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Originally conceptualized in 1979 by the Social Democratic party of West Germany, the concept of a "zero option" led to the first, albeit more symbolic than substantive, nuclear disarmament treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union. Although it began as a simplistic rhetorical slogan among West German anti-nuclear activists, the concept of having zero nuclear missiles on the European Continent was embraced by U.S. President Ronald Reagan and eventually codified as the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty.

On November 18, 1981, Reagan announced the United States' support for canceling the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe, in exchange for Soviet withdrawal of nuclear missiles already positioned in its Eastern European satellite states. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev immediately dismissed the idea, noting its asymmetric nature: The Soviets were being asked to dismantle an entire class of weapons (from Asia as well as Europe) in exchange for the United States' nondeployment in Europe alone. As a result of a continued stalemate, Reagan ordered the deployment of nuclear missiles into Western Europe in 1983. Neither Reagan nor Brezhnev and his successors, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, were willing to compromise.

Credit for the eventual success of the zero-option concept, as solidified through the signing of the INF Treaty, rests largely in the hands of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who applied a new spirit to Soviet foreign policy. Gorbachev offered a series of unilateral concessions that essentially meant acceptance of a final treaty mirroring Reagan's initial 1981 proposal. Ironically, as the 1980s progressed and the INF Treaty gained political momentum, it was the Western European nations that balked, voicing fears about Soviet conventional superiority in Europe. Such fears were quelled by the non-inclusion of British and French nuclear weapons in the final treaty, which was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union on December 8, 1987.

See also: arms control; gorbachev, mikhail sergeyevich; intermediate range; nuclear forces treaty


Bennett, Paul R. (1989). The Soviet Union and Arms Control: Negotiating Strategy and Tactics. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

Risse-Kappen, Thomas. (1988). The Zero Option: INF, West Germany, and Arms Control, tr. Lesley Booth. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Matthew O'Gara