With the situation in Nicaragua growing more tense and contentious, and the situation in Lebanon becoming a stalemate, President Reagan, in his 20th Press Conference, on the 1,000th day of his Presidency, sought to address some of those issues:
Q. Mr. President, regarding the recent rebel attacks on a Nicaraguan oil depot, is it proper for the CIA to be involved in planning such attacks and supplying equipment for air raids? And do the American people have a right to be informed about any CIA role?
President Reagan: I think covert actions have been a part of government and a part of government’s responsibilities for as long as there’s been a government.
I’m not going to comment on what, if any, connection such activities might have had with what has been going on or with some of the specific operations down there. But I do believe in the right of a country, when it believes that its interests are best served, to practice covert activity. And then, while your people may have a right to know, you can’t let your people know without letting the wrong people know, those that are in opposition to what you’re doing.
Q. Mr. President, there’s growing concern about the marines in Lebanon, and your national security affairs adviser has said that the loss of life is unacceptable and that the partition of Lebanon is unacceptable. What are you going to do about it? And I’d like to follow up.
President Reagan. Helen [Helen Thomas, United Press International], we’re going to keep on doing what we have been doing, trying to complete the plan that we launched a little more than a year ago. We know there are hazards there, and no one can feel more deeply about the loss of life and the wounding of some of our men there. We knew it was a hazardous undertaking when we joined in the multinational force. But our objective remains the same.
We have made great progress there. If you’ll remember back, Beirut itself was being shelled daily in an exchange of fire that was killing literally hundreds of civilians on a daily basis, wounding others grievously, that a cease-fire followed there. A government was created. Representatives to a parliament were elected. The Israelis have withdrawn to the Awali River and have announced their intention of permanently withdrawing.
The disorders that have plagued Lebanon for some 8 years have, of course, taken over. This was one of the reasons for a multinational force, to try and have some stability while the government—and, incidentally, I left out the fact that the Lebanese Army, which has been created by this new government, and in which we’ve helped with training and supplies, is a fine army-not as big as it should be, for the problems it’s confronted with. But the mission is to enable the Lebanese Government and its military to take over its own country with the withdrawal of all forces. Earlier in that first cease-fire there was a successful ousting of some 10,000 of the PLO militia from the country.
As long as there’s a possibility of making the overall peace plan work, we’re going to stay there.
Q. May I ask what plans do you contemplate? How will you broaden the peace in the Middle East and bring about a reconciliation of all the parties and the restoration of the legitimate rights of the Palestinians?
President Reagan. Well, this—you’ve named exactly the goals of the plan that I proposed a year ago last September, and it began with trying to straighten up the Lebanese situation, with the border of Israel, the northern border being violated as it was by terrorist groups, innocent people there being killed. They had a responsibility to try and defend that border.
Now an agreement has been reached between the Lebanese Government and Israel. We are doing everything we can to persuade Syria to quit being a roadblock in this process. But that was the first phase, Lebanon; then, and our intention remains the same, working with the more moderate Arab States to bring about the kind of peace with Israel that Anwar Sadat helped bring about.
Our process is following the lead that was established in the Camp David talks and the two United Nations resolutions, 242 and 338. And this is what we want to do, but, as I say, it all is kind of hinging on the resolution of Lebanon.
Yeah, Sam [Sam Donaldson, ABC News].
Q. Mr. President, Senator Helms has been saying on the Senate floor that Martin Luther King, Jr., had Communist associations, was a Communist sympathizer. Do you agree?
President Reagan. We’ll know in about 35 years, won’t we? No, I don’t fault Senator Helms’ sincerity with regard to wanting the records opened up. I think that he’s motivated by a feeling that if we’re going to have a national holiday named for any American, when it’s only been named for one American in all our history up until this time, that he feels we should know everything there is to know about an individual. As I say, I don’t fault his sincerity in that, but I also recognize there is no way that these records can be opened, because an agreement was reached between the family and the government with regard to those records. And we’re not going to turn away from that or set a precedent of breaking agreements of that kind.
Q. Sir, what do we do then in 35 years if the records are opened and we find that Dr. King was a Communist sympathizer? Do we then try to undo the law? I mean, I’m not quite certain where the logic is there.
President Reagan. The logic is there in that there is no way that this government should violate its word and open those records now.
I happen to—while I would have preferred a day of recognition for his accomplishments and what he meant in a stormy period in our history here, I would have preferred a day similar to, say, Lincoln’s birthday, which is not technically a national holiday, but is certainly a day reverenced by a great many people in our country and has been. I would have preferred that, but since they seem bent on making it a national holiday, I believe the symbolism of that day is important enough that I’ll sign that legislation when it reaches my desk.
U.S. Marines in Lebanon
Q. Mr. President, when I was in the marines the doctrine was to take the high ground and hold it and not deploy on a flat, open field like the Beirut airport. What reason is there to prevent the marines from taking some more defensible positions in pursuit of the policy for which you’ve sent them there?
The President. Well, Jerry [Jeremiah O’Leary, Washington Times], all of those things we’re asking ourselves, and we’re looking at everything that can be done to try and make their position safer. But you must remember, you were talking about when you were being trained as marines for combat. And if these marines had gone there to join in the combat on the side of whatever force we might have picked, then all of those rules would apply. But they’re there as part of a multinational force to try and maintain a stability. And their sector happens to be trying to maintain that airport and open it up for traffic. So, airports just happen to be flat. And we’re doing everything we can and making everything possible for them to defend themselves.
Q. Sir, does that mean that they cannot sally forth from the borders of the area to which they’re assigned if they are attacked from a nearby position, whether it’s high ground or not?
The President. All I can tell you is that—I can’t answer that question right now, but I virtually daily tell our people that are to be in consultation with the men on the ground, the commanders there of those units or anything, that in keeping with our mission, that we can do to help ensure their safety.
Not the complete press conference, missing most of the opening statement and the closing, but a good representation of press conferences during the Reagan presidency. This one via NPR from October 19, 1983.
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