Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters on Strategic Arms Reduction and Military Deterrence
The President. Ladies and gentlemen, I have a statement here. But before I begin, I just want to explain the subject of this. There has been such disarray, approaching chaos, in the press corps with regard to the subject of arms control that I thought before you unraveled into complete disorder that maybe we should straighten out the entire subject. So, before taking your questions, I'll express a thought or two which are a matter of deep conviction for me with regard to arms control. These concern what we must do before we can expect to be successful and then what principles ought to guide us in our negotiating strategy.
First, it seems to me that the two factors are essential to success in arms control are leverage and determination.
With respect to leverage, it's clear that when I arrived in office there was virtually no hope that we could expect the Soviets to bargain seriously for real reductions. After all, they had all the marbles. We hadn't designed a new missile in 15 years. We hadn't built a new submarine in the same period, although they'd built more than 60. Our bombers were older than the pilots who flew them.
Today that's no longer the case. Working with the Congress, we have in the past 2 years succeeded in getting authorization for a complete modernization of the triad of strategic forces with the exception of the MX, which still requires congressional action this spring. My point is that now we're in a position to get somewhere, and I'm determined that we shall.
The other quality I mentioned was determination. Recently I've made a few management changes so that we'll have a streamlined team in place through which we can reach decisions promptly and get results in the Geneva talks.
I want to say something else about my strategy toward arms control. It seems to me that if you look back over the history of the past 15 years of talks, certain things emerge. Frankly, some things have worked, and others have not.
Let me be specific. Some people have argued that we ought to try unilateral disarmament, that we should cut our own systems without getting anything from them in return in the hope that our example will lead the Soviets to cut theirs. That approach has been tried on a number of occasions. For example, President Carter decided to cut the B-1 bomber, perhaps in the expectation that the Soviets would cut back on their bomber programs. It didn't work. Instead of cutting back, the Soviets went steadily ahead with the Backfire and another advanced bomber.
On the other hand, some things have worked. Most of you recall that in the late sixties President Johnson tried very hard to engage the Soviets in talks on antiballistic missile systems. At the time, we had no deployment planned; in short, no leverage. The Soviets refused to talk. But then the United States decided to go ahead with an ARM plan, and you know the rest. When it became clear that we would go ahead with the deployment the Soviets came to the table, and we got a treaty that still endures today.
The lesson is that they will bargain when they have an incentive. And today that incentive exists, and I'm convinced that we can make real progress.
It is with this thought in mind that I had an in-depth meeting yesterday on arms control with some of my arms control advisers. Next week I'll be meeting with Ambassador Ed Rowny and Paul Nitze. We're ready, and I'm confident that with determination we can succeed.
Keeping in mind our commitment to the security of Europe and to peace, and in order to ensure the closest possible coordination with our European allies on arms reductions and deterrence, I've asked Vice President Bush to go to Europe for talks with my European counterparts. And while he's there, the Vice President will meet with the Pope, Prime Minister Thatcher, Chancellor Kohl, President Mitterrand, Prime Minister Fanfani, Prime Minister Martens, and Prime Minister Lubbers, as well as with our negotiating teams in Geneva.
And let there be no doubt: We're ready. We'll consider every serious proposal, and we have the determination to succeed in this, the most important undertaking of our generation.
Now, any of you who have questions on this subject, I think we should dispose of those first.
Helen [Helen Thomas, United Press International]?
Q. Mr. President, do you think that it would be good to have a summit meeting with Andropov first, to try to nail down what they're really proposing now, what all these new proposals mean? And are you ready for such a summit? '
The President. No, I think that since the talks are supposed to begin early in February, the first week of February—General Rowny and Ed [Paul] Nitze are prepared to go there—I think that that takes place first, and we see then what that might lead to, or if there is a need for such a meeting. Questions on the same subject?
Q. Well, sir, I have a question on one of the things you mentioned—the subject of disarray, if I may. There is a perception, Mr. President, that the disarray is here in the White House, that you have been out of touch, that you have had to be dragged back by your staff and friends on Capitol Hill to make realistic decisions on the budget. There was even a newspaper column saying that your Presidency is failing. Will you address yourself to this perception?
The President. Yes. That's why I came in, to point out to you accurately where the disarray lies. It's in those stories that seem to be going around, because they are not based on fact. And I would suggest that some times you get some unnamed-source information, that any of us here in the White House would be willing to help you out by giving you an answer as to whether that information is correct or not.
Q. Well, sir, specifically on the business of your staff—the stories that your staff and your friends such as Senator Laxalt have had to, sort of, drag you back from an economic game plan that was failing—was it your decision to make these turns that we hear about toward new taxes, toward perhaps a different approach to cutting the budget, and to the defense matters?
The President. Maybe the problem is that what we're doing is a little bit new to Washington. I said from the very beginning that we had a Cabinet-type government—as I'd had in Sacramento—that we had a Cabinet that was chosen for their ability and their knowledge, and not because they controlled delegates at a convention or something, and that I would seek advice and every kind of viewpoint in arriving at decisions. Now, we've been doing that. And it's been working very well. And it is true that I ask and want to hear differing viewpoints on things. But then, I make the decisions. And this has been working very well.
And we've had a very heavy agenda for the last few weeks. We've been working long hours on a number of things that are before us here. And, as I say, we had a very serious and a long meeting yesterday on this particular subject.
But now we're getting too far away from the general subject.
Q. Sir, I'd like to get back to the question of arms control, if I may.
The President. Please do.
Q. Do you think that by the time your first term is over—I know what your hope on it is—but do you really think that by the time your first term is over that we will have an arms reduction treaty with the Soviet Union?
The President. I think it'd be unwise for anyone, knowing the history of the some 19 attempts by this country to bring about arms reduction and control with the Soviet Union in the past, to make a prediction or put a time limit of any kind on this. I will say this: We will stay at a table negotiating as long as there is any chance at all of securing arms reduction, because it is the most important problem facing this generation.
Q. Sir, could you comment on reports that have circulated in recent days that sometime after the German elections, you might explore alternatives to your zero-zero option and START negotiations?
The President. No, and here you're getting dangerously into an area that can't be opened to discussion, which is the tactics of negotiating and the strategy of negotiating. If you discuss that openly, then there is no strategy, and you've tied your hands with regard to attaining anything.
Q. Mr. President, you mentioned in your opening statement the MX missile. During the campaign when you ran for office, you repeatedly ridiculed former President Carter for his failed efforts to get an MX basing plan and get the program going. How has your experience been any different than his? And how could you say that your efforts have been any more successful than his?
The President. Well, now, if you'll forgive me, my criticism mainly was, I was in great disagreement with his plan, not a failure to get it. I just did not believe—and from the counsel and advice that I sought and was able to get—I did not believe that such a plan was practical or that it would in any way result in more security for the weapons system.
Q. Mr. President, a lot of the criticism—which you referred to earlier when we talked about disarray—has centered around the fact that perhaps you've overpromised the recovery of the economy. And much of what's been written in recent days has centered on that when they talked of disarray. And you seem to have changed your positions by being described in articles as willing to think about taxes in the out-years if they're needed to bring down the deficit: All 'of that has contributed to this. Do you think that's unfair?
The President. I have and will continue to say that there are still decisions to be made. We've made great progress with regard to the budget plan. I do not believe that philosophically I have changed at all. But I'm not prepared to discuss that. And we now have left this other subject, and we should get back to it. I am—
Q. I was coming back to this one, sir. [Laughter]
The President. No, I think that, again, this has been very inaccurate—things that are only options being presented and in which there has been no decision. And, as I say, I've asked for the widest range of options, and then I suddenly see them announced-as rumored that I have made decision or I have decided on this or I'm willing to go this way or not. That is where, as I say, the leaks have been very inaccurate, and I just don't think you should place so much confidence in them.
Q. Well, sir, may I follow that for a second? Since the policy on leaks was announced on Monday, the Secretary of 'Treasury put on record or on background virtually all of the tax measures that are being considered for the new budget. The Secretary of Defense said on television that there would be a military and civilian pay freeze. The details are open. And the Associate Attorney General revealed on the record your decision to veto the crime and one of the wilderness bills. All in all, sir, it's been a very good week for leaks and for reporters. Does this really serve any purpose?
The President. The difference is that you were able to identify every one of those people. They didn't come and appear in your newscast or in print as an "unidentified, high, White House source."
Q. But that's where the perception of you seeming to change your stand, a part of it, comes from.
The President. Well, I haven't seen the exact words of some of those statements, but I would suggest that maybe they were trying to explain away the misstatements or the assumptions that had been made.
Q. Mr. Secretary—Mr. President, excuse me—
Q. Mr. President—
The President. Gee, I thought for a minute I'd lost my job. [Laughter]
Q. In addition to the Secretaries—Secretary Began, Secretary Weinberger, orders have spoken publicly—the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke publicly about your defense cuts and said that they would have preferred the cuts to be in weapon systems, not in pay and personnel that would actually hurt readiness. Doesn't this contribute to the appearance that you have backed down on your defense buildup and on your commitment not to hurt the readiness?
The President. No, there has been, as the Secretary admitted, that there might be some slight stretching out of our readiness preparations. But we have already achieved great gains in those. So, it isn't as if we were starting from scratch on that. But our preference was not to delay or set back the weapons buildups that we need in order to chose the window of vulnerability. And at the same time, may I say, that we think with our arms control talks—we're creating a window of opportunity here.
But, no, we haven't retreated from our position on that. I, myself, would have preferred to not have to make those. We're facing reality with what we're going to present in a budget to the Congress and what we believe can meet our problems and would be acceptable to Congress.
Q. Mr. President, we've been told our time with you is limited. On social security, your chief of staff has said on the record, how you would consider moving up the payroll tax increases in social security, the ones that have already been passed and will come into effect down the road. What will you do if the Social Security Commission by tomorrow does not give you any recommendations?
The President. Well, we'll see if they're going to, if they're going to plan on a few more days before they come to such a decision. And we'll give them those few more days or whatever time this takes.
We must resolve this problem. I know that some of the dispute centers on the subject of whether increased tax revenues should be the answer to the some 30 years' imbalance of social security or whether it should be made with cutting some costs in other areas. And that's where they're in disagreement. I'm not going to make a choice on this until I see what the entire thing is that they recommend.
There have been references to this as my commission, a Presidential commission. Let me call to your attention again, that I announced that it would be bipartisan and that there were three of us that would appoint. I appointed representatives. The majority leader of the Senate appointed some. The Speaker of the House appointed some. So, it is a commission appointed by both sides and both the legislature and the executive branch.
Q. But if there's no recommendation to you, don't you have to move ahead with a plan of your own in Congress this year?
The President. Yes. Then we will have to face them once again. But, again, my aim in all of this has been to treat with this problem honestly and not return to the political furor that was created when we tried to bring this subject up more than a year ago, and when it was chosen, or some chose to make it a political football for political results, and frightened the life out of a great many senior citizens with the thought that this, upon which they are so dependent, was going to be taken away from them.
No one that I know in this government has any intention of taking away the cheeks that these people are getting. I've said it over and over again, but somehow it does not get as much attention as the lies that have been told by those who want to portray us as somehow out to destroy social security.
Ms. Thomas. Thank you, Mr. President.
The President. Helen, thank you very much. [Laughter] That was a pretty good note—
Q. Is Paul Nitze—
The President. What?
Q. Does he have your confidence?
The President. Who?
Q. Paul Nitze?
The President. Yes. Yes.
Q. You don't agree that your Presidency is failing, do you.
The President. No, and I looked at the record—and as a matter of fact, I got out some of your, the printings, at least some of your group's, this morning, about campaign promises that I'd made. And this was printed before I took office. And we have either succeeded in keeping them or have made an effort to keep them and still been frustrated by the majority party in the House. But we've made a solid effort to get every one of these things.
But I would like to just leave you, now-no more time for no more questions—but I just would like to get your minds back to this, because I think this is so important, that our allies should not be—from the things that they read—be concerned about whether we're lacking in determination or whether we are indeed in disarray. We're not.
Q. Mr. President, are the Russians —
Deputy Press Secretary Speakes. That's all, please. We've got to stop. That's all. When Helen says "thank you," that's it.
Q. But Helen's the one who then asked another question after she said "thank you."
Q. Why did you fire Mr. Rostow, Mr. President?
Mr. Speakes. Andrea [Andrea Mitchell, NBC News], please. When he says "thank you," that's it.
The President. It's all been explained away, and it's in here in the statement, that we're simply streamlining the management.
Q. Come back and see us soon, will you?
The President. Yes, I've enjoyed this here. I guess I can't get all of you in the Oval Office.
Q. Did we behave?
Note: The President spoke at 1:35 p.m. in the Briefing Room at the White House.
Ronald Reagan, Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Reporters on Strategic Arms Reduction and Military Deterrence Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/262111