272. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Conversation with Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin


  • US
  • The Secretary
  • Assistant Secretary George Vest, EUR
  • Soviet Union
  • Ambassador Anatoliy F. Dobrynin

SUMMARY. Dobrynin, who returns to Moscow on Sunday for a medical check-up, had a one and a half hour conversation covering SALT, the possibility of a future meeting between the two Foreign Ministers, the state of relations between the United States and the USSR, the causes of friction and the future. Dobrynin had little to give but pessimism. He saw the relationship built up over the last ten years down the drain and thought it likely that US-Soviet relations by the end of the Administration’s second term would be about where it was when it began the present term. END SUMMARY.


The Secretary said that he was aware that the Soviets were questioning whether there had been a change in our policy on SALT. He stressed that the President has left SALT on the Senate calendar and on the top of the calendar. The climate is not yet ripe, however. There is just a possibility that there may be a window when SALT II could be considered around June. If we miss that window, we will have to wait until after the elections. In response to Dobrynin’s question, he repeated we have made no decision to “postpone indefinitely” ratification of SALT II. We remain firmly committed to SALT II and are determined to pursue its ratification as soon as circumstances permit.

The Secretary continued that we are disappointed by the position taken by the Soviet side at the SCC that there was no justification to continue the work on SALT II implementation procedures. We had proposed to continue the work on these procedures in the belief that this served our mutual interest and this remains our view. Dobrynin said that the reason for the Soviet attitude was there [that] it seemed pointless to continue this work if SALT were to be postponed indefi [Page 788] nitely. Moscow had heard what the President had said and they also heard the comments of so many Senators, but in any case he would pass to Moscow what the Secretary was now saying.

The Secretary said that the President is firmly committed to SALT II and we feel it becomes even more important when times are tense. We do not intend to take any action which would impede the implementation of the treaty and we will maintain that policy. We hope and expect that the Soviets will do the same. Dobrynin replied that the United States has the means to check the Soviets.

Possibility of a Foreign Ministers’ Meeting

The Secretary said he would talk to the President this weekend about when such a meeting might be appropriate. Dobrynin had apparently nothing with which to respond. He said there had been various exchanges since the year’s beginning, including the proposal to send a special emissary for conversations in Moscow. The Secretary and Dobrynin went to and fro about events. Dobrynin thought we had changed our mind. The Secretary observed that from the tone of the high-level exchanges we had been left uncertain whether the Soviets wanted to have a meeting; that was why earlier the President had decided to let the matter rest. However, the Secretary thought the time had come to consider when a meeting would be worthwhile—April or May—and he asked Dobrynin to pass on his views to Gromyko.

US-Soviet Relations

Dobrynin was pessimistic about the future. He saw no prospect of improvement in our relations during or until well after the election campaign and thereafter it might take six months, two years, or longer before we could make progress. What did the Secretary think?

The Secretary pointed out that the invasion of Afghanistan had caused a major deterioration in our relationship and this would continue to be an important negative factor until the Soviet troops were withdrawn. We don’t see much chance in the foreseeable future of that withdrawal. The President had made our position clear in his response to Tito2 and in his comment on guarantees as related to a Soviet withdrawal. The relations between our two countries is the most important foreign policy issue for both of us and we had to find a way to control the dangers. There are positive things we must do. We should pursue SALT and key nuclear negotiations between us such as TNF and CTB. Arms control is the area in which bridges can be built, even in difficult times like the present. We on our side do not wish to destroy this essential part of the East-West framework. We will continue to abide by the [Page 789] terms of our existing legal agreements with the Soviet Union. We will continue our other arms control negotiations, including MBFR and chemical warfare treaty. We have a common interest in the NPT review and in going ahead with the CSCE review in Madrid. Dobrynin interjected that Moscow until now is prepared for Madrid also. The Secretary added that we are trying to move our British friends on the site numbers for CTB and it is just possible that we will see more positive action there. In the more general bilateral areas, cultural and scientific, we are pursuing these activities at lower levels and at a slowed-down pace but they should be kept in place for the future because it will be easier to build on them than to reinitiate. The Secretary concluded that our relationships are under strain and there are indeed many negative factors on the immediate horizon, but there is a basic desire on our part to get the relationship back on track through frank talks, to develop a more stable understanding in the important areas such as arms control, Southwest Asia, Southeast Asia, etc.

Dobrynin replied that this was his assessment of our policy. He was very unhappy with the present state of affairs. As he saw it, there is nothing but negativism for now and the immediate future. It was his impression that the US is disrupting our relationship so completely that it now affects even the least things between us. It took years to build the relationship which the US is so easily disrupting. That kind of relationship cannot be rebuilt possibly until the end of a second term, at which time the US will only be where it was when the Administration began. In the meantime, the US reaction is moving the Soviets to a counter-reaction, internally, not seen but happening with considerable emotion and even if it doesn’t show, it will be difficult to handle later on.

The Secretary asked Dobrynin what he saw in the future concerning the Afghanistan problem. He would be ready to sit down and discuss this with Dobrynin when he returned or to discuss it with Gromyko when we could also discuss broader concerns. Dobrynin wondered if this would be fruitful given the mood of the present US Administration.

Dobrynin reverted to US negativism again and the Secretary reminded him of Soviet negativism in Afghanistan. Dobrynin replied: But you ask how Moscow sees things, and they see this Administration as 100 percent negative, right down to the lesser things. He cited as examples:

—PanAm refused to ship the coffin containing the wife of the UN Deputy Secretary General for Political Affairs, Mrs. Sytenko. PanAm said this was against PanAm policy so the coffin went on Polish airlines. (Comment: PanAm had labor union difficulty on all freight shipments to USSR at that time. The Department was not asked to help.)

[Page 790]

—The situation has so deteriorated that now Soviet diplomats are acting as longshoremen.

—A Soviet trawler violated its catch limits on fish in Alaska and was handled with unusual harshness. (Comment: The trawler was handled in accordance with routine Coast Guard procedures followed in all violations of this nature, e.g., Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese. The vessel was escorted to Kodiak and the Coast Guard explicitly reported that relations with the crew of the “Zelenograd” remained cooperative and cordial.)

—Soviet scientists, seeing the mood in the US, are increasingly reluctant even to come to the US.

—The mood of the country is reinforced by the pronouncements of the Administration, so much so that there seemed to be practically nothing left to maintain in our bilateral relations.

Dobrynin illustrated his point with the report of Soviet gassing of Afghanistan villages, complaining that our official press briefing accused the Soviets without evidence to back it up. The Secretary replied that for weeks we have gotten extensive and numerous reports which give detailed accounts describing two kinds of gas, smoke and another which causes bleeding and death. We have report after report from many different sources. Therefore, our Spokesman was correct when he said that, although we have no photographs, we have so many reports from refugees that we have to take account of them. Dobrynin’s reply was that these are only stories and we have no proof. Do you believe, he asked, that we have no sense of civilization? It seems that you will accept any accusation against the Soviets.

He then turned to the bacteriological warfare episode. Anthrax, he said, is a disease which from time to time occurs in the Asian world. The Soviets have experienced it before in Siberia3 and warned people to avoid infected meat. In this case it was not a secret episode, it happened a year ago. Yet when people came to the West and told stories, we listened to their stories, reacted in public and to the UN agency without waiting for or giving credence to what the Soviet Union said. The Secretary pointed out that the essential fact was that there appeared to be evidence that some material had not been destroyed which should have been. Dobrynin replied that the Soviet authorities would not take such chances with their own citizens. The episode took place a year ago and now was being used as propaganda against the Soviets. The State Department Spokesman had no answer as to why this subject came up a year late or why we made accusations without proof. He was forced to conclude that a US TV commentator was right when he described it as [Page 791] an instance of the Administration’s “aggressive psychological warfare.” Certainly that is the atmosphere, an atmosphere which is altogether negative, a search warrant atmosphere, and as a result the structure of the past ten years is left standing like a building exposed to an atomic bomb. The Secretary commented that it was not our intent to destroy the structure. He had said that before and stood by it, but he did not minimize the problems. Dobrynin repeated gloomily that the only thing left was the bare framework of the structure and nothing else. The Secretary asked if Dobrynin thought the people in Moscow understood the intensity of the US public reaction to the invasion in Afghanistan. Dobrynin replied yes, they did understand it and, if not, the US reminded them of it daily.

The Secretary asked Dobrynin what he thought were the reasons for the deteriorated relationship. Dobrynin replied there were many reasons, including:

—The conduct of the SALT talks at the beginning of the Administration which should have been more prudently handled to dispose only of the remaining issues (the Secretary said it took us two plus years to dispose of them); the US suggestion for deep cuts had thrown off the negotiating stride.

—Human rights.

—Middle East. After the communique with Gromyko the Soviets were dropped out of the picture.

—Disarmament, where the US really set out to build up its arms.

—Vienna, a good meeting but instead of building on it the US fanned the Cuba incident4 and lost two months on SALT because of a non-existent issue and it was non-existent because Soviet troops had been in Cuba for 15 years.

Dobrynin then turned to SALT and TNF. The Soviets had thought SALT, as agreed at Vienna, would represent rough parity—and then we threw in TNF. The Secretary interjected that the Soviets had begun it with the SS–20 with multiple warheads. Dobrynin argued that we should not have thrown TNF into the middle of SALT but should have finished SALT II first, then turned to the problems of weapons in the allied area when we could have dealt with them sensibly. Doing it our way had built more and more impediments into the US-Soviet nuclear relationship. As a result the Soviets had grown angry and now said they would not discuss TNF. He saw each side having new weapons systems by 1983 and as a result did not see any prospect for SALT III.

Dobrynin concluded that massive US negativism affected even minor aspects of the US-Soviet relationship. Consequently he had to [Page 792] ask himself whether we had concluded that we saw no future between us for a very long time indeed. That seemed to be the case. Only the skeleton of the structure of our relationship exists. He wondered where we would be two years hence and whether we would even have reached the level of 1979. He bemoaned the fact that it was so easy to destroy and so difficult and so slow to build. At the moment he saw us going downhill.

The Secretary said he shared Dobrynin’s worries and that is why he raised these questions and discussed what we could do in the future. In summing up the conversation, he would review the situation with the President. He hoped that Dobrynin would do the same in Moscow. He thought there should be a meeting with Gromyko within the next six weeks or so and he looked forward to discussing this with Dobrynin when he returned. He asked Dobrynin to convey his regards to Gromyko and respects to Brezhnev and Dobrynin asked the Secretary to convey his respects to the President.

  1. Source: Department of State, Office of the Secretariat Staff, Cyrus R. Vance, Secretary of State—1977–1980, Lot 84D241, Box 9, Vance April/May/June, 1980, MemCons. Secret. Drafted by Vest; approved by Vance.
  2. See footnote 2, Document 268.
  3. See Documents 267, 269, and 270.
  4. Reference is to the Soviet brigade in Cuba; see Documents 217 and 219228.