Richard Nixon photo

The President's News Conference

April 18, 1969



[I.] Q. Mr. President, the question on all of our minds is where do we go from here with the incident of the shooting down of the plane? 1 What further action might you contemplate diplomatically and militarily?

THE PRESIDENT. Mr. Cormier [Frank Cormier, Associated Press], first, I think a word with regard to the facts in this case: As was pointed out in the protest that was filed at Panmunjom yesterday and also in the Defense Department statement, the plane involved was an unarmed Constellation, propeller-driven.

1On April 15, 1969, in the Sea of Japan, some 100 miles off the Korean coast.

The mission was a reconnaissance mission which at no time took the plane closer to the shores of North Korea than 40 miles. At the time the plane was shot down, all of the evidence that we have indicates that it was shot down approximately 90 miles from the shores of North Korea while it was moving outward, aborting the mission on orders that had been received. We knew this, based on our radar.

What is also even more important, the North Koreans knew it, based on their radar. Therefore, this attack was unprovoked. It was deliberate. It was without warning. The protest has been filed. The North Koreans have not responded. Now a word with regard to why we have such missions in the Sea of Japan. As you ladies and gentlemen are aware, there are 56,000 American troops stationed in South Korea. Those 56,000 men are the responsibility of the President of the United States as Commander in Chief.

In recent weeks and months, in fact going back over the last 2 or 3 years, but particularly in recent weeks and months, North Korea has threatened military action against South Korea and against our forces in South Korea. The number of incidents has increased.

It is the responsibility of the Commander in Chief to protect the security of those men. That is why, going back over 20 years and throughout the period of this administration being continued, we have had a policy of reconnaissance flights in the Sea of Japan similar to this flight. This year we have had already 190 of these flights without incident, without threat, without warning at all.

Now the question is: What do we do about these flights in the future? They were discontinued immediately after this incident occurred.

I have today ordered that these flights be continued. They will be protected. This is not a threat; it is simply a statement of fact.

As the Commander in Chief of our Armed Forces I cannot and will not ask our men to serve in Korea, and I cannot and will not ask our men to take flights like this in unarmed planes without providing protection. That will be the case.

Looking to the future, as far as what we do will depend upon the circumstances. It; will depend upon what is done as far as North Korea is concerned, its reaction to the protest, and also any other developments that occur as we continue these flights.


[2.] Mr. Smith [Merriman Smith, United Press International]

Q. Mr. President, now that you have had about 3 months in a position of Presidential responsibility, do the chances of peace in Southeast Asia seem to come any closer at all, or has the situation, the outlook for peace, improved or deteriorated since your inauguration?

THE PRESIDENT. Mr. Smith, the chances for peace in Southeast Asia have significantly improved since this administration came into office. I do not claim that that has happened simply because of what we have done, although I think we have done some things that have improved those chances; and I am not trying to raise false hopes that peace is just around the corner, this summer or this fall.

But a number of developments clearly beyond the Paris peace talks have convinced me that the chances for bringing this war to a peaceful conclusion have significantly improved.

One factor that should be mentioned, that I note has not been covered perhaps as much as others, is the fact that South Korea has significantly improved its own capabilities. The way we can tell this has happened is that the South Korean President has taken an attitude with regard to the make-up of a government after peace comes that he wouldn't have even considered 6 months ago, and he has done this because South Korean--I am sorry, South Vietnamese forces; it is natural that you transplant these two words, I find, in discussing these two subjects--South Vietnamese forces are far better able to handle themselves militarily, and that program is going forward on a much more intensive basis than it was when this administration came into office.

Second, political stability in South Vietnam has increased significantly since this administration came into office. The trend had begun before, but it has continued and escalated since that time.

As a result of these two factors, it means that South Vietnam is able to make a peace which I think will give a better opportunity for negotiating room for their negotiators and ours at the Paris conference. That is one of the reasons for my feeling somewhat optimistic, although we still have some hard ground to plow.


Yes, sir.

[3.] Q. To follow that up, then, are you considering now the unilateral withdrawal of American troops from South Vietnam?

THE PRESIDENT. I am not. If we are to have a negotiating position at the Paris peace talks, it must be a position in which we can negotiate from strength, and discussion about unilateral withdrawal does not help that position. I will not engage in it, although I realize it might be rather popular to do so.

It is the aim of this administration to bring men home just as soon as our security will allow us to do so. As I have indicated previously, there are three factors that we are going to take into consideration: the training of the South Vietnamese, their ability to handle their own defense; the level of fighting in South Vietnam, whether or not the offensive action of the enemy recedes; and progress in the Paris peace talks.

Looking to the future, I would have to say that I think there are good prospects that American forces can be reduced, but as far as this time is concerned, we have no plans to reduce our forces until there is more progress on one or all of the three fronts that I have mentioned.


[4.] Q. Mr. President

THE PRESIDENT. Mr. Lisagor [Peter Lisagor, Chicago Daily News], yes.

Q. Could I ask you whether you have ordered that the level of American combat activity in South Vietnam be reduced in order to reduce the casualties?

THE PRESIDENT. No, Mr. Lisagor, the casualties have been reduced, as you have noted in your question, but the reason that American casualties are down is because the level of offensive action on the part of the enemy has receded.

An analysis--and I have studied this quite carefully because I have noted the great interest in this country on this subject as to whether or not our casualties are the result of our action or theirs. What we find is that the level of casualties substantially increased during the spring offensive. That spring offensive at this time either has run its course or is in a substantial lull. Because that offensive is in that status at this time, our level of casualties is down.

I have not ordered and do not intend to order any reduction of our own activities. We will do what is necessary to defend our position and to maintain the strength of our bargaining position in the Paris peace talks.


[5.] Q. Mr. President, do you foresee the possibility or the likelihood that after the Vietnam war ends, the 10 percent income tax surcharge will be continued indefinitely to help pay for what you call this country's compelling domestic needs?

THE PRESIDENT. NO, I do not foresee that likelihood and that will not be the objective of this administration. I indicated during the campaign that I thought that taxes were too high. I still believe that. And I believe that the surcharge, the so-called "war tax," which some describe it, that that tax should be reduced and removed just as soon as we are able to do so, either because of Vietnam or for other reasons.

I will also indicate that at this time the administration's interim tax reform package will be submitted to the Congress early next week, either Monday or Tuesday. The Secretary of the Treasury, or the Treasury Department, is testifying on Tuesday. I have already approved the message. It will have some information on this and other matters that will be of interest to all of you.


[6.] Mr. Theis [J. William Theis, Hearst Newspapers]

Q. Mr. President, it has been suggested that you may go directly to the country on the ABM issue to further clarify and support your case. Can you tell us of any plans you have in that direction, perhaps today?

THE PRESIDENT. No, I have no plans at this time to go to the country, as you have suggested. As a matter of fact, I consider a press conference as going to the country. I find that these conferences are rather well covered by the country, both by television, as they are today, and also by the members of the press.

With regard to the ABM decision, however, I wish to emphasize again the point that I made when I announced that decision in this room a few weeks ago.

I made that decision after I considered all the options that were before me with regard to what was necessary to maintain America's defenses, and particularly the credibility of our national security and our diplomacy throughout the world.

I analyzed the nature of the threat. I found, for example, that even since the decision to deploy the ABM system called Sentinel in 1967, the intelligence estimates indicated that the Soviet capability with regard to their SS-9's, their nuclear missiles, was 60 percent higher than we thought then; that their plans for nuclear submarines were 60 percent greater than we had thought then.

Under these circumstances, I had to make basically a command decision as to what the United States should do if we were to avoid falling into a second-class or inferior position vis-a-vis the Soviet Union.

I had a number of options. We could have increased our offensive forces in various directions. I determined that this limited defensive action, limited insofar as the Soviet Union is concerned, to defend our Minuteman missile sites, was the best action that could be taken.

I still believe that to be the case. I believe it is essential for the national security, and it is essential to avoid putting an American President, either this President or the next President, in the position where the United States would be second rather than first, or at least equal to any potential enemy.

The other reason, and I emphasize this strongly, is that the Chinese Communists, according to our intelligence, have not moved as fast recently as they had over the past 3 to 4 years, but that, nevertheless, by 1973 or 1974 they would have a significant nuclear capability which would make our diplomacy not credible in the Pacific unless we could protect our country against a Chinese attack aimed at our cities.

The ABM system will do that, and the ABM Safeguard system, therefore, has been adopted for that reason.


[7.] Q. Mr. President, has there been any consultation with our allies or with Japan on sending armed planes along to guard the reconnaissance craft? Is it necessary?

THE PRESIDENT. There has been no consultation up to this point. I can only say in answer to that question that when I refer to protecting these flights, I am not going to go beyond that at this time. I am simply indicating that they will be protected.

If we think that consultation is necessary, we will have consultation.


[8.] Q. Mr. President, on the ABM issue, as you know, there are a number of Republican Senators who oppose your views on the ABM.

Do you think that they should support you because you are a Republican President even though they oppose the principle?

THE PRESIDENT. I certainly do not. I want to make it crystal clear that my decision on ABM was not made on the basis of Republican versus Democrat. It was made on the basis of what I thought was best for the country.

I talked, for example, just yesterday, with Senator Cooper [Senator John Sherman Cooper of Kentucky]. He is one of those who opposes me as a Republican. He honestly and sincerely believes that this is not the best step to take.

I respect that belief, and I respect others who disagree with me on this. I also respect the beliefs of Senator Jackson, Speaker McCormack, Senator Stennis, and Senator Russell, and a number of Democrats, who believe that this is the right step to take.

This issue will be fought out, as it should be fought out, on the basis of what is best for the Nation. It will not be fought out on partisan lines.

I am going to fight as hard as I can for it because I believe it is absolutely essential to the security of the country. But it is going to be fought on the basis of asking each Senator and Congressman to make his own decision, and I am confident, incidentally, that that decision will be in favor of the system when they know all the facts.


[9.] Q. Mr. President?


Q. Democrats in the House have voted to repeal the 7 percent investment tax credit. What is your position on this, sir?

THE PRESIDENT. The position of the administration on this will be announced in the tax reform measure that will be submitted on Monday or Tuesday of next week. I will not discuss it further at this time.


[10.] Q. Mr. President?

THE PRESIDENT. Yes, Mr. Scali [John A. Scali, ABC News].

Q. Secretary [of State William P.] Rogers said at a recent news conference that if and when we begin talks with the Soviets on missiles, one of the first questions to be asked them is why they find it necessary to build a big missile with a 25 megaton warhead.

Since the Russian decision to proceed to build such an enormous missile is one of the major factors in your going ahead with the ABM, the question is: Why are we waiting to ask that question for the beginning of negotiations? Why don't we ask it now?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, Mr. Scali, in a sense I think Secretary Rogers probably asked the question by stating it as he did in a press conference. As you know, because you have covered these diplomatic matters for many years, in dealing with the Soviet Union or any other nation, this type of question is not always asked simply on a formal basis in a diplomatic conference.

Sometimes the best way to handle it is to state the position publicly. As far as Secretary Rogers' statement is concerned, I share his puzzlement as to why the Soviet Union is moving so heavily in this direction. As far as the Soviet Union's intentions are concerned, and I want to clarify one point that is made, the question as to their intentions is not something that I am going to comment upon. I don't know what their intentions are.

But we have to base our policy on their capabilities and when we project their SS-9 plans to 1972 or 1973, if we allow those plans to go forward without taking any action on our part, either offensively or defensively, to counteract them, they will be substantially ahead of the United States in overall nuclear capability. We cannot allow that to happen.

I would remind the members of this press corps--I am here at a time when the United States faces a threat, not of the magnitude that President Kennedy faced at the time of the Cuban missile crisis-but I would remind the members of this press corps that at that time all of the professional experts agreed that the U.S. superiority was at least 4 to 1 and maybe $ to I, over the Soviet Union in terms of overall nuclear capability.

Now we don't have that today. That gap has been closed. We shall never have it again because it will not be necessary for us. Sufficiency, as I have indicated, is all that is necessary. But I do say this: I do not want to see an American President in the future, in the event of any crisis, have his diplomatic credibility be so impaired because the United States was in a second-class or inferior position. We saw what it meant to the Soviets when they were second. I don't want that position to be the United States in the event of a future diplomatic crisis.


[11.] Q. Mr. President, could you tell us what the Soviet role has been in the plane incident, and could you go beyond that and tell us what were some of the other elements that figured in your deliberations on how to properly respond to the downing of the plane?

THE PRESIDENT. The Soviet role in the plane incident, first, is one of being of assistance to the United States in recovering the debris and looking for survivors. We are most grateful to the Soviet Union for helping us in this respect.

Our intelligence and, of course, no one can be sure here, indicates that the Soviet Union was not aware that this attack was to be made. North Korea is not a nation that is predictable in terms of its actions. It is perhaps more than any other nation in the Communist bloc completely out of the control of either the Soviet Union or, for that matter, Communist China. That, at least, is our intelligence estimate at this time.

Now, as far as other matters that entered into this interim decision, and I emphasize it as an interim decision, I have concluded that the United States must face up to the fact that intelligence gathering-intelligence gathering that does not involve overflights, that does not involve interdiction of another nation's air space, or moving into its waters--here where intelligence people are involved, we recognize that they are necessarily subject to whatever action can or should be taken by another nation to defend itself.

But when planes of the United States, or ships of the United States, in intelligence gathering, are in international water or in international air space, they are not fair game. They will not be in the future. I state that as a matter of fact, and that was the basis for this interim decision.


[12.] Q. Mr. President, on the question of dissent on the ABM, can you tell us, sir, did you or did you not block the appointment of Dr. Long [Dr. Franklin A. Long, vice president, Cornell University] as head of the NSF [National Science Foundation] because he disapproved of your position on the ABM?

THE PRESIDENT. Dr. Long's potential appointment was not discussed with me until after he had had a conversation with Dr. DuBridge on this matter.

The determination was made by members of the White House Staff that his appointment, in view of his very sincere beliefs opposing the ABM, would not be in the best interests of the overall administration position.

I wish to make it clear that we have vigorous dissent and discussion within our National Security Council on this and other matters. But to have at this time made an appointment of a man who quite honestly and quite sincerely--a man of eminent credentials, incidentally--disagreed with the administration's position on a major matter of this sort, we thought this would be misunderstood. My staff thought that and, under the circumstances, I approved of their decision not to submit the recommendation to me. 2

2On April 28 the President met with representatives from the National Science Board and the Council of the National Academy of Sciences. At his news briefing following the meeting, Press Secretary Ronald L. Ziegler announced that the President had asked the National Science Board to submit new nominations for the position of National Science Foundation Director.

On June 19 the White House announced the President's intention to nominate as Director, Dr. William D. McElroy, chairman of the Department of Biology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore (5 Weekly Comp. Pres. Docs., p. 877). Dr. McElroy was confirmed on July 11 and took office on July 14.


[13.] Q. Mr. President, how do you assess the motives of the North Koreans in this attack and do you see any parallel or pattern in this attack and also the one on the Pueblo?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, the Pueblo incident was quite different in two respects. One, there was some uncertainty for some time as to where the Pueblo was. Present indications are that the Pueblo was in international waters. But there was a more uncertain factor.

There was no uncertainty whatever as to where this plane was, because we know what their radar showed. We, incidentally, know what the Russian radar showed. And all three radars showed exactly the same thing.

Let me also say that there is no question of what they claim as their air space. Some of you, of course, know the confusion and, as a matter of fact, the confrontation we are having with Peru about the 200-mile limit.3 North Korea claims only 12 miles as its limit, so we were at least 28 miles away at the very closest point.

3On February 14 and again on March 19, 1969, Peruvian naval units seized or damaged a total of four American-owned fishing vessels. Fines totaling $27,000 were assessed against them for illegal fishing.

Also, with regard to the Pueblo, in the case of the Pueblo the North Koreans had warned and threatened the Pueblo for a period of several weeks before they seized it. In the case of these flights, they have been going on, as I have indicated, for years, and during this administration, without incident, 190 of them have occurred this year.

Under these circumstances, it was a completely surprise attack in every sense of the word and, therefore, did not give us the opportunity for protective action that I would have taken had it been threatened.


[14.] Mr. Bailey [Charles W. Bailey 2d, Minneapolis Star and Tribune]

Q. Mr. President, it appears that the House Judiciary Committee is going to report out an electoral reform bill providing for direct popular election of the President, perhaps with a provision delaying the effectiveness of this until past the next election. Will you support this?

THE PRESIDENT. Mr. Bailey, if the House and the Senate approve a direct election proposal for amending the Constitution, it will have my support. It is my judgment that that kind of proposal will have far less chance to get the requisite number of States to approve it than the proposal that I favor, the proportional system. But my view is that, first, the present system must be modified. As far as I am concerned, the proportional system, the congressional district system, or the direct election system would be preferable to the present system. That is my conviction as far as my judgment.

As to what the House and-the Senate ought to do, I have expressed my view as to the practical political realities. If the Members of the House and Senate conclude that they can get the three-fourths of the States for the direct election system, and if they pass and can agree in conference that that is what they will approve, then that modification, that amendment, will have my enthusiastic support; however with some doubts as to whether it will succeed.


[15.] Q. Mr. President, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, on Wednesday, characterized the civil rights record of your administration thus far as mixed, citing the textile mills case in the Department of Defense and also the resignation of Clifford Alexander.4

4Clifford L. Alexander, Jr., resigned as Chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on April 9, 1969, but continued as a Commissioner. He was succeeded in the chairmanship by William H. Brown III on May 6, 1969.

How would you characterize your administration's civil rights record?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, the intent of our administration is to enforce the laws of this land and to develop a coordinated program in which there will be standards that everybody will understand so that we will not be subject to this criticism of our record being mixed.

Now, the reason for Roy Wilkins' criticism, and he has expressed this to me personally, too, the reason for it is well-founded as far as the implementation is concerned.

As all of you know, the number of agencies involved in civil rights compliance means that in these gray areas in which close cases come up, you will get different men coming up with different conclusions.

You mentioned the textile cases. The three South Carolina cases involved the Defense Department and Defense contracts and the Compliance Section interpreting how compliance could be obtained for that contractual provision.

The North Carolina case, which was brought by the Department of Justice, did not involve compliance with a Defense contractor but it involved a mill with no Government contracts and since compliance could not be negotiated, suit had to be brought.

That can be called "mixed" but nevertheless, I think you can see how that kind of result could be attained.


[16.] Q. Mr. President, you have addressed yourself many times in the past, sir, to the danger and the consequences of aggression against our country by a minor military power.

It seems to me what we have seen developed here is a kind of new rules of warfare which we certainly have not agreed to and obviously the Soviet Union hasn't.

In your present circumstances, sir, can you tell us of some of the problems that you have faced in making a proper response?

THE PRESIDENT. The problems with regard to a proper response are quite obvious: the question as to what reaction we could expect not only from the party against whom we respond but other parties that might be involved, and also putting it in the larger context, how responding in one area might affect a major interest of the United States in another area, an area like Vietnam, Vietnam being the top priority area for us.

Now, in answering the question in that way, I do not want to leave the implication that the announcement of the renewal of and the continuation of reconnaissance flights is the final action that can or will be taken here.

Our action in this matter will be determined by what happens in the future.


[17.] Looking at the Soviet Union, it seems to me that had it not been for this incident the major story that I would have been asked about today was what happened in Czechoslovakia. I suppose that my reaction to that would be to condemn the Soviet Union for what it did.

The Soviet Union is aware of our disapproval of that action. All Americans, in fact all people in the free world, see this as perhaps the final chapter in the great tragedy of the Czechoslovak people under Communist rule. 5

5 On April 17, 1969, Alexander Dubcek, first secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party and leader of Czechoslovakia's liberalizing movement was ousted due to Soviet pressure. The central committee of the Czechoslovak Communist Party named the more conservative Gustav Husak to succeed Dubcek.

We hope it is not the final chapter. We hope that some vestiges of freedom will remain. Yet, the Soviet Union has acted there and acted quite decisively. They have to consider now, in terms of any future action, how that might affect their relations with the United States and with the Western world.

What I am trying to do in answering your question is to pose the problem that great powers confront when they take actions involving powers that are not in that league.

We must always measure our actions by that base.

Merriman Smith, United Press International: Thank you, Mr. President.

Note: President Nixon's fifth news conference was held in the East Room at the White House at 11:32 a.m. on Friday, April 18, 1969. It was broadcast on radio and television.

Richard Nixon, The President's News Conference Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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