25. Editorial Note
President Nixon described his decision on the ABM in his memoirs. “The Soviets had indicated that they were willing to reach agreement on defensive arms limitation. Most of the liberals in Congress, the media, and the academic community tended to take them at face value in this regard and feared that a congressional vote for an ABM system would destabilize the existing arms balance and compel the Soviets to increase their own construction programs, thus losing a precious opportunity and moving the arms race up another notch.
“I thought they were wrong. I thought the Soviets’ primary interest in opening arms negotiations at that point was that without an ABM we would be in a disadvantageous negotiating position. Our intelligence reports indicated that in 1969 the Soviets spent the equivalent of $25 billion on nuclear weapons.” (Nixon, RN , pages 415–416) Nixon’s figure was not too far off the mark. The Central Intelligence Agency’s Office of Strategic Research estimated in its paper of January 31, 1969, “Soviet Spending for Defense and Space,” “that the USSR will spend a record high of about 20.4 billion rubles—the equivalent of about $60 billion—for defense and space programs in 1969 compared with about 20.0 billion rubles in 1968.” Soviet defense spending in 1968 had also [Page 84] set a record high. The CIA estimated that about 30 percent of the $60 billion expected to be spent by the Soviets in 1969 would be devoted to strategic offensive and defensive programs. The CIA assumed that Moscow would spend an additional, but indeterminate, amount on research and development. The CIA study is in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 709, Country Files, Europe, USSR, Vol. I.
In his memoirs, the President stated: “They [the Soviets] deployed more than a hundred intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) while we deployed none; they added several nuclear missile-firing submarines to their Navy while we added none; and they deployed forty new ABMs around Moscow. We knew that even as the debate in Congress over an American ABM was raging, the Soviets had initiated work on more ICBMs and ABMs, as well as major new radar systems in conjunction with their deployment; they were also building additional submarine missiles. I felt that tactically we needed the ABM as a bargaining chip for negotiations with the Soviets: they already had an ABM system, so if we went into negotiations without one we might have to give up something else, perhaps something more vital. In that sense, we had to have it in order to be able to agree to forgo it. I tried to persuade Congress that what the ABM vote represented was really a philosophical turning point in America’s strategic credibility.
“I knew that the vote on ABM would reverberate around the world as a measure of America’s resolve. The minute the Europeans or the Japanese decided that we could not be depended upon to keep our commitments and stand up to the Soviets, the American position in Europe and the Far East would be severely damaged. But as I saw it, the ABM vote involved the much deeper question of whether Americans still believed that we stood for something in the world and that we must be willing to bear the burden of resisting aggression against our allies and friends. I believed that the majority of Americans felt this way; but as long as there was any doubt about it among our enemies, the temptations to test us would be that much stronger. The ABM vote would be the first significant congressional vote on defense measures in my administration, and I wanted the signal to go out that we had not lost our national sense of purpose and resolve—because I did not think we had.
“Unfortunately, Vietnam soured the debate. It had convinced the liberals that America had suffered from too belligerent a posture and made them determined to curb our military spending.”
After briefly comparing his views about Vietnam with those held by liberals, Nixon continued, “One good argument against the ABM was that many people—Eisenhower, incidentally, among them—doubted the efficacy of defensive weapons systems and preferred to [Page 85] put our money into building our offensive capability. There were also technical objections involving the cost of the system measured against the increased levels of defense it would actually produce. These arguments lost me support among some responsible conservatives and moderates whose votes I might otherwise have had.” (Nixon, RN , pages 415–417)
The President announced his decision to develop and construct Safeguard, a modified ABM system, during a news conference held on March 14. According to a statement released by the White House that day, Nixon, after reviewing the options in light of two factors—U.S. security requirements and possible strategic arms limitation talks—ultimately pursued an ABM primarily in response to the emerging nuclear threat posed by China and the buildup of Soviet strategic forces. He rejected two other ABM options, either continuing Sentinel or pursuing research and development only while delaying deployment, which he felt left the United States vulnerable. Meanwhile, other alternatives, pursuing a thick ABM capable of fully defending U.S. cities or increasing U.S. offensive forces, would have seemed threatening to the Soviets, thereby provoking an arms race. In announcing his decision, the President emphasized the defensive nature of Safeguard. Rather than being directed against the Soviet offensive arsenal, it was designed to fulfill three objectives: protection of U.S. land-based retaliatory forces against an attack from the Soviet Union, defense of American cities from the kind of nuclear attack likely to be posed by China during the 1970s, and security against accidental attacks from any source. Safeguard, Nixon announced, would be deployed in phases, with the first phase consisting of two missile sites. Beyond that, future deployments depended upon changes in the Soviet and Chinese threats, progress in SALT, and technical developments. (Public Papers: Nixon, 1969, pages 208–219)
Nixon’s announcement opened divisions even within his own administration. The President responded on April 14 by sending a memorandum to William Rogers, Melvin Laird, Henry Kissinger, Ambassador to Vietnam, Ellsworth Bunker, and Ambassador to Germany, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., bemoaning the fact that criticism of the administration’s policies on troop withdrawals from Vietnam and the ABM had “reached a dangerous point where the President seems to have lost control of his team and everyone seems to be going off in different directions.” On those two issues, Nixon insisted, “there must be a consistent line with no deviation whatever.”
As for the ABM, he thought it “important for us not to be sucked into speculation as to what the intent of the Soviet Union is in building up their offensive capabilities, particularly with regard to the SS–9. Here the best line to take is that we are not going to base our policy [Page 86] on what we ‘guess’ are Soviet intentions. We can only base our policy on what the Soviet Union does.” Since the Soviets, at a minimum, had achieved strategic parity with the United States, Nixon stated, “we have to consider what action the United States can take to maintain a credible position diplomatically as well as militarily if we are to play a major role in world affairs.”
The President also established in his April 14 memorandum an administration line for handling a major controversy regarding Safeguard. “When the question is raised as to whether the system will work there are three answers—one, the Soviet Union has such a system and we have had to adjust our military planning on the assumption that it will work; two, we cannot afford to leave the U.S. defenseless against a mini-nuclear power threat since this would mean that our foreign policy in Asia and in the Pacific would lose an immense amount of credibility; three, we must at the very least not allow possible technical breakthroughs in this area to be in the sole capability of the Soviet Union as compared with ourselves.”
Nixon then reiterated his major purpose in writing the memorandum. “What is most important is that we take a consistent affirmative line—brooking no compromise on the fundamental issue: we are going forward with this system as the best possible way to see to it that the United States [Soviet Union], at a time the Soviet Union has widened the conventional gap and has closed the strategic gap, does not move into a pre-eminent position and thereby leave the United States in the position of being basically a second-class power as far as overall nuclear capability is concerned.
“I know all the arguments of the unilateral disarmers that ‘enough is enough.’ The same argument could have been made at the time of the Cuban missile crisis when even though our advantage was four to one it could be said that the Soviet Union had enough that anything that we would do would still mean that their second-strike capability would deter us from acting. What is important for us to recognize is that the great fundamental issue involved is very simply whether during this Administration we allow the Soviet Union to pass the United States in overall nuclear capability and thereby leave us in a second-rate position. From a diplomatic standpoint this would be devastating to our policies all over the world and I do not intend to allow this to happen—whatever the political consequences may be.”
The President then turned his attention to the relationship between possible strategic arms limitation negotiations and the ABM. He wrote, “it is unthinkable to me that we should go into arms talks with the Soviet Union with them having ‘in being’ a significant defensive capability and our having that capability only on the drawing boards.” Repeating his public stance that an ABM, even in the event of successful [Page 87] talks, was crucial to U.S. defense against the emerging Chinese nuclear arsenal, Nixon added that, while “unilateral disarmers would say that our advantage over the Chinese and the Soviets [sic] is so enormous that no responsible leader of Communist China would dare launch an attack against either country,” the “tragic fact of history is that most of the great wars were not started by responsible men and that we have to base our assumptions on what potentially irresponsible or irrational men may do rather than simply on what we, as responsible leaders, might do.”
The President had concluded that the White House would win the ABM vote if he exerted maximum influence among Senators and if he received “complete and absolute backing from everybody in the Administration at all levels.” Nixon recognized that there was “substantial disagreement with both our Vietnam policy and our ABM decision in the Department of State and in the Pentagon. “I understand and respect that difference of opinion. But I will not tolerate any further ‘informed sources leaks’ which increasingly appear in the papers under-cutting the Administration’s policy. I will expect both Defense and State to insist on absolute discipline within their ranks with regard to any public or ‘off the record’ statements to press men on this subject. I want debate and discussion and dissent where people honestly disagree with policy in Administration councils. But the decision having been made on ABM and our plan of action having been determined with regard to Vietnam there must now be absolute discipline in supporting that decision.” Nixon’s April 14 memorandum is in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 341, Subject Files, HAK/President Memorandums (1969–1970).
Once he had announced his decision, the President recalled in his memoirs that he “faced the biggest congressional battle of the first term.” Confident that the House would approve additional appropriations to construct Safeguard, he was less sure of success in the Democratically-controlled Senate, where the vote “was clearly going to be very close.” (Nixon, RN , page 417) In response, Nixon, in separate memoranda to Herb Klein, Director of Communications for the Executive Branch, on March 13 and to John Ehrlichman on April 10, ordered a vigorous “counter-offensive,” including lobbying Senators who were undecided or opposed and a pro-ABM publicity campaign. The President’s memoranda to Klein and Ehrlichman are in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, President’s Personal File, Memoranda from the President, Box 1, Chronological File. The administration was particularly concerned about Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a likely contender for the Democratic nomination in the 1972 Presidential election, who led the opposition to the program. Patrick J. Buchanan sent a memorandum to [Page 88] Nixon on March 19 in which he argued that the ABM fight was an early but crucial showdown with Kennedy in the upcoming election cycle. Buchanan’s memorandum is ibid., White House Central Files, Subject Files: Confidential Files, Box 43, Weapons-Ordnance-Munitions (ND 20).
The administration ultimately won the ABM battle. Congress did not actually pass the bill authorizing spending on defense projects, including the ABM, until November 9. But the Senate effectively approved Safeguard on August 6, when, by votes of 51–49 and 50–50, it defeated amendments that, if adopted, would have prohibited all funding for the system’s deployment. Vice President Agnew cast the tie-breaking ballot in the latter vote. The next day Nixon wrote a memorandum in which he directed Kissinger, Ehrlichman, and H.R. Haldeman to get “out the true story,” which was that the ABM victory was a result and reflection of the “Nixon Style.” The President urged them to “point out that RN made the decision to tackle ABM head on against the advice of most of his major advisers, including particularly the State Department.” Success in the Senate, he wrote, was mainly due to “the massive effort that was made by RN on this project.” The President, for instance, “was in constant charge of PR [public relations] aspects of the ABM fight and dictated memoranda to be used by the PR people about getting out the positive line and also watched the press closely to knock down anything in the way of intelligence reports or other things that might be harmful.” Nixon, however, cautioned his advisers not to oversell the forcefulness of the “Nixon Style,” especially in the Senate, where opponents of the administration outnumbered supporters by a three-to-two margin. He concluded, “I cannot emphasize the importance of getting this story broadly circulated, not just in the New York Times Magazine or some other sheet that is never read, but by the wire service, a major weekly news magazine, a thoughtful television commentator like Howard K. Smith, [Eric] Sevareid, [Walter] Cronkite, and of course, the usual columns.” Nixon’s August 7 memorandum is ibid., NSC Files, Subject Files, Box 341, HAK/President Memorandums (1969–1970).
In his memoirs, Nixon concluded, “I am absolutely convinced that had we lost the ABM battle in the Senate, we would not have been able to negotiate the first nuclear arms control agreement in Moscow in 1972.” (Nixon, RN , page 418)