Chapter 5 – U.S. “Détente” Strategy from Nixon to Ford - 1969 to 1977

NSC in February 1970 on “U.S. Foreign Policy for the 1970s: A New Strategy for Peace.” The first of a series of annual foreign policy reports to the Congress, its title is abbreviated here as U.S. Foreign Policy—1970. The Nixon Doctrine was predicated on increasingly shared responsibilities and contributions in partnerships in which “the defense and progress of other countries must be first their responsibility and second, a regional responsibility.”1 At the NSC, the policy focus was on negotiations on U.S.-Soviet arms control and the Vietnam War, but also included defense, alliance consultations, regional issues, and trade. Special attention was given to summits with the Soviet Union and the Peoples Republic of China in 1972—as high points of the U.S. détente strategy.

Moving Beyond Kennedy and Johnson’s Nuclear Arms Control. In the high-profile area of nuclear arms control, Nixon was determined that his détente strategy would go beyond the mixed legacies inherited from his presidential predecessors Kennedy and Johnson. The Kennedy Administration had signed two such agreements, both in 1963. The first was the bilateral Hot Line Agreement, a “confidence building measure” that established direct telephone links between the U.S. and Soviet leaders, to be especially useful in a nuclear emergency. Second was the multilateral Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT), which banned nuclear weapon tests in the atmosphere, outer space, and under water. The Johnson Administration, in turn, focused largely on domestic civil rights issues and the Vietnam War, but signed two multilateral agreements involving nuclear weapons, while also seeking wider nuclear arms talks. The new Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons in Outer Space signed on January 27, 1967 banned placing nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction into orbit around earth or on other celestial bodies (e.g., the moon). The second treaty was the Latin American Nuclear-Free Zone Agreement signed on February 14, 1967.

The Unilateral Soviet Strategic Arms Build-Up. Although Kennedy’s and Johnson’s arms control agreements required no actual reductions in the superpowers’ nuclear weapons, they raised hopes of progress in “capping” the nuclear “arms race.” Yet, as detailed in Chapter 12, while the U.S. notably slowed down its strategic arms modernization programs in the late 1960s to four systems in anticipation of a significant measure of reciprocity by the Soviet Union, the Soviets undertook the largest strategic arms build-up in history with programs for at least twenty-six new or modernized systems underway. The U.S. response was to seek renewed U.S.-Soviet arms control negotiations but to do little to modernize its own strategic forces, even when confronted by dramatic asymmetric increases in Soviet strategic offensive capabilities, new Soviet anti-missile defenses deployed around Moscow, and a series of nuclear missile tests by China.

Johnson, Nuclear Arms Control and ABM Systems. It is important to recall that the Soviet leaders initially rejected Johnson’s efforts to engage the Soviet Union in strategic nuclear arms reductions talks, but changed their policy after Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, announced on September 18, 1967 that the U.S. planned to deploy a “thin” anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system based on the U.S. “Safeguard” anti-missile program. The system was described by U.S. officials as designed to protect U.S. cities against a developing threat from China—which was still caught up in Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” and Marshall Lin Piao’s public “manifesto” that described the United States as the main global enemy and called for pro-Communist revolutionary “liberation wars.”

Within months of McNamara’s announcement of U.S. ABM plans, the Soviet Union signed the multilateral Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on July 1, 1968 and on the same date President Johnson announced that the Soviets had agreed to begin discussion involving both “strategic nuclear delivery systems” and ABM defenses. Concerning the NPT, however, national security critics pointed out that the Treaty was not effectively verifiable or enforceable and that Article VI of the Treaty committed signatories to the objective of “general and complete disarmament”—a signature phrase of Soviet propaganda. Others noted the timing of the NPT and Johnson’s reference to Soviet fear of the Safeguard program. Prospects for new U.S.-Soviet discussions ended with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, which produced widespread Western outrage until Congress and Nixon’s notification steps in 1969.

Nixon and Arms Control—1969 to 1972. On Nixon’s inauguration day, January 20, 1969, the Soviet Union took advantage of the change in American leadership by signaling that it was ready to resume the strategic nuclear arms discussions halted by the August 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Nixon promptly accepted the invitation and directed his NSC staff to undertake extensive preparatory reviews that led to the beginning of U.S.-Soviet Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in November 1969.

[Book pg. 99]