AFTER dropping directly onto Capitol Hill by helicopter following a 13-day journey that covered 16,000 miles, President Nixon strode purposefully through Washington's fading twilight and toward the beckoning cameras of prime television time to report to Congress and the people. He had returned from the camp of the enemy bearing spoils of peace rather than war, but he did not speak in terms of triumph. Confident and businesslike, he displayed a rare restraint, claiming only that his trip to Moscow was "the beginning of a process that can lead to a lasting peace." Appropriate to the achievement, it was the most effective speech of his presidency.
The homecoming was a warm one for the President, especially the booming cheers from the Republican side of the House chamber. Yet partly because the report was so hastily scheduled at Nixon's request, partly because some Democrats felt they have been used as a foil for Nixon as he scores political points on television, an appalling three-fifths of the Congressmen were absent. Only 22 Democratic Senators and 66 Democratic Representatives attended. Rows of empty seats were filled by Government employees, hastily rounded up to minimize the embarrassment.
Nixon's speech was carefully calculated to dampen any irrational euphoria over the new Washington-Moscow detente. "The threat of war has not been eliminated," Nixon cautioned. "It has been reduced." Appealing to Congress to endorse the agreements signed in Moscow, he added: "Never has there been a time when hope was more justified or when complacency was more dangerous. We can seize this moment or we can lose it." Nixon was, rightly, most intent upon saving the treaty limiting anti-ballistic systems and the agreement freezing the deployment of offensive nuclear weapons.
Nixon sought to calm critics, mostly conservatives, who fear that the two pacts will permit the Russians to gain a decisive nuclear advantage. Democratic Senator Henry Jackson and Conservative-Republican Senator James Buckley both contend that the Russians could use the freeze, which does not limit technological improvement of existing systems, to overcome the huge present U.S. lead (5,700 to 2,500) in deliverable warheads. "I have studied the strategic balance in great detail for more than three years," Nixon said. "I can assure you that the present and planned strategic forces of the United States are without question sufficient for the maintenance of our security." But he then implied that the U.S. might be interested in more than "sufficiency" and was determined at least to maintain nuclear parity. "No power on earth is stronger than the United States of America today," he declared. "And none will be stronger than the United States in the future." Taking aim at his critics on the left, Nixon drew loud applause by praising the Congress for its refusal to "unilaterally abandon the ABM, unilaterally pulling back our forces from Europe and drastically cutting the defense budget."