9. Memorandum From Acting Secretary of State Richardson to President Nixon1


  • MIRV Testing

The Problem

Our MIRV flight testing program is reaching a crucial stage. Fifty-two flight tests in all are scheduled, with the first Minuteman III missiles scheduled to be operational at the end of FY 1970, and the first Poseidon in January 1971, with actual deployment to be spread out over several years. Only 11 of these tests had been conducted in the nine months from the beginning of the test program in August 1968 through April of this year. From now through November, the tests are scheduled to run at a rate of three a month. Even before the completion of these tests, MIRVs could on a crash basis be introduced into our missiles—or the Soviets may think so.

If, by the time SALT talks begin, we already have—or the Soviets think we have—substantially completed MIRV testing, any limitation of MIRVs will be difficult to achieve: While MIRV testing is observable by national means, the only way you can tell whether or not a missile is a MIRV is through on-site inspection.

The delay in initiation of SALT talks combined with entry into a period of sustained and even accelerated MIRV testing, could therefore operate to reduce significantly the options, flexibility and leverage you have to make these talks productive.2


One of the major options under study in NSSM 283 is a reciprocal leveling off in additional missiles, with introduction of MIRVs excluded [Page 19] on both sides. This is a complicated option, but it may be a key one. If the Soviets are to forego construction of more land based hard-site ICBMs and SLBMs and any mobile land based ICBMs, they could understandably ask for some quid pro quo from us. It is hard to see anything in our current programs but the MIRVs which we could offer.

If we press ahead in this period with an aggressive program of MIRV flight testing, we may appear to the Soviets to have passed the point of no return. To the Soviets as well as to our Congressional critics, we may then seem vulnerable to the charge of having deliberately stalled on the negotiations to permit us to prove out our MIRVs and thus put them beyond the realm of negotiability.

The simplest way of preserving our options would be to stretch out U.S. MIRV flight testing. For example, the Services might be directed to conduct not more than one more Minuteman III and one more Poseidon flight test between now and the establishment of the U.S. position on SALT, with whatever guidance that decision may contain regarding subsequent testing. The action would have the advantage of leaving us maximum freedom of maneuver. By not actually suspending tests in advance, we would avoid playing our trump card prematurely and keep it for the best moment in the negotiations.

A second possibility would be to propose an immediate moratorium on all multiple warhead testing—both of U.S.MIRVs and Soviet MRVs. This would be dramatic, require a quid pro quo from the Soviets, and place the U.S. in a favorable position before world opinion. However, this course could in itself complicate the negotiations and might risk limiting our flexibility of choice.


My purpose, however, is not to urge any particular course. It is, rather, to make the point that our decision on whether or not to stretch out or propose a moratorium on MIRV testing should not await the conclusion of discussion on NSSM 28.

If you agree that a decision on the issue of MIRV testing should be separately considered and reached, I suggest that:

  • (a) You ask Mel Laird to prepare urgently a memorandum for you setting forth the facts regarding our program of MIRV flight testing, the schedule in coming months, and the effects of a suspension or a major stretch out of testing in this area where we have a significant lead over the Soviets.
  • (b) You then meet with Mel Laird, Bus Wheeler, Gerry Smith, Henry Kissinger, and myself to consider our course of action.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 845, ABMMIRV, MIRV Test Program, Vol. I, Closed June 30, 1969. Secret. The date is handwritten at the bottom of the last page. The memorandum was forwarded to Nixon on May 27 under a covering memorandum from Kissinger explaining that it outlined the relationship of the MIRV program to the forthcoming SALT negotiations. Kissinger also sent Richardson’s memorandum to Laird with a request for comment by May 30. (Ibid.)
  2. In a June 17 memorandum to Kissinger, Haig summarized the political aspects of the problem: “The MIRV issue surfaced on April 16 through a letter from Senator Edward Brooke to the President in which Brooke indicated that he might support the Safeguard if the President were to reciprocate by supporting Brooke’s resolution for a US moratorium on the testing of MIRV’s. No definite reply was given to Senator Brooke; instead, Sonnenfeldt and Lynn briefed Dr. Fry, Senator Brooke’s legislative assistant, on the difficulties and disadvantages of a MIRV test moratorium.” (Ibid.)
  3. See footnote 2, Document 8.