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President Richard Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev sign the SALT I arms limitation agreement (see November 17, 1969). The anti-ballistic missile agreement (see May 26, 1972) limits each side to 200 launchers and interceptors, deployed at two widely separated sites. The restrictions are designed to prevent the establishment of an overall missile defense system by either side. The treaty also establishes a system of mutual verification, and lays down the principle of “non-interference” by one party with the verification procedures of the other; in essence, this allows both the US and the USSR to maintain overflights by reconnaissance satellites. The treaty also establishes the Standing Consultative Commission (SCC) to handle treaty-related compliance and implementation issues. (Federation of American Scientists 1/15/2008)
Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, an opponent of arms limitations agreements with the Soviet Union, attempts to scuttle the SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) negotiations between the two countries by telling the National Security Council that the Pentagon will not support any SALT agreement that does not guarantee US superiority in nuclear weapons. In a follow-up to his declaration, he writes a letter to neoconservative Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA—see Early 1970s) essentially advocating Jackson’s hardline approach to dealing with the USSR, a position that undermines that of President Ford. During the Vladivostok negotiations between Ford and Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev (see November 23, 1974), he encourages Ford to hold out for an agreement that mandates numerical equality between the two sides for the simple reason that he does not believe the Soviets will agree. Author J. Peter Scoblic calls this the “foreshadowing of a tactic that would be used by arms control opponents in the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations.” (Scoblic 2008, pp. 80)
President Gerald Ford meets with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev in Vladivostok. Ford, attempting to restart the moribund SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitations Talks) negotiations, finds Brezhnev willing to deal. The Soviet Union offers to sign off on one of two options: equal ceilings (allowing each side the same number of long- and short-range ballistic missiles and heavy bombers), or what he calls “offsetting asymmetries,” which would allow the US to have more MIRV—Multiple Independently Targetable Reentry Vehicle—missiles while the Soviets have more launch vehicles. Most American experts believe the “offsetting asymmetries” option is better for the US—leaving the USSR with measurably fewer MIRV launchers, warheads, and payload capacity, or “throw weight.” However, Ford, knowing he will have to get the deal past neoconservative Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA—see Early 1970s) and his call for numerical equality, reaches an agreement with Brezhnev that both the US and USSR will be allowed 2,400 long-range delivery systems, of which 1,320 will be MIRVs. Author J. Peter Scoblic calls the deal “yet another instance of right-wing opposition to arms control undermining not only nuclear stability but the stated goals of conservatives—in this case, a US advantage in MIRVs.” When Ford returns to Washington with the deal, hardline right-wingers will fiercely oppose the deal on the grounds that the numerical equality in launch vehicles gives the USSR an untenable advantage. “[T]he agreement recognizes and in effect freezes Soviet superiority in nuclear firepower,” says New York Senator James Buckley, the only member of the Conservative Party ever to hold a Senate seat. Governor Ronald Reagan, a voluble opponent of any arms-control deals, says, incorrectly, that the Vladivostok agreement gives the Soviet Union the opportunity to have a “ten-to-one” advantage in throw weight. Though the Vladivostok agreement becomes part of the overall SALT II negotiations (see June 18, 1979-Winter 1979), conservatives among both parties will stiffen their opposition to the deal. (Scoblic 2008, pp. 78-79)
President Carter attempts, and fails, to forge an agreement with the Soviet Union to drastically reduce the number of nuclear weapons the two countries possess (see Mid-January, 1977). Carter’s predecessor, Gerald Ford, left him with the framework of a potentially expansive SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) agreement signed in Vladivostok (see November 23, 1974), but that agreement still allowed for an astonishing number of nuclear weapons—2,400 apiece. (The US does not even have 2,400 delivery vehicles.) Carter proposes that both sides significantly reduce their nuclear stockpiles. But Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, lacking the political capital among his more hawkish colleagues and rivals in the Kremlin, not only refuses, but decries the suggestion as nothing but American propaganda. The two nations will eventually sign the SALT II accords two years later (see June 18, 1979-Winter 1979), after a fitful negotiation process, but the agreement will differ little from the Vladivostok agreement of 1974. (Scoblic 2008, pp. 105)
US President Jimmy Carter and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev sign the SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) agreement in Vienna, after years of fitful negotiations. The basic outline of the accords is not much different from the agreement reached between Brezhnev and President Ford five years earlier (see November 23, 1974).
Conservative Opposition - The Senate must ratify the treaty before it becomes binding; Republicans and conservative Democrats alike oppose the treaty. Neoconservative Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA—see Early 1970s) compares Carter to former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (who allowed the Nazis to occupy part of Czechoslovakia in 1938) in accusing Carter of “appeasement in its purest form” towards the Soviet Union. Members of the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD—see 1976) appear before the Senate 17 times to argue against ratification. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld testifies against it, calling instead for a $44 billion increase in defense spending and once again evoking the specter of Nazi Germany: “Our nation’s situation is much more dangerous today than it has been at any time since Neville Chamberlain left Munich, setting the stage for World War II.” The American Security Council launches “Peace Through Strength Week” (see November 12, 1979). And Governor Ronald Reagan (R-CA), embarking on his presidential campaign, warns the nation that the Soviets could just “take us with a phone call,” forcing us to obey an ultimatum: “Look at the difference in our relative strengths. Now, here’s what we want.… Surrender or die.”
Familiar Arguments - In 2008, author J. Peter Scoblic will write that the arguments advanced against the SALT II treaty are the same as advanced so many times before (see August 15, 1974), including during the infamous “Team B” exercise (see November 1976). The Soviet Union believes it can win a nuclear war, opponents insist, and a treaty such as the one signed by Carter and Brezhnev merely plays into the Soviets’ hands. Once the US loses its significant advantage in nuclear payloads, the likelihood increases that the USSR incinerates American missile silos and dares the US to respond—the US might get off a volley of its remaining missiles, but the Soviets will then launch a second strike that will destroy America’s cities. And that US strike will have limited impact because of what critics call the Soviets’ extensive, sophisticated civil defense program. The US will have no other choice than to, in Scoblic’s words, “meekly submit to Soviet will.” SALT II plays into what the CPD calls the Soviet goal of not waging a nuclear war, but winning “political predominance without having to fight.” Scoblic will note, “An argument that had started on the fringes of the far Right was now being made with total seriousness by a strong cross-section of foreign policy experts, backed by significant public support.” Scoblic then calls the arguments “fatuous… grounded in zero-sum thinking.” The facts do not support the arguments. It is inconceivable, he will observe, that the US would absorb a devastating first strike without immediately launching its own overwhelming counterstrike. And for the critics to accept the tales of “extensive” Soviet civil defense programs, Scoblic argues, is for them to be “remarkably credulous of Soviet propaganda.” No matter what the Soviets did first, the US could kill upwards of 75 million Soviet citizens with its single strike, a circumstance the USSR was unlikely to risk. And, Scoblic will note, subsequent studies later prove the conservatives’ arguments completely groundless (see 1994).
Senate Fails to Ratify - By late 1979, the arguments advanced by Congressional conservatives, combined with other events (such as the “discovery” of a clutch of Soviet troops in Cuba) derails the chance of SALT II being ratified in the Senate. When the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan (see December 8, 1979), Carter withdraws the treaty from further consideration. Scoblic will note that by this point in his presidency, Carter has abandoned any pretense of attempting to reduce nuclear armaments (see Mid-January, 1977); in fact, “[h]is nuclear policies increasingly resembled those of Team B, the Committee on the Present Danger, and groups like the Emergency Coalition Against Unilateral Disarmament” (see Early 1977 and Late 1979-1980). Carter notes that such a treaty as the SALT II accord is the single most important goal of US foreign policy: “Especially now, in a time of great tension, observing the mutual constraints imposed by the terms of these treaties, [SALT I and II] will be in the best interest of both countries and will help to preserve world peace.… That effort to control nuclear weapons will not be abandoned.” (Scoblic 2008, pp. 105-109, 117)
President Reagan, recuperating from surgery to remove an assassin’s bullet, tells bedside visitor Terence Cardinal Cooke that God spared his life so that he might “reduce the threat of nuclear war.”
Censored Letter to Brezhnev - The day after his conversation with Cooke, Reagan pens a letter to Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev calling for “disarmament” and a “world without nuclear weapons.” Brezhnev does not read Reagan’s words; Reagan’s aides, horrified at the letter, rewrite it and strip out all the phrases calling for a reduction in nuclear weapons before sending it to Brezhnev.
Aides Refuse to Draw up Plans for Disarmament - In the following weeks, Reagan will call nuclear weapons “horrible” and “inherently evil,” and order his aides to draw up plans for their elimination. His aides will refuse to deliver those plans; one adviser, Richard Burt (see Early 1981 and After), will exclaim: “He can’t have a world without nuclear weapons! Doesn’t he understand the realities?”
Wants to Stop Nuclear Armageddon - Reagan believes in the literal Biblical story of Armageddon—the End Times—and believes that it will come about through the use of nuclear weapons. Unlike some conservative Christians (and some of his advisers), he does not relish the prospect, and in fact believes it is his task to prevent it from happening.
Plans to Reduce Nuclear Arms Based on Prescience, Ignorance - Author J. Peter Scoblic will note it is difficult to reconcile the view of Reagan as an advocate of nuclear disarmament with the confrontational, sometimes apocalyptic rhetoric and actions by him and his administration (see Early 1981 and After, Early 1981 and After, September 1981 through November 1983, March 1982, and Spring 1982), but Scoblic will write: “Each of these efforts, however, can also be interpreted as a sincere, if misguided, product of Reagan’s hatred of nuclear weapons. Reagan believed that the Soviets would reduce their atomic arsenal only if they were faced with the prospect of an arms race.” Reagan realizes—ahead of many of his advisers—that the USSR was moving towards a calamitous economic crisis, and believes that the Soviets will choose to step back from further rounds of escalation in order to save their economy from complete collapse. He also believes, with some apparent conflict in logic, that the only way to reduce US nuclear arms is to increase the nation’s military arsenal. “Reagan emphasized time and again, that the aim of his arms build-up was to attain deep cuts in nuclear weapons,” biographer Paul Lettow will write. “[M]ost people did not listen to what he was actually saying.” Scoblic cites what he calls Reagan’s profound ignorance of nuclear strategy and tactical capabilities as another driving force behind Reagan’s vision of nuclear disarmament. He is not aware that submarines and long-range bombers carry nuclear missiles; he believes that submarine-based nuclear missiles can be called back once in flight. Both ideas are wrong. He tells foreign policy adviser Brent Scowcroft that he did not realize the primary threat from the Soviet Union was that its gigantic arsenal of ICBMs might obliterate the US’s own ICBM stockpile. When journalists ask him how the MX missile program (see 1981) that he has asserted will rectify the threat to American ICBMs, as he has asserted, he confesses that he does not know. And he honestly does not seem to understand that his administration’s confrontational, sometimes overtly belligerent actions (see May 1982 and After, June 8, 1982, March 23, 1983, and November 2-11, 1983) cause apprehension and even panic among the Soviet military and political leadership. Scoblic will write that like other hardline conservatives, “Reagan could not believe that anyone could perceive the United States as anything but righteous.”
'Subject to Manipulation' - Reagan’s desire for a reduction in nuclear arms is not matched by any depth of understanding of the nuclear weapons issues. Therefore, Scoblic will observe, “[h]e was susceptible to manipulation by advisers who shared his militant anti-communism but not his distaste for nuclear deterrence and who wanted neither arms reduction nor arms control.” When he names George Shultz as his secretary of state in mid-1982, he gains a key ally in his plans for nuclear reduction and a counterweight to arms-race advocates such as Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and other hardliners who have worked (and continue to work) to sabotage the administration’s arms negotiations with the Soviet Union. He gains another ally when he replaces National Security Adviser William Clark with the more pragmatic Robert McFarlane. Both Shultz and McFarlane will support Reagan’s desire to begin sincere negotiations with the USSR on reducing nuclear arms, as does his wife, Nancy Reagan, who wants her husband to be remembered by history as reducing, not increasing, the risk of nuclear war. (Scoblic 2008, pp. 136-138)
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