SERIOUS arms-control talks seem to have begun but the question of how best to exploit their promise persists. In the past, our national strategy with regard to armaments had to be consistent with many fixed domestic political (and bureaucratic) facts of life: the attitudes of Congress, the power of the Pentagon, the prevalence of cold-war ideologies, and so on. Today these presuppositions of arms policy are in flux. Conscious efforts to reshape these domestic factors have become an integral part of the problem of managing the arms race. Indeed, they can in large measure substitute for formal treaties which are much more difficult to achieve. In developing a strategy for the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), arms controllers must therefore answer the question: How much really needs to be negotiated to end the arms race? The answer to this question will illuminate such important issues as the emphasis to be placed upon the talks at this time and the way in which the discussions should be used.

The most conventional approach to arms control tends to ignore domestic problems. It assumes bargains in which a monolithic entity called the United States agrees to refrain from acquiring certain weapons if an adversary monolithic entity called the Soviet Union promises to refrain from acquiring the same or related weapons. Neither will refrain without such agreement because of an "action-and-reaction" phenomenon in which each side responds to the actions of the other, producing an arms spiral. Most observers consider this phenomenon intuitively obvious; it is what people think of when they think of arms race. And it provides the justification for the formal treaty that is presumed to be the alternative to the race. According to this view, it is when, and only when, the other side stops "acting" that our side can stop "reacting"-and vice versa. Hence a simultaneous halt, presumably formal, is the only theoretical answer.

But does the evidence for this action-and-reaction phenomenon really support the conclusion that a treaty is the only possible solution? In 1955, not long before the missile gap, there was an assumed bomber gap: a defensive Soviet tactic of flying bombers in circles, to suggest the existence of a much larger fleet, induced the United States to increase B- 52 production by 50 percent. Here we have action and overreaction.

Sophisticated explanations of the action-and-reaction phenomenon often refer to the long lead-time involved in building strategic forces. This causes each side to react to possible weapons systems on the other side. Thus Secretary McNamara explained our overproduction of land-based Minutemen on the grounds that we thought the Soviet Union would build more than in fact it finally did. Indeed, Defense Department spokesmen sometimes speak of the need for technological vigilance as if the mere simultaneous existence of Russians and technology demanded that we pursue the widest possible range of potential weapons systems. Here we see reaction without action.

The recent history of the ABM debate raises an even more serious possibility. When the Sentinel missile defense came under attack, it became politically necessary to change its justification if it was to be continued. The change in rationale came to rest on intelligence that the Soviet Union had built a few percent more 88-9s in recent months; long extrapolations were used to suggest a threatening build-up. It can be argued that in this case "reaction" was searching for a justifying action.

Sometimes "action and reaction" are interpreted as referring to those political interactions in which we feel obliged to have a missile defense because the other side has one. Here especially the term "action and reaction" hides the essentially domestic, and potentially avoidable, character of the response. If all actions and reactions were of this sort, the spiral could be broken if one side refused to buy weapons for which there was at best only a psychological case.

In fact, political observers know that neither nation is monolithic. They recognize that both nations are almost invariably divided on any reasonable arms-control proposal. Indeed, in both, a relatively clear distinction can be drawn between those who are actively interested in arms control, and those who are hostile to it or intensely skeptical.

These hawks and doves are struggling to shape their country's attitude toward arms control. Their disagreement often extends directly to related political and economic issues such as the size of defense expenditures, the threat posed by the adversary country and the desirability of détente. An individual's views on many diverse issues, the role he plays in the society, and even his personality characteristics are closely correlated with whether he is hawk or dove. Thus decisions on arms policy are directly and indirectly woven into the fabric of domestic political struggle on a broad front.

In this view arms agreements are an alliance between the doves in each society against the hawks. The doves, unable to control the arms-spending proclivities of the hawks-proclivities stimulated by the spending of adversary hawks-want to construct with adversary doves a treaty that would preclude such spending. Thus doves in both countries would accomplish together what neither alone could manage. This analysis concedes that the problem lies largely in domestic attitudes, but suggests that the solution lies in international negotiations. The conception of an "alliance between doves" has more validity than the monolithic "action-and-reaction" analysis. But it shares the necessity for a formal treaty-a treaty that signals and coördinates the halt.

Unfortunately, an alliance between arms-control doves requires that they gain the ascendancy in both superpowers; and in the internal politics of neither is such a trend discernible. In this decade, the U.S. Defense Department has shifted from what was perhaps the most dovish plausible leadership to the most conservative. Previous Administrations in this decade believed in taking initiatives and in seizing upon, and pursuing, every Soviet indication of willingness to move toward arms control. The present Administration will negotiate but not pursue. Earlier in this decade, the Soviet leadership reflected Mr. Khrushchev's intense interest in such related issues as de-Stalinization, dismantling the cold war, improving Soviet economic standards and liberalizing Soviet political conditions. Now the leadership is less dynamic and more conservative; the doves seem fairly well isolated.

The arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union will soon be one quarter of a century old, and sustained, fruitful arms-control discussions have occurred only on atmospheric testing and proliferation. It has taken three years to move from agreement in principle to start SALT talks to agreement actually to commence. Immense financial pressures, and the spectre of more, were necessary to get this agreement. But even so, in both societies, notwithstanding the rhetoric customarily reserved for approving arms discussions in principle, there is clear evidence that SALT holds no better than third priority. Today in the Soviet Union, the border problem with China and the German signature on the nonproliferation treaty seem more urgent. Tomorrow, these historic Soviet preoccupations with East and West may take some other form, but they will not vanish. Today, we are primarily preoccupied with violence at home and abroad, and no end is in sight

Internal political changes in both societies as well as periodic turmoil in Eastern Europe or on the Sino-Soviet border can disrupt the delicate efforts to achieve complicated agreements. And technology is changing so rapidly that the agreements necessary to cope with it are quickly outmoded. Thus in the April 1969 issue of Foreign Affairs William C. Foster, former director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, concluded that the "central fact" in the U.S.-Soviet confrontation was that ''progress in technology" made it "both necessary and possible" to place restraints on the nuclear arms race. Only nine months later, the SALT talks have just begun and already some of the "technological stars and planets" are passing out of that "favorable conjunction" which he then saw.

Many of these obstacles are of long standing and have been well understood. But, in the past, arms controllers have seen no alternative to pressing for bilateral agreement, formal or perhaps informal. And they have seen no particular danger in this strategy. Now that the SALT talks are beginning, however, the danger of placing undue emphasis upon them should be recognized: each side is going to blame the other for any delays or failures that may occur ; each side is going to become hypersensitive to the possibility that the other side is secretly exploiting delay to achieve strategic advantage; and each side may come to believe that it must therefore build, or threaten, a new strategic weapon system in order to bring the other side to its senses, to show vigilance and to avoid inferiority.

In 1967, it was largely because the Soviet Union had agreed in principle to strategic talks, but had then delayed in setting a date for talks, that the Congress began to fear the Russians were "stealing a march on us" and "playing us for fools." By 1968, Senator Jackson, an ABM supporter, was arguing for Sentinel as a "compelling reason" for the Soviet Union to begin talks. And there is reason to believe that the Soviet SS-9 missile buildup is a way of persuading the United States that it should talk from a basis of equality rather than from the position of strength which the Russians feel we are prone to cultivate. The SALT talks could accelerate the arms race by encouraging these lines of thought in both countries.

Finally, even if formal agreement is reached, the price may be high. In order to get the Test Ban Treaty, President Kennedy was forced to provide the Congress with public assurances of continued underground testing that virtually foreclosed the possibility of a complete test ban. Today, the United States is contemplating SALT agreements which some would describe as a tent under which the arms race might continue-agreements that provide some ABM and some MIRV and so on. It is symptomatic of the doves' pessimism that some are clinging to the hope that a comprehensive agreement-any comprehensive agreement-would so signal the ascendancy of a dove alliance as to be of decisive significance. They concede that to get an agreement, most of its strategic content may have to be given up.


The poor prospects for achieving a formal treaty quickly and the real possibility that emphasis on this objective may accelerate the arms race suggest that we should reëxamine the necessity for a formal treaty. How little might we negotiate and still end the arms race?

A fundamentally new concept of the postwar period was that peace might be the child of terror. Arms controllers quickly realized that the amount of terror necessary could be achieved by a finite number of weapons aimed at a finite number of adversary cities. Of course these weapons would have to be invulnerable to attack. But with this caveat, there need be little interaction between the strategic arms policies of the superpowers and no need for an endless build-up. This is the idea of finite deterrence. It has the virtue that no agreement is necessary to end strategic weapons build- ups-only the avoidance of excesses. And that avoidance needs no SALT talks. What has gone wrong?

Two factors have complicated the situation, yet both can be resolved with a minimum of negotiation. The first factor has to do with efforts of each side to blunt the reliability and effectiveness of the forces on the other side. First we, and now perhaps they, have acquired forces designed to put the adversary's weapons out of action in the event of war-that is, a counter-force capability. First they, and now we, have begun to think seriously of missile defenses that might blunt the effectiveness of weapons after launch, These are major complications to finite deterrence and they do give rise to strategic interactions.

The second factor complicating the adoption of finite deterrence is that strategic forces have grown by accretion. For example, we are now accustomed to maintaining three separate strategic forces, each capable of destroying the Soviet Union: bombers, land-based missiles and sea-based missiles. Rationalizations can be offered for this but at bottom it is service rivalry and bureaucratic inertia that sustain three distinct systems. Even McNamara could not induce military services to give up whole strategic forces and missions. There is a tendency in both major powers to maintain strategic forces, or new variants of them, after they have basically become obsolete. Thus strategic warheads and efficiency of delivery vehicles steadily increase, each increment justified in terms of ever greater security against attack. Ever more stringent standards for deterrence are applied, so that, as one wag has asserted, last year's counterforce capability becomes this year's minimum deterrence.

Instead of maximizing the invulnerability of the forces we have, this approach tends to try to patch up the vulnerabilities of existing forces and, periodically, to add an entirely new force. The result is a mix of vulnerabilities which may actually encourage fears that are without justification. Thus, since we know our bombers are vulnerable on the ground, we are tempted to fear that Soviet tests of orbital bombs may be directed against bombers.

It is now hard to imagine a new Soviet strategic force that would not appear, to some at least, as designed to exploit a U.S. vulnerability. Paradoxically, the effort to get more insurance with many strategic forces only raises unending problems of making sure that the insurance is itself reliable. And since most observers can grasp only a part of our strategic elephant at a time, they are constantly fixated on "vulnerabilities" and constantly propagating alarm. The way to resolve this problem is to stick with highly invulnerable forces, dispensing with vulnerable ones as rapidly as they become obsolete. We should ignore the marginal and often specious insurance the latter provide.

The only remaining important interactions of forces would then arise from the potential of ballistic missile defense to neutralize missiles after launch. This may require SALT discussions. But it does not require treaties. Each side must simply warn the other that large ABM programs will lead to weapons improvements aimed at ensuring penetration. In comparison with a treaty, the mutual avoidance of large ABM programs seems a relatively easy matter to arrange informally, since they are large and expensive, time-consuming to build, and unlikely to deny the other side its ability to destroy 50 adversary cities.

The only remaining question is whether invulnerability can be assured. Fortunately, there are the oceans. Three hundred million cubic miles of sea provide us with enough cover for whatever modes of deployment we may wish to have. Anti-submarine warfare has made little or no progress, while ever quieter and deeper-diving vehicles can carry missiles of ever greater range. Scenarios designed to show that these boats could be subject to simultaneous attack outrage realistic judgment. And the time required to build the systems necessary to implement such an attack would provide time for future countermeasures.

Arms control, then, could begin at home. Each side could, in its own interests, avoid the expense and complications of maintaining obsolete strategic weapons by facing the political-bureaucratic problems associated with eliminating them. Moreover, the two nations need not follow the same schedule in setting their houses in order. If each resolved to acquire only what was genuinely required, the action-reaction syndrome would be broken and the need for a treaty vastly reduced.

Consider, as an application of these principles, the problem of MIRV- multiple independently guided reëntry vehicles. On the one hand, we could decide that we would not build MIRV if the Soviet Union satisfied us that it was refraining from doing so. And we could seek to achieve this understanding formally or informally. But it would then be necessary to warn and even threaten that a failure of negotiations would lead to our deployment of MIRV. On the other hand, it should be recognized that we do not need it to counter a Soviet MIRV. Our MIRV has been funded on the grounds that the Soviets were building a large ballistic missile defense. They do not seem to be doing so. Hence building MIRV, if negotiations failed, would violate the policy of acquiring only what we need. The proper response to a Soviet MIRV would be to discard the land-based missiles it threatens and construct-only if absolutely necessary-more submarines or a new sea-based system. Such a policy has the massive advantage of depending only upon ourselves. It is a major recommendation of this article that the United States not depend upon the Soviet Union to resolve our own domestic arms problems. And this policy also hews to strategic realities rather than blindly matching adversary actions.

We can, by inventing one reason or another, make our missile defense or our multiple warheads a response to something the Soviet Union is doing, or might do. Action and reaction can become a cover for a drive to stay ahead in a meaningless contest. An unspoken alliance of great strength in both countries will support such a contest. Some will be persuaded that the particular reaction is necessary for strategic reasons. Some will want it for its economic or political benefits. Many are just easily persuaded of whatever point of view is dominant. But we need not acquiesce in these pressures.


What tactics are suggested by this analysis? If the doves attempt to solve any particular weapon problem by treaty, they run the risk that failure of negotiations will be used to justify going forward with constructing the weapon. If, on the other hand, the doves attack the weapon project as plainly and simply wasteful, they run the risk that a failure to head off comparable procurement by the Russians will lead to irresistible pressure to match them.

The decision turns on the probability of success in the SALT talks. If the talks are obviously going to fail, it would be better if each side resisted defense expenditures on the principle that arms control begins at home. But if the talks seem bound to succeed, obviously the treaty would be the best outcome. The emphasis on the SALT talks should be proportional to their probability of success.

What is that probability and what does it suggest as a course of action? It is well understood that the SALT talks are the beginning of a very long road. The probability of success in the near future is low, in part because hawks seem to be in control. If they are forced to negotiate, they will simply blame failure on the obduracy of the other side. This militates against putting great emphasis on the talks. On the other hand, the tendency of hawks to buy weapons to excess makes them especially vulnerable to the charge of waste. And at the present time great progress is being made in the United States in bringing to public awareness the need for limiting waste in defense processes. We see before us the possibility of dismantling many of the undesirable alliances of attitudes, roles and interests that have grown up in our society over 25 years of cold war.

If we emphasize the strategic talks, we must give up on this course for many years. If we concede that the negotiations are likely to bear fruit, the traditional response of our political system will be to refrain from domestic political struggle over defense matters.

Thus Mr. McGeorge Bundy has cautioned in this journal (October 1969) that the President, and he alone, can handle the negotiations-which is true-and deduces our obligation to rally round. This would mean a halt to attacking as excessive the weapons about which we are negotiating, despite the fact that they may be redundant. He suggests that the SALT talks provide an occasion for mobilizing opinion against the arms race, but it seems at least as likely that SALT becomes an occasion to blame the Russians for that contest. If feeling in this country has reached the point where much arms spending is considered just plain wasteful, why mobilize opinion to negotiate about that waste? If the chance of imminent success is low, should we protect an unholy alliance in favor of excessive armaments by making the issue a bipartisan matter requiring nationwide support for the President?[i]

If we tie our efforts to remove distortions from our society to Soviet efforts to curtail their own excessive defense spending, we may lose our opportunity to improve our own processes. Our social systems are not comparable and they are not converging. Our own standards should govern our own attempts to improve ourselves. We should not wait for the Soviet Union to reach the stage at which it can begin to examine critically its own processes of weapons acquisition.

This point of view is not based on trust of the Russians. They will continue to seek decisive military advantage. And if they gain, or think they have achieved, advantage they will try to exploit it. But there is no advantage to be had in a world filled with thousands of nuclear weapons on each side. Nothing we or they can build will deceive any political leader into believing he can conduct a nuclear war. Nuclear war between our two countries is unthinkable, and will stay that way for Presidents and Premiers. In the postwar period, as the Soviets' strength has grown so has their caution. We should stop thinking that they will cut loose at the next unmatched acquisition of weapons. The danger of irrational Soviet conduct cannot be further reduced by an increase in our arsenals.


The argument thus far has been concerned only with the emphasis to be placed upon the SALT talks at a time when they seem unlikely to produce immediate progress. Whatever the emphasis, the talks must continue and we must hope that they will result eventually in a final treaty. But during periods when formal treaties are difficult to attain, many other possibilities for using the talks will exist.

In general, the talks will provide a kind of continuous arms-limitation hotline. Their role in transmitting authoritative warnings will be critical in solving the problem of ballistic missile defenses. As each crisis in weapons procurement erupts, it will be possible for both sides to advise, suggest, recommend, exhort, enjoin, warn, caution or, possibly, even apologize. Such problems as those of missile defense cannot be solved once and for all, but must be managed over time as new kinds of defenses are invented.

Again, we should not expect too much. For example, it is sometimes argued that an important purpose would be the discussion of intentions. Actually, many adversary decisions are now being made on the basis of what the other side might do in future. And because each side is opportunistic about exploiting weapons technology, technical advances can produce changes in intentions; so can changes in leadership. Moreover, it could be serious if one side thought it had been misled about the other's intentions. This will limit such discussions.

Another current idea calls for preliminary negotiations on principles. One might try to gain formal acceptance of the desirability of finite deterrence, of keeping weapons invulnerable, and so on. But such principles can take much time, and in the process of formalizing them, much of their content would disappear.

Still another idea is that the SALT talks might be used to help the Soviet Union avoid making such cost-effectiveness mistakes in arms procurement as would accelerate the arms race. For example, we might give high Soviet officials the facts and arguments with which to oppose missile defense. But the pressures that produce these mistakes are probably not so easily punctured. Prompting Soviet political leaders may be comparable to prompting Congressmen with good questions to ask military witnesses; much more is usually required to change a government position.

As each side is now in substantial ignorance of what the other really thinks, the SALT talks may conceivably produce unexpected intellectual chaos. Both hawks and doves on each side base much of their position on premises about the other side which are false. Thus, established battle lines within each country may be disrupted by a rising tide of facts about the opposing country's attitudes. A prominent example from the recent past was the impact on the ABM debate of Premier Kosygin's assertion that he thought missile defense "defensive." Here was a man widely considered a Soviet dove using arguments that assisted surprised American hawks. Or we may learn that the Soviet Union is building SS-9s for the political purpose of provoking precisely the outcry that U.S. arms controllers try to warn them against. Or Soviet citizens may be shocked to hear how cold-bloodedly American strategists compute the hostages they want to maintain. In any case, it is certain that the talks will be full of surprises. In agreeing to talk, both countries have set in motion a process which has wider implications than either can weigh.

In Viet Nam, we are learning that face-saving negotiations with others may be more complicated than the unpleasant and inevitable task of questioning our own decisions and processes. The arms race is like that. It would be nice to believe that the weapons we buy are forced upon us by the Russians. It would be nice to argue that any failure in the talks will justify business as usual.

A failure of the talks would justify certain business, but it would not justify anything like business as usual. Since the negotiations with the Soviet Union are likely to be long and hard, we cannot neglect the business of putting our arms-procurement processes in order. And if we fail to do so, then the negotiations will likely fail in any case.

Therefore the first priority ought to be a thorough examination of the arms- procurement process at home. The talks should be pursued intently and pushed as fast as possible. But for the near future, there will be no contradiction between pursuing agreement abroad and attacking our own problems at home. When a hard choice does come between rallying around the President or pressing for reform at home, each American will have to decide on the basis of the political context where his responsibility lies.

We have gotten into the habit of talking technically and politically about the means of agreement before generating at home the preconditions in will and in processes. It is hard to imagine an important formal treaty occurring unless each side has found it possible to confront successfully its own political-bureaucratic problems. Hence an approach that puts domestic confrontations first may be not only an alternative to a formal treaty but a precondition.

[i] Mr. Bundy said: "It has been entirely reasonable for believers in arms control to place themselves where their own best judgment led them in the debate on the ABM, but as the SALT talks begin the President has a necessary claim to trust." But the ABM debate probably had the greatest favorable impact on arms limitations in the cold war thus far. Should critics forego such expressions of opinion for the decade the arms talks might take, regardless of how the Administration is negotiating or what weapons it is procuring?

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now