Bargaining between the United States and the Soviet Union (later Russia) began in the late 1960s, and eventually these efforts resulted in a series of bilateral agreements: the two SALT I pacts of 1972 (the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Interim Agreement on Strategic Offensive Weapons); the SALT II Treaty of 1979; the INF agreement of 1987; the START I Treaty of 1991; and the START II Treaty of 1993.
SALT I and II Negotiations In late 1966, President Lyndon Johnson notified Soviet leaders that he wanted to limit strategic nuclear arms. The explosion of China's first thermonuclear device on 17 June 1967 persuaded Soviet Premier Aleksey Kosygin to meet with Johnson a short time later at Glassboro, New Jersey. When Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara lectured Kosygin on the need to restrict antiballistic missiles (ABMs) because they lessened the deterrent effect of their strategic nuclear systems, the Soviet leader angrily pounded the table and exclaimed: "Defense is moral, offense is immoral!"
After failing to get his message across at Glassboro, McNamara bowed to demands for the construction of an ABM system in September 1967. Three months later he announced that the United States also had decided to develop a new multiple, independently targetable, reentry vehicle (MIRV), which, after being carried aloft on a single missile, was capable of delivering two or more warheads to different targets. In late June 1968, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrey Gromyko asked that discussions on limiting both offensive and defensive weapons begin on 30 September; unfortunately, Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces intervened in Czechoslovakia in August, causing Johnson to postpone the talks.
Shortly after his inauguration, President Richard Nixon announced that his administration would seek strategic nuclear "sufficiency." On 17 November 1969 delegates initiated the strategic arms limitation talks (SALT). But the two nuclear arsenals differed significantly. The United States had developed technologically sophisticated, accurate missiles with relatively small warheads of one to two megatons, while the Soviets had deployed a number of different types of weapons. Some were similar to American weapons, but others were larger and had a greater throw weight—the maximum weight that a missile is capable of lifting into a trajectory—a difference that caused difficulties in negotiations for more than thirty years.
Nixon's national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, often met secretly with the Soviet ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Dobrynin, in late 1970 when the talks stalled. These "back-channel negotiations," carried on without informing the U.S. delegation, assisted in formulating a compromise—negotiations would focus on limitations of both defensive and offensive systems—which permitted the formal delegations to reach two distinct agreements.
At the Moscow summit, 18–22 May 1972, terms were agreed to on the Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and an Interim Agreement. Each side would deploy no more than 100 ABM launchers at each of two sites, one at the capital and the other at least 1,300 kilometers from the capital. The treaty called for verification by national technical means (satellite reconnaissance, electronic monitoring) without interference, and established a U.S.–Soviet Standing Consultative Commission to considering questions about such issues as compliance and interference. The Interim Agreement established, among other restrictions, a quantitative limit on both intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs)—1,054 for the United States, 1,618 for the Soviets—and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), but no limits on warheads. Using a formula that exchanged dismantled ICBMs for SLBMs, the United States could have up to 710 SLBMs on 44 submarines, and the Soviets 950 SLBMs on 62 submarines. The Interim Agreement's limits on strategic systems for each side were actually higher than what was currently possessed; but it did set ceilings on future deployments. The pact was to last five years (1972–1977), during which time both sides would work for a permanent treaty.
Nixon and Kissinger viewed the pacts as significant accomplishments. However, the Defense Department and Joint Chiefs of Staff had insisted on pursuing new strategic weapons systems—including the Trident submarine, an ABM site, a submarine-launched cruise missile, and multiple, independently targeted warheads—before giving their approval. Senator Henry Jackson, along with a former delegate to the talks, Paul Nitze, was concerned about Soviet retention of 308 heavy ICBMs, which conceivably might be fitted to carry forty warheads each. Jackson introduced an amendment that any future treaty would "not limit the U.S. to levels of intercontinental strategic forces inferior to the limits for the Soviet Union"—thereby launching a search for a new "yardstick" that had a dampening effect on subsequent negotiations.
After ratification of SALT I, the second phase focused on "quantitative" limits, with delegates meeting at Geneva to seek "qualitative" restrictions on the capabilities of weapons systems, a very difficult assignment. After Nixon's resignation, President Gerald Ford and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev met at Vladivostok in November 1974, to sign an "agreement in principle" that listed agreed-to objectives—each side should be limited to 2,400 ICBMs, SLBMs, and long-range bombers, of which 1,320 could have multiple warheads. Both sides of the strategic weapons debate in America were unhappy with the terms: some Americans complained about the lack of reductions; others were critical because the Soviets could still protect their heavy ICBMs. Meanwhile, to improve the accuracy of its missiles, the United States developed a larger ICBM known as the MX and introduced a more sophisticated warhead, MARV (maneuverable reentry vehicle), which greatly multiplied the challenges facing any missile defense system.
Jimmy Carter entered the White House hoping to quickly conclude a SALT II treaty that included deeper cuts in nuclear weapons than previously endorsed by the Vladivostok Accord. The Soviets rejected his March 1977 proposal because it took them by surprise, and because Carter had publicly announced his plan before presenting it to them. Finally signed in Vienna on 18 June 1979, the SALT II Treaty initially limited each side to a total of 2,400 strategic nuclear launch vehicles within this ceiling no more than 1,320 ICBMs, SLBMs, and long-range bombers could carry MIRVs or air-to-surface cruise missiles; and within this sublimit no more than 1,200 ICBMs, SLBMs, and air-to-surface cruise missiles could be MIRVed; and within that sublimit no more than 820 ICBMs could be MIRVed. The seventy-eight-page treaty did require both parties to dismantle some systems to make room for new deployments, and it also included an extensive list of qualitative restrictions.
The SALT II agreement was a mix of an engineering document and a lawyer's brief—the text was extraordinarily complex, and extensive definitions and elaborate "counting rules" were appended. As a result, opponents could employ the "fine print" to justify their claims that Backfire bombers were not properly counted or that the allowed "heavy" missiles gave the Soviets an unacceptable advantage. Despite these problems, Carter might have obtained sufficient support for ratification but for two problems: the "discovery" of Soviet combat troops in Cuba and the Iranian seizure of U.S. embassy personnel in Tehran.
INF Proposals Early in his administration, President Ronald Reagan was primarily concerned with expanding and modernizing U.S. military forces and actively avoiding serious arms control negotiations. Under pressure in late 1981 from antinuclear protesters in NATO countries and the "nuclear freeze" movement at home, he opened the intermediate nuclear forces (INF) negotiations. These discussions were triggered by a NATO decision, late in the Carter presidency, to deploy 108 Pershing II and 464 ground-launched cruise missiles to West Germany, Belgium, Britain, the Netherlands, and Italy to offset the Soviet Union's superior intermediate nuclear force, especially the new SS-20 with its three warheads. Not wanting to bow to "pacifist" demonstrators, the Reagan administration offered its "zero option" concept—the United States would cancel its scheduled deployment in the unlikely event the Soviets withdrew their intermediate-range missiles with l, 100 warheads. Moscow rejected the proposal, and U.S.–Soviet relations deteriorated under the Reagan administration's abusive rhetoric.
After Secretary-General Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power in 1985, the two sides examined a variety of INF proposals until in 1987 he stunned NATO and Washington leaders by accepting the U.S. zero option with its disproportionate reductions and, ultimately, the removal of Soviet intermediate-range missiles from Asia. Gorbachev also agreed to America's extensive 1986 verification demands, and on 8 December 1987 he and Reagan signed the INF Treaty in Washington, D.C. To carry out the on-site inspections that would verify compliance with treaty provisions, the United States created a new umbrella organization, the On-Site Inspection Agency. Despite a few minor controversies, the verification process functioned successfully, and on 1 June 2001 inspections ended as both sides announced that all intermediate missiles had been removed and destroyed.
START I and II Negotiations During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan denounced SALT II as "fatally flawed" and claimed it allowed a "window of vulnerability" during which the Soviet Union could easily overwhelm U.S. land-based nuclear forces. On 9 May 1982, Reagan outlined his plan for the "practical, phased reduction" of strategic nuclear weapons in two-stages. In phase I, warheads would be reduced by a third, with significant cuts in ballistic missiles; in phase II, a ceiling would be put on ballistic missile throw weights and other elements. While the public response was enthusiastic, analysts found the proposal, like the zero option, so one-sided that they considered it nonnegotiable. In phase I the Soviets would have to dismantle nearly all of their best strategic weapons, while the United States would be able to keep most of its Minutemen and proceed with its planned deployment of 100 heavier MX missiles. In addition, the United States would be allowed to go ahead with cruise missile deployments and the modernization of its submarine and bomber fleets. In phase II, the Soviets were to reduce the total aggregate throw weight of their strategic missiles by almost two-thirds, while the United States made no cuts at all.
Not until 1985, when Gorbachev got the START talks back on track, was there any progress in the on-and-off negotiations. In their first summit meeting in November, Reagan and Gorbachev shared a belief that "a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought," but Reagan's insistence on pursuing a ballistic missile defense system became a major sticking point. In March 1983 he had announced his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) proposal, which was to render nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete." The Soviets, and many NATO allies, opposed SDI (also dubbed "Star Wars") because it threatened the existing mutual nuclear deterrent system. Although the Geneva summit made little progress, both men agreed to work for a 50 percent reduction in strategic forces.
The spring of 1986 found the Reagan administration embroiled in a fierce struggle over whether or not to ignore the SALT II limits. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Central Intelligence Agency chief William Casey insisted that alleged Soviet noncompliance demanded a response; while State Department officials and Admiral William Crowe, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued that there was no operational reason for going over SALT limits. On 27 May, Reagan announced that the United States would no longer be bound by the unratified SALT II ceilings, a decision that caused a loud outcry in Congress, dismay among allied leaders, and a public uproar. Gorbachev was unperturbed because he was readying a new arms control package.
At the Reykjavik summit, on 10–11 October 1986, Reagan suggested the elimination of all ballistic missiles within ten years. Gorbachev immediately countered with the elimination of all Soviet and U.S. strategic nuclear weapons within ten years and limits on SDI. Since Reagan refused to accept any limitations on his Star Wars system, these radical arms reduction proposals were dropped—much to the relief of U.S. military leaders and the NATO allies, and undoubtedly to senior Soviet generals. In mid-1987 START negotiations began anew on reductions in strategic nuclear launch vehicles and ceilings on intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and air-launched cruise missile warheads.
When George Bush entered the White House in January 1989, the basic framework of START existed except for several unresolved details. While Moscow favored on-site inspections to determine whether ships were carrying sea-launched cruise missiles, the U.S. Navy rebelled at the idea of the Soviets snooping about its newest nuclear submarines. The United States now proposed that each side declare the number of submarine-launched cruise missiles it planned to deploy. At every meeting with Soviet leaders, Reagan had repeated the Russian proverb "Trust, but verify"; now, however, the United States wanted only trust.
The Soviets pressed for complex verification arrangements. Even though the basic procedures had been established in the INF treaty, verification continued to pose special problems. Congressional Cold War hawks still demanded intrusive inspections, but the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies did not want the Soviets prowling American defense plants. Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci admitted, "Verification has proven to be more complex than we thought it would be. The flip side of the coin is its application to us. The more we think about it, the more difficult it becomes."
After eight and a half frustrating years, President Bush and Soviet President Gorbachev signed the complex 750-page START I treaty on 31 July 1991. Basically, it limited each side to the deployment of 1,600 ballistic missiles and long-range bombers, carrying 6,000 "accountable" warheads by 5 December 2001, and established further sublimits. This was the first agreement that called upon each side to make significant cuts in its strategic arsenal. Almost 50 percent of the nuclear warheads carried on ballistic missiles were eliminated. The Lisbon Protocol, signed on 23 May 1992, created a five-state START I regime joining Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, and the United States. However, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine agreed to turn over the strategic nuclear weapons based on their territories to Russia. The verification regime under START I was complex and intrusive, with a Joint Compliance and Inspection Commission that served as a forum to facilitate implementation and to resolve compliance questions and ambiguities.
As the realization settled in that the Cold War was over, the START II treaty was quickly put in place on 3 January 1993 (although ratification was delayed—the United States took three years and Russia nearly seven years). This agreement further reduced the number of strategic nuclear warheads to be held by each party on 1 January 2003 to no more than 3,500. To persuade the Russian Duma to ratify SALT II, Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin met in Helsinki during March 1997 and drew up the so-called Helsinki Initiatives (Protocol to START II), which reassured Russia about the addition of former Warsaw Pact members to NATO and enhanced the prospects of further bilateral nuclear arms cooperation. These initiatives included a package of amendments to various SALT I terms designed to alleviate some the Duma's fears that since the Soviets could not afford to replace all their aging missiles, they would lose parity with U.S. forces. Most significant was that now the core of SALT II would be a ban on all land-based strategic ballistic missiles carrying MIRVs. The removal of the MIRVs eliminated what most experts considered to be the most destabilizing weapons in their mutual arsenals. They also reached agreement in principle on an outline for START III that would stipulate even deeper cuts. The United States and Russia were ahead of schedule in reducing their strategic nuclear arsenal in 1997, when the out-line for a START III pact would reduce the aggregate levels of strategic nuclear warheads to between 2,000 and 2,500 for each side by 31 December 2007.
The demise of the Soviet Union and the chaos that followed led to the sometimes controversial 1991 Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (often called the Nunn-Lugar Program), which provided U.S. funds to aid in consolidating the former Soviet arsenal and ensuring its custodial safety. Belatedly, the program was expanded to provide financial and technical assistance in disposal of chemical weapons and of fissile material extracted from nuclear warheads. The cost of disarming proved to be considerably more than expected.