1. Background Press Briefing by President Nixon1

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I know that you have already had a briefing by Dr. Kissinger and Assistant Secretary Sisco on some of our current problems and also some of our long-range goals.2

I thought that in closing this session before I had the opportunity to meet all of you personally—as a matter of fact, not to meet you for the first time. As I looked over the list, I think I met two-thirds of the people in the room on other occasions—but that I might try to put the foreign policy of this Administration in perspective and to talk not simply about our immediate problems, the problems in Vietnam, the problems in the Mideast, the problems of east-west relations in Europe, but how it looks in the long haul, perhaps looking ahead 25 years.

[Omitted here is discussion of Vietnam, the Middle East, and the United Nations.]

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At this time, the future of peace in the world as far as a major conflict is concerned depends upon whether the United States and the Soviet Union will be able to resolve their difficulties in a peaceful way. Let me give you my philosophy quite directly and quite candidly.3

I know I have the reputation for being a very strong anti-Communist. I am. I don’t like the Communist system. I prefer ours. When I visit Communist countries and see the grayness that that imposes upon the people of those countries, I prefer free societies of whatever degree.

On the other hand, let us look at their side of it. They do not like our system. As far as their view of the world is concerned, what we both have to realize is that the differences between the United States and the Soviet Union are so deep and so profound that they are not going to be resolved by the two top leaders of the countries sitting down and getting to know each other better, not by smiles, not by handshakes, not by summit conferences.

I do not mean that summit conferences may not serve useful purposes under certain circumstances. But the idea that getting down to it, the real divisions between us have been exaggerated and that it is a question of our not understanding them or their not understanding us, that is not true.

They understand us. Perhaps we have not understood them as well as we might. But perhaps we do now. And if we start with that fundamental proposition where we do understand that we are different, that we are competitors, that we are going to continue to be competitors as long as this generation lives, then we can have a sound basis for a meaningful settlement of major differences.

Let us look at a few areas in that respect. The Soviet Union differs with us with regard to settlement in Vietnam. They differ because they would prefer to see the Communists prevail there in South Vietnam. That does not mean, however, that the Soviet Union and the United States, because we differ as to how it should be settled, will allow that difference to drag us into a major power confrontation.

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The Soviet Union, getting to a more important area of difference, the Mideast—a vitally important difference—very strongly differs with the United States about the Mideast. They want the opening to Africa, they want to turn the Southern hinge of NATO, they want the opening to the Mediterranean and they have made tremendous gains over the past ten years in all of these areas; we want peace in the area, we want to deny to any expansionist power domination of that critical area of the world.

So here are our differences, in conflict. That does not mean that as the Jordan crisis indicated that when the chips are really down the Soviet Union or the United States will allow themselves to be dragged, even in this important area, into a major confrontation leading to war.

Now we come to the blue chip. We have a very great difference of opinion about Europe. NATO was set up for a number of reasons: because Europe was too weak to defend itself, because of the threat of the danger from the East, but it was set up, a third reason, because of the need to find a home for the Germans.

Germany is still the heart of the problem of Europe. The German settlement, future of NATO, is all wrapped up in there. The Soviet Union’s ideas about the future of Germany, the future of NATO, the future of Europe are diametrically opposed to ours.

But there again the question is do we allow those differences to reach the point where we are drawn into a major confrontation?

I have talked up to this point, I suppose, like a Cold-War rhetoric man. I do so only because I am trying to point out what all of you know, as sophisticated observers. Let us see what the facts really are and not obscure them, not say the differences in South Vietnam are only a matter of semantics and getting to know each other, or in the Mideast that we can work all of those things out because in the end people will sit down and live together.

That is not true. So be it with Europe as well. The sooner we recognize that the Soviet Union and the United States have a very different view about their role in the world and particularly in certain areas in the world—I haven’t mentioned the Soviet Union’s different attitude toward places like Cuba and Chile or Africa or the rest of Asia—as soon as we recognize that, then we can build a sound basis for an enduring settlement.

What are the great elements that I believe, and I think all of us in our official family believe, are working against a confrontation in any of these areas, no matter how vitally important they are, a confrontation that would lead to a nuclear explosion. They are perhaps in this order, three:

First, neither major power, knowing as it does that whoever pushes the button may kill 70 million approximately, and the other side will [Page 4] also kill 70 million approximately of his own. The figures can be rounded off, maybe it is 40, maybe it is 50 or 60. But that is enough of a magnitude, 40 to 70 million. Neither major power is likely going to make that kind of a decision.

In other words, the United States and the Soviet Union have a common interest in avoiding a nuclear confrontation. That is a powerful, powerful interest working against all of these things which pull us apart.

The United States and the Soviet Union also have a common interest in stopping the rise in defense expenditures. We know how hard it is for us. We think that a $70 billion defense budget is pretty tough with our huge GNP. The Soviet Union’s defense budget—look at what burden it puts on the Soviet economy; at least twice, maybe two and a half to three times as great as ours because their economy is not as strong to begin with and their budget is probably larger.

Finally, there is another factor I would put at several magnitudes lower, but still very important, on the plus side: It could serve the interest of both the United States and the Soviet Union to have increased contact, including trade, because we are the two major industrial powers of the world, and at the present time the trade between us is virtually minuscule. They want things from us. There may be some things we can get from them in the trade area.

So there they are: avoid war, reduce defense expenditures—at least don’t see them go up—and third, the whole area of trade.

It seems to me that in that particular area we then come to the point where the United States and the Soviet Union have good, strong, compelling reasons to sit down and talk and to work out the differences in these selected areas of the world.

I have not mentioned the fact that we have other problems at home. They too have other problems: They have the problem of China, where they have more divisions lined up against the Chinese border than they do against Western Europe. They have the problems of Eastern Europe and problems in their economy. We have problems that I have mentioned.

But with all of these factors working together, we can see where looking at the long haul, not instantly but looking ahead, that the United States and the Soviet Union could work together in certain areas on a live-and-let-live basis. That is putting it quite bluntly, but it is the only sound basis for the two powers, who have so many areas in which we are diametrically different in our national goals, in our national and international aspirations, and with areas where we can be together.

Now I come finally to what role the United States plays in this respect. It would be less than forthright not to admit before this group [Page 5] that there are many Americans—I do not believe a majority, but a very substantial number of Americans—who are very tired of America’s playing an international role. They want to get out of Vietnam; they want to bring the divisions home from Europe; they don’t want to be involved any place in the world. It isn’t just a case of avoiding war. But it is a case of looking at the enormous problems at home—the problems of the cities, the problems of the country, the problems of the environment, the problems of the educational system, the problems of taxes, the problems of prices—and a number of American people say, “Look at all we have done since World War II. Let’s concentrate on our problems at home, build a strong America, not worry about the rest of the world.”

None of you would, of course, advocate such positions, but that is a strong underlying current. There is a new isolationism growing in this country. The old internationalists, many of them, have turned isolationist because of the same motivation that made them internationalists in the first place: A feeling of compassion for people who were downtrodden around the world now makes them nationalists, turning inward at this time, looking at the problems at home and saying, “Away with the problems in the world. We haven’t been able to do much about them. Let’s turn homeward.”

So we now come to what decision we make. I said we would look ahead maybe 25 years. Who would have predicted at the end of World War II when the United Nations was founded that within a space of 25 years Germany and Japan, the two defeated nations, crushed economically and militarily, would be number three and number four in the world industrially, partly and perhaps substantially because of our help?

The United States first, the Soviet Union second, Japan third, and Germany fourth. All of this has happened. Who can predict what will happen in the next 25 years? Certainly China will become a major power.

Today Japan out-produces China. The 100 million in Japan produce more than the 700 million in China. That will change, because the Chinese are Chinese, not because they have a Communist system. So China looms as a great power, militarily, economically, 10, 15, 20 years ahead.

Japan, a major power, whether it will be a military power remains to be seen. Japan, China, Western Europe, unity in Western Europe is inevitable certainly from the economic standpoint, the Soviet Union, the United States. Those are the great five power centers.

What role does the United States play in this period?

It would be, and frankly is, quite tempting to say that what the United States should do is to turn into basically a national posture, [Page 6] away from all of this international responsibility. But what we must realize; of course, is very simply this: That is if we are going to the sidelines that there are going to be only two major contestants left on the field. The one will be the Soviet Union and the other will be Communist China moving up. We must recognize that there is no other nation in the free world that can play a role, play a role not to defeat the Soviet Union, or Communist China, but to at least be a counter balance against the expansionist efforts of Communist China and the Soviet Union in the years ahead.

Basically, we can be very proud of the fact that the United States with all of its faults in this century, in World War I, World War II, Korea and again in Vietnam, has had as its goal not expansion, but simply the defense of freedom and independence around the world.

Sometimes we have done it clumsily. Sometimes we have not gotten credit for it. But that is what we believe as Americans.

So as you travel around the world, the reason that you find that small nations and even those nations that used to be strong in Western Europe,—much as they have kicked the Yankees around at times in public forums—the reason they are petrified at the thought of the United States turning away from its world responsibilities, is they know that the United States in a world role will respect their independence.

No nation in the world among the smaller nations fears that the United States will compromise its independence or dominate it. That is a matter of fact. I say no nation. I am not referring now to publicists and intellectuals, so-called, in the institutions abroad and the rest. I am referring to national leaders, not Tito, none of those that we have talked to.

This cannot be said of the two other major powers in the world, the Soviet Union and Communist China. That is why the United States’ playing a role is important to the world.

I think in the long run, of course, this is important to the United States, because if we retreat to the sidelines—as we could with justification do after all that we have done and the sacrifices that we have made—it would mean that we would leave the field to those who do have a great thrust of power, and who would move onward to expand their role wherever they possibly could.

This finally comes down to whether we can do it or not. That is really a question of leadership at the national level. But it is also a question of leadership in the nation’s universities, in its intellectual community, in the nation’s press, in the nation’s television.

I do not and would not want, and none of us would want unanimity of opinion on foreign policy, domestic policy, or any other area. But it is important that the United States continue in the next 25 years, when—not because we asked for it but because of the acts of history—leadership [Page 7] in the free world is still ours. Only we can do this. Only we have the power, only we have the wealth to play this role.

The question whether we can do it and will do it depends upon whether our people develop the stamina, the patience, the wisdom, the character, to see it through. That will not be easy.

We Americans like instant solutions. We like dramatic conferences. We like some kind of formula which will bring peace and then everybody will live happily ever after.

The world has never been like that. It isn’t now, it isn’t going to be. But the United States can play in my opinion, and must play in these years ahead, a responsible strong role, strengthening the structure of peace around the world, looking at the world as it is, not as we would want it to be, combining our idealism with the realism which is essential to make it work.

It is the kind of policy that the United States needs. And it is this kind of character that the American people are going to have to have in these years ahead if we are going to meet that responsibility.

Incidentally, you know that this concludes our area briefings. We are going to do this on at least an annual basis, maybe more often in the event that there is a major issue to be discussed.

One of the reasons for this is that we believe that the foreign policy role of the United States in this particular period of our history is so important that it must be understood. Only when it is understood will the American people give the support that they must to bringing a very difficult war to a conclusion which is a just peace, peace for a generation rather than just peace for the next election or peace so that we end a war.

I remind all of you, we have ended three wars in this century. We have ended World War I, we have ended World War II, we have ended Korea. We have never had a generation of peace. What we are trying to do is to end this war and to avoid other wars in a way that we can have a goal that all Americans want, a generation of peace for the balance of the century.

  1. Source: Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box CL 426, Subject File, Background Briefings. No classification marking. The briefing—the last of four such regional briefings before the mid-term elections—was held in the Hartford Hilton Hotel for selected “Northeastern editors and broadcasters.” In a memorandum to the President on October 8, Herbert Klein, White House Director of Communications, explained: “Emphasis in the selection of editors and broadcasters has been placed on the states in which there are key Senate races although other states are included that the list not look overly political.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files, President’s Daily Diary) The President’s remarks, delivered on “deep background, not attributable in any way,” and “strictly embargoed” until 6 p.m. on October 13, were apparently transcribed by the Office of the White House Press Secretary.
  2. According to Kissinger’s Record of Schedule, he and Sisco briefed the editors at 10 a.m. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box 438, Miscellany, 1968–76) The text of their briefing is ibid., Box CL 426, Subject File, Background Briefings.
  3. Nixon also prepared a set of handwritten notes for the briefing. According to these notes, he planned to state that, in spite of differences in the Middle East, Latin America, and Europe, the United States and Soviet Union shared a “vital” interest in communication to “avoid war,” to “reduce armaments,” and to “have trade.” The President was neither “naive” nor “sentimental.” The United States and the Soviet Union, allies in the Second World War, had become competitors in the Cold War. This competition would continue, even if the two countries agreed to hold a summit meeting. Rather than seek “quick victories,” “sensational speeches,” and “spectacular formulas,” Nixon was determined to take the “long view” as he sought to build a “structure of peace.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, President’s Personal Files, Box 61, President’s Speech File, October 12, 1970, Connecticut [Media Briefing and Dedication of Italian Community Center])