Richard Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger on 16 March 1971


Transcript

Edited by Patrick J. Garrity and Erin R. Mahan, with Ken Hughes, Erin R. Mahan, and Marc J. Selverstone

For the past week, National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger and Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin have exchanged draft letters on SALT in the back channel, attempting to pin down an agreement on the new negotiating framework. Kissinger shows President Nixon the latest draft letter, to be sent by the President to the Soviet leadership. Kissinger is of the opinion that the chances are better than 50-50 that the Soviets will accept the latest draft.

Henry A. Kissinger

Mr. President, if I could just bother you with that letter—

President Nixon

Yeah.

Kissinger

—so that I can get it to [President Nixon acknowledges] [Anatoly] Dobrynin today. They have their Politburo meeting on Thursday, which means he's got to get it out by 4[:00] this afternoon. [Pause.] This is the one where we stand now.[note 1] National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger was referring to the original U.S. SALT proposal in the Kissinger–Dobrynin back channel, in the form of a draft letter from President Nixon to Chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers Aleksei Kosygin, dated 24 February 1971, attached to the Memorandum of Conversation between Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin and Kissinger. See “Memorandum of Conversation," 22 February 1971, U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976: SALT I, 1969–1972 (hereafter FRUS), ed. Erin R. Mahan (Washington, DC: GPO, 2010), 32: doc. 134. We had first given him a long one, to which he comes back—

President Nixon

So this is the one you're suggesting?

Kissinger

That's right, which is drawn from . . . [President Nixon acknowledges.] This is what they want to say, so you see it's a lot more . . . This was his counterproposal to the previous draft. [Pause.] Notice it says nothing about a freeze.[note 2] Kissinger was referring to the Soviet response to the initial U.S. proposal, attached to the Memorandum of Correspondence between Dobrynin and Kissinger (see "Memorandum of Conversation," 12 March 1971, FRUS, 1969–1976, 32: doc. 140). The U.S. proposal had included the concept of a freeze on the deployment and modernization of certain strategic offensive weapons, specifically Soviet ICBMs.

President Nixon

[reading] ". . . to reach an agreement on the limitations . . ." [Unclear.]

Kissinger

I think he'll accept this one because . . .

Long pause while President Nixon reads the draft letter. Telephone rings briefly, and birds chirp in the background.
President Nixon

Mm-hmm. All right.

Kissinger

You’ll know my [unclear].

President Nixon

[Unclear.]

Kissinger

I think we may have a better than 50-50 chance.

President Nixon

I wonder if . . . well, if we put ourselves in max odds, saying we should reach an agreement before we know for sure.

Kissinger

And then we have to freeze . . . Oh, you mean on the ABM?[note 3] The acronym ABM stands for anti-ballistic missile and is usually used to refer to the entire missile system.

President Nixon

Well, on both. You see, the freeze may [unclear] cover MIRVs.[note 4] The acronym MIRV stands for multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle, a type of missile nosecone that consists of multiple warheads, each able to be directed to its own target. I mean, it's a—

Kissinger

[Unclear] didn't ask for a MIRV even in our formal proposal.[note 5] Some national security officials and outside experts urged the U.S. government to seek in SALT a ban on the testing and deployment of MIRVs. President Nixon and Kissinger did not favor a negotiated MIRV ban. Nor, for its own reasons, did the Soviet government show any interest in negotiated prohibitions on MIRVs.

President Nixon

I know, but I'm getting—the point I'm getting at—the point here is whether we just [tape skips] put us any worse off than we are now.

Kissinger

I think it would show an initiative of trying to break the deadlock. If they then deadlock on technical—I have the impression that they want an agreement.

President Nixon

[Pauses.] What we're doing here is to say we negotiate in Vienna [unclear] that if we meet in Vienna we could still not manage to get together on that, then we would have a freeze on offensive weapons and agree to negotiate one at a later time.[note 6] President Nixon was referring to the resumption of the SALT negotiations in Vienna on 15 March 1971.

Kissinger

Well, what it would do, Mr. President—right now the deadlock is, for example, we have a long New York Times editorial again today—not that that matters, but—in which they say we're being obstinate by linking offensive and defensive ones. So this is your way to break that deadlock. Whatever we put in the letter would still—you couldn't possibly cover all the bases because—

President Nixon

New York Times just wants a SALT agreement—agreement on ABM limitations.

Kissinger

That's right.

President Nixon

They want—that's the drive of everybody who's opposed to ABMs, simply to go back and be done with it, right?

Kissinger

That's right. But in that case, we're doing better than what the New York Times recommended they accept, because we're getting an offensive freeze also. They'll get an ABM limitation with a good chance of one different from what they want [President Nixon acknowledges], which [unclear].[note 7] Probably a reference to the proposal to limit ABM systems to the defense of the Soviet and American National Command Authorities (Moscow and Washington), which limitation the Soviet government had accepted provisionally in the formal SALT negotiations.

President Nixon

It could be anything. They—

Kissinger

I mean, we would just—

President Nixon

Do they want us to stop?

Kissinger

Yeah, we would instruct [Gerard C.] Smith to stick with—

President Nixon

Three.

Kissinger

—our present program. Well, his present instructions are four, and we could let him fall back to three.[note 8] In the formal SALT negotiations, the United States had previously proposed either limiting ABM systems to the defense of each side's National Command Authority (Moscow and Washington) or completely banning ABMs. For the current round of negotiations in Vienna, President Nixon had approved a third alternative: the United States would have the right to deploy four ABM sites for the defense of its ICBMs, while the Soviets would be permitted to deploy only a single ABM site for the defense of Moscow. See “National Security Decision Memorandum 102," 11 March 1971, FRUS, 1969–1972, 32: doc. 138. Of course, what we really need is the radars, and the radars are the same for three and four. Only we'll get—three gets us fewer launchers.

President Nixon

Fine. We'll, let's go. Do it that way.

Kissinger

OK, Mr. President.

President Nixon

That's fine.

Editor's Note: A discussion about Laos and Vietnam occurs at this point in the conversation and has been omitted from this transcript excerpt.
President Nixon

Damn. I don't think we need to worry about it.

Kissinger

I don't think that's—

President Nixon

I think what the problem right now is this: I'm not so sure the SALT thing is going to be all that important. I think it's basically what I'm placating the critics with. Maybe it's just as well.

Kissinger

Well, I think—I met with a group of senior businessmen yesterday. I think it would be considered a generally hopeful thing and it would be a run-up to a summit. I think if we got that and a summit and—[Kenneth] Rush sent me a cable that some of the stuff Dobrynin and I had been talking about is beginning to be reflected where he is.[note 9] Ambassador Kenneth E. Rush led the U.S. delegation to the four-power negotiations over the future status of Berlin.

President Nixon

Mm-hmm. [Telephone rings.]

Editor's Note: Brief exchanges about Berlin and an extended discussion of Vietnam occur at this point in the conversation and have been omitted from this transcript excerpt.
President Nixon

[Music plays in the background.] Now, one thing, too, we have to remember that in our dealings with the Russians, everything is all tied into this, and we . . .

Kissinger

If we could—the advantage of the summit, even if it gets a sort of half-baked SALT agreement—whatever the SALT agreement is, it's a lot better than the nuclear test ban.[note 10] In 1963, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain agreed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited nuclear weapons tests or "any other nuclear explosion" in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water. In their private conversations, President Nixon, Kissinger, and H. R. “Bob” Haldeman disparaged this highly touted accomplishment of the Kennedy administration. For examples, see Conversations 490-004, 8 May 1971, and 502-012, 20 May 1971. The Nixon administration, however, continued to pursue further negotiated constraints on nuclear testing, leading to the Threshold Test Ban Treaty of 1974.

President Nixon

Of course, of course, of course. I agree with you.

Kissinger

And it would defuse people. They can't very well attack their President when he's getting ready for a summit meeting.

President Nixon

Yeah.

Kissinger

And that would get us a few months of quiet here.

Cite as

“Richard Nixon and Henry A. Kissinger on 16 March 1971,” Conversation 468-005 (PRDE Excerpt A), Presidential Recordings Digital Edition [Nixon and Arms Control, ed. Patrick J. Garrity and Erin R. Mahan] (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2014–). URL: http://prde.upress.virginia.edu/conversations/4006190