22. Transcript of Telephone Conversation Between President Nixon and the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1

[Omitted here is discussion of Vietnam.]

Pres—On another subject, I had an interesting time listening to some of the Congressmen and Senators tonight2—I will talk about that tomorrow.3 Is Packard doing more for us on the ABM?

K—He made a proposal to us.4 I am putting together a package so you can see the pros and cons of each.5 Packard says we could conceivably sell the concept if we continue the R&D and buy the sites we need for $30 million, and begin construction on two sites at $800 million. We would get the deployment battle behind us.

Pres—We could call these basically prototypes.

K—That isn’t so easy. You can’t move on until you have tried them if they are called prototypes, and we won’t be finished until 1972.

[Page 76]

Pres—They have been affected by the basic question of ‘will it work?’ Some said the real problem they have is they hate to be divided by this issue at this time. Can we find something that will divide them just a little less?

K—told the President about the three scientists who visited him, and said there is nothing we can do to get them around.6 It isn’t the money—everyone agrees with money. The R&D is signal to everyone—a face-saving way out of the program. No one will believe the program will continue… Everybody opposed says continue it by doing R&D.

Pres—I say, if we just do R&D and everybody opposed says ok, I don’t want them to win that much. Could we say: we are going to do R&D but not order full deployment. We are going forward on a limited basis until we get farther along on R&D.

K—We are doing it to give it a chance to gear it to the Soviet military capability.

Pres—We won’t go forward; the extent to which we further deploy will depend on the Soviets.

K—This will give us a chance to test out the components. Pres—I could sell that language.

K—I’ve been thinking that too.7

Pres—Lay it out for the people who are for it and give them enough to fight for it.

K—with regard to the scientists, it is a question of whether they are willing to have the country defenseless. In any event, no serious person will claim it can threaten the Soviet Union. We should go ahead with the radar, buy the sites, and start on Spartans (?). Two sites will test out the system and defend a few Minuteman Missiles.

Pres—Whether we defend more will depend on the growth of the Soviet Union missile capability and what they do. That is closer to what’s sellable. We don’t need to try to sell the scientists.

[Page 77]

K—I looked at the panel DuBridge set up for the ABM.8 Everybody on it had published articles before they joined the panel.

Pres—What is your present inclination—to go Friday?9

K—The main thing is to go right—but have [do] you feel you have explored this thing completely?

Pres—There are no problems with delays?

K—No, we can even go with it Monday or Tuesday.

Pres—They will squeal all weekend. We can say we are examining it; they will think we are being thoughtful. I am not going to talk to a lot of people in State or Disarmament. I think tomorrow, I will have a 1/2 dozen House and Senate people over ostensibly for a political meeting. I will include Scott and Morton who will be the new chairman; also Bryce Harlow; and ask them how they feel about all of this. Dirksen said he would call Packard. Incidentally, what you just described was what Dirksen was feeling for. We have to get to the hawks also, like Mendel Rivers. We don’t know what they are against.

K—Until recently, they had to be against the old system.

Pres—But the new system has leaked and they are fighting it.

K—Most scientists don’t want any defensive system. In the early 50’s, they were for air defense, the H-Bomb, shelters, etc.

Pres—This will have an impact on the Soviets. It will be susceptible to very significant expansion if we want to do so.

K—advised the Pres that the NSC meeting had been moved to Saturday.

President said he didn’t think he would bring it before the NSC again; that he has to decide it, and that is it.

K—I think Rogers will not fight it—he will go along even with the full one.

Pres—I have to let Ziegler know by tomorrow noon whether to have a Press Conference Friday. If it is better to go Friday, we will do it; unless we think we will know an awful lot more, I favor moving. [Page 78] The more you wait the more susceptible we are. I don’t want us to appear indecisive.

[Omitted here is discussion of Vietnam.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 489, President’s Trip Files, Dobrynin/Kissinger, 1969. No classification marking. According to the President’s Daily Diary, Nixon spoke with Kissinger from 10:28 to 11:17 p.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files, President’s Daily Diary)
  2. According to his Daily Diary, the President and the First Lady hosted a Congressional reception in the White House earlier that evening. (Ibid.)
  3. Nixon held several meetings on March 12, according to the Daily Diary. He met with Kissinger on five separate occasions and once each with Packard and Senator Henry M. Jackson (D–Washington), a leading supporter of the system. No other records of these meetings have been found. (Ibid.)
  4. Packard gave Kissinger two alternate ABM proposals on March 9. The first was to announce the Modified Sentinel program, but to stretch out deployment by delaying construction until FY 1970 at a savings of $700 million. The other was to delay deployment until FY 1971. The following day, Kissinger sent a memorandum to the President, arguing that while the first alternative merely had budgetary implications, the second “would imperil the program” and spark “pressures” to begin SALT talks immediately. Kissinger counseled Nixon to choose the new system and either deploy it according to the original schedule or stretch out deployment to FY 1970 only, a “choice dictated by budgetary considerations.” (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 843, ABMMIRV, ABM—Memoranda)
  5. In an attachment to a memorandum to Nixon, dated March 11, Kissinger summarized the benefits and drawbacks of four ABM alternatives: the Defense Department proposal made at the NSC meeting of March 5 to reorient Sentinel to protect U.S. retaliatory forces, Packard’s two proposals of March 9 to save money by stretching out deployment of the program until either FY 1970 or FY 1971, and another cost-cutting variant put forward by Packard that envisioned construction actually beginning at only two Minuteman sites in FY 1970. (Ibid.) For the March 5 NSC meeting, see Document 16.
  6. No record of this meeting has been found.
  7. In his memoirs, Kissinger discussed his conviction to go forward with ABM. Two factors led to his support. First, both he and Nixon were opposed to unilaterally giving up ABM without Soviet reciprocity. Instead, they agreed that pursuing an ABM “could become the major Soviet incentive for a SALT agreement.” Second, according to Kissinger, “It seemed to me highly irresponsible simply to ignore the possibility of an accidental attack or the prospect of nuclear capabilities in the hands of yet more countries. China was only the first candidate; others would follow. Without any defense an accidental launch could do enormous damage. Even a small nuclear power would be able to blackmail the United States. I did not see the moral or political value of turning our people into hostages by deliberate choice.” (Kissinger, White House Years, pp. 204–210)
  8. The Strategic Military Panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee included NSC Staff member Spurgeon M. Keeny, Jr. and scientists Marvin Goldberger, Hans A. Bethe, Sidney D. Drell, Richard L. Garwin, Richard Latter, Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky, Jack P. Ruina, and Kenneth M. Watson. In its February 17 report, which Keeny sent to Kissinger under a covering memorandum dated February 21, the panel questioned the technological capability of Sentinel to provide area defense against sophisticated attacks. The report made no formal recommendations, but it leaned toward either reorienting Sentinel to protect Minuteman sites or terminating the system’s deployment by continuing R&D. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 843, ABMMIRV, ABM—Memoranda)
  9. March 14.