116. Memorandum From Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1


  • SALT: The Shaker is Running Out

By no stretch of the imagination can the latest Soviet SALT proposals2 be construed as a serious effort to bridge the growing gap in our positions in Helsinki. The two propositions are so patently unacceptable that they raise important questions about Soviet motives in presenting them and about the entire future of the talks, especially since Semyonov stressed that his proposals are the result of “profound consideration” in Moscow.

The Soviets had good reason to believe beforehand, on the basis of last summer’s exchange, that a separate agreement on ABMs would probably be rejected if it was surfaced in the formal talks. It was reasonable to expect that if they decided to make a formal proposal, they would put forward as attractive a proposition as they could construct. Instead, the proposed treaty is merely a dressed up version of what was already proposed at Vienna as part of the Soviet Basic Provisions.3 Only the barest of frills were added—a ban on mobile land, sea and space based ABMs, lifted from our presentation and some window dressing on consultations.

As for the new forward based aircraft proposals, Semyonov’s presentation was, if anything, far worse than might have been expected. To add to a partial withdrawal of FBA a unilateral US reduction in “central systems” is probably more unacceptable than the old formula that the Soviets be compensated with extra numbers of ICBMs for themselves.

Assuming that we also will turn down the separate ABM agreement, the net result is that SALT is stalemated, though the negotiators can probably continue to make speeches for two more weeks.

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Soviet Motives

Why have the Soviet negotiators allowed the talks to reach this pass? As Smith noted,4 the Soviets were presenting a sort of comprehensive scheme, and they then suddenly threw in the ABM proposal. Had matters rested there, some further bargaining room might have been open, but adding the toughest proposals on forward based air could only persuade us that the Helsinki phase, at least, was finished.

A Deliberate Deception?

One school of thought will probably find this turn of events to be solid evidence that the Soviets have never really been very serious, and that SALT was little more than a holding action to impose some inhibitions and complications on American policy, while Soviet programs roared ahead. Evidence for this interpretation could be found in the ambiguous Soviet handling of MIRVs: (a) avoiding the moratorium questions, (b) proposing a production ban with freedom to test that was certain to be rejected, (c) hinting in Vienna that MIRVs were non-negotiable, and finally (d) beginning their own MIRV testing.

Additional evidence could be found in the heavy schedule of SS–11 tests with a new front end, either MRVs or, more likely, penetration aids. Likewise, the testing of the improved Galosh ABM missiles has proceeded at a rapid pace.

On the other hand, the actual deployment program does not seem to support the notion that SALT has been little more than a coverup. Only two SS–9 groups have been started since SALT began, and construction of them has been halted for some reason. True, only 12 missiles are involved, but more important the program could be leveling off at 294, which is far short of the counterforce numbers required with three independent warheads. Similarly, the SS–11 program is slowing down (the last new start was October 1969). True, the total Soviet force, even if they produce no more new silos will be 1445. But subtracting the older SS–7s and 8s, the total is not all that more than the US.

Moreover, our programs have not really been halted by SALT. The Safeguard has passed two Congressional tests, perhaps because the bargaining [Page 368]chip argument was persuasive. The MIRV program has begun, even if its future will be under Congressional attack. In sum, if SALT were a deceptive operation it has not been all that successful, though we might find the situation in Soviet deployment suddenly change if they have decided to end the talks.

Bargaining Tactic?

Another possible interpretation is that all of the maneuvering in SALT is part of the “normal” Soviet negotiating process.

First, they put forward demands they knew to be patently absurd. After considerable debate, they finally disclose their true position and press for quick agreement. In this view, we might learn even before the end of Helsinki what the Soviets are really bargaining for.

There is not much evidence one way or another for this interpretation. If the Soviets do have a different position, it does not necessarily follow that they will present it soon. Their perspective might foresee a further period of stonewalling on either a separate ABM or a FBA concession, on the grounds that the record thus far in SALT suggests we will eventually look for ways to accommodate the lesser of the two evils. (We are, in fact, engaged in a feckless exercise to find a “formula” to buy off the Soviet forward based aircraft proposal.) The Soviets could easily believe that SALT is more important to us than to them.

If we do move to new compromise, it would confirm this basic assumption that they can continue to extract some concessions and should do so, before revealing their real terms for agreement.

If we accept this interpretation of Soviet motive as essentially hard bargaining tactics then our own policy should simply be one of patient and firm resistance to the Soviet ploys and insistence on our own position.

Paralysis in Moscow?

A third interpretation would be that the twists and turns in the Soviet position and tactical conduct of the talks is a reflection of a paralyzing debate in Moscow which results in essentially two positions. On the one hand, those that are suspicious of SALT and in effect oppose it, want the most severe terms put forward in the expectation that the talks will then fail. They would be strong for the FBA terms. On the other hand, another group fearing that SALT will collapse over the FBA question, more or less desperately press for an ABM-only agreement, which would be about the most they could sell within the Politburo as a compromise. For example, assuming the Soviet “military-industrialist clique” opposes SALT, they might on strategic and technical grounds still tolerate an ABM-only agreement, if the Soviet ABM is in fact a dud, and our own Safeguard threatens to undermine the rationale on which the SS–9 buildup was sold to the Politburo.

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All of this may be too fanciful as the basis for deciding our own policies. But there is some evidence that SALT is a contentious issue. In an earlier memorandum we pointed out that before the resumption at Helsinki there had been a rare mention in Kommunist about the debate between “minimalists” and “maximalists” over the value of partial arms control agreements, and the article directly related this to SALT. Then we had two contrasting articles: one optimistic in its portrayal of SALT, and the other citing pessimistically from foreign sources. Gromyko made a brief but hopeful reference to SALT at the UN General Assembly, and broached the narrow agreement with the President.5 The main Soviet leaders, however, have been virtually silent on SALT, as if the subject could not be addressed without precipitating political controversy or without being identified with a faction or position.

All of this, of course, is against a background of internal dissension over the next five-year plan, which was reportedly thrown out and sent back for an entire reworking last spring. Soviet experience suggests that when the long-term allocations of resources is at stake the solidarity of the leadership is almost by definition undermined.

Finally, of course, the Party Congress will be the first real post-Khrushchev Congress. The 23rd Congress was too soon after the coup to reflect the alignment and preferences of the new leadership. But since about one year ago, personnel changes have been accelerated. Again, Soviet experience suggests that when key positions, even at the second echelon are being made, the power positions of the top leaders are affected, and therefore tensions rise.

In short, one could argue that the Soviet position in SALT has involved internal compromises and, in part, contradictory proposals, because of the situation in the leadership.

If this is so, the consequences for us are not much different than the previous explanation; i.e., we simply have to continue to stonewall in the hope of persuading the Politburo that we will not be provoked into breaking off the talks, will continue our own programs, and will not accept one sided propositions and that SALT is not more in our interest than theirs. The only nuance might be that we should turn down the ABM agreement somewhat softer than if we knew there were further Soviet fallback positions.

Soviet-American Standoff?

Some final thoughts relate to the general condition of our relations with the USSR. No one would claim they are very good and most would agree that they probably about reached a low point. There are some obvious reasons for this. From our vantage point, Soviet actions have [Page 370]been brazen and aggressive in the Middle East and Cuba. The combination of pressures and harassments and clever schemes in the Berlin talks do not inspire confidence. Yet, as I have previously suggested, there is probably also an exceptionally strong element of poor communication and understanding involved.

The Soviet leaders could well see trends in American policy they do not like. The visit to Romania, the flirtation with China in 1969, American intervention to stall a European security conference, plus backstage opposition to Ostpolitik, the trip to Yugoslavia, would all be part of a Soviet bill of particulars indicating our policy and leadership. At this stage they might also grind into their calculations some notions about the next election, and whether they should move to improve Soviet-American relations or let them slide, and await a new Administration.

The main point is that for various reasons, partly reflecting the ideological and psychological predilections of an aging and inflexible Soviet leadership, a major accommodation with the United States is difficult for Moscow to contemplate. Almost any SALT agreement, acceptable to both sides, together with Ostpolitik and a Berlin settlement, would usher in an era of good feelings. Such an atmosphere would be a difficult one for the Soviet leaders to sustain internally. It would also be a gain for those who would claim that more internal liberalization inside the USSR could, and should, proceed. In sum, it is not the sort of international circumstance that the present Soviet leaders would find compatible with their own preference for internal conservatism.

Except for the first interpretation—a major deception—the other speculations do not lead to any firm US course of action. We probably cannot really affect internal Soviet debates, without making a series of major concessions (or creating major confrontations) not only in SALT but in many fields. If the Soviets have fallback positions that are more attractive, we cannot expect them until we have provided the most persuasive evidence that we stand on our present position. Finally, if a SALT agreement is incompatible with basic policies of the present Soviet leadership, at a minimum we will have to await the Party Congress to see if any change in the regime occurs, or if the trend to stalemate is confirmed.


While you will have to go through the Verification Panel discussions on several issues, my own recommendation would be fairly simply:

  • —To turn down the ABM agreement without rancor or polemics, but turn it down on the principle that some controls on offensive weapons are indispensable.
  • —In addition, I would favor using the interim between now and the resumption to construct a counterproposal more to our liking than Option E; one that would abandon NCA for a hard point defense or Safeguard phase with a simplified restraint on offensive numbers.
  • —To reject out of hand the FBA question on the legitimate grounds that we will not negotiate our Alliance commitments with the USSR, and that “equal security” as defined by the USSR is a fraud. (We could, after all, ask for equal megatonnage and equal numbers of warheads per square mile of territory.)
  • —I would end the Helsinki sessions as soon as possible, lest the pressures for some more “forthcoming” position become unmanagable inside the government and force us into a very bad internal split, which will be leaked and picked up by the new Congress.
  • —An early end to Helsinki should not be followed by great pressure by us for early resumption. It is unlikely that in the weeks before the Party Congress the Soviets can do anything but stall. In doing so they will add to our own gloom and depression and might cause reactions that would not be warranted by the actual state of Soviet policy.
  • —In short, let us wait until after March. (The time can be put to good use in trying to find another Option.)

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–006, Verification Panel Meeting—SALT 12/8/70. Secret; Nodis. Sent for urgent information.
  2. See footnote 2, Document 115. In addition, in telegram USDEL SALT 484, December 4, Smith summarized the Soviet position, presented by Semenov on December 3, on forward based nuclear systems. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 879, SALT, SALT talks (Helsinki), Vol. XIII, October–December 1970)
  3. See Document 72.
  4. In backchannel message 68 from Helsinki, December 3, Smith advised Kissinger that “my personal objection to formal limit on ABMs, while offensive systems remain unchecked, stands; and I think we should in general terms continue to stress interrelation of defensive and offensive systems but not flatly reject Soviet proposal. (In view of large stakes here, President may want to direct a review of our policy against ABM only arrangement and would note that US/USSR positions appear to have switched 180 degrees since McNamara/Johnson/Kosygin meeting in 1967.)” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 427, Backchannel Files, Backchannel Messages, 1971, SALT) The 1967 meeting took place on June 23 during the Glassboro summit; see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, volume XIV, Soviet Union, Document 231.
  5. See Document 109.