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90. Memorandum of Conversation1

SUBJECT

  • Anti-ballistic Missiles

PARTICIPANTS

  • United States
  • The President
  • The Secretary
  • Ambassador Mosbacher
  • Ambassador Linder
  • Mr. Kissinger
  • Mr. Hillenbrand
  • Mr. Scott
  • Mr. Sonnenfeldt
  • Mr. Carson (reporter)
  • Canada
  • The Prime Minister
  • Minister Sharp
  • Ambassador Ritchie
  • Mr. Robertson
  • Mr. Cadieux
  • Mr. Warren
  • Mr. Howland
  • Mr. Lalonde
  • Mr. Langley
  • Mr. Crowe
  • Mr. LeBlanc
  • Mr. Head
  • Mr. Vennat

In response to the Prime Minister’s inquiry about the ABM program, the President suggested it would be useful for Mr. Packard of the Defense Department to give the Prime Minister a full briefing during his visit to Washington.2 A comprehensive presentation of the problem would require no more than an hour. It would show precisely what the safeguard system would accomplish.

In view of its defensive character, the Prime Minister thought the system could not be considered provocative. The President agreed. It had no relationship to a first strike capability. Furthermore, not even the original Sentinel system would have been effective against a massive attack from the Soviet Union, one of the world’s two major nuclear powers.

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What the safeguard program would do, the President continued, was protect our second strike capability, particularly the Minuteman missiles that were the core of it. The Minuteman sites had become increasingly vulnerable in view of the progress made by the Soviet Union in perfecting the accuracy of the SS9. Obviously, in these circumstances, the United States had to maintain the credibility of its second strike capability.

At the same time, safeguard would provide area defense against attack by a non-major nuclear power such as China. If area defense was irrelevant vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, it was nevertheless credible against the Chinese. As an aside, the President added that the Soviets had recently redirected their detector radar to cover both the United States and China.

The President observed that General Eisenhower and the Prime Minister had asked him the same question about ABM’s: would the system work? The Soviet Union already had 65 to 70 anti-ballistic missile sites deployed; they apparently believe an ABM system is feasible. In our case, we had to ask the experts. Our scientists thought that—given the limited purposes of the program—it was technically feasible.

The Secretary said he was convinced that the President’s decision on ABM’s was sound. Abstract research could carry us only so far. If we had not taken the limited step the President had ordered, we might soon find ourselves out of the missile defense business. Obviously, we would then be in a terrible position if the Soviets developed an effective missile defense. The President’s decision was the minimum one necessary to keep us in the field. And we had to go ahead now. A delay of six months in making a decision might cost two years delay in actual deployment.

Furthermore, we know the system will work, the Secretary concluded. Except for the nuclear warheads, it had already been tested.

The President noted there was another aspect to the revision of the proposed Sentinel system. If we had gone ahead—at enormous cost—with protection for our own cities, our Canadian and European allies might well have wondered if the United States was only providing for its own defense.

It was agreed that Mr. Packard would brief the Prime Minister on technical aspects of the safeguard system during the meeting with members of the Cabinet March 25. The Prime Minister expressed his appreciation for the briefing, noting that it would be politically important to the Canadians to say on their return to Canada that they had discussed ABM’s in detail during their visit to Washington.

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The conversation then turned to a discussion of the effect of safeguard on strategic arms limitation talks with the Soviet Union.3

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 670, Country Files—Europe, Canada, Vol. I. Secret. Drafted by J.L. Carson (EUR/CAN). The meeting took place in the White House. A note on the first page reads, “Part two of five.” Memoranda of other portions of the conversation dealing with security issues are ibid. Also see Document 91. Trudeau visited Washington March 24–25. For texts of public statements by the President and Prime Minister, see Public Papers: Nixon, 1969, pp. 237–238 and 239–243.
  2. The briefing took place at 4 p.m. A memorandum of conversation is in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 670, Country Files—Europe, Canada, Vol. I.
  3. Trudeau returned to the issue of the ABM system during a March 25 discussion with Rogers and Laird and, noting that much of the projected interception would take place over Canada, requested that the United States consult with Canada regarding the location of launch sites. Laird reassured Trudeau that the impact of high atmospheric explosions on the earth would be limited. (Ibid.)