95. Memorandum From the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger) to President Nixon 1


  • Implications of a Limited SALT Agreement

A decision to conclude a limited SALT agreement—not simply “in principle” but embodying certain specific commitments—would reflect [Page 314] not only conclusions by the Soviet leaders concerning strategic posture but some broader policy calculations.

Strategic Implications

It appears that the driving force behind Soviet interest in a limited agreement would have to be a strong Soviet incentive to head off the Safeguard deployment, U.S. MIRV deployment, or both. Since the Soviets are well behind in MIRV technology, the Safeguard system is probably their main target.

Under a limited agreement, as they have outlined it, the Soviets could still work toward an offensive posture threatening our land-based systems, for whatever psychological value that might carry. While they would recognize that any deal would have to include an SS–9 ceiling, the Soviets could develop and perfect MIRVs, and improve the accuracy of well over 800 SS–11s, and they could complete a sizeable ballistic submarine force. In short, the Soviets could be fairly confident that they would never again be in a position of strategic inferiority. Indeed, they would expect to derive considerable political gain from the formal ratification of strategic “equality.”

We, in turn, might find that the world of a SALT agreement would be politically a difficult one in which to press for new strategic systems, even though agreement permitted them and force planners could make plausible cases for them.

Thus, we might find it hard to advance programs which are more or less implicit in accepting a limited agreement; for example, transferring our land-based systems to sea-based. (With the Soviet ABM limited, we would run into increasing pressure to curtail or terminate our MIRV programs.) On the other hand, we would be largely relieved of the most immediate concerns over Soviet capabilities for a neutralizing strike against Minuteman silos, and gain some time to adjust our posture.

It was an irony of the test ban treaty2 that an Administration which anticipated domestic and international benefits from the détente it hoped the agreement would engender, instead found itself stressing the military pitfalls and the intensified programs which it was undertaking to offset those pitfalls. It is unlikely that this Administration will find itself obliged to operate under similar pressures from internal critics and Congressional skeptics. On the contrary, unlike the test ban treaty which served as a trigger for substantial increases in certain military programs, a SALT agreement is likely to add momentum to the general shift in priorities from military to civilian programs.

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Apart from military considerations, it would be uncharacteristic for the Soviets to enter into a major arms control agreement without some underlying expectations relating to the general political situation. Their motives, first of all, probably relate to the impact of a SALT agreement in Europe.

Some European leaders appreciate that strategic “parity” should in theory increase the danger of sub-strategic conflicts. But the majority of our West European allies as well as a large body of our own opinion probably are not willing to consider this a serious contingency, nor appropriate resources to strengthen conventional defense. More likely, in the wake of SALT there would be a period of political relaxation and perhaps actual reductions in defense programs.

The leading European statesmen would be strongly motivated to use the umbrella of a SALT agreement to seek parallel understandings with the Soviet Union.

Of most immediate consequence would be the link between SALT and the German negotiations.3 One strong trend in Soviet European policy in the last 18 months has been to concentrate on Bonn as the key to gaining the basic Soviet goal of confirming the European status quo. One of the fundamental motives for Moscow in an “early” SALT agreement must be the estimate that it would greatly improve the chances of obtaining a definitive post-war settlement in Europe, based on a divided Germany, specifically acknowledged as such.

One of our principal problems, therefore, would be to manage the onrushing European détente in such a way that our concrete interests are not virtually swept aside. This would mean a series of decisions (e.g. Berlin, the Oder–Neisse, a Security Conference) as we moved towards a SALT agreement.

One of the harder areas in which to judge the effect of a SALT agreement is that of West European defense cooperation. With Soviet ABM constrained (and U.S./Soviet parity confirmed) both the British and the French will judge their own strategic forces as having acquired new justification. With MIRV allowed—even if the U.S. should slow up its own programs because of budgetary pressures—the British and French may well be stimulated to push ahead into that region of technology. Given UK Conservative propensities for seeking cooperation with the French they may well develop new momentum for the notion of an Anglo-French force. Without discussing the numerous ramified issues involved, it should be noted in the context of the present paper [Page 316] that such a development could face us with tough choices. We might be confronted with requests for technical assistance and would certainly have an interest in coordination. Yet the SALT treaty, at strong Soviet insistence, would almost certainly contain prohibitions against circumventing its terms via third countries. The Soviets would construe any American role in an Anglo-French force—indeed any continued bilateral Anglo-American or new American-French relationship in the strategic area—as violating the SALT treaty. This is quite apart from the explosive problem of German association with a possible Anglo-French force.

In short, a SALT agreement contains seeds of American-European difficulties over strategic weapons which will need to be given careful thought well before they arise.

Current Crises

It does not follow that an improvement in relations with the USSR, implicit in a SALT agreement, restrains Soviet conduct elsewhere. The Soviets could calculate exactly the opposite; that they would gain relatively a free hand, while the U.S. would be more inhibited from sharp reactions, lest the tentative détente be jeopardized (such a Soviet calculation probably was made in 1968 when the NPT was signed and a summit dangled as the Czech crisis deepened).

This does not mean that the Soviets would necessarily become more aggressive in the Middle East. Risks and costs would remain still substantial with or without SALT.

SALT agreements create no new incentive for the Soviets to be more conciliatory in promoting a peaceful settlement, or be more willing to put pressures on their Arab clients. Relieved of some concern over the future strategic competition with us, and especially relieved of any concern that we might make a favorable SALT agreement dependent on their political performance elsewhere, the Soviets could conclude that continuing tension in the Middle East was on balance still in their interests.

Vietnam and the Far East

The willingness to conclude a major agreement with the United States, in the wake of the Cambodian crisis, and while the war continued in Indochina, might suggest to Hanoi that Moscow put its own strategic interests and European goals well ahead of the struggle in Indochina.

Such a conclusion would be the more likely in view of the almost certain aggravation of Sino-Soviet relations. The Chinese would see in SALT an embryonic Soviet-American condominium. They would foresee a prospect for a general relaxation on the USSR’s Western front, [Page 317] and might suspect a tacit deal in which the U.S. granted a free hand to the Soviets to deal with China. A SALT agreement that precluded the development of area defense against China would heighten Peking’s suspicions that both Great Powers meant to deal with China’s incipient strategic force by adopting a pre-emptive strategy. Soviet emphasis in Vienna on U.S.-Soviet cooperation against “provocative” third country attack points in this direction.

Any immediate gain in Indochina because of SALT would seem doubtful. The Soviets would be freed of any leverage SALT might have given us to influence their posture in Southeast Asia. On the other hand, the Soviets have been losing influence, in any case, and have not proved willing to exert themselves in our behalf.

Some Longer Term Consequences

None of the post war arms control agreements with the USSR have proved the turning point that their advocates hoped for. Yet a SALT agreement, even if limited, would probably have a much more deep-seated effect.

The Soviets are currently drafting the next five year plan, and preparing for the 24th Party Congress. In addition, there is considerable evidence that the top leadership will probably be reshaped. An agreement in these circumstances could not help but influence the general course of Soviet policies. There would be some greater certainty in strategic planning and the allocation of resources. (Indeed this may be one of the major Soviet interests in an early agreement.) Forcing through any agreement in a collective leadership, especially one in a process of shifting the balance of power, would more or less tie the new leaders to the softer more optimistic line implicit in a SALT agreement.

How durable such a line would be might depend upon the resolution of the Middle East and the Indochina war, but also how the U.S. chose to conduct relations with the USSR. The Soviets would believe that SALT implied a certain political presumption that we would act more in parallel with the USSR. For example, an active U.S. effort to open lines to China would raise great suspicions in Moscow. Our stand on European issues would also be carefully examined as a test of Moscow presumptions.

One area of new problems for us would be in East-West economic relations. We would find it difficult to reconcile a SALT agreement with a restrictive policy on both trade and technological exchanges. We could no longer argue persuasively that our purpose was to prevent the enhancement of Soviet strategic capabilities.

In sum, if we choose to move in a direction of more open cooperation with the Soviet Union we would, of course, find the Soviet leaders responsive. If we chose to act with more restraint, or felt obliged to [Page 318] pursue interests in conflict with the USSR’s we would find, as in the past, that the net gains from SALT over any long term might prove fragile.

If a SALT agreement produced a generally conciliatory American attitude, including more generous economic policies toward the USSR, the Soviets would have a strong incentive to keep us on such a course. For even if the Soviets see U.S. opinion as increasingly concerned with domestic affairs and tired of foreign entanglements and the cold war, they would still remain concerned about sudden and extreme swings in our attitude. They could not ignore the fact that the President’s major political support comes from sections of our population that remain hostile to Communism and suspicious of the USSR.

At the same time—and we should be quite clear about this—this would not prevent Soviet leaders from moving drastically in Eastern Europe if they felt that the effects of “détente” undermined Soviet hegemony there; it would not stop the Soviets from seeking to advance their interests and to damage ours in Western Europe, the Middle East and Mediterranean and elsewhere. Moreover, the Soviet ruling elite would still remain highly sensitive to any contamination of their society through increased exchanges and the lowering of barriers to free movement of peoples and ideas. The Soviets would probably reason that our own stake in preserving the agreement is sufficiently great to oblige us to tolerate such a range of Soviet actions, expecially if there were no plausible evidence that the USSR was violating the actual terms of the SALT agreement. For their part, having entered the agreement and having adjusted their plans to its existence, the odds are that the Soviets would not consciously adopt a policy intended to undermine the agreement itself or its political basis or jeopardize its continuation. They would only be likely to do so if they saw the clear prospects of obtaining a significant strategic advantage or of achieving a decisive political breakthrough in their contest with us.

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 878, SALT, SALT talks (Vienna), Vol. XI, July 1–19, 1970. Secret; Nodis. Sent for information. Drafted by Sonnenfeldt and sent to Kissinger on July 8 by Lord, who wrote that “the forecast presented in this memorandum is sufficiently negative to make one wonder why we would want to conclude a SALT agreement at all.” Handwritten and stamped notations on the memorandum indicate that Nixon saw it on July 24. In the upper right-hand corner, Nixon wrote: “K—a very thoughtful paper. I suggest limited distribution only to N.S.C. statutory members—(if at all).” A notation on the last page reads: “S’feldt noted that no further dist[ribution] is to be made.
  2. Reference is to the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, which prohibited nuclear testing in the atmosphere, outer space, and under water. (14 UST 1313)
  3. Foreign Minister Walter Scheel of the Federal Republic of Germany visited Washington July 17–18. During the visit, Scheel discussed the talks that would begin at the end of July between the FRG and the Soviet Union on the mutual renunciation of force.