Ronald Reagan picture

Interview With Bernard Weinraub and Gerald Boyd of the New York Times

February 11, 1985

Q. We just wanted to start off with some foreign policy questions first. Okay?

The President. All right.

Arms Control

Q. And a question on arms control: Are we going into negotiations in a position of inferiority?

The President. That we are not up to a strength level of the Soviet Union—

Q. Right.

The President.—militarily?

Q. Yes.

The President. Oh, I don't think there's any question of that, and we have been for quite some time. We have fewer—for example, in nuclear weapon—we have fewer warheads than we had in 1967. But I think, in one way, we're going in in a stronger sense than we have in recent years, because over recent years, we followed a policy of kind of unilaterally disarming and the idea that maybe the others would follow suit.

This time, with the refurbishing of our military defenses that we've been undergoing for these 4 years, we're going to the table, and they have the knowledge that not only are we stronger than we were, even though we have not caught up with them as yet, but they have the awareness that we're determined to not allow them to have a superiority over us to the extent that our forces wouldn't be a deterrent. And I think in that regard, we sit down to the table with a little more realism than there's been in the past.

Q. Isn't there a—statements by yourself during the campaign, Mr. President, and by Secretary of State George Shultz, to the effect that we have been able to reestablish the military balance in the few years and that otherwise we could not negotiate on an even basis?

The President. Well, I was trying to be completely accurate here that, obviously, we have not completely caught up with the imbalance between us. For example, we have in uniform in the military 17 divisions. Well, they've got more than that on the Chinese border. So, we have not caught up with the naval buildup. But the fact that we are doing that, the fact that we have 24 more ships, I believe, out there scheduled for addition to the fleet; that is what I think brings us to the table. They know our industrial power. They know what we've been able to achieve when we set our minds to it.

So, they know that there's been a change of attitude, that we are not canceling weapons systems without getting anything in return. And, from that standpoint, I think this is what they mean—that our whole attitude is different now, and they can look down the road and see that there's a point at which they won't have any margin of superiority.

Q. Can you—

The President. And they don't have enough of a margin today to tempt them into a first strike.

Q. On the subject of arms control treaty violations, you and your administration have said for several years that the Soviets are violating these treaties. A, what do you intend to do about that, and B, would you sign treaties in the future without clearing up those matters?

The President. Well, I think all of that is part of what has to be negotiated and probably under the cap of—or the part of the negotiations that'll deal with verifiability. In other words, it's not enough to have an agreement; it's got to be a verifiable agreement.

And some of the violations that they're doing are violations of what had previously been negotiated as the right of each one of us to know about the other. The encrypting of the signals that some of their nuclear tests—ordinarily that we would be able, simply electronically, to have the facts that it was agreed upon we should have, both sides should have. But then they have been encrypting so that we don't get that full information from a test. And all of these will be part of the negotiations.

Q. Do those violations block the possibility of another agreement until they are cleared up?

The President. Now we get into the area of the actual negotiating, and I don't think that I should be discussing those particular facets of what are we going to do, what are we going to offer, what are we going to trade. I don't think that should be voiced in advance.

Situation in the Philippines

Q. Mr. President, to shift to another subject, there are people in Congress who are talking about the situation in the Philippines with the opposition parties in turmoil there, with the Communist insurrection. They're saying that the Philippines is our next Iran. Do you see the Philippines that way? Do you agree?

The President. I certainly hope not. We're trying to be as helpful as we can in their situation. The Philippines and the United States certainly have a close relationship and alliance over the years, and we've had a good relationship with President Marcos.

Now, we realize there is an opposition party that, we believe, is also pledged to democracy. We also are aware that there is another element in the Philippines that has Communist support and backing. What we're hopeful of is that the democratic processes will take place and, even if there is a change of party there, it would be that opposition faction which is still democratic in its principles. I think it would be a disaster for all of us if, out of the friction between those two parties, the third element, the Communist element, should get in, because we know their result is always totalitarian.

Q. Do you feel there are certain steps that should be taken in order to prevent that from happening, either by the government or by the opposition?

The President. Well, I hope that both parties are aware of this over there and are going to, neither one of them, look to that third element for any kind of help or alliance. And, as I say, we're going to do, continue to do, everything we can as a longtime friend to see that the Philippines remain a democracy.

South Korea

Q. Sir, on South Korea, let me just ask you: Given today's news, do you think that some of these Americans who were accompanying the opposition leader there were, in fact, meddling as—

The President. Let's just say that I think there was bad judgment on both sides.

Q. You mean the Americans as well as the Korean officials?

The President. Yes. And certainly here in the treatment of this, it's tended to hide the fact that Korea, South Korea, has made great strides in democracy, that they have a prosperity that is far above that of a great many of their neighbors in that part of the world. Their democracy is working. And I think there was some bad judgment there on both sides.


Q. Could we talk about Nicaragua, I guess, Mr. President? There seems to be a real stalemate there. You're not providing aid to the contras now. There are no negotiations that are going on now. What are you planning to do in the way of policy to try to get something going that might bring about the kind of Nicaragua that you would like?

The President. Well, I'm going to continue to ask the Congress to let us, in all of Latin America, go forward with the kind of program that was born of the Kissinger-led commission down there in which 75 percent of the help we offer is going to be in social and economic aid to try and make these countries more self-sufficient, to eliminate the great poverty in so many of those countries by simply helping them become more viable economically and, at the same time, giving them help for security, so that they're not victims of subversion, particularly from outside their own countries.

With regard to Nicaragua, I think that we should continue to offer support to the people of Nicaragua who have been betrayed in the revolution that they, themselves, supported.

That revolution was supposed to result in democracy. And assurances were given by the people who were fighting the revolution and leading it. Then the Sandinistas did what Castro before them had done in Cuba. Once the revolution was successful, they ousted from the government, or any participation in government, all the other factions that were dedicated to democracy and have instituted a totalitarian regime.

And what the Nicaraguan people want is the revolution they fought for. And I think they're entitled to have it.

Q. So, support to the people of Nicaragua is support to the contras? Or what?

The President. Well, they certainly are part of the people, and they were part of the revolution in many instances. The thing that so many people that are arguing against this don't seem to be aware of a difference between, for example, Nicaragua and El Salvador. El Salvador now, after several elections, is a government that is striving for democracy, that was chosen by the people. And the people trying to overthrow it, the guerrillas in El Salvador, are trying to overthrow a government that the majority of the people elected.

In Nicaragua, the so-called Sandinista government is a government that seized power out of the barrel of a gun; it's never been chosen by the people. And it has directly contravened the principles of the revolution that they were fighting. And I think there's every reason for the contras to be representing those who continue to strive for the democracy that they fought a revolution to get.

Q. Well, are you talking about a fundamental change in the Nicaraguan Government, or can they do things incrementally? Can they, for example, ease up on press freedom, or can they provide more press freedom, or can they provide certain steps that you might think would be acceptable without making a fundamental change in their government?

The President. Well, Jerry, I don't know what—when we talk about this, are we talking about the people that are in the government or the form of government? If it's the people, obviously those who have grabbed power are not going to want to give it up; that's typical of totalitarianism. But as to the other part—all the Sandinistas would have to do is go back to what they, themselves, participated in promising to the Organization of American States—that they wanted democracy, they wanted free voting, they wanted free labor unions, they wanted a free press and all—and subject themselves—or submit themselves, I should say, and anyone else who chooses to, to the will of the people by way of the elections and voting.

Q. Sir, let me ask you—on the contras question—what form of aid should this take, in terms of helping the contras? I mean, how do we propose to help the contras?

The President. Well, I still believe in covert programs where they're necessary and where they're desirable. And so, once you say that, then there are some limits as to what you can specify.

Q. Right. I understand.

Strategic Defense Initiative

Q. Mr. President, to go back to the issue of arms control and, particularly, to your Strategic Defense Initiative—if, in the Geneva negotiations, the Soviets were to agree to go along with the deep reductions in offensive weapons that you've proposed, would you still want to proceed with this Strategic Defense Initiative, or would you be ready to call it off in return for that?

The President. No. I would want to proceed with what we're doing, which is research to discover whether there is such a weapon and whether it is practical and feasible. And then I, myself, have said that my own view would be that if that is determined and we can produce such a weapon, that then before deployment I'd be willing to sit down and, in a sense, internationalize.

In other words, to negotiate then, before there would be any deployment or anything, to make sure that they understood that we weren't trying to create the ability of a first strike ourselves, that our goal was still the elimination of nuclear weapons; and that I would see that defensive weapon as another step in attaining that goal; that if we could say that this virtually makes those weapons, if not obsolete, certainly most ineffective—the nuclear weapons—then we've got a real reason for saying, "Now, let's all do away with them, because we've come up with this defensive weapon." That would eliminate any of the protests that some of the people on the Soviet side have made that we're seeking a first-strike capability.

I don't think anyone in the world can honestly believe that the United States is interested in such a thing or ever would put itself in that position.

Q. So, proceeding with the Strategic Defense is independent of whatever agreement is reached—

The President. That's right—

Q. —on offensive weapons.

The President.—because it's not in violation of the ABM treaty, and they have been conducting—you know, who are they kidding? They've been conducting research in this sort of thing for a long time. And they already have—far beyond anything we have—and we believe, in violation of the ABM treaty, that kind of defense.

And we're seeking a nonnuclear weapon that could render these weapons obsolete.

U.S.-Cuba Relations

Q. Sir, just—excuse me—back on Latin America—Fidel Castro said recently that he saw possibilities for improving relations with the U.S. Do you see any possibility of you or the Government improving relations with Castro?

The President. Well, I'm not greatly optimistic, because we've heard this before. Early in my administration there were signals sent of this kind, and we took them up on it. And we tried to have some meetings with them, and nothing came of it. Their words are never backed by deeds. There are very simple things that they could do that would indicate that they were ready for a change.

The Middle East

Q. On the Middle East, Mr. President, do you expect a current review of the arms sale policy to result in some kind of change in U.S. policy in the region?

The President. Well, now, you're asking about—

Q. The Middle East.

The President. In arms policies, though.

Q. Yes, you're conducting a review of arms—

The President. Yes.

Q. —policy.

The President. I'm still dedicated to that September 1st, 1982, provision of a negotiated peace. I don't believe it can be achieved without King Hussein of Jordan and with—or at least with the permission of the Palestinians, representing them in direct negotiations with the Israelis. And we are prepared to be of whatever help we can be. We're not seeking to impose a settlement on anyone; we haven't got some plan of how it must be worked out.

But I feel that we have to make the moderate Arab States recognize that we can be their friend as well as the friend of Israel and that this could be helpful in our trying to be of help in peace negotiations. And part of this would be—because they're under threat—there's a war going on just minutes away from them by air. The Soviet Union, with its invasion of Afghanistan, has made it evident that the Middle East can't rule out the possibility of expansionism on the part of the Soviets there. And, therefore, we think that they're entitled to some defensive weapons also.

At the same time, we have ensured Israel that we will never see them lose their qualitative edge to the point that they're endangered by anything we do.

Q. Do you see an opportunity, at this point, to push that peace initiative of yours once again? With the Fahd visit and other developments, is this the time to make another move?

The President. We have another meeting coming tomorrow morning. I'm going to talk to him, definitely, so that he knows that we haven't retreated. The events in Lebanon and so forth kind of put the plan on ice.

It was not only that. If you'll remember, there was a very definite breaking off of relations between the PLO and King Hussein. Hussein was going forward, trying to work with them, and then suddenly they parted company.

Now, there have been talks resumed, because anyone who talks for the Arab side is going to have to be able to represent the Palestinian problem in those negotiations. You can't write them off or ignore their right to some claims. And so what we're trying to talk about is hoping that this can now come to the point that there can be direct negotiations.

Q. Do you put any limit on who can represent the Palestinians?

The President. Well, it more or less has to be worked out between them and King Hussein—

Q. But if—

The President.—as to whether they will permit him or whether they will want direct representation, and then, then I think with the Israelis the issue comes up, then—will whoever represents the Palestinians be willing to say that they recognize the right of Israel to exist as a nation. This is a great sticking point. It's why we cannot enter into any discussions with the Palestinians, the PLO. As long as they say that, how do you talk to a country and say to a country, "You should negotiate with these people," when these people say, "We don't recognize that country's right to exist."

Q. As part of the comprehensive review that you're doing on the Middle East, are you thinking of connecting arms sales to the peace process?

The President. Well, we have—you know, there have been—we have made some arms sales in a number of instances. Actually, what I feel is necessary is—this is a part of convincing the Arabs that we do sincerely intend to be their friends also, that we're not in any way an opponent.

Black Americans

Q. Mr. President, on the question of black leaders—you've criticized black leaders, recently, as representing a special interest and being concerned about their own jobs and positions. Assuming that that might be true, how do you then plan to keep in touch with the black community in general, if you're not doing it through these black leaders?

The President. Very willing to do it through those, and tried. And there were meetings here, and they came to naught. What I said there is a general thing that I was saying—not about all—because there are leaders of quite prominent black groups, like Roy Innis of CORE [Congress of Racial Equality], who agrees completely with what I said.

But I think it's something that happens even in government bureaucracies that are set up to solve a certain problem. But once the bureaucracy is set up, it never quite wants to admit that the problem has been solved, because there's no longer any need for the bureaucracy. And I think that there is some element of this. See, I've just lived longer than the rest of you. [Laughter] I remember when things were very much different—not from reading about them, from seeing them. And I think that there is an unwillingness on the part of some leaders to bring to the attention or remind the people they represent how much progress has been made, because—and again, as I say, because if you do, they might then say, well, then, what are we still organized for?

Now, granted, we have not totally eliminated all the problems. There are a lot of us that are still heart and soul for continuing. But the progress that we've made is such that there is no reason anymore to try to keep a group in existence on the basis of animus, anger, and others.

Q. Well, how do you really get that message through to the black community if you don't deal with black leaders? How do you—

The President. Now, what constitutes black leaders? I've been meeting with an awful lot of people that have, I think, achieved quite some prominence in their work in that field. And, as I say, Roy Innis, of CORE—he sees this exactly the same way.

I'm perfectly willing to try and say these same things to the people that are in the organizations where a few of the leaders have seemed to be, well, very frankly, more interested in some political differences than they are in resolving the problem.


O- Mr. President, shift to a totally different area—Poland. Does the trial and the conviction of those four police officers and the murder of that Catholic priest constitute any kind of a step on the part of the Polish Government that justified, in your mind, relaxing any of our sanctions or making any moves towards Poland to ease the situation, improve it?

The President. I honestly don't think that it reflects any change. I think it reflects something that went wrong. And the Government doesn't mind throwing somebody to the wolves in order to keep the sleigh going ahead of the wolfpack.

Q. No fundamental change internally, therefore no reason for us to change our policy?

The President. No.

Strategic Defense Initiative

Q. Mr. President, taking it back to the question of your Strategic Defense Initiative. Throughout history there's always been a question of offensive being able to overcome defense, and it always has in the past. Here we're about to embark on the expenditure of a lot of money to test this proposition again. Why do you think this time the defense might be able to prevail over the offense?

The President. Well, all right, let me give you a parallel that I've used here among our own people. World War I—poison gas came into being for the first time, and it was horrible. Nineteen twenty-five—all the nations of the world met in Geneva and ruled out poison gas in the future for war. But by that time the gas mask had been developed, and gas mask has been standard soldier equipment in just about every army in the world ever since 1925. We haven't thrown the masks away.

Now, we're talking about a weapon that has been developed for which there is no defense whatsoever. The only program we have is MAD, mutual assured destruction. Why don't we have MAS instead, mutual assured security?

Now, we all know how to make that weapon. Suppose that we were so successful at the arms talks that we all agreed to do away with them, just as we agreed to do away with poison gas. And the years go by, but we all know how to make them. You can't take out of your mind the knowledge that we now have. And sometime, in a time of stress and, whether it's the two great countries or some other countries, somebody is going to say, just as they have in recent years, maybe it would be handy for us to produce a few of these things. And you wouldn't be able to tell if they had or not. But at least your security would be your own kind of gas mask—that if somebody does cheat after you've tried to eliminate them, and comes up with those, you'd have a weapon in which you could knock them down, just as today, you could put on the gas mask if somebody cheats and decides to use poison gas.

So, I think it would be well worth having. And then, of course, there's the possibility that you can't get everybody to eliminate those weapons as we're seeking to do, and, therefore, you have made it through defense. You've changed the whole ratio—the opponent that might want to be expansionist and resort to war has to say in the face of that defensive weapon: How many of these things do I have to have before I can be sure that enough get through that they won't be able to blow me out of the water?

Q. Mr. President, you've talked at times of two different kinds of a defense—one, defending cities, the whole population. Somebody referred to it as an "Astrodome" defense, so to speak. And you seem now to be talking about a defense that would be around our missiles. Which is it you want—a limited defense or a total defense?

The President. I want a defense that simply says that if somebody starts pushing the button on those weapons, we've got a good chance of keeping all or at least the bulk of them from getting to the target. Because, even if it's around missile sites, that's the type of weapon anymore in which there's no way to restrain that from killing any number of people, or now, as a great many reputable scientists are telling us, that such a war could just end up in no victory for anyone, because we would wipe out the Earth as we know it. And if you think back to a couple of natural calamities, back in the last century, in the 1800's, just natural phenomena from earthquakes—or, I mean, volcanoes, we saw the weather so changed that there was snow in July in many temperate countries. And they've called it the year in which there was no summer. Well, f one volcano can do that, what are we talking about with a whole nuclear exchange: the nuclear winter that scientists have been talking about? It's possible.

So, I think if you have a defensive weapon, I don't think of it in terms of let's put it around this place or that place. Let's put it in such a way that those missiles aren't going to get to their target.

George Bush

Q. One last question, if I might, Mr. President. Won't you have to support George Bush in '88? Won't you have to endorse him or support him?

The President. Well, now, you have me between a rock and a hard place here, because I have to tell you I think that—as I have said—he has been the finest Vice President that I ever have any recollection of. He has been an integral part of everything that we're doing.

I have always had the feeling—I had it about a Lieutenant Governor in California when I was Governor—that the Vice President shouldn't be just someone standing by waiting to be called off the bench. He should be like an executive vice president in the corporation or business; you use him. And he's been all of those things.

But, at the same time, in this job, you are titular head of the party and as such you've kind of got a responsibility to let the party function and make its decisions. Now, it's not an easy thing for me to think about, but I have to keep that in mind.

Q. So, you won't support him under any circumstances?

The President. What?

Q. You won't endorse him under any circumstance?

The President. Let me just say it's a decision I have said—I know must be made, and I'm just not going to think about it. I'll be like Scarlett O'Hara, I'll think about it tomorrow. [Laughter]

Q. Don't your comments almost make him a logical successor to you?

The President. What?

Q. I mean, your praise of him and the performance of the office, doesn't that make him a logical successor?

The President. Well, I have to say that, if anyone was a voter, in considering, they would have to recognize who's had the most contact with what's going on.

Q. Thank you.

Note: The interview began at 2:38 p.m. in the Oval Office at the White House. The transcript was released by the Office of the Press Secretary on February 12.

Ronald Reagan, Interview With Bernard Weinraub and Gerald Boyd of the New York Times Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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