129. Memorandum From Robert Sims of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Clark)1


  • Post-midterm Public Affairs Strategy

Which policy issues will attract prime public attention in the coming year, and what courses of action are most likely to produce the kind of public support we want? Few issues have staying power with the public. By taking actions on those issues to gain and maintain public confidence, we multiply support, generating spill-over ability to get things done in important areas not constantly on the public agenda.

Policymakers usually prefer to identify their principal areas of concern, select the most desirable policy options on the basis of merit, and then seek to generate public support for the chosen options. I am suggesting, instead, that we identify prime items of public interest, select policy options that are consistent with our goals, but select options that are more achievable because we can gain public support.

The six basic goals of the Reagan Administration in national security matters provide a conceptual framework for observations about public affairs strategy:

To reverse the decline of the United States and restore economic and military strength.

We have done well in reversing the military trends. With continued commitment to the defense budget, this reversal can be maintained. But, lack of economic growth threatens achievement of this goal. The [Page 501] economy is currently the most salient public issue in America. Defense spending is being made a scapegoat for our economic problems—not only by those who are anti-defense, but also by some who should be supporting the President. Defense expenditures are not the cause of our economic problems, and we should not allow that suggestion to go unchallenged.

On the other hand, the past few months have seen a disenchantment with defense programs and leadership. Critics who said two years ago that the Administration had no defense strategy except to throw money at the problem are still saying that. Now, though, even the Wall Street Journal is adopting the same theme.2 Complaints about Defense management, including a number directed personally at Secretary Weinberger, have been regular media fare. The perception that something is wrong at Defense, and that by fixing it (i.e., cutting the defense budget) we can solve the nation’s economic problems, jeopardizes achievement of our goal of rearming America.

In media-like simplification, White House choices seem to be: (a) voluntarily reduce defense spending, (b) ask Congress to continue defense spending at present levels, and passively leave it to Congress to cut defense, (c) continue at present spending levels, and vigorously support the defense budget.

The public does not want defense cut. There may be concern about how many is being spent, but the public supports the concept of a strong America. Thus, voluntary defense cuts would, in the end, result in loss of public support. Likewise, a passive White House that submits the Defense Department’s budget and steps back from it, inviting Congress to cut it, foregoes its leadership role. The public will catch on fast, and the Presidency will be weakened. Conversely, vigorous presentation on a well-scrubbed defense program that continues the strengthening of America makes sense. However, we could benefit from public awareness of serious White House attention to defense management.

The M–X portion of the defense budget is crucial. At the time of the President’s November 1982 M–X decision,3 it appeared that we had an outside chance to win in Congress, if the entire Administration got [Page 502] behind it. Administration support was not all-out. We failed.4 It was a mistake to underestimate the public affairs component of the decision, and we should not repeat the mistake this spring. As of now, dense pack had almost zero public support.5 To gain production approval, we should go back to Congress with something other than an unaltered dense pack basing mode.

In summary, continued progress toward this goal—reversing the military balance—will be affected by our public handling of the defense budget, defense management, and M–X. This analysis suggests that the White House continue strong support of the defense budget, do its best in some dramatic way to reverse the current media perception that we have poor management at Defense, and find a way to finesse the M–X issue.

To establish a stable basis for US relations with the Soviet Union based on reciprocity and restraint.
To undertake a vigorous program of arms control.

Enormous progress has been made toward these two goals, and they have become intertwined as public issues. New leadership in the Soviet Union has moved our relations with that country up a notch on the public agenda. We now see keen media interest in relatively minor developments, such as the Andropov reference to his interest in a summit.6 Several areas of US–USSR policy, like East-West trade and the Polish situation, will continue to attract public attention, but barring significant developments, the crucial issues that involve highly visible [Page 503] choices for the for the White House in the near term are arms control and summitry.

We have elevated the arms control talks to such a level of media consciousness that unless we reach some agreement this year, our policy will be perceived as ether inept or insincere. The zero-zero position on INF has current public support here and in Europe. However, we should not be deluded into thinking it likely that the NATO countries can or will stick with us on zero-zero through the deployment of Pershing II. This is also a dynamite US domestic issue, with nuclear freeze complications. Our historic experience tells us that the Soviets would consider reciprocity on our part a sign of weakness, but this is not widely understood by the public.

One apparent choice in INF is for us to make a new proposal soon after the German elections.7 Another option is to stick with zero-zero, try to hold the Alliance together, and withstand criticism in the US.

The policy option likely to gain support from publics here and overseas would be a new INF proposal this spring or summer. Intransigence may be a good negotiating tactic, but an unbending policy will eventually cost public support. The Soviets now have the public affairs initiative. We are on the defensive. We need to regain the initiative. We can coast along in START this year, while our weapons modernization program goes forward, if we come up with an INF proposal that helps offset the well-organized, fear-engendering, anti-nuclear movement in this country and overseas.

Otherwise, we should take a new tact in our public posture on arms control. If we are not going to make a deal, we should begin a process of public downgrading of the talks. We should seriously consider breaking off the talks if we are unable to make progress. The public might understand our not negotiating with the Soviets, but it will not understand dragging out negotiations that seem to be going nowhere.

Summitry should be related to progress in the arms talks or some other major indication of a change for the better in Soviet behavior. Why should RR help Andropov by rushing to meet with him? Andropov will improve his stature through such a meeting. A constructive and overt change in Soviet behavior should be a precondition. But summitry based on progress is highly desirable.

From a public affairs point of view, perhaps the best sequence of events would be an INF agreement, a Reagan-Andropov summit in the US in late 1983 to sign the agreement, then a START agreement signed [Page 504] in the Soviet Union prior to the 1984 election. The lure of this sort of rosy scenario could lead to bad agreements. Domestic politics should not be allowed to force agreements: better to break off the talks and honestly blame the Soviets. Nonetheless, arms control agreements endorsed by Ronald Reagan would, in all likelihood, be overwhelmingly supported by the public and would probably be regarded as the major accomplishment of this term.

To foster an improved relationship in the context North-South relations with developing countries.

This goal lacks the burning public interest that comes with defense spending and US-Soviet relations. The President’s interest in this hemisphere is now well documented. The Caribbean Basin Initiative will be the measure of commitment in the coming year. The Administration should pursue that with vigor. Central America remains a potentially engulfing political issue in this country. A reasonable public affairs goal for the region would seem to be less public attention. Careful selection of policy options is highly desirable, as the national media are waiting to pounce on any significant indication of improper US action. We cannot achieve solid US support for an aggressive policy in the region unless US citizens perceive a real threat to themselves from Cuban or Soviet actions. In this must-win region we have a no-win public affairs situation. Information programs are necessary, but it is unrealistic to try to generate significant US public support for anti-Communist policy initiatives in Central America.

To take a vigorous role in peacemaking internationally as a moral responsibility, and on our own self-interest.8

Middle East peacemaking remains a central issue on the US agenda. Successful policy steps could result in the major foreign policy achievement of this Administration. This will continue to be a top news story. Policy steps should continue to reflect White House leadership and take into account the fragility of our public support.

To establish an improved relationship with our leading Allies.

Secretary Shultz has been portrayed as a miracle-worker in establishing improved relations with our European Allies. This may really be the result of renewed US and Presidential leadership, but it is a public relations plus, no matter who gets the credit. The Secretary will have another opportunity to demonstrate his skill as he travels to Northern Asia. Similarly, the Williamsburg Summit 9 will be watched by the media [Page 505] for signs of improving relationships. Trade policy and world economy will be of interest to segments of the public. White House decisions have to be made about how to handle the Williamsburg Summit, and about Presidential overseas travel. It would seem that, from a public affairs point of view, Japan should be on the President’s travel agenda in 1983, and perhaps Korea. Australia and New Zealand would also be popular countries to visit. China is the big question mark, and I am not convinced the President would benefit from a China visit.

In summary, at mid-term the Reagan Administration has made considerable progress toward its national security goals. A public agenda of unfinished business remains. US-Soviet relations, arms negotiations, the defense budget, and Middle East peacemaking are now, and are likely to remain, the most salient areas of public interest. We need public support for policy success in all those areas. White House involvement is crucial. Otherwise, our agenda is left to chance, or worse, to the bureaucracy. Our strategy should be to focus management attention on these issues, as success in the highly public areas will breed success in other endeavors.

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Executive Secretariat, NSC Subject File, Public Affairs (January 1983). Secret. A stamped notation on the memorandum reads: “WPC HAS SEEN.” An attached NSC Correspondence Profile indicates that the memorandum was sent to Clark for action and that copies were sent to Bailey, Kraemer, Boverie, Myer, and Dobriansky for information.
  2. Presumably Sims is referring to a December 30, 1982, Wall Street Journal editorial entitled “Dollars and Defense,” which read, in part: “Conservatives have had great success with the line that liberals try to solve social problems by throwing money at them. Now it’s being charged that conservatives, or at least the Reagan administration, are trying to solve defense problems by throwing money at them. The administration had better quickly improve its sense of defense priorities or the rap could stick.” (“Dollars and Defense,” Wall Street Journal, December 30, 1982, p. 4)
  3. See footnote 2, Document 127.
  4. On December 2, 1982, the House Appropriations Committee reported the FY 1983 Defense appropriations bill (H.R. 7355; H. Rept. 97–943), which included provisions for the M–X. However, on December 7, the House of Representatives voted 245 to 176 to drop $988 million requested to purchase the first five production-line versions of the M–X. The Senate Appropriations Committee included the provisions of its bill (S. 2951; S. Rept. 97–580) in the emergency FY 1983 funding measure (H.J. Res. 631), including M–X funding, but prevented expenditures until Congress approved a concurrent resolution regarding the M–X basing. The final version of H.J. Res. 631 (P.L. 97–377; 96 Stat. 1830), which the President signed into law on December 21, did allocate $2.509 billion for M–X research and development and required the President to provide Congress with a report outlining basing systems by or after March 1, 1983. (Congress and the Nation, vol. VI, 1981–1984, pp. 220–221) For the President’s statement upon signing P.L. 97–377 into law, see Public Papers: Reagan, 1982, Book II, pp. 1631–1632.
  5. An unknown hand changed the word “had” to “has.”
  6. See John F. Burns, “Andropov Says Talk With Reagan Could Aid Ties,” and “U.S. Aides Assert a Breakthrough On Arms Doesn’t Seem Imminent,” both New York Times, December 31, 1982, p. A3. See also Dusko Doder, “New Soviet Leader Expresses Optimism,” and Lou Cannon, “White House Is Cool To Talks Suggestion,” both Washington Post, December 31, 1982, pp. A1, A7.
  7. Scheduled to take place on March 6.
  8. Sims changed the word “on” to “in.”
  9. The G–7 Economic Summit meeting was scheduled to take place at Colonial Williamsburg and the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, May 28–30.