Jr. Watson, Thomas J.

The Soviet Union – An Ambassador’s View

VTR Date: November 6, 1982

Guest: Watson, Thomas J., Jr.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Thomas Watson
Title: “The Soviet Union – An Ambassador’s View”
VTR: 11/6/82

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. You know, the world was a far simpler place when I was growing up. You knew who the good guys were, and the bad ones too. Generally, for instance, if you were brought up as I was, a big-city, ethnic liberal, you knew that big businessmen were mostly all conservative republicans who went to the newsreel theaters to hiss and to boo liberal democratic presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt. In our simplistic world, we were taught too, that wars were fought to make the world safe not for democracy but for J. P. Morgan’s millions, that giant industrialists rattled sabers, fostered munitions races, surely didn’t embrace peace movements. And of course you knew that by and large it was labor and fuzzy-minded academics who had never met a payroll who thought that we ought to talk with and try to coexist with the Soviet Union. Well, those old formulas don’t work so well today. Indeed, perhaps the most highly regarded and acclaimed leader in the American business community has supported and served democratic presidents, has taken very seriously Winston Churchill’s admonition that, “It is better to jaw jaw than to war war”, and even now fights valiantly for arms limitations and controls. Thomas J. Watson, Jr. built IBM into one of the greatest corporations in the world, played the major role in taking his company and the United States preeminently into the computer age, is now IBM’s Chairman Emeritus. As important, he also served as President Carter’s distinguished United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union.

So welcome, Mr. Ambassador. Thank you for joining me on THE OPEN MIND.

WATSON: Thank you very much, Mr. Heffner.

HEFFNER: And I wonder about this business of our feelings today toward the Soviet Union. I think you’ve expressed a greater concern than many people have for the potential for a collision course between the two nations unless we are very wise and very rational. What’s your feeling today?

WATSON: Yes. Well, I believe we’re still on that same collision course that I mentioned at my farewell luncheon in Moscow to the press, and I believe that the angle of collision has perhaps become steeper, and I think the world is in a very uncertain state.

HEFFNER: What does that mean for our future, and what do we do to diminish that angle?

WATSON: It’s a very, very complicated situation. I think it initiates because we’re a free, democratic society, and the Soviet society is anything but that. Soviet society is really a continuation of the czar society with a new trademark in it called Leninism or communism. But they subjugate the individual to the state. And those two societies can never come into any parallelism in their thinking. But if we’re realistic we’ll have to realize that both of us must accommodate to the other or we’re going to destroy each other. There’s no way that either one of these great nations can do the other in without being done in themselves. That’s a new environment of the world, and environment that started on the day of Trinity back in ’45 when we exploded our first bomb and got much m ore important when the Soviets exploded their first bomb. And ever since that time we have been trying to make these weapons useful. They were useful only when we had a monopoly. As soon as two people have them they are no longer useful except for deterrence or suicide. So I believe that somehow we have to make a way to get these weapons out of the political arena. Many presidents, many congressmen, and many senators have run on “The Russians are coming”, run on the missile gap, and this is the sort of thing that has driven our control or lack of control of thermonuclear weapons on a very erratic course in the last 20 years.

HEFFNER: Mr. Ambassador, do you think there is a missile gap, a large window of vulnerability?

WATSON: Not at all. Not at all. I headed a committee on thermonuclear weapons for President Carter before I went to Moscow. We have the Russians outgunned in missiles across the board except for one specific weapon and that’s in Western Europe, and the weapon is the Russian SS-20. On the other hand, what is “outgunned”? You can’t outgun a nation with these kinds of weapons if they’re as powerful as they are. And unless we realize that the birth of the thermonuclear bomb was perhaps the most important event in the whole history of mankind, we’re not going to be able to cope with it very well. For instance, a lot of people talk about the Russians having ten percent more than ourselves, or we ten percent more than they. I say that if you double the total American nuclear arsenal you would not add to our security by any perceivable amount. I also say that if you take one percent of the weaponry on either side, strategic weaponry, say around 900 weapons, because we talk…around 90 weapons, because we talk about 8 to 9,000 strategic weapons on either side, that we would unravel the societies of both nations by exchanging one percent of our arsenal because we would do away with 90 American cities and 90 cities in the Soviet Union. Now, to try to plan how you’re going to use these kinds of weapons with that kind of result is asinine as far as I’m concerned.

HEFFNER: You say even if we develop further weaponry we will not be safer. And I gather you’re saying that not because the Soviet Union will build parallel weaponry, but rather we have the capacity both now to destroy ourselves.

WATSON: Yes, many times over. I am not at all sure they wouldn’t parallel us, and I myself for perceptions reasons would not like the numbers to get very far out of balance. I would like to attend to the SS-20 in the treating process. But we have completely forgotten about the SALT process as we dash around to build these useless weapons which are investing our money as far as I’m concerned in a mudpie, because they’re useless. We have to have them because they deter the Soviets from striking us, but to think of them as being useful to advance our interests around the world, they simply are not. And we’d be much better off if we were building substantial amounts of conventional weapons. We were demonstrating our national will by reinstalling the draft, and by getting the United States to pull up its socks and act like the United States has acted throughout our history most of the time. We can’t get a free ride in today’s world.

HEFFNER: Mr. Ambassador, suppose one accepts what you say precisely as you say it. How do we explain the fact that the administration today takes a very, very different posture? We’re not dealing with fools or knaves. How do you explain it?

WATSON: I think that the explanation is now in the process of being made to the present administration in the results of numerous polls around the country, in the results of numerous voting referendums on various electoral bills which indicate that the United States are beginning to understand that we’re in a desperate sort of game and that we need more creative ways out of it than simply building more nuclear weapons. There are a lot of referendums on the freeze for instance, and if I’m not mistaken they have been coming out around 75 percent for and 25 percent against. I think that the name “The Freeze’ is an oversimplification, and I wouldn’t be wanting, want it to be read that I was for just a freeze. I would want to explain very carefully what I was for. But nevertheless that’s a simplified way of the citizens of the US saying that they don’t like the present course of the United States.

HEFFNER: Since that’s your answer to my question as to how do you explain the posture taken by the president, are you then saying that the president has and the administration has up to this point believed that in fact what they were doing was responsive to public opinion and now they may be learning differently?

WATSON: That’s an awfully good question. I never thought of it quite in those terms. I think they’re doing what they are doing in a true and honest belief that it’s the best thing for the United States. Since many of them are good politicians, I assume that they also have felt that what they’re doing is the sort of thing that most people in the United States wants and perhaps they’re…want, and perhaps they’re a little surprised to see that the voting is indicating otherwise, particularly in this weapons area. I think that they have a high level of approval in leadership and in a great number of other areas. But in the weapons area I think there’s beginning to be a lot of national thinking going on, and I think that’s all to the good.

HEFFNER: I remember that some years ago at the Aspen Institute that you and I were talking about before the program, one of your colleagues in the seminar at the point at which I had made some comment, and I’ll be darned if I can remember what it was, said, “Oh, you’re one of those who would rather be red than dead”. That point of view doesn’t seem to prevail today, it would seem to me, among more thinking people.

WATSON: No, I think not. I think that the man who said that was looking ahead and explained what he saw ahead very badly relative to his intellectual capacity. I think it was Bertrand Russell who said that. But in any case, whoever said it gave two alternatives; they are not the only two alternatives. You can be either dead or red or free and American, or in a world of peace or in a world at war or in a world of rubble, in a world of lovely building. Those are not all the choices.

HEFFNER: If you were called upon to prophecy, what would you say? What’s going to happen to us?

WATSON: Oh, I like to trust in the Lord and the law of averages. And I’m very encouraged by the fact that most Americans are being forced to address this problem. I have great confidence in the average voter in the United States if he understands the facts. And when we dream of these Orwellian methods of delivering these weapons from one place to another, and the man in the street says, “Well, why do they have to have all that gadgetry? Can you protect an open port? We have five members of this club now. When we have 15 can we protect a little fishing boat coming into New York with four weapons on board and the crew deserting and it detonating by radio?” The average citizen says, “No, that’s perfectly possible”. Well then why keep wasting so much money into this thing? Let’s build up our conventional forces. Let’s be able to deploy force anywhere in the world that we want to advance our interests, and hope and recognize, hope that these weapons will be recognized as being more or less suicide weapons. Great progress had been being made in Geneva. You hear all sorts of things about the SALT negotiations. But I sat in on several of those sessions when I was working in Washington, and they were very fruitful. The Soviets were cooperative. I don’t think, although you hear to the contrary, I don’t think that the standing consultative committee who have been looking, or which has been looking at infractions both from the United States point of view and the Soviet point of view, ever found anything that had happened relative to an infraction that wasn’t sensibly explained by the other side. So we hear bout the Soviets breaking treaties; I don’t believe that’s a fact. I recognize the Soviets, I think for what they are. They would like to do us in. And I think we’d be perfectly happy to have them somewhat less powerful. So those two ambitions on either side are not terribly different. They’re some different, but not completely different. And we have to learn to live in peace and recognize that if we don’t we’re both going to do each other in.

HEFFNER: At this table sometime back, Bob Daltley, the editor of the Wall Street Journal, talked about the frenzy of the summer of 1982, the nuclear freeze movement. He said it was like the “Jaws of 1982”. Everyone was very excited about it, and crazed as if it were just a movie stunt. Obviously the Journal and other papers too believe that the Soviets had continually violated their agreements with us. I gather you don’t accept that.

WATSON: No, but I go for my facts to the body that is supposed to be monitoring whether or not any of the SALT agreements and previous agreements have been broken. And that’s the standing consultative committee which we have not been very active in since the Reagan administration started. But prior to that this body was in session at least half of the year; half Soviet, half American membership. And the joint conclusion at the last meeting in which they focused on this subject of breaking treaties, the joint Soviet/American conclusion was that there were a number of infractions on the side of the Americans – questions; I shouldn’t say “infractions” – a number of questions on the side of the Russians, none of which were not satisfactorily explained to the other side and disposed of. So I think that record would indicate that the Soviets nor ourselves have been violating treaties.

HEFFNER: Within that context then what do you suggest our posture toward the Soviet Union should be? Let’s take the question of a pipeline, take the question of sanctions, dealing commercially with the Soviets. What’s your attitude on that?

WATSON: Well, first off, I’d like to see a consistent policy with the Soviet Union. I was there when they went into Afghanistan and so that grain embargo was very close to my heart. It’s probably…

HEFFNER: Which way?

WATSON: (Laughter) Well, we recommend that we put on a grain embargo, that we abandon the Olympics, that we close the consulates and we take some other actions. I think those ideas were probably being simultaneously thought of in Washington, but nevertheless I felt rather proud that we had been on track and those ideas were accepted. And it did indeed get the Soviets’ attention. I’m sorry that we gave them back the grain because when we give back something that’s very important to a great body of Americans, the farmers, and I’m very sympathetic to the farmers, and then try to restrict certain other parts of our commercial establishment it becomes quite confusing. So I think first off we ought to have a standard policy, and that policy ought to be accepted by Western Europe and the United States. It’s very difficult to draw up such a policy. Particularly difficult in the field where I used to work, in computers. Very hard to say when a computer is going to be strategically more useful to the Soviets than their own computers and therefore we don’t want to send it, and say that another computer is benign and makes a good profit for an American computer-maker and therefore we should send it. But it is possible to draw up a code of what we’re going to abide by. And I believe we ought to do that. And I don’t think we should try to impose on Western Europe ideas of ours in the public press the way we have, because I think it tends to weaken the alliance. And I think the alliance is terribly important to the future of the United States and the free world. So I would hope that problems of who ships what where could be threshed out in private and the results announced in public rather than have it in the public domain all the time.

HEFFNER: That would be your hope.

WATSON: That’s right.

HEFFNER: But it would be very hard to anticipate that in a media civilization such as our own.

WATSON: That’s right.

HEFFNER: I’m interested to know that the embassy, that you and your colleagues in Moscow were urging upon the Carter Administration those sanctions.

WATSON: Yes. I don’t mean to suggest there was any reluctance on the part of the Carter Administration.


WATSON: …to put those sanctions on. There was not. But we did make the recommendation.

HEFFNER: Would you say you feel it’s terribly important that we, the United States, is in agreement, that we are in agreement with our European friends in what we do, given the reluctance, the total reluctance of our European allies, of our NATO allies to go along with sanctions? What do we do then? Do we simply say, “All right, we accept that posture, even though it’s different from our own?”

WATSON: No, I don’t think they’re totally reluctant. I think they have some restrictions on the very high technology items. And it’s very difficult for me; the reason why we waffle this policy a bit is that it’s very difficult for anybody to decide what’s correct. But I don’t believe that we can hold that alliance together if we continue to try to put sanctions on our branches of American companies abroad where those companies are an integral part of European society in those countries. So I don’t really know what the answer is. I like to be able to think I can answer any questions on one of these procedures, but I’m not sure I can answer that one.

HEFFNER: I note that you take exception to the idea that has been expressed by a number of people that if we press hard enough the Soviets will collapse economically. You don’t accept that, do you?

WATSON: No. I think they have a very strong government. The government is suffered by the people, but they’ve been suffering governments for the last 300 years. I don’t think they’ll rebel. I think as a matter of fact it’s probably one of the stronger governments around the world. It’s a very well-governed nation. They govern a society that is ruthless and cruel, and where human rights are nonexistent. Nevertheless they run the country well. And any hope that we might have of getting them to collapse I think is spurious. Now, if we play it that they won’t collapse and they do, well, then we just have a nice little piece of good luck. But I don’t believe they will.

HEFFNER: That’s a step up of course. But what’s said is that, and you as a major American businessman, as ambassador, the American ambassador to the Soviet Union would have to be able to make a very much more learned guess than most of the rest of us about the Soviet economy. We hear so much not about the government, but only in a secondary sense would the government fail, but their economic situation is so terribly, terribly pressing. Is it?

WATSON: Their economic situation is not good. The places where they’ve put a little bit of incentive back into the system have gone swimmingly. But they’ve done it in very few cases. It’s very hard to run a society without some incentive in it, and that’s of course what they’re trying to do. Over the past 50 years they’ve developed a sort of hierarchy and there is a sort of a double class consciousness there where the very wealthy people or the very powerful people have a completely different way of living that the average person, which is quite different than the early 20s when it was very idealistic as a society. But I think it’s adequate. I think it’s adequate. If you read the history of Peter the Great and how they ran economically in those days and the starvation and the lack of communication and so forth, they suffered through it. And I think they’ll suffer through this.

HEFFNER: I remember when I was a young man teaching at Columbia, Contemporary Civilization, and once a semester or once a year old Kerensky would come and visit us and give the same talk about “Give me two gunboats landing in Mormansk and there will be an uprising and a rebellion against these monsters because Soviet citizens in reality re ready to overthrow their government”. It sounded false then and I gather you’re saying that it’s no truer today.

WATSON: Yes, I can see absolutely no evidence of this. And we have people traveling all over the country. And those people could get Soviet citizens to talk rather frankly against the regime from time to time, just as democrats or republicans might talk against our regime. But any thought of trying to overthrow it, I don’t think ever occurs to anyone over there. It’s a police state. There are policemen behind, in civilian clothes behind every tree nearly. They take up all their unemployment by employing them in the KBG I think. So I just, if I were a very strong and dedicated Russian and felt that I could save the world by creating a rebellion to overthrow the government, I wouldn’t know where to start. I really wouldn’t know where to start.

HEFFNER: Do you think if we turn to politics in our own country that there is likely to be a seed change in the next administration, meaning perhaps a democratic administration rather than a republican administration and a different foreign policy?

WATSON: Well, it’s very hard for me to forecast the election of the next president, and I won’t try to do that. But I would predict that within this present administration in the next two years we’ll see some major changes in foreign policy with the Soviet Union. I would think we would get back to meaningful negotiations with them. I would think we’d begin to monitor once more or exchange views with them once more on aberrations in the treaty that we think we detect so that we can thresh them out and decide whether there have been treaty violations or not. I think that the administration is quite sensitive to the will of the people in the United States, and it’s obvious that the people want to see some real progress.. Now, if the administration makes a real effort to make progress, and the Soviets for one reason or another are not forthcoming, then I think the administration is in a lot stronger position than it is today when we really haven’t tried. And as I understand the policy, the policy is to build up our armaments and then begin to really try. And I don’t see where any of our armaments are going to be meaningfully increased in the next year or two. We’ve taken some battleships out of the yards, but this nuclear business isn’t going to change for the next several years.

HEFFNER: As Chairman Emeritus of IBM, how do you make your guesses about our own economic situation?

WATSON: I’m so far out of the system, the business system, that I’m not a very good source of information about the future. I have great confidence in the US system, and I think we’ll begin to see improvements in the US. The president has done a great deal in hardening our currency, and there have been some harsh side effects to that which I deplore. But I would think with the money getting more dependable and inflation under some control that we’d begin to see this economy turn around sometime next year. It certainly has not turned around yet.

HEFFNER: What about our European allies and their economies?

WATSON: Well, it looks to me like the economies of the whole western world and probably the whole eastern world are under great strain at the moment. Maybe it’s because all of us have been living on wishes rather than on what we really earned in the way of real income. But I don’t see any economies, looking around the world that I think are very strong. One always used to be able to turn and look at Germany and say how very strong that was, or Sweden. But they all seem to be in trouble right now. And I reckon that’ll change too, but I don’t know when.

HEFFNER: When you sat in the embassy in Moscow, was there any indication that over at the Kremlin they were thinking in time the American economic system will collapse and then we’ll score our points?

WATSON: The only real reference I’ve ever seen to that was Khrushchev’s remark, “We will bury you”. The real ideologues of that system believe that it will triumph and reign supreme through the world. But with the death of Seslov and some of the people that worked with him, I think that that ideology is somewhat dead. The belief that the communist system is bound to prevail I heard very rarely discussed, and I didn’t see it in the translations I had of the newspapers very often.

HEFFNER: What happens though, when the present group of older men disappear?

WATSON: Well, it’s not going to disappear in a hurry. The average age of that politburo is just about my age, perhaps one year younger. It’s perhaps 67 or 68. And they’re very cautious about bringing new people into that group. They have a candidate membership for a couple or three years while they look them over, and all the candidates don’t make it through the politburo. So I would think that you’d see very, very little change in the next decade. You see some new faces, they’ll be old men, they’ll have worked their way up the system. They won’t have World War II background, but they’ll be very old in the communist system. And I don’t think they’ll do anything very erratic.

HEFFNER: Somewhere in a speech you made you referred to the fact that the Soviets, that the Russians are conservative people and they don’t change very radically.

WATSON: That’s right.

HEFFNER: And that’s what you mean in this statement of yours?

WATSON: Yes. I think the government changes very little.

HEFFNER: Let me ask whether you think that in reality we can get a hold of this munitions problem, this nuclear problem. We have 30 seconds left, and it’s not a matter of yes or no, but your own visceral feelings about it.

WATSON: Well, if I understand the question, you wonder…

HEFFNER: Are we going to?

WATSON: Are we going to get it under control? Yes, I think we are going to get it under control. I think that colleges are beginning to teach nuclear weaponry in their courses. Derek Bach has made an attempt at this at Harvard, and other people will do the same thing. I think that it’s just a question of whether the educational process will overtake the process of building more weapons before something happens. I really fear an accident more than any sincere step-by-step working our way to a trigger. I think it will be, if we have problems, it’ll be in some odd place in the world where we finally decide we’re going to make a stand and the Soviets believe it’s so awkward to make a stand that we can’t. Another Afghanistan, if you will.

HEFFNER: Thanks very much for joining me today, Mr. Watson.

WATSON: Thank you, Mr. Heffner

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us here again on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.