105. Editorial Note
On December 15, 1978, following his address to the nation regarding the normalization of relations with China (see Document 104), President Jimmy Carter spoke to reporters assembled in the White House Briefing Room. The President began his remarks by underscoring the historical importance of the announcement:
“It’s something that I and my two predecessors have sought avidly. We have maintained our own United States position firmly, and only since the last few weeks has there been an increasing demonstration to us that Premier Hua and Vice Premier Teng have been ready to normalize relations. I think the interests of Taiwan have been adequately protected. One of the briefers will explain the details to you.”
The President then noted that he had spoken with Japanese Prime Minister Ohira and that the administration had also notified Taiwanese leaders and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. He continued:
“My own assessment is that this will be well received in almost every nation of the world, perhaps all of them, because it will add to stability. And the Soviets and others know full well, because of our own private explanations to them, not just recently but in months gone by, that we have no desire whatsoever to use our new relationships with China to the disadvantage of the Soviets or anyone else. We believe this will enhance stability and not cause instability in Asia and the rest of the world.
“I’m very pleased with it. And I obviously have to give a major part of the credit to President Nixon and to President Ford, who laid the groundwork for this successful negotiation. And most of the premises that were spelled out in the Shanghai Communiqué 6 years ago or more have been implemented now.[Page 508]
“You can tell that I’m pleased, and I know that the world is waiting for your accurate explanation of the results.”
The President replied to one question about the reaction of the congressional leadership to the announcement before indicating that he would answer one additional question. Answering a question about the Taiwanese response, the President commented:
“I doubt if there will be massive applause in Taiwan, but we are going to do everything we can to assure the Taiwanese that we put at top—as one of the top priorities in our own relationships with the People’s Republic and them—that the well-being of the people of Taiwan will not be damaged.
“To answer the other question, I don’t think this will have any adverse effect at all on the SALT negotiations as an independent matter. And I think that the Soviets, as I said earlier, have been expecting this development. They were not surprised, and we have kept them informed recently. Their reaction has not been adverse, and we will proceed aggressively as we have in recent months, in fact throughout my own administration, to conclude a successful SALT agreement.” (Public Papers: Carter, 1978, Book II, pages 2267–2268)
On December 19, at 4:30 p.m., the President participated in a taped interview for broadcast on the CBS television network. CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite conducted the interview from the CBS studios in New York; the President was in the Map Room at the White House. Cronkite began the interview by noting that the United States had not received any commitment from the government in Beijing that it would not “use force to take Taiwan.” He asked the President if the current, or a subsequent, government in China attempted reunification, would the United States deploy force to help the Taiwanese resist. Carter responded:
“In the first place, the People’s Republic of China does not have the capability of launching a 120-mile attack across the ocean against Taiwan, who are heavily fortified and also heavily armed. And we have made it clear to the People’s Republic that after this year, when the treaty does expire, this coming year, that we will sell to Taiwan defensive weapons.
“I think it is accurate to say also, Walter, that the major interest that the People’s Republic of China has in the Western Pacific is peace and good relationships with us. They know our firm expectations, clearly expressed to them, that the differences between China and Taiwan will be settled peacefully. And I think to violate that understanding with us would be to wipe out all the benefits to them and to Asia of peace and their new relationship with us.
“We have, obviously, a desire and a commitment to maintain peace in the Western Pacific. And as would be the case with an alterca[Page 509]tion between any two peoples, we would certainly be deeply concerned. But I don’t want to speculate on under what circumstances we might take military action because I think it’s an absolutely unnecessary speculation, because the people of China want peace, they want good relationships with us, and because Taiwan is so strong and will stay strong.”
Cronkite then asked the President several questions about the Soviet response to the decision, the upcoming visits of Chinese officials, and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) before addressing reactions some members of Congress had concerning the announcement:
“Mr. Cronkite. Mr. President, some Members of Congress, including Democrats and some liberal Republicans, are claiming that you failed to live up to an administration pledge to consult with Congress before taking any such action as you have toward Taiwan and Peking. And now, there’s a threat of a court challenge to the constitutionality of your cancelling the treaty without congressional approval. How seriously do you view this? Do you feel that either Congress or the courts could block this arrangement with both Taiwan and Peking?
“The President. No. My constitutional responsibility in establishing relationships with foreign countries is clear and cannot be successfully challenged in court.
“We have had constant consultations with the Congress over the past 2 years. And our goal in establishing normal relations with China has been made clear on numerous occasions by me personally. When Secretary Vance went to China and came back, he gave the Congress leaders and Members a thorough briefing. Dr. Brzezinski did the same thing after his visit to China. I have met with all the Members of Congress who would come to sessions here at the White House.
“One of the deliberate items on my own agenda in explaining to them and answering their questions was about the terms under which we would normalize relationships with China. I might add that when numerous delegations of congressional leaders have gone to the People’s Republic and come back, they have also given me and Secretary of State Vance their views on what ought to be done. Almost invariably their recommendation was to proceed expeditiously with normalization of relations with China.
“So, there’s been a clear understanding, really ever since 1972, of the policy of our Government toward China, a desire to normalize relations, and also a clear expression of my views both publicly and privately to the Members of Congress about our goals and the plans for accomplishing this goal.
“I might say in complete candor that in the last 2 or 3 weeks, when the negotiations were building up to a climax in an unanticipated degree of rapidity of movement, we did not consult with anyone outside [Page 510] of a very tiny group within the executive branch of Government about the prospective success. But what did happen should not be a surprise to anyone. The congressional views were well known to me. My views were well known to the Members of Congress.
“Mr. Cronkite. Mr. President, what was the need for such haste? Why could you not have consulted with the congressional leaders first, before making the final commitment?
“The President. Well, Walter, my experience in negotiating sensitive and complicated agreements with foreign leaders, including the experience at Camp David and otherwise, is that to negotiate through the news media, through public pronouncements and with wide divergencies of views expressed by different leaders in a country, is not conducive to success. And I’m authorized and directed by the Constitution and my responsibility is to conduct negotiations of this kind.
“We did not depart from the established policy of our country that’s been extant since President Nixon went to China in 1972. And I think had we caused a public debate in our country about all the ramifications of the negotiations at the very time we were trying to conclude these discussions with the Chinese, it would have resulted in failure. And our country would have lost a wonderful opportunity to a great stride forward and all the benefits that will be derived from this agreement.
“So, I don’t have any doubt that what I did was right and correct. I don’t have any doubts that had we made a public issue of it, it would have complicated the issue unnecessarily.”
Cronkite followed Carter’s answer with a question regarding the U.S.–Taiwan Defense Treaty, before concluding the interview with a question related to the Senate’s confirmation of the SALT II treaty:
“Mr. Cronkite. Do you think that putting the Chinese question on the agenda of the next session of Congress might complicate the confirmation of a SALT treaty?
“The President. No, I think not. What we will ask the Congress to do next session is to pass special legislation to permit us to continue our cultural relations with Taiwan, our trade relations with Taiwan, the application of the Eximbank, and the support of loans to China—to the people of Taiwan, rather, and also to authorize us to sell weapons to Taiwan after the defense treaty expires.
“So, I think that even those who oppose the normalization of relations with China will favor the continued relationships with Taiwan, which this legislation will have to authorize. So, I don’t think this will complicate the other issues in Congress. They’re almost as complicated as they can get anyhow. I don’t think this will hurt at all.” (Ibid., pages 2275–2279)