A personally dictated memorandum from President Nixon to Henry Kissinger illustrates the complexities of negotiating with the Soviet Union

As President Nixon’s National Security Advisor, Henry Kissinger laid much of the groundwork for the policy of détente towards the Soviet Union. At the end of April 1972, Kissinger secretly visited Moscow in order to discuss the war in Vietnam and prepare for the much anticipated summit between the United States and the Soviet Union. His covert trip occurred mere weeks before President Nixon historically traveled to the Soviet Union, and influenced the tone of future negotiations as well as public perception of the Soviet-American relationship

In a personally dictated 8-page memoranda sent to Kissinger, President Nixon illustrated the complexities of waging a war in Vietnam, negotiating with the Soviet Union, and justifying it all to a deeply divided and highly opinionated American public.

“What I am trying to emphasize is that we must face the hard fact that we have now convinced the country that Soviet arms and Soviet tanks have fueled this massive invasion of South Vietnam by the North. Having done so, it is only logical that our critics on both right and left will hammer us hard if we sit down and meet with the Soviets, drink toasts, sign communiques, etc., without getting progress on Vietnam.”

President Nixon demonstrated his acute awareness of the American people’s diverse feelings towards the Vietnam War. The eight-page memo testifies to the significance of American public opinion of Vietnam and the Soviet Union in regards to President Nixon’s ability to achieve his foreign policy agenda. A fact the President clearly took note of when strategizing for war in the jungles of Vietnam and a summit in the heart of the Soviet Union.

President Nixon instructed Kissinger to stay longer, but only if Kissinger believed he could make progress regarding Vietnam. Otherwise, President Nixon writes, “we must batten down the hatches for what will be a rising chorus of criticism from our political opponents on the left and from our hawk friends on the right for going to Moscow and failing to get progress on the major issue.”

Undoubtedly, progress in Hanoi, Moscow, and the United States were entirely dependent on each other. Everything from limiting the nuclear arms race and conducting a successful Soviet-American summit to ending the bloodshed in Southeast Asia and settling domestic unrest depended on productive diplomacy between Moscow and Washington. Of course, that was the nature of American foreign policy during the Cold War: as Jussi M. Hanhimäki explains, the Soviet Union was always “Subject A.”

For President Nixon, in 1972, all roads seemed to lead back to Moscow.