137. Minutes of a National Security Council Meeting1


(also Laos, at end)

[Director Helms began the meeting with a briefing on the latest intelligence on Soviet programs. At one point he referred to four possibilities with regard to a Soviet program.]2

President: This is an example of the precision of our intelligence estimates.3

[Director Helms completed his briefing.]

President: It’s clear there’s a throw weight advantage to the Soviets. In nuclear submarines of the Polaris type, they will equal the United States by 1975. In aircraft, I see we still have a three-to-one advantage.

Laird: They have superiority in air defense.

President: In ABM, are the Soviets ahead of us or behind us in the technology?

Helms: They’re ahead in deployment but behind us in the technology.

Rogers: What about MIRVs?

President: The Soviets have or have they not tested MIRV on the SS–9?

[Page 415]

Helms: They have tried but they have not really tested a MIRV yet successfully. We have a picture of canisters sitting near the SS–9 silos which have clusters of three warheads instead of a single warhead.

Laird: They don’t really need MIRV’s as long as they’re targetting our Minuteman fields. But it is clear they can get MIRV if they want.

President: In accuracy, are we far ahead?

Laird: We’re not sure how far ahead we are. We can’t make a claim that we are far ahead. They can acquire accuracy. They have the technology to do it.

Helms: We are ahead in MIRV accuracy.

Laird: But our missile systems in general are much more accurate.

Smith: In calculating the strategic balance we have to remember our forward-based systems in Europe. They add a great deal to our capability.

Laird: We should not believe that all our forward-based aircraft with nuclears could hit the Soviet Union. They could hit the Pact area but not necessarily the Soviets unless they’re one-way missions. The Soviets have their IRBM’s targetted on Western Europe.

Rogers: What would the penetration capability of the forward-based aircraft be?

Laird: Their penetration could be effective.

Smith: We have a calculation of producing 20% casualties in the Soviet Union by an attack with the forward-based aircraft. We have to take this as a plus.

Laird: Let’s assess the threat. We have to be a little pessimistic in our assumptions. Their new silo work is a source of concern to us. So my recommendation is we have to be tougher in the negotiations. Success depends on the kind of agreement we get, not just that we get an agreement. I believe we need to modify our proposals. We must allow mobile sea-based and land-based systems. Because of new information we have on the Soviet momentum on their larger systems.

On ABM, protection of the National Command Authority is important because their attack should not reach Washington, D.C. Our proposals should allow us to decide where we want to have our system. The decision on location should be up to us; the numbers should be negotiable.

The major Soviet concern is our ABM system. They show some concern over the forward-based aircraft and other items but most of their concern is on our ABM.

We should not bargain on less than 250 large missiles—preferably 300.

There is little likelihood of approval of an NCA (Washington, D.C.) ABM system.

[Page 416]

We should modify our proposal. This is my position.4 If an agreement is entered into, there should be a termination date if this is a limitation rather than a reduction. We’ll never get funding if we are talking treaty. They can do it but we can’t. No President can take action—he won’t get support.

Moorer: Our great concern is that the potential is high for changing the strategic balance by an agreement. So we must look at it in detail. We should use the negotiations to determine the sincerity of the Soviets. There is indication that they want to build a superior position while we talk. Our ABM and forward-based aircraft are our key leverage in the negotiation. We should look at the ABM in the broader context—what is the best way of protecting our systems?

If we start negotiations on FBS posture, that will have a major effect on NATO. It will cause serious doubt among our allies. The nuclear capability we provide has been the cohesion to keep the Alliance together.

Packard: We should keep the overall strategic problem in mind: The Soviets have built land-based missiles in greater numbers and bigger than ours. There is no need to debate whether their accuracy can be improved; they can do it. We must therefore decide to move to control the numbers both of their large missiles and of all their missiles. They are concerned about Safeguard—but we should use this to get control of their numbers. An agreement limiting ABM only would be a mistake.

The forward-based systems have importance. They equate more to their IRBM and we should hold on this to put it in this context.

Moorer: The Soviets have raised it in the talks.

Rogers: But we’ve made no concession on that.

President: They may raise it, but then we should suggest that their IRBM’s be discussed.

Smith: Yes, and their 1000 medium bombers and the cruise missiles. We said, “Let’s not talk about the peripheral systems, let’s concentrate on the central systems.”

[Page 417]

President: We will talk about that in the NATO context. The ABM is simpler to put into the negotiations than FBS, because of the NATO angle.

Smith: Britain and France would like to see an ABM deal because it would improve their nuclear capability against the Soviet Union.

President: Yes, it makes their forces more credible—it also makes the Chinese threat more credible.

Laird: But the Soviets have surface-to-air missiles.

President: That shows the complexities.

Packard: We need to have an agreement that is good for the security of the country, not just for agreement’s sake. There’s not much budget savings in it—only about $1 million per year in ABM cost is saveable. All other costs would have to stay in.

Laird: It would be eaten up by the B–1 and ULMS anyway. Only 12% of our defense budget is in strategic weapons in any case.

President: When we announced our Safeguard ABM program in 1969, we said there would be three criteria for its continuation: the threat, progress in arms control, and developments in technology. How is the technology progressing?

Packard: It’s coming well. We’ve had live intercepts in the past year. The test record is very satisfactory—in fact, above average. Construction is moving. There are no problems in the radar. The problem is to get the whole system working together with the computers. For this we’ll need one full year at Grand Forks.

President: How about progress vis-à-vis other powers than the Soviets?

Packard: If there is a weakness, it is in the inability to deal with a large number of warheads. It’s O.K. against a few incoming missiles. It would do O.K. against the Chinese threat.

President: Are the Soviets O.K. against the Chinese, too?

Packard: Yes, but their effectiveness is limited to a Chinese-type threat. We have many more interceptors. Despite all the criticism, our system is better than the Soviets’ in capabilities.

Rogers: Mr. President, I want to comment on something Mel Laird said, about “we must be tougher in the negotiations.” I think we may be farther away from an agreement—we have a long way to go. We have made no decisions that we hold back on anything because we thought an agreement was coming.

The reason we asked for limits on mobile launchers was we thought that’s what DOD wants. The Soviets want them, so it would be easy to agree to go ahead with them. As for the limit of 250—I think this is to our advantage. As for the prospects of hard-site defense, we don’t know whether we can develop it. Therefore, it would be wise to [Page 418] set a five-year termination date with an option to renew. This gives us the chance to watch developments.

An agreement to “stay where we are” may be more negotiable than an ABM ban. I believe we should continue to negotiate and be restrained in public optimism. We should leave more to the negotiating team, subject to what the rest of the government wants. Our public position is good. We should proceed. Though if we don’t get an agreement in the next two years we may lose the chance.

President: It’s a very different situation now from the time of the Cuba missile crisis. Each side now has the capability to retain a position of parity if it desires, short of some remarkable technological breakthrough.

Smith: Helms’news is not good. The importance of agreement is not less; it may be more, if we can get agreed limitations. I suggest we look at the balance: The Soviets went for large numbers of missiles; we went for more warheads. The Soviets see this as a great threat. Paul Nitze told the Congress in 1967 that a MIRV system would be more effective than a single large warhead against missiles. And on this we are moving—we aren’t just talking.

I believe we should talk about our forward-based aircraft. Some of our allies would like to see an overall reduction of the number of IRBMs targetted on them. There can be general language to prohibit circumvention. If we want an agreement, I believe our present proposals are too complicated. I believe in the talks we have to stop making speeches to each other. We—the delegation—should have authority to explore things privately at the meetings. A zero-ABM agreement in the context of a set of offensive-defensive limits has the best chance.

President: The big push on the Hill will be to ban ABMs completely. We have to fight this. The Soviets would go on regardless of what we agreed on ABM. Their MIRVing, their hardening would continue. Some say we are being too rigid.

Do you think the Soviets will propose ABM only?

Smith: Yes, they will, and the Hill will give it some support—Symington, for example. But we have been putting those arguments to rest.

Rogers: I don’t think we will have too much trouble. The new information we have offsets that argument.

Laird: Yes, but the fact is they have an ABM system.

Smith: If we treat Safeguard as divisible and then go to Congress for only an NCA, they will be skeptical. The problem would be that we couldn’t control developments. A total ban on ABM would be easier to verify. We could have high confidence in it.

Laird: We’d have to tear down the radars.

[Page 419]

Smith: We have taken the position that radar should be scrapped.

Laird: Are the radars in or not?

Smith: Yes, along the line of the August 4 proposal,5 but not according to the JCS position that radars should be free in a given area.

Laird: But we have to control the radars. I don’t agree with the JCS.

Smith: I think we can try for your view on NCA but not in Washington. Two is about what the traffic will bear.

President: We should go for four.

Rogers: We’re not talking about defensive limitations only, but about both offensive and defensive limitations.

Smith: I would agree with an escape clause.

President: If we were to act on the escape clause, it would look like mobilization. That would be different from just acting because the treaty was ending.

Smith: We would want a real escape clause.

President: There’s a difference between an escape clause and a limited-term agreement.

Smith: I doubt we could negotiate an agreement with a time limit. I doubt the Soviets would go into such an agreement. I think we should not try it. We could say that at the end of five years, either side could get out if it wanted.

Rogers: I think we should work out some specific terminating arrangement.

President: This is a long way down the road. [To Smith]: What do you think about the future of the talks? All of us here realize there will be some agreement some time, but when do we think it will come? Are you that pessimistic? We have political problems at home. We all know this.

So we have a double problem. We have to hold out hope that the talks are serious, but recognize that we have differences and we must still protect our interests.

Smith: To stop the negotiating process may be as bad as getting out of the agreement. Both sides want the negotiation to continue. Within a year we should know what can be worked out.

Rogers: It’s more likely to get some understanding.

President: The less an agreement means, the more fanfare it gets. I want to do some thinking about this. I’ll discuss it with you Wednesday or Thursday.6

[Page 420]

We must realize—Jack McCloy understands this—that when the American people and others who rely on the credibility of the American word and on our nuclear deterrent—when they realize that we are only the second most powerful nation, there will be a serious effect everywhere. We must refer to the facts in “who is first.” We are a sea power and they are a land power. They have land threats, we don’t. What is sufficient for them is different from what is sufficient for us.

It is important—I say this to Mel—that we have some advantages. In our NATO strength we are better off than the Pact. We look good; they have problems on the other side. We must have adequate naval power.

Despite the Soviet Navy’s growth we have an enormous advantage in naval power around the world. So we can’t give the impression we are Number 2. Look at Japan, Germany, the Europeans—we must not talk in terms of superiority but must say that we have enough to deter any threat and to meet all our treaty commitments. And we must be sure our naval power is not eroded.

Laird: Their momentum is great but we are moving too. There is $780 million in the budget for the Navy this year.

President: The Dutch Foreign Minister said that if the leaders of Europe knew, they would be worried. But we can take care of ourselves.

McCloy: Two years ago I was in Teheran; the Shah knew about the importance of our umbrella. When they realized what was happening he said there would be a race between Bonn and Paris.

My committee7 has been working under pressure but the problems are not insurmountable. We’re not naive—we’re not all doves—but on judgments and objectives, views differ. Zero ABM and a ban on MIRVs with limits on offensive weapons would be the right move to effect the conceptual balance of power. Such a move by us would be evidence of our sincerity and seriousness, and we would gain from it.

As to the prospects for agreement, I think they are good. It’s important to the Soviets to think they can reach parity. They want an agreement that would set parity. We could convince the world we are moving and convince the American people that we are not giving upanything in security but we would enhance the security posture in the world.

President: They didn’t seem to want a MIRV limit?

Smith: We wanted on-site inspection and they didn’t want that.

[Page 421]

McCloy: A ban on MIRV testing would do the job. Full-range testing would be needed to make a system capable of a first strike.

President: I’ll make a statement before Smith goes back. Once we get in a position to move, I want to stop all these stories on differences between the agencies. Too many around the breakfast table read the columns and believe them. We want to avoid public view of any differences.

Moorer: The Soviets’ momentum is designed to limit our freedom on the seas and to limit our LOCs. We need more for ASW in the U.S. Navy.

President: I believe very strongly the British should do more. What Britain needs to do in South Africa should add to our capabilities.

[Omitted here is discussion unrelated to SALT.]

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–110, NSC Minutes Originals 1971 thru 6–20–74. Top Secret. Nixon, Agnew, Rogers, Laird, Lincoln, Mitchell, Moorer, Helms, Gerard Smith, Spiers, Farley, David, Kissinger, K. Wayne Smith, Sonnenfeldt, Kennedy, Duckett, McCloy, Jeanne Davis, Connally, Packard, and Nitze attended the meeting (Ibid., Presidential Tape Recordings, Nixon Tape Log) A tape recording of this meeting is ibid., White House Tapes, Cabinet Room, Conversation No. 49–12, 8:32 a.m. to unknown time after 10:27 a.m. On March 6 Kissinger sent Nixon talking points, an issues paper, a summary of ABM options, and data on ABM sites in preparation for the meeting. All ibid., NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–031, NSC Meeting SALT, 3/8/71.
  2. All brackets, except those indicating omission of unrelated material, are in the original. Attached but not printed is Helms’s briefing. The four possibilities concerning the new Soviet silos included: 1) a new, large ICBM; 2) a modified version of the SS–9; 3) a new silo adapted to a variant of the SS–9; or 4) a unique configuration with greater hardening than for existing ICBM silos.
  3. According to the tape recording of this meeting, the following exchange between Nixon and Helms occurred: Nixon: “This, gentlemen, is for the newcomers, an indication of how precise the CIA is in its intelligence appraisements, right? Pick one of the four.” Helms: “Yes, sir. If you were to—” Nixon: “Right.” Helms: “—give us a little time, we’ll have the right one.” Nixon: “You’re never wrong, then.” [Laughter in room] The editor transcribed the portion printed here specifically for this volume.
  4. Laird elaborated on his position about the implications of the new intelligence for SALT in a March 9 memorandum to the President. Laird concluded that if a new missile of the SS–9 class was deployed at the Soviet rate of the past and with improvements that the Soviets would have to make to justify a new program, then Minuteman survivability would be undermined as early as 1973 or 1974. He recommended that the U.S. position put forth on August 4, 1970, be modified to allow termination by January 1974 of any agreement and to be superseded by a more durable agreement. He also recommended modifying the U.S. position on ABM sites so that it was not restricted to Washington, D.C. as the NCA. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 880, Subject Files, SALT, SALT talks (Helsinki), Vol. XIV, January 1–April 1971)
  5. See footnote 2, Document 104.
  6. March 10 or 11.
  7. Following the meeting, McCloy wrote Kissinger a letter dated March 8 expressing concern that the GAC was not being given adequate access to the President or weight in the decision-making process. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–031, NSC Meeting SALT 3/8/71)