Radio Address to the Nation on the Veto of the National Defense Authorization Act, Fiscal Year 1989

 

August 6, 1988

 

My fellow Americans:

 

On Wednesday of this past week, I took a dramatic step, one that I must admit gave me no pleasure: I vetoed the defense authorization bill. As it stood, the defense bill that Congress sent me would have made unilateral concessions to the Soviets at the very moment when we're trying to achieve a strategic arms reduction treaty. I could not in good conscience have done anything other than mark that bill ``veto'' and send it right back.

 

Permit me to discuss with you for a moment just what's at stake in this whole matter of the defense bill. And in doing so, it's important to begin with some historical background. You see, it was just 8 years ago that America's defenses were in a pitiable state: weaker, relative to the threats we faced, than at any time in decades. We had airplanes that couldn't fly for lack of spare parts. Our Navy had declined from more than a thousand battle-ready ships to fewer than 500.

 

Among our men and women in uniform, morale was understandably low. And yet at the same time, the Soviet Union was embarked upon a massive arms buildup, enlarging its Armed Forces on land, sea, and air. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. It was backing Communist expansion in Africa, in Asia, and, yes, with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, in our hemisphere. The trend was clear: American power and influence were declining, while the power of the totalitarian world was growing greater and greater. The implications for the cause of freedom, for the cause of peace, were grim. The trend had to be reversed. During these last 8 years, we've done just that -- restoring America's strength.

 

The results? Well, today the Soviets are withdrawing from Afghanistan. We're seeing progress in settling regional conflicts. And not long ago, an American President returned from a successful summit in Moscow, having earlier signed the first treaty in history that actually reduces nuclear arsenals. By the way, if we had listened to those who wanted to stop the deployment of our INF missiles in Europe, the so-called ``freeze movement,'' we would have thrown away the bargaining leverage that forced the Soviets to return to the negotiating table. We would not have signed the INF treaty in Washington, and Soviet SS - 20 missiles would still be pointed at our allies.

 

This brings me back to the defense bill that I just vetoed. You see, if I had accepted that bill, it would have undermined the strength we've worked so hard to restore, in time jeopardizing all our remarkable diplomatic advances.

 

Congress' defense bill represented an all but open attempt to block our Strategic Defense Initiative, or, as we call it, SDI. Yet no development has been of greater importance in our strategic arms negotiations with the Soviets than our decision to proceed with SDI. The idea of SDI is simple: to give us the advanced technologies necessary to defend us and our allies from attack by nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. Some said it would take years to develop such a technologically sophisticated defense system. We said, All the more reason to get started right now. And in fact, as SDI has gone forward, overall progress has taken place even faster than we had hoped. Perhaps the best endorsement for SDI comes from the Soviets themselves, since they've long engaged in many kinds of strategic defense programs of their own.

 

But Congress wants to cut our budget request for SDI deeply. Congress also wants to cut all requests for funding one of the most promising SDI technologies, the space-based interceptor program, by over 70 percent. But it's not just the damage done to SDI's funding and space component that concerns me. From requirements for unilateral disarmament, missile testing, the bill represents an attempt by Congress to handcuff the President in our arms reduction negotiations with the Soviets. And this kind of unilateral concession to the Soviets could set back all the progress we've made on the arms reduction front.

 

Now that I've vetoed the defense bill, there's talk on Capitol Hill about producing an even worse defense bill as an act of political retribution. Well, let me ask you: What could be more deplorable than to use the defense of this nation as a political pawn? It won't happen, not if I have anything to say about it. As long as I'm President, our nation's defenses, including our strategic defenses, will remain above partisan politics. Congress needs to go back to work to pass a new defense bill, one that I can sign because it strengthens our negotiating hand instead of weakening it. We may be Republicans or Democrats, but when it comes to a strongly defended nation, we must all be simply Americans.

 

Until next week, thanks for listening, and God bless you.

 

Note: The President spoke at 12:06 p.m. from the Oval Office at the White House.