376. Memorandum From Secretary of Defense Laird to President Nixon1


  • Security Trade Controls

As you know, I have from time to time made known to you my misgivings over certain types of trade transactions with Communist countries. A number of actions taken in the last few weeks or currently in preparation give me fresh cause for concern.

The most recent one is the decision to approve the French sale of transistor-making machinery to Poland.2 Another is the approval given a few weeks ago to the British export of very advanced computers to the USSR’s High Energy Physics Institute at Serpukhov.3 In addition, some far-reaching proposals are now being formulated for your consideration regarding the next steps we should take toward Communist China as well as ways to increase the U.S. share of East-West trade.

My concern is that these several measures, taken together, are virtually certain to weaken seriously if not destroy the existing system of security trade controls which form an important, although not always adequately recognized, element in our defense structure. In order to preserve that margin of military power required by the deterrent strategy upon which our security depends, it is not enough to maintain our Defense establishment. We must also frustrate as far as possible the build-up of forces which are or may be arrayed against us. An effective system of controls over the export to Communist countries of strategic commodities therefore contributes directly to our national security and can help to keep U.S. military expenditures at a minimum.

Although it has been subjected to heavy pressures both at home and abroad in the last few years, we still have an effective system of security trade controls. In fact, a study done by the Department of Defense last year in support of the since cancelled NSSM 714 fully documents [Page 947] the conclusion that our export controls have delayed the development of new independent nuclear weapons systems capabilities and the improvement of existing ones abroad by substantial periods of time, in some cases by a number of years. Moreover, the study, a copy of which is attached,5 further shows that the economic and diplomatic costs of these controls to the U.S. in terms of loss of trade, resentment by other governments, interference with scientific exchange and loss of U.S. influence over the technological developments in other countries have not been significant.

In the light of this evidence, I feel compelled to express my deep uneasiness over the course we seem to be taking, not only because it appears to be based on the erroneous assumption that our controls are both ineffective and costly, but because, by approving the release of highly strategic items on an ad hoc basis, we are paving the way for the rapid dismantling of all controls. It is already clear that our Allies, who feel they can rely on the U.S. to offset whatever increased military risk may result, will treat these decisions as precedents for additional exceptions or the early removal of such items from the international embargo list altogether. In my judgment, we cannot afford thus to jeopardize our security trade controls unless as a result we will achieve tangible diplomatic and economic gains of substantial value.

Under present circumstances, I believe our principal aim should be constantly to refine our embargo list to insure that it contains only items which are, in fact, strategic in nature and, having done so, to hold fast to that list. This is of particular importance at this time since negotiations with our Allies on revisions to the international embargo list are scheduled to begin this fall.

To provide guidance for our negotiators in this list review as well as to insure that appropriate emphasis is given to the security aspects of all trade measures involving Communist countries, I recommend that you reiterate to the departments and agencies concerned that it is vital to our national security that an effective system of security trade controls be continued.

Mel Laird
  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Subject Files, Box 402, Trade, Volume IV 7-12/71. Confidential. Kissinger, in a July 9 memorandum forwarding this memorandum to the President, summarized Laird’s points, and reported that other agency comments had not been requested because the administration was not yet ready for a decision on COCOM list revision, pending bilateral discussions with other COCOM members during the summer. “The President has seen” is stamped on the July 9 transmittal memorandum.
  2. See Document 375.
  3. See Document 373.
  4. Document 361.
  5. Not found.