12. Memorandum of Conversation1

Notes on President Nixon’s Meeting with NATO Foreign and Defense Ministers

(Note: The attendance was limited by agreement to Foreign Ministers plus two others. In most cases this meant the Foreign Minister, Defense Minister and Permanent Representative were present. Where there was no Defense Minister, a senior Foreign Office representative usually occupied the third chair.)

The President led off by characterizing the meeting as an “executive session.” He said Secretary Rogers had discussed a number of other subjects, including Vietnam, so he would concentrate in his lead-off remarks on his recent decision to proceed with a modified ABM program.

Foreign and Defense Ministers are directly in politics, unlike the Permanent Representatives, the President said. They could therefore understand political problems of the President. The President said it would be very popular for him to announce a reduction of the US defense program, or to announce the withdrawal of divisions from Europe. The peoples of the West are all too ready to believe that in a balance of terror, enough weaponry is enough, and that a conflict involving NATO would have to be conducted with strategic nuclear weapons anyway. We must resist this kind of thinking, the President said, and maintain the strength to negotiate from.

The President presented some facts on which the ABM decision was based:

(a) We used to have four or five to one superiority in nuclear missiles, and the consequent diplomatic strength. But the balance is now drastically changed.

(b) The Soviets have widened the gap in conventional forces and have closed the strategic gap “to a very substantial degree.”

(c) There is a big change even from 1967, when the previous Administration decided on the Sentinel system and attributed it primarily to the prospective threat from China. But the Soviets now have 60% [Page 52] more submarine missile launchers than in 1967, and their ICBMs, not only the earlier versions but the SS–9, have also grown rapidly.

(d) We are not insisting on the overwhelming superiority we once had. It is not possible to maintain it, and in any case it would not be effective negotiation to try to maintain it. Here the key word is “sufficiency”—that is, enough for our diplomatic purposes.

The President said that any power with nuclear responsibility is responsible for avoiding the erosion of its credible nuclear deterrent. In meeting this responsibility, we could have built more bombers, built more submarines, or done more hardening of Minuteman sites. But these additions to our strategic forces might have been interpreted as building our offensive, rather than defensive, capability. Then we looked at the Soviet ABM system, which continues under development. Very recent intelligence indicates that the ABM system around Moscow is being expanded again, and some of the Soviet radars are being turned around to perceive a missile threat from Communist China.

The Sentinel system was primarily oriented against China, with the additional element of creating difficulties for Soviet offensive forces. It was not an effective system for city protection. Even if it reduced US casualties from 80 to 30 million people, 30 million was still too many.

The new Safeguard program establishes an area defense which gives us “almost certain” protection against China for at least ten years, the President said. In this sense an unsophisticated attack on the United States would be “not relevant.” By 1973 the Chinese are estimated to be able to have some 24 to 45 ICBMs. The Safeguard program would be effective against that threat. Beyond area defense, the Safeguard program, “instead of concentrating on the defense of our cities,” will defend two of our missile sites. The significance of this, the President explained, is likewise in the nature of deterrence. In 1962 the Soviets could have wreaked much damage on the United States, but the United States was stronger so the Soviets were deterred. But if a “substantial amount” of US strategic deterrent is vulnerable, then our nuclear deterrent is not credible enough. That is why ABM is required.

The President repeated that it would be easier for the United States to do nothing and let the Soviets achieve superiority. But with the power ratio between the two major nations nearing balance, we want to avoid being in a “second position.” To have increased the offensive forces “would have been escalatory.” The decision actually taken showed we just wanted to defend our deterrent—and in addition have 10 years of protection against China.

Honest men can, and in our politics do, reach differing conclusions about these matters, the President added. But the major fact must be no erosion in the deterrent—because NATO is strong and united, and be [Page 53] cause the US backs NATO with a nuclear shield. That is why this “first decision” was to be defensive, to maintain that shield. The annual review provided for in the Safeguard program would permit a change in the program, with any change in the threat or in technology.

The Secretary General said that while he did not assume every Minister would want to speak, he would go around the table counter-clockwise and call on any who desired to discuss the President’s remarks or ask a question.

Denis Healey (UK Minister of Defense) said that he had been very critical of the Sentinel program—and of the absence of consultation on it. (In answer to a question from the President, Healey explained that Secretary McNamara’s ABM announcement in San Francisco came just a week before he had an opportunity to consult about this decision in a scheduled meeting of the NATO Nuclear Planning Group.) But Healey said he was not critical either of Safeguard or of the consultative process in the Alliance on the subject. The rationale, he thought, was now very much more persuasive. The United States has to decide the issues of theology and technology involved; he himself had assumed that, since Secretary Clifford pitched his argument for an ABM system on its relevance to the prospective US–USSR talks on strategic arms limitation, it would be hard for the new Administration to drop ABM entirely. Because the ABM plan is related to the US–USSR talks, Healey welcomed the annual review that was part of the President’s plan.

In summary, Healey said there was no way to guarantee the wisdom of a US decision, but the United Kingdom agrees with it and applauds it. He would only warn the United States against down-grading the existing offensive systems—that is, over-emphasizing their vulnerability and effectiveness, for fear of affecting the credibility of the US nuclear deterrent itself.

Michael Stewart (UK Foreign Secretary) said that people were sickened by continuation of missile rivalries, and it was up to NATO governments to make credible to our own people the willingness of the West to negotiate East-West differences. He said NATO would have to address itself to the Budapest appeal,2 and more broadly the NATO meeting should say something about “what the Alliance stands for.”

On the President’s proposal (in his speech to the North Atlantic Council the previous afternoon) to establish a Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society, Stewart said we must think through how to make this practical. It is not enough, he thought, to be willing to defend [Page 54] our societies; there should be a “special concern with the value and quality of what we are defending.”

Otto Tidemand (Norwegian Minister of Defense) spoke of his talks in Moscow with Defense Minister Grechko and General Yakubovsky. He thought it was difficult to see any signs that the Russians are stopping their missile build-up.

The President said that there were 67 ABM launchers now around Moscow; “our intelligence is hard on this.” For a while their deployment activity was stopped, but the R&D work evidently continued. What we are seeing now is deployment of a second generation ABM. We are therefore presented with the question, should the United States leave this field to the Russians and do nothing? Nevertheless we will periodically review not only the intelligence about the threat, but also the technological “state of the art”.

Joseph Luns (Netherlands Foreign Minister) said he was especially struck by the President’s emphasis on closure of the strategic nuclear gap. Public opinion in all our countries, he thought, believes the United States has enormous superiority. He recognized that the President was giving this information in private. But it would be advisable to make publicly clear that the gap is no longer so wide.

The President said that if we were weaker than the Soviets, we certainly should not say so. We are of course still ahead in submarines and bombers; in ICBMs, the gap is closed. But we also don’t want to say to the USSR that we are much stronger than they, for that would force them to do more. It is important to say this carefully: we are not behind, but the gap is closing.

Secretary Laird added that defense planners must take into account not only the situation today, but the prospect several years from now, when decisions taken (or not taken) result in changes in the weapons balance.

Luns said he assumed from this exchange that NATO should “cautiously encourage the United States not to fall behind.” The President said if NATO nations believe in the US deterrent, they would best “subtly tell us to maintain it.”

Pietro Nenni (Italian Foreign Minister), in a discursive statement, recommended more “bloc negotiations” between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. We are interested very directly in defense, he said. But there is in European public opinion a great urge for peace. And because of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Europeans believe the super-powers have engaged themselves to seek the control of nuclear arms. He said he was glad to find this was a US preoccupation too.

Panayiotis Pipinelis (Greek Foreign Minister) thanked the President for providing a better understanding of the issues he had dis [Page 55] cussed. Pipinelis said it came out clearly that defense, like peace, is indivisible. The more we consolidate the nuclear balance of power, the more we make conventional war more likely. Despite the President’s emphasis on nuclear defense in his remarks today, Pipinelis said he was sure that the President does not put conventional weapons in a secondary role. The Greeks want an increased defense effort. They view the Mediterranean as “of paramount importance,” and they naturally need more help in doing their part of the defense job.

Michel Debré (French Foreign Minister) said Europeans will understand and do not question the analysis as set forth by the President; and they appreciate the effort the US is making. Nevertheless the topic worries Europeans. What bothered him, Debré said, is that the nuclear balance is viewed essentially as a question of assuring US security. The need for the US deterrent is unquestionable and not in question (“indiscutable et indiscuté”), but in the US security plans, what part is played by the need for European security? Here there is an impressive imbalance (“déséquilibre éclatant”). There seems more opportunity for blackmail since European security is not covered by the US measures the President had discussed. The security of US territory is one element, but not the whole of the picture.

Leo Cadieux (Canadian Minister of Defense) asked why Alaska was not protected in the Safeguard program. Was there some “political reason”?

The President said there was no political reason not to protect Alaska, and that Alaska was in fact part of the overall plan for ABM deployment at a later stage. Secretary Laird explained that the special protection for the two Minutemen sites would constitute a “thick” protection of 30% of the Minutemen.

The President, reacting to Debré’s comment, said that in defending Minutemen sites we think we are helping the whole NATO Alliance. Perhaps if we would defend our cities, we would have pressure from our allies to provide a city defense in their countries as well. But we have not done this, for them or for us. We believe the area defense against an unsophisticated attack is adequate. The United States can thus prevent blackmail. If the Chinese forces were to attack Canada or Japan or Australia we could knock out the Chinese forces with our offensive capability.

Addressing himself to Nenni’s comment, the President said our defensive efforts are a “posture for peace;” he regards the Secretary of Defense as a Secretary for Peace just as the Secretary of State is a Secretary for Peace. The Warsaw Pact should not be allowed to appear to have any monopoly on being for peace. If necessary we will play the propaganda game (of verbal declarations), but we will also go for sub [Page 56] stantive negotiations if possible. It was important to maintain initiative at the propaganda level.

On the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the President commented that we hoped our ratification could be timed to coincide with Soviet ratification. Secretary Rogers said we had not yet heard from the Soviets on our proposal to this effect.

Referring to the question of the strategic nuclear deterrent, the President said there is some advantage in a balance, but it is important that the conventional option be there. As we approach talks with the Soviets, it is important that the United States go into them with the ABM chip on the table, and at the same time, it is important that it be quite clear to the Soviets that NATO is not going to disintegrate.

The President said he was very sympathetic to the political urge for peace. We live in a dangerous time, and history will tell whether we have the political skill to survive. As he sees what the Soviet Union has done, the President considered that we are at a watershed: there is a chance to talk, to lessen tension; but some reciprocal action is required. The American people would like nothing better than to “sit on their deterrence,” to spend our money on our cities, to retreat into fortress America. Knowing the facts we do know, we have to make the right decisions, and stand up for them, and explain them carefully. Our dual object is defense and negotiation. We have to maintain the defense because that is the way the world is—because without US efforts today, the rest of the world would be living in terror.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 1321, Unfiled Material. Secret; Exdis. Cleveland transmitted the memorandum, which he derived from his notes, to Kissinger on April 22. (Ibid.) According to the President’s Daily Diary, the meeting lasted from 9:58 to 11:28 a.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files) The President also delivered a formal address to the ceremonial session of the NAC Ministerial meeting on April 10. The text of the address is in Public Papers: Nixon, 1969, pp. 272–276.
  2. Warsaw Pact leaders, meeting in Budapest, issued an appeal for a European security conference on March 17. See Documents on Disarmament, 1969, pp. 106–109.