101. Editorial Note

On May 13, 1982, President Ronald Reagan began his 8 p.m. news conference, held in the East Room of the White House, by reading a statement on arms control: “Four times in my life, I have seen America plunged into war—twice as part of tragic global conflicts that cost the lives of millions. Living through that experience has convinced me that America’s highest mission is to stand as a leader among the free nations in the cause of peace. And that’s why, hand in hand with our efforts to restore a credible national defense, my administration has been actively working for a reduction in nuclear and conventional forces that can help free the world from the threat of destruction.

“In Geneva, the United States is now negotiating with the Soviet Union on a proposal I set forward last fall to reduce drastically the level of nuclear armament in Europe. In Vienna, we and our NATO allies are negotiating with the Warsaw Pact over ways to reduce conventional forces in Europe.

“Last Sunday [May 9], I proposed a far-reaching approach to nuclear arms control—a phased reduction in strategic weapons beginning with those that are most dangerous and destabilizing, the warheads on ballistic missiles and especially those on intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“Today the United States and the Soviet Union each have about 7,500 nuclear warheads poised on missiles that can reach their targets in a matter of minutes. In the first phase of negotiations, we want to focus on lessening this imminent threat. We seek to reduce the number of ballistic missile warheads to about 5,000—one-third less than today’s levels—limit the number of warheads on land-based missiles to half that number, and cut the total number of all ballistic missiles to an equal level—about one-half that of the current U.S. level.

“In the second phase, we’ll seek reductions to equal levels of throwweight, a critical indicator of overall destructive potential of missiles. To be acceptable, a new arms agreement with the Soviets must be balanced, equal, and verifiable. And most important, it must increase stability and the prospects of peace.

“I have already written President Brezhnev and instructed Secretary Haig to approach the Soviet Government so that we can begin formal negotiations on the reduction of strategic nuclear arms—the START talks—at the earliest opportunity. And we hope that these negotiations can begin by the end of June and hope to hear from President Brezhnev in the near future.

“Reaching an agreement with the Soviets will not be short or easy work. We know that from the past. But I believe that the Soviet people [Page 371] and their leaders understand the importance of preventing war. And I believe that a firm, forthright American position on arms reductions can bring us closer to a settlement.

“Tonight, I want to renew my pledge to the American people and to the people of the world that the United States will do everything we can to bring such an agreement about.

“And now I guess it’s time for us to return to the conventional skirmishing, the question time.”

After fielding a question about unemployment, the President called on Helen Thomas of United Press International. Thomas asked: “Mr. President, if wiping out the nuclear threat is so important to the world, why do you choose to ignore 7 long years of negotiation, in which two Republican Presidents played a part? I speak of SALT II. We abide by the terms the Soviet Union does. Why not push for a ratification of that treaty as a first step, then go on to START? After all, a bird in hand.”

Reagan responded: “Because, Helen, this bird isn’t a very friendly bird. I remind you that a Democratic-controlled Senate refused to ratify it. And the reason for refusing to ratify, I think, is something we can’t—”

After an unidentified person said: “[Inaudible] —Republican Senate now,” Reagan continued: “Well, but we can’t ignore that, the reason why it was refused ratification. SALT stands for strategic arms limitation. And the limitation in that agreement would allow in the life of the treaty for the Soviet Union to just about double their present nuclear capability. It would allow—and does allow—us to increase ours. In other words, it simply legitimizes an arms race.

“Now, the parts that we’re observing of that have to do with the monitoring of each other’s weaponry, and so both aides are doing that. What we’re striving for is to reduce the power, the number, and particularly those destabilizing missiles that can be touched off by the push of a button—to reduce the number of those. And there just is no ratio between that and what SALT was attempting to do. I think SALT was the wrong course to follow.” (Public Papers: Reagan, 1982, Book II, pages 618 and 619; brackets in the original)

The news conference was broadcast live on radio and television. For the complete text of the news conference, see ibid., pages 618–626. It is also printed in Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, May 17, 1982, vol. 18, no. 19, pages 634–642. In his personal diary entry for May 13, the President wrote: “Held 8 P.M. press conference. The Lord watched over me. I knew it was a good one. Even the press had good things to say about it.” (Brinkley, ed., The Reagan Diaries, volume I, January 1981–October 1985, page 131)