The new president, Republican Gerald R. Ford, initially retained Kissinger as both secretary of state and national security affairs adviser, but the old diplomatic wizardry had dissipated. The secretary of state and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin met frequently and maneuvered endlessly for an advantage in arms control negotiations, warily proposing to limit weapons in which the other side had superiority while protecting their own favorites. In the interminable horse-trading, the United States claimed that the supersonic Soviet Backfire bomber (Tu-26) should be included in any new limitations agreements; the Soviets demanded inclusion of American nuclear-armed, ground-hugging, nonballistic cruise missiles. Technological strides kept raising the ante: the Soviet Union was perfecting the triple-MIRVed SS-20 IRBM, a terrifying threat to NATO; the United States was readying highly accurate Pershing IRBMs for NATO deployment and completing the Trident SSBN, with ballistic missiles that had a range of 4,000 nautical miles. Since neither side would yield, the dimming hopes for SALT II were bequeathed to the new Democratic administration of James Earl Carter in January 1977. When Carter took office, the U.S. nuclear inventory stood at 8,500 nuclear warheads in comparison with 5,700 in 1972, and the Soviet count had nearly doubled in the same period. If moderation of the nuclear balance of terror was the benchmark, the Nixon-Kissinger policy of détente had failed miserably.
President Jimmy Carter thought détente was worse than a failure. He believed U.S. strategic potency actually had diminished under Republicans Nixon and Ford: "We've been outtraded in almost every instance." The Naval Academy graduate and former nuclear submariner was perpetually torn between the "mailed fist" of his hawkish national security affairs adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and the "dove's coo" of his temperate and cautious secretary of state, Cyrus R. Vance. The president played off China against the Soviet Union, lectured Moscow on its policy toward Jews and dissident intellectuals, and at the same time tried to reignite the stalled SALT II talks. Soviet Ambassador Dobrynin lamented, "President Carter continued to attack us in public, in public, in public. Always in public."
Two months after Carter's inauguration, Secretary of State Vance flew to Moscow with a proposal to revive the SALT process by radically reducing the number of deployed ICBMs, not surprisingly the nuclear category in which the Soviets held the lead. Initially rebuffed, Vance persevered until Carter and Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev signed the SALT II treaty at a summit meeting in Vienna in June 1979. For the first time, each superpower accepted numerical equality with the other in total nuclear delivery vehicles. The total number of MIRVed launchers for each side was set at 1,200, and the quantity of MIRVs per missile was also fixed. Moscow and Washington promised to allow on-site verification of compliance by representatives from the other side, an unprecedented step forward. Excluded from the agreement were several new high-technology weapons systems: the American MX ("missile experimental"), an improved ICBM that could deliver ten MIRVs to targets 7,000 miles distant from the launch site; the Trident-II SLBM with MIRVed ballistic missiles almost twice the weight of their predecessors; the nonballistic, nuclear-armed cruise missile; and the supersonic Soviet Backfire bomber with a threatening range of 5,500 miles.
This qualified success fell victim to domestic critics and to Soviet-American disputes over hegemony throughout the world. Paul Nitze, the bellicose author of NSC 68, protested against SALT II. He said it was "time for the United States to stand up and not be a patsy." Senator Henry Jackson, always a patron of the arms industry and an intransigent foe of conciliation, complained that SALT II sanctified an imbalance in which the Soviet Union could destroy American land-based nuclear retaliatory forces in a preemptive first strike. In contrast, doves faulted the treaty because it was not comprehensive enough.
The objectors might have scuttled the pact regardless of international affairs, but in the fall of 1979 they were aided immeasurably by Carter's accusation that the Soviets were infiltrating a combat brigade into Cuba. The president vainly attempted to placate his critics and to warn the Soviets. He proclaimed a five-year military expansion program focused on European-based inter-mediate and cruise missiles, and his personal rage at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December of that year led him to withdraw SALT II from the Senate. Discredited by a wide variety of foreign policy failures, most notably the Iranian hostage crisis (1979–1981), Carter lost the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan, a charismatic movie actor and former governor of California.