Michael KreponHenry Kissinger’s Mixed Record on Nuclear Arms Control

Quote of the week:

“What in the name of God is strategic superiority? What is the significance of it politically, militarily, operationally, at these levels of numbers? What do you do with it?”
— Henry Kissinger (1974)

Henry Kissinger voiced these exasperated and memorable lines in Moscow, where he was defending a framework agreement subsequently known as the Vladivostok Accord. His ambition was to fill out the partial and deeply imperfect constraints on strategic offensive forces laid out in the SALT I Interim Agreement.

Kissinger was in complete control of the policy-making side of nuclear arms control, holding down both the Secretary of State and National Security Adviser jobs. As control freaks go, it doesn’t get much better than that. Having purged ACDA and replaced key negotiators to deflect blame for the Interim Agreement, he was without protective cover. He was now in the direct line of fire from the backlash of the SALT I accords.

Here he was, just two years later, very much on the defensive. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson had masterfully buffaloed Nixon and Kissinger with his resolution calling for equal constraints in negotiations to follow the Interim Agreement, an inferential rebuke that the White House needed to swallow because to oppose the Jackson Resolution and then lose big would have been an even more searing humiliation. Gerard Smith, the SALT I head of delegation, readily acknowledged being “buffaloed” by Kissinger’s backchannel to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. And now Kissinger was was being buffaloed in kind by Jackson and his brilliant aide, Richard Perle.

The media was reading Jackson’s script, baying at Kissinger for not addressing the threat of Soviet missile throw-weight advantages that could be translated into superior nuclear war-fighting capabilities — differentials not equalized in the framework he was negotiating, and therefore not up to Jackson’s judgmental standard.

Now the tenaceous Democratic Senator from Washington State had the big guns on his side, trained at Kissinger. Paul Nitze, recently liberated by leaving the U.S. negotiating team in protest, and other heavyweights were finding strength in numbers opposing Kissinger’s very framework of negotiations. Every Verification Panel meeting Kissinger convened was an insubordinate cacophony of voices demanding non-negotiable proposals.

Kissinger made enemies because of his negotiating tactics and lack of forthrightness. This partially explained the sharpened knives of former colleagues, like Nitze and Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs during SALT I. Admiral “Bud” Zumwalt, then Chief of Naval Operations and another severe critic, testified of Kissinger that, “I consider him a man who is extremely skillful at making strategic defeat look like tactical victory.” U. Alexis Johnson, a distinguished diplomat and the man Kissinger tapped as lead negotiator for SALT after Gerard Smith, offered this characterization in his memoirs:

“Henry, like most geniuses, has spectacular talents but corresponding faults. He was amazingly successful juggling a profusion of balls while pirouetting atop a highwire. When some of these balls dropped, however, it was obvious that devotion to truth was not always his guiding principle.”

Gerard Smith spilled the beans on Kissinger’s tactics in his book, pointedly titled, Doubletalk: “The [U.S.] delegates were chagrined at being kept in the dark. Their expertise had been ignored… The delegation’s trust it its Washington authorities was never restored.”

Kissinger wrote the book on Diplomacy. Actually, he wrote many books on diplomacy, and he has much to teach us. But he broke almost every rule in his books when negotiating SALT. Kissinger negotiated in Moscow without being accompanied by delegation members, without technical expertise and without even a U.S. interpreter at key junctures. (No, it didn’t start with Donald Trump.) “It was,” as Gerard Smith wrote, “a one man stand, a presidential aide against the resources of the Soviet leadership.” He negotiated the final unresolved technical issues in SALT at a summit meeting under a self-imposed deadline, during an election year. He was, above all, a big picture guy. But he was dismissive of numbers and details, and it showed.

All of this came rushing back at him in Moscow in 1974, defending his handiwork against Jackson, Nitze, and the entire gang that would become the Committee on the Present Danger, which sank the Vladivostok Accord and President Jimmy Carter’s attempt to improve its terms.

And yet Kissinger accomplished much. He and Nixon proved that strategic arms control was possible. They negotiated the ABM Treaty which allowed subsequent arms reduction efforts to eventually succeed. And Kissinger spoke our language when he sought the Vladivostok Accord and railed against those who argued that a nuclear war between superpowers could be fought and won.

Yes, Kissinger could be slippery and disingenuous, and he changed his tune to fit the temper of the times. His true genius was in maintaining his influence. But let’s not short-change him: he was instrumental in starting the process of strategic arms control, and for that, I, for one, am grateful.