31. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Zbigniew Brzezinski, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Anatoliy Dobrynin, Ambassador of the Soviet Union

I had lunch today (12:40–2:50) with Ambassador Dobrynin, on his initiative. The luncheon was a compromise-picnic: I provided the White House meal and he provided vodka and caviar, a bargain that I felt was equitable to both sides.

After usual preliminaries, we agreed that we would not talk about specific issues in any negotiating fashion but would simply discuss in broad terms the state of U.S.-Soviet relations. He asked me for my opinion and in my opening comments, I essentially suggested the following:

1. Our relationship is approaching a key phase in regards to some central issues, notably SALT, and, in some measure also, the Middle East. On SALT, I expressed concern that the pace of negotiations may not be rapid enough and that we may be faced by early fall with a situation which at least our publics will interpret as involving a crisis. This [Page 142] could have an inhibiting effect on further progress. I stressed to him that this concern was not derived from any feeling that our public opinion or that our Congress would not support the U.S. negotiating position; rather it was derived from my concern that we do not put ourselves into a position in which neither side has sufficient flexibility to conclude an effective agreement.

Secondly, in regards to the foregoing, I also suggested that the Middle East is coming to a phase in which we will need to be very sensitive to each other’s concerns. The Soviets have to realize that while they will need to be engaged in any formal negotiating process, at this stage it is in everyone’s interest—including the Soviets’—for the United States to play a special role in encouraging the parties towards genuine negotiations.

In addition to these two key issues, I commented that other issues are surfacing as potential sources of difficulty: I noted that developments in Africa are such that they may well be interpreted in significantly different ways by Washington and Moscow, and that Soviet actions are likely to generate increasing anxiety here. I noted that the situation in Eastern Europe could conceivably become unstable if economic difficulties in one or another East European country were to become linked with political difficulties. This could precipitate some eruptions, the consequences of which could also adversely affect the U.S.-Soviet relationship. I also noted that at this stage it was too early for us to judge how genuinely interested the Soviets were in reaching an agreement on the CTB and the Indian Ocean, and that progress on these issues would be desirable. Finally, I noted that there are also specific irritants to be taken into account: The Toth incident had a negative impact on U.S. public opinion,2 and so do the continued Soviet press attacks on the President personally, the Soviet crackdown on the dissidents, and—last but not least—the failure of Brezhnev to receive Ambassador Toon,3 who was carrying a friendly message to Brezhnev, especially in view of the fact that Dobrynin has already twice seen (and for lengthy sessions) the U.S. President.

In the light of the foregoing, I noted that we still hope very much that a Carter-Brezhnev meeting can be held, and that it can be held in an atmosphere which would be conducive to further progress in U.S.-Soviet relations. Accordingly, it might be important to reflect on ways which can be helfpul to move SALT forward, to help contain [Page 143] some of the negative tendencies noted in regards to the other major issues, and on how we can deal with the irritants that have emerged in our relations.

The foregoing was answered by Dobrynin who spoke at great length and with considerable feeling about his sense of grave concern regarding the state of U.S.-Soviet relations. He emphasized to me that he wanted to give me as accurate a feel for the atmosphere in Moscow as he can conceivably convey. He stressed that the Soviet leaders are very perplexed about what it is that the Carter Administration is trying to do. He stated that Brezhnev recently asked him to provide one concrete example of the new Administration’s willingness to improve U.S.-Soviet relations and that Dobrynin was at a loss as to how to answer. Dobrynin specifically mentioned a number of examples which in his view were counterproductive: the negative decision on the Cyber computer;4 the publicity given to new weapons systems which seem to be designed to put the Soviet Union under pressure; the President’s use of the word “aggressively” when the President recently spoke of the U.S. desire to pursue policies designed to diminish Soviet influence in certain friendly countries.

Dobrynin stated that all of the foregoing is creating the impression in Moscow that we are more interested in competition than in cooperation and that this necessarily affects the Soviet attitude on specific issues. In addition to the foregoing, he noted the following minor specific points, which strike me as worthy of note:

a. He said he was surprised that lower level State Department officials seem to be familiar with the fact as well as with the content of the President’s correspondence with Brezhnev;

b. That U.S. delegations to recent bilateral U.S.-Soviet talks on nuclear and other issues did not seem to be well prepared and not ready to negotiate in detail.

Turning to SALT, Dobrynin emphasized that the Soviet position is that the United States is deliberately attempting to significantly affect the central component of the Soviet nuclear force, namely ground-based missiles. This he feels is unequal and one-sided. He also stressed that the Soviet Union made a deliberate bow to the President by proposing recently that both sides reduce their arsenals to 2250; he emphasized this point, stressing that this had not been the Soviet intention but that it was a goodwill gesture aimed at the President personally.

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I stressed to Dobrynin that he should make it clear to his Soviet colleagues that there are certain things which the U.S. President can and cannot control. I cited the example of the Concorde as something which foreigners find very difficult to comprehend,5 and I emphasized that it is important for him to stress to Brezhnev that the Congressional defense budget process, and statements by legislators, are not under executive control in this country. Moreover, I indicated to him that the President’s desire to decrease nuclear weaponry is a very genuine one, and that it had been counterproductive for the Soviet side to misconstrue it as an attempt to gain a unilateral advantage. He acknowledged this point and stated that he was trying to convince his colleagues back home of this fact.

He became somewhat indignant when I cited to him the fact that some Soviet spokesmen had spoken of deeper cuts than those proposed by Gromyko, involving at least 10%. He spoke with some vehemence to the effect that we make a mistake in taking seriously Soviet academicians who pretend to speak for the top Soviet leadership. He pointed out that the most prominent one of them has seen Brezhnev only once a year and that it is really a figment of our own imaginations to consider them as serious spokesmen for the Soviet government. He noted, for example, that the Soviet academic who publicly proposed in Moscow a mutual 10% cut was reprimanded and will not make such proposals again.

While generally concerned with the nature of the U.S.-Soviet relationship, he was unwilling to be specific as to what ought to be done about it. He was rather inclined to press me for my views, which I did not elaborate beyond those summarized earlier. He agreed that it might be useful to try to see whether a more concerted effort could not be made in SALT in order to make certain that there is more definite progress by September; that it might be useful to take a closer look at some of the issues that provoked the greatest degree of sensitivity on both sides, differentiating between those which cannot be subject to governmental control and those which perhaps can be ameliorated by initiatives taken by the leaders; and that more thought ought to be given to the possibility of a Carter-Brezhnev meeting. We further agreed that it might be useful to have again a talk focusing not so much on specific issues but on the larger dimensions of the Soviet-American relationship, and that he would pursue this subject also in his conversations with the Secretary of State.

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On leaving, I assured him that I would summarize his views as best I can to both the President and the Secretary, and I expressed the hope that Ambassador Toon will be in a position to hold a similar conversation soon with top Soviet leaders. He explained to me that he was surprised that Toon delayed so long his request to deliver the letter to Brezhnev and that under the circumstances the Soviet side had no choice but to decline the request since Brezhnev was about to leave for Paris. He agreed that it would be useful for Toon to meet with Chairman Brezhnev, although he also noted that Brezhnev tends to be somewhat more volatile than the President and that there might be some risks in a discussion at this stage of the relationship.

An incidental footnote: He told me that the Soviets are from now on officially translating Brezhnev’s title not as Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet (the traditional way of translation), but as the President of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. In brief, Brezhnev is also Mr. President.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Outside the System File, Box 48, Chron: 6/77. Top Secret. The meeting took place at the White House.
  2. Robert Toth, a reporter for The Los Angeles Times stationed in Moscow, was detained by Soviet authorities on June 11, reportedly for acquiring Soviet state secrets from a Soviet scientist. See “U.S. Reporter Detained in Soviet,” The New York Times, June 12, 1977, p. 16.
  3. See Document 30.
  4. Reference is to the Carter administration’s refusal to sell the Soviet Union a Cyber 76 computer, which would reportedly be used for meteorological study. See Jack Anderson and Les Whitten, “Carter Blocks Sale of Computer,” The Washington Post, June 13, 1977, p. B13.
  5. The Concorde was an Anglo-French supersonic passenger aircraft undergoing a 16-month trial for trans-Atlantic flights and encountering opposition from those in its flight path because of its sonic boom. See Albert R. Karr, “The Sticky Concorde Issue,” The Wall Street Journal, June 23, 1977, p. 20.