Ronald Reagan picture

Question-and-Answer Session With Students at Fallston High School in Fallston, Maryland

December 04, 1985

The President. Hello, there.

Q. The class of students here at Fallston High School have several questions prepared for you today.

The President. All right.

Q. Would you speak this morning on the Geneva summit? We'd like to—

The President. How come I'm nervous? [Laughter] We'll all be seated. Well, it's good to see you, and I'll try my best with the questions that you have. And have you decided who's first?

U.S.-Soviet Relations

Q. Mr. President, my name is Bill Greer. Mr. Gorbachev and yourself are very strong proponents of your respective political systems. It was apparent that the two of you formed a friendship, but there was also a sense of mistrust between you. Do you really believe we can achieve world peace with the Soviets?

The President. Yes, I have to believe that we can, and I'm optimistic and hopeful of it. In spite of the differences between our systems, I think one thing on our side is the Soviet people are virtually obsessed with the desire for peace because of the suffering they underwent in World War II. The Soviets lost 20 million people in that war. And that was not just military; that was the civilians that died as the attacks went into their cities, like at Stalingrad and all. So, there is a great desire for peace there. At the same time there is a mistrust, and we have to at least recognize that. I got the impression that many of them do believe that we have hostile intentions toward them. And I tried to disabuse them of that thought by pointing out that when World War II ended, ours was the only country that our industry hadn't been bombed to rubble in the war. Our military was virtually intact. We had 121/2 million people, men and women, in uniform. And we were the only ones with the nuclear weapon. We were the only ones who had the bomb. At that point we could have literally dictated to the world if we'd chosen to do so, and we didn't. We set out to help the other nations in the war, including our enemies. And I pointed this out to him—that we had some evidence on our side that we didn't have hostile intentions. And I can only hope that it registered.


Q. Mr. President, I'm Craig Hatfield. The recent outburst of terrorist actions in the Middle East has shown that both the U.S. and the Soviet Union are victims of terrorism. Have you considered some way the Soviets and we can join forces to prevent further terrorism?

The President. This is one of the things that I think could come out of these meetings that we're having, because now that they, too, have been victims of terrorism, I think that they've got a very definite reason for wanting that. We do cooperate with all the other nations in the world—or most of them. We've managed to establish a contact, exchange information, and so forth on terrorism, and I hope the same thing can happen with them.

You, and then I'll go that way.

Weapons Systems

Q. My name's Troy Baisden. Mr. President, I've been wondering what test you're putting in place to stop a $2 billion failure like the Sergeant York program from happening again.

The President. Well, it isn't a case of putting things in place. You don't want those things to happen, and yet you must realize that in that field, as in so many others, you are going to research. And your research indicates the potential of some weapons system, and you go forward. And now and then you're going to find that defensive abilities have been developing all the time, too. And suddenly, you find that something that looked good when you first planned it and ordered it has now been overtaken by a superior defense. And I don't know any answer to that. Just try our best and see that those kinds of things don't occur.

Nuclear Disarmament

Q. My name is Andrea Hooper. Mr. President, do you believe that a verifiable agreement of nuclear disarmament can ever be accomplished?

The President. A verifiable—

Q. Agreement.

The President.—agreement?

Q. Yes.

The President. Yes, but it's going to take confidence and trust on both sides. This was one of the first things that I talked to General Secretary Gorbachev about—that for us to start talking, reducing arms, or doing this or that, we would first have to—by deed, not just word—prove that we were losing our distrust of each other. Because as long as we distrust to the point that there are restrictions on whether you can go in and verify what the other fellow is doing, then you're going to have to be suspicious and believe that those restrictions are based on a desire to not keep the agreement. And this was the basis of one of our talks—and made it plain again that it's more than just words. There have to be deeds, both sides, to show that we mean we want to get along. And this was why I offered to them, with our Strategic Defense Initiative—I told him that their scientists could come into our laboratories if ours could come into theirs, where this research was going on, so that they could see exactly what it was we were trying to develop.

Import Quotas

Q. Mr. Reagan, my name is Brenda Cannon. Since the steel imports are still coming into the country above the quotas that were set, what steps are going to be taken to enforce these quotas?

The President. We have the quotas, and, here and there, there are violations, and sometimes there are countries that get into the steel business that haven't been there before. Our whole system is based on equity in trade between the countries, and we just have to pursue that. And wherever we find a violation, why, we then bring that case forward and nail the other country or where that violation is occurring.

I think I should maybe turn this way for a minute, if I'm going to be fair at all, shouldn't I? Yes.

Accomplishments of the Geneva Summit

Q. Mr. President, my name is Valerie Clunk. What do you feel is the most important accomplishment of the summit meeting outside of the cultural exchange?

The President. I think the most important thing was the very fact that we decided to continue having the meetings. We had thought when we left that the Soviets might be so resisting to future meetings that this alone could make the summit a success, if we could get an agreement. And we got it on the first day there, and with no problem at all. He was almost eager for that.

And I think that our agreement—you know, ever since 1946 our country has been proposing controls of weapons and, in more recent years, the controls of nuclear weapons. And we've had negotiators—Vienna, in Stockholm, and in Geneva—on this subject. For the first time, really, now, the Soviets have actually suggested a figure to which, if we can work out the conditions, they would be willing to reduce their numbers. Up till now, we've been the only ones that have had a number and said, let's do away with x number of weapons. And there's never been, in the negotiation, of them coming back and say, well, we're willing to reduce this number, so you could then haggle about it. Now we've both come to the agreement that the idea would be, right now, to start with 50 percent of the nuclear weapons. And so, I think this was an accomplishment, also.

Visits to Educational Institutions

Q. Mr. President, my name is Steve Baliko. I was wondering, why was Fallston High School chosen out of thousands of schools across the country to be honored by your visit?

The President. Well, you're a pretty outstanding high school, and you're also here, within range of the Capital. I'd like to do this in more areas of the United States. But we just thought that this was a pretty good place to start telling your generation about our dreams of people exchanges, and with the hope that we have that it will be your generation that will start these exchanges where we can get better acquainted.

Soviet Views on Human Rights

Q. My name is Scoop Kelly. I'm wondering what position was held by the Russians about the human rights issue.

The President. I have to be a little careful here on that because I talked privately with General Secretary Gorbachev about that. They feel very strongly that they could appear to be yielding to an outside influence if they changed their laws and so forth that we think are so repressive. So, I felt that that was something that we should talk about in private. And I can tell you that he has our full view and understanding of how we feel about the differences between our two nations in that respect. But it isn't something that I think you go public with because of this resistance of anyone in a leadership position in a government about seeming to give in to an outside government. But I can assure you they know how we feel, and they know what we think would be a good move.

U.S.-Soviet Relations

Q. Mr. President, my name is Kim Ey. Do you believe that in the future an economic exchange will be established between the United States and the Soviet Union?

The President. An economic—

Q. Exchange.

The President. Well, there are certain areas of trade now, as you know, between us. And this, too, would come along with this better understanding. Right now, with the conditions the way they are and the arms race that has been going on and their evident desire to be number one militarily, we've had to have restrictions on trading with them things that might help them in their arms race. And those are the restrictions-the only ones that I know—basically, on the trade between us. But there is trade, particularly in our agricultural field, and we want to keep those doors as open as we can.

Q. Thank you.

Q. Mr. President, I'm Ericka Pearce. On the issue of arms reduction, do you believe that there will ever be any significant agreement settled between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, because of the unwillingness on either side to deplete nuclear weapons out of each other's major stockpiles?

The President. I think, as I said before, that we made a pretty good start here on this matter of the nuclear weapons. I think that both sides recognize that as long as we keep building these mountains of armaments higher in an effort to stay even with each other—and here I have to say on our behalf, we are the ones who are trying to catch up. They are the ones who went out ahead and have placed their military emphasis on offensive weapons, where we have thought of them as a deterrent to war, and why we're seeking a defensive shield right now that would render nuclear missiles, if not obsolete, at least more harmless as a threat. But I believe that, for the first time, they recognize, with some of their problems, that the arms race has helped create those problems for them. They have dwelt so much on military buildup that they've had to deny their people many of the things that you and I think are just everyday—in our ability to go down to the store and buy them. Well, they don't have such privileges. And we hope that with that as a help that maybe we can begin a reduction.

Back in 1980, when I was running for this job, there had been a number of arms agreements, but all of them were limitations on how fast and how much we would increase. And I got pretty outspoken that those weren't the kind of agreements we needed, that we needed an agreement that started reducing them. And so, for the first time, that's what we're proposing and what is going on in Geneva.

Way in the back there.

Q. My name is Jennifer Harrison. How do you and Mr. Gorbachev propose to organize a risk reduction center to prevent accidental nuclear war?

The President. Now, wait a minute. I had a little problem there.

Q. How do you and Mr. Gorbachev propose to organize a risk reduction center to prevent accidental nuclear war?

The President. How do we propose to-you've got to forgive me, I have a little problem.

Q. To organize a risk reduction center.

The President. The risk, oh. Well, this is a thing that we're trying to put together here and have proposed, and they seem very willing to go along with this. And this is to have, again, meeting places where our own military can meet with each other so that there wouldn't be danger of one or the other of us thinking that a hostile action had been taken. This is more information on maneuvers, war games, practice war games, and so forth. And we would have these centers where we could immediately communicate with each other at a military level and know what's going on. So, we are going to go forward with those. And it's kind of a new experiment, so I can't tell you exactly how they'll work out.

Q. As you've said, the Soviet people believe that Americans are looking for war. What can we as Americans do to help change—[ inaudible].

The President. I think it comes from our understanding of the basic Marxian principle, because Karl Marx had always said that socialism could never succeed until the whole world was a one-world Communist state. And so, this has caused us to view with alarm, as I say, their outright buildup of offensive weapons. Now, I think this would be one of the things and the type of deeds that we would talk about if they do not still follow that Marxian principle. If they are not aimed at expansionism and conquering or taking over the whole world, then they can help prove that by joining in arms reductions to show that they have no hostile intent. But this is one of the reasons for the basic suspicion between us.

Space Program

Q. Mr. President, Greg Romanski. I have a question concerning a different issue. Due to the success of the crew of the Atlantis experiments in the area of space construction, what are your plans concerning a skylab or space station?

The President. We believe that the newest frontier in the world is space, and we believe that the shuttle experiments so far have shown us so many, literally, miracles that can be performed in the weightlessness of outer space—that instead of these just shuttle flights going up with experiments, that we should see if we cannot put together out there a place where then the shuttles could carry workers. And workers in space could develop—let's take in the fields of medicines alone, we have an incurable ailment, diabetes. We have found in the experiments in the shuttle out there that a cell which, in order to have a cure for diabetes, must be able to be divided and split. We can't do it here on Earth as we could do it up there in the weightlessness of space. So, there are other medicines and things of that kind, that from the experiments already conducted, we believe we need a place now not just to experiment, but to actually manufacture. And so, this kind of a space station—I don't particularly like that name—space station. You know, I know some people are toying with things like call it a "universal space camp." "Station," again, has a kind of a hard, possibly military, sound to it, and that isn't what it's for.

Views on the Presidency

Q. My name is Beth Biedronski. First, I'd like to thank you for mentioning the cheerleaders' competition at Rising Sun today. I'm a cheerleader. My question to you, Mr. President, is simply: How do you feel now that the effects of any decision you make concerning the Strategic Defense Initiative, or more generally the nuclear arms race, literally affects the lives of billions of people all around the world?

The President. Well, it's something anyone in this position has to live with. It isn't easy, and I have come to understand very much why Abraham Lincoln once said that he had been driven to his knees many times because there was no place else to go. And he said if he didn't believe that he could call on someone who was stronger and wiser than all others, he couldn't meet the responsibilities of his position for a single day. And all you can do is to try to the best of your ability, with all the input and knowledge you get, then hope that the decisions you make are based on what is morally right. And that's all you can do. As I say, I've come to understand very much what Mr. Lincoln meant. He's supposed to be around the White House, you know, now and then. [Laughter]

SALT II Agreement

Q. My name's Todd Pegg. I would like to know, what will the United States' position be when the SALT II agreement expires late in December?

The President. We haven't made a decision on that yet. We have compiled a report right now that shows the Soviet Union has committed 23 violations of the SALT II agreement. And we have to decide whether we can have complete agreement on both sides that we're going to abide by it, even though it has never been ratified. Or we're going to have to conduct ourselves on the basis of what they are doing also. There's no way that we could be so one-sided as to be destroying missiles and things of that kind, stay within a limit that they are violating. This is one of the things—when I talk about an arms buildup and where the race started-when SALT I was agreed upon, from the time of SALT I, the Soviet Union has added 6,000 warheads, nuclear warheads. And since SALT II, 3,850 of those have been added. And this is what I mean about agreements that were aimed at trying to limit the increase instead of flatly saying, "Let's get rid of some of these things." So, we have a decision yet to make on that. And it's going to, in part, depend on our negotiations with them about the present violations of that agreement.

Nuclear Proliferation

Q. Mr. President, my name is Michelle Martin. I was wondering, do you feel that a nation other than the United States or the Soviet Union could possibly start a nuclear war?

The President. That another nation other than the Soviet Union or the United States could start a nuclear war? Well, we know that there are a few other nations—some allies of ours—that have some nuclear weapons. We suspect that, here and there, there have been efforts. Whether .they've succeeded yet in creating a missile or not, we don't know. But other countries—and some of them, the countries that are in the Third World and where there is a lot of hostility and instability, wars can start by accident. If you take World War I, it's been called by everyone who ever knew in history, the war that no one wanted. But it started when a terrorist, a radical, threw a bomb at a leader of a European country—assassinated the leader of the European country. And out of that came World War I, which finally included even the United States.

Wars can start accidentally. Wars can spread across borders—regional wars, such as the one in Nicaragua. And this is why this was one of our subjects also for negotiation. We want to help in any way we can to persuade the Soviet Union to withdraw its troops, that they've had there fighting for 6 years, and bring them home and then let the people of Afghanistan, within their country, settle peacefully what kind of a government they want. The present government of Afghanistan was installed there by the Soviet Union, so that's why they're in, defending that government.

Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev

Q. Mr. President, my name is Andrew Llyd. I've heard that first impressions are very important—

The President. A little louder, there, for old dad.

Q. I feel that first impressions are very important. What were your first impressions of General Secretary Gorbachev?

The President. My first impressions of him? A very intelligent man. And, while at the same time I recognize that he, heart and soul, believed in the system that he's grown up in—he's young enough that this is all he's ever known. He grew up from even earlier than you in this system. He has faith in it and believes in it. But, at the same time, having dealt with other leaders—the Soviet Union who can kind of pound the table and get quite excited about things, no. Our discussions, I must say, would be like we're having. He listened well, and I listened to him. And we were affable in this. And it was a case of disagreeing on particular issues, but no hostility, no enmity.

And I had to believe that he believed some of the propaganda that's been going on for 70 years about us, that he—he's never been to the United States—and that his impression of us—he was ready to believe, for example, that our Strategic Defense Initiative, that we're trying to find a defense against nuclear weapons, that, really, out of that research we might develop something that would be a weapon in space for attacking them. And I countered that by telling him that if our research yielded a defensive weapon, we would sit down with them and with our allies—with all the world—and share it, and say, "Look, why don't we all have this, and then none of us have to have nuclear missiles." And I hope that that had some impact on him.

But, no, I think that I have no illusions about him suddenly turning soft about their system or not. He totally believes in—that that's the system that the people should have. And I said to him, "Look, you have your system. We don't like it. And you don't like ours. But we can each have our own systems and still get along together."

Q. Thank you, Mr. President.

Note: The exchange began at 10:50 a.m. in the band room at the school. Following the exchange, the President returned to the White House.

Ronald Reagan, Question-and-Answer Session With Students at Fallston High School in Fallston, Maryland Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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