False Alarm: The Story Behind Salt II

Senator Henry Jackson
Senator Henry Jackson; drawing by David Levine

In the coming months Americans will be facing great decisions about the future of our defense policy and our relations with the Soviet Union. Should we decide to accept in good faith the spirit of SALT II as a limitation on the arms race—a limitation that is in fact already largely known by the public—and introduce the minimum of new weapons consistent with our security? Or, if the SALT treaty is signed, should we stretch its provisions and build as many arms as are not forbidden by it? Or, finally, should we reject the treaty and choose to increase vastly our spending on strategic weapons—for instance on the Trident submarine, cruise missiles, and the proposed MX ICBM, a large mobile intercontinental missile—in an attempt to achieve military superiority over the Soviet Union?

In recent months a great many books, articles, speeches, and advertisements—even a privately produced and widely distributed film—have been circulated in order to convince the American public that Soviet strategic power is growing while American defenses are weakening. We are told again and again that our national security is in jeopardy. The Soviet Union, we hear, will soon have the means to destroy our land-based Minuteman and Titan II missiles which are stored in and launched from hardened silos. The Russians would then strike first and destroy our deterrent missiles, thus winning the war with relative impunity. Or, short of actually going to war, they could use the threat of their superior nuclear force for political blackmail.

The hawks who want to convince the American public that the danger is growing severely criticize the SALT II treaty now being concluded under which each side would limit itself to no more than 2,250 strategic missile launchers and bombers between now and 1985. The proposed treaty is said to concede too much to the USSR, perpetuating our weakness and consolidating the Soviet threat.

Such, predictions are indeed frightening, but are they realistic, or even plausible? The past record of the arms race argues strongly that they are not. If we investigate the predictions about the Soviet military threat that have been made during the past twenty years, we find that they have been consistently exaggerated—often by the same people who make such claims today. We also find that complying with these alarmists’ suggestions to expand our arsenal has led us into a spiraling nuclear arms race that is undermining real security—the full assurance of national survival—of the US as well as the Soviet Union. Can it be that history repeats itself, and that if we follow the most recent alarmist demands—for intransigence over the SALT II treaty and an accelerated arms buildup even if it is passed—our national security will be further weakened and we will find that we are headed for a nuclear war?

Since the days when I worked in the White House as special assistant to…

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