Remarks at a White House Briefing for Republican Student Interns on Soviet-United States Relations


July 29, 1986


Thank you all very much, and welcome to the White House complex. I'm delighted to have this chance to speak with you today. I know most of you are interns who've come to Washington to observe this government of ours firsthand. For many of you it may be an eye-opening experience -- was for me. [Laughter]


I want to talk today about a serious subject, one of those serious subjects that can often seem dry and academic, but which can be so important to all of our lives. In the swirl of issues and events that is Washington, there remains one overriding purpose, the purpose toward which everything else we do in this town is -- or should be -- aimed. I guess I would define it this way: creating a peaceful and safe world in which we can all securely enjoy the rights and freedoms that have been given to us by God. Being free and prosperous in a world at peace -- that's our ultimate goal. That is, as you might say, the business at hand here in Washington.


Toward that end, few issues cut deeper than our relations with the Soviet Union. There are many issues on the U.S.-Soviet agenda: arms reduction, human rights, Soviet involvement in regional conflicts around the world, and possibilities for bilateral cooperation -- all of these are important. But today I want to share with you some of the latest developments in our ongoing efforts to negotiate radical reductions in nuclear arms with the Soviet Union. When I spoke in Glassboro a little over a month ago, speaking to a high school graduation there, I said there were encouraging signs to the negotiating table. I spoke of a possible moment of opportunity in our relations with the Soviet Union. The Soviets have put forward proposals on a range of issues, from nuclear powerplant safety to conventional force reductions to nuclear arms reductions. And as I said at Glassboro, while we cannot accept all these proposals as they stand, we feel the Soviets have begun to make a serious effort. In that speech I stressed my own commitment to move the process forward, to pursue every opportunity to seek real and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons.


I have now sent a letter to General Secretary Gorbachev that underlines my determination to keep the momentum going. Now, unfortunately I can't satisfy what I know must be your curiosity about the specifics of that letter. In the past we've criticized the Soviets for making their proposals public, because serious exchanges usually take place in private. Negotiations are sensitive plants that can wither up and die in the glare of publicity. But even though I can't get specific about these negotiations, I can tell you of my renewed hopes for their success. I am hopeful that we have reached a stage where misunderstanding or suspicion in themselves will no longer keep us from our goal.


Each side has a candid, realistic view of the other's positions and intentions. This candor has assisted the negotiating process, and I believe if the Soviets sincerely want equitable and verifiable nuclear arms reductions, there will be such nuclear arms reductions. While I can't discuss the specific proposals in my letter, I can say that they are responsive to Soviet concerns. They seek out areas of convergence, they address the ultimate goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons while identifying practical steps that can move us in that direction. I also agreed to the Soviets' suggestion of a work plan involving a series of preparatory meetings that could lead to a productive summit later this year.


Let me add that our program for the reduction of nuclear weapons rests on two pillars. The first is good-faith negotiations with the Soviet Union toward arms reductions. And as I said, I think we are seeing the first cautious steps in this direction from the other side. The second pillar is our Strategic Defense Initiative, research on which has advanced more rapidly than the projections of even a few years ago. We won't bargain away SDI, because it is a promising area of technology that could release the world from the threat of nuclear ballistic missiles. We must continue our SDI program on schedule. What we seek is a transition to a world in which deterrence no longer depends solely on the threat of mutual annihilation.


You know, this came into being -- it was called the MAD policy, because that's MAD -- you know, everything in Washington become initials. Well, MAD spells what it is -- it's really mad, but it was mutual assured destruction, and the idea being that there would be peace between us as long as each one of us knew that the other fellow could retaliate if we shot first -- and blow us up, too. And since we never intended to shoot first, that meant that we'd have to take the first one and then hope we had enough left that they'd think twice before there would be a first one. Well, the offensive and defensive parts of the equation now are clearly related, and both are part of our discussion with the Soviet Union. So, I must emphasize -- to the extent that some Members of Congress slow down or undercut SDI, they undercut hopes for progress in arms reductions.


We do not seek the Strategic Defense Initiative to enable us to be safe from their weapons while we still have our offensive weapons to shoot at them -- not in any way. We look at the Strategic Defense Initiative -- if our research develops that there is such a practical system, then we look at that as the means of getting everybody in the world, including ourselves, to get rid of their nuclear missiles. And we're doing our share. We've responded constructively. We've made clear our serious desire for a better relationship with the Soviet Union. But now the ball is in the Soviet court. As I said in Glassboro, if both sides genuinely want progress, then this could represent a turning point in the effort to make ours a safer and more peaceful world.


Our arms reduction negotiations with the Soviet Union will not succeed overnight. They'll certainly be a long, arduous process. For the first time, however, we're not only pointed in the right direction -- toward reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons -- we have begun to move, both sides, down that road. As I look out on you from a little more than seven decades plus of experience, believe me, I reflect on how important that road is. I have seen four wars in my lifetime. I know the heartbreak, the human suffering that war causes. Each generation seeks for succeeding generations an end to war, a time of peace and freedom. Well, this dream is mine today. And I can only hope that years hence you'll be able to say to the generation succeeding your own that you were witness to one of the birthdates of this dream, this dream of freedom and of peace.


I'm finished with the serious part, but I do just want to tell you a little something. I know you must wonder sometimes -- sounds so lofty, a summit conference -- what happens when the General Secretary of the other great superpower and the President of this one get together in a room by themselves and talk to each other. Well, you might be interested to know that the General Secretary has a good sense of humor. [Laughter] I've been collecting jokes -- [laughter] -- that I know are told by the Russian people among themselves, which kind of shows a little cynicism about government. We're aware of that in our own country. [Laughter] So, I told him one of those jokes, and I got a big laugh. [Laughter] I told him the joke about the American and the Russian who were arguing about how much freedom they had. And the American finally said to the Russian, ``Look,'' he said, ``I can walk into the Oval Office. I can pound the President's desk, and I can say, `Mr. President, I don't like the way you're running our country.''' And the Russian said, ``I can do that.'' And the American said, ``You can?'' He says, ``I can go into the Kremlin. I can walk into the General Secretary's office. I can pound the desk and say, `Mr. General Secretary, I don't like the way President Reagan's running his country.''' [Laughter]


Well, listen, thank you all, and I hope this has been and is being a valuable experience for all of you -- to see behind the front and where the wheels are going around. Sometimes, I know it looks a little unwashed -- [laughter] -- but all in all, as Churchill once said about democracy: With all its faults, it's better than any other system anyone else has ever devised. But it depends on all of us and all of you. It can't work without the people.


I have another hobby. I've been reading a lot of constitutions of other nations, including the Soviet -- and amazed at how many things I found in the Soviet Constitution that are similar to things in ours, like freedom of speech and things. Of course, they don't allow that, but it's there. [Laughter] And then I thought well, what -- and then the difference came to me, the difference is so simple that you can almost miss it, and yet it explains the entire situation between all our countries. Theirs all say, their constitutions, that the Government permits the people the following privileges, rights, and so forth. Ours says: We the people will allow the Government to do the following things, and it can't do anything other than what we have specifically given it the right to do. And as long as we keep that kind of a system in this country, we will be a superpower.


Thank you all very much. God bless you.


Note: The President spoke at 2:19 p.m. in Room 450 of the Old Executive Office Building.