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Interview With Foreign Journalists Prior to the Venice Economic Summit

May 26, 1987

Upcoming Elections in Italy

The President. Well, I think we'll start with the host country.

Q. And again, we want to thank you very much for granting us the interview, Mr. President. And I'm sure you will enjoy Venice and you will enjoy Italy.

The President. Looking forward to it.

Q. You will be in Italy a few days just before the elections.

The President. Yes.

Q. Do you consider Italy a country so politically stable that the elections do not worry you, or is your administration worried about the Communist participation in the Government and about repercussions on NATO?

The President. Well, I can't deny wherever in the world I find a Communist movement their conduct has been such that it's of concern. But, no, and I think it would be improper for me to inject any opinions into your election there. But I have great confidence that the Italian people will do what's right, as they have for quite some time now.

Q. Thank you.

Persian Gulf

Q. Mr. President, can you conceive any circumstances on which the United States would go to war with Iran as a result of military actions against the United States warships in the Persian Gulf, and what part would you expect the allies to play?

The President. Well, I think that all of us, the allies, have expressed ourselves very many times: that the Persian Gulf is international waters; it must stay open. It's vital to most of the countries of Western Europe because of the oil from there, as well as Japan. And it's important to us, although not quite as vital with regard to the amount of oil that we bring out of there. I don't see the danger of a war. I don't know how it could possibly start, except that it is true this is not the first place or the only place in the world where we have felt it necessary to maintain a military force. And always, we have followed the rule that we're not going to send our people anywhere unless they are permitted to defend themselves if attacked. And we're not out to attack anyone, but we will, if fired upon, will fire back.

Acid Rain

Q. Mr. President, I'm the Canadian reporter, so you won't be very surprised with this first question I have for you. Just before leaving Ottawa in April, you told [Prime Minister] Mr. Mulroney that you would consider a bilateral accord to reduce the pollution that causes acid rain. When we got back in Washington 2 weeks later, your top environmental official, Lee Thomas, said that such emission controls were not justified. So, I'm asking you, Mr. President, are you willing to negotiate an accord that would set goals and timetables and controls or not?

The President. I have told our people that I think we should use the pattern that Canada and the United States used with regard to polluted air—or polluted water along our borders. And we were very successful in cleaning up the lakes and the streams that either crossed our borders or that were very close to them. And we worked together on that. And that is the pattern that I said I thought we should follow here. And we are in consultation. And we have a great deal of work to do ourselves on pinning sources and so forth. But all of that is going forward. It isn't something that you can just say that we'll do it at 10 a.m. in the morning. But we intend to work closely with Canada and find an answer to the problem.

Japan-U.S. Semiconductor Trade

Q. I am a Japanese journalist. Many Japanese people are hoping that the United States will lift the sanctions as a result of the semiconductor codes prior to the Venice summit. Is there any chance that the United States will lift the sanctions prior to the summit?

The President. We are looking forward to doing that as quickly as we can, but it depends on those Japanese concerns agreeing to the—or abiding by the terms that were agreed to earlier. And then that agreement was violated, and this is what brought about our retaliation. I don't know that it can be done as quickly as our going to the summit, which is almost upon us, but it will be done as soon as, as I say, all those conditions are met. And I know that Prime Minister Nakasone is doing his best and is being most cooperative in trying to arrive at a settlement.

Human Rights and Regional Conflicts

Q. Mr. President, you have always emphasized that progress in arms control should be linked with progress in human rights. You are making progress in arms control at the moment, and as you're going to Berlin next month and as you're going to see the wall which divides the city, don't you think that the time has come for a new initiative on human rights? And what will be your message to the people of Berlin? And what will be the message to Mr. Gorbachev from Berlin?

The President. Well, I don't know what his message might be, but I'm quite sure that I will make reference to the wall and what it represents. I believe that we have made progress, some progress in human rights, not as much as we would like or as fast as we would like. But there has been an increase in the releasing of political prisoners, dissidents from captivity in the Soviet Union. There has been an increase in emigration of people of the Jewish faith—allowed to leave the country. There's a greater distance to go, much more to be done, but at least we're seeing the signs of improvement in that field of human rights.

I think another thing also has to do-that's tied into arms reduction, must be the regional aspect. And there, I think the Soviet Union—they have expressed their desire to get out of Afghanistan, and I think we all should be encouraging them to make good on that statement and move as fast as possible to end an assault that has seen almost 5 million people have to flee their country as refugees and live in neighboring countries.

And it is a brutal assault on the people who remain. We're seeing attacks on children—deliberately aimed at children by the use of weapons that are made to look like child's toys, but which, when picked up, cause either the death or the severe injury of the children. I recently had five children in this office right here who'd been brought to our hospitals from Afghanistan. And one of them, a small, tiny girl, was horribly disfigured by burns. But the other four were either missing a leg or an arm. And there must come an end to that.

United Kingdom-U.S. Relations

Q. Peter Pringle, from the Independent in London. Over the years, Britain, irrespective of which political party is in power, has enjoyed a strong, special relationship with the United States, including an American military presence with nuclear weapons on British soft. Irrespective of the result of the general election now being fought in Britain, will you do everything in your power to maintain this relationship in general and specific terms?

The President. Yes. It's difficult for me to conceive of a time when we would not have the almost family relationship that we have between our two countries. I have admired your Prime Minister and the progress that has been made in many fields there, but I know that I can't go beyond that, because I'm not going to, again, intervene or express an opinion with regard to your politics.

But the relationship between our two countries does go back many, many years, and I think it would take more than an election in either one of our countries to change that.

Persian Gulf

Q. Mr. President, may I go back a moment to the Persian Gulf?. People say, especially in Congress, that there is a danger of war. And in any case, confrontation with Iran could cause a resurgence in terrorism and dampen the peace process in the Middle East. Do you think these objections are true, and what do you expect the Europeans to do to help you there? Specifically, what do you expect Italy, for instance, to do to help you?

The President. Well, in the economic summit last year in Japan, we came to quite some sizable agreements with regard to terrorism and the cooperation between all of our countries on that. There is no question but that the Iranian Government does support terrorism. And I would think that the issues, as I expressed them earlier, about simply defending ourselves with regard to our own ability to maintain trade in the open waters—I don't see that as bringing on a war.

As a matter of fact, we're doing everything we can, working with other countries to try and bring about an end to the war that we have. Now, Iraq has already expressed a willingness to simply end the war, both sides retreat to their own borders, no one gain any territory or suffer any penalty, just simply end the war. Iraq has expressed a willingness to do this, and the only holdout is Iran. We're going to continue to try and press for peace there. It's my understanding that war has taken about a million lives so far. I don't think that they would like to take on the United States in addition to Iraq. And we're not going to start a war, so it would have to be them if they tried to start one.

Nuclear Weapons in Europe

Q. Mr. President, go back to the negotiation with the Soviet Union. In case of an agreement about the double zero option, what will you answer to those who fear denuclearization of Europe?

The President. Well, I think we're a long way from denuclearization of Europe. You have really three sets of weapons. The ones that we're talking particularly about in having a zero option are the intermediate range. Now, also there is a talk about the short range. But even if that should be done, you have that third group which, in the case of the allies, would number someplace in 4,000 warheads. These are the battlefield weapons, the airplane-carried weapons and so forth, and some nuclear submarines that are dedicated to our agreement with the European nations. So, denuclearization is a long way away. Then I would have to point out that as you proceeded—if you did—into that field that is where it would absolutely have to include conventional weapons. Because there is an imbalance that is redressed right now by way of nuclear weapons, without them would leave the Soviet Union with a tremendous advantage: conventional weapons. That would have to be redressed.

Canada's Role in the Arctic

Q. Mr. President, you just talked a moment ago about freedom of navigation in the Gulf. There is another issue of freedom of navigation just here in North America. Ottawa is planning to buy 10 to 12 submarines from Europe to force your Navy to ask permission when you send ships in the Northwest Passage. Are we going towards a confrontation of some kind?

The President. I hope not, and I don't think so. I see a great deal of merit on Canada's concern with regard to the islands north of Canada, which throughout much, if not all, of the year many of them are connected by permanent ice connections with people living on that ice—that this is somewhat different than most of the other points in the world where there could be the same type of concern as to whether a water is international or territorial. That is the one thing we have to guard against. We have to worry about an action that could set a pattern, a precedent, that then in other parts of the world we would find—what is it, about 16 chokepoints in the world that must be kept open if the free world, not only ourselves but others, are to be able to get the necessities of life. And someone that wanted to attack the free world—obviously their naval strategy would be to close those down. Now, if they were closed off—

Q. You seem to be saying that Canada had some legitimate claim to sovereignty for that—

The President. Yes, I think that is a different situation there. And I am hopeful that we can—and the good neighbors that we are—that we can find an answer to that and that will, at the same time, will not set a dangerous precedent with regard to other international waters.

Value of the U.S. Dollar

Q. Mr. President, I would like to ask concerning the value of the dollar. Is the United States Government planning any measures to maintain the value of the dollar, and will you make an announcement at the summit on this?

The President. Now, wait a minute, I missed out there at the first.

Q. Oh, I'm sorry. I'd like to ask regarding as—in the value of dollars.—

Q. About the issue of dollars.

The President. In the what?

Q. The value of the dollar.

Q. The value of the dollar.

The President. Oh, the value—oh, now.

Q. So, is the United States Government planning any measures to maintain the value of the dollar?

The President. Well, I don't think we want any more precipitous nosediving of the dollar. We do think that there was a readjustment that was needed, that our dollar, in relation to other currencies, was overpriced. And it was making competition a little unfair in worldwide trade; we were being priced out of the market. Sometimes when we see the dollar adjust as it has, I've often wondered if we're describing it accurately or if we shouldn't be saying that other currencies that have so far been undervalued have gained some value that is more realistic worldwide.

Federal Reserve System Chairman

Q. Are you going to reappoint Mr. Volcker as the Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board?

The President. We haven't even met or discussed that as yet. I know that I'm going to be faced with that decision down the road, or perhaps he has a decision he wants to make himself. I don't know. But we just haven't made a decision. But I think that out of the economic summit also, in the whole field of macroeconomics, we will be touching on the need for some stability with regard to currencies worldwide and cure any runaway volatility.

Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy

Q. If I may ask you a more personal question, you have experienced the worst political crisis of your life during the last months. Your wife has been criticized by some American columnists. You lost your Chief of Staff. Did it ever occur to you during this crisis to resign? And what gave you the strength to carry on?

The President. Well, I think the strength to carry on was because there wasn't any truth, and isn't any truth, in the charges that are being leveled at me. I did not know that there was money deposited with regard to our arms purchase in accounts or that any of that money was then going to be used for the contras. We had sold $12 million worth of arms. We got our $12 million. And it wasn't until the covert operation that we were—or meetings that we were having—not with Khomeini's government. These meetings were with people who were looking forward to what might be the Government of Iran in the absence of the Khomeini and wanted to establish better relations with the United States. And this was why it had to be a covert operation. They could probably get executed for what they were doing.

But anyway, when the whole thing did leak and burst in all the press of the world, it was only then that word was brought to me that apparently someone in the go-between in the arms transaction had raised the price and there was excess money and it had been put in a Swiss bank account. Now, I still don't know who did that, how much, where it went, who's gotten any of it; and I'm still waiting for these investigations to reveal it. So frankly, I sleep very well at night. And I know that the truth will come out. There was information that had evidently been withheld from me by some of those who are testifying. And I don't feel that I'm faced with any crisis, and, no, I never considered resigning.

National Security Leaks

Q. Mr. President, Secretary Shultz, before the House Appropriations Committee last March, was talking about the impossibility of the United States living up to any undertaking of confidentiality. He said that the result is that other countries are increasingly hesitant in dealing with us and they even hesitate to communicate with us because as soon as they put anything down, somebody will leak it. How big is the problem of leaks in the American Government, and does it affect the allies in Europe?

The President. I think it does. During these last several years, I wasn't prepared for how much leaking does go on from the White House or from—let's just say in Washington. It's not just confined to the White House. Many times, if there's something in which you have to give information to the Congress, you know you're going to read about it in the paper almost immediately. As a matter of fact, may I say something here that might sound a little critical? A great deal of the leaking is not the leaking of valid information, it is the leaking of a rumor, an unsubstantiated statement. And yet our press goes all out, including the headlines with it. Now, I recognize the right of the free press; I don't want censorship. And I know also that the press, at least in our country, has a tradition of protecting its source.

So, when I see those stories that are written with "according to a White House source"—no name. But since many times they print as fact this statement by this unnamed source, doesn't the press have a responsibility, if they want to protect their source, of at least before they go with the story checking out to see if the story is true? Would it kill them to make a telephone call and find out is this true, did you say this, or did you do that? And it is destructive to our relationship with other countries. As I say, a number of times I've had to pick up the phone and call one of my counterparts in another country because of embarrassment caused to them by a leak. And we have done, and continue to do, everything we can to try and find out who's responsible for these leaks, and we haven't been able to determine them, to pin them down. But also sometimes, I have to wonder: Was there a leak, or isn't just the attributing of the story to an unnamed source a way of writing a story someone wants to write, particularly among columnists?

Soviet-U.S. Summit Meeting

Q. When are you meeting Mr. Gorbachev, Mr. President?

The President. We don't know. It's up to him to tell us when he can come. He has agreed; he did agree to a summit in the United States; and that invitation is still open. And I'm hopeful that, before the year is out, we'll have that meeting.

Q. Thank you very much.

Note: The interview began at 11:36 a.m. in the Oval Office at the White House. Participants included Ennio Caretto, La Stampa, Italy; Peter Pringle, the Independent, United Kingdom; Baudouin Bollaert, Le Figaro, France; Jean Francois Lisee, La Presse, Canada; Yasuhiro Tase, Nihon Keizai, Japan; and Fritz Wirth, Die Welt, Federal Republic of Germany. The interview was released by the Office of the Press Secretary on May 27.

Ronald Reagan, Interview With Foreign Journalists Prior to the Venice Economic Summit Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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