175. Memorandum From Michel Oksenberg of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • My Conversation with President Nixon in San Clemente, December 18, 1978

I spent two hours with President Nixon in his San Clemente study, from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m. PST. At the outset, he informed me that as a result of your phone call, and his conversation with the President,2 he thought [Page 659] the purpose of the meeting was to brief him and to help him decide how he could be helpful on our China decision, particularly whether he should issue a statement. He then informed me that he was not inclined to issue a statement at this time. He had been receiving many calls from Republicans, such as Representative Michaels, the Republican House Whip, and several Senators. He had told them he was studying the matter. He has already been in contact with Kissinger, and will talk to him again today.

I got the sense that Nixon was genuinely surprised by the decision and hadn’t understood the timing, that he is dubious it was necessary, that down deep he admires the President for a gutsy decision, that normalization has occurred, and that he is willing to play some sort of a helpful role but one that sets him somewhat apart from us. He is casting about, in short, for how he will play it and I suspect he and Kissinger will work this out together.

I. Messages for the President

In the course of the conversation, he asked me to convey three messages to the President:

On secrecy: The President should not apologize one bit for conducting the negotiations secretly. That was the necessary way to do it, particularly with the Chinese. There will be a lot of “clowns” on the Hill who will complain. That is to be expected. But at certain times, diplomacy must be secret.

On Taiwan: Taiwan will survive. There is no problem there. Terminating the Defense Treaty had to occur. Taiwan can defend itself. But this is an emotional issue. A lot of people feel very close to Taiwan and have had extensive relations with them. Some of the “Republican crazies” will never be brought around, like Barry Goldwater. Others do not know how to react. Responsible opponents can be brought along but how? Have we thought about that? Senators are going to seek an opportunity to indicate their support for Taiwan. They will not wish just to follow the Administration; they will wish some independently defined role as well. For the Administration explicitly to identify that separate role would be the kiss of death. Perhaps the best avenue is a Senate resolution affirming our continued interest in Taiwan, developed by someone like Baker, which the Administration might indirectly encourage but which openly the Administration might only grudgingly accept or even somewhat disown.

Impact on Allies: This is the real concern. How will this decision affect our allies? How will we retain our credibility after terminating the Treaty? This is a special case; everyone will understand that. Yet to terminate a defense treaty could sow seeds of doubt about us, particularly in Asia. As a result of this decision, the President cannot make any weak [Page 660] moves in the foreseeable future. For whether this move is weak or not, the termination of our relations with Taiwan will be seen as such. Here are the actions which would help place our China decision in a more comforting context for our allies:

• No problem with Japan. They feel exposed in their China relationship and want us more fully involved.

• Stop beating on the human rights record in the Philippines. Sure Marcos is corrupt, “The Philippines learned all the excesses of democracy from us and then perfected them.” But the human rights record of the Philippines is much better than the PRC.

• No problem with Thailand. “The Thais are like rice, yielding to the wind.”

• Make sure arms supplies to Indonesia are sufficient to enable Suharto to handle his internal situation. We often overlook Indonesia; it is an important country.

• No recognition of either Vietnam or Cuba. On Cuba, no recognition until their troops are out of Africa.

• In South Asia, the China decision will have little effect, though we should encourage improved Sino-Indian relations. The key dynamics in this region are derived from Afghanistan, the internal problems and external pressures on Pakistan and Iran—for which he explicitly said he had no solution.

• Israel will note our China decision; it will make them tougher to deal with. Lower our public rhetoric about them, while applying the pressure quietly and directly. As an aside, Nixon thought we would eventually get our Israeli-Egyptian agreement.

• Tacitly, let Europeans sell arms to China. A China strong enough to defend itself is essential to world peace. A weak China invites attack. Normalization and increased Sino-American commercial relations make more likely the possibility of a Soviet attack on China. If Nixon were in Brezhnev’s shoes, he would think of a pre-emptive attack, though when pressed, he said the Soviets could not win such a war.

In sum, our China decision is a major policy decision, with major ramifications, and we must take these into account in the months ahead.

II. Questions

President Nixon posed three basic questions:

First, how did it happen; what was the flavor of the discussions?

Second, what explains the timing of the event?

Third, in terms of the politics of it, how do we intend to proceed from here? For the sake of the record, let me summarize my response:

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The Negotiating Process: Basically, I gave him no more than one can reconstruct from the Times, Post, and Star accounts. The only new tidbit I gave him was the inadvertently scheduled Mondale meeting, to show him how tightly the thing was held—Mondale knew, his aide did not. I stressed how tough we had been on arms sales, especially in your Friday meeting on December 153 and how we rejected outright the Chinese desire for us to declare our existing agreements with Taiwan to be “null and void.” Nixon seemed impressed by the way we handled it, though he may think we acted on the hasty side.

Timing: On our side, I thought the target date of January 1, which the President had signalled to the Chinese in October stemmed primarily from SALT considerations. We wish to move forward with both the Soviets and Chinese simultaneously and to give each a sense of the inevitability of our movement with their adversary. Nixon clearly appreciated that.

In addition, although I am not privy to the President’s thoughts, I suspected the President felt he had a limited amount of time—a window—after which normalization would be politically more difficult as the 1980 elections approach.

Finally, I went over the evolution of our China policy since 1977. I underscored that we had read carefully the entire negotiating record and understood clearly what the “spirit of the Shanghai Communique” entailed. (You have to do the same with Kissinger.) I went out of my way to tell Nixon how interesting his conversations were and how we fully intended to keep them confidential. We had done so thus far and would continue to do so. Somewhat later, he noted in passing that he and Henry had told the Chinese things in private that had never been made public.

In the light of that record, I said, and of the essential failure of the Vance mission—during which we tried to temporize—we decided by May, 1978 that either our China policy must move toward normalization or else the momentum secured in 1972 would be entirely lost.

The question then becomes why the Chinese responded to the January 1 target date with swiftness and flexibility. I said I thought several factors were at work: (1) worsening relations with the Soviet Union, the increase in military forces on the border (which he did not know about), Soviet gains in Afghanistan, Yemen, and Africa; (2) Vietnam; (3) China’s turn outward; (4) Teng’s consolidated leadership position. The impending SALT agreement may have been another factor.

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Nixon basically agreed, and talked about the impressions which the various Chinese leaders made on him. I thought he went out of his way to say he had never met Teng. He knew Hua, thought he was a bureaucrat, not an ideologue or revolutionary, and probably a pretty good infighter. If he were Teng, he would keep an eye on Hua. The former President then digressed to talk about Mao and Chou, both of whom were sparkling and possessing the Chinese sense of humor. He found Hua rather humorless and dour.

Nixon liked the idea Teng might come after Brezhnev; it would help keep down the false euphoria that will accompany a SALT II agreement.

Politics: I said we had some legislation we would propose to the Hill.

Nixon then returned to his earlier theme. He wants to be helpful. He is not ready to make a statement. He will talk to Henry today. But the act is done and is irreversible.

I said yes, that this was always a decision involving Presidential leadership but which must remain bi-partisan. We cannot let China policy become a partisan issue again. He said that to keep it bi-partisan, we must think of an independent role for the potential critics, so that they can share in the over-all policy. Baker is the guy to get, he repeated. And we can get him by giving him a special role to play in reassuring Taiwan. His father-in-law Everett Dirksen was very close to Taiwan, Nixon added, “You know what I mean, but we don’t need to get into that.”

IV. Side Remarks

Nixon is unsure of his reaction to SALT. He has now followed it closely. But he thought at the end he may have some questions.

He is unsure how history will judge his China initiative. It makes sense now, but by the end of the century, perhaps we will have to work with the Soviet Union against China.

Television makes fighting a war difficult. Nixon doubts the U.S. can ever fight in a war that lasts more than a few weeks, unless the gore is kept off the screen.

V. Overall Impressions

Nixon is very impressive. He is not the cold, aloof man portrayed in the paper. He is impressively knowledgeable, nuanced—an old pro. He also was quite courteous toward me.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Outside the System File, Box 51, Chron: 12/14–31/78. Top Secret; Sensitive; Eyes Only; Alpha. Sent for information. A handwritten “C” at the top of the page indicates that Carter saw the memorandum. An attached handwritten note from Brzezinski to Carter reads, “Mr. President—Very interesting. ZB.”
  2. Carter, who spent the weekend of December 16–17 at Camp David, spoke on the telephone to both Nixon and Brzezinski on December 17. (Carter Library, Presidential Materials, President’s Daily Diary)
  3. Carter met on December 15 from 3:55 to 5:08 p.m. with Mondale, Vance, Christopher, Brzezinski, Harold Saunders, Herbert Hansell, Hamilton Jordan, and Jody Powell to discuss his address to the nation that evening. (Ibid.)