, after the stability point were reached. He had no objection to negotiating reductions in two stages.

The Ambassador asked what the President meant. Finishing SALT II, followed by the reductions in SALT III (as discussed)? The President agreed. He said we would set down, after talking with them, what we think we could accept. Any why not, before either of us tests missiles, let one another know about it? This doesn’t need to be a complicated matter; the Soviet Union could define the limits. If there were some missiles that would be launched in the Soviet Union and come down there, they might not want to have us know about them. Our society is more open.

Secretary Vance said he would provide a memo on this.8

The President continued that we would list things we are interested on negotiating in SALT II. If Brezhnev doesn’t want them, he can cross them out. We should then go on with as many issues as possible that are not controversial. This is our idea for SALT II. He would welcome, if they agree, including what is possible immediately, or to go to SALT III for reductions.

The Ambassador said that this was in the Brezhnev letter. The President said he did not question that. He had put in a lot of time on this issue.

The Ambassador said that the first US proposal had seemed one-sided, a matter of politics and propaganda. Why, they asked in Moscow, had the United States put in its (first) proposal? He had been asked to explain. The leaders in Moscow had been unanimous on rejecting this proposal, since it was so one-sided. The Soviet point on this had been so clear, why had the United States laid this proposal before them?

The President said that if the proposal appeared one-sided, it was inadvertant. We had tried to estimate their programs for SS–17s, 18s, and 19s. We thought they were shifting to the modern large ballistic missiles. We have 550 Minuteman IIIs, and thought they might want that figure for (MIRVs?). We used our best judgment of what the Soviet Union would want. There was no desire to put it at a disadvantage. The President was not about to waste two months of his life on that kind of approach.

[Page 135]


The President then raised the issue of Soviet fishing boats. He said that he had tried to wait before acting, and at first only citations were issued. Now it was necessary to enforce the law. He asked the Soviet government’s help in stopping these violations.

The Ambassador said that the first incident happened when he was out of the country. But the instructions given by the Soviet government to the fishing boat captains had been to obey the law and the agreement the Soviet Union had with the United States. Two ships had been seized.9 Maybe they were in violation, maybe not—he did not know, though his consul in Boston would report. One of the boats is a refrigerator ship—and is not large—he hoped that it could be let go.

The President said he had no authority to release any boats. The issue was with the courts, and it would not be proper for him to interfere. He had some latitude when they were at sea, but not after they had been seized.

The Ambassador said he understood. The State Department had raised this yesterday. They were ready to pay (?). He could assure the President there would be no excuses, and that they would fulfill their obligations. He was concerned, however, about all the unfriendly talk in the United States.

The President suggested that the Soviet government put out a statement, indicating what the instructions to the captains had been. This might help.

The Ambassador said why not? He would ask. Secretary Vance added that a third boat had been seized. Dr. Brzezinski added that these were being treated on an individual basis; it was not part of any conflict, and this had been told to the press.


The President introduced the subject of commentary in the Soviet press. He indicated that in the first month of his Administration, the Soviet press had been reticent about personal attacks against him. That had changed, and he wanted to raise it—though these attacks did not hurt him. He was careful not to say anything about Brezhnev that was not complimentary. If their earlier attitude had changed, he wanted to help restore it, and create an atmosphere here of a desire for friendship with the Soviet Union.

[Page 136]

The Ambassador said he understood, and asked if he could be undiplomatic. The President joked that he hoped Dobrynin would not be too undiplomatic. The Ambassador continued that the psychological atmosphere had become bad—because of initiatives on the part of the United States. Two or three years ago—and this had nothing to do with personalities—there had been a sense in the Soviet Union that relations were improving, and this feeling had become quite strong. Now this was not the case.

The President said he would try to change that.

The Ambassador continued that if the improvement of atmosphere were mutual, it would be good. They had been impressed that this Administration—though not deliberately, but for some reasons—had been trying to push the Soviet Union, and had been engaging in anti-Soviet propaganda. This was the impression they had reluctantly come to. In November and December, the Soviet press had been positive. Then some issues—and some actions in the White House—had created a bad impression, as though we were starting psychological warfare (not ideological struggle, which was good). This had led to a spoiling of the atmosphere. The atmosphere in the Soviet Union was strained with regard to the United States. He could say this was something to be worked on together; they are prepared to move their half of the way.

The President said that we should do what we can, on both sides.


The Ambassador returned the conversation to SALT. He summarized that the US should be prepared to look at the Vladivostok Agreement as it is, with the levels as they were agreed, with cruise missiles subject to negotiation in SALT II. Therefore, this would be the number two US proposal, with cruise missiles.

The President said that we would prepare a draft on it, including what we wanted to say on this. Secretary Vance said it should be informal, sort of thinking out loud.

The Ambassador said it was clear that they did not want to talk about the comprehensive US proposal. Both would be talking about Vladivostok, though each side could call it what it wanted. The only difference is on cruise missiles. On mobile missiles, that could be negotiated—and could be prohibited or counted. The real issues that are left are cruise missiles: with ALCMs, there was a preliminary understanding. Sea and land-based cruise missiles were left.

Secretary Vance said that we would think out other issues. The President said that this was a good start, and that the Secretary would provide our views (?).

[Page 137]

The Ambassador said it would be good to have them before the meeting with Gromyko, instead of trying to do it in two days in Geneva.

The President said it would be helpful if the Soviet Union would let us have a picture—in general terms, not a negotiating position yet—of what their thinking might be on the lowest levels of nuclear forces they could accept for 1982 or 1985.

The Ambassador suggested that this would be difficult, and that negotiations should go forward for a while first; the President agreed. The Ambassador said it would be better to get a feeling that something was going to come out of the current round, then it would be all right to provide the thinking the President had suggested.

The President said that just going on to ratify Vladivostok, on the basis of ideas worked out by Kissinger, wouldn’t be very much. The Ambassador said it was something. The President agreed, but said that we really wanted to go farther. We need an understanding that Brezhnev will help us to get lower levels. The Ambassador said that was no obstacle, and the President said that would be helpful.

The Ambassador repeated that we would be moving on something. Working in parallel would be acceptable. They couldn’t deceive the United States: if a treaty was no good, the United States would not negotiate it. Therefore, the Soviet Union was also interested in moving towards greater security which would be better than nothing. And a treaty would have to be measured against each other’s views.

The two sides need a minimum (?) psychological understanding of each other. If we have something, we can then build little by little.

The President asked how much reductions in SALT II from the 2400 and 1320 levels would they consider. The Ambassador said he couldn’t say. The President asked whether it could be 10 or 15%. The Ambassador urged the President not to press on this point. The President asked the Ambassador to speak personally, not as an official of the Soviet Union. The Ambassador replied that he didn’t know.

The President asked how far down, in their view, would be in the mutual advantage of both sides. Was 1800 too low?

The Ambassador replied that it was, in 1985 (?) It seemed that the United States was trying to freeze Soviet forces, or get them to cut their heavy missiles. But they were prepared to look into a total package (?).

The President asked if there could be some reductions in SALT II? The Ambassador replied that Brezhnev was ready to put in a statement in SALT II, within a treaty.

Dr. Brzezinski mentioned having targets for reductions. The Ambassador replied that a treaty could provide for SALT II implementation of SALT III agreements. Dr. Brzezinski asked if in the summer there could [Page 138] be some definite targets to be reached before 1985. The Ambassador said he doubted it, but some initial reductions could come before SALT III.

Secretary Vance said that Brezhnev told him that presenting as a fact that Backfire was not an intercontinental weapon was saying enough. We need better assurances, and the ability to verify. Brezhnev sees the problem differently; it is important for the Ambassador to get the US view over to him.

The Ambassador said it was first a psychological matter. If the President were to make a similar statement, he would be believed. His sincerity would be enough for Brezhnev. It would be clear that the President would not cheat. Even more, trying to cheat on such a small thing would be worthless. The United States can also check. The Soviet Union could not have 200 to 400 intercontinental bombers without testing them. He was speaking as an engineer. It was not possible that they would suddenly have 1000 of them. Besides, Brezhnev as chairman of their defense council personally approves all these programs. He knows that this is a medium bomber. If these points need strengthening, however, the US should raise them.

Secretary Vance said we would do so.


The meeting concluded with an exchange on a State Department press announcement yesterday, in which it was noted that the Secretary had met with the head of the Chinese Liaison Office to discuss the Secretary’s visit to Moscow. Ambassador Dobrynin asked if this meant that every time there was a negotiation between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Chinese would be involved. The Secretary said no; and that a lot of other items had been covered. The President joked that if we were revealing all the proposals the Soviet Union had made, then there wouldn’t have been much to talk about.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Europe, USSR and East/West, Hunter/Rentschler Trips/Visits File, Box 18, 4/12/77 Dobrynin (USSR) Visit: 4/77. Top Secret; Sensitive. Drafted by Hunter. The meeting took place in the Oval Office.
  2. See Documents 4, 7, 1215, and 24.
  3. See Documents 1723.
  4. For the text of Gromyko’s March 31 press conference, see The Current Digest of the Soviet Press, vol. XXIX, no. 13, (April 27, 1977), pp. 5–9.
  5. See footnote 3, Document 26.
  6. See Document 24.
  7. See footnote 2, Document 26.
  8. No such memorandum has been found.
  9. In an April 4 memorandum to Brzezinski and Aaron, Odom provided information on Soviet fishing violations, specifically related to the Sovrenennyi, which had been boarded by the U.S. Coast Guard. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 78, USSR: 4–5/77)