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Arms Control and Disarmament: Nuclear

Arms Control and Disarmament: Nuclear. During the Cold War, at the same time that the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a massive nuclear weapons arms race, the two countries negotiated to limit that race. In the beginning, there was hope that these negotiations would, first, reduce the destructiveness of any war between the two; second, reduce their defense budgets; and, third, reduce the risks of war between them. Until the Cold War ended, however, only the last of these purposes was clearly served: The negotiations did help to manage the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States, to slow the global spread of nuclear weapons to other countries, to produce Soviet‐American cooperation in fields other than arms control, and, eventually, to achieve detente and an end to the Cold War.

After the failure of the Baruch Plan in the Truman administration, serious negotiations began during the administrations of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1958. Except for a brief period at the beginning, little progress was made until after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. Then, having come close to an exchange of nuclear‐tipped missiles, Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy made a determined search for ways to reduce the future risk of nuclear war. Because they had experienced dangerous delays in exchanging messages relating to the crisis, their first agreement was to install a “hot line” between Moscow and Washington for crisis communications.

Their next was to limit nuclear testing. Testing was essential for designing new weapons and had come to symbolize the nuclear arms race. Moreover, if no new countries learned how to make nuclear weapons because of a ban on testing, the chances of such weapons ever being used by others would clearly be decreased.

Gaining Soviet agreement to “on‐site” inspection to make sure a test ban was observed was a problem from the beginning. Because inspections were unnecessary to verify a ban on tests above ground, American negotiators proposed a ban on all tests except those underground. The Soviets at first rejected this as an inadequate alternative to a “comprehensive” ban on all testing. After Kennedy wrote to Khrushchev, appealed to the Soviets publicly in his famous American University speech of June 1963, and sent a personal representative to Moscow for negotiations, Khrushchev relented and agreed to ban all but underground tests. In 1996, long after the end of the Cold War, a comprehensive ban on all tests with provisions for inspections to assure compliance was finally agreed.

Efforts to find common ground continued under President Lyndon B. Johnson (1963–69) and Premier A. N. Kosygin, despite their assistance to opposing sides in the Vietnam War. Their common interest in preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to additional countries again produced agreement, this time in the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons of 1968. Made permanent in 1995, the treaty now has as many members as the UN Charter. In it, nonnuclear countries promise not to acquire nuclear weapons and the five avowed nuclear powers—Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States—promise not to transfer them.

Then came efforts to slow the U.S.‐Soviet nuclear arms race by freezing the levels of intercontinental ballistic missiles and by prohibiting defenses against such missiles. Each side had sufficient weapons with which to retaliate against a first strike by the other and to cause “unacceptable damage” in retaliation. As a result, each was restrained from striking first by the risk of mutual suicide. However, if an effective defense against missiles could be built, the side having such a system (called an anti‐ballistic missile system) could strike first without fear of a devastating missile retaliation by the other. Thus, both sides would race to build a missile defense and, if both did, neither would be better off.

Agreements to prevent this were negotiated during the Nixon administration (1969–74). In his inaugural address, President Richard M. Nixon announced an “era of negotiations.” He and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger came to see Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) as a major element in a broad strategy of detente to reduce the risk of nuclear war, curb military budgets, and gain Soviet help in resolving disputes in regions of conflict such as Vietnam and the Middle East. The Soviets were not as cooperative on all these subjects as Nixon and Kissinger hoped, but they also wanted to reduce the risk of nuclear war. Negotiations produced improved relations between the two countries and a period of detente resulted. The biggest arms control achievements were the Anti‐Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, permitting only limited missile defenses on each side, and a five‐year SALT I interim agreement freezing the number of missiles and aircraft on each side capable of delivering nuclear weapons to the other.

Detente continued under President Ford but came to an end under President Jimmy Carter (1977–81). Carter had the opportunity to turn a Ford‐Brezhnev agreement “in principle” into a SALT II treaty with more effective limits on warheads than SALT I. However, he wanted much more. He combined idealism about deep nuclear reductions with righteousness about Soviet failure to respect human rights and inexperience in both foreign affairs and Washington politics. He tried for too much and botched the job—managing to alienate both the Soviet leaders and conservatives in the U.S. Senate whose support he needed to gain approval for the SALT II Treaty he negotiated. While the treaty was pending in the Senate, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Senate approval became not just doubtful but impossible.

President Ronald Reagan (1981–89) pursued a major defense buildup rather than arms control. He called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” and proposed a “Star Wars” high‐tech antiballistic defense known formally as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). His administration argued that the Anti‐Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972 did not apply because the technology of Star Wars was far different from that of 1972. Although, like Carter, Reagan was inexperienced in both foreign affairs and Washington's ways, unlike Carter, he opposed arms control negotiations with the Soviets. And he was very successful in gaining approval from Congress for a major anti‐Soviet defense buildup.

Reagan was finally persuaded to begin arms control negotiations over Soviet missiles aimed at Europe rather than the United States, negotiations that had been promised to NATO allies by Carter. Soviet leaders had deployed new accurate, intermediate‐range missiles aimed at Europe without serious consideration of the possible European reaction, and were then outraged when their deployment produced a NATO consensus favoring U.S. deployment of new, accurate, intermediate‐range missiles in Europe aimed at the Soviet Union.

By the end of 1985, Reagan was persuaded that a new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, was a man Americans could do business with on arms control. This came about as the result of Gorbachev's “new thinking,” plus the effective work of Reagan's secretary of state, George Shultz, and personal communications and meetings between Gorbachev and Reagan. Part of Gorbachev's new thinking was to understand that Soviet deployment of new missiles aimed at Europe was a great mistake because it reduced Soviet security by producing new, accurate American missiles that reduced the warning time to ten minutes for Soviet leaders to implement a retaliatory strike and get to bomb shelters.

The first Gorbachev‐Reagan summit produced a joint communiqué agreeing that nuclear war could not be won and must never be fought. Eventually, the two sides agreed to eliminate all missiles with “intermediate” ranges (i.e., from 300 to 3,300 miles). The Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 became the first true nuclear arms reduction treaty between the two countries. It cemented a new era of U.S.‐Soviet friendship. Detente returned and cooperation in other fields was renewed.

Negotiations to reduce long‐range (strategic) nuclear aircraft and missiles also started up again. These came to be known as START, the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks. Again, Gorbachev was responsible for concessions that made agreement possible. But the treaty was not completed until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, an event that came to symbolize the end of the Cold War.

The START Treaty of 1991 was the first to reduce long‐range nuclear aircraft and missiles. It was signed shortly before the attempted August 1991 coup by Soviet conservatives against Gorbachev. Seeing a much weakened central Soviet government and aware that Soviet nuclear weapons were dispersed in parts of the Soviet Union that might seek independence, President George Bush (1989–93) acted quickly to deal with short‐range American and Soviet nuclear weapons, more widely dispersed around the world than the long‐range weapons that had been the subject of the SALT and START agreements. Bush announced a global American withdrawal of nuclear weapons for artillery, and for ground‐launched and ship‐launched missiles wherever deployed in the world. He called upon Gorbachev to reciprocate.

Gorbachev matched Bush and went beyond him. For example, the short‐range nuclear shells, bombs, and warheads withdrawn to Russia would total about 12,000 as compared with the Americans' 4,000. As a result, all short‐range nuclear weapons were moved out of the territories of Soviet republics that later declared independence.

By 1996, however, legislators hostile to nuclear arms control treaties were in control of both the U.S. Senate and the Russian Duma, approval by both of which was necessary for treaties to become fully effective. By early 1999, the Duma had not approved START II, signed six years earlier by Bush and President Boris Yeltsin. And President Bill Clinton had been unable to persuade the Senate to approve the Comprehensive Test Ban, negotiated during his administration and signed by him in 1996. This treaty, sought by Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, John, and Carter, as well as Clinton, would ban all future nuclear weapons tests.

Though slow‐moving before the end of the Cold War, arms control negotiations clearly helped reduce the risk of nuclear conflict and bring an end to the Cold War. What their future will be in the post‐Cold War world only time will tell.
[See also Arms Race; Baruch, Bernard; Cold War: External Course; SALT Treaties.]


Henry Kissinger , White House Years, 1979.
Strobe Talbott , Endgame: The Inside Story of SALT II, 1979.
Gerard Smith , Double Talk: The Story of SALT I, 1980.
Raymond Garthoff , Detente and Confrontation: American‐Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan, 1985.
Glenn T. Seaborg with and Benjamin S. Loeb , Stemming the Tide: Arms Control in the Johnson Years, 1987.
Lynn Eden and Steven E. Miller, eds., Nuclear Arguments: Understanding the Strategic Nuclear Arms and Arms Control Debates, 1989.
George Bunn , Arms Control by Committee: Managing Negotiations with the Russians, 1992.
James A. Baker , The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace, 1989–1992, 1995.
Anatoly Dobrynin , In Confidence: Moscow's Ambassador to America's Six Cold War Presidents, 1995.
Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies , The Arms Control Reporter: A Chronicle of Treaties, Negotiations, Proposals, Weapons and Policy, 1999.

George Bunn

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