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

With the NPT entering into force in March 1970, Nixon’s broader arms control agenda included U.S.-Soviet agreements signed during the next three years: the “Accidents Measures” Agreement of September 30, 1971, the Hot Line” Modernization Agreement of September 30, 1971, and the Incidents at Sea Agreement of May 25, 1972. Multilateral agreements were the Seabed Arms Control Treaty of February 11, 1971 and the Biological Weapons Convention of April 10, 1972. These are reviewed in topical chapters of Part III of this book on Reagan’s defense and arms control strategies.

The 1972 U.S.-Soviet “Détente” Summit Agreements in Moscow—May to June 1972. The strategic assumptions and hopes of Nixon’s new U.S. détente strategy were highlighted by three interrelated agreements signed at a U.S.-Soviet summit held in Moscow from May 26 to June 3, 1972. The three agreements were: 1) the “Interim Agreement on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms” known as SALT or SALT–I; 2) the “Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty” known as the ABM Treaty; and 3) the “Agreement on Basic Principles of Relations between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.” generally referred to as the Principles of Détente Agreement. The first two agreements are summarized below and are also reviewed in a broader defense and arms control context in Chapter 12 on Strategic Offensive Forces and Chapter 13 on Strategic Defense.

Nixon’s SALT I. Nixon’s SALT agreement and its associated SALT I Protocol, signed on May 26, 1972, were presented as a five-year “interim” Executive Agreement that would not require ratification by the U.S. Senate, but would instead be paired with the ABM Treaty for consideration as part of the U.S. Senate’s ratification process. SALT–I was praised by Nixon, senior Administration officials, and Congressional supporters as an extraordinary achievement of détente and arms control. Examples of such glowing praise are Nixon’s May 3, 1973 report to Congress on U.S. Foreign Policy—1973: SALT Excerpt from May 3, 1973, and a Department of State news release titled Peace, National Security, and the SALT Agreements, issued on August 1, 1972, presents an argument for SALT as capping Soviet increases that would otherwise become far greater in its absence. SALT was to be followed by a SALT II agreement expected to be ready by SALT’s expiration in October 1977. However, SALT also included an article with a formula utilized in future agreements that underlined their potential transience by permitting unilateral withdrawal by either party at any time on six-months notice “if it decides that its supreme interests are jeopardized by extraordinary events related to the subject matter of this Interim Agreement have jeopardized its supreme interests.”2

Problems in SALT’s Preamble. Notwithstanding the Administration’s confidence, critics found the SALT–I agreement severely flawed, beginning with its preambular opening words. First, SALT started with an invocation of a presumed existing “relaxation of international tension and the strengthening of trust” (i.e., “détente”). Yet arms control and general relaxation and trust were unlikely to be fostered given Soviet deception and the lack of an agreed database, effective (high-confidence) verification, and actual reductions of weapons. Second, the preamble adopted Soviet insistence for an arms control “relationship between strategic offensive and defensive arms” (i.e., a SALT-ABM Treaty link), at the very time critics of the predominant “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD) U.S. Cold War deterrence strategy based on offensive arms sought to de-link reductions in such arms from restrictions on the anti-missile defenses that they believed were required to assure defense and stability. Third, the preamble committed both parties to being “mindful of their obligations under Article VI of the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).” Yet, this article had long been criticized as mirroring Soviet calls for “general and complete disarmament”—an unverifiable and unenforceable slogan long pushed by Soviet propaganda to encourage unilateral Western disarmament steps very unlikely to be reciprocated by the Soviet regime.

SALT “Caps” Problems. The “caps” or “ceilings” set by SALT and its protocol on warhead-carrying Strategic Delivery Vehicles (SNDVs) reflected traditional Soviet “moratorium” and “freeze” proposals that required no actual or enforceable reductions in warheads. SALT, in fact, permitted continued major asymmetries in the strategic modernization of the two superpowers in ratios and numbers greatly favoring the Soviet Union. Although this reality was at first buried by the praise accorded to the agreement, its purported “arms control” standard was not credible to critics. Furthermore, in reading the Agreement and Protocol texts it proved difficult to determine exactly what was prohibited and permitted and how the data had been derived, a situation that also appeared true for the negotiators and for those tasked to monitor compliance. Thus:

  • Land-Based Missiles: Construction of land-based Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) was to be limited after July 1, 1972, and conversion of pre-1964 ICBMs would be limited for use involving modern “heavy” ICBMs. Yet the two sides could not agree on the definition and measurement of “heavy.”

[Book pg. 100]