24. Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Buchanan) to President Nixon 1

(One observor’s notes on the meeting wherein the President revealed to the bipartisan leadership his decision on the ABM.)2

The President began the discussion and held the floor for the first half of the session—without interruption. The President indicated he had been a supporter of the Sentinel system; but he had wanted to hear objections and alternate courses, so he waited until now. He might have taken several courses he said: 1) Go to the “full” or “thick” system. 2) Go with the Sentinel system “voted last year.” 3) No System at all 4) Continue R & D. The President feels that “the best interests of our country” and the “minimum” essential to our security dictate the course he has decided upon.

If they had shown me a complete defense for our cities, I would have approved it,” he said, but noted that the ABM could not guarantee that at the current “state of the art.” What we are talking about is a reduction of casualties in the first strike from 60–80 million to the neighborhood of 20–40 million; that’s the best we could do with city-defense ABM. This kind of city-defense ABM would be “highly provocative” to the Soviets.

The President made the above statement about “highly provocative” city-defense—but took pains to point out that he realized the Soviets had provided a city defense for Moscow and “are going ahead” with development of a “second generation” ABM.

What are the arguments for adopting no system; the President noted them. First, an ABM system “won’t work”. Second, even if it did provide a measure of defense, it “would escalate the arms race;” third, at this time it would “throw cold water” on the arms control talks.

What are the arguments for a “delay” in deployment: 1) We might have an arms agreement 2) We might learn more about it 3) We don’t think a delay would be significant. The President called this option a “tempting proposition.”

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However, failing to act in this year would cause a delay; the way things now stand we will not, even going ahead, be able to have an ABM operationally deployed until 1973.

Delaying six months in our decision means a delay of two years in our deployment—the President said and pointed out that Packard would explain this to the Senators and Congressmen later on.

We are deploying a Modified Sentinel system because of our changed estimate of what the Soviets are doing. The Soviet SS–9 missile force presents today a “major hazard” to “our deterrent force.” The Soviets have made “immense strides.”

What will the modified system give us?

It would provide for defense against any currently conceivable Chinese attack for the next ten years. Whatever they can build in the next ten years, we do not think can get through our “area defense.”
Protects the United States against an irrational or accidental firing of Soviet missiles.
Moves missiles completely away from the cities to protect our second-strike force. Our objectives are to defend our missile force; our bomber bases and our national command set-up. (Note: The President emphasized that even upon completion our entire second-strike force would not be guarded.)

The President emphasized that it is only necessary to defend enough of our force to make a second-strike credible. We have to defend enough to be a deterrent to visit “great devastation” upon the Soviet Union.

Fiscal ‘70 there is cut in half the amount asked for Sentinel—we are funding it over a period through 1973—first site in 1973 operational—we will have an annual review covering especially three standpoints:

1) Development of the art in ABM 2) Changes in the threat to the United States (In this the SAB is checking against the CIA) 3) The Development of our Diplomacy. If we make progress, there are steps we can take. “We have a phased system rather than a fixed system.”

Packard indicated that it would require work to make sure the combination of radar and system would work—that is one argument behind putting the thing together.

However, the system can “be overwhelmed:” and there is the possibility of “fooling it.” “In addition to being overwhelmed, it can probably be confused” said Packard speaking of the ABM system we will deploy.

Packard’s argument and the President’s argument is basically that the city protection is basically a damage limitation concept where you cut casualties in the event of a strike from 80 to 40 million people; the [Page 81] defense of the Minuteman sites and the bomber sites and the national command system is essentially defense of the deterrent—it is designed to prevent conflict rather than limit damage.

We have in effect a “modified Sentinel System”. At this point Buchanan departed the meeting to write a memo to the President on suggested names for the new ABM system. Memo attached; the Safeguard System name was used ultimately in the press conference.3

At this point Senator Fulbright asked “couldn’t we double that Polaris Fleet?” Since it is a known quantity; and we know it works and what it costs precisely. Wouldn’t more of these missiles insure the credibility of the United States deterrent force?

The President indicated to Senator Fulbright that the Polaris system would do this—but it would immediately be taken as a provocation by the Soviets, and would ignite a Soviet effort to increase their offensive force.

Fulbright said the only reason the ABM wouldn’t be provocative is that the Soviets wouldn’t think it would work.

RN responded again, noting that the ABM was not provocative; we have reason to believe that: 1) The Soviets did ask for arms talks after the Sentinel was announced; they themselves have termed ABM a “defensive weapon,” they didn’t believe theirs was provocative. 2) The Soviets have deployed their own ABM system; and the Soviets draw clear distinctions between offensive and defensive weapons. Also, the cost of the ABM is significantly less. Construction of more Polaris missiles might indicate we are thinking about a first strike. This ABM has “no first strike capability.” “No first strike implications.”

The problem of “Fratricide” was discussed—but Buchanan had left to work on his memorandum.

When all the arguments are put on the table, the President said, people reach different conclusions. “But I do not believe a President of the United States can do less; I do not believe a President of the United States can run the risk of leaving us naked” to a Soviet missile strike.

RN: When we see where the Soviets will be not only in 1973, but 1976 and ‘77 and ‘78, we feel this is the right decision. This is not 1962 when we had a 5–1 advantage over the Soviets in missiles. We are strong today; but the situation has changed; not because of anything we did; but because of what the Soviets did; they determined to close the strategic [gap] in 1962; they have come very far along that road; they have widened their lead over us in conventional arms; they have [Page 82] developed and deployed the world’s only ABM system; we have none; they have increased their submarine force in quantity and quality; their plans for the future “are very significant;” and as for the Chinese, “all of our estimates of the Chinese force have been understated.”

One other course, the President said, had considerable appeal and could have been taken.

“We could have substantially increased our offensive capability.” But this would have 1) cost far more and 2) would have been far more provocative. Deployment of an ABM on the other hand is “not provocative.” “No signal for an arms race.” We retain the option to change the system as the situation changes.

To Dirksen the President said, “This system is not a system with the seeds of growth. We have a limited objective—the protection of our Minuteman sites, the protection of our deterrent.”

David Packard

The Deputy Secretary of Defense now spoke, on the subject at length. Total cost $6 to $7 billion for what we have in mind. Somewhat higher because of the additional capability we are buying. Sentinel System only pointed north; however, the Soviet submarine threat is already developing in a serious way. We are thus buying the PARs radio [radar], which can look in any direction; and also the Minuteman site radar itself. (Note: this radar apparently was useful in detecting and the system in handling the Soviet FOBS system; this was mentioned in passing.) Though this ABM system adds some elements of capability, it is most assuredly not a system that can be used as a “base of expansion” into the thick ABM. The cities defense would have been a base to go to that system.

(Packard also repeated and emphasized a number of points the President had already touched upon.)

Packard also mentioned that this system would give us a chance to deploy and shake out bugs before putting the final system into operation. Result would be a $1 billion reduction in the FY 70 budget. Packard said he thinks we ought to proceed with the selection of sites and their purchase. When they are available we also have the opportunity to move with PARs.

Laird here interjected to point up the difference between initial deployment and operational deployment—the one being immediate and the last not until 1973.

This year’s funding is supposedly to help with purchase of the sites needed, of the sites on the periphery of the East and West Coast. Construction of PAR radar for one of the sites.

Senator Pastore asked the Deputy Secretary a single question: “Will it work?”

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Packard’s answer was a qualified “yes.” The system is designed to look over the horizon; to identify an incoming warhead, through the use of computers to identify the point of impact and to use both the Sentinel system a few hundred miles out and the Sprint system as a “terminal protection.” “My view is that the system in its basic concept will work”, said Packard. Various elements have been tested to the point where we have to conclude it is workable. The testing we need to do (nukes) we can do underground. “Won’t have to go atmospheric.”

One thing mentioned here was a particularly sensitive subject; the smallness of the Polaris warhead and the hardening of the Soviet missile sites. Also, there is some question about the capability of the American guidance system under an attack environment—both questions were to be discussed only within the room.

“They have to do with the credibility of the deterrent” Laird noted.

The Chinese ABM capability was pretty much dismissed by the President and his staff.

[Omitted here are pledges of support from, and comments by, some of the assembled Congressmen.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, President’s Office Files, Box 77, Memoranda for the President, Beginning March 9, 1969. No classification marking.
  2. According to the President’s Daily Diary, the following attended the meeting, held from 8:37 to 10:45 a.m. in the Cabinet Room: the President, Agnew, Rogers, Laird, Packard, Helms, and Kissinger; Senators Mansfield, Dirksen, Scott, Kennedy, Russell, Young, Stennis, Smith, Fulbright, Aiken, Pastore, Byrd, and Allott; and Representatives McCormack, Albert, Ford, Arends, Boggs, Mahon, Bow, Rivers, Bates, Adair, Holifield, Hosmer, Rhodes, and Anderson. (Ibid., White House Central Files, President’s Daily Diary)
  3. Buchanan’s March 14 memorandum to the President is attached, but not printed. Nixon held a news conference at noon; see Document 25.