311. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • US-Soviet Relations


  • President Jimmy Carter
  • Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs
  • Ambassador Thomas J. Watson, Jr., United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union
  • Mr. Marshall Brement, NSC Staff Member
[Page 1114]

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to China.]

Ambassador Watson. My third point (turning to Dr. Brzezinski) and here you might disagree with me, because I’m going to mention China. The Soviets have a paranoid fear of China. They have a long border with that country and they are irrational on the subject. They do not talk about China. In fact, during my tour there no Soviet has even mentioned the subject to me. So I think it important that we do not take actions that will be misunderstood by them and that we maintain an evenhanded policy and not hurt them in this regard just to hurt them.

The President. All the actions we have taken toward China are based on our desire to improve relations with that very important country. We are not normalizing our relations with the Chinese just in order to hurt the Soviets.

Ambassador Watson. I am no historian, and Dr. Brzezinski certainly knows more about the subject than I do, but it seems to me that the Chinese have a tendency to jump around from bed to bed. And I think we ought to make sure that they are lashed down to our bed before we undertake actions which we might regret later on.

Dr. Brzezinski. You have to remember that we are very sexy people.

Ambassador Watson. The fourth point I would like to make, if I may, is to raise the confusion and conflict between the NSC and the State Department. This is bad for our country and, when such confusion exists, it cannot help but affect morale in our embassies, particularly when there is disagreement about basic policies.

The President. What kinds of policies?

Ambassador Watson. Well, China would be one thing—the policy of evenhandedness, especially the question of MFN and of supplying strategic products to the Chinese. We seem to be sending out mixed signals.

The President. This is a misconception. There have been no high level differences on China policy. You can ask both Ed Muskie and Cy Vance and they will tell you that all our decisions about China were reached with complete compatibility at the top level. There are, of course, differences within the State Department, with each area and head of area thinking his area should be preeminent and that his area is the most important for our foreign policy. Dick Holbrooke’s attitude toward China is different from that of the man in charge of European affairs. I think that is the real origin of any confusion regarding our policies. The State Department is an unwieldly, compartmentalized bureaucracy. That is its nature and it is not going to change. On MFN, we wanted to move together with both the Soviets and the Chinese, but events made that impossible. I can assure you that on the question of [Page 1115] normalization with China and on the sale of military related equipment to China there have been no major differences at the top levels of this Administration. Isn’t that so, Zbig?

Dr. Brzezinski. There’s been only one difference that I am aware of. And that is that Fritz pushed for MFN for China even before we did.

Ambassador Watson. Still, I think we should keep in mind the basic nature of the Chinese and what they believe in. What are the real differences between the Chinese takeover of Tibet and what has happened in Afghanistan?

Dr. Brzezinski. One main difference is that the Chinese invasion of Tibet took place many years ago and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan took place last December. We cannot as policy-makers deal with events which took place in the distant past, or continually place in the forefront such occurrences as the Soviet takeover of the Baltic States. In fact, the President’s policy on the USSR was quite clearly articulated in his speech in Philadelphia.2

Ambassador Watson. I did not in any way mean to suggest that we should condone what the Soviets did in Afghanistan. If you look back at the original telegram sent out by Garrison and me on December 25, you will see that our recommendations encompassed about 80% of what the Administration finally decided to do about Afghanistan. We are in complete agreement with that policy.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to China.]

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Subject File, Box 38, Memcons: President: 6/80. Confidential. The meeting took place in the Oval Office.
  2. Carter’s address on May 9 to the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia on the goals of U.S. foreign policy is printed in Public Papers: Carter, 1980, pp. 867–874.