INTERVIEW WITH LESLIE H. GELB
INTERVIEWER: Thanks very much for being willing to be interviewed. Can you start off by telling us how far there was a mood in America for renewal of confidence in itself when Carter was elected?
LESLIE GELB: When President Carter was elected, foreign policy actually played a significant role in the campaign. At least Jimmy Carter tried to make foreign policy an issue in the campaign, or more specifically, what he tried to do was to make American values an issue in the campaign. I was working with the New York Times at that time, during the campaign, and I traveled with then candidate Carter, who in his standard stump speech would obviously bring up foreign policy, would always zero in on then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and criticize Kissinger for not paying attention to American values and to issues such as human rights, particularly in dealing with the Soviet Union.
INT: What about the confidence issue after Watergate, after Vietnam, the fall of Saigon - need for change?
LG: There was the argument on need for a change, and I think that did have some resonance with the American people, including on foreign policy. Americans are at once very pragmatic people and true believers, and when it comes to our own sense of philosophical self, we take it kind of seriously. So when Jimmy Carter talked about being true to our values, it had a lot of resonance in the country. It even had resonance, by the way, within the Republican Party at the time, because détente with the Soviet Union had become terribly unfashionable among leaders of the party that had fashioned the policy of détente. When the Republicans held their convention, they didn't like to use the word "détente" and they didn't want Henry Kissinger there as a symbol of détente when they nominated President Ford to run against Mr. Carter.
INT: Mr. Carter and the arms control - can you tell us why he proposed arms limitation terms in early 1977 which bypassed the Vladivostok agreements?
LG: At the beginning of the Carter Administration, I don't believe there was any higher priority for the President than arms control. We ended up making seven, eight or nine new arms control proposals to the Soviet Union right at the beginning of the Administration. Prime among them was what was called a new approach to strategic arms control, or long-range nuclear missiles and bombers, and the essence of Mr. Carter's idea, his desire, was to go beyond what President Ford and Henry Kissinger had done and to have truly deep cuts in nuclear weapons - not marginal cuts, but deep cuts, to really end the nuclear competition.
INT: What were the indications that the Soviets would find these proposals either acceptable or unacceptable?
LG: I believe then - I believe now - there were no indications whatsoever that the Soviets would be willing to go beyond the very marginal cuts they had agreed to with Kissinger at Vladivostok in 1976.
INT: How did you find out what their reaction was going to be before you went to Moscow?
LG: Secretary of State Vance was in constant contact with the Soviet Ambassador, Dobrynin, in the two months before we went to Moscow to lay the new proposal at their feet. And during those two months, Vance apprised Dobrynin of almost every aspect of the new deep-cuts proposal. And in fact, the morning we departed for Europe to fill in our own NATO allies about the proposal, Vance met with Dobrynin and in effect gave him the details of the proposal that he would present to Mr. Gromyko a few days hence.
INT: What was his reaction?
LG: He said - that is, Dobrynin said what he had said to us all along: "No chance, no way. It's Vladivostok, marginal cuts or nothing."
INT: And yet you still went with Secretary of State Vance. Why did you expect that anything would change when you actually got to Moscow?
LG: Well, there were differences in the American team over what to present to the Russians in the first place, and secondly, on whether or not the Soviet leaders would at all be responsive to these proposals. So we differed among ourselves, quite naturally. I think the real impetus for these deep cuts came from President Carter himself, who deeply believed in them, it came from Democratic leaders such as Senator Henry Jackson, who also believed that arms control had been sort of a fool's game up to that point and it should become real arms control, and he wanted deep cuts as well. And I think the bureaucracy by and large went along with it, even with skepticism.
INT: So when you eventually got there, can you describe how Gromyko behaved and what...
LG: Can I say something before then?
INT: Yes, sure.
LG: You know, the mystery is: why did we bring the proposal to the Soviets officially and formally, when they had told us repeatedly beforehand that they would reject it? That's a good question. The answer, I believe, is while I thought the Soviets would reject it once again, I was in a decided minority, because the historical record had been otherwise: the historical record was that if we presented something to the Soviets, they would always make some kind of response, they'd accept some part of it, and we would move on from there. But this time, they weren't prepared to do it - I suspect for two reasons. One is, their bureaucracy had gotten locked into the Vladivostok marginal cuts in nuclear weapons and it was very difficult to unravel and repackage their bureaucratic political agreement. And secondly, President Carter had brought up very strongly the issue of human rights in Russia and that had irritated the hell out of Soviet leaders. The combination of the two made the Soviets dig in their heels even more deeply.
INT: What about Gromyko's personal reaction - can you give us a description of that?
LG: Well, Ambassador Dobrynin was always very affable, even in saying no, even in saying very tough things. And when he met with Secretary Vance before our departure for Moscow, he said very clearly, "This will not fly. I've told our leaders about it, and they want to settle on Vladivostok. Then we can move quickly to the next stage and deeper cuts on other issues. But let's finish the business on the table right now."
INT: So tell me about Gromyko's reaction when you were actually in Moscow.
LG: Well, when we got to Moscow and Gromyko and his people were deployed on one side of the table - there was the Deputy Foreign Minister. When we got to Moscow, we went to the Kremlin for the meeting in one of the big conference rooms there - the very long tables - and on one side was deployed Soviet Foreign Minister Gromyko and his team, on the other side Secretary Vance and our American team. On the Soviet side, there was Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Konyenko, a notorious hard-liner, and the Soviet Chief of Staff, Marshal Ogarkov, a very formidable, knowledgeable man, and sort of their folks and our folks. Cy Vance had Paul Warnkey, who was the main SALT negotiator, Marshal Scholman, myself and a few others. The normal procedure at these meetings is for the host, without really comment, to invite the guest to make the initial presentation. But in this case, Mr. Gromyko deviated from the normal minuet by saying, even before he turned the floor over to Mr. Vance, that "If you're going to give us the proposal you've already given us, we're going to reject it again." He said so in so many words. None the less, as planned and as agreed, Mr. Vance proceeded to read in great detail the substance of our new proposal for deep cuts. When he was finished reading the statement, Gromyko said, "Well, let's take a break..." He didn't respond. "Well, let's take a break, and you can stay in this room - we'll repair to another, rejoin you in a while." So there we were, left in this Kremlin conference meeting room, and Cy turned to us... Cy Vance turned to us and said, "Well, what do you think?" And several people said, "Well, you know, they'll come back with something." And I said, "I think what we heard is, they rejected it." And infact, Cy said, "Well, they'll come back with something." I said, "I'll bet you a dollar that they'll just come back with a flat rejection." And we shook hands oit, right there, the Soviets obviously listening in to this whole conversation. And sure enough, when Gromyko and his crew returned, he said, you know, "We reject the proposal. Our position is: let's finish Vladivostok, then we can move on to discussions about deep cuts." And at that point...
INT: To pick up on the significance of the Soviet rejection of Vance's proposals, can you just elaborate a little on what that meant in terms the relationship between the two superpowers?
LG: When the Soviets said no, flatly no to the American proposal, I think most of us on the American side knew the fat was in the world publicity fire, that here the Carter Administration had gone to Moscow with new hopes, new dreams to limit the nuclear arms race, and had failed; that it meant somehow we didn't understand the Soviets, that the Carter team was inept, and that we would not be able to manage Soviet-American relations. So this was to be a deep stab wound, and it hit us like a storm, like a tornado, as soon as the meeting was over and as soon as word spread - and it did instantaneously - that we had brought new coals to the Soviet Newcastle, and they had set them afire on us.