Secretary of Defense Laird’s recent speech to the editors of the Associated Press on April 20 recalls a legendary exploit in military-political annals: the villages Prince Potemkin built for Catherine the Great’s tour of the Russian countryside. Laird’s description of the Soviet nuclear arsenal bears about as much relation to reality as the rosycheeked peasants trotted out for inspection by the delighted and bamboozled Empress.
The inner circle of the Kremlin, hearing from Laird that the US is in imminent danger of becoming a second-rate power, that its nuclear forces have declined so far as to put us (in Laird’s words) “literally on the edge of prudent risk,” must wish—like Catherine’s courtiers—it were only so.
Secretary Laird began his address by commending himself on his honesty. “When I assumed office fifteen months ago,” he told the AP editors at their annual luncheon, “I immediately established as a top priority goal the restoration of credibility in the Department of Defense.” Ever since, he assured them, he had followed “President Nixon’s desire to make more information available to the American people.” Copies of his address were placed beside the plates of the 1500 editors who heard him, and they were urged to take the copies home for further dissemination. Rarely has an Administration been so anxious to spread bad news.
I have prepared this article as if to serve as a memorandum for the AP editors who heard the Secretary. It sums up one Washington newsman’s efforts to check on Laird’s presentation. The hope is that AP editors will be led to recheck all of this for themselves, to put their staff men onto the Pentagon briefing officers and the documentary sources herein covered, and then report the results of their own investigation to their readers.
The Laird address struck the theme of an alarmist campaign soon joined by the President himself and the Pentagon’s chief of research and development, Dr. John S. Foster. The immediate purpose is to stem the growing effort in Congress to block the ABM and MIRV. The Administration’s campaign also reflects a fear of public pressure for a moratorium in the deployment of ABM and MIRV in order to assure the success of the SALT talks. (The Senate on April 9 voted 72 to 6 for a resolution urging Nixon to propose a mutual freeze on strategic nuclear weapons.) A measure of Laird’s frantic mood is the memo he sent his Pentagon aides two days after the AP speech stamped “Secret…Sensitive.” The text which leaked to the Washington Post, May 10, said:
It has come to my attention that misleading and even erroneous information is being disseminated concerning our negotiating positions at the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks in Vienna. In particular, information which indicates the desirability of a moratorium on MIRV and ABM deployment is harmful.
I do not believe that Department of Defense officials have been involved in indicating any positions …