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

  • Submarines: Nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines and their missile launchers (firing tubes) for systems “operational or under construction” were to be limited. Yet these terms and unclear “modernization and replacement” rules were such that the U.S. could increase deployments to 44 nuclear powered submarines carrying 710 ballistic missile launchers while the Soviet Union could asymmetrically increase to 62 submarines carrying 950 ballistic missile launchers. In addition, new launchers for the U.S. above 656 and in the USSR above 740, could come from operational replacements for older types deployed prior to 1964.
  • Bombers: There was no overall limit on bombers, and negotiation difficulties blocked any clear definition for limiting “heavy” bombers. The U.S. had a preponderance in bombers, but bombers were seen as far more stable than ballistic missiles since they were slow-flying systems that could be recalled or could be intercepted by other aircraft and anti-aircraft defenses of which the Soviets had far more of than the U.S.

SALT Verification Problems. A further serious problem was that SALT relied for verification on so-called National Technical Means (NTM) monitoring techniques focused on long-distance overhead and surface monitoring systems. SALT provisions provided that “each party undertakes not to interfere with the national technical means of verification” and “not to use deliberate concealment measures which impede verification by national technical means.”3 Yet NTM procedures came to be understood by the mid- to late 1970s as insufficient for high confidence verification since they were highly susceptible to interference and circumvention by standard Soviet “denial and deception” practices including concealment and encryption. With NTM alone, the U.S. could not count on any “effective” (i.e., high-confidence) verification of Soviet compliance. That would have required on-site measures as well as far clearer definitions and higher-confidence data to try to detect Soviet cheating.

SALT I’s Fateful Link to the ABM Treaty and MAD. A final major area of concern was that SALT’s linkage to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty’s national missile defense ban raised serious moral and strategic questions as detailed in Chapter 13 of this book on Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). This fateful explicit link was called out in SALT’s preambular language and, while it was praised by U.S. officials in numerous press conferences, critics considered it to be an extremely serious strategic problem for U.S. national security. The Soviet leaders had accepted the SALT strategic arms talks only after initial U.S. steps were taken for the deployment of the limited “Safeguard” ABM system. The Soviets were still clearly determined to block any operational U.S. ABM deployment responses to ongoing Soviet offensive arms and ABM deployments. They could assume that the ABM Treaty’s ban on national ABM systems was likely to be kept only by the United States unilaterally while being violated by the Soviet Union. The Treaty would lock the superpowers into the questionable and intrinsically unstable Cold War nuclear deterrence strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) and leave Americans vulnerable to missile attack. MAD eliminated the vital U.S. national defense insurance policy of ABMs, not only against likely Soviet cheating, but also against accidental launches and the growing risks of global proliferation.

2. Nixon’s Détente Strategy—The U.S.-Soviet “Détente Principles Agreement” and Two Congressional Amendments on “Linkage”

The formal “Agreement on Basic Principles of Relations between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.,” also known as the Principles of Détente Agreement, was signed on May 29, 1972 at the same U.S.-Soviet summit in Moscow at which the SALT and ABM agreements were signed. It was a step explicitly designed to “bridge ideological differences,” practice “peaceful coexistence,” “be a guide for future action,” and a “solemn obligation.” The Principles Agreement would confirm new international rules that were somehow effectively to commit the two Cold War superpowers to new principles of diplomacy, arms control, and peaceful behavior. As summarized by President Nixon in an excerpt from his 1973 annual foreign policy report to the Congress, U.S. Foreign Policy—1973: Excerpt on Principles of Détente, issued on May 3, 1973:

[A New Relationship, Reciprocity] This far-reaching step placed all our other efforts on a broader foundation. A new relationship would require new attitudes and aspirations. . . . The main provisions state that both sides will:

  • do their utmost to avoid military confrontations and to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war;

[Book pg, 101]