Ronald Reagan picture

Interview With Foreign Television Journalists

May 19, 1988

Helsinki Accords

Q. This is the Oval Office in the White House. First, Mr. President, let me thank you for this opportunity to give us an interview before the Moscow summit. And my name is Mikko Valtasaari. I'm from the YLE, Finland. And I'm here with Edward Stourton, ITN, Britain; Antonclio Marescalchi, RAI, Italy; Kenichi Iida, NHK, Japan; Wolf von Lojewski, ARD, West Germany, and Jacques Abouchar, Antenne-2, France.

And, Mr. President, you are soon in Helsinki, and next Friday you will speak from the very same stage where the Helsinki document was signed in 1975. And at that time, President Gerald Ford was criticized by going there and signing on to something that was cause of detente, which only served the Soviet interest, as it was said. How do you evaluate the document now?

The President. Well, I value it very much because it specified the agreement of a number of governments to recognize those basic rules of freedom for people. And since our country, this country here, is the first one that ever declared that government is the servant of the people, not the other way around, we heartily endorsed it.

Right now our concern, as I'm sure the concern of a great many other people is that there has not been a complete keeping of those pledges in that agreement by some of the participants—by the Soviet Union, particularly—in recognizing the fundamental rights of people to leave a country, return to a country, worship as they will, and so forth.

Q. Do you think that the Soviet Union has moved that way?

The President. That what?

Q. —has moved that direction after this document—

The President. I am, I think, reasonably optimistic in view of the summit meetings that we've had, and the meeting we're going to have, that we have made progress with the Soviet Union on a number of those things under the present leader.

Strategic Arms Control

Q. Mr. President, you hoped, I think, to have an agreement on strategic nuclear weapons ready to sign in Moscow. You haven't got one. Is it still realistic to expect a START agreement in the lifetime of this administration, or is Mr. Gorbachev simply going to sit on his hands and wait for the next President?

The President. Well, I don't know whether he necessarily wants to do that and gamble that much. But we're working as hard as we can, and it's a far more complex treaty than the INF treaty, which we did sign here at the summit in Washington. But we're working as hard as we can. We'll continue to work there at the summit if it is not completed, and none of us really think that it will be because of the complexity. But I think that it is possible that we could have that, yes, while this administration is still here.

Allegations of Former Staff Members

Q. Since the last time you saw Mr. Gorbachev, your former press spokesman has said that he manufactured quotations on your behalf, including one at a summit. Your former Chief of Staff has said that astrology played a part in your scheduling, indeed, in summit planning. How do you think that may change the way Mr. Gorbachev views the President and the administration he's dealing with?

The President. Well, I hope Mr. Gorbachev has heard some of the things that I have been saying about those charges, because no decision was ever made by me on the basis of astrology. And some of these other things—the quotations by a former Press Secretary—actually, I have to say he was not too far wrong with some of the things that were being said in our earlier summit meetings.

I remember that the General Secretary and I, together in a room, one on one, remarked about the uniqueness of our situation and that very possibly, between us, war and peace for the world could be decided, depending on what we did. And I remember also saying to him that I didn't think that we distrusted each other because of our armaments. We were armed because we distrusted each other. And therefore, while we were going to talk about weapons and reducing the number of weapons and so forth, at the same time we should recognize that we ought to try and eliminate those things that cause the mistrust between us.

Middle East Peace Efforts

Q. Among the many discussions you will have in Moscow, probably you will talk with Mr. Gorbachev about the Middle East. What is your opinion for the future of the occupied territories? And do you know there is a projected program of a possibility of sending some European troops under the United Nations flag? What is your opinion about that in the Arab-occupied territories?

The President. Well, I don't know about the sending of troops or anything of that kind. I'd like to be a little more optimistic and say that I believe there is a desire in the Middle East to settle once and for all what is still technically a state of war between the Arab nations and Israel. We have made a proposal, and this proposal could involve putting together an international conference of nations. But we've made it plain: not an international conference to dictate a settlement but to be helpful if we can, to give advice and to make proposals that might help them arrive at a fair and just peace. And if the Soviet Union is to be a member of that conference, I think there they have a step they have to take, and that is to resume diplomatic relations with the State of Israel.

Q. With the State of Israel. But who will represent the Palestinians—the PLO?

The President. There, I think, is an issue. And actually I think that a lot of that has to do with the feeling that some of the Arab States—because I know that there is a great difference in many of the nations about who could be a proper representative for the Palestinian people and a great feeling that that could hardly be Arafat's element, since here again you have a group that refuses to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a nation.

Soviet Domestic Reforms

Q. Mr. President, do you honestly support a statement made by British Prime Minister Thatcher that the West should support Mr. Gorbachev's domestic reform because it is not only to the benefit of the Soviet people but also to the West?

The President. Well, yes, I think that if there's any way that outside nations could be helpful in this they should because many of the reforms that he is undertaking are aimed at the things that we have always criticized in the Soviet Union. And if there is a way to be helpful in that, and certainly to at least acknowledge our approval of what he is doing, that we should do that.

Q. Could you tell me what's your personal opinion of Mr. Gorbachev's ability to reform his country and chance of success?

The President. Well, I think it is evident that he is running into opposition, that there are those who want to cling to what are more the Stalinist policies, and yet he is apparently going forward with the recommendations. Just recently it became public information that he had met with the heads of the Russian Orthodox Church and discussed some loosening of their opposition to worship.

Arms Control

Q. Mr. President, with Mr. Gorbaehev running into some kind of opposition and your term of office expiring, have you ever discussed what is solid and will definitely remain of the arms control process, for example, whoever is in the White House, whoever is in the Kremlin, or do you see the chance that this thing might falter, for example, like detente did?

The President. Well, I have to be more optimistic than that, because I would hope that whoever is there in that office, and whoever is here in this office, would recognize the truth of a statement I made once in addressing the British Parliament and the legislature in Japan and elsewhere: We have to recognize, I think, that a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought. Once you engage in that kind of conflict, how do you declare a victor if their country is so poisoned by radiation that there's no place for the people to live? And that's what would result if we began exchanging the weapons that we have today. I think that's what has led us to some success in the reduction of nuclear weapons, is that recognition. Possibly in the Soviet Union it was their tragic experience with Chernobyl and to see that how an area would be made unlivable for the people who had lived all their lives there. And when you stop to think that that explosion was less than the power of one single warhead, and we're talking about exchanges of thousands of warheads.

I was interested one day not too long ago, back around the time of our summit meeting here, to hear in this room my own words coming back to me, not with any acknowledgement that they were mine-maybe he didn't know it—but from a Soviet official who word for word said, "a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought."

Q. Mr. President, on the future strategy of the arms control talks, especially among the western NATO nations, sometimes there still is a bit of confusion. The Germans, for example—there are a few people across a political aisle who after INF believe—or are very nervous about modernizing short-range nuclear missiles. They say the shorter the range of the nuclear missiles in central Europe the more dead are the Germans. How can you reconcile these people?

The President. Well, I know, and I have talked with the Chancellor [Helmut Kohl] many times about this. And they see the possibility of—if such a war would occur-they would be the battlefield, largely. And I think that has to be recognized. But at the same time, as I say, those weapons—I have to repeat myself—those weapons are the thing that right at the moment are kind of wiping out the imbalance in conventional weapons. And when you look at that imbalance, you have to say that the Soviet Union's military does not really represent a defensive force; it is far beyond the bounds of what is needed for defense. And so, you look at that as an offensive force. And since the nuclear weapons have been hailed as a deterrent to prevent war, I think that it is only logical that if we negotiate those battlefield tactical weapons and their reduction or elimination, that must be accompanied by the same kind of negotiations with regard to conventional weapons so that we come down to a parity and do not suddenly eliminate a form of weapon that leaves the other side with a great superiority. That might be too much of a temptation to some future leader.

American Hostages in Lebanon

Q. In the last 2 years, France has obtained the release of 10 French hostages while 9 U.S. hostages are still held in Beirut. So, what's your idea about it? Do you think the French are more efficient than you are, or do you suspect the French to have made a deal with the terrorists?

The President. I can't say, and I can't hazard a comment because I know none of the elements that were involved in that transaction. And until I do, I just won't comment.

I still think that all of us want our hostages free. I believe it's the duty of government when the citizens of a country are-their human rights are being unjustly denied by a means of that kind of kidnaping—that the government should take advantage of everything it can to get those people free. At the same time, we must recognize we can't do something in the form of ransom that creates an advantage for those other countries in taking hostages.

I've labored under a misapprehension here—well, worldwide, I guess—about the so-called Iran-contra affair. We were not dealing with the Khomeini or with the Iranian Government. Some individuals had sought a meeting with us on the basis of better relations in the event of the passing of the Khomeini and that it would be a new government. And they had an idea of a different kind of government and a relationship with us. And at one time, asking us to prove our credentials, they made the proposal of us violating our policy and selling, really, a token force of weapons to them, and also that they could use those to build some prestige for themselves with the military, which they would need if they were to become important in the next government.

Well, I said back to them that, yes, we could do that, even though it was against our policy of providing weapons for nations that supported terrorism. But they had made it plain that they did not support terrorism. And I said we have kidnaped now some Americans held hostage by an organization, the Hizballah, that we understand has a relationship with the Government of Iran, and said maybe you would have some influence, that if we did this, you could be helpful to us to try to get some of our hostages free.

Now, we argued right in this room about it, and some people said that would appear to be trading arms for hostages. Well, no, because we weren't giving them to the Government, and we weren't—or we weren't giving them, I should say, to the kidnapers. We were doing nothing to make an advantage for them. And I likened it to if I had a child who was kidnaped. I don't think that you should pay ransom, but if I found there was another individual that could get that child back for me in return for my doing something for him, that would be all right. And that this was much the same point.

And the truth was we got two hostages back and had two more that were scheduled to be released in the next 48 hours. And that was when the story was leaked, of what was going on, in that Lebanese paper. And all of a sudden the world media was full of this and translating it as trading arms for hostages. And I went on the air and tried to convince all of them that we weren't trading arms for hostages and tell them what the truth was, but that's what it's been made to appear.

Persian Gulf Conflict

Q. Speaking of Iran, France is reestablishing diplomatic ties with Tehran while the U.S. is still in a situation of undeclared war in the Gulf against Iran. How do you explain such a difference between close allies? The President. Well, I don't know. We've been doing everything we can behind the scenes to try and bring about peace between Iraq and Iran. The U.N. proposal that was made about them coming to a peace was accepted by Iraq, but not by Iran. And our position in the Gulf-yes, it's brought us into combat with Iranian forces, but we've had naval forces there since 1949 to ensure that that international waterway comes under the international rules of freedom of the seas. And it is Iran that has been trying to close that off and shut down an international waterway, and we don't think that that should be allowed. And that's what we're intending to do, is to try and keep it open.


Q. Mr. President, you're going to certainly talk about Afghanistan while in Moscow. Is it United States policy now to support the rebels or give the Soviet Union a hand by trying to calm down the situation?

The President. We feel that as long as the Soviet Union has provided support and arms and so forth and advisers to the Afghan force of their puppet government, that even though they go, we must continue to support the Mujahidin so that the people of Afghanistan can now, without the absence of the Soviet Union—I mean without the presence of the Soviet Union, that they can bring about a government that is a government chosen by the people of Afghanistan. And we do not recognize that the government there in Kabul is anything but a puppet government established by the Soviet Union. And so, yes, as long as weapons are being supplied to that other side, we're going to do whatever is necessary to support the Mujahidin.

General Noriega of Panama

Q. Mr. President, the Vice President yesterday broke publicly with you over the negotiations with Panama's General Noriega. He said he wouldn't negotiate with a drug dealer. Isn't his stand rather more consistent with the administration's hard line on drugs than your own?

The President. Well, I think that I have not changed my mind about the hard line on drugs. But you have me now in a situation in which I can't comment on what has been going on because there has been no resolution as yet. And I've never believed that when, say, negotiations are going on that you go public and tell what's being debated and negotiated. So, I can't comment there.

I can see why the Vice President said what he said because the impression has been given, based not on information from us but based on rumors and news leaks and so forth, that we are in negotiation somehow over—or with a participant in the drug trade and all. And I think he was making himself plain that you don't negotiate with people of that kind with regard to their activity in drugs.

Our goal, what we're trying to achieve, is the restoration of democracy in Panama. Right now we have a situation where, not legally but just through custom and tradition and started by a previous general, that you have a military dictatorship, in effect, in which even if the people elect a President, the dictator, using force, maintains control. And our goal is a democratic Panama with a government chosen by the people.

Strategic Defense Initiative

Q. When you speak about—I know you hate the word, the name, but they are Star Wars in Moscow—but at what stage are we? Could you elaborate a little bit about the Star Wars?

The President. On?

Q. The American—

The President. Well, yes, our SDI. Well, this started a number of years ago when I first came here and I met with the military of our own country and asked, is it possible, can you foresee that our science and technology is such that we could create a defensive weapon against nuclear missiles, ballistic missiles, that could literally make them obsolete because there would be so much doubt as to whether, if they were once employed, they could ever get through that defense? And a few days later, they came back and told me that, yes, they believed such a weapon could be designed. And I said, go to it! And so the Strategic Defense Initiative was adopted. It has made such great progress—some scientific breakthroughs-that the people involved believe that not only can we have such a system but that it will come much earlier than we had believed was possible. There have been a number of breakthroughs that have advanced the timing on this.

And then, once you have such a weapon, I believe that that is when we could then really move worldwide, even if it meant sharing that weapon. And I would be amenable to that, that if we had such a weapon, a defensive weapon, that we could eliminate the offensive missiles. Now, the question arises naturally, well, then, why would you need that system if you'd eliminated the weapons? Well, you can't wipe out of people's minds the knowledge of how to build a nuclear missile. And someday there could be a madman loose in the world, as we've seen in our own lifetime a number of times, who, with that knowledge, could then secretly build the only one. I've likened it to when, after World War I, the nations all met in Geneva and decided to eliminate poison gas. But everybody kept their gas masks.

Korean Peninsula

Q. Mr. President, you deserve credit for including a Far East Asian region for elimination of INF at the Washington summit. What is your next logical step to ease the tensions in the Asian region, for example, Korean Peninsula, where, as you know, the Olympic games will be hurt?

The President. Well, now, I'm not quite sure I understand your question there.

Q. How do you plan to propose to Mr. Gorbachev in order to ease the tensions in the Asian region?

The President. Oh, well, I think that will be a subject for us to talk about and discuss. I think that all of us have an obligation to see that in the world tensions that nothing-if I'm answering you correctly—in the area of terrorism or something could be employed to upset the Olympic games. And I think what that would require are those nations that probably have a more friendly relationship with North Korea than we do, by virtue of the war that was fought there, that if some of those other nations would make it plain that North Korea should not take advantage of their proximity to the games and do anything of a terrorist nature to upset those games.

Vice President Bush

Q. Mr. President, how would you like to be remembered in history? I'm asking about the Reagan legacy, something like that—just a remark. The two front-runners struggling for your succession—both of them seem to be of quite a different brand of politician, more the managerial type of candidate as compared to a Reagan revolution and inspiration and these kinds of things. Has the mood changed in America?

The President. Well, now, wait a minute. I have to say something about the Republican candidate for President. Now I can safely say that since everyone else has dropped out of the race. I have to say that the Vice President has been an important part of everything that we've achieved in this so-called revolution in these last 7 years or so. I could just give you a figure here of one thing from the very beginning. I had always believed that Vice Presidents in our system of government were relegated to a kind of just standing and waiting position. And I think that's a waste of talent. I have always believed that your Vice President should be like a vice president in a private corporation. He should be an executive with duties and functions.

So, one of the first jobs that I put on the Vice President was to set up a task force and find out how many government regulations imposed on the private sector, on people and on local communities and State governments and business and industry-how many could be removed. And that task force, under his direction, was so successful that we estimate that we have eliminated 600 million man-hours a year of filling out government paperwork on the part of the citizens and businesses and the local and State governments. The book that registers-or contains all those regulations—is only half as thick as it used to be.

And then I put—in the next time, in the task force when the State of Florida—it became disgraceful, the extent to which drugs were being flooded through there into the United States—and put him in charge of a task force there. And for the first time, he put together the law enforcement agencies from the Federal, the State, and the local level, and including cooperation from the military. And that was so successful there that then moved him to a task force for the whole southern border, across the 2,000 miles, the border between our country and Mexico. And again success, and the figures sound so great, except that with the boundaries such as we have and the two great seacoasts, that isn't really the answer to the problem because of all of the thousands of tons of drugs and the planes and ships and trucks and so forth that we have confiscated, and the hundreds of millions of dollars that we've confiscated. As long as there is a demand, the drug dealers can get the drugs through—with these task forces. I don't think it would be helpful to eliminate them and just let them come in free with no interference, because we're doing that. At the same time, we're trying to win the battle where it must be won, and that is in taking the user away from the drugs, not the other way around—to convince the people that they should not.

One last little thing here. I know I'm taking a great deal of time. My wife has been very active in that area, and all on her own. She's not a government employee. But she answered a little girl's question in a schoolroom one day when she was talking to them about drugs and why they, as children, should not engage in this. And the little girl stood up and said to her, "Well, what do we do when someone offers us drugs?" And Nancy said, "Just say no." One answer in a schoolroom to one little girl-today there are over 12,000 Just Say No Clubs in the schools across the United States. And that's why we're going to try to win that battle.

But that all started from what you were saying about differences with the Vice President. And, no, I think that, as I say, he's been a part of all that we've done here with regard to the economy. We've had the longest period of economic expansion in the history of our country. In the last 5 years, we have created 16 million new jobs for the workers in our work force. We have the lowest unemployment rate in many years. And we have the highest rate of employment among what is considered the potential employment pool—all of the people that could be considered as potential for jobs—the highest percentage of them today are employed than has ever been true in our history. And as I say, the Vice President's been a part of all of the things that helped bring this about.

Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev

Q. Mr. President, do you consider Mikhail Gorbachev as a friend—I mean, a real friend?

The President. Well, I can't help but say yes to that because the difference that I've found between him and other previous leaders that I have met with is that, yes, we can debate, and we disagree, and it is true he's made it apparent that he believes much of the Communist propaganda that he's grown up hearing about our country that—the big corporations and whether they dictate to government or not and things of that kind. I try to disabuse him of those beliefs. But there is never a sense of personal animus when the arguments are over, and I'm reasonably optimistic, although at the same time I'm realistic. The only Russian I know is a little Russian proverb. And I've used it so many times on him that he's going to hit me over the head one day if I use it again. And that is, Dovorey no provorey—trust but verify.

Q. Thank you, Mr. President. I'm pleased, as a Finn, to welcome you and Mrs. Reagan to our country on your way to Moscow, and we all wish you a very happy journey.

The President. Well, thank you very much. We're looking forward to it because we're celebrating, as you perhaps know, mutually the 350th anniversary of the Finnish-United States relationship and the Finnish community here in our country at that time that was established.

Note: The interview began at 11:35 a.m. in the Oval Office at the White House.

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

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