Remarks at a White House Briefing for Private Sector Supporters of United States Defense Policies


September 23, 1986


Thank you, Mari. And thank you all for coming here to the Roosevelt Room this morning. This room, of course, was named for two great Presidents --  one a Republican, the other a Democrat. Both understood the vital importance of keeping America strong, something I know everyone in this room understands. Let me say how grateful all Americans are for the contributions that you and your organizations have made to building a stronger America.


Restoring America's strength has been one of our administration's highest goals. When we took office, we found that we had ships that couldn't leave port, planes that couldn't fly -- both for lack of trained men and women and adequate supplies of spare parts. We found that for years the United States sat on its hands while the Soviet Union engaged in a military buildup, the likes of which the world had never seen. The American nuclear deterrent, upon which world peace depends, had been allowed to slide toward obsolescence. And across the Earth, Soviet-sponsored regimes had been imposed in countries as diverse as Angola, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua.


In the last 5\1/2\ years, we've begun to turn that desperate situation around. We've restored the morale, the training, and the equipment of our Armed Forces. And let me just say that around the world and here at home, I've met many of our young men and women in uniform over the last several years. It does something to you when you're standing up there on the demilitarized zone in Korea and a young fellow standing there in uniform says, ``Sir, we're on the frontier of freedom.'' Everyone who works with them will confirm what I've said about them. And those serving today are the best darn bunch who've ever served our country. I'm proud of all of them.


In the last 5\1/2\ years, we've begun the necessary modernization of our nuclear deterrent. We've begun research on strategic defense, the one great hope that we might some day rid the world of the prison of mutual nuclear terror. As I told the United Nations General Assembly yesterday, we're prepared right now to enter an agreement with the Soviet Union on research, development, testing, and deployment of strategic defense. In pursuit of a safer world, we're determined to move toward a future of greater and greater reliance on strategic defense. The only question for the Soviets is, do we move toward strategic defense together or alone?


In the last 5\1/2\ years, America has also taken a stand with embattled defenders of freedom around the world. In Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and Nicaragua, we've said that we stand with those who would turn back the night of totalitarian tyranny. And in this I wish I could say that we had united backing in the Congress. But you know the truth is different, particularly regarding our support of freedom fighters in this hemisphere. Even though both Houses of Congress have approved critically needed military assistance for the freedom fighters, this bill has been deliberately stalled on Capitol Hill. Freedom fighters will pay with their lives for this ``politics of obstructionism.'' We're determined to bring their barricades down, to let the light of hope through to the Nicaraguan people. And we will.


But all in all, in the last 5\1/2\ years, we've come a long way. You saw this when Mr. Gorbachev and I met in Geneva last November. As I said yesterday at the U.N., despite differences, we resolved at that meeting to work together for real reductions in nuclear arms, as well as progress in other areas. The Soviets are still relentless adversaries, as their totally unwarranted arrest of an innocent American reporter 3 weeks ago demonstrates -- an action which jeopardizes all areas of our relationship. But at the arms reduction table they now appear to treat meetings as more than just another propaganda forum. This, I believe, is because of the new will the United States has shown for the last 5\1/2\ years. The Soviets have been convinced that we're serious about rebuilding our strength.


But all this progress has now been placed in jeopardy by actions taken in the House of Representatives, actions just as serious as the attempt to block aid to the freedom fighters. If permitted to stand, these actions would pull the rug out from under our arms negotiators in Geneva and imperil our national security. The House voted to ban tests of antisatellite systems, even though the Soviets have a system in operation, and we don't. They voted to stop us from producing a deterrent to modern [Soviet] chemical weapons. They voted to slash our request for the strategic defense research, an initiative that helped bring the Soviets back to the bargaining table in Geneva. They voted to deny funds to move beyond the limits of SALT II, a treaty that couldn't be ratified and that would've expired by now if it had been ratified and that the Soviets have repeatedly violated. And finally, the House would prohibit essentially all testing of nuclear weapons. Well, all of this is bad for our national security and for arms reduction talks.


And if the defense budget arrives on my desk looking anything like that, I'll veto it. All of these issues -- [applause]. Thank you, you make vetoing even more pleasant than I find it. [Laughter] But all of these issues are important. Each House action undermines our peace and security. But I'd like to use my time today -- what's left of it -- to discuss one area that I touched on yesterday that I believe needs more attention. With the Soviets orchestrating a major propaganda campaign to get us to declare a moratorium on nuclear testing, it's time to set the record straight on why we need that test. There are four important reasons.


First, nuclear testing is essential to guarantee that our weapons -- the key to deterring nuclear aggression -- actually work. We insist on the most rigorous field tests for nonnuclear weapons like airplanes, tanks, and guns. But nuclear weapons are far more complex, and they, too, must be tested. Some time ago, for example, we found that the safety on the warhead for the Polaris missile wouldn't release. Without the testing that helped us fix that, most of our sea-based deterrent would have been ineffective. Without testing we couldn't reduce the size and improve the effectiveness of our warheads and make them safer, as we have. So, until we can negotiate the elimination of nuclear weapons with the Soviets, we must have tests to make sure that our deterrent works and that it is safe.


Second, we use nuclear tests to design nonnuclear weapons and equipment -- for example, satellites, ships, tanks, and sensors -- so that they can better withstand a Soviet nuclear attack. This increases the chances that our military can survive and still fight, which reduces the Soviet incentive to attack us and our allies in the first place.


Third, testing helps us keep ahead of Soviet efforts, including nonnuclear efforts, to neutralize our deterrent. Several years ago improved Soviet air defenses threatened to make our B - 52's obsolete, so we began the production of the B - 1, which can get through those defenses. But some weapons designed for the old B - 52's weren't reliable7E at 7E7E the 7E7E altitudes 7E7E and 7E7E speeds 7E7E that 7E7E the B - 1 flies. So, testing was essential to developing weapons with a proven reliability.


And, fourth, testing ensures that the Soviets won't surprise us with breakthroughs that might alter the strategic balance. The Soviets have raced for years to modernize and expand their weapons systems. We're still playing catchup, and this imbalance is a threat to world peace. It'd be an even greater threat if the Soviets scored major breakthroughs.


Even if we were to agree to a moratorium or a test ban, we cannot be sure the Soviets would honor it or that it could be verified. In the early sixties the Soviets broke out of a 3-year moratorium, that they had agreed to, with the most intensive series of nuclear tests in history. They had been planning all during the moratorium for the testing they were going to do. And when they were ready, they just violated the moratorium. We, on the other hand, had abated. And so, it took us more than a year to restore our testing facilities to their condition before the moratorium, so we could begin to try and catch up. Any agreement to limit testing must be verifiable. We've made a number of proposals to improve verification of current treaties. The Soviets should accept these proposals or make one of their own and stop playing propaganda games.


Our highest arms control priority is to get the Soviets to agree to deep arms reductions in the U.S. and Soviet nuclear arsenals. Soviet emphasis on the testing issue is a diversion from this urgent task. The House's ban on testing, on the other hand, is a back door to a nuclear freeze, which would make arms reductions almost impossible. Some Congressmen seem to believe that peace and American weakness mean the same thing. Didn't it ever occur to anyone what the Soviets must be thinking? They're thinking, if we wait long enough, they'll do our work for us -- meaning we will do their work for them.


So, this is what we're up against and why I'm so grateful to all of you for what you are doing. Now, I don't dare look at the gentleman sitting right over here, because I've been telling a story the last couple of days, in some speeches, that I like to tell that illustrates the attitude of those in Congress that are bringing this about.


It has to do with three fellows that came out to get in their car and found they'd locked themselves out. And one of them said, ``Get a wire coathanger and we can straighten it out and manage to get in.'' And the other one says, ``We can't do that. Somebody would think we're stealing the car.'' And the third one said, ``Well, we'd better do something pretty quick. It's starting to rain and the top's down.'' [Laughter]


Well, thank you all. Thank you for everything that you are doing. God bless you.


Note: The President spoke at 10:46 a.m. in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. Mari Maseng was Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Public Liaison.