41. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski) to President Carter1


  • Meeting with Ethiopian Ambassador

I spent an hour with Ambassador Ayalew this morning. He had sought the meeting, he said, because he feared that events in the Horn could take a fatally wrong turn by default. He wanted to think out loud with me to see if we could find a way of preventing this. I found him serious, highly articulate and seemingly entirely sincere.

He expounded Ethiopia’s view of the current conflict, stressing territorial integrity, and argued that the U.S. position seemed equivocal to Mengistu and negative to pro-Russian extremists in the Derg. As long as U.S. condemnation of Somalia’s aggression was done “whisperingly” (his word), he said Mengistu could not take any risks against these extremists who wanted Ethiopia to sell itself totally to the Soviets. Mengistu he characterized as an intense and dedicated nationalist who sooner or later was bound to clash with the Russians.

I took time to stress that our position was not and never had been anti-Ethiopian and then read your message to Mengistu to him while he took notes on it.2 Our main problem, I said, was to know whether there was any real possibility of talking intelligently with Mengistu. Did he realize the danger of tieing Ethiopia so closely to the Russians that the United States would have no choice—because of pressures from important friends in the area such as Iran and Saudi Arabia—but to back the Somalis against Ethiopia? Could we discuss this dilemma honestly with Mengistu? Was he prepared to accept the truth: that we had given the Somalis neither encouragement nor any support of any kind and that we did want good relations with Ethiopia and always have?

Ayalew was clearly moved by your message and said he had something else very important to discuss with me which he had told no one: he had just been recalled to Addis Ababa for consultation and was debating whether to delay or not go at all. He said he feared [Page 93] something was afoot in Addis because the ambassadors to the UN and to France had also been recalled. He made clear he feared for his life and recounted an attempt on his life that was made just before he departed for Washington. His car was machine-gunned as he drove up to the Foreign Ministry. This was done by pro-Russian elements who had pressured Mengistu to remove him as Minister of Defense but who resented his being sent to the U.S. as Ambassador. He asked whether he could have a written text of your letter to take back with him if he went. I said I would get him an answer as soon as possible; he said he could leave early next week.

Comment: Ayalew appears to believe we have a chance of appealing to Mengistu’s nationalism to draw him away from total dependence on the Soviets. He welcomes our effort to assert ourselves in the Horn and try to improve relations with Ethiopia. He looks upon our initiative as protection—he can risk returning to Addis. He is obviously a courageous man and says he has a relationship of mutual respect with Mengistu.

I do not believe we have anything to lose by sending your message to Mengistu via Ayalew. I believe the chances for success of our approach to Mengistu would be enhanced if it were publicized at the appropriate point, but I am not sure we should rely on the Ethiopians themselves to publicize it. If there is a struggle in the Derg between Mengistu and pro-Russian extremists, it is in our advantage for the time being to help Mengistu strengthen his position.


That I receive Ambassador Ayalew as soon as convenient and give him your message in writing for delivery to Mengistu.3

  1. Source: Carter Library, Brzezinski Donated Material, Box 2, Ethiopia/Horn of Africa. Secret; Sensitive; Outside the System. Sent for action.
  2. See Document 42. In a memorandum to Brzezinski, January 23, Henze summarized the meeting with Ayalew and the Ambassador’s promise to deliver the President’s message to Mengistu immediately through special channels. (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Horn/Special, Box 1, Chron File: 1/78)
  3. Carter checked the Agree option and wrote “J” beneath the options.