The views and opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors, and do not represent those of the U.S. Department of Defense.
The first SALT-related conversation in the Nixon White House recordings occurred on 16 February 1971, the first day of operation for the taping system. Between 16 February and 31 May 1971, President Nixon secretly recorded approximately 100 conversations during which he and his advisers discussed SALT in a substantive way. Thirty-two of those conversations are transcribed here. A list of the additional conversations is found in Appendix 1. Like Nixon’s recordings on many other topics, the SALT conversations are highly repetitive, and the selections provided here are representative of the larger corpus.
Two agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union emerged from the strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) that spanned the first administration of President Richard M. Nixon (1969–1973). The first was an interim executive agreement that froze certain categories of strategic nuclear offensive forces for a five-year period. The second was a treaty of unlimited duration that restricted anti-ballistic missile systems (ABM). The combined SALT agreements culminated a three-year effort by the Nixon administration to achieve an offensive-defensive linkage that would halt Soviet nuclear modernization efforts and simultaneously restrict the development and deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems by both superpowers.
SALT I, as the two agreements became known collectively in the political and arms control lexicon, originated in the last years of the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The two nations discussed the subject conceptually at the Glassboro summit in 1967, and Johnson announced in July 1968 that they had agreed to begin discussions to limit strategic weapons. The proposed talks were never held, however, due to the political fallout over the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.
When President Nixon entered the White House in January 1969, he and his chief foreign policy adviser, Special Assistant for National Security Affairs Henry A. Kissinger, began to incorporate possible strategic arms control options into a broad strategy of détente. Détente represented an evolutionary stage in the U.S. Cold War strategy of containing communism, and was a somewhat nebulous phenomenon throughout the period; none of the Nixon recordings concerning SALT refer to the term “détente.” The Nixon–Kissinger conception of détente meant negotiating spheres of stability with the Soviets (and the Chinese). The Nixon White House viewed SALT as a tactical ingredient in that strategy, and not as an end in itself. The immediate objective of arms control was to stabilize the nuclear balance and remove incentives for continued competition in strategic weapons. But the ultimate purpose of SALT, along with other agreements with the Soviet Union, was to provide Soviet leadership with a compelling stake in a peaceful superpower relationship. The Kremlin would thereby be encouraged to refrain from global adventurism and from exploiting nationalist movements, which threatened to undermine the overall balance of power and heighten U.S.–Soviet confrontation and conflict.
Formal negotiations on SALT began in Helsinki on 17 November 1969. The talks alternated between Helsinki and Vienna, with each session lasting for several months, followed by a break. Preliminary discussions revealed wide differences in what each side considered to be “strategic” weapons, as well as the difficulties in coming to grips with the asymmetries between the two nuclear arsenals. The Soviets were rapidly increasing their intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force, particularly their largest, or heavy, ICBMs, as well as their submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers. The huge payload capacity of these heavy ICBMs was seen as a possible threat to U.S. land-based missiles, even in heavily protected launch sites. Although the United States had essentially frozen the number of its strategic missiles, submarines, and bombers, it had programs under way to increase substantially its total warhead count by deploying multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). On the defensive side of the nuclear equation, the Soviet Union had deployed a limited ABM system around Moscow. The United States SAFEGUARD ABM program was, at least on paper, much more ambitious and capable than its Soviet counterpart, and was designed to encompass up to 12 ABM complexes. The initial phase of SAFEGUARD would protect ICBM sites but later deployments would defend populated areas, including the National Command Authority (NCA), Washington, D.C.
Washington initially preferred a single, comprehensive arms control agreement or framework that would place ceilings on both strategic offensive and defensive systems. Nixon and Kissinger insisted that offense-defense linkage was necessary in order to gain significant limits on the Soviet strategic offensive buildup then underway. They argued that significant constraints on the growth of the Soviet missile force, particularly ICBMs, were both militarily and politically necessary, and that the U.S. SAFEGUARD ABM program provided the necessary negotiating leverage to obtain those limits.
For their part, the Soviets had for some time expressed the desire for an agreement solely to limit ABMs, which would allow them to carry out their ongoing missile modernization program. In December 1970, Moscow formally proposed to conclude an ABM agreement as a first step in SALT, leaving offensive limitations to a later date. Some U.S. officials and outside experts also favored separating offensive and defensive arms control at this juncture and proceeding with limitations on ABM systems first. They argued that, once strict ABM limitations were firmly in place, the two sides would no longer feel pressure to increase their offensive forces in order to overcome strategic defenses. Still other officials and outside experts argued for a complete ban on MIRV testing and deployment, a proposal that Nixon and Kissinger had previously rejected.
The basic outlines of the disagreement over SALT between the U.S. and Soviet governments, and within the U.S. government itself, soon became public through leaks and informed speculation in the press. The White House felt political pressure to reach some sort of arms control settlement, especially in light of growing opposition to the Vietnam War and of problematic congressional support for the U.S. ABM program and defense spending in general. To break the negotiating impasse with the Soviets, and to bypass the normal interagency process, Nixon and Kissinger resorted to the private back channel that Kissinger had established with the Soviet ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin. They did so without informing senior U.S. national security officials of the existence or substance of these talks.
In a session at the Soviet embassy on 9 January 1971, approximately a month before the first recorded conversation about SALT, Kissinger proposed that the United States would accept an ABM agreement if it was coupled with a commitment by the Soviets to continue to work on offensive limitations. There would be a freeze on new starts of ICBMs until there was a formal agreement on limiting offensive weapons. The United States later would offer a new proposal on SLBMs. The agreement on this basic framework for SALT was to be expressed through an exchange of letters between Nixon and the Soviet leadership. The details of the final treaties or agreements would then be worked out in the formal SALT negotiations. If all went well, the two sides would sign the final documents at a U.S.–Soviet summit in Moscow that autumn.
Dobrynin replied to this proposal on 23 January, stating that he was not yet in a position to be definitive, but there was a good possibility that Moscow would accept an offense-defense deal. On 4 and 10 February, Dobrynin confirmed the Politburo's agreement in principle to couple an ABM agreement with a freeze on the deployment of some offensive weapons, although the Soviets still preferred an ABM-only agreement.
Difficulties in the Back Channel (February–April 1971)
It was at this point that the White House conversations about SALT began. The first arms-control related discussion, on 16 February, touched on the most critical issue then pending in the SALT negotiations: the relationship between ballistic missile defenses and strategic offensive forces. While preparing for a presidential press conference to be held the following day, Nixon and Kissinger discussed how to answer questions about SALT, especially in light of the intelligence community's recent assessment of the growing threat posed to the United States by multiple warheads on the Soviet SS-9 ICBM. They agreed that Nixon should emphasize that no meaningful arms control would be possible without control of both offensive and defensive weapons (Conversation 450-011, PRDE Excerpt B).
From February through the end of April, the White House conversations about SALT were typically brief and interwoven with other topics. Arms control was hardly the main concern in the Nixon White House during the winter and spring of 1971. Rather, Vietnam dominated the administration’s foreign policy agenda. The controversial South Vietnamese ground offensive in Laos, supported by American airpower and logistics, was still under way. Major springtime protests against the war were being planned across the nation. Secretary of State William P. Rogers was actively engaged in efforts to reach a Middle East peace settlement, while he and Kissinger battled behind the scenes to control the national security apparatus. Nixon and Kissinger, unknown to Rogers and the rest of the government, were also seeking a political opening with the People’s Republic of China. On the domestic front, the 1970 midterm elections were a mixture of gains and losses for Nixon and the Republicans in Congress and in the states, and the President was gearing up for what he believed would be a difficult reelection campaign.
That said, the White House conversations reveal Nixon’s recognition that the success or failure of SALT would have major implications for the President’s ambitious foreign policy agenda and his domestic political standing. Kissinger had initially expected that a formal U.S.–Soviet understanding on SALT would emerge quickly from the back-channel discussions, once (in his view) Dobrynin had agreed in early February to the basic American position linking offensive and defensive forces. Such swift progress, however, did not occur.
Kissinger, for the most part, continued to express confidence that an arms control agreement would eventually be reached. The Soviets, in Kissinger’s judgment, needed to make a deal; their leadership had a domestic situation as complex as Nixon’s and perhaps more intractable. The nascent U.S. opening with the Chinese had also given Nixon maneuvering room with the Kremlin. Kissinger’s own reputation as an effective negotiator was at stake in the back channel. The President, for his part, adopted a more skeptical tone—perhaps as a psychological defense mechanism if the talks failed, or as a device to allow him to rein in Kissinger (Conversation 481-007, PRDE Excerpt A).
Kissinger explained to Nixon that progress on SALT in the back channel had been difficult because, according to Dobrynin, the Soviet leadership was preoccupied with the 24th Soviet Party Congress (30 March to 9 April 1971). Dobrynin was away in Moscow during much of February–April 1971, and the Oval Office conversations reflect Nixon and Kissinger’s anxiety as they waited for his return with an authoritative response from the Kremlin on SALT. Both men believed that the Party Congress likely would determine fundamentally the future composition of the Soviet leadership and its approach to arms control. Nixon concluded that there was a fight in Moscow between hawks and doves, with the military resisting arms control but the civilians appreciating the need for détente because of Soviet economic difficulties and because of the Chinese problem (Conversation 245-006, PRDE Excerpt A). After the completion of the Congress, Nixon and Kissinger noted some positive developments: the emergence of Leonid Brezhnev as the leading figure in the Soviet leadership, and Brezhnev’s apparently conciliatory tone at the Party Congress towards the West and arms control (Conversation 479-002).
SALT and American Foreign Policy
The White House conversations from February to April 1971 provide a sense of the relationship that Nixon and Kissinger perceived between SALT and various critical foreign policy issues. The most obvious diplomatic linkage was with the ongoing Berlin four-power talks, which were designed to clarify the status of Berlin and the rights and responsibilities of the nations that assumed control of the city after World War II (the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France). Kissinger’s working assumption was that Moscow’s anxiety to reach an agreement over Berlin provided the Nixon administration with leverage over the Kremlin in arms control. Kissinger was prepared to hold up the Berlin talks even though U.S. stalling tactics might bring down the government of West German chancellor Willy Brandt—or at the very least make Brandt’s domestic political situation more difficult (Conversation 489-017, PRDE Excerpt A).
Nixon and Kissinger also considered the linkage between SALT and a possible autumn U.S.–Soviet summit. “If we get SALT, we’ll get the summit,” Nixon told Kissinger. Kissinger replied that he did not see why the Soviets would want to have the summit without resolving the substantive negotiations because “if they don't give on SALT we will just stonewall on the rest of the [superpower] agenda” (Conversation 249-016, PRDE Excerpt A).
Kissinger and Nixon also believed that the nascent opening to China gave them maneuvering room with the Soviets, which might well facilitate a SALT agreement. Kissinger, for his part, noted that “we can whipsaw the two of them if we play it boldly and don’t get sentimental about it.” The United States had the option of moving toward an outright alliance with the Chinese to offset Soviet intransigence over SALT and other critical issues, though Kissinger believed that the threat of doing so would be sufficient to bring the Soviets back to serious diplomacy (Conversation 483-013, PRDE Excerpt A). On the one hand, the United States must not overplay this threat; Washington needed to give the Soviets a way out and not have SALT fail because of Moscow’s displeasure with the warming of Sino–American relations (Conversation 479-001). On the other hand, Nixon and Kissinger discussed the need to inform the Chinese about a U.S.–Soviet announcement of progress in SALT and to offer reassurance that arms control was not being directed at Beijing (Conversation 498-002).
Nixon also believed that a SALT agreement might indirectly provide incentives for the North Vietnamese to negotiate seriously: “The only possibility of something happening here is tied to their concern about the Chinese and Russians, for example, if something develops in a breakthrough in SALT, which is possible” (Conversation 495-026). Kissinger remarked that the SALT breakthrough announcement was bound to jolt the North Vietnamese: “[N]o matter what the Russians tell them, they can’t be sure what side deals are being made” (Conversation 498-002).
SALT and American Politics
The President was insistent that his negotiating leverage with the Soviets depended fundamentally on the prospect that the United States would maintain its planned defense programs, especially SAFEGUARD, despite evident congressional opposition. Nixon attempted to buy time for the back channel to play out by meeting in the Oval Office with key legislators of both parties, including Senators Mike Mansfield [D–Montana] and John McClellan [D–Arkansas]. Nixon insisted to them that he was serious about arms control and that progress in SALT was at least modestly encouraging. He indicated that the next few months would be critical and that Congress should not undercut his position in SALT by opposing SAFEGUARD or failing to support him on military matters (Conversation 245-006, PRDE Excerpt A; see also Conversation 482-022). The President was adamant that the White House must quash stories that he or others in the administration had doubts about the viability of the ABM program.
Nixon and Kissinger considered what might happen if back-channel efforts to reach a basic SALT framework failed, as seemed possible between late February and late April 1971. Kissinger argued that if the Soviets did not make a major move in the direction of the American position, the United States would “have to go hard on them,” because the Soviet offensive and defensive deployments were “scary.” He expressed concern that Moscow’s nuclear buildup, especially its heavy ICBM forces, pointed toward a first-strike capability, which the United States could not counter in a timely fashion because of the potential for a Soviet breakout (Conversation 481-007, PRDE Excerpt A). In Kissinger’s opinion, this enhanced capability would provide Moscow with enormous psychological leverage, especially during the President’s second term. The danger would be compounded by the determination of the President’s domestic critics to attack the U.S. military-industrial complex and undermine American strategic strength—a familiar theme in the White House conversations (Conversation 482-010, PRDE Excerpt A). At the same time, Nixon argued that the country itself would probably turn hard-right in the event that the Soviets appeared to be gaining strategic superiority and that it would be necessary politically, as well as strategically, to respond with an American counter-buildup.
For the Nixon White House, the problem of managing senior American officials and the interagency SALT policy process was just as important, or perhaps more so, than the substance of arms control. Kissinger and Nixon were repeatedly frustrated by leaks and bureaucratic intransigence, which they believed were designed to undermine the White House’s negotiating strategy. In their opinion, if the White House did not preempt the advocates of compromise in SALT, the result would be an agreement that fundamentally jeopardized U.S. security. Nixon was particularly scathing in his assessment of the abilities and trustworthiness of the chief U.S. SALT negotiator, Gerard C. Smith (Conversation 460-025, PRDE Excerpt A). Nixon and Kissinger were determined to exclude the regular national security bureaucracy, including the secretaries of state and defense, as well as Smith, from the substance of the negotiations with Dobrynin—and even from knowledge that the back channel existed.
The Oval Office conversations also reveal the efforts of Nixon and Kissinger to manipulate the U.S. delegation to the formal SALT negotiations, which resumed in Vienna on 15 March, while the back-channel discussions continued. On several occasions, Nixon and Kissinger expressed dismay and anger when they believed that the Soviets had attempted to “game” that uncomfortable situation by, for example, making a formal proposal in Vienna of something that Kissinger had already rejected in the back channel (Conversation 496-009, PRDE Excerpt A).
The President also considered how to deal with the reaction of senior officials, particularly Secretary of State Rogers, once a basic understanding with the Soviets had been reached through the back channel. How would Nixon explain to them that such a major development had taken place without their knowledge? The White House spent much time crafting an acceptable cover story to account for the breakthrough in SALT. Nixon feared that these officials would, at a minimum, embarrass the White House or even resign in protest at their exclusion from the back-channel discussions. Nixon went so far as to engage Rogers in a for-the-record meeting on 26 February, during which the President made a vague reference to “writing a letter or something” (Conversation 460-025, PRDE Excerpt A). Nixon would later refer back to this conversation to insist to Rogers that the Secretary of State indeed had been consulted in advance (Conversation 501-014).
White House chief of staff H. R. Haldeman played a significant role in advising Nixon on how to deal with the difficulties within the administration over SALT, especially given the rivalry between Rogers and Kissinger. At one point, Nixon told Haldeman that he suspected that Kissinger’s position on SALT was motivated substantially by his need to better Rogers (Conversation 457-004).
Nixon was also fixated on the need to ensure that he, rather than the Department of State or the SALT delegation, personally received credit for a SALT agreement. He feared that Rogers and Smith, aided and abetted by the liberal media and the Soviets, would rob him of the strategic and political advantages of being seen as the driving force behind an arms agreement (Conversation 451-004). Nixon was anxious to maximize the political advantages of portraying himself as a statesman committed to peace, and to disarm his critics, such as probable presidential candidate Edmund S. Muskie [D–Maine], who had claimed that the SALT negotiations were going nowhere. Nixon often referred to the political capital that President John F. Kennedy had obtained through the 1963 nuclear test ban agreement with the Soviets, even though he and Kissinger disparaged its strategic importance (Conversation 468-005, PRDE Excerpt A; see also Conversation 494-004).
While they waited for the Soviets to respond, Nixon and Kissinger at times expressed the view that SALT was too esoteric to gain much political traction, and questioned the intrinsic worth of arms control. But as Nixon remarked, “in terms of our public relations, we can use something like this at this time. I wouldn't do anything wrong for public relations reasons, but I don't want to horse around . . .” (Conversation 487-021, PRDE Excerpt A). In a conversation with Deputy National Security Adviser Alexander M. Haig Jr. about how to use foreign policy successes to win key congressional votes, Nixon suggested that progress towards a Vietnam settlement, a U.S.–Soviet summit, and the opening to China might offer greater political value than a SALT agreement (Conversation 493-010, PRDE Excerpt A). But Nixon later told Haldeman that he had deliberately downgraded the importance of SALT in his discussion with Haig, and admitted that “the SALT thing is enormously important” (Conversation 493-015). “Kissinger is totally wrong, and Haig is half-wrong. . . . SALT will have a hell of an effect on this town” (Conversation 494-004).
Endgame: The 20 May SALT “Breakthrough” Announcement
In late April 1971, Kissinger informed President Nixon that the Soviets had finally accepted, through the back channel, the basic parameters of a joint commitment to move forward on SALT. The United States and the Soviet Union would reach an interim agreement to halt the deployment of strategic offensive weapons. This agreement would be coupled with a treaty of indefinite duration limiting ABM systems. Yet there were still many details to be worked out, such as the dates that the offensive freeze would begin and end (pending a more permanent agreement), what types of offensive weapons would be covered, and the number and location of ABM systems permitted on both sides. Kissinger assumed that the technical details could be resolved later through the formal SALT negotiations in Vienna and Helsinki, but that an announcement of the breakthrough could be made in the next few weeks, perhaps along with a commitment to a U.S.–Soviet summit that autumn (Conversation 487-021, PRDE Excerpt A; and Conversation 489-017, PRDE Excerpt A). From this point forward, the White House conversations about SALT become much more lengthy, focused, and detailed.
For the next several weeks, Kissinger and Dobrynin continued to discuss the remaining loose ends of the joint public announcement, tentatively scheduled for release on 20 May, and the text of formal letters that would be exchanged privately between Soviet and American leaders. Nixon and Kissinger became suspicious that the Soviets were still trying to reach an agreement on defensive systems first, which would undercut political support in the U.S. for the SAFEGUARD ABM program, while allowing Moscow’s ongoing strategic offensive buildup—especially its heavy ICBM program—to continue unimpeded. Kissinger feared that the Soviets were using the front-channel formal negotiations in Vienna to float proposals that undercut the understanding that he and Dobrynin had reached in the back channel: that the offensive and defensive agreements would be linked (Conversation 496-009, PRDE Excerpt A).
On 13 and 14 May, Kissinger reported to Nixon that he had pressed Dobrynin to add the word “simultaneously” to the letter from Soviet premier Aleksei Kosygin concerning the timing of the conclusion of the offensive and defensive agreements. (There was the added question of whether offensive and defensive negotiations must proceed in tandem, or whether they might be conducted sequentially as long as the agreements were concluded together.) Dobrynin responded that simultaneity was implicit in the Soviet letter, that the word “simultaneously” could appear in the public announcement, and that going back to the Politburo at this point would simply create ill will and delay the process. Kissinger recommended to Nixon that he accept Dobrynin’s assurances. Kissinger, meanwhile, would place on the record memoranda that documented the American understanding of the linkage between the offensive and defensive agreements (Conversation 498-011, PRDE Excerpt A; and Conversation 498-018, PRDE Excerpt A).
As late as the morning of 18 May, Kissinger was still uncertain whether the Soviets would agree to the joint announcement on 20 May. The uncertainty was apparently resolved in conversations between Kissinger and Dobrynin on the afternoon of 18 May and the morning of 19 May (Conversation 500-026 and Conversation 501-012). According to Kissinger, Dobrynin said that he was still unsure whether the word “simultaneously” could be added to the Kosygin letter because of the difficulty in assembling the key players in Moscow, but that in any case, the Soviets would accept the American understanding as documented by Kissinger. Nixon expressed his unhappiness that nothing more formal could be arranged but he accepted Kissinger's recommendation that the public announcement should proceed as planned, in a short televised statement to the nation at noon on 20 May. The Soviets would release the text in Russian concurrently at 7:00 Moscow time (Conversation 500-010, PRDE Excerpt A).
While Kissinger was attempting to nail down the wording of the public and private messages concerning SALT, another major foreign policy issue was being resolved in Washington. The U.S. Senate had been debating a variety of proposals involving the U.S. military commitments to Europe, especially Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield’s proposed legislation to cut American troop strength in half. The two subjects—SALT and the Mansfield Amendment—were intertwined in the Oval Office conversations throughout May. The White House had lobbied heavily against the troop reduction mandate, and Nixon felt vindicated when the Mansfield Amendment was voted down 69–31 on 19 May. In the Oval Office conversations leading up to the vote, Nixon showed no inclination to use the impending announcement about progress in the SALT negotiations to influence the Senate debate. He did not inform key senators of the possible SALT breakthrough or seek to delay the vote to strengthen his political position (Conversation 500-010, PRDE Excerpt A). Nixon apparently wanted to preserve the dramatic effect of the SALT announcement at all costs. Nixon was also likely concerned that a last-second collapse of the SALT back-channel agreement, if it became known, would compromise his political leverage in the Senate.
At this point, in conversations with H. R. Haldeman, political adviser Charles W. Colson, and media expert John A. Scali, Nixon appeared to downplay the strategic importance of SALT and to stress its political value. He believed that the general public would appreciate that a major U.S.–Soviet agreement had been reached. The press would be told that progress in SALT marked a significant and perhaps decisive contribution to world peace, certainly much more important than Kennedy’s partial test ban treaty. In President Nixon’s view, Congress should be brought to understand that his approach to foreign policy had been vindicated and that the legislators must not undercut the administration through restrictive legislation or preemptive cuts in defense programs (Conversation 502-012).
Breaking the News to the Administration and Congressional Leaders
The delay in pinning down the timing and substance of the SALT announcement complicated the White House’s plans to shape the understanding of the agreement within the administration and among Congress, the media, and the general public.
The most pressing problem facing Nixon was the need to inform key national security officials, especially Secretary of State Rogers, SALT chief negotiator Gerard C. Smith, and Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird, of the impending announcement. These senior officials had not been made aware of the substance, much less the existence, of the Kissinger–Dobrynin back channel. Nixon and Kissinger were concerned that one or more of these officials might resign in protest over this apparent lack of confidence, or that they might leak their own version of events to the press, thus spoiling the public effect of the announcement and alerting the Soviets to dissension within U.S. ranks. Nixon and Kissinger calculated that Rogers, Smith, and Laird could be made to see that success in SALT transcended the less-than-transparent means by which it was achieved. But the White House could not be sure on this point and there was much anxiety over when and how the news should be broken to the principals.
Kissinger and Smith met early on the morning of 19 May, before Nixon's planned meeting with Rogers. Nixon timed this sequence so that Smith would not have the opportunity to tip off Rogers. Kissinger immediately reported to Nixon that Smith had reacted very positively to the news and that Smith indicated that it was the substance, not the means, of progress in the negotiations that mattered. According to Kissinger, Smith had raised a number of questions about the details of the new SALT framework; Kissinger said he responded that such details were for Smith and the U.S. delegation to work out with their Soviet counterparts in Vienna and Helsinki (Conversation 501-007).1
Nixon’s session with Rogers shortly thereafter went less smoothly. Haldeman had called Rogers in London the previous Saturday, 15 May, to indicate that the President wanted to see him on a sensitive matter when he returned to Washington. After Rogers briefed the President on the situation in the Middle East, Nixon haltingly described the impending SALT announcement. The President indicated that events had developed very quickly while Rogers was out of the country and that the breakthrough had been confirmed only that week. Rogers said little but was clearly upset (Conversation 501-004). Haldeman spent much of the rest of the day trying to calm the waters. Nixon instructed Haldeman to remind Rogers of an earlier discussion between the two in January (which actually took place in February), in which the President had, however vaguely, referred to the idea of high-level contacts on SALT (Conversation 460-025, PRDE Excerpt A; Conversation 501-007; and Conversation 501-016). Nixon closed the loop with Rogers in a telephone conversation on the afternoon of 19 May (Conversation 003‑067). Haldeman thought that Rogers had been mollified by the President’s explanation of events and particularly by Haldeman’s assurances to the Secretary of State that he would not be embarrassed publicly by his lack of knowledge about the SALT back channel (Conversation 501-016).
Kissinger briefed Laird early on the afternoon of 19 May. Kissinger reported to Nixon that he had no difficulties with the Secretary of Defense, although Laird had warned that the prospect of an impending arms control agreement would make it difficult to obtain congressional support for strategic programs, especially ABM (Conversation 501-016). Laird made the same point in a subsequent Oval Office meeting with Nixon (Conversation 501-018, PRDE Excerpt A). Kissinger also reported that Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Admiral Thomas H. Moorer had responded enthusiastically to the news that the President had not given in to pressures to accept an ABM-only agreement (Conversation 501-024).2
On the morning of 20 May, Nixon informed the Cabinet about the SALT announcement. Immediately afterward, Nixon told Haldeman that the meeting had gone well, but there were indications from Nixon's later conversations that Cabinet members had raised several potential problems. Laird apparently pointed out that the letters between Soviet and American leaders referred to a “treaty” on ABM but only an “agreement” to limit offensive forces—an arrangement that seemed to favor the Soviets. Nixon and Kissinger discussed how to handle that issue if it came up in Nixon’s next meeting with congressional leaders or in Kissinger’s press briefings. Kissinger suggested that Nixon respond that such details would be worked out in the formal SALT negotiations (Conversation 502-007, PRDE Excerpt A).
After the Cabinet meeting, Nixon and Smith met with a group of legislative leaders. Prior to that session, Kissinger warned Nixon not to use the word “freeze” in his description of the interim agreement on offensive forces because that might seem to echo an earlier proposal made by Senator Hubert H. Humphrey [D–Minnesota] (Conversation 501‑029). After the legislators’ meeting, Nixon told Kissinger and Haldeman that Smith had done well in briefing the leaders. Nixon complained, however, that key Democratic senators, including Mansfield and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman J. William Fulbright [D–Arkansas], were behaving like poor sports. Nixon acknowledged that Mansfield had taken a beating in the NATO troop vote the day before and he would later note that Mansfield had issued a gracious and favorable statement about SALT (Conversation 502-012). Just before he made his televised SALT announcement, Nixon spoke briefly by telephone with House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford [R–Michigan] to discuss the effects of the statement on congressional opinion (Conversation 003-080).
Shaping the Public Announcement and Press Backgrounders
Nixon, Kissinger, and Haldeman spent a great deal of time working on the President’s prepared comments to the nation, to be delivered together with the text of the joint U.S.–Soviet statement on SALT. They decided that the President’s remarks should be brief to increase their dramatic impact. On several occasions during the editing process, Kissinger cautioned against language by the President indicating that the SALT breakthrough might open the door to resolving U.S.–Soviet differences in other areas; such language might alarm the Europeans and other nations if they concluded that SALT signaled the beginning of a U.S.–Soviet condominium at the expense of third parties. Nixon agreed that Kissinger could make the general point about improved U.S.–Soviet relations in his press backgrounders. Kissinger was also to argue that the administration’s policy of linkage had been applied successfully to the SALT negotiations (Conversation 502-006).
Nixon and his staff discussed extensively a strategy for influencing the media’s view of the SALT announcement. They wanted especially to emphasize the centrality of the President’s role in what was to be characterized as a negotiation breakthrough. Nixon also stressed that Kissinger, when briefing the press, must be sure to save face for the senior U.S. government officials like Rogers who had been frozen out of the back-channel negotiations (Conversation 502-009). Nixon later expressed privately to Haldeman his concern that Kissinger would emphasize his personal role in making the back-channel discussions succeed, which would aggravate the Soviets as well as Rogers and senior U.S. officials (Conversation 501-016).
Kissinger told Nixon that he would not have any difficulty persuading knowledgeable members of the media, such as Chalmers Roberts, of the importance of the SALT breakthrough. Kissinger felt that more work would be required, however, for those who did not know much about the subject. Nixon stressed the importance of achieving favorable headlines and news bulletin leads because these, rather than the details within the stories, would set the tone in the public mind. Nixon also emphasized the need to include conservative columnists in Kissinger’s press briefings because the administration was likely to have problems with the political right. Nixon suggested that Kissinger talk with James J. Kilpatrick, William F. Buckley, Richard Wilson, and William S. White. Kissinger noted that Admiral Moorer’s support would be a major help with this group (Conversation 500-029).
The Announcement and Its Aftermath
At noon on 20 May, President Nixon addressed the nation on all three major television networks. He released the text of the agreed upon joint U.S.–Soviet statement on SALT and offered a few brief contextual remarks.3
As you know, the Soviet–American talks on limiting nuclear arms have been deadlocked for over a year. As a result of negotiations involving the highest level of both governments, I am announcing today a significant development in breaking the deadlock.
The statement that I shall now read is being issued simultaneously in Moscow and Washington: Washington, 12 o’clock; Moscow, 7 p.m.
“The Governments of the United States and the Soviet Union, after reviewing the course of their talks on the limitation of strategic armaments, have agreed to concentrate this year on working out an agreement for the limitation of the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems (ABMs). They have also agreed that, together with concluding an agreement to limit ABMs, they will agree on certain measures with respect to the limitation of offensive strategic weapons.
“The two sides are taking this course in the conviction that it will create more favorable conditions for further negotiations to limit all strategic arms. These negotiations will be actively pursued.
“This agreement is a major step in breaking the stalemate on nuclear arms talks. Intensive negotiations, however, will be required to translate this understanding into a concrete agreement.”
This statement that I have just read expresses the commitment of the Soviet and American Governments at the highest levels to achieve that goal. If we succeed, this joint statement that has been issued today may well be remembered as the beginning of a new era in which all nations will devote more of their energies and their resources not to the weapons of war, but to the works of peace.
Nixon’s taped conversations indicate that the White House sought to move out on three fronts following the 20 May announcement: to take political credit for the breakthrough and to shape the public’s understanding of SALT; to be certain that the U.S. SALT delegation executed its instructions as the formal negotiations continued; and to respond to unexpected indications that the Soviets did not fully accept the U.S. understanding of the back-channel agreement.
Immediately after Nixon’s televised statement, Kissinger and Press Secretary Ronald L. Ziegler gave the President a highly favorable assessment of the reaction by the media. Kissinger observed that when he briefed the press on Vietnam, they had always been basically hostile, but on SALT they were trying to make him look good. In fact, he said he had to discourage them from writing that the Soviets had made all the concessions, as doing so might generate backlash from the Kremlin. Nixon, however, was clearly skeptical about Kissinger’s success in emphasizing the White House’s central message—that this was a presidential initiative and that the breakthrough was possible only because it was done “at the highest levels.” Nixon was particularly upset at the reporting by CBS correspondent Marvin Kalb and others that the agreement actually had been struck by the SALT negotiators, Gerard C. Smith and Vladimir Semenov. Kissinger defended his performance, telling Nixon that he had been handicapped by the inability to make specific reference to the back-channel discussions with Dobrynin and by the need to protect Rogers and other senior U.S. officials who had not been privy to the back-channel negotiations (Conversation 502-012).
On 21 May, Nixon repeated his instructions that conservative columnists especially should be cultivated in order to preempt possible future criticism of SALT from the right. Nixon and his advisers reiterated their long-standing criticisms of the press for its liberal bias, and of the foreign policy and Democratic Party establishments for their alleged weakness on national security issues. Nixon stressed the need for Republican congressmen to defend SALT as the President’s initiative. Haldeman noted the favorable comments of Republican senators Edward W. Brooke [Massachusetts] and Charles H. Percy [Illinois] (Conversation 503-001, PRDE Excerpt A). Nixon, in a meeting with Colson on 26 May, discussed in some detail the administration’s political approach to SALT and ABM issues on Capitol Hill. Colson told Nixon that he had begun researching the positions taken by Democrats critical of the President’s prior arms control policy, such as Humphrey. Colson also told the President that he saw huge political opportunities that the White House could exploit if it handled the matter in a sophisticated way (Conversation 505-013).
Nixon expressed concern to Kissinger and Haldeman that Smith and other national security officials might undercut the 20 May framework in retaliation for their exclusion from the back-channel process and their disagreement with its substance. According to Kissinger, the State Department and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency were already putting out information to the media that the ABM agreement was to be negotiated first (Conversation 503-001, PRDE Excerpt A). To nip this problem in the bud, Nixon met with the U.S. SALT delegation on 21 May, just before they were to return to the negotiations in Vienna. In preparing for this meeting, Kissinger told Nixon that the delegation should be instructed to play out the string in the remaining few days of the current round of negotiations, scheduled to conclude on 28 May. The administration would then present a fully considered position when the talks resumed on 8 July in Helsinki. According to Kissinger, the President should stress to the delegation that the ABM-agreement-first approach had been rejected, that the offense-defense negotiations must be conducted in tandem, and that the U.S. ABM position would be based on preserving the multi-site U.S. SAFEGUARD program (i.e., not based on a zero ABM solution or an NCA-only solution). The actual numbers of ABM sites could be worked out later; that was a bargaining point. Nixon made those points to the delegation in typically elliptical fashion (Conversation 503-006).
Things were never simple with the Soviets either. After the President’s announcement on 20 May, Kissinger told Nixon that the Russian translation differed from the American text; it used the word “treaty” rather than “agreement.” Kissinger said that he had immediately challenged Dobrynin, who agreed to put out a press release that authenticated the English text. Kissinger was also displeased with an Associated Press story out of Moscow, reporting that there would be a two-stage procedure: first, an ABM agreement, and second, offensive limitations. Kissinger was concerned that the Soviets might be trying to influence public expectations, contrary to their prior arrangement to link the offensive and defensive agreements. He and Nixon expressed confidence, however, that the Soviets would not back away at this point, as long as the United States stuck to its position (Conversation 502-014).
Once the SALT negotiations resumed in Vienna, however, Kissinger reported to Nixon that the Soviet delegation had taken the position that the two sides would turn to an interim offensive freeze only after an ABM agreement had been fully negotiated; the two agreements could then be concluded together. To Kissinger, this was an obvious ploy to decouple the two agreements, contrary to the 20 May approach (Conversation 504-002, PRDE Excerpt A). He told Nixon on 27 May that he had pressed Dobrynin hard on this point and that he had instructed U.S. ambassador Kenneth Rush to drag out the four-power talks over Berlin to reinforce the U.S. negotiation position on SALT (Conversation 504-013).
Nixon and Kissinger also weighed the timing and value of the proposed Measures to Reduce the Risk of Outbreak of Accidental War, and an improved Hot Line Agreement, which were being discussed as part of the SALT negotiations. The American position had been that such agreements should be concluded as part of the final SALT package; the Soviets had argued that they could be agreed upon and signed separately. Nixon and Kissinger, immediately after the 20 May announcement, agreed to hold to the U.S. position, although Kissinger was to hint to Dobrynin that Nixon might change his mind (Conversation 503-006). On 28 May, Kissinger told Nixon that he had proposed that Semenov come to the United States to sign the Hot Line Agreement. The two sides would hold off on the Accidental War Agreement until a higher-level meeting, such as the proposed U.S.–Soviet summit, which Kissinger still thought might be held in the fall of 1971 (Conversation 505-018).
In a 29 May conversation, Nixon told Kissinger that the summit must include “an interim SALT agreement.” Kissinger expressed the opinion that it was worth holding the summit even without a SALT agreement, for domestic political reasons if nothing else. In Kissinger’s view, Nixon and the Soviet leaders might use the summit to break a deadlock in the formal SALT negotiations. Both men agreed that the United States could not accept an ABM-only agreement at the summit (Conversation 507-004, PRDE Excerpt A).
In sum, the White House conversations from February through May 1971 reflected Nixon’s and Kissinger’s efforts to manage the substance of the back-channel negotiations on SALT; to control other senior officials and the interagency process without divulging the existence or substance of the secret negotiations; and to maximize the diplomatic and political benefits that would be achieved through a SALT agreement. In the event that SALT had failed, Nixon and Kissinger had been prepared to minimize the damage or even exploit new political and strategic opportunities to put pressure on the Soviets. The White House’s efforts culminated with the final agreement between Kissinger and Dobrynin in the back channel, and with the President’s announcement of what became characterized as the SALT “breakthrough” on 20 May 1971.
Despite initial problems, Nixon and Kissinger believed that it would be relatively easy and straightforward to translate the SALT negotiating framework, set out in the 20 May announcement, into a concrete agreement. In reality, it took nearly a year before the Interim Agreement on Strategic Offensive Arms (generally known as SALT I) and the ABM Treaty were ready for signature at the May 1972 U.S.–Soviet summit.
The formal SALT negotiations bogged down, despite the supposed 20 May breakthrough, because the two sides disagreed on what had been decided in the back channel. The language of the 20 May announcement was sufficiently unclear—“together with concluding an agreement to limit ABMs they will agree on certain measures with respect to the limitation of offensive strategic weapons”—as to permit vastly different interpretations of the timing and nature of the final agreements. When the next round of negotiations resumed in Helsinki on 8 July, the lingering problems became fully apparent. The United States continued to press for parallel negotiations in offensive and defensive forces, while the Soviets preferred sequential discussions. The two sides disagreed over the effective date of a quantitative freeze in offensive forces, what types of qualitative modernization would be permitted after the freeze took effect, and whether the interim agreement would cover strategic submarines and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Washington and Moscow also had to reach an understanding on the permitted number and location of ABM systems.
Some of these issues were worked out through the formal SALT negotiations but others required the further intervention of the Kissinger–Dobrynin back channel; Smith was privy to some but not all of these conversations. In April 1972, in an effort to salvage SALT before the scheduled Nixon–Brezhnev summit in May (as well as to resolve other outstanding issues), Kissinger traveled secretly to Moscow for direct discussions with Soviet leaders. Even after Nixon arrived in the Soviet Union, Kissinger was still directly involved in settling the final details of SALT I and the ABM Treaty.
From the standpoint of Smith and advocates of arms control inside and outside government, the White House’s secretive and closed style of decision-making and negotiations created far more problems than they solved. Details mattered in SALT and the White House could not be expected to master and negotiate them while also attempting to manage a massively ambitious national security agenda. The resulting mistakes, misunderstandings, and missed opportunities in SALT, such as the failure to constrain MIRVs and to anticipate the future growth and modernization of the Soviet ICBM force, fatally plagued the political credibility of the arms control process going forward. Conservatives, meanwhile, soon claimed that arms control with the Soviet Union was inherently doomed to fail and that SALT was a vehicle designed by Kissinger to cede strategic superiority gracefully to an ascendant Kremlin. For their part, Nixon and Kissinger argued that they had played a relatively weak hand skillfully, fighting off isolationist and antimilitary pressures at home and international resistance abroad to create the prospects for a stable and peaceful world order in which the United States would still play the central role. Limitations on nuclear arms, in the form of SALT I and the ABM Treaty, were an essential if imperfect pillar of this world order, and they would have been impossible to negotiate following the normal bureaucratic process.
The White House conversations on SALT from 17 February to 31 May 1971, cannot settle this historical debate, but they provide a unique behind-the-scenes insight into the developments and attitudes that shaped superpower arms control until the end of the Cold War.
In his memoirs, Smith recalled his meeting with Kissinger rather differently. “There was no need for me to tell Kissinger what I thought of this procedure in negotiating behind the back of all responsible Administration officials save the President. But I tried to make the best of it by saying that the product and not the process counted, and I thought the product looked positive. I got the impression that Kissinger was more interested in the major political thrust that the accord would give the negotiation than in its specific provisions.” Smith said that he pointed out a number of ambiguities and problems in the public announcement and in the back-channel negotiating records, such as the absence of a freeze on SLBM construction (only ICBMs seemed to be covered). Smith also objected to Kissinger's characterization of the announcement to the press as a “a major step forward in breaking the SALT deadlock by Soviet acceptance of the principle of linking offensive and defensive limitations.” In Smith’s opinion, the Soviets had insisted on this from the beginning and had only partially broken away from it in late 1970. Gerard C. Smith, Doubletalk: The Story of SALT (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1980), 224–44.
Nixon and Kissinger also met with Smith and the principal members of the U.S. SALT delegation (General Royal B. Allison, Paul Nitze, Harold Brown, Llewellyn E. Thompson Jr., and Philip J. Farley) on the afternoon of 19 May. Kissinger argued successfully that they should not be told about the breakthrough by the President. He told Nixon that Smith agreed with him on this point and that Smith would break the news to the group that evening. As a result, the delegation was asked merely to report on the state of play in the formal SALT negotiations (Conversation 501-019, PRDE Excerpt A).
The audio of the President’s statement can be accessed at https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/may-20-1971-remarks-announcing-agreement-strategic-arms.