129. Address by President Carter to the Nation1

Peace and National Security

Good evening.

I want to talk with you about the subject that is my highest concern, as it has been for every President. That subject is peace and the security of the United States.

We are at peace tonight, as we have been at peace throughout the time of my service in this office. The peace we enjoy is the peace of the strong. Our national defenses are unsurpassed in the world. Those defenses are stronger tonight than they were 2 years ago, and they will be stronger 2 years from now than they are tonight, because of carefully planned improvements that are going forward with your support and with the support of the Congress.

Our program for modernizing and strengthening the military forces of the NATO Alliance is on track, with the full cooperation and participation of our European Allies. Our strategic nuclear forces are powerful enough to destroy any potential adversary many times over, and the invulnerability of those forces will soon be further assured by a new system of powerful mobile missiles. These systems are designed for stability and defense.

Beyond these military defenses, we are on the threshold of a great advance in the control of nuclear weapons—the adoption of the second strategic arms limitation treaty, SALT II.

This evening, I also want to report to you about the highly publicized Soviet brigade in Cuba and about its bearing on the important relationship between our Nation and the Soviet Union.

This is not a simple or easy subject. The United States and the Soviet Union are the two most powerful nations on Earth, and the rela[Page 658]tionship between us is complex because it involves strong elements of both competition and cooperation.

Our fundamental philosophies conflict; quite often, our national interests conflict as well. As two great nations, we do have common interests and we share an overwhelming mutual concern in preventing a nuclear war. We must recognize therefore that nuclear arms control agreements are vital to both our countries and that we must also exercise self-restraint in our relations and be sensitive to each other’s concerns.

Recently, we obtained evidence that a Soviet combat brigade has been in Cuba for several years.2 The presence of Soviet combat troops in Cuba is of serious concern to us.

I want to reassure you at the outset that we do not face any immediate, concrete threat that could escalate into war or a major confrontation—but we do face a challenge. It is a challenge to our wisdom—a challenge to our ability to act in a firm, decisive way without destroying the basis for cooperation that helps to maintain world peace and control nuclear weapons. It’s a challenge to our determination to give a measured and effective response to Soviet competition and to Cuban military activities around the world.

Now, let me explain the specific problem of the Soviet brigade and describe the more general problem of Soviet-Cuban military activism in the Third World.

Here is the background on Soviet forces in Cuba: As most of you know, 17 years ago in the era of the cold war, the Soviet Union suddenly attempted to introduce offensive nuclear missiles and bombers into Cuba. This direct threat to the United States ended with the Soviet agreement to withdraw those nuclear weapons and a commitment not to introduce offensive weapons into Cuba thereafter.3

At the time of that 1962 missile crisis, there were more than 20,000 Soviet military personnel in Cuba. Most of them were withdrawn, and we monitored their departure. It was believed that those who stayed behind were not combat forces, but were there to advise and train Cubans and to perform intelligence functions.

Just recently, American intelligence obtained persuasive evidence that some of these Soviet forces had been organized into a combat unit. When attention was then focused on a careful review of past intelligence data, it was possible for our experts to conclude that this unit had [Page 659] existed for several years, probably since the mid-1970’s, and possibly even longer.

This unit appears to be a brigade of two or three thousand men. It is armed with about 40 tanks and other modern military equipment. It’s been organized as a combat unit. Its training exercises have been those of a combat unit.

This is not a large force, nor an assault force. It presents no direct threat to us. It has no airborne or seaborne capability. In contrast to the 1962 crisis, no nuclear threat to the United States is involved.

Nevertheless, this Soviet brigade in Cuba is a serious matter. It contributes to tension in the Caribbean and the Central American region. The delivery of modern arms to Cuba and the presence of Soviet naval forces in Cuban waters have strengthened the Soviet-Cuban military relationship. They’ve added to the fears of some countries that they may come under Soviet or Cuban pressure.

During the last few years, the Soviets have been increasing the delivery of military supplies to Cuba. The result is that Cuba now has one of the largest, best equipped armed forces in this region. These military forces are used to intrude into other countries in Africa and the Middle East.

There’s a special relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union. The Cubans get their weapons free; other Soviet satellite countries have to pay for their military supplies.

The Communist regime in Cuba is an economic failure that cannot sustain itself. The Soviet Union must send to Cuba about $8 million in economic aid every day.

Fidel Castro does not pay money for Soviet arms; the Cuban people pay a much higher price. In every international dispute, on every international issue, the Cuban regime automatically follows the Soviet line.

The Soviet brigade is a manifestation of Moscow’s dominance of Cuba. It raises the level of that dominance, and it raises the level of responsibility that the Soviet Union must take for escalating Cuban military actions abroad.

Now, I want to report further on what we are doing to resolve these problems and to counter these activities.

Over the past 3 weeks, we’ve discussed this issue at great length with top Soviet officials.4 We’ve made it clear that the presence of a Soviet combat unit in Cuba is a matter of serious concern to us.

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The Soviet Union does not admit that the unit in question is a combat unit. However, the Soviets have made certain statements to us with respect to our concern: that the unit in question is a training center, that it does nothing more than training and can do nothing more; that they will not change its function or status as a training center. We understand this to mean that they do not intend to enlarge the unit or to give it additional capabilities.

They have said that the Soviet personnel in Cuba are not and will not be a threat to the United States or to any other nation; that they reaffirm the 1962 understanding and the mutually agreed upon confirmation in 19705 and will abide by it in the future. We, for our part, reconfirm this understanding.

These assurances have been given to me from the highest level of the Soviet Government.

Although we have persuasive evidence that the unit has been a combat brigade, the Soviet statements about the future noncombat status of the unit are significant. However, we shall not rest on these Soviet statements alone.

First, we will monitor the status of the Soviet forces by increased surveillance of Cuba.

Second, we will assure that no Soviet unit in Cuba can be used as a combat force to threaten the security of the United States or any other nation in this hemisphere. Those nations can be confident that the United States will act in response to a request for assistance to meet any such threat from Soviet or Cuban forces.

This policy is consistent with our responsibilities as a member of the Organization of American States and a party to the Rio Treaty.6 It’s a reaffirmation in new circumstances of John F. Kennedy’s declaration in 1963 “that we would not permit any troops from Cuba to move off the island of Cuba in an offensive action against any neighboring countries.”7

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Third, I’m establishing a permanent, full-time Caribbean joint task force headquarters at Key West, Florida. I will assign to this headquarters, forces from all the military services responsible for expanded planning and for conducting exercises. This headquarters unit will employ designated forces for action if required. This will substantially improve our capability to monitor and to respond rapidly to any attempted military encroachment in this region.

Fourth, we will expand military maneuvers in the region. We will conduct these exercises regularly from now on. In accordance with existing treaty rights, the United States will, of course, keep our forces in Guantanamo.

Fifth, we will increase our economic assistance to alleviate the unmet economic and human needs in the Caribbean region and further to ensure the ability of troubled peoples to resist social turmoil and possible Communist domination.

The United States has a worldwide interest in peace and stability. Accordingly, I have directed the Secretary of Defense to further enhance the capacity of our rapid deployment forces to protect our own interests and to act in response to requests for help from our allies and friends. We must be able to move our ground, sea, and air units to distant areas, rapidly and with adequate supplies.

We have reinforced our naval presence in the Indian Ocean.

We are enhancing our intelligence capability in order to monitor Soviet and Cuban military activities—both in Cuba and throughout the world. We will increase our efforts to guard against damage to our crucial intelligence sources and our methods of collection, without impairing civil and constitutional rights.8

These steps reflect my determination to preserve peace, to strengthen our alliances, and to defend the interests of the United States. In developing them, I’ve consulted not only with my own advisers but with congressional leaders and with a bipartisan group of distinguished American citizens as well.9 The decisions are my own, [Page 662] and I take full responsibility for them as President and as Commander in Chief.

I have concluded that the brigade issue is certainly no reason for a return to the cold war. A confrontation might be emotionally satisfying for a few days or weeks for some people, but it would be destructive to the national interest and to the security of the United States.

We must continue the basic policy that the United States has followed for 20 years, under six administrations of both parties, a policy that recognizes that we are in competition with the Soviet Union in some fields and that we seek cooperation in others—notably maintaining the peace and controlling nuclear arms.

My fellow Americans, the greatest danger to American security tonight is certainly not the two or three thousand Soviet troops in Cuba. The greatest danger to all the nations of the world—including the United States and the Soviet Union—is the breakdown of a common effort to preserve the peace and the ultimate threat of a nuclear war.

I renew my call to the Senate of the United States to ratify the SALT II treaty.

SALT II is a solid treaty. Ensuring compliance with its terms will not be a matter of trust. We have highly sophisticated, national technical means, carefully focused on the Soviet Union, to ensure that the treaty is verifiable.

This treaty is the most important step ever taken to control strategic nuclear arms. It permits us to strengthen our defense and to preserve the strategic balance at lower risk and lower cost. During the past few years, we have made real increases in our defense expenditures to fulfill the goals of our 5-year defense plan. With SALT II, we can concentrate these increases in areas where our interests are most threatened and where direct military challenge is most likely.

The rejection of SALT would seriously compromise our Nation’s peace and security.

Of course we have disagreements with the Soviets. Of course we have conflicts with them. If we did not have these disagreements and conflicts, we would not need a treaty to reduce the possibility of nuclear war between us.

If SALT II is rejected, these disagreements and conflicts could take on a new and ominous dimension. Against the background of an uncontrolled nuclear arms race, every confrontation or dispute would carry the seeds of a nuclear confrontation.

In addition, SALT II is crucial to American leadership and to the further strengthening of the Western Alliance. Obviously, a secure Europe is vital to our own security. The leaders of our European Allies support SALT II—unanimously. We’ve talked to a number of those [Page 663] leaders in the last few days. I must tell you tonight that if the Senate fails to approve the SALT treaty, these leaders and their countries would be confused and deeply alarmed. If our allies should lose confidence in our ability to negotiate successfully for the control of nuclear weapons, then our effort to build a stronger and more united NATO could fail.

I know that for Members of Congress this is a troubling and a difficult issue, in a troubling and difficult time. But the Senate has a tradition of being the greatest deliberative body in the world, and the whole world is watching the Senate today. I’m confident that all Senators will perform their high responsibilities as the national interest requires.

Politics and nuclear arsenals do not mix. We must not play politics with the security of the United States. We must not play politics with the survival of the human race. We must not play politics with SALT II. It is much too important for that—too vital to our country, to our allies, and to the cause of peace.

The purpose of the SALT II treaty and the purpose of my actions in dealing with Soviet and Cuban military relationship are exactly the same—to keep our Nation secure and to maintain a world at peace.

As a powerful nation, as a super power, we have special responsibilities to maintain stability even when there are serious disagreements among nations.

We’ve had fundamental differences with the Soviet Union since 1917. I have no illusions about these differences. The best way to deal with them successfully is to maintain American unity, American will, and American strength. That is what I am determined to do.

The struggle for peace—the long, hard struggle to make weapons of mass destruction under control of human reason and human law—is a central drama of our age.

At another time of challenge in our Nation’s history, President Abraham Lincoln told the American people: “We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”10

We acted wisely then and preserved the Nation. Let us act wisely now and preserve the world.

  1. Source: Public Papers: Carter, 1979, Book II, pp. 1802–1806. The President delivered his address at 9 p.m. from the Oval Office at the White House. The address was broadcast live on radio and television. The Department transmitted the text of the speech to all diplomatic and consular posts in telegram 258451, October 2. (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D790451–0362) Brzezinski recalled that the President had directed him to begin preparing the speech in mid-September, “and I did so with special emphasis on the wider character of Soviet activities in the Third World, stressing that these were not compatible with a stable detente.” (Power and Principle, p. 350) In his diary entry for the weekend of September 29–30, the President recounted: “Because the issues were so profoundly complicated—ourselves, Cuba, the Soviets, SALT, Congress, politics—this has been the most laborious speech preparation of my life.” After the address, he offered the following assessment: “The speech went over well, and the general result was exactly what we wanted: to defuse the Soviet troop issue and let the nation realize the importance of SALT. It was a quiet but good birthday.” (White House Diary, p. 358)
  2. See Document 125.
  3. See Foreign Relations, 1961–1963, vol. XI, Cuban Missile Crisis and Aftermath, Documents 84, 91, 95, 99, and 102.
  4. For documentation on the oral and written exchanges, see Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. VI, Soviet Union, Documents 219, 221224, and 226228.
  5. See Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XII, Soviet Union, January 1969–October 1970, Documents 224, 226, and 228.
  6. The 1947 Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, commonly known as the Rio Treaty, committed its signatories to providing assistance to meet armed attacks.
  7. Kennedy addressed the American Society of Newspaper Editors and took part in a question-and-answer session at the Washington Statler Hilton Hotel on April 19, 1963. In response to a statement made by a reporter that the American public felt that the administration’s policy toward Cuba was one of “inaction,” Kennedy indicated that the United States had “taken a good many actions” to contain Communism in the Western Hemisphere. After outlining several of these actions, he noted: “In addition, the United States maintains a constant surveillance. We have indicated that we would not permit any troops from Cuba to move off the island of Cuba in any offensive action against any neighboring country. We have indicated also that we would not accept a Hungary in Cuba, the use of Soviet troops against Cubans if there was any internal reaction against Castro. In many ways we have attempted to isolate Cuba and to indicate our determination to continue that policy until Cuba is free.” (Public Papers: Kennedy, 1963, p. 329)
  8. See Foreign Relations, 1977–1980, vol. VI, Soviet Union, Document 225.
  9. Clifford had organized a group of seven former high-ranking officials, constituted as the Citizens Advisory Committee on Cuba, in order to provide the administration with advice concerning the U.S. response to the Soviet brigade and suggestions for the President’s speech. In addition to Clifford, the group included McCloy, Bundy, Linowitz, Packard, McCone, and Scowcroft. Clifford then expanded the group to 16 members, adding Rusk, Rogers, Kissinger, Ball, Gilpatric, Harriman, Schlesinger, Katzenbach, and Scranton. On September 29, the President hosted a White House luncheon and received recommendations from the group, with the exception of Scranton, who did not attend. (Bernard Gwertzman, “President Gets Wide-Ranging Advice on Soviet Troops From 15 Experts,” The New York Times, September 30, 1979, p. A–3)
  10. Reference is to Lincoln’s December 1, 1862, message to Congress on the State of the Union.