What Went Wrong With Arms Control?

Carter and Brezhnev signing SALT II treaty, 18 June 1979, in Vienna.

Arms control has certainly gone off the tracks. For several years what are called arms negotiations have been mostly a public exchange of accusations; and it often looks as if it is the arms negotiations that are driving the arms race. It is hard to escape the impression that the planned procurement of 50 MX missiles (at latest count) has been an obligation imposed by a doctrine that the end justifies the means—the end something called arms control, and the means a demonstration that the United States does not lack the determination to match or exceed the Soviets in every category of weapons.

Despite the inflamed rhetoric on strategic weapons, there has not been much substance behind the ill will that followed détente. Nobody seriously believes that either side’s capacity to retaliate after receiving a nuclear attack is, or is going to be, in sufficient doubt to make preemption a preferred choice in any imaginable crisis. Détente survived a U.S. war against an ally of the Soviet Union in Southeast Asia; it did not survive the Soviet war against Afghanistan. But the reprisals were mostly attempts to deny athletes, bread grains and pipeline equipment to the Soviet Union; one attempt failed and a second was reversed for the benefit of American farmers.

Poland became an issue, but of all the possible Soviet responses to an unacceptable condition in Poland the one that ensued was the gentlest that anyone could have seriously contemplated.

Furthermore, we have what ought to be an important source of reassurance, a "confidence-building" experience: 40 years of nuclear weapons without nuclear war. That certainly challenges any notion that nuclear war is inevitable. This is a reassurance that some advocates of disarmament do not like to have voiced, fearful that it might lead to complacency. But I want national leaders in a crisis to be complacent in the knowledge that nuclear war is so unlikely that initiating it is never prudent.

I see no reason to

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