190. Conversation Among President Nixon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense Laird, and Others1

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to SALT.]

Zumwalt: On chart number 5,2 I show you how I believe we can provide the kind of power that can help you. I’d like to talk about it. There’s nuclear standoff, as Admiral Moorer has discussed, and we hope it will continue into the future, preferably through a successful SALT, but if not, then through increased expenditures in strategic weaponry. But the standoff means that nuclear power is not a useful instrument; it’s just a necessary umbrella. And assuming the balance holds, the power which resolves issues will be appropriate conventional capability. My—

Nixon: Before we go on at this point, let me interject one thought here. Mel, I noticed something in which Smith, where he’s gone off about the zero ABM thing.3 Now, I understand, the Chiefs are all opposed.

Laird: Mr. President, the Chiefs—

Nixon: Zero ABM, as I—a zero ABM deal, period. Is that right, Henry? Is that what we’re looking at?

Kissinger: Well, what Smith wants to do is to slide in zero ABM for—

Nixon: For what?

[Page 588]

Kissinger: For the ABM portion of the May 20th agreement.4

Nixon: Right.

Kissinger: And without changing any of the offensive understandings that were reached. And that is what the Chiefs are opposed [unclear]—

Laird: We are opposed. And the Chiefs and Defense are opposed, Mr. President. If you go to zero, then you’ve got to change the offensive—

Nixon: Yeah.

Laird: —mix that we’ve already offered.

Nixon: Spend a second on that. I mean, when I say a second I mean whatever time you need. I didn’t mean to interrupt. I just—we started talking about it assuming we have a SALT agreement. Let’s see what you’re talking about. Why—what is the argument? Why is zero ABM worse than [unclear] the National Command Center, and two—two Minuteman, and what have you? What’s your view on this?

Laird: Mr. President—

Nixon: I think I know, but I just wanted to be sure I’ve heard you.

Laird: From a military standpoint, it is difficult to defend the two-site proposal.

Nixon: Right.

Laird: The two-site proposal can be defended on the basis that it can be expanded for a 12-site program.

Nixon: Right.

Laird: We have tabled a proposition in SALT, which gives the Soviet certainly an advantage as far as the long term is concerned on the offensive weapons systems. If we were to give up the capability, which we have, to go into a defensive system on down the road, by going to zero at this time, without opening up the offensive proposition that we have put on the table in the SALT talks, I believe it would be—endanger our security planning. And so the position of the Chiefs and the position that I’ve taken is that: no, do not table the zero at this time, unless you’re willing also at the same time to make a reduction as far as the offensive limitations are concerned—

Kissinger: Then, if you do that, you are—the May 20th thing is down the drain.

Nixon: That’s right.

Kissinger: And we are right back to where we started from last January with the comprehensive negotiations—

[Page 589]

Laird: It depends. Henry, it depends on what date you attach to the May 20th operation.

Kissinger: Well—

Zumwalt: And whether or not in the offensive side you put into it an automatic date by which you have freedom to make it if they happen to come to a problem.

Nixon: Right. But—

Kissinger: But then, what this will lead us to, if it’s a possible way of going, is towards the comprehensive agreement in which all the offensive and defensive weapons are included. What we had attempted to do on May 20th was to make an ABM limitation and a temporary offensive limitation which could act as a bridge to a more comprehensive one. So, what Mel is proposing could be incorporated in the second stage of the negotiation. That is to say, we could then keep the zero ABM for the second stage of the negotiation and couple it with offensive reductions. I agree with the Chiefs and with Mel. I think, however, that if we want a rapid agreement, we’ve got to stick with the May 20th framework.

Nixon: Do you agree we should stay with the May 20th—?

Laird: Yes. But, I had some problems in that—

[unclear exchange]

Nixon: That’s all right. Take your time.

Laird: I had some problems, Mr. President, with the date that’s been used in the—this and 17, and this and 20, because it does give the Soviet Union, if this becomes the only agreement we have—and we have to look at it from the standpoint that we might not get anything else—it gives them an opportunity of having a superior force in ‘74 and ‘75. And I don’t want to be around to see the Soviet Union ever be in a position of superiority. I can accept parity, but I think that this particular proposition, if we don’t follow through on something else, gives them the opportunity for superiority. I think that’s the position of the Chiefs, too.

Moorer: That’s right. And that’s what’ll happen if the interim agreement turns out to be the final agreement. I don’t know, sir—

Kissinger: But there is a provision, which is that if there is no permanent agreement, the whole thing becomes subject to abrogation after a year—

Laird: But, Henry, my problem is this: that I think it’s going to be most difficult for the United States to set aside the agreement. I think it’s easier for the Soviet Union to set aside an agreement because of the manner of our whole system of government is so much—it’s much more difficult for us to set aside the agreement than it is for the Soviet Union.

[Page 590]

Nixon: Well, the difficulty with zero ABM—it’s just a simple point. Zero ABM, plus a freeze, basically—and that’s what it is on their offensive thing—means that we freeze, in terms of ourselves, into an inferior position, both ways.

Zumwalt: That’s correct—

Nixon: That’s correct. Right? That’s why—

Zumwalt: In both segments.

Nixon: That’s right. So, that is why we can under no circumstance let Smith continue, Henry, on that line.

Kissinger: I agree.

Nixon: Make that clear to him—

Kissinger: I’ll get a message to him—

Nixon: He must. See that he does. That was never the understanding. We are not gonna freeze ourselves. We can always be: “Well, that’s all right. We won’t have any ABM.” But you look at those charts, we’re already inferior, except in numbers, of course, of weapons, and it’s because of MIRVing—which we may have, basically, 4 or 5 years, if somebody doesn’t knock that out. So, we don’t want to freeze right now. Right? Is that right?

Laird: Mr. President—

[unclear exchange]

Kissinger: We don’t want to have zero ABM.

Nixon: [unclear] Exactly. If you have zero ABM, in the context of the May 20th deal, we are freezing ourselves into a second position, an inferior position. Right?

Laird: That’s right.

Moorer: And I might add, sir, we are increasing the numbers where we have a lead in technology.

Nixon: Exactly. Go ahead, Admiral.

Zumwalt: Yes, sir. So, my shorthand term for this appropriate conventional power is “relevant power.” On chart 6, I show you examples of where I believe, power was held and used successfully, or was relevant. In the left-hand column, and this is—those were successful. Sea power includes the Marines, of course, with their three-division air wing teams. We could add appreciably to the list on the left. The list on the right is shorter because decisionmakers normally calculate the expected outcome, and hence they find other paths or back down, and these three catch you here. And any President’s options will, of course, depend on whether he possesses the relevant power. Now, on chart number 7, I show you how I think relevant power is shifting. In line 1, for example, the term “threat nuclear attack,” and the “X” under the column entitled “strategic nuclear forces,” shows these forces were exclusively [Page 591]relevant in the ‘50s and ‘60s. As discussed, the nuclear balance now makes this threat unlikely, although in ending World War II, and President Truman’s threat to Stalin to get him out of Iran, they were relevant. Lines 2 to 4 show Europe. The shift in the threats on the NATO center in the ‘50s and ‘60s—line 2. To NATO northern and southern flanks—lines 3 and 4. The greater stability in the center is due to the perceived linking of nuclear weapons to conventional forces, to unrest in the Warsaw Pact, to Russia’s concern about the Chinese Communist border forces. The instability on the NATO flanks is due to Soviet flanking movements, increased strength of the Soviet fleet. I’ve just come back from a seven-country trip through Central and Northern Europe. I found not only the chiefs of navy, but the chiefs of defense staff, of all of those countries had that perception, and in many cases, the Ministers of Defense. In essence, they see Finland becoming a Latvia, Sweden becoming a Finland, and Norway, within 5 years, becoming a Sweden.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to SALT.]

Zumwalt: Now, what is the military situation? In chart 10, I’ll compare the U.S. and the Soviet forces, and discuss how we’ve allocated them. With regard to chart 11, Admiral Moorer has discussed those, and I’ll just point out that in the slide on the right, with the graph on the right, a significant fraction of that MIRV increase is due to the Polaris/Poseidon. On that, those forces, in essence, represent the pre-strike lineup. Now, on chart number 12, I show you the total—

Nixon: Right there, can I just ask one, one question? Are those Titans working well?

Ryan: Yes, sir. The first three have deployed—

Nixon: Yeah?

Ryan: They’re highly reliable. The test results looked like it’s a real beauty.

Nixon: In fact, the only—the only positive thing on all these charts that Admiral Moorer showed us—which I was surprised, frankly—is the warhead deal. But that’s MIRV isn’t it? Well, incidentally, the jackasses have been trying to get us to stop MIRV, and that’s worse than stopping ABM. Right, Mel?

Laird: It is.

[unclear exchange]

Nixon: Interestingly enough, Henry, why in the—why is it that the Soviet isn’t interested in stopping MIRV?

Unidentified speaker: Because they’re going to [unclear]—

Unidentified speaker: Well, because of throw-weight—

Unidentified speaker: They’ve got that huge SS–9.

[Laughter]

[Page 592]

Unidentified speaker: It’s because of the throw-weight of the SS–9. They could put a hell of a lot of MIRVs up on top of—

Kissinger: Because they’re behind us.

[unclear exchange]

Nixon: And also, it looks like, like they want to develop the capability, too. They figured that we’ve—

Unidentified speaker: They already have the development program.

Moorer: No doubt about it, sir, they’re going to—

Nixon: They may be MIRVed already, you think?

Moorer: No, sir.

Nixon: We don’t—we don’t know for sure?

Laird: Well, we think they probably have multiple re-entry vehicles—

Nixon: Yeah.

Laird: —on a few SS–9’s. But I don’t like to get into the debate of whether they’re independently targeted or not. But they will have that capability, Mr. President, within the 1972–73 time period.

Nixon: Let me ask Dave [Packard] a question. Dave, looking at this from a, you know, the scientists, and all the rest. I mean, you know, we’ve been around the track on ABM, and MIRV, and so forth. But, you really—it would seem it’s rather interesting that there’s always these issues that stir the people up. It’s hard to realize it. About a year ago, 18 months ago, it was MIRV; everybody squealing about MIRV, you know, “We got to stop MIRV.” What do you think of—MIRV is, wouldn’t you say, is almost indispensable in view of—in view of the fact that they have so much of that throw-weight? The advantage that we have, whatever advantage that we have, has got to be maintained by the MIRVing of the system.

Packard: Oh, I think it does, Mr. President, unless—

Nixon: And, as I understand, it works. Ok? Well, let’s—

Packard: Mr. President, let me suggest some agreement to reduce the total number of delivery vehicles, so that they are roughly equal.

Nixon: Yeah.

Packard: The MIRV is the one significant advantage we have. Let me just say a word for—

Ryan: Minuteman—

Packard: —General Ryan’s—

[unclear exchange]

Packard: —Minuteman III. I just looked at that program. That’s the MIRV program—

[Page 593]

Nixon: Right.

Packard: —that the Air Force had. That force has better readiness than the previous Minuteman, and the improved accuracy gives each one of the Minuteman III warheads, of which there are 3, each one of these warheads has as much probability to kill a hard target as one of the large Minuteman I warheads.

Nixon: Hmm.

Packard: So, we have provided a significant improved capability with that program, and that’s the one advantage we have against that numbers imbalance, and I look at this MIRV program as being one of the only balances we have. It was put in originally as a hedge against ABM, but I think it has to be looked at in terms of the balance against their increased capability, and also as giving us more flexibility in terms of targets we can cover with the Chinese—the China situation buildup. So, I would consider that to be a very important program, and we should not give it up under any conditions.

Agnew: Mr. President, may I ask a question?

Nixon: Ask it. Sure.

Agnew: The—I raised this question before. I’m not sure I understood the answer. If you’ve got an offensive limitation on delivery vehicles, based on the megatonnage, throw-weight capability that they have, wouldn’t, in time, through their technological improvement and their ability to MIRV, wouldn’t they, then, far outstrip us without violating the agreements?

Zumwalt: It depends on how many MIRVs they can put into the SS–9. We, for example, put 10 into the Polaris—

Nixon: You put 10 into the Polaris—?

Zumwalt: Yes, sir. We can put 14; we’re only putting 10—

Nixon: Phew—

Zumwalt: So that there’s 10 to 15 [unclear]. The intelligence estimate says three for the SS–9. I believe they ought to be able to get 20 in, if they get our technology.

Agnew: Looking ahead to the technological development of, Leonard [Chapman], how proficient we’ve become, we still have that question of throw-weight, though, and, eventually, as silos become harder, so that throw-weight is going to mean something different than it does. Shouldn’t we be thinking more about limiting throw-weights than delivery vehicles, for instance?

Chapman: No, this is why—

Nixon: They won’t play.

Chapman: This is one of the reasons why—

Laird: But this is one of the reasons that, that we’re concerned about this. But, I also think that it should be borne out and kept in [Page 594]mind, that, with our research and development program, which is so important, I think we can still keep ahead of them. There is a lot more we can even do with the Minuteman at the site as far as getting it even more accurate—

Unidentified speaker: At a small price—

Laird: —and we can do it at a very small price, because we have the technological capability that far outstrips the Soviet Union. This is important to maintain this leadership.

Nixon: Let me say this, and I think this is the—this is important [unclear] of course, the big budget things won’t come up. The one place that, again, those of you with proficiency in this area—that I think we’ve really got to, got to prepare the forces is in improving our technological capability. Now, within the May 20th deal, that is allowed, right, Henry?

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: Both sides. Now, this is one place where we ought to do better. We have to, I mean, in terms of a higher standard, in terms of computers and all that sort of thing. That’s one of the reasons the Soviets are concerned. We are better in this, are we not?

Packard: Yes, that’s correct, Mr. President.

Nixon: And I feel that’s the place where research and development, R&D—not only in R&D, but of application, and so forth, where technological breakthroughs may be the answer.

Unidentified speaker: For increased accuracy—

[unclear exchange]

Unidentified speaker: Increased accuracy is the—

[unclear exchange]

Nixon: Exactly. One of the things—we talk about these huge weapons, and—but one that is—I mean, after all, the bang of one-tenth—of one-tenth of a Polaris is a hell of a bang. Right?

Zumwalt: That’s right.

Nixon: If it’s accurate—

Packard: It’s as accurate as it can be made—

Zumwalt: It is—it’s easily within—

Nixon: It’s like—it’s like hitting with a shotgun or a rifle—

Packard: That’s right.

Nixon: A shotgun may scar a guy up pretty good, but the rifle pierces his heart.

Packard: But you run into the people—

Nixon: Yeah?

Packard: —who claim: “Look, you’re improving the accuracy. It gives you a first-strike capability.” And, if that’s developed—

[Page 595]

[unclear exchange]

Packard: —we’ve got—had got a hell of a lot of flak on that.

Nixon: I know. I know. But you see, the point that I’ve been—I think we have to, we have to make—there’s a real fight to be sure that on the—on that area, we do not, at this time, just talking about any kind of a SALT agreement, and so forth, that we go gung-ho on the accuracy side, because that is unlimited. Right, Henry?

Kissinger: That’s right. And when we were discussing the strategic planning vis-à-vis China, one problem we had is that you can’t use the Minuteman against China—because it will have to over-fly the Soviet Union. So, if we want to use—and against China, we do have a substantial preemptive capability for the next 10, 15 years. So, with that, we have to use planes or Polarises. But Poseidons have—therefore, accuracy is absolutely essential.

Nixon: How long do we have a preemptive capability with China, you think?

Kissinger: We’ve said about 15—10, 15 years.

Nixon: [clears throat]

Moorer: [unclear] 25 missiles.

Kissinger: Yeah. Yeah. And that’s something that we should—

Nixon: And that preemptive capability depends upon Polarises and planes—

Packard: Aircraft, too. See, you can’t get it to China without over-flying Russia—

Nixon: Yeah.

[unclear exchange]

Nixon: [unclear] This is where your aircraft becomes even more relevant.

Zumwalt: Flexibility in the air.

Nixon: But, more relevant, really, than they are with the Soviet. [unclear]—

Kissinger: And also, I don’t believe—well, most people don’t believe—that the Poseidons are going to be very effective, no matter how accurate, against very hard Soviet silos. But they ought to be able to knock out anything the Chinese have—

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: —for the foreseeable future.

Zumwalt: Well, if we get stellar-inertial guidance, we can get down under a thousand feet and become highly accurate. So, your, your guidance there will—

Nixon: Well, go ahead, Admiral. We interrupted you.

[Page 596]

Zumwalt: The last thing I want to say about strategic, Mr. President, is chart 12. This chart shows that using the surface forces [unclear] February of ’71. Over on the right, the costs—22 percent of the strategic budget of the years ‘73 through ‘77, will provide, in the three ballistic missile forces, the capability to deliver 43 percent of the equivalent megatonnage and 73 percent of the independently-targeted weapons, as a result of the very high capability of the Poseidon. Now, on chart 13, I show you just 4 of 10 charts that I showed last year, which depict a continuing change in conventional balance. In the upper left, the 237 percent shows you that they continue over a 5-year period to outbuild us at the rate of about two-and-a-half in most categories of ships. In the upper right, their missile platforms have increased fourfold in 10 years. In the lower left, they over—they’ve overtaken us in numbers of merchant ships, and will in deadweight tonnage shortly. And over in the lower right, there, theirs are new and ours are old.

Nixon: This is all U.S., and not—not with the British, and all the rest added in. Right?

Zumwalt: That is correct, sir—

Nixon: Only U.S. versus U.S.S.R.

Zumwalt: However, I will be showing you outcomes of—

Nixon: Right.

Zumwalt: —that on the next page. The most worrisome thing of all is their continued submarine force. This shows you their attack boats, without the missile boats, a threefold superiority. They have more nuclear boats than we do, and in 1973, they will have more nuclear boats than the total number of diesel and attack boats that we have. More honest still, the lower graph shows you that their noise levels are rapidly catching up with ours.

Nixon: We’re doing better though?

Zumwalt: Yes, sir. We reckoned we could kill 5 to 1 in the ’60s. It’s down to something like 2 to 1 now. If they’re building 12 per year, we’re building 5 per year, so they’re overtaking us.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to SALT.]

Zumwalt: The temptation for the Soviets to hold out for a better and better deal on SALT, and the pressures on you to settle for a lesser and lesser deal on SALT, and MBFR, and in the Mideast, are getting great. There is decreasing inclination on the part of Moscow and Peking, with this ‘73 budget, to work with us to resolve the conflict in Southeast Asia, or to follow up on any initiatives you take after your trip to Communist China.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Recording of Conversation, Cabinet Room, Conversation No. 68–7. No classification marking. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Nixon attended this meeting from 10:05 to 11:54 a.m. with the following participants: Agnew, Laird, Packard, Moorer, Ryan, Westmoreland, Chapman, Zumwalt, Kissinger, and Haig. The editor transcribed the portion of the conversation printed here specifically for this volume. A memorandum for the President’s file of this meeting is in the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box TS 62, Memoranda of Conversations, Chronological File, and is sprinted in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXXIV, National Security Policy, 1969–1972, Document 191.
  2. Chart 5 and other charts mentioned have not been found.
  3. See Document 189. On August 9 the Verification Panel met from 3:08 to 4:40 p.m. According to minutes of the meeting, Kissinger called on the participants to discuss two major issues: “1) the question of esoteric ABM systems and those in an exotic environment; and the zero-ABM proposal.” The summary of conclusions of the meeting included: “that a memorandum would be prepared for the President putting to him the question of whether or not to put forward a zero-ABM proposal at this time as a substitute for Safeguard/NCA or to keep zero ABM for discussion in the next round of a comprehensive agreement.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–107, Verification Panel Minutes Originals 1969–3/8/72)
  4. See Document 160.