153. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Middle East, Arms Control


  • Secretary Cyrus R. Vance
  • Ambassador Malcolm Toon
  • Mr. Paul Warnke
  • Assistant Secretary Arthur Hartman
  • Mr. William Hyland
  • Mr. Leslie Gelb
  • Mr. William D. Krimer, Interpreter
  • USSR
  • Foreign Minister A.A. Gromyko
  • Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers L.V. Smirnov
  • Deputy Foreign Minister G.M. Korniyenko
  • Ambassador A.F. Dobrynin
  • Notetaker—Name Unknown
  • Mr. V.M. Sukhodrev, Interpreter

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to a comprehensive test ban.]


Gromyko said that, as the Secretary would know, the Soviet Union was in favor of resolving the problem of completely stopping nuclear weapon testing. The USSR had proposed that all nuclear powers, without exception, enter into discussions as soon as possible, with the participation of non-nuclear states, with a view to conclusion of a treaty on this subject, providing for a complete and universal ban on testing nuclear weapons. In connection with that proposal, the question of verification would arise, and the Soviet Union had taken it into account, although he was convinced that given today’s level of technology, verification by national technical means should be sufficient. Still, the Soviet Union was prepared to go further and find mutually acceptable understandings that would preserve the framework of voluntary decisions in the context of on-site investigation of certain phenomena. This should be aimed at providing assurances for all parties to the treaty that obligations under the treaty were being complied with. Something of this kind had been suggested by the Swedes. The Soviets would suggest [Page 355] that our two countries act promptly, considering the fact that this issue was currently under discussion in the Disarmament Committee. To translate these considerations into the text of a mutually acceptable treaty would be a major step forward.

Gromyko wanted to suggest an idea that the Secretary might not be able to answer now. Perhaps he could reflect on it, and reply after he returned to Washington. Such a treaty could initially be signed by our two countries, and be accompanied by a simultaneous appeal to other nuclear states, and even to non-industrial countries, to accede to it. When signing the treaty, the United States and Soviet Union could declare that for a specified period of time, say one and a half to two years, they would refrain from testing nuclear weapons; in other words, they would declare a moratorium on their own testing. If other nuclear powers did not accede to the treaty within that period of time, the Soviet Union and the United States would be released from their obligations under such a moratorium. Gromyko believed that such a step would impel certain powers to take positive action and would, in general, favorably influence the whole international situation. That would be a good thing. It was hard to imagine who could criticize the new Administration for taking such a step. In the Soviet Union, and he was quite sure in saying this, such a step would meet with understanding; people would regard it as positive. However, one could not consider peaceful nuclear explosions in one and the same category with the testing of nuclear weapons. Peaceful nuclear explosions were used in the Soviet Union to accomplish major economic tasks. Certain plans had been made involving PNEs. He would point out that, taking into account US views, the Soviet Union had agreed to limit the yield of such explosions under an agreement signed last year. At the same time, that agreement provided that nuclear explosions for solely peaceful purposes would be subject to a system of verification that would be worked out in detail, envisioning in certain cases access by the representatives of one side to the explosion site of the other. It would represent a substantial step forward, a radical solution to the problem of ending nuclear testing, curbing the arms race, and protecting people against the harmful consequences of such tests, if ratification of the Threshold and PNE agreements already signed by our two countries were completed. The Soviets did not lack readiness to do so. They were waiting to see when the new Administration in Washington would become more active in this area. Who could deny the positive significance of the agreements already on the table in signed form? He thought that each member of the US Senate and House of Representatives would approve. The US could take this important step toward strengthening peace and security, strengthening Soviet-American relations, and thus reinforce some of the positive statements made in the US. It seemed to the Soviets that the Carter Administration could do this if it wished.

[Page 356]

The Soviet Union had tabled a draft treaty banning all nuclear weapon testing. Surely the Secretary was aware of it, and Gromyko would not repeat its provisions. It was now before the appropriate international organizations.

The Secretary said with respect to the two treaties we had already signed, that, as he had indicated yesterday, he had urged the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to take positive action to ratify these treaties.2 The Chairman had indicated that he would take the necessary steps to move Congress to act. In addition, the Administration will indicate its support for this ratification, so as to assist in urging that Congress take prompt action in the near future. The Secretary said he would be less than frank if he did not tell Gromyko that there will be some in Congress who will ask why these treaties should be signed, in view of the fact that a comprehensive test ban treaty was being urged by the Administration. The comprehensive test ban could be strongly supported by the administration and he believed that this would be an indication of our wish to cooperate with the Soviet Union and strengthen our bilateral relations.

Gromyko suggested that the Secretary explain to those who do not understand that these agreements do not run counter or contradict the other one.

The Secretary said that we will argue that these agreements are steps on the way to a comprehensive test ban.

Gromyko said it would be good if progress were achieved. He would also point out that their own instruments (national means) here in Moscow had so far registered even weak explosions.

The Secretary was sure that our efforts to get ratification would be aided if both our countries were clearly cooperating toward achievement of a comprehensive test ban.

Gromyko suggested that we not only cooperate on the technical aspects of verifying peaceful nuclear explosions, but also make the cooperative work much more intensive than it was now.

The Secretary said he found this idea very interesting. He would point out, however, that we had grave concerns for allowing exceptions for peaceful nuclear explosions. The reason for that was that it was almost impossible to conduct peaceful explosions without weapons-related benefits. Therefore, we favored elimination of all nuclear explosions.

[Page 357]

Gromyko asked what exceptions the Secretary had in mind. After all, there were provisions for verification. He would suggest that those who shouted the loudest in the US be sent along as observers on PNE verification assignments.

The Secretary agreed that verification was one of the matters that needed to be pursued further. However, experts in the area said that even with verification it would be possible to develop information that was contrary to a comprehensive test ban. Therefore, he would suggest that we have our respective experts get together for bilateral discussion of this subject in the near future.

Gromyko did not believe there would be any insuperable obstacles in the way of resolving this problem. One should not forget that all along in the course of discussing these matters on a bilateral basis the Soviets had proceeded from the premise that there was a significant difference between weapons testing and PNE. It was for this reason that they had signed the two treaties. He would suggest to the Secretary that we should avoid taking any step that would turn us backward. One could find skeptics on any question. He supposed one could even find someone who would maintain that Earth was not turning around the sun, but that it was the other way around.

Smirnov said that this was probably asserted by those experts who did not want to see that kind of treaty signed. He pointed out that this was a specific technical problem. “Let your experts come and see, they could even take the top off the cylinder of the explosive device to make sure that it was not a weapon.” (The Secretary asked Gromyko if he agreed; Gromyko did not reply.)

Gromyko said that, put in other words, the sooner the US Government obtained ratification of these treaties, the better. If that were done, there would be nothing but applause for both sides.

The Secretary said he would be happy to respond. If we could agree upon a satisfactory CTB treaty, we would be very much in favor of signing it with the Soviet Union, even though others did not sign it initially.

Gromyko said that if the US was ready to accept the idea in principle, he would suggest that the two sides agree to hold bilateral discussions at the level of experts. He asked when the US would be prepared to begin.

The Secretary consulted with Mr. Warnke, who informed him that we could do so very rapidly. He would accordingly inform Gromyko and would assure him that it could be soon.

Gromyko said that Mr. Warnke had given the Secretary good advice. The Soviet side would await advice as to when the experts would be ready.

[Page 358]

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to a comprehensive test ban.]


Gromyko said he would briefly touch upon a question the Secretary would be familiar with—possible conclusion of a treaty or agreement on banning new types of weapons or weapons systems of mass destruction. The Soviet Union had raised this question in all seriousness some time ago. It had hoped that the US would also emphasize the importance of this question and would join in working on the problem. From time to time, representatives of past administrations had sporadically touched on this subject, perhaps sometimes at Soviet initiative, at other times on their own accord, and had told the Soviet Union of their views in this regard. An exchange of views had taken place in the CCD in Geneva and in the United Nations in New York, but these discussions had been of a very general nature. At the same time, some serious discussions were held in Geneva. At first, the US reaction had consisted in asking the Soviets question after question and in evading discussion of specifics. Gromyko noticed that and had been amazed at such an approach. Then, probably after those who had asked the questions realized that this could not go on endlessly, another question was asked—what was meant by new types of weapons systems? Soviet representatives found themselves forced to name several such types, stating that theirs was by no means an exhaustive list, and that representatives of all other countries were equally free to name what they felt could be weapons of mass destruction. What serious man could deny the existence of this serious problem? Should we simply permit rocks to roll down the mountain without our doing anything to stop them?

Surely we should attempt to take steps to restrain all countries from developing new types of weapons of mass destruction; otherwise, everything that had been accomplished; most notably in the field of strategic arms limitation, would become worthless. If we were on the one hand to attempt to limit strategic arms, while others produced new types of weapons of mass destruction, this would be tantamount to the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing. He did not know whether he had expressed his thoughts clearly, but it should be clear that the United States and the Soviet Union should combine their efforts. If that were done, other nations would join in, and that would benefit the general cause of world peace and the peoples of our countries. Gromyko hoped the Secretary would not think that the Soviet Union was pursuing some sort of advantage or political capital in this. He thought that a solution that would benefit all would be facilitated by developing cooperation between our two countries, provided, of course, that the United States was interested and willing. The Soviets would even be prepared to consider the question of concluding sepa[Page 359]rate agreements banning the development and manufacture of radiological weapons, taking into account the interest in this question which was displayed by the US side. Repeated contacts on this matter had already taken place. It had also been discussed in the UN General Assembly. This was a major question, one that had significance not only for today, but also for the future.

The Secretary said he would respond briefly by saying that we had found on the basis of experience that for arms control agreements to be effective, they had to be precisely defined and capable of verification. Quite frankly, we had problems with the Soviet proposal because of its broad and general nature. It would be difficult to deal with. However, we continued to be interested in banning specific weapons categories, such as the radiological weapons Gromyko had mentioned.

Gromyko said that when the US was ready to engage in specific discussion of this concrete issue, it should inform the Soviets accordingly. As for the Soviet draft treaty which appeared to the Secretary to be general in nature, in the context of exchanges of views already held at the level of experts, some specific information was developed. He would suggest that the Secretary take a look at these materials. Soviet experts had named some very specific weapons categories. He would ask the Secretary to signal him when the specialists were ready to exchange views.


The Secretary agreed. He wanted to say before we got too far away from the issues of non-proliferation and CTB, that agreement on a comprehensive test ban without an exception for peaceful nuclear explosions would do much to stop proliferation and discourage others from following India’s example. He feared that if an exception were permitted for PNE, we would soon find other threshold countries.

Gromyko said the new treaty would require careful discussion and drafting but, completely to preclude PNE—could that really be done?

Smirnov said the time would someday come when Americans, too, would realize the benefits of PNE for national economic purposes.

Soviet scientists had suggested using PNE to provide storage space for wastes and for other purposes. He repeated his suggestion that an expert be assigned to monitor a peaceful explosion for verification purposes. An expert could always determine by examining the explosive device whether it was a weapon or not. He pointed out that the Soviet Union had also made use of conventional explosives for peaceful purposes. There were no technical difficulties here, only a desire was needed for verification to be effective.

Gromyko recalled some films that had shown PNEs. Any expert who could not assure himself that an explosion was not carried out for [Page 360] weapons purposes either did not understand the subject or did not wish to see an agreement of this sort. He recalled that a few years ago a representative of the United States had talked with him about the possibility of using PNEs to dig a new Panama Canal. He asked if the US did not expect that PNEs might be very advantageous in the future.

The Secretary responded that he was familiar with the suggestion for construction of a new Panama Canal. The project had been examined in great detail and we had come to the conclusion that the results of digging a canal in this manner would be unacceptable—PNEs would produce fallout dangerous to people in the area. Consequently, the plans had been abandoned. We also had acquired a great deal of experience in testing PNEs, but had concluded that such explosions presented environmental dangers. We had also concluded that the problem of weapons-related information were quite real. One of the problems that arises with the weapons aspect was the fact that it would be necessary closely to examine the explosive device itself. This created many problems.

Gromyko suggested that the Secretary inform him when the US side would be prepared to enter into discussions of all the questions arising in this connection.

The Secretary agreed.

Gromyko suggested that several groups of experts could examine the non-political questions involved.3

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to peaceful nuclear explosions.]

  1. Source: Department of State, Office of the Secretariat Staff, Special Adviser to the Secretary (S/MS) on Soviet Affairs Marshall Shulman—Jan 21, 77–Jan 19, 81, Lot 81D109, Box 8, Vance to Moscow, March 28–30, 1977. Secret; Nodis. Drafted by Krimer; and approved by Hyland (in draft), and Twadell on May 9. The meeting took place at the Kremlin. The memorandum is printed in full in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. VI, Soviet Union, Document 20. Vance reported on his conversation with Gromkyo to Carter and Brzezinski in Secto 3033 from the Secretary’s Delegation, March 29. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, P840076–0315)
  2. A day earlier, Vance had told Brezhnev that the U.S. was “moving promptly to secure Congressional ratification of the Treaty on the Threshold Test Ban and the Treaty on Peaceful Nuclear Explosions. What we accomplish during our meetings here would help us in the ratification of those treaties.” This conversation is printed in full in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. VI, Soviet Union, Document 17.
  3. Vance summarized this conversation with PRC Ambassador Huang Chen on April 11. The memorandum of conversation is printed in Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. XIII, China, Document 25.