Michael KreponSALT’s Rise and Fall

Opposition to the SALT process was firmly rooted in negotiations over the Interim Agreement and the ABM Treaty. Never have two arms control agreements been approved by such overwhelming margins (two votes against, in both cases) despite such deep reservations during the negotiating process. The memos written by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas Moorer, and others tell this tale. They can be found in Volume XXXII on SALT I in the Foreign Relations of the United States series (2010).

Laird, a former Wisconsin Congressman – oddly, “America’s Dairyland” has been the source of two Secretaries of Defense – knew his way around Washington, but the Nixon White House was impenetrable, even to Cabinet Secretaries. Laird made himself heard via memos. His first bell-ringing message appears well into the negotiations – July 12, 1971 – when the extent of Soviet strategic modernization programs was becoming evident. Laird wrote that these programs “could mean the end of U.S. sufficiency and parity.” That was an attention-getter. Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, Moorer’s stand-in, sent a memo to Laird on July 31, 1971 driving home this argument:

The Joint Chiefs of Staff are further concerned by the rapidity with which the US negotiating position has steadily eroded relative to the Soviets to the point that it now appears the United States will be frozen in a position of serious strategic inferiority.

The most memorable line of Secretary Laird’s ratification testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee was that “peace cannot be bought cheaply.” The price of Laird’s and Moorer’s support for the SALT I accords were “predicated upon” funding for substantial U.S. strategic modernization programs, including the Trident, a new strategic bomber, and cruise missiles.

The prospect of MIRVs and national missile defenses forced Washington and Moscow into a transaction that neither really believed in. Consequently, the Interim Agreement and the ABM Treaty were accompanied by U.S. and Soviet strategic modernization programs that vitiated these constraints. The Nixon White House never built constituencies behind the SALT process beyond that part of the electorate it distrusted the most. Other potential stakeholders felt deeply aggrieved from being manipulated during the SALT I negotiations, becoming harsh critics of a follow-on treaty. Two U.S. administrations and seven long years later, the White House and the Kremlin were finally ready to top off their offensive forces, but by then, U.S. disaffection with the SALT process endangered ratification, even before the Kremlin’s catastrophic venture into Afghanistan shelved the SALT II Treaty indefinitely.

(Previous discussions of SALT I and its aftermath: The Jackson AmendmentMIRVs and Remorse, Sort Of; Gerard C. Smith; Nixon, Kissinger, and SALT. – Ed.)


  1. Bradley Laing (History)

    WASHINGTON: A new satellite image shows a marked increase in activity at a North Korean missile launch site, pointing to a possible long-range ballistic missile test by Pyongyang in the next three weeks, according to satellite operator DigitalGlobe Inc


  2. Pat Towell (History)

    A case could be made that a phone booth could have comfortably accomodated everybody on the planet who truly believed in 1972 that it was possible to negotiate a meta-stable U.S-Soviet balance in offensive weapons.

    The ratification vote was the product of a double fraud:

    -arms controllers who FOR ALL PRACTICAL PURPOSES believed in existential deterrence, pretended to believe that the relative numbers of prompt hard-target killers mattered a great deal.

    -arms control skeptics, who believed that the very process of arms control negotiations was corrosive of U.S. security (because limp-wristed liberal democracies will always assume the best, etc.), pretended to believe that these particular arms control agreements were OK, provided they were verified by measures which (this group was confident) the Soviet Union would never live with.

    Of course, the proximate cause of the subsequent collapse of the SALT process was the Soviet modernization program. Of all the pathetic charades I’ve witnessed in nearly 40 years in this town, few rival the efforts by a doughty band of arms controllers to explain that Krasnoyarsk wasn’t REALLY a violation because they hadn’t yet finished it; No – wait — they finished it, but they hadn’t yet turned it on; No – no – hold on a minute – Oh! Yeah! It really IS a space surveillance system and not a BMD system. Yeah! Dat’s da ticket…..

    • joshua (History)

      Existential deterrence. Indeed. L’enfer, c’est les autres.