Michael KreponNixon, Kissinger, and SALT

Reading 1,000 pages of memoranda, meeting notes, and transcripts of conversations about SALT I in Volume XXXII of Foreign Relations of the United States prompts many unsettling questions, beginning with the competence of President Richard Nixon and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger. Nixon comes across as someone with a surprisingly uncertain grasp of the issues in play, who delegated great authority to Kissinger and who didn’t question Kissinger’s narrative of events. Nixon could have benefited greatly from more direct access to his principals, but Kissinger was a stern gatekeeper who repeatedly fed Nixon’s vanity, grievances, and paranoia.

An example of Nixon’s insularity and Kissinger’s stroking methods occurred on April 23, 1971, when Nixon met with Kissinger and Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to get up to speed on the SALT negotiations. Kissinger buoyed Nixon with his assessment that the Soviets, “to all practical purposes, [have] given in on this SALT thing… they have yielded 98 percent. They’ve practically accepted our position on the SALT.” Over the next thirteen months, with the Pentagon and Hawks on Capitol Hill like Senator Scoop Jackson raising alarms against the impending deals, Kissinger shifted his argument, railing against weaklings in the executive branch and Doves on Capitol Hill for undermining US leverage in the negotiations.

Both Machiavellis wound up outfoxing themselves more than the Kremlin in these negotiations. Kissinger’s use of a back-channel to Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to circumvent the interagency team led by Ambassador Gerard Smith caused repeated perturbations. Soviet negotiators, who were clued into the back-channel, periodically attempted to use this inside information for advantage. Kissinger and Nixon often fulminated about the consequences of their own tactics. Take, for example, their conversation on March 11, 1971:

That son-of-bitch [Dobrynin] is just taking your letter [Nixon to Chairman of the Soviet Council of Ministers Alexei Kosygin dated February 17, 1971] without telling Smith he’s got it, and feeling out whether Smith is willing to give more.

Domestic subterfuge can be forgiven if absolutely necessary in the pursuit of clearly advantageous outcomes. In this case, subterfuge and duplicity did not produce better outcomes and contributed to a significant domestic backlash against SALT just two years after the Congress voted near-unanimously to support these accords.

Nixon is in charge at high-level interagency meetings in which he adheres to his talking points, follows a set agenda, and is in a listening mode. He also demonstrates a sure grasp of the politics of SALT. But on matters of substance, Nixon occasionally appears tentative and sometimes befuddled in private meetings with Kissinger.

For example, the last big unresolved issue in the Interim Agreement was whether to include SLBMs and how to deal with older Soviet subs. Here’s a conversation between Nixon and Kissinger on March 31, 1972, less than two months before the Moscow summit:

Kissinger: You know, with [Secretary of State William] Rogers – Rogers said to him [Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin], ‘We want SLBMs in SALT, one way or the other.’ So, Dobrynin asked him, ‘Well, what do you mean?’ Rogers said, ‘Well, I don’t know any details. ‘I’m just telling you.’ And—

Nixon: That’s the trouble—

Kissinger: That—

Nixon: Dobrynin does know the details.

Kissinger: And Dobrynin does know the details, because I had told him our position [short break]

Nixon: I am inclined to think that the SLBMs shouldn’t be included…

Kissinger: Well, no, we’ll get them – no, we’ll get them included now.

Nixon: Do we want them included?

Kissinger: Frankly, I don’t think we do, but I – but we – I don’t see how we can go against the [Joint] Chiefs of Staff.

Between them, Nixon and Kissinger owned the franchise of books offering sage advice about international relations, but they made many questionable calls in these negotiations. Take, for example, a memo on July 13, 1970, sent by Kissinger to Nixon titled, “Implications of a Limited SALT Agreement,” in which he discussed how an interim agreement and an ABM deal might play out:

With the Soviet ABM limited, we would run into increasing pressure to curtail or terminate our MIRV programs. On the other hand, we would be largely relieved of the most immediate concerns of the most immediate concerns over Soviet capabilities for a neutralizing strike against Minuteman silos, and gain some time to adjust our posture…

Unlike the [1963] test ban treaty which served as a trigger for substantial increases in certain military programs, a SALT agreement is likely to add momentum to the general shift in priorities from military to civilian programs

These projections proved to be entirely wrong.

In their defense, Nixon and Kissinger were caught in a bind. Soviet strategic modernization programs were ongoing during these negotiations; US counters were in the offing. The Nixon administration did not entertain the option of deep cuts as a counter to the Soviet missile build up. It did consider ACDA’s “Stop Where We Are” proposals, but these were opposed by the Pentagon and deemed strategically unwise and politically unacceptable by the White House. US negotiating options were crafted before the Intelligence Community began to fully appreciate the extent of the Soviet missile buildup.

Nixon and Kissinger were not clear at the outset of SALT what outcomes they were angling for. Nor were they able to align negotiating ends and diplomatic means when, beginning in 1971, the Pentagon began to raise increasingly trenchant warnings about this mismatch. Nixon and Kissinger weren’t about to consider major changes in US proposals at this point, which would have meant sacrificing SALT before the elections. Instead, they kept existing options in play until the prospect of the Moscow summit loomed.

One cardinal rule of diplomacy is not to negotiate against a deadline, especially without your negotiating team and your own translators. But Nixon and Kissinger could not resist closing historic deals in Moscow while members of the US SALT delegation were cooling their heels in Helsinki. The outlines of this story have been well told, but the devil, as Paul Nitze liked to say, is in the details. There are many damning details in this volume.

The SALT I negotiations were a train wreck of confusion, duplicity, mismanagement and mis-steps that nonetheless resulted in historic accomplishments – the first compacts between two ideological foes to impose guidelines on their strategic arms competition. The ABM Treaty, now widely reviled in Republican circles, was a significant achievement. The Congress and American taxpayers would not support efforts to erect a nation-wide defense against Soviet missiles, and industry was incapable of delivering an effective product, regardless of cost. After wandering all over the map on missile defenses during the negotiations, Nixon reluctantly accepted these facts and removed one driver for the arms race.

Other drivers remained, and were unimpeded by the SALT I Interim Agreement. The nuclear arms race was extraordinarily hard to tame in the early ‘70s. The Nixon administration couldn’t do without MIRVs, and Moscow couldn’t do without its strategic modernization programs. The issues under negotiation were too complex, the negotiators were starting from scratch, and very powerful constituencies were distrustful of any result and well positioned to limit the limits. The Interim Agreement was deeply imperfect, but it laid the groundwork for better results over time.

How, then, you might well ask, could such a defective US negotiating process still result in historic agreements? To paraphrase the Jack Nicholson character in “A Few Good Men,” if you can’t handle irony and paradox when it comes to the Bomb, you can’t handle the truth.


  1. krepon (History)

    Note to readers in the DC area: The Woodrow Wilson Center has rescheduled its event discussing SALT I for Groundhog Day, Thursday, February 2nd. The event will begin at 3:30pm. Speakers will be Erin Mahan, chief historian of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, William Burr, senior analyst and director of the National Security Archive’s Nuclear History Documentation Project, and yours truly.

  2. joshua (History)


    I cannot remember the last time I saw something that actually made me want to read a FRUS volume.

    Well done.

  3. MarkoB (History)

    You’re right to mention MIRV and the Brezhnev buildup. Could it be possible also to add into the mix what Kissinger called “linkage?” That is, that strategic arms control should also lead to preferred Soviet conduct in other non-strategic aspects of US-Soviet relations such as Vietnam? Did the Soviets accept “linkage” or was arms control something to be pursued as an end in itself? I think “linkage” easily enabled conservative critics of arms control not only to mount a case against arms control but also detente more broadly; SALT was bad because the Soviets were not playing ball on linkage. But what, really, did Somalia have to do with SALT? Will be interesting to read up on the linkage aspect to all this.

    • Tim (History)

      Good point on the importance of Linkage, Markob. My own view is that it isn’t so much a question of whether the Soviets ‘accepted’ linkage, as whether they were aware of its importance within US politics. This lack of awareness has reared its head at least twice, by a quick count, but there are probably other examples as well.

      For example, before the Nixon Administration even articulated the concept of linkage, SALT was prevented from even getting off the ground during the Johnson Administration because the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia. The planned announcement of a US-Soviet summit on 21 August 1968 was scuttled, and fast! Similarly, President Carter was forced to withdraw the SALT II treaty from Senate consideration by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late December 1979.

      In both cases, the American tendency to connect arms control and other ‘non-strategic’ foreign policy issues seems not to have been considered by the Soviets. It would be interesting to know if this because of bureaucratic stove-piping, lack of understanding of the US political system, other factors, or some combination thereof.

    • Scott Monje (History)

      “It would be interesting to know if this because of bureaucratic stove-piping, lack of understanding of the US political system, other factors, or some combination thereof.”

      Or if in the end they just went with the higher priority of the moment.