As 1978 ended, the United States and the Soviet Union were still short of a final agreement on their new strategic arms limitation treaty (SALT II). Yet the negotiation of this agreement, and Western discussion of its meaning, certainly dominated the year's events in the field of arms control. President Carter never wavered in his conviction that the achievement of a good agreement was an objective of top priority, and his optimism on the prospect of relatively early agreement seemed unshakable.

It did appear as the year ended that agreement, as a matter of substance, was very close indeed. Agreement as a matter of a shared will to agree now was something else - a matter not so much of arms control as of the tactical process of Soviet-American relations. When final progress was delayed by distinctly minor Soviet objections in December, one had to believe that the Russians were showing us and themselves that their cooperation could not be taken for granted as the United States and China joined once again in publicly opposing "hegemony" (a word that translates into Russian as "us").

While this tactical delay is not trivial, it still seems best for present purposes to assume that 1978 was indeed the year of decisive progress toward an agreement that will come before the Senate in 1979. Certainly the acts and statements of the Administration, including its bargaining tactics on matters that were substantively small compared to what had been settled in earlier years of this six-year story, were heavily affected by its concern for what could eventually pass the Senate. The SALT negotiations of the year, important as they were in their own right, are best understood in the context of a sharpening debate on the future adequacy of the American strategic deterrent.

Already in 1977 the broad outline of SALT II became clear. It would be an extended version of the Vladivostok Accords reached by President Ford and President Brezhnev in November 1974. The most important changes are those that lower ceilings on launchers and constrain warhead numbers (a goal of the United States) and those that limit the deployment of cruise missiles except as part of a heavy bomber force and so part of what is counted under the ceilings (a goal of the Soviet Union). While the joint draft text of SALT II may well be the most complex international document ever developed, it is essentially an agreement to keep what each side values most in its current and prospective systems while temporarily constraining sea- and ground-launched cruise missiles and setting limits - albeit very high ones - on the number of launchers and warheads the two sides can have.1 Seen as one essential element in a policy of strategic stability, the emerging agreement is impressive.

SALT II does not end the arms race, or even put a solid lid over it. One of the most troubling and destabilizing technological forces of all - the drive to constantly greater accuracy - is wholly unconstrained. The achievement of "deep cuts," a passionately proclaimed initial purpose of the Carter Administration, is deferred to SALT III, and it is not yet clear how far the Soviet Union will agree to specific targets for this effort in the Statement of Principles that is to be part of SALT II.

II

The emerging agreement will be a disappointment to many who have hoped for more. If the Carter Administration is not itself in this group, it is mainly because it has had to learn by hard experience that it is one thing to believe in deep cuts and quite another to get the Soviet Union to agree to them on terms all Americans will like. The drastic American proposals of March 1977, flatly rejected by the Soviet Union and quickly and wisely abandoned, should stand as a reminder to all of the distance between hope and reality.

Yet on the plane of the achievable, the adjustments negotiated in 1978 reflect well on the judgment and skill of the Administration. On at least five significant elements of the agreement there was real progress in 1978, and in most respects that progress was advantageous from the American standpoint.

1. There was agreement on a relatively narrow statement of the rule against circumvention of the treaty by action through "other parties." This achievement has sharply reduced criticism of the agreement on the ground that it might interfere with our relations with our allies. The warm endorsements at Guadeloupe in the new year - by the heads of the British, French and West German governments - were well earned. There remain serious problems of policy on transfers of technology to Western Europe, but they are not problems created by SALT II.

2. There was agreement that each side would be free to deploy one new type of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) over the life of the treaty. While constraining the indefinite expansion of new systems, this agreement has preserved the American option to develop and deploy a new land-based missile system to replace or supplement the increasingly vulnerable Minuteman.

3. There was agreement on limits to the numbers of warheads in missiles equipped with multiple, independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVed missiles). These limits are more important to us than to the Soviet Union because of the potential for warhead multiplication on very large Soviet missiles, to which we have - and plan to have - no direct counterpart. The matching restraint on our side is a limit on the numbers of cruise missiles carried by each aircraft.

4. There was apparently a clarification, in December, of the obligation on both sides not to impede verification through the encryption of signals from missiles being tested. This highly technical - and possibly marginal - matter is much more important to us than to the Soviet Union for the oddly simple reason that in our society the open press is an ample guide to most of our capabilities.

5. We have apparently accepted the Soviet view that all aircraft carrying long-range cruise missiles, conventional as well as nuclear, should be counted under the treaty ceilings. In effect this gives up the option of deploying conventionally armed long-range airborne cruise missiles, at least for the life of the treaty. To some in the Pentagon this was a painful concession, but when examined as a matter of our general long-run interest, it takes on a different color. The existence of airborne cruise missiles will be verifiable, but to know their armament will be another matter altogether. It is greatly to our interest to discourage the Soviet Union from deploying assertedly "conventional" airborne cruise missiles - conceivably on MiG-23s, conceivably in Cuba. The "concession" here is a concession to a common interest in avoiding destabilizing uncertainties.

But while the negotiating record of the year shows serious progress, the Administration and SALT II did not fare so well in the swelling domestic and Western debate. This debate centers increasingly on the question of whether the United States is doing what it should to maintain the effectiveness of its strategic nuclear deterrent, and the real issues here are independent of SALT II. Probably the most extreme shopping list of proposed improvements in the American deterrent was an eight-point program (wholly unpriced) offered by the Committee on the Present Danger in October; it proposed urgent action on all three legs of the strategic force (the so-called triad of land-based missiles, sea-based missiles, and strategic aircraft), on air and civil defense and on command and control. As Jan Lodal promptly observed in this journal, not one of the eight recommendations conflicts with SALT II.2 Yet the result in the Senate on SALT will almost surely be determined by the judgment of Senators on such wider issues.

The adequacy of the American strategic deterrent has been debated before - in 1950-52 over hydrogen bombs, and in 1958-61 over the missile gap. But for more than a decade after that the issue was dormant. In particular the shift from an emphasis on strategic superiority to the acceptance of sufficiency or parity was executed relatively nimbly by Richard Nixon - probably it would have been harder if the Republicans had been in opposition. But from 1972 onward there has been growing concern in important groups lest the Soviets achieve a usable strategic superiority. Few have argued that such a superiority would lead to deliberate nuclear war-making. The contention is rather that our deterrent will be deterred, and that other forms of pressure will become harder to resist, and so more attractive to the intrinsically expansionist Soviet leadership.

In 1978 this concern increased, and the Administration did not offer a clear-cut defense of its quite different assessment. It was hampered by two difficulties, one of them unavoidable. In the nature of things the SALT II agreement could not be fully explained and defended until it existed. Repeatedly and in many voices Administration spokemen said firmly that they would make no SALT agreement that did not serve American security. But they were estopped from authoritative exposition of the value of a document still both incomplete and highly classified.

A parallel and somewhat more avoidable difficulty was that the Carter Administration was still not able to present a clear and compelling picture of its own strategic doctrine and its plans for modernizing strategic forces. It said it would take whatever action was necessary, and in Secretary of Defense Harold Brown it had an unusually experienced and articulate master of the principles it strove to meet. But what was it really going to do, primarily about Minuteman vulnerability, but also about civil defense, survivable command and control, sustained deterrence, and its nuclear umbrella over Europe? As the year ended, no authoritative answers to these questions had been made public.

Part of the difficulty here lay in the peculiar technical problem posed by "Minuteman vulnerability." There seemed to be no doubt that by the early 1980s the Soviet Union would have weapons of a power and accuracy such that if everything went according to plan it could indeed wipe out the Minuteman force in a preemptive strike. There were intrinsic and serious imponderables in any such scenario, but no one could deny that Minuteman was about to be subject to the very weakness it had been designed to avoid. Like its predecessors in the first generation of ICBMs, it was destined to become vulnerable and thus somewhat destabilizing, where it had been designed as a secure and stabilizing second-strike force. The "quick fix" of a doctrine of "launch-on-warning" (under which the Minuteman force would be launched against Soviet targets - which ones? - just before the arrival of the mass of attacking missiles) was not attractive to anyone who believed in avoiding hasty and conceivably accidental holocaust. The Administration, at least in public, referred to launch-on-warning only as a possibility that any adversary would have to take into account.

Alternative and more stable answers were not easy to find. Not for 20 years had there been a problem of strategic choice as demanding. To this observer, if he had only himself to please, the problem was not so hard - the threat seemed partial, improbable and easy to resist at least for the coming decade. The strength of our alert bombers and our submarine forces seem such that the Soviet government would be quite simply mad to make a massive first strike on the American mainland on any scenario whatever.3 But the worriers had a long head start, and they had done a perversely effective job of turning their improbable dreams into other men's real perceptions. By the end of 1978 there was a major need for the Administration to come forward with a reasoned and concrete combination of doctrine, modernization, and insistence that enough is enough.

The Administration was crowded with careful students of these issues, and led by a former naval person whose personal understanding was as great as that of any of his predecessors, at least since Kennedy. But not all these thoughtful people thought alike, and visible command decisions had not yet been made. The SALT debate is unlikely to go well for the Administration if there is no solid strategic policy to go with the agreement.

Yet it would be churlish to end here. Events are likely to require the needed decisions, and there is no reason to assume, from the record, that Mr. Carter's decisions will be bad. If it should be one value of the SALT process that it forced the pace of analysis and choice, it would not be the first time. In this paradoxical sense the hard work done at the bargaining table in 1978 seems likely to lead on to equally needed decisions on the nature of our strategic policy, and the shape of our strategic forces. The SALT negotiators, led by the President, have kept open our government's right to choose, but as they come near to success they are also requiring the exercise of that right. The President is forcing the hand of the Commander in Chief.

But the Commander in Chief is also beginning to force the hand of the President. Mr. Carter had wanted deep cuts in 1977 and still wanted them in 1978. He has repeatedly expressed the hope that SALT III will meet this standard. Unless he is to abandon this deeply held purpose, it appears that at least part of any new weapons development he may support will need to be negotiable - something to be given up in SALT III in return for appropriate Soviet reductions. This situation has arisen only once before, in the case of the antiballistic missile (ABM), defended by Mr. Nixon in Congress and then traded off in SALT I. But the ABM had the asset, for these purposes, that it was not technically attractive. New offensive weapons have proven both easier to design and more appealing to men in uniform. The year 1978 probably set the stage for the most complex test of political command, control, communications, and intelligence yet put before a President in the field of strategic policy.

The President does not have much time left. Given the probable Soviet desire to have a good look at the planned visit by Teng Hsiao-ping to Washington in late January 1979 before taking final SALT decisions, a Carter-Brezhnev summit and a final agreement on SALT can hardly occur before March, and that will put Senate hearings over to April or May at the earliest. No one can predict how long the Senate will take, or how many of its own views it will attach in some fashion to any instrument of consent, but the Senators chiefly concerned are not famous for docility or dispatch. Yet the presidential election of 1980 is already close - politically closer, because of new rules, ever-growing media interest, and candidate Carter's successful example in 1974-76, than such elections used to be at the half-way mark of a presidential term. Last time the looming election led Mr. Ford to hold back on SALT II. It is said that he now regrets this decision, both on the substance and on the politics, but no friend of SALT II who remembers the Republican primaries of 1976 will suppose it a good thing to let this issue stay unresolved beyond 1979. Mr. Carter's admirable persistence and optimism will have to be matched in the coming year by a new firmness in making large and complex decisions.

III

The same confrontation between high hopes and hard reality that marked the course of SALT II in the Carter Administration was visible in other fields of arms control. The most important was the effort to reinforce constraints against nuclear proliferation. Indeed one ritual argument for SALT itself was that it could help to encourage restraint among the states not having nuclear weapons. (In my view this claim is not wholly persuasive as long as the number of strategic nuclear warheads allowed in each superpower's arsenal remains well over 10,000.)

The current effort to avoid further proliferation goes back to the last months of the Ford Administration, and its most striking single element is an effort to put off the "plutonium economy." Accepting and indeed encouraging the use of the single-cycle nuclear power plants of the current generation, the U.S. government has come to believe strongly that the dangers of reprocessing and recycling outweigh their uncertain economic advantages. Since this view has been resisted and indeed rejected by major friends and allies, the Carter Administration has been proceeding cautiously, but its purpose has not changed. Along the road: (1) it has tried to set a good example, as by its own deferral of reprocessing; (2) it has tried to persuade other governments to follow this good example; and (3) it has tried to enlarge the common ground of international understanding on these issues, notably by proposing and earnestly supporting the two-year International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation (INFCE), now in process. It has had more luck with (1) and (3) than with (2). In 1977 the new team found itself coolly received in Brazil as it tried to reverse the German-Brazilian reprocessing deal that had been allowed to pass unchallenged in 1975 when the Ford Administration still had its priorities confused. And in 1978, though much more tactfully, the British and French governments reaffirmed their commitment to the construction of reprocessing plants.

These disappointments should not obscure the real achievement since 1976: the elevation of the dangers in the nuclear fuel cycle to the front row of international concern. At least one agreement - between France and Pakistan for a sale of reprocessing facilities - appears to be moribund, and initial annoyance over the American "switch" (which was indeed both late and sudden) has been transmuted into a process of review and analysis, through INFCE, which may well lead to policies and procedures less dangerous than those in prospect before the American change. The new American posture is surely better than the one it replaced, and for the executive branch 1978 was a better and more rewarding year than 1977.

Yet the new course has its built-in difficulties, and they are well exemplified by the language of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act, passed overwhelmingly in both houses and signed by the President on March 10. That act embodies the essentials of the new policy, and its strongest provision requires that within two years, in most cases, all existing agreements for nuclear exports must be amended to meet its new standards. These new standards require safeguards even on facilities that have no American connection, a notion that is still rejected by the Indian government. They also require U.S. permission for reprocessing and transfer of nuclear materials, a restraint that Europeans may find hard to accept. The law allows presidential waivers, but in some cases only if majorities of both houses concur year by year. In 1978 the congressional sponsors of the bill and the Carter Administration appeared to be happy with all this and with one another. But they have set a course that is likely to test their respective skills and sensitivities as the grace periods wind down. The basic shift in American policy was overdue and profoundly right, but the value of legislative pressure to force the rewriting of existing agreements is not yet clear.

For there remains a danger that if the United States should become rigid in its righteousness, a new coalition may be formed uniting suppliers and recipients with looser standards than ours and a different estimate of dangers and rewards. Certainly there are many in other nuclear nations who hope for just such a result. It is an urgent interest of both the Administration and the Congress that the new law not be so applied as to reinforce such hopes.

For conventional arms transfers, another of Mr. Carter's campaign causes, 1978 was a year of very modest progress. The most controversial arms sale of the year, that of F-15 aircraft to Saudi Arabia, was of course regarded by the Administration as absolutely essential to its effort for peace in the Middle East.

The Administration tended to measure itself in this field by its success in remaining under Mr. Carter's proclaimed ceiling of $8.5 billion in fiscal '78. (The ceiling did not apply to NATO, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and the countries included were so varied that the process was like counting applies and oranges, and even grapefruit and watermelons, all together.) Moreover, the Administration had properly accepted the view of its European allies that no real progress could be made on their arms transfers unless the Soviet Union would join in the effort, and, as far as an outsider could tell, by the end of 1978 four meetings with the Soviet Union had led to nothing but an unedifying public squabble between Mr. Brzezinski of the White House and Mr. Leslie Gelb of the State Department, over whether it was right to hear what the Soviet representatives had to say about U.S. sales to the Soviet Union's neighbors (Mr. Gelb apparently pro, and Mr. Brzezinski con). As Mr. Gelb had wisely observed just before he joined the Administration, "the prospects for multilateral restraint are not good."4

Yet even in the face of these difficulties it is right to respect the distinct change in posture effected by the Carter Administration in 1977 and 1978. Agreed restraint was hard to come by, but it was already a great gain to have abandoned the unilateral extravagance exhibited under Secretary Kissinger. Indeed, the unhappy events in Iran force the question whether we would not have done much better, in 1972 and after, not to cater to the Shah's insatiable appetite for the latest and best and most in military hardware.

In other arenas of arms control there was only marginal progress. The negotiations for balanced force reductions in Europe remained stalled at the starting gate because of East-West disagreement on the present size of Warsaw Pact forces. In June the Soviets did at last accept the principle of reductions to equal and lower limits, but since they denied any present superiority, they rejected the Western view that common limits would require larger reductions for the Warsaw Pact than for NATO.

The Tenth Special Session of the U.N. General Assembly, in the spring of 1978, produced an agreed document. It will be read by few and is binding on none, but along with much empty rhetoric it did include the first broadly international endorsement of the concept of restraint on transfers of conventional weapons. The Special Session also evoked a small but useful change in the U.S. position on the use of nuclear weapons. In effect the United States has now bound itself not to be the first user of nuclear weapons against any formally declared non-nuclear weapons state unless such a state attacks the United States or its allies in company with a nuclear weapons state. More simply, on the current scene only Soviet-backed aggression against us or our allies could trigger a U.S. first use; it is sensible to have said so publicly.

On one major issue the Administration appeared to have worked itself into a cul-de-sac. To serious believers in arms control and in nonproliferation, one of the most important of all objectives, for many years, has been the achievement of a comprehensive test ban treaty (CTBT), being negotiated by the United States, the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union. In early 1978 there was such progress in the negotiation for such a treaty - conspicuously including a new Soviet readiness to accept monitoring on its own territory - that by the summer the Carter Administration had to decide whether it really meant what Mr. Carter himself had repeatedly and forcefully said, that a permanent and verifiable comprehensive test ban was desirable.

It turned out that it did not. Neither the Pentagon nor the Department of Energy was in favor of a permanent end to all testing. Although experts on nuclear weapons were divided, those holding office, both in Washington and in the weapons laboratories, appeared to believe that a prolonged ban on testing would bring with it an unacceptable risk of deterioration in the warheads of the deterrent. So Mr. Carter, trying to hold things together, ruled that the United States would propose no more than a three-year ban.

It is too soon to say whether or not such a limited arrangement will prove negotiable. But what seems clearly predictable is that if such a truncated treaty is negotiated it is likely to find as few friends as the unlamented Threshold Test Ban produced by Mr. Kissinger. It may be tactically prudent to put CTBT below the SALT, and Mr. Carter may have another view at another time. But on the record of 1978, one has to say that when he seemed to have a chance to get what he said he wanted, he looked around his own government and pulled back.

IV

All in all, there was more good than bad, for arms control, in 1978. Even where the results were meager, the effort remained considerably stronger, broader and more sustained than it had been at any time since SALT I. The goodwill and seriousness of the President himself were clear, and on the largest of all issues, the stabilization of the strategic nuclear balance, the Administration's position, even if incompletely formed and insufficiently explained, was enormously better than that of distinguished critics like Mr. Paul Nitze.

The most important negotiation by far was SALT, and the record showed slow but steady progress that owed a great deal to the skill and tenacity of Secretary of State Vance, Mr. Paul Warnke (now retired) and their senior deputies. If the SALT agreement now so nearly settled can be signed early in 1979, the President and his colleagues will be fairly placed to persuade the American people that what they have done is good and deserves approval. And if SALT II is ratified, it will be the greatest achievement in the history of arms control.

Footnotes

1 Two helpful essays on the content and meaning of SALT II have been Richard Burt, "The Scope and Limits of SALT," Foreign Affairs, July 1978, and Jan M. Lodal, "SALT II and American Security," Foreign Affairs, Winter 1978/79. Mr. Lodal likes the agreement more than Mr. Burt does, but both writers are fair to positions they do not share. In this respect, unfortunately, they were not wholly typical of the public arguments of 1978.

3 My reasons for regarding Minuteman vulnerability as a matter that is important but not critically urgent are spelled out in a paper for International Security, Winter 1979, now in press.

4 Leslie H. Gelb, "Arms Sales," Foreign Policy, Winter 1976-77, p. 22.

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  • McGeorge Bundy has been President of the Ford Foundation since 1966. He was Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs from 1961 to early 1966, and is currently a member of the President's General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament.
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