Former U.S. Secretary of State remembers his eminent Soviet counterpart
By Henry Kissinger
Andrei Gromyko and I were sometimes adversaries and sometimes partners. I had enormous respect for his competence, for his dedication. And with the passage of time I developed great affection for him. He was a man who was always prepared, who always knew his subject. I found him totally reliable in his assertions. When he was asked by his government to change a previous position he did so with enormous pain but with extreme ability.
We worked together in a complex period. When the administration in which I served came to office, the crisis in Czechoslovakia - the movement of Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops into Czechoslovakia - was six months old. The Cuban missile crisis was still within vivid memory, and so we were in a succession of crises piling one on top of the other.
I’m sure, on the Soviet side there were similar examples of crises that, in the Soviet view, were generated by the United States. We were involved in the Vietnam War at that time and our country was divided on whether the administration was really dedicated to peace.
I had studied nuclear strategy and was confronted, as all of us were, by its dilemma: on the one hand we were building more and more destructive weapons; on the other, we could never imagine the circumstances in which we could use these weapons. So, the strategic efforts of the two sides were constantly out of sync with their political efforts. And we faced the problem in our country, which I’m sure the Soviet leaders faced in theirs, of demonstrating to our people that whatever crisis might occur, our government had made the maximum effort to avoid confrontation.
So, gradually, came the move toward what was called the policy of detente – partly for the reasons I mentioned and partly because some of the problems objectively required closer association.
In the 1960s Germany developed what was called the Ostpolitik - which was close association and direct negotiations with the Soviet Union. Some of us were concerned about this. At the same time, that policy could not be carried out without a new agreement on Berlin, which presupposed an agreement between the United States and its allies and Russia.
Andrei Gromyko was always prepared for negotiations. The Berlin agreement was an issue of enormous complexity. Andrei Gromyko and I usually met for up to an hour with just interpreters present before meetings of our full delegations. At these private meetings he must have had a certain advantage because he understood what I was saying, and he had time while it was translated to formulate his response. But the point of these private meetings was that we had a kind of an agreement that we would not surprise each other in the middle of the negotiations – we would not confront each other in front of our staffs with unexpected decisions, or the need to make such decisions. So when we ended the formal negotiations, we would not necessarily have agreed, but we knew where we were going. Even when we did not agree, we never worsened the situation.
I have discovered as time has passed that Gromyko had a tremendous sense of humor which was not obvious at first impression. He was absolutely superlative in formulating double meanings from which it took you five minutes to figure out what the joke was. We used to tease each other:. When we were in Moscow for the summit I said to Gromyko: “Our Xerox machine has broken down, Mr. Foreign Minister. If I hold my document up to the ceiling will you give me a copy?” And he said: “Unfortunately, the cameras were installed by the Tsars – they are very good for people, but they are not very good for documents”.
In 1972 during the U.S. presidential election he held the view, which was partly correct, that he looked like Nixon. And he suggested that if I proved more pliable in negotiations than I had been, he might be willing to wear a Nixon campaign hat that said “Nixon is the one” at a diplomatic reception at the UN.
I found him a man of exceptional human qualities.
It was a pity that the Watergate crisis and the domestic debate that evolved in the United States caused every move with the Soviet Union to be treated as if it were a surrender of our positions. In the times that I was in office it was always said that we needed a “team B” to analyze the enormous danger that the Soviet Union represented beyond what the administration was describing. We know today that what we really needed was a “team C” to point out how much less the actual Soviet capabilities were than our critics described.
I could never forget the experiences of my family during the Nazi period, nor my experiences in the American army during the war. And meeting the Soviet Army on the Elba River was one of the great experiences of that period. The relationship with the Soviet Union and Russia is one of vital importance for the peace of the world.
We had then and we have now 95 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenal between us. Any improvement of the nuclear threat, any eventual elimination of the nuclear threat absolutely pre-supposes understanding between Russia and the United States. It’s not easy for either country to understand the motivations of the other. And our permanent dialogue is not just about the tactical issues facing allies - it’s about the fundamental perceptions we have over international affairs. It’s crucial.
There’s a tendency in some of areas of public discussion to treat diplomacy as if it were a psychiatric problem, as if its major task is to get people into a room and then magically all the problems will disappear. When the Soviet Union, now Russia, and the United States talk today it should be based on the real perception that if there’s a failure of negotiations some consequences will follow.
The temptation to get through a session of diplomacy by making general statements is often overwhelming. During the Cold War with all its shortcomings, in the Cuban missile crisis, the Berlin crisis, our two countries came face to face with the realization that a nuclear conflict would be a catastrophe for both. And representatives of both countries knew that they had a historic obligation to avoid this.
With respect to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, this realization has not yet fully sunk in with all the participants. And I strongly believe that we have a relatively limited period in which we can come to a concrete understanding of how to achieve the objective of a nuclear-free world.
Gromyko conducted himself with strength, with skill, and reliability. I think of him as an important colleague who defended the interests of his country with enormous skill, with enormous persistence. And he always understood that the peace of the world depends on recognizing that there are objectives beyond the simple assertion of national interest.
This article is based on the remarks delivered by Dr. Henry Kissinger at the UN Headquarters during the round table dedicated to the Centennial of Andrei Gromyko