118. Briefing by the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee1

[Omitted here is a very brief introductory comment by Kissinger.]

In considering the two agreements before the Congress, the treaty on the limitation of antiballistic missile systems and the interim agreement on the limitation of offensive arms,2 the overriding questions are these: Do these agreements permit the United States to maintain a defense posture that guarantees our security and protects our vital interests? Second, will they lead to a more enduring structure of peace?

In the course of the formal hearings over the coming days and weeks, the Administration will demonstrate conclusively that they serve both of these ends. I will begin that process this morning by offering some general remarks on the agreement, after which I will be happy to take your questions.

U.S.-Soviet Relations in the 1970’s

The first part of my remarks will deal with U.S.-Soviet relations as they affect these agreements. The agreement which was signed 46 minutes before midnight in Moscow on the evening of May 26th by President Nixon and General Secretary Brezhnev is without precedent in the nuclear age; indeed, in all relevant modern history.

Never before have the world’s two most powerful nations, divided by ideology, history and conflicting interests, placed their central armaments under formally agreed limitation and restraint. It is fair to ask: What new conditions now prevail to have made this step commend itself to the calculated self-interests of both of the so-called superpowers, as it so clearly must have done for both willingly to undertake it?

Let me start, therefore, with a sketch of the broad design of what the President has been trying to achieve in this country’s relations with the Soviet Union, since at each important turning point in the SALT negotiations we were guided not so much by the tactical solution that seemed most equitable or prudent, important as it was, but by an [Page 401] underlying philosophy and a specific perception of international reality.

The international situation has been undergoing a profound structural change since at least the mid-1960s. The post-World War II pattern of relations among the great powers had been altered to the point that when this Administration took office, a major reassessment was clearly in order.

The nations that had been prostrate in 1945 had regained their economic strength and their political vitality. The Communist bloc was divided into contending factions, and nationalistic forces and social and economic pressures were reasserting themselves within the individual Communist states.

Perhaps most important for the United States, our undisputed strategic predominance was declining just at a time when there was rising domestic resistance to military programs, and impatience for redistribution of resources from national defense to social demands.

Amidst all of this profound change, however, there was one important constant—the continuing dependence of most of the world’s hopes for stability and peace upon the ability to reduce the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The factors which perpetuated that rivalry remain real and deep.

We are ideological adversaries, and we will in all likelihood remain so for the foreseeable future.

We are political and military competitors, and neither can be indifferent to advances by the other in either of these fields.

We each have allies whose association we value and whose interests and activities of each impinge on those of the other at numerous points.

We each possess an awesome nuclear force created and designed to meet the threat implicit in the other’s strength and aims.

Each of us has thus come into possession of power singlehandedly capable of exterminating the human race. Paradoxically, this very fact, and the global interest of both sides, create a certain commonality of outlook, a sort of interdependence for survival between the two of us.

Although we compete, the conflict will not admit of resolution by victory in the classical sense. We are compelled to coexist. We have an inescapable obligation to build jointly a structure for peace. Recognition of this reality is the beginning of wisdom for a sane and effective foreign policy today.

President Nixon has made it the starting point of the United States policy since 1969. This Administration’s policy is occasionally characterized as being based on the principles of the classical balance of power. To the extent that that term implies a belief that security requires a measure of equilibrium, it has a certain validity. No national leader has the right to mortgage the survival of his people to the good will of [Page 402] another state. We must seek firmer restraints on the actions of potentially hostile states than a sanguine appeal to their good nature.

But to the extent that balance of power means constant jockeying for marginal advantages over an opponent, it no longer applies. The reason is that the determination of national power has changed fundamentally in the nuclear age. Throughout history, the primary concern of most national leaders has been to accumulate geopolitical and military power. It would have seemed inconceivable even a generation ago that such power once gained could not be translated directly into advantage over one’s opponent. But now both we and the Soviet Union have begun to find that each increment of power does not necessarily represent an increment of usable political strength.

With modern weapons, a potentially decisive advantage requires a change of such magnitude that the mere effort to obtain it can produce disaster. The simple tit-for-tat reaction to each other’s programs of a decade ago is in danger of being overtaken by a more or less simultaneous and continuous process of technological advance, which opens more and more temptations for seeking decisive advantage.

A premium is put on striking first and on creating a defense to blunt the other side’s retaliatory capability. In other words, marginal additions of power cannot be decisive. Potentially decisive additions are extremely dangerous, and the quest for them are destabilizing. The argument that arms races produce war has often been exaggerated. The nuclear age is overshadowed by its peril.

All of this was in the President’s mind as he mapped the new directions of American policy at the outset of this Administration. There was reason to believe that the Soviet leadership might also be thinking along similar lines as the repeated failure of their attempts to gain marginal advantage in local crises or in military competition underlined the limitation of old policy approaches.

The President, therefore, decided that the United States should work to create a set of circumstances which would offer the Soviet leaders an opportunity to move away from confrontation through carefully prepared negotiations. From the first, we rejected the notion that what was lacking was a cordial climate for conducting negotiations.

Past experience has amply shown that much heralded changes in atmospherics, but not buttressed by concrete progress, will revert to previous patterns at the first subsequent clash of interests.

We have, instead, sought to move forward across a broad range of issues so that progress in one area would add momentum to the progress of other areas.

We hoped that the Soviet Union would acquire a stake in a wide spectrum of negotiations and that it would become convinced that its [Page 403] interests would be best served if the entire process unfolded. We have sought, in short, to create a vested interest in mutual restraint.

At the same time, we were acutely conscious of the contradictory tendencies at work in Soviet policy. Some factors—such as the fear of nuclear war; the emerging consumer economy, and the increased pressures of a technological, administrative society—have encouraged the Soviet leaders to seek a more stable relationship with the United States. Other factors—such as ideology, bureaucratic inertia, and the catalytic effect of turmoil in peripheral areas—have prompted pressures for tactical gains.

The President has met each of these manifestations on its own terms, demonstrating receptivity to constructive Soviet initiatives and firmness in the face of provocations or adventurism. He has kept open a private channel through which the two sides could communicate candidly and settle matters rapidly. The President was convinced that agreements dealing with questions of armaments in isolation do not, in fact, produce lasting inhibitions on military competition because they contribute little to the kind of stability that makes crises less likely. In recent months, major progress was achieved in moving toward a broadly-based accommodation of interests with the USSR, in which an arms limitation agreement could be a central element.

This approach was called linkage, not by the Administration, and became the object of considerable debate in 1969. Now, three years later, the SALT agreement does not stand alone, isolated and incongruous in the relationship of hostility, vulnerable at any moment to the shock of some sudden crisis. It stands, rather, linked organically, to a chain of agreements and to a broad understanding about international conduct appropriate to the dangers of the nuclear age.

The agreements on the limitation of strategic arms is, thus, not merely a technical accomplishment, although it is that in part, but it must be seen as political event of some magnitude. This is relevant to the question of whether the agreements will be easily breached or circumvented. Given the past, no one can answer the question with certainty, but it can be said with some assurance that any country which contemplates a rupture of the agreement or a circumvention of its letter and spirit must now face the fact that it will be placing in jeopardy not only a limited arms control agreement, but a broad political relationship.

[Omitted here is a review of the preparation for the arms talks and the provisions of the SALT agreements.]

What Do the Agreements Mean?

Taking the longer perspective, what can we say has been accomplished?

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  • First, it is clear that the agreement will enhance the security of both sides. No agreement which fails to do so could have been signed in the first place or stood any chance of lasting after it was signed. An attempt to gain a unilateral advantage in the strategic field must be self-defeating.

    The President has given the most careful consideration to the final terms. He has asked me to reiterate most emphatically this morning his conviction that the agreements fully protect our national security and our vital interests.

  • Secondly, the President is determined that our security and vital interests shall remain fully protected. If the Senate consents to ratification of the treaty and if the Congress approves the interim agreement, the Administration will, therefore, pursue two parallel courses.

    On the one hand, we shall push the next phase of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with the same energy and conviction that have produced these initial agreements.

    On the other hand, until further arms limits are negotiated, we shall push research and development and the production capacity to remain in a fully protected strategic posture should follow-on agreements prove unattainable and so as to avoid giving the other side a temptation to break out of the agreement.

  • Third, the President believes that these agreements, embedded as they are in the fabric of an emerging new relationship, can hold tremendous political and historical significance in the coming decades. For the first time, two great powers, deeply divided by their divergent values, philosophies, and social systems, have agreed to restrain the very armaments on which their national survival depends. No decision of this magnitude could have been taken unless it had been part of a larger decision to place relations on a new foundation of restraint, cooperation and steadily evolving confidence. A spectrum of agreements on joint effort with regard to the environment, space, health, and promising negotiations on economic relations provides a prospect for avoiding the failure of the Washington Naval Treaty and the Kellogg-Briand pact outlawing war which collapsed in part for lack of an adequate political foundation.

The final verdict must wait on events, but there is at least reason to hope that these accords represent a major break in the pattern of suspicion, hostility, and confrontation which has dominated U.S.-Soviet relations for a generation. The two great nuclear powers must not let this opportunity slip away by jockeying for marginal advantages.

Inevitably an agreement of such consequence raises serious questions on the part of concerned individuals of quite different persuasions. I cannot do justice to all of them here. Let me deal with some of [Page 405] the most frequently asked since the agreements were signed three weeks ago.

Who won?

The President has already answered this question. He has stressed that it is inappropriate to pose the question in terms of victory or defeat. In an agreement of this kind, either both sides win or both sides lose. This will either be a serious attempt to turn the world away from time-worn practices of jockeying for power, or there will be endless, wasteful and purposeless competition in the acquisition of armaments.

Does the agreement perpetuate a U.S. strategic disadvantage?

We reject the premise of that question on two grounds. First, the present situation is on balance advantageous to the United States. Second, the Interim Agreement perpetuates nothing which did not already exist in fact and which could only have gotten worse without an agreement.

Our present strategic military situation is sound. Much of the criticism has focused on the imbalance in number of missiles between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. But, this only examines one aspect of the problem. To assess the overall balance it is necessary to consider those forces not in the agreement; our bomber force which is substantially larger and more effective than the Soviet bomber force, and our forward base systems.

The quality of the weapons must also be weighed. We are confident we have major advantage in nuclear weapons technology and in warhead accuracy. Also, with our MIRV’s we have a two-to-one lead today in numbers of warheads and this lead will be maintained during the period of the agreement, even if the Soviets develop and deploy MIRV’s of their own.

Then there are such factors as deployment characteristics. For example, because of the difference in geography and basing, it has been estimated that the Soviet Union requires three submarines for two of ours to be able to keep an equal number on station.

When the total picture is viewed, our strategic forces are seen to be completely sufficient.

The Soviets have more missile launchers, but when other relevant systems such as bombers are counted there are roughly the same number of launchers on each side. We have a big advantage on warheads. The Soviets have an advantage on megatonnage.

What is disadvantageous to us, though, is the trend of new weapons deployment by the Soviet Union and the projected imbalance five years hence based on that trend. The relevant question to ask, therefore, is what the freeze prevents; where would we be by 1977 without a [Page 406] freeze? Considering the current momentum by the Soviet Union, in both ICBM’s and submarine launched ballistic missiles, the ceiling set in the Interim Agreement can only be interpreted as a sound arrangement that makes a major contribution to our national security.

Does the agreement jeopardize our security in the future?

The current arms race compounds numbers by technology. The Soviet Union has proved that it can best compete in sheer numbers. This is the area which is limited by the agreement.

Thus the agreement confines the competition with the Soviets to the area of technology. And, heretofore, we have had a significant advantage.

The follow-on negotiations will attempt to bring the technological race under control. Until these negotiations succeed, we must take care not to anticipate their outcome by unilateral decisions.

Can we trust the Soviets?

The possibility always exists that the Soviets will treat the Moscow agreements as they have sometimes treated earlier ones, as just another tactical opportunity in the protracted conflict. If this happens, the United States will have to respond. This we shall plan to prepare to do psychologically and strategically and provided the Congress accepts the strategic programs on which the acceptance of the agreements was predicated.

I have said enough to indicate we advocate these agreements not on the basis of trust, but on the basis of the enlightened self-interests of both sides. This self-interest is reinforced by the carefully drafted verification provisions in the agreement. Beyond the legal obligations, both sides have a stake in all of the agreements that have been signed, and a large stake in the broad process of improvement in relations that has begun. The Soviet leaders are serious men, and we are confident that they will not lightly abandon the course that has led to the summit meeting and to these initial agreements. For our own part, we will not abandon this course without major provocation, because it is in the interest of this country and in the interest of mankind to pursue it.

Prospects for the Future

At the conclusion of the Moscow summit, the President and General Secretary signed a Declaration of Principles to govern the future relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union.3 These principles state that there is no alternative to peaceful coexistence [Page 407] in the nuclear age. They commit both sides to avoid direct armed confrontation, to use restraint in local conflicts, to assert no special claims in derogation of the sovereign equality of all nations, to stress cooperation and negotiation at all points of our relationship.

At this point, these principles reflect an aspiration and an attitude. This Administration will spare no effort to translate the aspiration into reality. We shall strive with determination to overcome further the miasma of suspicion and self-confirming preemptive actions which have characterized the Cold War.

Of course the temptation is to continue along well worn paths. The status quo has the advantage of reality, but history is strewn with the wreckage of nations which sought their future in their past. Catastrophe has resulted far less often from conscious decisions than from the fear of breaking loose from established patterns through the inexorable march towards cataclysm because nobody knew what else to do. The paralysis of policy which destroyed Europe in 1914 would surely destroy the world if we let it happen again in the nuclear age.

Thus the deepest question we ask is not whether we can trust the Soviets, but whether we can trust ourselves. Some have expressed concern about the agreements not because they object to their terms, but because they are afraid of the euphoria that these agreements might produce.

But surely we cannot be asked to maintain unavoidable tension just to carry out programs which our national survival should dictate in any event. We must not develop a national psychology by which we can act only on the basis of what we are against and not on what we are for.

Our challenges then are: Can we chart a new course with hope but without illusion, with large purposes but without sentimentality? Can we be both generous and strong? It is not often that a country has the opportunity to answer such questions meaningfully. We are now at such a juncture where peace and progress depend on our faith and our fortitude.

[Omitted here is a brief concluding comment by Kissinger.]

  1. Source: Strategic Arms Limitations Agreements: Hearings Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, Ninety-second Congress, Second Session (Washington, 1972), pp. 393-398, 400-402.
  2. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT ) were signed by President Nixon and General Secretary Brezhnev in Moscow on May 26. The signing was a major highlight of the Moscow Summit meeting.
  3. Document 116.