Since the early 1960s, both United States and the Soviet Union have acknowledged that the nuclear arms race would be an end to itself. They have came to realize that the mutual antagonism, though profound, is also ‘incomplete’; that the unfettered evolution of unilateral decisions on armaments is likely to produce a grossly excessive general level of armaments; and that there must be scope for agreements which, while falling well short of complete disarmament or complete nuclear disarmament, would benefit everyone1.
There were two major treaties in the period before the 1980s that brought about limitations in anti-ballistic missile systems to two by each side (SALT 1) and more comprehensive quantitative limits on strategic launcher systems, with sub-limits on MIRV-ed launchers (SALT 2). Even these, however, were not genuine limits, and left room for further increases. It was not until the INF treaty of 1987, followed by START in 1991 that reductions were made to their nuclear forces, of a 4% decrease in nuclear missiles and land-based ICBMs respectively.
The reason for the rapid progress to reductions in armaments in the later years is that there was a dramatic shift in the entire context in which strategic arms control occurred, and the political and diplomatic climate made it possible. In order to understand the shift that made reductions possible, we must address the political and strategic concerns of both nations, the human factor, and how the potential for destruction and economic considerations also aided the rapid progress that was not possible before.
Political and strategic concerns made it difficult for both countries to arrive at an agreement to make reductions to the arsenals of both countries. The reason for this lies in the basic ideological differences in both countries, which bred mutual distrust that was aggravated by the World War II over the issue of Poland and Austria. The territorial and ideological ambitions of the Soviet Union further trampled whatever limited trust that had been present in the World War years, and events in Iran, Manchuria and Baltic territories only served to confirm their suspicions about the Soviet Union’s expansionist tendencies.
They perceived the Soviet Union as wanting to spread across the globe irremovable communist governments based on the Soviet model, and bent on dominating Europe and indeed the rest of the world, and thus saw their early nuclear superiority as preserving the peace of Europe and preventing Soviet Union from furthering their expansionist tendencies.
Soviet Union however saw it differently, that they were merely defending themselves against the offensive posture of the West by building up a reliable glacis of vassal communist states, and saw the West as using their power unjustly to prevent the further fulfillment of Soviet foreign policy objectives, and thus perceived political power to be closely linked to their nuclear arsenal which could not remain in a state of inferiority.
Thus even if an option for disarmament were available, both sides would be perpetually worried that the other was poised to steal a decisive march by restarting production of nuclear and other weapons. The Soviets would doubt their ability to hold the Soviet bloc together, and the West would worry about the increased scope for Soviet subversion worldwide. Western doubts also increased with the propensity of successive Soviet leaders to make false statements during the Cuban Missile crisis and Afghanistan.
Furthermore, as A. J. C Edwards pointed out, “Even if the political will had been there on both sides to make major concessions, the crucial problems of verification and enforcement remained intractable, especially as the Soviets were equivocal about on-site inspection2”. Mutual distrust between both states remained too profound for both parties to dare to embark on a treaty for reductions of nuclear armaments before the late 1980s.
The political environment in the 1960, 1970s and early 1980s further made arms reductions more unlikely as the success of arms control depended and mirrored events happening in the real world between both countries, both in Asia and in the Third World. The West saw the threat from Soviet looming larger in their brinkmanship in the Berlin crisis, their interventions in Third World countries like Angola, Ethiopia and Afghanistan, their subversive activities to wreck the Marshall Aid programme, and support for Vietnam and Korea, which further served the accentuate the tension between both countries.
The West feared the ‘domino effect’ where the countries in Asia would fall, one by one to the hands of the Soviet Union if they did not attempt to restore the status quo and defend democracy and freedom, and saw nuclear weapons as a powerful political weapon for deterrence, and thus advocated a build up in nuclear weapons. According to Lucius Battle, “Rearmament occurred not because of NSC 68, but because of Korea- the war translated a think piece into an operational document. The mere possession of military power was a dimension of political intercourse and continued to be the pursuit of both superpowers, “an instrument which may enable countries to achieve, without actually going to war, political objectives they could not have achieved from a state of military weakness”, as A. J. C Edwards pointed out.
After the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 which demonstrated the value of nuclear weapons on the negotiating table, and taught Khrushchev a bitter lesson about America’s nuclear superiority which gave them an edge in politics, Khrushchev was similarly even more determined to build up his arsenal to counter what he saw was the provocative threat of the West trying to liberate the restive European satellite countries on his borders and dominate the world.
With the authoritarian system of the Soviet Union which kept out outside influences and relied on extensive monitoring and security, the Soviet leaders could not afford to reach a genuine accommodation with the West, without risking a major loss of control and ultimately undermining the whole system of government.
In the 1980s similarly, INF negotiations along with the START talks collapsed as it was the time of the “New Cold War”, where the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the imposition of martial law in Poland in 1981 drew in sharp criticism from the Republican right wing in US politics where they did not want arms control agreements with a party that was seen to be breaking the Helsinki Accords with human rights abuses in the developing world, let alone reduction.
Thus, political conditions before the late 1980s was not suitable for reductions to take place, when countries placed their security as their most prominent objective. The strategic balance of both nations also did not allow for reductions in terms of nuclear weapons. Before the Vietnam War, US had a clear superiority in terms of nuclear weapons, with 144 Polaris SLBMs and 294 ICBMs when the Soviet Union only possessed 10 ICBMs.
Thus US wanted to maintain their clear superiority, as it gave them a strong strategy to deter Soviet aggression by threatening massive retaliation, and an edge in political matters and conflicts. USSR was positioned in a state of inferiority, and wanted to reach equality, in order to gain recognition as an equal superpower, and thus it was impossible to negotiate for reductions at this point. As Mason rightly pointed out, “Previous attempts at arms control had failed because they had always tended to freeze Soviet forces into a position of permanent inferiority.
However by 1969, Soviet Union had overtaken US in ICBMS, and in 1971 had plainly surpassed US in this area, and reached a certain state of essential equivalence, even if US maintained their superiority in long range missiles, SLBMs and MIRVs. At this point, talks on limitations could begin, with the production of the SALT 1 accord of June 1972, when the United States limited missile launchers and anti-ballistic missile systems to two on each side.
Even so, the SALT accords were not so much ‘limitations’ on both countries as the levels were still higher than their current levels and still gave them room for further increases. At this point however, they were still unable to negotiate for reductions, because there was still hot antagonism between both countries in regards to the Vietnam War and mutual distrust, and the fact that US wanted to restore superiority while USSR wanted to recognize and maintain equality and thus had to continue building up their nuclear weapons.
USSR also did not want to run the risk of reductions at a time of hot conflict with China nearing the period of the Sino-Soviet split, their nuclear arsenal gave them political power. Thus at this point of the alteration of the strategic balance of both countries, reduction was still not possible for the early policies of both countries. The human factor was an essential point in considering why limitations were possible but not reductions. Nixon was the only one who was first able to negotiate with the Soviet Union as essential equivalence had came into place, and openly pushed for limitations in the SALT treaties.
However, the ideologies of Soviet Union forced arms control to come into a political impasse because they could not accept reductions, for them it was a sign of succumbing to inferiority. What made the dramatic change was the accession of Mikhail Gorbachev in 198 who brought about significant changes in Soviet foreign policy. He enunciated the “New Political Thinking” as a basis for foreign policy, in which he emphasized mutual security, interdependence, and the irrationality of nuclear war.
He encouraged active participation and the beginning of talks into reduction, and the political ethos for such developments was laid in the Reykjavik summit in October 1986, where the high public commitment to radical arms control was unprecedented. It was also Gorbachev who broke the political impasse by offering to separate discussions on the INF treaty from the highly contentious SDI, and it also helped that during his accession the Politburo had opposed to arms control talks and were instead forward to that prospect.
Gorbachev felt that “Peace is the value above anything. In the nuclear-cum-space era a world war is the absolute evil. It cannot be won, as well as the arms race…. The threat of nuclear war cannot be ignored when one discusses the prospects of world class struggle. ” Significantly, Gorbachev no longer considered nuclear-strategic parity as the crucial and sufficient guarantee of peace, and he was the main proponent of arms reductions which helped it become a success, especially considering the reform of the Politburo which enabled him to gain the approval for his policies.
The political environment of the Soviet Union was also now ripe for the prospect of nuclear disarmament- with Chernobyl it undercut the very basis of Soviet Union’s nuclear power and induced the Politburo to look upon disarmament as a moral imperative. Furthermore, because of Gorbachev’s messianic utopianism that was the vital ideological foundation of his reformist drive, the ideological euphoria in Moscow made it possible to wind down the Cold War atmosphere of mistrust and to transform the process of arms control into true disarmament.
This was a dramatic and significant change as in the past Soviet Union’s political structure had often rejected change in fear of reducing themselves to inferiority but now the restructuring and new policies of Gorbachev made reductions possible during his accession. The growing potential for destruction also meant a shift of trends that allowed reductions to take place in the late 1980s. General Lee Butler voiced the sentiment for the age, that “The consequences of the failure of deterrence invokes death on a scale rivaling the power of the creator, poisoning the earth, deforming its inhabitants for generation upon generation. U. S had the enough nuclear weapons to destroy the world three times over, or the whole of the Soviet Union in fifteen minutes, twice. Soviet Union was adequate in responding, and Nikita Khrushchev even joked that even though he may only be able to destroy US once, that one time was adequate in getting rid of America from the face of the earth. The propensity for destruction, and accidents, was enormous.
This traced the trends in the policies of the United States, from the beginning massive retaliation where weapons build up was inevitable to exert the power associated with nuclear superiority, to flexible response, where nuclear build up was less heated but still nevertheless necessary in the eyes of security and to reach essential equivalence, and the later mutually assured destruction, the stage where both stages now had reached a peak where equivalence had been reached, and now there was room for the reduction of weapons.
USSR recognized that it would not emerge victor in the arms race, as it lacked the economic resources to keep up with the USA, and this combined with the ambitions of Gorbachev, allowed for reductions in the arsenal of USSR. Thus the turning point arrived in the late 1980s where the nuclear arms race reached saturation point, it was only after the shift and build up in trends where both parties reached a point where they could not persist in the arms race further- it was an end to itself.
Economic considerations were also a major boost for arms reduction in the late 1980s. The arms race budget was spiraling, and reached a peak in 1985 in US at $401 billion, and pressure to reduce discretionary spending, intensified by the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction act, led to steady reductions in the defense budget through the remainder of the Reagan administration, which further encouraged them to accept Gorbachev’s proposal for reductions.
US was still recovering from a budget deficit after the Vietnam War, and growing inflation made it difficult for the US to sustain its economy, and reductions would allow US to shift more funds to its struggling domestic sector. On Soviet Union’s side, it was suffering serious budgetary problems, and its domestic sector was backward and suffering from rampant unemployment, and structurally the Soviet model had made for large amounts of wastage and a lack of motivation amongst workers that had accounted for a large part of its economic problems.
Gorbachev knew that he could not sustain the arms race, that Soviet Union was not able to meet the further challenge of SDI and the inflow of funds, and even if they managed it the domestic sector had to be revived and he regarded that a more important priority. All these aided the push for arms reductions in the late 1980s with the increasing pressure on both governments to cut down on their military budget and move funds to the domestic sector.