Ronald Reagan picture

Interview With Foreign Journalists

April 29, 1985

President's Trip to Germany

Q. Mr. President, thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to talk to you before your trip to Europe. My name is Fritz Pleitgen. I'm with German Television. May I introduce to you my colleagues.

Here to my left, Gerard Saint-Paul, TF-1, France. Jon Snow, ITN, Great Britain. Toyohiro Akiyama, TBS, Japan. Sergio Telmon, RAI, Italy. And last, not least, Joseph Schlesinger, CBC, Canada.

And now, my first question. The controversy over your intended Bitburg cemetery visit is sharpening, and it overshadows the economic summit, and it spoils your idea of reconciliation. The Congress urge you not to go. The veterans urge you not to go. And the Holocaust victims urge you not to go. And the majority of the American people are against this visit. Mr. President, how does this turmoil of emotions affect you personally and politically and has the final word been spoken on Bitburg?

The President. The final word has been spoken as far as I'm concerned. I think it is morally right to do what I'm doing, and I'm not going to change my mind about that.

I don't believe it actually has affected a majority of the people here. As a matter of fact, some of our own people have done polls and surveys and reveal that this is not of that great a concern.

Now, I can understand how some of the people feel, because very frankly I don't believe that many of your American colleagues—in that sense, I mean in the press—have been quite fair about this. I think they've gotten a hold of something, and, like a dog worrying a bone, they're going to keep on chewing on it. But this all came about out of a very sincere desire of Chancellor Kohl and myself to recognize this 40th anniversary of the war's end—and incidentally it's the 30th anniversary of our relationship as allies at NATO—that shouldn't we look at this and recognize that the unusual thing that has happened—that in these 40 years since the end of that war, the end of that tragedy of the Holocaust, we have become the friends that we are, and use this occasion to make it plain that never again must we find ourselves enemy, and never again must there be anything like the Holocaust.

And if that is what we can bring out of these observances and the trip that has been planned, then I think everything we're doing is very worthwhile.

Q. But there have been made mistakes in Bonn and in Washington, and isn't it yours and Chancellor Kohl's obligation to correct these mistakes and solve this crisis?

The President. Well, I'm not sure that I agree about mistakes. There have been mistakes with regard to information that was given on the various locales. Let me just point out one place in which I think the whole distortion started. And it started with me, perhaps in answering, incompletely, a question.

When the invitation came to a state visit—and for the purpose that I've mentioned, because the Chancellor and I had talked about this, that there's no longer, after 40 years, a time when we should be out shooting off fireworks and celebrating a victory or commiserating a victory or a defeat.

This is a time to recognize that after years and years, centuries, indeed, of wars being settled in such a way that they planted the seeds of the next war and left hatreds that grew and grew until there would be another war, that the miracle that has happened, that has brought 40 years of peace and 40 years of alliance, that those countries that were of the Axis and the countries of the allies—we're sitting down together in the summit—and do this every year—and we're friends and allies, that this was the thing that we were seeking to do.

But the distortion came when I received what seemed to be a private invitation to go to one of the concentration camps, and I didn't see any way that I, as a guest of the state and of the Government of Germany, could take off on my own and go, and that might then look as if I was trying to do something different than the purpose that we had in mind. And I received a cable from Chancellor Kohl that no, such a visit to—and it will be Bergen-Belsen—was included in the trip, and I immediately accepted. I thought it was appropriate in that way.

The thing I thought was inappropriate, when it seemed that someone else was asking me to simply step away from the plans that were being made for me as a guest and go off on my own, and other than that mistake, I think that what has been planned is all in the spirit of recognizing what has been achieved. Your country now has the most democratic government it has ever had in its existence. You are, and have been for 30 years, one of the principal allies in the NATO defense for Western Europe and of the United States. And this is what we're seeking to recognize.

But at the same time, I think I'm free to say, just as your own people have said, and that is that we all must never forget what did take place and be pledged to the fact it must never take place again.

Q. Mr. President, sorry to insist on that, but the news report published in the New York Times says that some SS buried in Bitburg maybe participated in a massacre in Oradour. Oradour is a village in the south of France. And there were altogether 642 victims. Did you know that? How would you comment on that?

The President. Yes, I know all the bad things that happened in that war. I was in uniform for 4 years myself. And again, all of those—you're asking with reference to people who are in the cemetery, who are buried there. Well, I've said to some of my friends about that, all of those in that cemetery have long since met the supreme judge of right and wrong. And whatever punishment or justice was needed has been rendered by one who is above us all.

And it isn't going there to honor anyone. It's going there simply to, in that surrounding, more visibly bring to the people an awareness of the great reconciliation that has taken place and, as I've said before—too many times, I guess—the need to remember in the sense of being pledged to never letting it happen again.

Q. So, we go back to the Bonn summit, Mr. President. This summit could be a contribution to Western unity.

The President. Yes.

Strategic Defense Initiative

Q. But SDI, your strategic initiative of defense, does not provoke unanimity. For instance, President Mitterrand of France said yesterday in my TV station that the SDI technology is very interesting, but the strategy is maybe wrong. What do you answer to that?

The President. Well, perhaps at the summit if that subject comes up, perhaps I can clarify things for him so he'll understand what it is that we have in mind.

First of all, let us be perfectly aware that the Soviet Union has, over a longer period of time, has already embarked on that kind of research. And what would be the plight of all of us if the Soviet Union, which has the most and greatest nuclear weapons arsenal in the world, also had with it a defense against nuclear weapons and the rest of the world didn't?

Now, what I think President Mitterrand needs to know is that all we're embarking on is research to see if there is the potential for a defensive weapon. And if there is, before any deployment took place, we would join with our allies—you, the countries that are represented here—with regard to any deployment and what our strategy regarding the use of that weapon should be.

But as it stands now, the world is faced with a threat in which our only deterrent against nuclear attack is to threaten retaliation so that in a sense we're saying if you wipe out millions of our people, we'll wipe out millions of yours. And it seems to me that if there is the possibility of having a deterrent that is more based on defensive weapons, which don't kill people but only kill weapons, that then we should be moving in that direction at the same time that we continue our effort to get the reduction between us of nuclear weapons.

May I also say I know that President Mitterrand as well as Prime Minister Thatcher have problems in their own countries with regard to the support for your own nuclear arsenals. And because we're just going into a research and we don't know how long this is going to take, I am in full support of England and France continuing to go forward with their own programs of nuclear defense, nuclear deterrent.

Q. Mr. President, you suggested that this was a good moment to explain to anyone who wasn't certain—to President Mitterrand and others—the benefits of SDI. Yet wouldn't it perhaps have been a better idea to explain all this and talk it out with the allies before you announced it? Isn't there a sense in this, perhaps mirroring our first issue which was that of how to celebrate 40 years of peace, isn't there a sense in which you have announced moves and only afterwards had to get the allies agreement?

The President. Well, I can't remember the exact context of how an announcement was made or whether it was simply contained in our request going to our own legislature for the funding of such research. But as quickly as we could, we did go—and at the military level and at a higher level-we sent representatives over to brief all of the heads of your seven states as well as deal with your own military and our military leadership on this.

Nicaragua Peace Proposal

Q. Your aides say that you're very upbeat as you move towards this summit. Yet it's not been a good week for the person we've come to know as the Great Communicator. Is there any sense, particularly thinking of the contra vote and the confusion about Bitburg, is there any sense in which you feel something's happened to the Great Communicator in the last 10 days or so?

The President. No. I've had 4 years of fighting with the recognition that one House of our legislature is of the opposing party, as a majority of the opposing party. And your parliamentary systems—you don't have such things; the party and the individual are the same. But then, I had the experience of 7 out of 8 years as Governor of California having a hostile legislature, and yet we managed to accomplish a great many things. I have not given up on contra. Our position and the problem in Nicaragua, the vote up there and the debate, whether they admitted it or not, is simply: Do they want another totalitarian Marxist-Leninist government, like Cuba's, now on the mainland of the Americas, or do they want the people of Nicaragua to have the democracy that they're willing to fight for and that they did fight for in overthrowing the Somoza dictatorship?

And whatever way they may want to frame it, the opponents in the Congress of ours, who have opposed our trying to continue helping those people, they really are voting to have a totalitarian Marxist-Leninist government here in the Americas, and there's no way for them to disguise it. So, we're not going to give up.

As for the budget, we've just started that fight, and I'm determined that we're going to carry through with a plan that puts us back on a course that ends deficit spending.

But no, I don't feel I've been destroyed.

U.S. Trade Negotiations

Q. Mr. President, let me change the subject. You have indicated your intention beginning a new round of trade talks. Given that some European countries may need some encouragement or some incentives to start talking early 1986, what would you do at the summit to try to encourage them?

The President. Well, I think that this is one of the subjects—it always has been—at the summits that we talk about, is the opposing of the forces in each of our countries who want increased protectionism in trade. Protectionism has never been successful, and it usually ends up creating great economic problems for everyone.

We have had some fine bilateral discussions with your own Prime Minister, Prime Minister Nakasone. We've made great progress there in ridding ourselves of obstructions to back-and-forth trade, and so with our allies. We're all somewhat guilty, even though we profess we want free trade, and we all really know down in our hearts that it is the best way to go, there still are elements of protectionism that all of us practice.

So, what we feel is, it's time to have another round of discussions to see how we can further liberalize and open up our markets to each other.

Q. But in connection with that kind of trade talk, I think most Europeans will probably want to gang up on the Japanese, on that other so-called Japan program. How would you do it?

The President. Well, we'll try to see that no one gangs up on anyone else because, as I said, everyone is guilty. They've all got some elements of protectionism. And we need to get it all out on the table and see how, together, we can end those things that do bring about, well, trade measures that are unfair.

Meeting With Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev

Q. Mr. President, your attitude after the nomination of Mr. Gorbachev at the Kremlin has been welcomed in Europe, your idea of having a meeting with him. I think that Mr. Gorbachev has taken a hard line, and do you still want to meet him, and what kind of meeting do you want?

The President. Well, yes I'd like to meet him. I've always believed that you only get in trouble when you're talking about each other instead of when you're talking to each other. And some people in my own country-again, some of your colleagues—have taken the tone that my expressing a desire to meet with him somehow is soft or not looking at reality. No, I think it's looking at reality.

And I think that until we sit down and face each other, look each other in the eyes as you and I are now, and try to eliminate some of the mutual suspicions and express our own objections to some of the practices that have been going on, such as the recent, terribly tragic case of the murder of our Major Nicholson there—the only way to settle this is not standing here several thousand miles apart saying things about each other. It's to express ourselves to each other and express ourselves as to what is needed if we're going to ever end these hostilities or at least reduce them. And so, yes, I look forward to a meeting.


Q. In the meantime, Mr. Gorbachev is helping Ortega. What is the position of the United States vis-a-vis Nicaragua at the present? Do you rule out the use of force, the use of American troops—

The President.

Yes. Q. in the area?

The President. I've never considered it. What we have in Nicaragua is a revolution that was fought—and literally with our approval. The United States—I wasn't here then during the fighting of that revolution, but the United States stayed back. And anytime there's a revolution there are various factions, all of whom were opposed to the government that they're rebelling against, and they joined together.

They promised all the other countries in the Americas—Canada, the United States, all the Latin American countries—they promised that their goal was a democratic government, with free elections, pluralism, free labor unions, human rights observed, freedom of speech and religion, and so forth.

When the revolution was over, this country, under the previous administration, immediately went with aid—more financial aid to the new government of Nicaragua than had been given in 40 years to the previous government of Nicaraguare—but then saw them do exactly what Castro did in Cuba after his people won the revolution. The one faction, the Sandinistas—that faction eliminated all the other participants in the revolution.

Some were exiled; some had to flee the country; many were jailed. And they drove them out, and then they made it plain, as Castro did in 1959, that they intended a Marxist-Leninist state. And they violated every promise they'd made to the Organization of American States.

Now, the people that are so-called contras, that are fighting against this, are veterans of the revolution. They are not remnants of the previous government trying to get a dictatorship back in power. These are the people, many of them were imprisoned themselves by the previous dictator. And they're demanding a restoration of the democratic goals of the revolution. And we feel obligated to give them support.

But the plan that we've asked the Congress to adopt is one in which those contras, themselves, have volunteered to lay down their weapons and ask them to be allowed to negotiate with their former companions in the revolution, the Sandinista government-negotiate how to restore the democratic goals. And they've asked that it be mediated by the church.

Well, we have advanced that plan here and have said to the Congress that we will use whatever money is appropriated for food and medicines and so forth, not for military weapons. And we have the support of their allies—I mean, of their neighbors, Honduras and Costa Rica and Guatemala and El Salvador. The President of El Salvador has said that this is the right idea at the right time. And this is what we've asked of our own Congress, and it's what we want.

We're not even seeking an overthrow of the present government. As a matter of fact, our plan says that while these negotiations go on, the present government stays in power. But it is simply for them to adopt the principles for which they said they were fighting in the first place.

U.S.-Canada Relations

Q. Mr. President, we've been talking about free trade or freer trade. At Quebec City in March, you and Prime Minister Mulroney pledged yourself to trying to eliminate trade barriers between our two countries. But we in Canada feel that there is a rise of protectionism in the United States, and certainly in the U.S. Congress. Now, I know you say there's a bit of protectionism in all of us; and there is.

Now, there's also a report coming out in September. But I know, because I remember your campaign in 1980, when you talked about a North American common market, given the fact that you've been President now for 4 years, what sort of trade relationship would you envisage? What sort of new trade relationship would you envisage between Canada and the United States?

The President. Well, as free as possible. And of course, Canada and the United States, we are each other's largest trading partner. These two countries here and that several-thousand-mile border without so much as one fortification or one armed sentry along that border, we're very unique. We have everything in common, including our heritage and background and language and all. And it is true that here and there, there have come about those specific trade barriers or restraints. And what we've authorized on both sides is for our people at the ministerial level to get together and do the best we can to eliminate those barriers.

And we, too, have made great progress, as I said earlier, with another country, with Japan. We've made great progress and some of the things that we celebrated there on this recent visit, the signing of some very basic agreements. So, I'm quite optimistic about what's going to take place and how we can free up our border and rid it on both sides of these restrictions.

Q. You know, sir, in many ways, we in Canada feel like we're caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, the Canadian dollar has gone down vis-a-vis the U.S. dollar. And all sorts of American producers are complaining that the competition in lumber, let's say, is unfair. On the other hand, in trying to seek new markets, we're up against the fact that the Canadian dollar is perhaps overvalued vis-a-vis overseas currencies.

The question really is: How would you respond if Congress went ahead and put restrictions, let's say, on lumber trade and other sectors if trades or imports are being hurt?

The President. Well, I'm opposed to it. And that is what I've had to tell our trading partners—Prime Minister Mulroney and Prime Minister Nakasone and the others-is to tell them that pressure is coming from elements in Congress who, for whatever their own reasons are, are trying to pass. And that's why it's beholden on us to make progress in eliminating these barriers before they try to have their way.

Now, I'm opposed to those protectionist proposals in the Congress. And of course, I ultimately do have some power, that of veto, for measures that might be passed. But we have to recognize it, just as I think that the Prime Minister in your country, just as Prime Minister Nakasone in his, I think are being pressed from the bureaucracy of their governments and from the legislatures as to restricting in how far they can go. So, between us, we just have to carry on the fight. And if we make enough progress in getting equal agreements between us, we take away the ammunition of those who are trying to force protectionism on us.

Nuclear and Space Arms Negotiations

Q. Unfortunately the time is running out. We have just 3 minutes to go. A question-Soviet leader Gorbachev has just offered deep strategic arms cuts. Do you think it's a good proposal, or do you feel that he just wants to put you on the defensive?

The President. Well, if he's trying to put me on the defensive by asking for deep nuclear weapons cuts, I won't be on the defensive, because I won't defend against that.

I was very optimistic before the talks started, when the late Chernenko and Foreign Minister Gromyko both publicly stated that they would like to see the elimination of nuclear offensive weapons.

Well, I told Gromyko over in the Oval Office when he was here we could sign something right then, that that was our ultimate goal and that I was more than pleased to hear them say that it was theirs.

Now, I recognize that that would probably have to be brought about by various stages of reductions in numbers of weapons; and we're very willing; and we have faced them there with proposals that make that evident, that we will join in real reductions of offensive nuclear weapons.

Minister Gromyko said to me at one time: "How long are we going to sit here on these mountains, ever getting higher, of such weapons?" And I asked him then, I said: "Well, we have it between us the ability to lower those mountains, and as long as we're equal at whatever level we stop, then we have a legitimate deterrent that would indicate that they'll never be used."

European Unity

Q. Mr. President, are you in favor of strong European unification, which of course is the thing of Europe itself, and do you intend to support it in your Strasbourg speech?

The President. Well, I don't know how far I should go in attempting to or appearing to be interfering in a problem that involves purely the European countries. I am gratified, and I think the world should be pleased, to see how the unity of Western Europe has—as far as it has come now.

You know, 200 years ago, our first President, George Washington, in his farewell address to the Nation, urged them not to get involved in European affairs because of the rivalries and the enmities that existed between them. And here today that's no longer true. Here today we are all allied, and there is this spirit of unity, so I just would hesitate to voice an opinion as to how far they would go with a union of Europe. That, I think—I don't want the United States to sound as if we're interfering.

Q. Thank you very much, Mr. President. I wish you a pleasant and a good and a successful trip to Europe.

The President. Thank you very much. I'm looking forward to it.

Note: The interview began at 2:33 p.m. in the State Dining Room at the White House.

Ronald Reagan, Interview With Foreign Journalists Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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