12. Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in the Soviet Union1

26874. Subject: Haig-Dobrynin Meeting, January 29. References: A. Moscow 1088;2 B. State 19053.3

1. Secret—Entire text.

2. Begin summary. In his response to the Secretary’s January 23 letter4 (ref B), delivered by Ambassador Dobrynin on January 29, Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko expressed readiness to exchange views on matters deserving priority attention but complained that those the Secretary had raised—Soviet treatment of the hostage situation, Poland, and Afghanistan—did not fall within that category. On Iran, he sought to justify the Soviet record on support for international law—for which we had never said a “kind word.” He accused the US and other Western powers of attempting to influence the Polish situation, specifically referring to broadcasts by VOA and other USG-controlled radios as constituting open interference in Polish internal affairs and implying that Western interference was not limited to radio broadcasts alone. His remarks on Afghanistan followed the standard Soviet position. [Page 28] The US, he said, could contribute to a political settlement by facilitating the beginning of a dialogue between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

—The Secretary told Dobrynin he would study the letter before commenting on it. In responding to complaints by Dobrynin on the tone being set by the new administration, the Secretary pointed out that the President was reflecting the mood of the American people and addressing the issues which greatly concerned them. He emphasized our insistence on reciprocity in US-Soviet relations and on change in the pattern of Soviet conduct which was at the root of the difficulties in our relationship. The Secretary also expressed great concern over the most recent developments in Poland and stressed that the situation was one the Polish people must resolve for themselves. End summary.

3. Before handing over the Gromyko letter, Dobrynin initiated a general discussion on the state of US-Soviet relations, noting that there was a “new beginning” for him (conceivably an allusion to the fact that he had been asked to enter the Department by the front door rather than through the basement garage).5 From events of the first week, Dobrynin continued, it appeared that the new administration was starting down the same road as the Carter administration, at least on two matters. The last administration had begun by emphasizing human rights—“and you know where we ended up on that”—and by setting aside work on a SALT Treaty which had practically been completed. Four years later, we were back almost at the same place, with references to human rights and, again, with questioning of all that had been done on SALT. He sincerely hoped that the way this week had gone was not indicative of the future course of events. The President’s statements in his just-concluded press conference would cause puzzlement in Moscow, and he wondered how he should explain them.6

4. The Secretary responded that we had experienced a long period of difficulty in our relations. Perhaps in the early ’70s we were beginning a process of understanding, with potential benefit for world stability. Events since then—in Africa; Cuban activity—which could only be described as basic interventionism with no other purpose than to destabilize regimes and affect the free choice of peoples were responsible for the difficulties we were experiencing. As for Dobrynin’s comparison with the beginning of the previous administration, the Secretary noted that one basic difference was the feeling of the American people, of which administration policy was a reflection. Among other things, feelings engendered by the Vietnam era had passed. It was clear that [Page 29] it would be necessary for us to establish greater reciprocity in our relations. The Secretary noted that we had been disturbed by the outpourings of the Soviet press in recent weeks. We were profoundly disturbed by Cuban actions in this hemisphere and elsewhere. Our attitudes were going to be different from now on—and this would serve the interest of world peace.

5. Turning to the Polish situation, the Secretary said that both he and the President were greatly concerned by the news that afternoon from Poland. While he recognized that what was happening in Poland might create anguish for the Soviet Union, he emphasized that the situation was one which must be worked out by the Polish people alone. Dobrynin said he was unaware of anything special that had happened in Poland that day and thought the news in the American press that there were to be discussions in Warsaw on Friday7 represented a hopeful sign. The Secretary said he hoped that was the case but considered the most recent pronouncements by the Polish regime very threatening.

6. Dobrynin returned to his criticism of the tack taken by the new administration, particularly by the Secretary and the President in their first press conferences. He personally had not expected them to issue very “unfriendly” statements concerning his country and felt that they were not helpful. Responses from Moscow would be inevitable. A quiet dialogue aimed at determining the respective positions of the two sides and deciding what was to be done would be much more helpful than an exchange of press conference statements.

7. The Secretary responded that mature states understood that we should not enter into mutually escalated public relations wars. While he wished it were unnecessary to indulge in statements of the sort to which Dobrynin had referred, the American people were profoundly disturbed by events and had put Pres. Reagan in the White House to deal with the issues he had discussed in his press conference.

8. Dobrynin then gave the Secretary the Gromyko letter (text reported septel). After reading it, the Secretary said he would study it before responding.

9. Dobrynin asked how the Secretary thought we should proceed in developing a dialogue. Should we continue to engage in an exchange of public statements? The Secretary responded that the Department would be undertaking a review of number of issues, and that upon completion of this review he would discuss with the President how he wished to proceed. He thought it likely that he would be communicating with Gromyko, regularly, and frankly. We would be getting [Page 30] a new Ambassador in place in Moscow and the senior staff in the Department. And while he was not interested in getting into an exchange of public statements he had been, as Dobrynin knew, outspoken on these matters for many years because he had seen a growing danger. He was not a harborer [of] devil theories and took a very pragmatic approach. But he had witnessed Ethiopia, Afghanistan and recent events in our own hemisphere. There simply had to be a reversal, a shift, a change, because issues of international stability were involved. It was not acceptable just to talk peace while acting differently. To Dobrynin’s comment that this was a two-sided story, the Secretary observed that over the past four years it had been very one-sided from his point of view.

10. Dobrynin stated there was no lack of desire on the Soviet side to have very frank and blunt discussions. One point on which we would never be able to agree, the Secretary interjected, was the remark which Brezhnev had made to President Carter at Vienna concerning wars of liberation—which as reported to him was that the Soviet Union would continue to support such wars even in spheres of interest to the U.S.8 Dobrynin said that he did not recall such a remark, though he was present during the Vienna discussions.

11. The Secretary told Dobrynin he should know that the President entered office very concerned about the state of our relations. Dobrynin would learn that the President said what he meant—and he hoped Dobrynin would find what he said constructive. Asked whether the President’s press conference remarks should be considered constructive, the Secretary said that they should be considered an objective assessment of recent events. In refuting Soviet rationalization of their press play on Iran at a time when the lives of our hostages were at stake, the Secretary said he knew enough about the Soviet press to know that few things which appeared in it were accidental.

12. Dobrynin asked the Secretary to put himself in the shoes of the Soviets and consider how the Politburo would see the new administration on the basis of the statements made thus far by the Secretary and the President. Those statements, the Secretary rejoined, would give the Soviet leadership a wonderful agenda for factual denial. Dobrynin argued that there was a danger that both sides would come to wrong conclusions; without elaborating, he also suggested that this was a particularly difficult time, when the Soviet leadership was preparing for the Party Congress.

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13. When the Secretary referred once more to our insistence on reciprocity, Dobrynin commented that the Secretary had also earlier mentioned “restraint,” and that that part of his statement he had liked. In an aside, which he asked not be put on the record, Dobrynin said that the task for the Secretary was relatively easy, for he only had one leader to persuade—the President—whereas in the Soviet case the whole Politburo had to be convinced. It was difficult to convince them of anything in the first place, but once their minds were made up, it was even harder to change them. It would be unfortunate if their initial impression was that the U.S. now had a hostile administration, for that might be a lasting impression.

14. The Secretary responded that “hostile” was the worst label that might be applied. More appropriate might be offended, confident, determined, prepared to do what was necessary. The Soviet leadership must know that there must be change in the areas that he had cited, for the future good of both sides.

15. Present with Secretary were EUR Assistant Secretary Vest, Exec. Assistant Goldberg, and EUR/SOV Director German (notetaker). Dobrynin, as usual, came alone and took no notes.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Foreign Policy File, [no film number]. Secret; Immediate; Nodis. Drafted by German; cleared by Vest and in S; approved by Bremer.
  2. Telegram not found.
  3. See Document 4.
  4. Haig’s letter to Gromyko was sent to Moscow on January 24 in telegram 19053.
  5. See Document 2.
  6. See Document 7.
  7. January 30.
  8. For memoranda of conversations from Carter’s meetings with Brezhnev in Vienna in June 1979, see Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. VI, Soviet Union, Documents 199201, 203204, and 206207.