Mr. Ambassador, Mr. Gromyko,
For me it is a great privilege to speak here. It gives me an opportunity to sum up my relationship with a Soviet leader who was an adversary, a colleague, a friend, altogether. And so it is, in a way, a symbol of our relationship to see so many students here. I’ll describe the relationship a little bit in personal terms so that you can understand a period through which you didn’t live and probably can’t even imagine.
I started out writing about foreign policy almost by accident. Stephen Schlesinger is here, and it happened because of his father, Arthur Schlesinger. We ran into each other in Harvard Yard, and Arthur handed me a letter he had received, from a well-known person of that time, about the doctrine of massive retaliation. And Arthur asked me what I thought of it.
I hadn’t thought anything of it at that time. So I wrote Arthur a letter, and he sent it, without my knowledge, to Foreign Affairs magazine. Foreign Affairs asked me to turn it into an article, which was called “Military Policy and Defense of the Grey Areas”. So that’s how I got into international affairs.
Toward the end of his life, when Arthur Schlesinger criticized me, I would say, "I might’ve been a 19th-century historian forever if you hadn’t gotten me involved." But he consoled himself by saying one way or another, I would’ve found my vocation. And it might well be that.
Then in the early 1960s, I was a consultant to the Kennedy White House. My principal responsibility was the Berlin crisis of 1961, so I cut my teeth on foreign policy during a confrontation with the Soviet Union. They were threatening to cut the access routes to Berlin. Decisions then had to be made in the context of a conceivable nuclear war.
People say now that the Cold War was relatively easy, it was only about two countries. But it was not the case. Just to show that Soviet-American relations were complex at the time: Now we know that Khrushchev did a lot of things because he wanted negotiations, but he thought he had to get into a stronger position. We thought the Soviet Union was far stronger than it actually proved to be.
I ended up security adviser to President Nixon, whom I had never met when he appointed me, which would be totally inconceivable today. This is the period during which I interacted with Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. You have to understand the context of this period. About four months before I took this position, Soviet forces had occupied Czechoslovakia and proclaimed the Brezhnev Doctrine, according to which no country that had once become communist would be permitted by the Soviet Union to negate the advance of history. They could always count on Soviet military support to stabilize these governments.
On our side, we decided to extricate from Vietnam, but it was not as easy as switching a television channel. In Germany, a new government had come in, and it was adapting something called Ostpolitik. Ostpolitik meant they would negotiate directly with the Soviet Union and Eastern European states and bring about a situation that might gradually lead toward unification. There was great concern about that policy because there was fear that it might develop into a neutralist nationalism.
While all this was going on, there were military clashes between the Soviet Union and China in the far east of Siberia. The 1967 war between Israel and Arabs had just been completed with Israeli troops occupying the east side of the Suez Canal and an undeclared war along the canal.
With all of this, we encountered the Soviet Union. The second day I was in office, I asked for our war plans, because the national security adviser is one of the people whom the president immediately asks, “I’ve exhausted diplomacy; what do I do next?”
When I saw the plans, I was stunned by the amount of casualties a nuclear war produces. And my counterpart in the Soviet Union must have had the same plans. So once you have seen that, you know you have an obligation to prevent it, and you cannot simply let matters run to the extremes of confrontation. On the other hand, there were battles of ideology between the Soviet Union and the United States. We had encountered the Soviet Union most of the time in confrontation.
The Republican, more or less conservative president decided to conduct a broad-ranging policy to get out of Vietnam, to open to China and to delineate, to the extent it was possible, our relations with the Soviet Union. There was a big debate in our country because we developed a concept called linkage, which was really a statement of fact. We said most of these issues are related to each other; you can’t just take one issue out and continue the Cold War. On the other hand, professional diplomats always like to negotiate and would say, oh, let’s just take on one at a time.
An Image of Gromyko
The impression that Andrei Gromyko made was of a very dour individual, very professional, very correct, and that is true. That’s what he was. But I would like to add to that: highly intelligent, always prepared, never lost his composure. He had a terrific sense of humor, which was not obvious right away, but once one got to know him, it was of extraordinary help in conducting our dialogue.
The problem with many of these issues is that they had a long-encrusted history, so that the first encounters of diplomats were always very much affected by a long history of negotiations. And I think each side had domestic problems. Our problem was that opinions within our government were divided.
The mythology is that Nixon and I would go up into a dark room and make up the negotiating positions. In fact, what we did was work out a lot of concessions and present many options. When the battle between the bureaucracies got too intense, then Nixon would make a choice. And rather than going through weeks and months of leaks, he would make a decision and negotiate directly, usually through me, and I usually through Gromyko.
We adopted one basic principle, which later on the Soviet Union also adopted. We tried to prevent a situation from arising where the Soviet leaders would have to make decisions suddenly. We tried to tell them ahead of time what we thought and why. I would try to say to Gromyko, “I don’t know yet what we will propose, but I will tell you what we think.” After a while, Gromyko developed the same attitude.
When I first met him, he was not a member of the Politburo. He had trouble understanding how it was possible that a security adviser could negotiate without a secretary of state; Gromyko had never seen this. On the other hand, he didn’t know everything that was going on in the Soviet system before he worked in the Politburo. In the arms control negotiations, I came to the conviction that I knew more about Soviet military deployments than he did. After he joined the Politburo in early 1972 or 1973, he remedied this apparent weakness.
One of the issues we dealt with was that Germany had made an agreement about the recognition of the East German border that needed to go through the German Parliament. But it couldn’t go without some guarantees of access to Berlin. We agreed in principle on what should be done to guarantee free access. It was pretty nerve-wracking for Gromyko and for me. But it finally led to an agreement under which access to Berlin was never questioned again for the rest of the Cold War period.
Relations between the United States and Russia have been of crucial importance through this whole period because the territory that the Soviet Union occupied, and Russia occupies today, is within reach of Asia, Europe and the Middle East. If you add to that the reach of the United States, if our two countries are in conflict, it is bound to disturb the peace of the world. Secondly, we possess 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, and so military conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union is a threat to humanity, and that has to be recognized. And, conversely, how the U.S. and the Soviet Union handle their nuclear weapons, how they deploy weapons so that they reduce the danger of unintended force and how they limit them, in order to make an example to others, are crucial. But in that process of reduction, they have to keep in mind that if they reduce too far and too unilaterally, they might give other countries an advantage.
Gromyko conducted negotiations with honor. He never surprised us or put us in an extremely embarrassing position. When he was ordered to change a position, it was obvious that it didn’t make him comfortable to have to go back on his word.
Gromyko had a great sense of humor. When we were in Moscow in the summit of 1972, I said to him, "Mr. Foreign Minister, our Xerox machine broke down. If I hold these documents up to the ceiling, would you give me a copy of what you photograph?” And he said, “I’d like to, but the cameras were installed by the czars. They’re good on people; they’re not good on documents."
I cannot say that Gorbachev treated Gromyko with excessive gratitude. Gromyko had helped appoint him as General Secretary. But he was removed as foreign minister, and he became president of the Soviet Union. President of the Soviet Union was not an extremely time-consuming job, so when I came to Moscow as a private citizen, I would frequently call on him at his office in the Kremlin, and we reminisced like veterans from the Thirty Years’ War who meet again after many battles.
The lesson I draw from the history of that era is that the Soviet Union and America were quite different. America was colonized by people who turned their back on Europe to start a new life and create a new future. Russia was colonized by people who were packed up in carts and taken someplace and told, “This is Odessa,” or “This is St. Petersburg.” Russia has a long frontier with Asia, a similar frontier with the Middle East and, over many centuries, an unsettled frontier with Europe. So it has been complicated to negotiate.
But the period of what we called détente, in which we encountered Gromyko, was on both sides characterized by the conviction that something needed to be done to overcome historic tensions. We wanted to come to some improvement of the situation. The thing I regret the most is that our domestic divisions became extreme at the moment when talks were beginning. Then all kinds of things started happening, like the Jackson-Vanik Amendment.
We’re picking up now with some similar problems, comparable situations in the same regions. I’m very hopeful that now there is a period where we can make progress. I think we are on the verge of an agreement with START.
I will do my best to support a constructive relationship with Russia. When I think back to my association with Andrei Gromyko, I think of a great professional and warm individual, strongly dedicated to the cause of peace in our two countries. I am honored to have been asked to make remarks here, and I thank the ambassador for the contribution he is making, and to Mr. Anatoli Gromyko for coming here with his recollections. Thank you very much.
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