Interview With Television Network Broadcasters

 

December 3, 1987

 

INF Treaty

 

Q. Mr. President, by the luck of the draw, I have the first question this evening. Next week Mikhail Gorbachev will be in Washington. The two of you are expected to sign an agreement for the elimination of all medium-range nuclear missiles in the world, even though this week you are accusing the Soviets of violating the antiballistic missile treaty, and even though a lot of people say that that will leave the Soviets in a superior position in Europe, because they have more men, more tanks, more helicopters. Now, if this were another President making this deal, wouldn't the old Ronald Reagan be the first to speak out against it?

 

The President. No, because I think this deal is different than anything that's ever been attempted before in arms negotiations between our two countries. For one thing, this is the first Russian leader -- or Soviet leader, I should say, that has ever expressed a willingness to eliminate weapons they already have. But as to whether this changes the military balance, you're absolutely right that in conventional weapons -- tanks, artillery, and so forth -- the Soviet Union does have tremendous advantage over the NATO countries and over the United States as a member of NATO.

 

But there are still thousands and thousands of nuclear weapons -- tactical weapons, battlefield weapons -- that can be fired from artillery and so forth that still exist. These weapons that are disappearing were weapons that -- if the Soviet Union used them, they wouldn't be hitting military targets, they would be hitting the capital cities of all of Europe. And if it comes to the point of us negotiating, as I hope it does one day, on those battlefield tactical weapons, then conventional weapons must be negotiated, as well. There would be no point then in removing those weapons, which now do give us a balance and counter their conventional superiority, and leaving them with that other superiority. Both would have to be -- one eliminated and the other brought down to parity.

 

And we're not anywhere near facing those yet. We're facing the terror weapons -- first, these that we want to eliminate totally and that I asked for in 1981, and the next step, the so-called START agreement, where we are talking of starting with eliminating 50 percent of the intercontinental ballistic missiles. Those are the destabilizing weapons that bring terror to the world. Those are the weapons that threaten us with mutual destruction if they're ever loosed -- someone pushes a button and within 30 minutes there is devastation and horror in our country, or, if we've done it to them, in their country. And that would be the next step.

 

Q. Mr. President, on this treaty, you've not even signed on the dotted line, and yet five of the Republican Presidential candidates have deserted you. The conservatives, the right wing of your party, are after your scalp. My question is: If you are not a lameduck President, would this INF treaty sail through the Senate?

 

The President. Well, I hope it is going to sail through anyway. I think that the objections that we are hearing -- and, yes, from some of our own, you might say, allies and own forces -- they're based on a lack of knowledge as to what this treaty contains, and particularly are they ignorant of the advances that have been made in verification. No treaty before has ever been based on as much verification and on-site inspection and so forth as this one. This is what has been holding it up for so long until we finally got over that hurdle. And I think that this thing hinges something on the first question, also: that they think that somehow this is leaving the Soviet Union with its superiority in conventional weapons. And I've just explained that it isn't. But also I think we have to look at the very fact that we have obtained apparently their agreement to a treaty in which they're destroying four times as many nuclear missiles or warheads as we are.

 

Q. Mr. President, Winston Churchill once said that trying to maintain a good relationship with the Communists was not unlike trying to woo a crocodile: that when it opened its mouth, you never could be quite certain whether it was trying to smile or eat you up. [Laughter] Now, Americans respect you, love you, and are pulling for; but they're concerned that perhaps you are going to -- or already have allowed Gorbachev to eat you and us up. We have a new CBS News-New York Times poll out tonight, and it indicates that the majority of those polled, 45 percent, the largest number, are convinced that you'll make too many compromises to Gorbachev. And the question is: What assurances can you give -- how can you convince Americans that you have the command of the kind of complex information that's necessary here? -- not to have this young, energetic, intelligent, tough Marxist-Leninist eat you and us up?

 

The President. Well, I haven't changed from the time when I made a speech about an evil empire. And I think I could sum up my own position on this with the recitation of a very brief Russian proverb: Dovorey no provorey. It means trust, but verify. And there would be no way that I could sign a treaty just to be signing a treaty and with my fingers crossed that everything was all right. This is why it is hinged on arriving at solid verification measures and their agreement to them. And I think that in the past there has been a willingness on some to just look on the bright side and accept a treaty so that they could say, look, we've signed a treaty, whether the treaty worked or whether it benefited us or not. And there's no way that I could do that. And I assure the people now that that will never happen.

 

That's why I walked out of Reykjavik. In Reykjavik we had come to an agreement on literally total nuclear disarmament, except that at the very last minute they said it could only take place if we gave up SDI. And that's when I came home.

 

Soviet-U.S. Relations

 

Q. Mr. President, a point of information -- this is not a followup -- but did I understand you correctly to say that you have not changed your mind from the time you described the Soviet Union as the ``evil empire''?

 

The President. The Soviet Union has, back through the years, made it plain, and certainly leader after leader has declared his pledge that they would observe the Marxian concept of expansionism: that the future lay in a one world, Communist state. All right, we now have a leader that is apparently willing to say -- or has never made that claim, but is willing to say that he's prepared to live with other philosophies in other countries. But again, as I say, that doesn't mean that we take his word for that and sign a treaty he alone may not be able to deliver on something of that kind. We'll sign a treaty -- as I've repeatedly said here -- when we're sure that that treaty is as beneficial to us as it is to them.

 

And I would like to call your attention to the fact that in 1981, when I proposed the zero option of these intermediate weapons, they indignantly walked out of the negotiations and said they wouldn't be back. Well, they came back. And as a matter of fact, they came back and announced a zero-zero as their own idea. Now, I think that some of the people who are objecting the most and just refusing even to accede to the idea of ever getting any understanding, whether they realize it or not, those people, basically, down in their deepest thoughts, have accepted that war is inevitable and that there must come to be a war between the two superpowers.

 

Well, I think as long as you've got a chance to strive for peace you strive for peace. But you don't have peace and surrender. And there's no way that we're going to surrender, no way that we're going to sign a treaty that is not, as I say, to the benefit of all of us.

 

Public Opinion Polls

 

Q. Mr. President, in something of the same vein about Mr. Gorbachev, I think all our polls this week may show the same thing. The ABC News-Washington Post polls show surprisingly that Mr. Gorbachev's favorable rating in this country is only 4 percent lower than your own. He's made a strong impression. The other day when you were asked about difficulties with him, you turned to the side with something of a joke. You said you'd played with Errol Flynn. Can you give us a more serious assessment now of Mr. Gorbachev and how tough he is to do business with?

 

The President. Well, all of you, in reporting my line about Errol Flynn, sort of skipped over what the young man had asked me. He had made it out that you'd all built up Mr. Gorbachev to the place that didn't I have some concern about sort of standing up there alongside him and being -- well, he'd be the scene-stealer and so forth. And that's when I couldn't help but say I costarred with Errol Flynn. So, that's all that that was about.

 

But with regard to those poll figures and polls, I have to say, you have to know what questions are asked and how they're being asked. Because our Dr. Wirthlin, that I think is probably the finest on-the-record pollster in the Nation, has more recently taken a poll, and he found that 56 percent of the people in America support the treaty and SDI. And then when they heard his interview and him admitting that they, too, were working on an SDI, that figure went up to 71 percent of the American people want Strategic Defense Initiative.

 

Human Rights

 

Q. Mr. President, we learned again this week that Mikhail Gorbachev has a very hard-line view about human rights in his country and a very distorted view about the human rights equation in this country. He seems not to understand, firsthand, the depth of feeling in America, and even in his own country, about the need for people to have freedom to come and go as they please, to live in dignity. Could you not bring that feeling to him by inviting some refuseniks to the State dinner next week, so that when he is your guest he can meet them firsthand?

 

The President. Well, I'm sure that there are going to be a number of people at that dinner who have different views from him. Whether that's the place, though, for what you're suggesting, I don't know. But I do know that we've talked all this time here on disarmament and virtually this single treaty, but that is only one of the four major courses that we're going to be discussing with him, as we have on all the other occasions -- and that is human rights -- one of them -- and we have made some headway. There has been an increase. A number of the so-called refuseniks who have been allowed to come to this country have been requests by us by name in which we have named individuals that have come to our attention. And we've got to go further.

 

What you first suggested there -- we've got to make them see that the full human rights, the rights that they agreed to in the Helsinki pact, have got to be observed: the right of people to live where they want to live. And perhaps we can point out in our discussions that we're not trying to interfere with their internal workings. That's the answer that they've given so many times to us on this particular subject. But maybe we could make them see that if their people had more of that glasnost that he's been talking about they wouldn't want to emigrate.

 

I'm quite sure that there are people there who love their country, but it's the manner in which it is being run that makes them think they have to go someplace else. But how much emigration on the basis of religious beliefs would there be if they would simply repeal the restrictions that they've imposed on various religions and admit that people can believe in God and worship God in their own way, whatever their denomination might be. As a matter of fact, people who have been there and people who have a reason to know, not just tourists, have said that there is a growing desire on the part of the Soviet people for the right to worship. And maybe in all of our meetings -- maybe we could help him understand that and help him get his glasnost.

 

Q. But part of the problem on human rights, it seems to a lot of people, is that we have no effective pressure on them, no linkage. And you have been talking here again today about the need to reduce long-range missiles by 50 percent. Plainly, Gorbachev is interested in that. If you can work out an accommodation on SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and work your way toward a 50-percent reduction in long-range missiles, would you sign that if there were no measurable significant progress as well in human rights by a set standard?

 

The President. Well, as I have to say, I think you shouldn't link these various programs, but we will be working just as hard with regard to human rights, just as hard with regard to the regional things, such as getting out of Afghanistan, and pointing out that if he means his desire for a better, more open relationship between the two countries, then these are things that are essential to that and that he can come closer to what he expresses as his desire if he meets us halfway on these other issues.

 

Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev

 

Q. Mr. President, do you suspect that Gorbachev thinks he can do a snow job on the American people?

 

The President. I would have no way of knowing that. I have to say this in favor of him on this thing: that having been born and raised within the Soviet framework, I have felt that he sincerely believes in that philosophy and also believes a lot of the propaganda about the Western World and about our country -- that it isn't just spouting off about shortcomings here in this country; he really believes them.

 

That's why I am desirous of having him be able to come to our country -- he has never been here before -- to come to our country when it is not a summit, but when he would be free to see what there is to see in this country. I'm a little frustrated when I think you couldn't take him to see it, because then he'd think it was all staged, because he sincerely believes the shortcomings that he discusses of ours. And I'm still going to hope that the other can take place.

 

Soviet-U.S. Summit Meeting in Moscow

 

Q. Because arms control is such a crucial part of your legacy -- INF here in Washington, possibly, possibly, a START agreement in Moscow -- if you do not go to Moscow next summer, given your legacy, will it break your heart?

 

The President. Well, I think I'd stop short of that, but I'd be very disappointed. And I just don't think it's going to happen. I think that we're going to have a meeting in Moscow, and I think there is a reasonably good chance that we will make another gigantic step forward in the elimination of nuclear weapons.

 

Q. Mr. President, you said that you watched Tom's [Tom Brokaw, NBC News] fascinating interview with Mr. Gorbachev the other evening.

 

The President. Yes.

 

Afghanistan

 

Q. Would you assess for me your personal opinion of his truthfulness when he talked about Afghanistan and the extent and causes of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union?

 

The President. Well, as I say, I have to believe that he believes their own propaganda. He grew up with this and hearing this.

 

Q. You believe that he believes that he has 115,000 troops in Afghanistan, committing genocide almost daily, simply because they were invited in there?

 

The President. Well, you must remember that there were other leaders under which this happened. He inherited that. And those leaders are the ones who had created the puppet government. Now, whether he knows to what extent they did that, I don't know. But I'm quite sure, on the other hand, that he feels comfortable with the idea that if they left Afghanistan that there would be a government similar to the Eastern-bloc nations in Afghanistan, not necessarily a government that was chosen by the people of Afghanistan.

 

Well, on our side, our job is to make him see that not only must their troops leave Afghanistan but that the people of Afghanistan, just as the people of Nicaragua, must have the right to determine the government that they're going to have in those countries and not simply accept the present stooges or the Communist world.

 

Q. There's a lot of talk, Mr. President, about you facilitating a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Would you, for example, make a commitment not to supply the antigovernment forces for a year if the Soviets committed to get out of Afghanistan within that period of time?

 

The President. I don't think we could do anything of that kind, because the puppet government that has been left there has a military, and it would be the same as what I'm arguing about with regard to the freedom fighters in Nicaragua. You can't suddenly disarm them and leave them prey to the other government -- and this is p - r - e - y, not p - r - a - y. No, the people of Afghanistan must be assured of the right of all of them to participate in establishing the government they want, and that requires more than just getting his forces out of there. But I think that we have to look at one other thing here. You spoke of the need for pressure sometimes to get some of the things we want. The pressure on him, and on the Soviet Union, is that that great military power in some almost 8 years has been unable to overpower the freedom fighters there. They're fighting on literally even terms. And it must be quite an embarrassment.

 

Withdrawal of U.S. Forces From Europe

 

Q. Another question, sir, about withdrawal. You're very up about the INF agreement. You're optimistic about the possibility of getting your reduction in strategic nuclear weapons. The Soviets have talked a lot about reducing their conventional forces in Europe. Is it time to consider bringing some American troops home from Europe?

 

The President. Well, not at a time when we already are outweighed by the opposition. That would come as part of an agreement if you were coming down to parity so that there would not be anyone with a great superiority. So, no, they would have to come down quite a ways by themselves before they would reach our level. I think if you look at the figures on tanks, mechanized warfare, artillery pieces, they outnumber the NATO forces by as much as three times as many weapons in those fields as NATO has.

 

Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy

 

Q. Mr. President, there is some feeling, as I'm sure you're aware, that you're eager to make this arms control deal in part because you need a political victory, especially after the Iran-contra affair. There is some unfinished business. There are some open questions around Washington and the country. One of the principal ones is that if Colonel North and Admiral Poindexter are indicted would you pardon them?

 

The President. That's a question that I don't think anyone should try to answer at a time like this. You tempt me into remarking something about the Iran-contra affair. I refuse to believe that accepting a request from individuals not in the government -- or not government forces of Iran to discuss the possibilities of a future government of Iran having a better relationship with the United States -- that it was a scandal for me to accept that invitation and have some people make contact with them.

 

Q. But it went a lot deeper than that, Mr. President. It was not just the initial contacts about future relations. There was money diverted, and there was, as you know --  --

 

The President. Yes, I'm the one that told all of you that there was money diverted, and I didn't know it until after that leak in a paper in Beirut exposed the meeting we were having. We were having a covert operation there, because we didn't want to cause the death of the people who had wanted to talk to us.

 

George Bush

 

Q. Mr. President, in 1980 George Bush was put on your ticket. It was a shotgun marriage. Is that one of the reasons why now you can't find the will to embrace him, to endorse his candidacy? Some people say if you don't speak out, in effect, it will be the kiss of death.

 

The President. No, I think most people would overlook then that the President is really the titular head of his party, whichever party he belongs to. And therefore, while it is a party choice that must be made as to who a nominee is -- I had to be this way when I was a Governor. I have to be this way as President. But I can only tell you that whichever individual the party chooses I will wholeheartedly support them as obviously the best choice for this office, having viewed the candidates of the other party. But I can say this: The Vice President, I think, has been the finest Vice President in my memory in this country. He has participated in all the major operations that -- I had that belief when I came here, and I'd had it when I was a Governor with a Lieutenant Governor -- that it isn't someone just sitting there waiting to see if you get up in the morning, whether they've got another job. He's an executive Vice President. He's a major part. He's one of only two of us that are chosen by all the people in this country for the jobs that we hold. And so, he understands that -- but I have to remain neutral until the decision is made by the party as to who their nominee will be.

 

Iran Arms and Contra Aid Controversy

 

Q. Mr. President, Bernie's [Bernard Shaw, Cable News Network] question raises an interesting point. Vice President Bush has said a number of times that he gave you some counsel about the secret shipment of some of our best missiles to the Ayatollah and sending the Ayatollah a birthday cake and that whole thing. But he hasn't said what it was. Don't you feel -- or do you feel that the American people are entitled to know, given the fact that Vice President Bush wants to be President, what that advice was and will you tell us?

 

The President. Well, Dan, [Dan Rather, CBS News], George and I -- not every Thursday now, but for several years every Thursday until this campaign got underway -- we have lunch together, just the two of us. And we discuss, as you can imagine, all the things that are going on and so forth. And he does not hesitate, when I ask, to give me his opinion on something. But here again, you've tempted me into another direction. Because again, that misunderstanding out of the Iran - contra so-called affair -- that missiles to the Ayatollah -- the people that contacted us from Iran -- the people we were dealing with -- if the Ayatollah found out, they'd be dead before nightfall. We weren't dealing at all with the Ayatollah. Now, I think he's as big a Satan as he thinks I am.

 

This came as a request from those individuals: that if we could do that, first of all, it would assure them that the people they were dealing with surreptitiously were speaking for the Government, had some standing here in our country. And also, if they could provide those to the military -- not to the revolutionary guard -- to the military, it would give them the prestige.

 

The thing that's been overlooked in all of the examinations was that when all of that was happening virtually every day you and others in the press were commenting on how long the Ayatollah was going to live. It sounded as if he wouldn't be around by the next week. And there was factionalism rising in Iran as to who then was going to take over. Well, this is what this operation was about. These people were an element that wanted to have the kind of government that we once were closely allied to in Iran. And this was why we started doing business with them.

 

Now, when they asked for that token shipment of arms to verify and so forth our credentials, we turned around and cited that we didn't go along with governments that supported terrorism. They made it pretty plain they didn't support terrorism either. And we then -- or I said, well, all right, let them prove their good faith if we do this in using whatever influence they have to see if they could get those terrorists to release our hostages.

 

Never at any time did we view this as trading weapons for hostages, because we weren't doing anything for the kidnapers. But we knew someone that evidently might have an ability to open a door, and they did get two of them out. And when the news broke that blew the whole thing over, we were expecting two more in the next 48 hours that are still hostages.

 

Q. Mr. President, respectfully --  --

 

Q. I'm sorry, we don't have much time --  --

 

The President. But now, your question --  --

 

Q. I want to give way to Peter [Peter Jennings, ABC News], because -- want to get his question --  --

 

The President. Well, wait a minute. Let me just finish, and then I will -- but what you said about George. I don't think it'd be right for me to discuss what his position was on things. But there was a disagreement among our people that they -- not that I was trading arms for hostages, but that that, if it became known, what we were doing, it would be viewed as that. And those individuals were absolutely right, because everybody has viewed it since and misconstrued it that we were trading, as a ransom, hostages for arms.

 

Q. Let's talk -- because we're short of time.

 

The President. All right.

 

Q. Give way to Pete.

 

Value of the Dollar

 

Q. My last question: I think a lot of people's, of mine, sir, is about the dollar. You said not very long ago that the dollar had fallen as far as you thought it should go, and it continued to fall. What would you like to say or do now to stop it from falling further?

 

The President. Well, I don't think we've done anything to contribute to its falling further. It isn't a case at where sometimes in the past when it was certainly overpriced that we have made efforts to balance it up. I've often wondered sometimes -- they keep talking about the government -- or the dollar falling, or is it maybe that some of those foreign currencies that were way below value have come up to where they properly should be. But it is fluctuating, and we're interested in stabilization. And I think that some of the things we've done are leading, and have led to, that. A sudden surge of cutting interest rates in some of our trading allies abroad did have the effect again of making the dollar fall, but that was their doing, not ours.

 

Q. Mr. President, covered some ground -- more to cover. We'd like to thank you very much for joining us.

 

The President. Well, thank you.

 

Note: The interview began at 2:35 p.m. in the Oval Office at the White House and was broadcast at 8 p.m. Participants in the interview included Peter Jennings, ABC News; Dan Rather, CBS News; Bernard Shaw, Cable News Network; and Tom Brokaw, NBC News.