Michael KreponGerard C. Smith

“Gerry” Smith had the look of a bulldog wearing a well-tailored, pin-striped suit. No diplomat’s jaw seemed more able to take a solid punch. Ambassador Smith took more than his share during the first strategic arms limitation talks.

The SALT I negotiations were a model of irregularity, with the US bureaucracy and Smith’s negotiating team directed to pursue one track while the Nixon White House pursued another. There were three primary reasons for this duplicity: President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, were distrustful of the bureaucracy, control freaks, and wanted to take credit for a successful Moscow summit in which the ABM Treaty and Interim Agreement would be finalized.

The result, as Smith recounted in his negotiating memoir, Doubletalk (1980), was a “random process of high-level and somewhat erratic participation” by Nixon and Kissinger that alienated many and set the stage for discord quickly after the historic novelty of the agreements faded. The outlines of this story are familiar, but new, revealing particulars can be found in volume XXXII of Foreign Relations of the United States, SALT I, 1969-1972, published in November 2010.

Nixon and Kissinger were being lobbied by the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and Doves who wanted a ban on ABMs and MIRVs, and the Pentagon and Hawks who wanted at least four ABM sites and MIRVs. The State Department comes across in these documents as a bit player, mostly in support of Smith, who was dual-hatted as the Director of ACDA and chief SALT negotiator.

The memoranda, notes of meetings, and transcriptions of conversations contained in this volume will make wonks feel like kids in the proverbial candy store. Here, in vivid detail, are key story lines. As the import of the Soviet missile buildup became clearer during the negotiations, the Pentagon expressed increasingly strong dissents to the negotiating positions that Nixon and Kissinger advanced. Both men remained intent, however, on reaching agreements before the 1972 elections.

The Nixon White House loathed Doves but feared Hawks. As complaints mounted over his negotiating gambits, Kissinger parried criticisms when dealing with Nixon by blaming Ambassador Smith and others he was systematically circumventing. Last minute deals were struck at the May, 1972 Moscow summit – deals with loose ends made in the absence of Smith and his interagency team – that confirmed hawkish complaints. Nixon and Kissinger went into damage control mode. This meant agreeing to every new strategic modernization program championed by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and the Joint Chiefs, while purging ACDA.

More posts will follow on the SALT I negotiations, where US negotiating leverage diminished as the talks proceeded. This post focuses on Ambassador Smith, whose small agency was a poor match for the Pentagon, and who was hopelessly outmaneuvered by Kissinger. Smith’s desire to foreclose MIRVs and freeze strategic modernization programs at the outset of the talks were deemed unacceptable to both Washington and Moscow. His push to foreclose a competition in ABM deployments succeeded, primarily because the Congress wouldn’t pay for them.

Here are notes of an exchange in an April 6, 1970 Verification Panel meeting, where Smith sparred over MIRVs:

Smith: “I think it is a vital point whether we try to control weapons technology or not.”

Kissinger: “But the fact that it would be nice to control doesn’t mean you can control. And you would be more selective, or seek ways around the difficulty of controlling technology, e.g., numerical limits, reductions.”

Smith: “But the issue of the OSD/JCS premise that you can’t and shouldn’t control technology is one of Presidential magnitude.”

[Deputy Secretary of Defense David] Packard: “Why should we negotiate away our technological lead?”

On February 18, 1971, Kissinger and Nixon discussed an op ed on SALT’s state-of-play by a well-read Washington Post columnist, Joseph Kraft. Both men hated leaks with a passion. In the transcript of their taped conversation, Kissinger assumed the leaker was Smith or someone from ACDA.

Kissinger: “It’s one of the most irresponsible things I’ve seen…”

Nixon: “It’s an act of spite.”

Kissinger: “I thought, frankly, Mr. President, it was an issue of pure vanity. That they wanted to get credit, and they didn’t want you to get credit… Last August, we could have had an ABM-only agreement. The Russians offered it, and I checked with Smith. He said ‘No, it would be an election stunt.’” [This one takes some unpacking: Smith was consistently for a combined SALT I package on offenses and defenses, as was Kissinger, and Kissinger would never ask for Smith’s permission on anything.]

Nixon: “Huh? Whose side is he on?”

Kissinger: “That’s what I’m beginning to wonder…”

Nixon: “I’d just get Smith out of there if we can.”

The Kissinger backchannel to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin caused confusion and embarrassment to the US SALT delegation when the Kremlin reported these conversations to the head of their SALT delegation, Vladimir Semenov, who then sought a better deal in the front channel. This caused consternation in the Nixon White House, as reflected in a taped conversation between Nixon and Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs Alexander Haig on May 6, 1971:

Nixon: “[W]hy does Semenov tell it to that asshole Smith? I mean, Henry’s always so jealous of his channel…”

Haig: “Well, I think the reasons for that are just as simple, sir. To the degree that they can keep you from getting the credit, they’re going to do it. They don’t want you to be reelected – not one goddam bit.” [Unpacking: Whenever there’s a SALT problem, blame it on Smith and Nixon’s political enemies.]

On May 19, 1971, Smith wrote a Memorandum of Conversation with Kissinger, in which he noted in an addendum “how loose the drafting was” coming out of the White House. “I told Henry that I could take no responsibility for the drafting. He understood, and said he knew who would be blamed if anything went wrong.”

When Secretary General Leonid Brezhnev wrote to Nixon trying to advance unwelcome positions, Nixon and Kissinger blamed Smith for Soviet recalcitrance in a taped conversation on September 18, 1971:

Nixon: “Henry, for Christ sakes, I wrote a letter to the son-of-a-bitch, Smith, and said, ‘This is the line.’ Why didn’t he follow the letter?…”

Kissinger: “Well, he’s like a shyster lawyer.”

When Smith found out about the Moscow summit, he called Kissinger on October 12, 1971:

Smith: “I read on the ticker that you and the President are going to negotiate SALT in Moscow.”

Kissinger: “Oh, Jesus Christ, relax. For Christ’s sake! Read what the President said.”

Smith: “I am relaxed. I’m disgusted, but relaxed.”

Kissinger: “They asked if SALT was going to be finished. He said he didn’t know but if it wasn’t it might be discussed…” [Unpacking: This is a complete prevarication. Nixon and Kissinger had no intention of leaving the final flourishes to anyone else.]

Smith: “I look like a fool with Semenov for not knowing about that.”

Note to readers: For those in the DC area, the Woodrow Wilson Center is convening an event on Wednesday, November 16th to discuss this volume of documents. The proceedings will be held on the 6th floor and will start at 4:00pm. Speakers will be Erin Mahan, Chief Historian of the Office of the Secretary of Defense and editor of this volume, Ray Garthoff, a participant in these events who has written a superb, two-volume account of US-Soviet relations, and yours truly.


  1. Scott Monje (History)

    Nixon: “[W]hy does Semenov tell it to that asshole Smith? I mean, Henry’s always so jealous of his channel…”

    Haig: “Well, I think the reasons for that are just as simple, sir. To the degree that they can keep you from getting the credit, they’re going to do it. They don’t want you to be reelected – not one goddam bit.” [Unpacking: Whenever there’s a SALT problem, blame it on Smith and Nixon’s political enemies.]

    So, . . . did Nixon think Semenov was a Democrat?

  2. MK (History)

    The Wilson Center event has just been cancelled–