261. Letter From Secretary of Defense Weinberger to President Reagan1

Dear Mr. President:

I worry a great deal that the issue of the Vienna talks on “the militarization of outer space” could, from here on, be manipulated by the Soviets so as to help the Democrats in the campaign. So far luck has been with us. But the Soviets have laid the groundwork in their attempt to maneuver you into a position that would help Walter Mondale’s campaign.2

As you know, Mondale and the Democratic platform have attacked your Strategic Defense Initiative.3 “Mr. Reagan wants to open the heavens for warfare,” they say. To be sure, Mondale also advocates reductions in existing nuclear arsenals. He wants to do this “within the framework of SALT II;” but his most dramatic difference with your arms control position does not lie in the esoteric details of SALT II, or with your START proposals. The difference that he has been stressing the most, and that could become the main theme if there are Vienna negotiations, is his opposition to what they call “Star Wars.” The Democratic Platform calls for reaffirming the ban on ballistic missile defense, and for starters, a moratorium on the testing of anti-satellite weapons [Page 923] and of “all weapons in space.” In short, the leading edge of the Mondale arms control position will be identical to the present Soviet position for the Vienna talks.

Hence, the closer we come to agreement with the Soviets on Vienna talks, the closer we move to accepting in principle the premises of the Mondale position. Our current pre-negotiations with Moscow are inching us towards accepting:

—that we must “prevent” the imminent “militarization of outer space,”

—that we must start with some moratoria on testing;

—that banning defenses against ballistic missiles is at least as worthy a topic for arms talks as reducing offensive missiles.

If a US-Soviet joint statement for the talks accepts these premises or, if the Soviets have their way, and it does not mention that offensive missiles will be a vital part of the agenda, you would be put into a very awkward position. For example, if in a debate with Walter Mondale you defend your position on ballistic missile defense, you will be speaking up in opposition not only to the Soviet proposals, but will appear to go counter to the atmospherics of the Vienna talks. The Soviets might then walk out and blame you for the failure of the talks. If on the other hand, you move with the “spirit” of the Vienna talks by saying that we are “seriously considering” the Soviet proposal for a ban on strategic missile defenses, you will, in effect, be abandoning your beliefs and position, and be blamed for inconsistency, at best, or for having had to concede that Walter Mondale is right and that you were wrong on this fundamental issue.

I doubt that it would be possible to escape this dilemma. The media will pounce on us with relish and force us all to come down one way or the other.

Thus, the Soviets could provide the Democrats with a good campaign issue. And the other side of the coin would be that you would have lost a good issue against Mondale. The American people favor ballistic missile defense. You may have seen the results of a Statewide poll in California, taken last February, where the registered voters were asked, which of five weapons they thought “most important to our national defense.” These were the answers:

Cruise Missile 3.9%
B–1 Bomber 4.4
MX Missile 5.8
Nuclear submarines 14.1
“a system to defend against incoming nuclear missiles” 71.9
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Similarly, a nationwide poll in April showed that three out of four Americans support the development of space-based “defensive weapons.”

The Democrats have been noticing these polls, too. They have therefore toned down a bit their unqualified opposition to missile defense. After their initial almost total rejection, they now say in their platform: “If we and our allies could defend our populations effectively against a nuclear war, the Democratic Party would be the first to endorse such a scheme.” But the rest of the Platform is replete with the implications that we never can develop such a defensive system. They have given up on the inventive and productive genius of America.

Incidentally, today the Strategic Defense Initiative looks more promising, and more realizeable than it did late last year, when the results of our initial studies were reported to you. The ideas then briefed to you have since been supported by further analyses of many of the key concepts, and by many and varied tests of specific components (especially the June 10th test in the Pacific of the interception of a ballistic missile warhead).

Mr. President, I would recommend strongly that you reassert your position on strategic defense. It is both good politics and very sound policy. If we stick to your compelling rationale for protecting our people rather than avenging them, the American people will understand that we should not let the Soviets talk us into banning systems that can stop missiles from killing people. I believe the American people see great merit in your holding on to your conviction, now further validated by additional tests. They know full well that if they simply want to purchase an agreement with the Soviets regardless of whether it serves our security or is verifiable, they can do so by voting for Walter Mondale.

Very respectfully,

  1. Source: Reagan Library, Robert McFarlane Files, Subject File, Soviet Union—Sensitive File—1984 (7/27/1984–9/27/1984); NLR–362–3–22–2–0. No classification marking; Eyes Only.
  2. The Democratic National Convention took place in San Francisco from July 16 to 19, officially nominating Walter Mondale as the Democratic candidate for President. A transcript of his acceptance speech was printed in the New York Times, July 20, 1984, p. A12.
  3. One example in the 1984 Democratic Platform included the following statement by Dr. Jerome B. Wiesner, Dr. Carl Sagan, Dr. Henry Kendall, and Admiral Noel Gayler, from the DNC Platform committee hearing, June 12: “‘Star Wars is not the path towards a less dangerous world. A direct and safe road exists: equitable and verifiable deep cuts in strategic offensive forces. We must abandon the illusion that ever more sophisticated technology can remove the perils that science and technology have created.’” (“Political Party Platforms: 1984 Democratic Party Platform,” The American Presidency Project; University of California at Santa Barbara; accessed online)