Richard Nixon photo

The President's News Conference

March 14, 1969


THE PRESIDENT. [I.] Ladies and gentlemen, today I am announcing a decision which I believe is vital for the security and defense of the United States, and also in the interest of peace throughout the world.

Last year a program, the Sentinel antiballistic missile program, was adopted. That program, as all listeners on television and radio and readers of newspapers know, has been the subject of very strong debate and controversy over the past few months.

After long study of all of the options available, I have concluded that the Sentinel program previously adopted should be substantially modified. The new program that I have recommended this morning to the leaders, and that I announce today, is one that perhaps best can be described as a Safeguard program.

It is a safeguard against any attack by the Chinese Communists that we can foresee over the next 10 years.

It is a safeguard of our deterrent system, which is increasingly vulnerable due to the advances that have been made by the Soviet Union since the year 1967 when the Sentinel program was first laid out.

It is a safeguard also against any irrational or accidental attack that might occur of less than massive magnitude which might be launched from the Soviet Union.

The program also does not do some things which should be clearly understood. It does not provide defense for our cities, and for that reason the sites have been moved away from our major cities. I have made the decision with regard to this particular point because I found that there is no way, even if we were to expand the limited Sentinel system, which was planned for some of our cities, to a so-called heavy or thick system--there is no way that we can adequately defend our cities without an unacceptable loss of life.

The only way that I have concluded that we can save lives, which is the primary purpose of our defense system, is to prevent war; and that is why the emphasis of this system is on protecting our deterrent, which is the best preventive for war.

The system differs from the previous Sentinel system in another major respect. The Sentinel system called for a fixed deployment schedule. I believe that because of a number of reasons, we should have a phase system. That is why, on an annual basis, the new Safeguard system will be reviewed, and the review may bring about changes in the system based on our evaluation of three major points:

First, what our intelligence shows us with regard to the magnitude of the threat, whether from the Soviet Union or from the Chinese; and, second, in terms of what our evaluation is of any talks that we are having by that time, or may be having, with regard to arms control; and finally, because we believe that since this is a new system, we should constantly examine what progress has been made in the development of the technique to see if changes in the system should be made.

I should admit at this point that this decision has not been an easy one. None of the great decisions made by a President are easy. But it is one that I have made after considering all of the options, and I would indicate, before going to your questions, two major options that I have overruled.

One is moving to a massive city defense. I have already indicated why I do not believe that is, first, feasible, and there is another reason: Moving to a massive city defense system, even starting with a thin system and then going to a heavy system, tends to be more provocative in terms of making credible a first-strike capability against the Soviet Union. I want no provocation which might deter arms talks.

The other alternative, at the other extreme, was to do nothing; or to delay for 6 months or 12 months, which would be the equivalent, really, of doing nothing; or, for example, going the road only of research and development.

I have examined those options. I have ruled them out because I have concluded that the first deployment of this system, which will not occur until 1973--that first deployment is essential by that date if we are to meet the threat that our present intelligence indicates will exist by 1973.

In other words, we must begin now. If we delay a year, for example, it means that that first deployment will be delayed until 1975. That might be too late.

It is the responsibility of the President of the United States, above all other responsibilities, to think first of the security of the United States. I believe that this system is the best step that we can take to provide for that security.

There are, of course, other possibilities that have been strongly urged by some of the leaders this morning: for example, that we could increase our offensive capability, our submarine force, or even our Minuteman force or our bomber force. That I would consider to be, however, the wrong road because it would be provocative to the Soviet Union and might escalate an arms race.

This system is truly a safeguard system, a defensive system only. It safeguards our deterrent and under those circumstances can, in no way, in my opinion, delay the progress which I hope will continue to be made toward arms talks, which will limit arms, not only this kind of system, but particularly offensive systems.

We will now go to your questions.



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

Q. Mr. President, the war in Vietnam has been intensifying recently, and if there has been any notable progress in Paris it has not been detectable publicly. Is your patience growing a little thin with these continued attacks, particularly such as came out of the DMZ [demilitarized zone] today?

THE PRESIDENT. Mr. Smith, you may recall that on March 4, when I received a similar question, at an earlier stage in the attacks, I issued what was interpreted widely as a warning. It will be my policy as President to issue a warning only once, and I will not repeat it now. Anything in the future that is done will be done. There will be no additional warning.

As far as the Paris talks are concerned, I have noted the speculation in the press with regard to whether we will have, or should have, or are, for example, approving private talks going forward. I will not discuss that subject. I trust there will be private talks.

I think that is where this war will be settled--in private rather than in public. And this is in the best interests of both sides, but public discussion of what I think is significant progress which is being made along the lines of private talks, I will not indulge in.


[3.] Yes, Mr. Cormier [Frank Cormier, Associated Press]

Q. Mr. President, will you make your own State of the Union Address, and what will your legislative program encompass?

THE PRESIDENT. I do not plan a State of the Union Address in the traditional manner. I will, within approximately a month, however, state a general domestic program. By that time the program will be at the point that I think it should be completely summarized and set forth, not only for the Nation, as to what we have done, but particularly to the Congress as to what we expect for the balance. I would not like to anticipate now what will be in that program.


[4.] Q. Mr. President, there has been a great deal of criticism in Congress against deployment of any type of antimissile defense system. What kind of reception do you think that your proposal this morning will receive there?

THE PRESIDENT. It will be a very spirited debate, and it will be a very close vote. Debates in the field of national defense are often spirited, and the votes are often close. Many of my friends in Congress who were there before I was there remarked that the vote on extending the draft in 1941 won by only one vote.

This might be that close. I think, however, that after the Members of the House and the Senate consider this program, which is a minimum program, and which particularly provides options to change in other directions if we find the threat is changed, or that the art has changed, or evaluation of the technique has changed, I think that we have a good chance of getting approval. We will, of course, express our views, and we hope that we will get support from the country.


[5.] Q. Mr. President, I understand that your first construction or deployment of antimissile systems would be around two Minuteman retaliatory operations. Do you think that deploying around these two provides enough deterrent that would be effective?

THE PRESIDENT. Let me explain the difference between deploying around two Minuteman bases and deploying around, say, 10 cities.

Where you are looking toward a city defense, it needs to be a perfect or near perfect system to be credible because, as I examined the possibility of even a thick defense of cities, I found that even the most optimistic projections, considering the highest development of the art, would mean that we would still lose 30 to 40 million lives. That would be less--half of what we would otherwise lose. But we would still lose 30 to 40 million.

When you are talking about protecting your deterrent, it need not be perfect. It is necessary only to protect enough of the deterrent that the retaliatory second strike will be of such magnitude that the enemy would think twice before launching a first strike.

And it has been my conclusion that by protecting two Minuteman sites, we will preserve that deterrent as a credible deterrent, and that will be decisive and could be decisive insofar as the enemy considering the possibility of a first strike.


[6.] Q. Mr. President, there have been charges from Capitol Hill that you have stepped up the war in Vietnam. Have you?

THE PRESIDENT. I have not stepped up the war in Vietnam. I actually have examined not only the charges, but also examined the record. And I discussed it at great length yesterday with Secretary Laird.

What has happened is this: For the past 6 months, the forces on the other side have been planning for an offensive, and for the past 6 months they not only have planned for an offensive, but they have been able, as a result of that planning, to have mounted a rather substantial offensive.

Under those circumstances, we had no other choice but to try to blunt the offensive. Had General Abrams not responded in this way, we would have suffered far more casualties than we have suffered, and we have suffered more than, of course, any of us would have liked to have seen.

The answer is that any escalation of the war in Vietnam has been the responsibility of the enemy. If the enemy deescalates its attacks, ours will go down. We are not trying to step it up. We are trying to do everything that we can in the conduct of our war in Vietnam to see that we can go forward toward peace in Paris.

That is why my response has been measured, deliberate, and, some think, too cautious. But it will continue to be that way, because I am thinking of those peace talks every time I think of a military option in Vietnam.


[7.] Q. Mr. President, your safeguard ABM system, I understand, would cost about $1 billion less in the coming fiscal year than the plan which President Johnson sent up. Will this give you the opportunity to reduce the surcharge or will the continued high level of taxation be needed for the economy?

THE PRESIDENT. That question will be answered when we see the entire budget. Secretary Laird will testify on the defense budget on Wednesday.

And incidentally, my understanding at this time, and I have seen the preliminary figures, is that the defense budget that Secretary Laird will present will be approximately $2 1/2 billion less than that submitted by the previous administration.

Now whether after considering the defense budget and all the other budgets that have been submitted, we then can move in the direction of either reducing the surcharge or move in the direction of some of our very difficult problems with regard to our cities, the problem of hunger and others--these are the options that I will have to consider at a later time.


[8.] Q. Mr. President, last week you said that in the matter of Vietnam you would not tolerate heavier casualties and a continuation of the violation of the understanding without making an appropriate response.

Is what we are doing in Vietnam now, in a military way, that response of which you were speaking?

THE PRESIDENT. This is a very close decision on our part, one that I not only discussed with Secretary Laird yesterday, but that we will discuss more fully in the Security Council tomorrow.

I took no comfort out of the stories that I saw in the papers this morning to the effect that our casualties for the immediate past week went from 400 down to 300. That is still much too high. What our response should be must be measured in terms of the effect on the negotiations in Paris. I will only respond as I did earlier to Mr. Smith's question. We have issued a warning. I will not warn again. And if we conclude that the level of casualties is higher than we should tolerate, action will take place.


[9.] Q. Mr. President, do you have reason to believe that the Russians will interpret your ABM decision today as not being an escalating move in the arms race?

THE PRESIDENT. As a matter of fact, Mr. Kaplow [Herbert Kaplow, NBC News], I have reason to believe, based on the past record, that they would interpret it just the other way around.

First, when they deployed their own ABM system, and, as you know, they have 67 missile ABM sites deployed around Moscow, they rejected the idea that it escalated the arms race on the ground that it was defensive solely in characters; and, second, when the United States last year went forward on the Sentinel system, 4 days later the Soviet Union initiated the opportunity to have arms limitation talks.

I think the Soviet Union recognizes very clearly the difference between a defensive posture and an offensive posture.

I would also point this out, an interesting thing about Soviet military and diplomatic history: They have always thought in defensive terms, and if you read not only their political leaders, but their military leaders, the emphasis is on defense.

I think that since this system now, as a result of moving the city defense out of it, and the possibility of that city defense growing into a thick defense, I think this makes it so clearly defensive in character that the Soviet Union cannot interpret this as escalating the arms race.


[10.] Q. Mr. President, last week at your press conference you mentioned negotiations with the Russians at the highest level being in the wings. Could you tell us if since then we have moved any closer to such a summit meeting?

THE PRESIDENT. I should distinguish between negotiations at what you would call the highest level, and what I said was the highest level, and talks. Talks with the Soviet Union are going on at a number of levels at this time, on a number of subjects.

However, those talks have not yet reached the point where I have concluded, or where I believe they have concluded, that a discussion at the summit level would be useful. Whenever those talks, preliminary talks, do reach that point, I anticipate that a summit meeting would take place.

I do not think one will take place in the near future, but I think encouraging progress is being made toward the time when a summit talk may take place.


[11.] Q. Mr. President, sir, there have been several reports from your staff members that Kennedy and Johnson holdover people who made policy have sewn themselves into civil service status and this may mean some problem for you people in personnel. I wonder if this means that you are going to transfer a lot of these people or abolish jobs?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, I have heard a lot from some of my Republican friends on Capitol Hill on this point, as well as from, of course, Republican leaders in the Nation. It seems that this is a rather common practice, when one administration goes out and the other comes in. We will do what we think will best serve the interest of effective government, and if the individual who has been frozen in can do the job, we are going to keep him.

However, we are moving some out, but we won't do it through subterfuge. We will try to do it quite directly.


[12.] Q. Mr. President, on your recent European trip, did you find any willingness on the part of our allies to increase their military and financial contribution to the Alliance?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, that matter was discussed with all of our allies, and particularly will be a subject for discussion when we have the 20th anniversary meeting of NATO here in April.

I think it might be potentially embarrassing to allies to suggest that we are urging them, any one specifically, to do one thing or another in this field. I think it is best for me to leave it in these terms:

Our allies do recognize the necessity to maintain NATO's conventional forces. They do recognize that they must carry their share or that the United States, and particularly our Congress, representing our people, will have much less incentive to carry our share. I believe they will do their share, but I think we are going to do it best through quiet conversation rather than public declaration.


[13.] Yes, sir?

Q. In any talks with the Soviet Union, would you be willing to consider abandoning the ABM program altogether if the Soviets showed a similar willingness or, indeed, if they showed a readiness to place limitations on offensive weapons?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, Mr. Scali [John Scali, ABC News], I am prepared, in the event that we go into arms talks, to consider both offensive and defensive weapons. As you know, the arms talks, that at least preliminarily have been discussed, do not involve limitation or reduction. They involve only freezing where we are.

Now, your question goes to abandoning. And on that particular point, I think it would take two, naturally, to make the agreement. Let's look at the Soviet Union's position with its defensive deployment of ABM's. Previously, that deployment was aimed only toward the United States. Today their radar's, from our intelligence, are also directed toward Communist China.

I would imagine that the Soviet Union would he just as reluctant as we would be to leave their country naked against a potential Chinese Communist threat. So the abandoning of the entire system, particularly as long as the Chinese threat is there, I think neither country would look upon with much favor.


[14.] Q. Mr. President, do you think that deployment of the ABM system by both the Soviet Union and the United States is compatible with the NPT, the Nonproliferation Treaty?

THE PRESIDENT. I considered that problem, and I believe that they are compatible with the NPT. We discussed that in the leaders' meeting this morning, and I pointed out that as we consider this kind of defensive system, which enables the United States of America to make its deterrent capability credible, that that will of the Presidents have an enormous effect in reducing the pressure on other countries who might want to acquire nuclear weapons.

That is the key point. If a country doesn't feel that the major country that has a nuclear capability has a credible deterrent, then they would move in that direction.

One other point--I wish to make an announcement with regard to the NPT: that I was delighted to see the Senate's confirmation or consent to the Treaty, and this announcement--I hope President Johnson is looking. I haven't talked to him on the phone. I am going to invite President Johnson, if his schedule permits, to attend the ceremony when we will have the ratification of the Treaty, because he started it in his administration, and I think he should participate when we ratify it.


[15.] Mr. Lisagor [Peter Lisagor, Chicago Daily News]

Q. Mr. President, I wonder if I could turn you to the campus disorders and unrest. They are continuing and we haven't had an opportunity to ask you your views of them. But particularly, would you favor the cuffing off of Federal loans to the offenders?

THE PRESIDENT. Mr. Lisagor, I have asked the Attorney General and the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare to examine this problem, particularly in view of a congressional report that 122 of 540 who had been arrested at San Francisco State were direct recipients of Federal funds.

I will have a statement on that that I will be making either Monday or Tuesday, in detail. I would prefer not to go into it now.


[16.] Mr. Semple [Robert B. Semple, Jr., New York Times]

Q. Mr. President, to follow up Mr. Day's [Anthony Day, Philadelphia Bulletin] question on Vietnam earlier, is there any evidence that your measured response to the enemy attacks in South Vietnam has produced or yielded any results in Paris or in the attitudes of the North Vietnamese leaders in Hanoi?

THE PRESIDENT. Our measured response has not had the effect of discouraging the progress, and it is very limited progress, toward talks in Paris. That is the negative side in answering your question.

As to whether or not a different response would either discourage those talks or might have the effect of even encouraging. them is the decision that we now have to make.


[17.] Q. Mr. President, sir, again on Vietnam, in connection with Secretary Laird's visit, we have heard for some time predictions that American troop levels could be cut as the South Vietnamese capabilities improve, and again last week, while he was in Vietnam, we were getting similar reports from Saigon despite the high level of the fighting that is going on now'. Do you see any prospect for withdrawing American troops in any numbers soon?

THE PRESIDENT. Mr. Bailey [Charles W. Bailey 2d, Minneapolis Star and Tribune], in view of the current offensive on the part of the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong, there is no prospect for a reduction of American forces in the foreseeable future.

When we are able to reduce forces as a result of a combination of circumstances-the ability of the South Vietnamese to defend themselves in areas where we now are defending them, the progress of the talks in Paris, or the level of enemy activity-when that occurs, I will make an announcement. But at this time there is no foreseeable prospect in that field.


[18.] Mr. Theis [J. William Theis, United Press International]

Q. What effect, if any, will your safeguard program have on the shelter program? Can you tell us anything about your long-range plans in this direction?

THE PRESIDENT. Congressman Holifield1 in the meeting this morning strongly urged that the administration look over the shelter program and he made the point that he thought it had fallen somewhat into disarray due to lack of attention over the past few years.

1Representative Chet Holifield of California, Chairman of the Military Subcommittee, Government Operations Committee.

I have directed that General Lincoln, the head of the Office of Emergency Preparedness--I had directed him previously to conduct such a survey. We are going to look at the shelter program to see what we can do there in order to minimize American casualties.


[19.] Q. Mr. President, if I recall correctly, at the last press conference when you were discussing the meeting with General de Gaulle, and the Middle East situation, you said you were .encouraged by what he told you, because he was moving closer to our position.

I wonder if you could tell us what our position is in the Middle East, and if it has changed significantly in the last year?

THE PRESIDENT. We have had bilateral talks not only with the French, but also with the Soviet Union, and with the British, preparatory to the possibility of four-power talks. I would not like to leave the impression that we are completely together at this point.

We are closer together than we were, but we still have a lot of yardage to cover. And until we make further progress in developing a common position, I would prefer not to lay out what our position is.

I don't think that would be helpful in bringing them to the position that we think is the right position.

Merriman Smith, United Press International: Thank you.

Note: President Nixon's fourth news conference was held in the East Room at the White House at 12 noon on Friday, March 14, 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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