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


  • SALT: Accidental, Unauthorized and Provocative Attacks

From the very outset of the Helsinki phase and through the Vienna talks, the Soviets have stressed the particular importance they attach to the general category, “reducing the dangers of nuclear war.” Under this rubric, they have listed accidental and unauthorized launches, as well as “provocative” attacks by third countries.

It was at Soviet insistence that this was put on the Helsinki work program, and the Vienna talks have now reached this point on the agenda. Semyonov privately made a strong pitch to Ambassador Smith on the importance of this topic emphasizing its “political” aspects. It would thus appear that in any agreement, whether limited or comprehensive, the Soviets will press hard to include something under this general heading.

In discussing the subject, the US has focused on the technical aspects of reducing the danger of accidental attacks and “catalytic” responses—the role of NCA defenses, better safety devices for bombs and missiles, improved USUSSR communication facilities. The Soviets have made it clear that for them the technical aspects of the subject are secondary to the political considerations. They indicated willingness to continue the discussion either in Vienna or “elsewhere.” Semyonov told Smith that the subject was “very delicate” but of “major significance” for US-Soviet relations. He concluded that the question “really boiled down to whether or not our two countries were ready to work toward agreement on jointly coordinated measures …” Beyond this rather vague hint, however, the Soviets have avoided specifics in political aspects.

The concrete Soviet program was partly revealed on June 30;2 (the question of “provocative” attack will be discussed on July 7). The proposal includes:

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  • —exchange of information by all means available in the event of an unauthorized missile launch or other acts that could lead to the use of nuclear weapons;
  • —mutual exchange of information on detection of unidentified objects by early warning systems, or notification of signs of interference with these warning systems or with corresponding communications facilities;
  • —notification of planned missile launches to points beyond national territories (the Soviets announce their tests to the Pacific, but not tests to Kamchatka);
  • —notification “under certain conditions” of mass take-offs of aircraft from airfields and aircraft carriers;
  • —such exchanges to use the “hot line.”

Soviet motives in emphasizing this subject and putting forward such a program are not difficult to discern. First of all, an agreement along the lines outlined by Semyonov would involve the US and the USSR in a continuing and extensive bilateral exchange of technical as well as strategic data. Almost every major exercise involving bomber flights would have to be registered, for example. Under the open-ended provision for providing information on acts which could lead to use of nuclear weapons, we might expect the Soviets to use it to inject themselves into NATO plans as well as other areas involving third countries.

Semyonov in his speech of June 30 emphasized the importance “first of all” to establish from a “political” point of view there is a common aim.3 The world at large and especially our Allies would perceive in such a new relationship, a sort of condominium. This is obviously one of the Europeans’ latent concerns, and a broad based agreement, as the Soviet propose, would feed their suspicions.

The second and probably more important aspect is the implication for the China problem. The Soviets rather gingerly walk around mention of China by using various euphemisms, but there is no doubt that the “third country” they are concerned about is China. Thus, the rather far fetched “provocative” attack they mention is clearly a Chinese attack on the USSR (though, of course, the Soviets have some concern over the independent capabilities of the French and British, and potentially the Germans). It is difficult to believe that the Soviets take seriously the contingency that the Chinese would launch a missile against the USSR on the calculation that the Soviets would then unload on the United States. But under a SALT agreement the Soviets might claim we were obligated to stand aside while the Soviets dealt with the danger of “provocative” attack (or even “coordinate measures”4 as Semyonov [Page 298] indicated to Smith). Even without such far-reaching ambitions, the Soviets would use an agreement to brow beat and threaten the Chinese.

As part of a comprehensive agreement, an understanding on accidental attacks, etc., might be understandable and not arouse the reaction of our Allies or the Chinese. But for a more limited agreement, the question would command more attention and provoke greater interest. It would be more difficult to explain the importance of an extensive exchange of information in an agreement, that, for example, excluded several major weapons systems.

Our position thus far has been to allow the Soviets to take the lead, and to concentrate largely on the problem of accidental attacks, and the safety measures we have adopted. We have offered to consult on the question, but have not presented a detailed program. In this phase of the talks, we probably do not have to go much further than agreeing in principle to establish organizational measures to deal with the subject.

We have some bargaining leverage on this issue. The Soviets took the initiative in raising it; they have spelled out the program, and have appealed to us for continuing discussion even outside Vienna. If we want this as part of any agreement, it may be a card that we can play in connection with other elements in the package that we are more interested in. But in striking any bargain we should keep in mind that the Soviets have far more to gain from the political overtones of condominium than we do.5

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 878, SALT, SALT talks (Vienna), Vol. XI, July 1–19, 1970. Secret. Sent for information. Hyland initialed for Sonnenfeldt. On the first page of the memorandum, Kissinger wrote: “Please get answers to questions. HK.”
  2. Kissinger crossed out “July” and wrote, “June.”
  3. Kissinger highlighted this section beginning with “Under the open-ended provision.” In the margin, he wrote, “How? Does it give Soviets greater possibility vis-à-vis NATO than as [illegible]part?”
  4. Kissinger underlined “coordinate measures” and wrote “How?” in the margin.
  5. Below this paragraph, Kissinger wrote: “What is it we should want?”