49. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon1


  • The Soviet Position on ABM Limitation in SALT

There has been increasing speculation and debate over the Soviet position on limiting ABMs in a SALT agreement. Some observers, including members of our delegation, feel there is a good chance the Soviets would agree to a complete ban. Others, however, feel that the Soviet preference is for a limited defense against third countries.

The record of the Helsinki conversations includes evidence to support both sides. The head of the Soviet delegation, Vladimir Semyonov, in his speech of November 28, shifted the Soviet position from a justification of ABMs—the line Kosygin had taken at Glassboro—to an admission that a heavy system could be destabilizing by threatening the ability of one side to retaliate. On this basis he outlined three possible approaches:

a complete ban; this is possible, he said, because “work on ABM systems is in an initial stage;”
“some kind of limited system,” based on agreed level determined by the size of the systems, nature of coverage, targets defended, etc.;
a heavy area ABM.

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He indicated no preference, but he did say (in oblique reference to Safeguard) that defending strategic offensive weapons with ABMs and other targets “a considerable distance apart” would create uncertainties because of the possibility that such a thin system could evolve into a system “facilitating a first strike.”

In private conversations the Soviets confused the picture by making contradictory interpretations. One Soviet official, a specialist on disarmament matters, confirmed that the already-installed Moscow ABM system could be dismantled if there was an agreement on a complete ban.

On the last day of the talks, however, a Soviet General clearly indicated that Moscow’s preference was for a limited ABM system for protection against third country attacks.2

One explanation of this discrepancy, of course, is that these two were reflecting differences between the Soviet arms control viewpoint and the military establishment (though the military is usually careful not to contradict totally the political line).


There is little doubt that the Soviets were concerned over Safeguard, and they apparently had instructions to draw us out by presenting three alternative “models.”

It is impossible to draw any firm conclusions, but it seems most likely that their preference is for a limited system capable of providing protection against third country attacks, as General Alekseev indicated.

The Soviets may have mentioned the “zero ABM” possibility to give ammunition to our Safeguard opponents.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon President Materials, NSC Files, Box 840, ABMMIRV, ABM System, Vol. III, Memos and Misc., January–March 1970. Secret. Sent for information. Sonnenfeldt sent the memorandum to Kissinger on January 20, informing him that he had revised it as Kissinger suggested and recommending it be sent to the President.
  2. Nixon underlined most of this sentence and wrote in the margin: “K—This is what they will insist on.”