Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Carl Davidson

Reagan and Salt II: Administration united on goal of nuclear superiority


First Published: Unity, Vol. 9, No. 10, July 25, 1986.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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Why is Ronald Reagan so determined to scrap SALT II? The president’s decision last month to repudiate the 1979 arms control treaty with the Soviet Union was quickly met with an uproar of protest.

The U.S. House of Representatives on June 19 passed a resolution 256-145 urging the White House to reverse its stand. In Europe, within days of Reagan’s announcement, leaders of all 15 NATO countries criticized the unilateral U.S. decision.

The administration’s response was to change its tone. Reagan said June 19 there were “fresh developments” with the Soviets now making “serious” suggestions for arms reductions. Later, other officials suggested that the treaty might still be saved.

Does this mean Reagan is having second thoughts? Or is it only sugar coating on a bitter pill yet to come?

The truth is that Reagan has long opposed all of the existing arms agreements and undermined the chances of any new ones. Only strong public peace and disarmament sentiment prevented him from breaking with SALT II earlier.

Any U.S.-Soviet agreement would have to be based on overall equality, or parity, in the level of strategic arms.

But this is exactly what Reagan opposes. While there are some differences in his ranks, all factions agree on the goal of establishing U.S. nuclear superiority and a first-strike capability over the U.S.S.R. (A first-strike capability is the ability to destroy Soviet strategic nuclear arms in a surprise attack.) Some Reagan officials see arms control talks as useful in achieving U.S. superiority, while others do not. More importantly, the administration’s intent to scrap SALT II represents a significant break with the broader consensus that has existed among establishment policy-makers for decades.

Why has SALT II in particular become such an obstacle to the Reagan White House? After all, the limits set in 1979 were so loose that they allowed massive seven-year buildups on both sides without any violations. In fact, Sen. Mark Hatfield first proposed a nuclear freeze in 1979 as an alternative to SALT II that would actually halt the arms race.

Alleged Soviet violations of SALT II have to do with relatively minor issues. Even top defense analysts concede that the Soviets have observed SALT II’s main provision, the numerical limits on missile launchers and warheads.

’Star Wars’ space weapons

Reagan and the right would oppose SALT II even if the U.S.S.R. observed it to the letter, because:

SALT II does not allow for either side to achieve superiority, either through increasing the number of existing missiles or through introducing qualitatively new strategic missiles.
SALT II rests partly on the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, prohibiting anti-missile systems. By dumping SALT II, Reagan clears the way for scrapping the ABM Treaty.
Reagan and the right could then pursue an unrestricted arms race. Offensively, MX-type “silo busters” with smaller, but incredibly accurate, warheads would be deployed. Defensively, Star Wars, or Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), would be deployed to shield missile sites, if not cities.

Reagan, of course, has tried to sell Star Wars to the US. public in the most benevolent terms. Star Wars, he told a group of high school graduates this June, “might one day enable us to put in space a shield that missiles could not penetrate – a shield that could protect us from nuclear missiles just as a roof protects a family from rain.”

Reagan’s own officials tell another story. “A perfect astrodome defense is not a realistic thing,” stated Gen. James Abrahamson, head of the SDI project. “A leak-proof or near leak-proof defense against ballistic missiles based in any concept we know about is not possible,” states Dr. Michael May, a director of a major military research facility.

The U.S.S.R. naturally views a shield as something usually combined with a sword. “All Soviet leaders,” says Richard LeBow, a Council of Foreign Relations expert, have condemned Reagan’s quest for a Star Wars system “as part of a larger U.S. effort to acquire a first-strike capability. ... In the context of the ongoing U.S. nuclear buildup . . . such an interpretation is by no means inconsistent with the facts.”

Smaller but deadlier

Reagan has repeatedly denied any warlike intentions in his arms policies, even criticizing the freeze for “not going far enough.” He says he wants arms reductions rather than arms limitations. How is this reconciled with the massive new arms race now on the horizon?

One explanation was suggested by Assistant Defense Secretary Richard Perle, in summing up Reagan’s policy: “During the next ten years, the U.S. objective is a radical reduction in the power of existing and planned offensive nuclear arms.”

Reduction in the power of nuclear weapons, of course, is something quite different from a reduction in their numbers or effectiveness. The US in fact leads in technology for miniaturizing nuclear warheads and for delivering them with pinpoint accuracy. Given this lead, the US. could conceivably slash the number and explosive power of old-style launchers – Perle’s “radical reductions in power” – while increasing the overall deadliness of its strategic forces.

If Reagan goes through with his efforts to scrap SALT II, the public uproar will intensify, as will divisions among U.S. policy-makers. Some potential Democratic candidates for 1988 presidential race have already indicated they will make arms control a major issue. Progressives and peace activists have a role to play in determining the outcome.