Foreword to Soviet-American Relations: The Détente Years

Washington, DC : U.S. Government Printing Office

On March 25, 1971, according to the transcript of a telephone conversation with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, I remarked: “When we are both out of government service, which will be a lot later for you than for me, I hope you will let me read the reports you send in on me.” This comment was made in the bantering style that Dobrynin and I used in our personal exchanges to balance the deadly seriousness of the topics we addressed. Given the well-known Soviet penchant for secrecy, I was not under any illusion that we would have access to the Soviet archives in my lifetime. Thanks to the initiative of the Office of the Historian of the U.S. Department of State and the cooperation of its counterpart in the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, this unprecedented collection of exchanges between the American National Security Advisor and the Soviet Ambassador has become available. It is a dramatic demonstration of how much the world has changed since Dobrynin and I met most frequently in the Map Room of the White House to manage crises at the edge of a nuclear abyss and to begin exploring whether and how a better world might emerge from our dialogue.

My remark to Dobrynin was an interlude in what evolved into almost daily exchanges. What was later named “The Channel” began as a general exchange of views. Starting in 1971, the Channel became the principal venue for U.S.-Soviet relations. It produced a number of significant agreements, including an agreed approach on Strategic Arms Limitation (May); the conclusion of an agreement regarding access to Berlin (September); the announcement of a Soviet-American summit agreement (October); and President Nixon”s visit to Moscow (May 1972), at which agreements, the most important of which were a treaty regulating Ballistic Missile Defense and a five-year freeze on deploying additional offensive strategic weapons, were concluded. The two sides also published an agreed statement on principles of international conduct.

This progress in U.S.-Soviet relations emerged only after a period of severe tension. Ever since President Nixon took office on January 20, 1969, just six months after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Dobrynin and I had forged our relationship amidst seemingly endless crises. The most significant were multiple outbreaks in September 1970 when Soviet troops and combat aircraft were sent to man air defenses along the Suez Canal; radical Palestinians hijacked four international airplanes and flew them to Amman; Syrian troops, armed by the Soviet Union, invaded Jordan; and a Soviet nuclear submarine base was being built in Cienfuegos, Cuba. The following year, a few months before Nixon”s scheduled visit to Beijing, the India-Pakistan war found the U.S. and the Soviet Union on opposite sides diplomatically. Six months later, relations were further strained when the North Vietnamese, armed by the Soviet Union, launched a massive offensive on South Vietnam. The Nixon administration responded by resuming the bombing of North Vietnam and mining North Vietnam”s harbors, three weeks before a scheduled summit in Moscow. These actions threatened the entire edifice the Channel was designed to construct.

Four years of turbulence, confrontation and cooperation forged an extraordinary relationship. Dobrynin and I represented nations that were political and ideological adversaries. While ambassador, Dobrynin was promoted to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. He ended his career in charge of the Foreign Affairs Department of that Committee. He was thus an important figure in both the formulation and execution of Soviet foreign policies aimed at challenging the U.S. position around the globe. These were facts I always had in mind during our exchanges.

Nor did I need to be reminded that Dobrynin was highly intelligent, with an exceptional analytic ability. Within the scope of discretion granted him by his government, he was flexible, skillful and reliable. A faithful representative of his country, he was devoted to the improvement of U.S.-Soviet relations. I respected his human qualities. We both tried to temper our abiding sense of the potentially disastrous consequences of failure by conducting our dialogue in a polite and at times even jocular manner. This gave greater emphasis to the occasional shifts to confrontation as well as facilitating those cases when cooperation had been decided upon.

Neither of us ever forgot that the countries we served were custodians of nuclear arsenals capable of destroying mankind. Conscious of our special responsibility as the diplomatic point-men, we did our utmost to avoid catastrophe, while at the same time defending the interests of our countries and their allies. In my memoirs, I described Dobrynin as follows: “He understood that a reputation for reliability is an important asset in foreign policy. Subtle and disciplined, warm in his demeanor while wary in his conduct, Dobrynin moved through the upper echelons of Washington with consummate skill.” Dobrynin expressed the same sentiments more succinctly in inscribing his memoirs to me: “To Henry, opponent, partner, friend.”

This having been said, one must read the documents in this collection with perspective especially keeping in mind Dean Acheson”s dictum that no drafter ever came out second best in his own memorandum of conversation. Dobrynin and I were reporting to different masters in quite different ways. I reported to Nixon directly, usually faceto- face. Dobrynin was reporting through a chain of command, presumably through the Foreign Ministry, but I assume directly to the Politburo as well. This may account for the fact that his reports mention conversations about China in the period 1969–1971 less frequently than mine and with little of the insistent Soviet concern about Chinese intentions that Dobrynin reflected to me and I recorded for Nixon. There may well have been a separate reporting channel on Chinese issues to Moscow.

I was involved at every stage in the formation of policy and participated with Nixon in designing my own instructions. Dobrynin was carrying out decisions to which his contribution was at a considerable remove. My reports are more analytical because President Nixon would have already heard the gist of the conversations from me and, on some matters, such as the details of SALT negotiations, was not interested in the technical details. Dobrynin”s memoranda are more extended doubtless partly to make sure that his superiors understood that he had carried out his instructions meticulously. This may account for the fact that Dobrynin reported warnings that I do not remember as having been made, at least not with the insistence of Dobrynin”s account. (Dobrynin”s actual warnings were more effective for having been less confrontational.) With regard to a number of telephone conversations, the American transcripts do not coincide with Dobrynin”s reports in every respect. This may also have occurred occasionally on other matters. Dobrynin”s variants are generally an extrapolation of subjects he could easily have picked up elsewhere and consolidated into a single report.

With these qualifications inherent in the nature of diplomatic reporting, Dobrynin”s telegrams show a perception and sweep rarely found in diplomacy. Since both Dobrynin and I functioned as our own note takers, there was considerable possibility of a misunderstanding or miscommunication, especially with respect to details in the complex negotiations on a broad range of subjects we conducted. It did not happen. Dobrynin”s judgment in his memoirs, In Confidence, reflects my own view and experience as well: “Although at times the [lack of an official record] could lead to differing versions of what was actually said and meant…no problems arose during the actual talks and negotiations over what had actually been said in previous conversations.”

To understand the American side of the collection fully, it is necessary to study the far more extensive documentary record, most of it declassified and published. Of particular significance are the periodic analyses prepared for Nixon, as well as the analytical summaries prepared for National Security Council meetings, by my staff (primarily Hal Sonnenfeldt and Bill Hyland) and me. Some of them contain Nixon”s handwritten comments. Occasionally, Nixon sent written instructions on particular negotiations. Almost certainly, there exists a similarly extensive archive in Moscow. In short, the Channel was only the tip of the iceberg. Its underlying design was strategic, but often its manifestations were tactical.

Dobrynin and I were not philosophers searching for abstract truth. We were diplomats seeking to serve our nations” objectives in the Cold War. This meant that, on occasion, we presented arguments to serve the moment rather than disclose the ultimate goals.

For example, the collection contains assurances from Dobrynin of a Soviet desire to calm Indochina, even while substantial Soviet weapons supplies were taking place. By the same token, in early 1970, Dobrynin recommended to Moscow to send combat planes and Soviet pilots to Egypt to increase pressure on the United States. On the American side, the strategy was to demonstrate Soviet incapacity to change the situation in the Middle East by military supplies in order to encourage an Arab diplomatic overture to America. Both sides, it appears from the collection, understood the nature of the game and knew how to play it. This did not keep us from simultaneously discussing principles for a permanent settlement.

Discussions about Eastern Europe are another case in point. From the beginning of the Nixon administration, Dobrynin sought, obviously on Moscow”s instructions, acceptance of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Thus I analyzed for Nixon a Soviet note to him on a European settlement on February 18, 1969, as follows: “There is not the slightest mention of the Brezhnev doctrine of ‘Socialist sovereigntyrlsquo; presumably because the Soviets reason it applies only within their half of Europe, which [they argue] we would agree must not be disturbed.”

That assurance was never given with respect to the internal conditions in Eastern Europe, as is shown by the repetitiveness with which Dobrynin asked for it. We did not directly challenge the territorial map (except for the Baltic states), and Nixon made several hints to that effect. But we sought to encourage the flexibility of the East European states by giving scope to their nationalism through directly dealing especially with countries seeking to assert their national goals, such as Romania, Poland and the special case of Yugoslavia. We also reasoned that a relaxation of U.S.-Soviet tensions would reduce the possibilities of Soviet repression in Eastern Europe.

Thus, in June 1969, Dobrynin reports that the United States recognized the results of World War II in Eastern Europe (a terminological liberty because that phrase was never used by Americans or in American documents). But at that very moment, we were discussing with the Romanian leaders a visit by Nixon to Romania (a particular gadfly) for the very date that had been set for the Romanian Communist Party Congress in Bucharest, which Brezhnev was scheduled to attend scarcely an acceptance of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. (The date was not chosen as a taunt; it happened to fit best into a planned presidential trip to South Asia.)

Both Dobrynin and I understood that these mutual assurances were intended to indicate a continued commitment to reduce confrontations, even while pursuing strategies designed to improve the bargaining position of each side. Each of us understood the ultimate strategy of the other. Thus, on March 13, 1969, a month after Nixon, in a conversation with the Soviet ambassador, had hinted at American restraint on Eastern Europe, Dobrynin reported that the policy of containment was, in fact, being reinforced to the extent possible by pressure on the Soviet Union from two flanks, the West German (NATO) and the Chinese.

This strategy culminated in the Ford administration with the European Security Conference of 1975, widely criticized at the time but considered today as a seminal event in the collapse of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe.

The ultimate significance of the Channel was not so much the handling of the crises of the Cold War as the attempt to move beyond them to a more stable and secure world. This requires a discussion of the origin of the Channel and its significance.

Nixon took over the leadership of a country embroiled in the Vietnam war with over 500,000 military personnel in combat in a region as geographically remote from America”s shores as it is possible to be. The war had begun to tear the country apart. Mass demonstrations and civil disobedience had contributed to driving President Lyndon Baines Johnson from office. A hostile Congress was gutting the Defense budget. Nixon was determined to end the Vietnam war but in a way that preserved America”s credibility to protect allies that had relied on American assurances. While the country was mired in Vietnam, the Soviet Union had engaged in a massive buildup of its strategic forces, reaching effective parity in offensive weapons. In the fall of 1968, the Red Army occupied Czechoslovakia. All Arab countries from North Africa to Iran had broken diplomatic relations with the United States in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Relations with China had been moribund for two decades.

In this unpromising situation, the Nixon presidency undertook a systematic attempt to shape the emerging pattern of international relations through what, in his inaugural address, Nixon defined as an era of negotiations. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia had wrecked the efforts of his predecessor, President Johnson, to schedule a summit meeting with his Soviet counterpart. Who exactly was the President”s counterpart in the Soviet Union whether it was Nikolai Podgorny, who had the title of President; Alexei Kosygin, who was Prime Minister; or Leonid Brezhnev, as General Secretary of the Communist Party remained ambiguous until the summer of 1971, when Brezhnev emerged as the dominant figure, and Dobrynin advised me to direct our communications to Brezhnev rather than Kosygin.

Nixon sought to move on several fronts simultaneously. He initiated a systematic withdrawal from Vietnam coupled with diplomacy to enable the Vietnamese people to determine their own future. Equally systematically, he strove for an opening to China to bring about a new equilibrium in international relations. But the central challenge, as it had been throughout the Cold War, was the relationship with the Soviet Union. Nixon understood that the strategic positions of both superpowers were being revolutionized. Their nuclear arsenals were approaching parity; both superpowers found that their ability to translate nuclear capacity into political influence was diminishing. In an era of nuclear vulnerability, an increase of purely military strength no longer automatically conferred a proportionate element of security. Therefore, it appeared necessary, as I pointed out, to “discipline power” so that power would “bear a rational relationship to the objectives likely to be in dispute.”

If Moscow also understood the limits and requirements of the nuclear era, then, in the circumstances of a rough strategic equality, some common ground might be explored to create a more stable international system. This was the rationale from which emerged the agreements limiting strategic arms and creating an agreed set of rules, or a “code of conduct,” signed at the first Nixon-Brezhnev summit in May 1972. Experienced as he was in foreign policy and suspicious by nature, Nixon did not rely on formal declarations of restraint. He considered them a tool, helpful if they worked, useful to rally public opinion to resist Soviet violations if they proved ineffective.

An unprecedented number of negotiations were conducted through the Channel. Before that, the Channel dealt with an unprecedented number of crises. On two occasions, the U.S. raised the readiness of its military forces though some distance from the nuclear threshold; insofar as we knew, the Soviet Union did so once.

The concept of linkage embodied this state of affairs. We sought to avoid the alternation of crises and temporary relief while in effect treading water by proceeding on a broad front. We made progress on each issue, and especially on issues of particular interest to the Soviet side, depend on progress on several others, as well as on general restraint in international conduct. Nixon”s quest for a summit meeting in Moscow, which features prominently in this collection, resulted from his quest for a forum for a broad-based discussion. He strove to add the authority of his presidency to the manifold agenda he was proposing. In this manner, he also sought to mitigate the Soviet reaction to the opening to China, especially as he had been warned by a delegation of senior State Department former ambassadors (Chip Bohlen, Foy Kohler, Tommy Thompson and George Kennan) that an opening to China involved the risk of war with the Soviet Union. Nixon did not agree with that judgment; he was convinced that our China policy would, in the long run, improve relations with the Soviet Union as indeed, it did.

The Channel reflected Nixon”s determination that the major negotiations with the Soviet Union be conducted from the White House, under his direct supervision. He was confident in his foreign policy experience; he knew that the State Department did not favor the concept of linkage; it believed that negotiations should be conducted individually, each on its own merit. Due to the purges of China experts in the 1950s, its Soviet experts, uneasy about the opening to China, occupied prominent senior positions. For all these reasons, Nixon was impatient with the complexities of interdepartmental clearances, considering them obstacles to his quest for breakthroughs.

At first, the Soviet leaders sought to use Nixon”s proposal for a summit to apply reverse-linkage by making their agreement conditional on progress in negotiations over Berlin. (Dobrynin, in his memoirs, attributes this linkage to Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko.) This proved to be a major miscalculation. The German parliament would not ratify German Chancellor Willy Brandt”s Ostpolitik (treaties with the USSR and Poland) without an agreement on access to Berlin, to which we held the key. While Moscow was delaying its acceptance of a summit meeting, my secret visit to China in July 1971 enabled us to bring China into the diplomatic equation. After the announcement of the secret visit to Beijing, Soviet-American relations, including the summit, moved forward rapidly.

Nixon entered office believing that he could use linkage to persuade the Soviet Union to bring pressure on North Vietnam to settle. The judgment proved premature. Dobrynin”s reports show that, in 1969, the Soviet Union regarded the Vietnam war as an opportunity for reverse-linkage to pressure the United States. But by 1972, linkage was operating in our favor. Nixon ordered the resumption of the bombing of North Vietnam and declared a blockade of North Vietnamese harbors three weeks before the summit scheduled for Moscow. Moscow did not feel in a position to cancel the summit because it needed the Moscow summit to balance the Beijing summit six months earlier and because ratification of the German treaties was still hanging in the balance. Nixon”s visit to Moscow amidst an assault on Moscow”s ally symbolized Hanoi”s isolation and almost certainly contributed to the breakthrough in the negotiations over Vietnam. Most of the components of that linkage were negotiated in the so-called Channel.

There were precedents for my role in the first Nixon White House in the relationship between Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House or between Franklin Roosevelt and his intimate, Harry Hopkins. Undoubtedly, Nixon, with my collaboration, carried the domination of the White House to unprecedented lengths. Much was achieved, but the procedural and human cost was high. It was a pattern that emerged in unique circumstances, not a precedent for the future.

While I served as National Security Advisor, Dobrynin and I met generally in the Map Room of the White House Residence, so called because Franklin Roosevelt used it to follow the progress of the war from there. Located on the ground floor of the Residence, it is sheltered from the outside world by verdant bushes, creating an atmosphere of seclusion, which removes the time pressures from the conversations insofar as the pace of White House business allows it. Dobrynin and I met regularly for conceptual discussions and, after January 1971, for detailed negotiations.

The Channel started when Nixon, at his first meeting with Dobrynin in February 1969, told him that he wanted to establish a direct White House link to the Soviet leaders on the most important issues. This collection shows that he reiterated this request in another private meeting with Dobrynin the following year, as well as in meetings with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. The Politburo accepted.

The Channel worked on two levels: There was the direct communication between Brezhnev and Nixon. They would exchange views, usually at the beginning of a negotiating round, in order to establish the framework. Especially during crises, there was an active exchange of messages. When it was initiated by the American side, it was to make sure our views would receive the highest level consideration possible. These messages were usually drafted by my staff members, Hyland and Sonnenfeldt, edited by me and then reviewed by Nixon. The choice between whether to send a presidential message or a communication from me on behalf of the President depended on the tactical situation. During crises, especially during the India-Pakistan war of 1971 and the escalation in Vietnam prior to the summit in 1972, many of the key messages went in the name of the two leaders. They were delivered through the Channel by Dobrynin or me with whatever explanation might be required.

The most frequent use of the Channel was between Dobrynin and me. (To get a sense of the tone of the Channel, the reports in this collection should be read together with the records of our telephone conversations, which are included only in fragments in this collection but which exist in the public record elsewhere.) At first, the Channel dealt with the general state of the U.S.-Soviet relationship, Vietnam and, after the arms control negotiations began, discussions of the strategic views of each side. Since we were determined to avoid crises developing by their own momentum, we resorted to “thinking out loud” sessions, designed to enable Soviet leaders to study our thinking informally before being confronted with specific proposals.

The Channel is often described as if I negotiated on my own, without bureaucratic or expert support. The opposite was the case. On almost all issues, a parallel negotiation was being prepared or carried out by the established system. Paradoxically, this apparent duplication facilitated the Channel. For the operation of the NSC system in the first Nixon term involved more interdepartmental machinery and more systematic analysis than any other administration with which I am familiar. In the interval between Nixon”s election in 1968 and his inauguration on January 20, 1969, a system had been developed, largely by General Andrew Goodpaster in consultation with former President Dwight Eisenhower, that set up interdepartmental groups at the Assistant Secretary level for geographic areas and on other topics, such as the Verification Panel for arms control negotiations. These groups, chaired by me as Security Advisor, were charged with developing broad strategic objectives and negotiating options with major emphasis on meaningful options. The resulting studies would move through the Senior Review Group of Under Secretaries, also chaired by me, to the National Security Council, chaired, of course, by Nixon. In this manner, at least 90 percent of the SALT negotiations, 95 percent of the Berlin negotiations and almost all of the ABM negotiations were conducted through the NSC system by the negotiators (usually of ambassadorial rank) assigned the task and their negotiating teams. The Channel sprang into action either when there was a deadlock between the parties in the negotiations or among the American agencies or within the negotiating team. In such circumstances, Nixon would rely on the Channel to break the stalemate by charging me with implementing, with Dobrynin, the option he preferred from what the NSC system had generated. (The principal negotiator for SALT was Ambassador Gerard Smith and for Berlin, the American Ambassador in Germany, Kenneth Rush. With skill and persistence, they brought matters to a point where the Channel took over.)

In other words, the details discussed by Dobrynin and me in the various negotiations largely emerged from the interdepartmental process. For example, the Verification Panel charged with elaborating arms control positions met over fifty times in Nixon”s first term; the Defense Policy Group charged with reviewing force levels met over twenty times. Thus, I was well-armed for the numbers game, which became an integral aspect of the arms control negotiations.

In this manner, two breakthroughs were achieved in the SALT negotiations: in May 1971, when it was decided to proceed simultaneously with defensive and offensive limitations; and May 1972 in Moscow, on how to account for missile-carrying submarines. The established negotiating teams were then charged with completing the process in regular channels (which, in the Moscow summit case, became a tight fit since a deadline for a signing ceremony was looming). Similarly, the Berlin negotiations were conducted in the main by a Four-Power group, the ambassadors to Germany of the U.S., France, Britain and the Soviet Union. The purpose of the negotiations was to achieve a Soviet guarantee of free access to Berlin. The role of the Channel in the negotiations about Berlin was to break deadlocks by developing concepts between West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, Nixon and the Soviet leadership. After that approval, the results were brought back into the established negotiation process, usually by one or the other of the back-channel parties putting it forward at the Four-Power negotiations.

Despite its intricacy, this procedure had outcomes which served their purpose. The Berlin agreement lasted until the fall of the Berlin Wall. The interim agreement on offensive weapons, controversial in concept, was observed even after it had technically lapsed by every administration, even by Presidents who had criticized the concept in their campaigns. It provided the strategic framework until an entirely new set of agreements emerged in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Channel”s link to the bureaucracy was less close on the Middle East. Efforts to stabilize the region proceeded desultorily in established State Department channels. Nixon was not eager to bring them to a head in his first term because he did not think it possible to conduct simultaneous negotiations with the Soviet Union, China, the Vietnamese and the Middle East parties. He had made up his mind to make the Middle East a centerpiece of his foreign policy in the second term.

For these reasons, during Nixon”s first term, my role on the Middle East in the Channel was largely a watching brief. This was accomplished by confining the Channel to the elaboration of principles to guide the substantive negotiations being carried out by the State Department. Dobrynin correctly conveyed the White House”s reluctance to use the Channel for detailed Middle East negotiations, reporting on January 31, 1971: “Recent conversations with Kissinger on a Middle East settlement reveal that while the White House professes agreement to renew a confidential bilateral exchange of views with us on this issue, they do not, in fact, go beyond general phrases and assertions.”

Paradoxically, the Channel worked best so long as the bureaucracy did not know of its existence. While that was the case, the participants in the interdepartmental machinery had an incentive to adjust their positions toward what they thought was feasible; in general, no one wanted to assume responsibility for failure by inflexibility. But once it was understood that I was the deus ex machina for breaking deadlocks, the established departments went in the opposite direction. They adopted the most extreme position of their departmental point of view, leaving it to me to bear the burden of and assume the onus for making concessions.

Thus, by the beginning of Nixon”s second term, the Channel was breaking down a reality obscured by the beginning of a new presidential term and Nixon”s growing domestic crisis.

When I became Secretary of State, the Channel moved into the State Department, in the sense that Dobrynin and I had most of our meetings there. But the backup occurred through the established procedures (if with the same personnel, since Sonnenfeldt and Hyland moved with me to the State Department though there the backup was more substantial than in the White House).

For all the bureaucratic dismay it caused, the Channel was an innovative attempt to transcend the formalities of an increasingly bureaucratized diplomacy. It helped contain crises, saw America through a period of domestic divisions and sketched prospects for a more peaceful world.

A final word about the participants at both ends of the Channel. I have retained my interest in U.S.-Russian relations as a private citizen, participating in exchange programs and meeting with Russian leaders. Dobrynin retired after his service on the Central Committee in 1990. He wrote a thoughtful and instructive memoir. Dobrynin and I have met whenever one of us was in the other”s country. He made a gracious speech on the occasion of the celebration of my seventieth birthday in New York. I visited him in his apartment in Moscow when he was convalescing from one of the afflictions of old age. He has retained his sharp intelligence and sardonic sense of humor. We remain friends, united by the consciousness that, at a dramatic time, we were given the opportunity to participate in a joint effort by our two societies to lower tensions and advance prospects for peace.