199. Conversation With President Nixon1

Nixon: What I’m only interested in is the figure that the Defense Department is asking for, and the figure that [unclear] is asking about for guidance and what comes out of it. Just take a couple of minutes and say whatever it is so that John [Connally] is aware of the choices, like you did the other day.

Shultz: Well we have had four things going on. Mel Laird has been talking publicly about a budget of [$]80 billion plus, and encouraging the Chiefs more or less in that direction.

Nixon: Let me ask you, is that authorization to spend any more gold?

Shultz: I believe he is talking in terms of outlays, but he just talks about an $80 billion budget.

Nixon: All right.

Shultz: And so that gives us some room for maneuver there. But, that’s one thing. The second thing that’s going on is the traditional joint review involving the Secretary’s staff and the OMB staff is going through the items to try to get—as they do every year. That’s David Packard’s process over on the Defense side. And the third thing that’s going on is something that David, Henry, and I got started after the last meeting we had with you back in, [I] can’t remember my times anymore, back in August some time,2 and there we have three staff [Page 875]people taking up significant issues, such as the air defense issues, which is the one that’s furthest along, and trying to get a joint decision being reviewed on a major policy issue. That decision will sort of underlie what goes under the budget. Then, because it seems that the public posture of the Defense budget was moving so fast, at such a high level relative to what we had thought. You remember your guidance of last summer was [$]75 billion, although that was, you specified, subject to review and so on. In the NSC staff and the OMB staff, Henry and I put a study in place trying to estimate what we thought was a Defense outlay number compatible with the foreign policy objectives as you set them and as Henry interpreted them to us. The Laird process is going on within the number, the two in between processes are starting, they are spinning away on particular issues, they don’t have an outcome. Although our own OMBNSC–Defense staff group is fairly well along. The exercise that Henry and I conducted that was reported to you last week when we discussed that, sees a content in the neighborhood of $77 to 77.5 billion as compatible with the foreign policy objective. I would suggest talking about [the] content side. We have, at the same time, an ability through the management of outlays during the year, starting now, and what we did in the ‘71 budget, to move the actual number that can be put in the budget you send out. We can move the outlays down by a billion and a half to two billion or we can move them up just by sheer outlay management that is not going to affect the content of what is bought or the force structure, or anything of that kind. It can have an impact on the cosmetics of the budget. If we desire to have the budget get down into the full [unclear]. We always have that flexibility.

Nixon: What is the situation in regard to what we can say? I think we have here, as much as anything else [unclear]. Now Laird, having moved out [unclear], which, of course puts us in a position that if you go substantially below that, the indication is that, well, we are short-changing on defense for budgetary reasons. Now we’re [unclear—interested?] not only in what can we get to, get within the full point of reference and all that business. How is it going to affect the economy? But we are also extremely interested [unclear] the defense budget and so on. [unclear] And it also will give us a strong bargaining position with the Soviet as we go forward with the arms talks. Now on that score [unclear]. And having asked that question, let me say, as I understand it, in any event what we’re doing is going to be involved, cutting back on air defense and some of the obsolete stuff that we are doing—

Shultz: I think that is the way, which, as we talk about it, we would get down below the Defense level. I think that is the primary way in which we can do it.

[Page 876]

Kissinger: I don’t think we would help ourselves, Mr. President, if we, in order to get to a certain level, maintain forces for which we have no rationale.

Nixon: Henry, I couldn’t agree more.

Kissinger: I must say on the trip,3 having had a chance to do some thinking, and I worked with George on these figures, and they’re good figures. They are all defensible figures. But as I think about the strategic buildup of the Soviet Union at this moment, of which the facts are going to become more and more known as the year goes on, and some of its aspects worry me even more than the publicized ones. For example, we always used to think that we ran no risks in ABM limitations because it would take them three years to build radars and then it would [unclear] the radar development. We could then—

Nixon: Catch up.

Kissinger: Catch up. Well, they’ve now developed a radar which is transportable so [unclear]. So we might even find ourselves confronted with a very rapid radar—ABM radar development—some day. So while [unclear] a year in which you have to talk to them, whether we shouldn’t keep in mind some additional radars, and also, of course, when you see the Chinese they have [unclear] and sense of purpose. For all these reasons, and this is, George, I hate to say, not in accord with what we discussed before, I was wondering whether the President wants to give us another week to look at this again, not in order to restore things, which ought to be out in any event, such as the [unclear].

Nixon: There it’s out.

Kissinger: But what if you wanted to go into the [$]80 billion vicinity? Whether we could rationally do something that would really be helpful and would particularly help us in these negotiating situations, which we’ll be confronted with next year.

Nixon: Well, let me say this, that just simply having [$]80 billion on a ledge means spreading it as we always have among the three services, so that the Army [unclear] more and more stars, and the Air Force, of course, will have more people going to the Academy. I know what it all involves.

Kissinger: Right.

Nixon: No. Never. I mean, goddamnit, we’ve got to use the budget process for the purpose of shaping that service violently into some rational strategic concept—air defenses, what are they? I mean, it’s a [Page 877]waste of money. You know it. Everybody knows it. Nobody—the Soviet Union is not going to attack the United States. Not at this time, when they’re putting all their eggs in the missile basket, with a few bombers coming across the Pole. You know? Correct?

Kissinger: Absolutely.

Nixon: And that naturally is much better for the flyboys just like it was great for the battleship admirals. They hate to give up those things. The flyboys love to have those marvelous interceptors. Well, what the hell good are they?

Kissinger: [unclear] against a massive bomber attack coming across the Pole, which is the only one they’ve used.

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: If they do use a bomber attack. But it’s 100 percent irrational.

Nixon: The second thing is with regard to the Army [unclear], the NATO forces and all the rest. [unclear] I don’t think it’s going to influence the Soviet one damn bit to have another army division. Not one damn bit. [unclear] On the other hand, if out of this could come, if out of the additional money—this is the thing I want to know—out of whatever additional money [unclear], we’re going to get some real added strength to our strategic capability, either on the defensive or offensive side, something that we can negotiate with, that to me would make a hell of a lot of sense at this point. But I’ve never seen anything proposed that way. Nobody has ever proposed building more Polaris. Nobody has ever proposed building more Minuteman. Nobody, as I understand, is proposing that we add to our ABM force, correct? So how does all this, I don’t see how all of this is going to be relevant, Henry, to our bargaining position and also to the problem. Now let me just add one point [unclear], this miserable intelligence community, which, of course, two years ago said there was no threat at all from the Soviet [unclear]. And they’ve had television commentators on showing hundreds and hundreds of new holes all over the Soviet Union and just scaring the living bejeezus out of the people who seem to be saying, “What’s going to go in those holes?” Something will. And one day we’ll wake up and the Soviet will be looking down our throats. That was on four weeks ago. CBS after all [unclear] normally is on the peacenik side.

Kissinger: It’s not hundreds, but it’s close to a hundred.

Nixon: Well, whatever it is, whatever it is, you see my point is we confront two different problems. First we confront the reality of what we really need. That’s one thing. But if what we really need is not enough to give the American people the assurance that they have an adequate defense, and therefore we become vulnerable on the political side, forget it. It’s not enough. And if what we really need is not [Page 878]enough to give us the proper bargaining position with the Soviet, in these very important talks—

Kissinger: And the Chinese.

Nixon: Well the Chinese, yes, that’s right. Even though they are far away from us from a strategic standpoint. They’re quite aware of the fact that they’re—

Kissinger: But that’s where the infantry divisions have some—

Nixon: Well I suppose, yes, you’ve got to have something over there. That we’re not getting out of Asia and that sort of thing. Those are the things, John [Connally?], that I’d like. Now assuming that we go this way, with a higher budget, we run two risks. One is, of course, that, well, let’s face it, either you unbalance the budget more, but we’re only talking, basically as I see it, by $2 or 3 billion. That’s the number. Or, and unless you do this anyway, we have to tax more. As far as the inflationary effect of $2 or 3 billion [unclear]—and incidentally, let me say that all of this may be totally moot, because if you get it down to that silly Congress, they’re very likely to cut it back anyway, despite all—particularly as we go over the arms talks and so forth. You see, John, we have this interesting thing. Our very good right wing friends are yakking their heads off about our defense budget not being adequate.4 And yet, on the other hand, when we fought the battle for ABM, we fought the battle against the Mansfield amendments,5 the ones that would involve NATO and the rest, they were nowhere to be seen. They don’t understand. But nevertheless they fight [unclear]. We have to realize, the general trend insofar as support for defense is down. That could change. Could change. Could. I don’t know. Looking at it from the political side, we do have people at least with the good sense [unclear]—Jackson. Good to have him and the other Democratic candidates [unclear] about this issue. If they thought we were vulnerable—hell, Kennedy talked about a missile gap. I was the “hardliner” and he was the “softliner.” [unclear] Those weren’t true. Now in this case, what we have to deal with, [unclear]. People just want to be able to scare the bejeezus out of people. [unclear] So what I’m thinking of is, maybe the present number is all right, but I’m thinking of a budget number that could defuse the domestic opposition. If there is a hell of a lot of domestic opposition expressed, that will have a very detrimental effect on the attitudes of the Russians and the Chinese too because if they [Page 879]hear American television and so forth and the Senate saying, the United States is bare-assed for an attack, they’re going to believe it, right?

Kissinger: Well, that was the case in the late ‘50s when actually we had a crushing superiority.

Nixon: Yeah.

Kissinger: And we talked ourselves into a missile gap.

Nixon: That’s right.

Shultz: Just to round out the picture with a number, we have built up the force structure above, in a sense, what the Defense process is carrying, in a sense that, I think beefing up the divisions, Al [Haig], if I’m not mistaken, the Army divisions, bringing the Marine divisions to full strength. It is also the case that the obligational authority, that would be the equivalent of this [$]77½ or so budget, would be in the [$]80 billion category.

Nixon: Yeah. Yeah. The obligational authority. So you could talk about that.

Shultz: I think if we were to—if you want to build up, say, the Navy ships to a greater extent, build more ships, that’s the kind of thing that tends to build the obligational authority faster. [unclear exchange] Takes awhile to actually spend it up.

Nixon: For example, we could build more Polaris.

Kissinger: Well, I think we should push the ULMS development.

Nixon: The ULMS, as I understand—what the hell is that? That’s the quietest?

Kissinger: No, the ULMS is the larger boat with larger missiles that can operate farther out, which therefore makes a larger area of the world available to you for [unclear]. A big drawback of the Polaris now is that they draw a circle from their target. And knowing the range and [unclear].

Nixon: [unclear] Is there some reason why [unclear]?

Kissinger: Well, that’s what I wanted to—

Nixon: You want to find out.

Kissinger: [unclear] For example, the Soviets have just doubled their capacity for Polaris building. I thought what George and I could do is—by the same proposition which came up to this figure, if he agrees—whether we would look at some of these things like strategic programs to see what could be done to emphasize those areas like ULMS, that might need some strengthening.

Nixon: Well the Navy, of course, is interested in that.

Kissinger: The Navy program.

Nixon: They want more officers’ clubs. What the hell are they really after?

[Page 880]

Kissinger: [unclear] Whatever you’re interested in. [unclear]

Nixon: What I mean is, what do they really get out of it? I mean, in terms of what [unclear]. You’ve got to say with regard to the Navy, the Air Force, and the Army, I didn’t hear one damn word in their presentation except what was totally selfish. Totally. [unclear] very effective in terms of what they needed and so forth. But nothing with regard to strategic armament. Zumwalt was clever enough to talk a little about that. But insofar as what he was going to do he had some sort of fuzzy thing, “Well, we ought to modernize the ships.”

Kissinger: His was actually the trickiest.

Nixon: That’s what I meant. He made it appear that he was talking about strategy [unclear].

Kissinger: That’s right.

Nixon: I mean, it was a sad, sad performance.6 And the poor Chiefs knew even less—I mean, the service secretaries. Of course they [unclear].

Kissinger: So if we could have a few more days, say until early next week, for George and—

Nixon: Well, you can have the days all right. I wanted to know before you go what your gut reaction is.

Connally: I have several reactions, Mr. President.

Nixon: All right.

Connally: First—

Nixon: But you see now people will be making this decision before you get back. When do you get back?

Connally: Get back the 14th. November.7

Nixon: Well, it won’t be beyond the point of no return. But, we’ll try to aim for next week. But the 14th [unclear]. Go ahead.

Connally: Well first, I speak from a lack of information, as you well know, about the details. All I can do is give you general observations. The first is, I think the spending—the lower figures just on the theory that [$]79.95 is just less than 80. But the obligational authority I wouldn’t worry too much about. I would, as a matter of fact, probably go further than anybody here would go with respect to obligational authority provided it’s in the proper areas of increasing real strategic capability or defense—either offense or defense. As I recall in statements, about 60 percent of your costs in the military are manpower.

Nixon: Correct.

[Page 881]

Kissinger: That’s what’s so shocking.

Connally: So, I would cut manpower wherever I could. Not destroy any of the services, but I’d cut them as much as I could and put that money into the acquisition of ABM, Polaris missiles, or whatever to enhance your strategic capability. [unclear] You’re not going to get action by the Congress before your meeting with the Russians and the Chinese. But you need to go into this new year with a strong military posture. And a lean, but effective, military posture, it seems to me. And I’m not even sure you shouldn’t go in, and this will sound paradoxical, recommending we close bases. But you have a very substantial budget. It sounds like to me [unclear] election year. I’m not at all sure it is. Then what you really are prepared to go for. But this would be both convincing at home and abroad that you are really going to enhance your capability. We have to say that to the world. You have to say it to the Soviets. You have to say it to the Chinese. More than that you have to say it to all the lesser-developed countries. Because you’re moving into an era of economic warfare and it has to be bolstered by an effective military strength—not just manpower, but an effective military strength where they’re not afraid to go with us on an economic basis. Now, so far as the spending is concerned, I’d again direct it toward procurement, whether it’s ABM, whether it’s missiles, whether it’s a new ship or ship modernizations, or longer missiles, or research and development. I’d do it in the procurement field, which both revitalizes the jobs and, to some extent at least, the defense plants of this country in an election year. And yet it gives you what you want. I wouldn’t do it just to do that. But I’d do it because it gives you what you want. And I’d cut back on manpower in all the services if I could. And I think you have to just be, you’re going to have to make the decision in concert with Henry and George, and Cap [Weinberger]. You’re just going to have to make the tough decisions about what you’re going to fund and what you’re not. The services are not going to do it. They’re not going to make those choices. And the Defense Department is not going to make those choices. So those are just general observations. But I think if you have to go beyond the [$]75 or 76 [billion], I’d do it. I wouldn’t worry too much about it. I think you’re probably going to have to wind up with new taxes anyway. And if we talk about $2 or 3 billion, that’s peanuts in terms of what you’re going to be confronted with for this budget, in terms of your social programs and all these other things that we give money to. And you’re going into a ballgame that you know better than I. But you’re opening up whole new vistas of opportunity here, and you have to lead through strength. You can’t lead through weakness. You can’t lead from a position where you think everybody’s going to be a good guy, as you well know. You just cannot do it. You have to maintain military strength, but you have to do it in a credible fashion and that’s not going to be just maintaining a lot of riflemen.

[Page 882]

Nixon: All right, well, let’s leave it at this point until we have [unclear exchange]. That represents my general view too. I think that we [unclear], hanging out there though, something that would really raise concern among the people. But on the other hand, I don’t want to go the Laird, which I fear is—would try to keep—I suppose any Secretary would [unclear], well, just keep the budget high so that we keep the services happy. The hell with them.

Kissinger: No, we’ll prefer that the cuts be made, and we’ll use what we’ve got at the tables to see whether we can find some rational programs that would support your policies next year. I don’t think—if the choice were to go back to the [$]80 billion that Laird submitted to you that wouldn’t be worth it—

Connally: No, no. Oh, no.

Kissinger: I think actually, what we came up with gives you a better force for less money. But, if George and I can work it over, and we won’t even tell the other services that you’re considering this—

Nixon: Oh, no, no. They’ll all be in with their hats out as to how they can spend the money. But you understand, I have a feeling—I also want you to—well, the intelligence community isn’t worth a tinker’s dam, with regard to this thing. But, can you take into consideration, Henry, what the [unclear] American people have been reading for the last—

Kissinger: Oh, yeah.

Nixon: And, because that comes into this thing, and I don’t know. Maybe—how much of this is true and how much it is—I don’t know. I want—let me say, John, I make the decision. I’d like to see a couple of pages on what really our analysis of the intelligence is as to what they are doing. Because we damn well, even if we have to go in an election year and raise taxes substantially, are not going to be in any position of falling behind the Soviet. That’s not going to happen.

Kissinger: What they’re doing is extremely worrisome, not yet in terms of numbers, but in terms of the mentality it reveals. That even while they’re talking SALT, even while you’re going to a summit—if we—imagine reversing it. If you pushed new radar developments, built lots of new holes, all the liberals here would be all over you. While you’re going into SALT talks and [unclear].

Nixon: They’re all over me anyway.

Kissinger: So in terms of the mentality it reveals, it shows that they have, that they believe they must be able to translate this either into military or political advantage. However, [what] we might think to look at is what counters we have available to show them that this is being noticed.

Nixon: Uh-huh.

[Page 883]

Shultz: Can I say one more thing before we’re—?

Nixon: Sure.

Shultz: Just on the overall picture, I believe that it’s true that even if the military outlays go up, say by a billion, given our ability to manage these outlays, with the posture that we talked about and I felt you went along with, on the revenue sharing. And with a reasonably tough, but not unreasonable, posture on the budget, we can bring the total in within a range that doesn’t put you in the posture of needing to go for new taxes, for that reason.

Nixon: [unclear]

Shultz: That’s right. I think we can still do that. It’s not easy, but we can do that. So, I think that while it may be that you’ll want to do some things by way of initiatives that will make it necessary to go for new taxes, I don’t think that’s forced by a billion or so on the military, or by the impossibility of the domestic budget, given your decision about what to do on some of these Presidential [unclear—negotiations?].

Nixon: Okay.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Record of Conversation among Nixon, Connally, Kissinger, Ehrlichman, Shultz, Weinberger, and Haig, Oval Office, Conversation No. 604–6. No classification marking. The editor transcribed the portion of the tape recording printed here specifically for this volume. This conversation was part of a longer one that took place from 3:07 to 3:40 p.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files, President’s Daily Diary)
  2. An apparent reference to President Nixon’s July 23 meeting on the budget. See Document 188.
  3. Kissinger traveled to China for the second time October 16–26.
  4. President Nixon discussed conservatives’ increasingly vocal criticism of his national security and foreign policies with New York Senator James Buckley (R) on August 5, Senator Barry Goldwater (R–Arizona) on November 10, and California Governor Ronald Reagan on November 17. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Tapes, Conversation Nos. 555–10, 14–17, and 620–12)
  5. See footnote 4, Document 185.
  6. See Document 191.
  7. Connally traveled to Asia October 28–November 14.