Nuclear Disarmament

Nuclear Disarmament protest
Nuclear Disarmament protest

During and after the cold war, the United States and the Soviet Union conducted a series of talks and signed several treaties dealing with arms control and nuclear disarmament. Arms control entails the limitation of nuclear weapons or delivery systems, while nuclear disarmament indicates the actual reduction of nuclear weapons. Beginning with the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in 1987, the powers would begin the process of nuclear disarmament.

After dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 to end World War II, the United States had a monopoly on nuclear weapons. In June 1946, at the first meeting of the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, the United States presented the Baruch Plan, offering to turn over its stockpile of atomic weapons to a United Nations international agency if all other countries would pledge not to produce them and agree to a system of inspection.

At that time the Soviet Union was in the process of developing its own nuclear weapons and rejected the plan, arguing that the United Nations was dominated by the United States and western Europe.

The Soviet Union became a nuclear power in 1949 and by the mid-1950s had proposed a gradual reduction in conventional military forces, to be followed by an eventual destruction of nuclear stockpiles. In 1959 Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, in a speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, called for total nuclear disarmament within four years.

The United States refused to accept these recommendations without on-site inspections to verify disarmament agreements. The Soviet Union refused to allow nuclear inspectors on its territory, and there would little progress on the issue of disarmament between the two powers in the 1950s.

After the United States and the Soviets came to the brink of war in the Cuban missile crisis, the focus of the two superpowers moved away from nuclear disarmament toward preventing the testing, deployment, and proliferation of these weapons.

In August 1963 the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain—which had become a nuclear power in 1952—signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which banned nuclear tests in the atmosphere, outer space, and underwater. In July 1968 the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Under the terms of the treaty the nuclear powers pledged never to furnish nuclear weapons or nuclear technology to nonnuclear powers. The treaty also created a international inspection team under the United Nations International Atomic Energy Administration to verify compliance with the terms of the treaty.

After his election in 1968, President Richard Nixon sought an easing of diplomatic tensions with the Soviet Union, a process known as détente. The Soviet Union also was looking to ease tensions with the West. Both sides came to the conclusion that the cold war was costing too much and sought to achieve their foreign policy goals through negotiations and peaceful coexistence rather than confrontation.

In January 1969 the Soviet Union proposed negotiations for the limitation of nuclear delivery vehicles and defensive systems. President Nixon endorsed the talks, and in so doing altered U.S. policy away from nuclear superiority. This change in policy was the result of the Soviet arms buildup in the 1960s, which had led to strategic parity between the two superpowers.


Negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union, known as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I), began in November 1969. These talks culminated in the signing of the SALT I Treaty in May 1972. This treaty placed limits on specific nuclear weapons. The SALT I Treaty was to be valid for five years, and the two sides began negotiations for a new agreement to take effect after the expiration of this treaty.

The two sides agreed on a ceiling of 2,400 total delivery vehicles, with each side equipping no more than 1,320 missiles with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). After 1974 talks slowed because of disagreements over which types of weapons should count under the 2,400 ceiling. The two sides failed to come to an agreement.

From 1977 to 1979 the United States and the Soviets began new negotiations, known as the SALT II talks. These talks culminated in the SALT II Treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter and Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev on June 22, 1979. This treaty implemented the principle of equal aggregate limits, placing numerical limits on each side’s nuclear arsenal.

The treaty allowed 2,400 total strategic vehicles (reduced to 2,250 in 1981) and limited MIRV ballistic and MIRV intercontinental ballistic missiles. With the principle of equal aggregate limits in place, both superpowers sought to end unrestricted competition for strategic superiority.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and U.S. domestic political opposition, influenced the U.S. Senate to refuse to ratify the treaty. Despite this fact, both sides agreed to adhere to the terms of the treaty as long as the other complied as well. By 1986, however, both sides were producing weapons programs that led the other to charge it with rejecting the provisions of the treaty.

Strategic Arms Reduction Talks Treaty

nuclear heads
nuclear heads

In 1981 President Ronald Reagan focused on alleged Soviet military superiority and began the largest peacetime buildup in U.S. history. Despite this arms buildup, Reagan agreed to abide by the limits in the SALT II Treaty. In 1982 Reagan called for the resumption of strategic arms reduction talks, later termed START.

Shortly after Mikhail Gorbachev became Soviet general secretary in March 1985, he announced a postponement of the planned deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Europe until November and expressed a willingness to reenter talks with the United States.

By July he suspended all Soviet nuclear tests. In November Gorbachev and Reagan met at the Geneva Summit, breaking the period of deteriorating relations since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The leaders also announced the beginning of new talks.

Gorbachev and Reagan met again at the Reykjavík Summit in October 1986. In these meetings the two sides came to some broad understandings on reductions in long-range nuclear weapons, the elimination of strategic missiles, removal of medium-range missiles from Europe, a reduction in weapons testing, and on-site verification.

The summit was abruptly terminated when the Soviets insisted that the agreement was contingent on ending further research into the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and Reagan refused this condition.

Gorbachev and Reagan signed the Intermediaterange Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) at the Washington Summit in December 1987 after the Soviet Union separated its opposition to SDI from the larger question of nuclear missiles in Europe.

In this agreement both sides promised to destroy all ground-launched intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe with a range of 300 to 3,400 miles (approximately 2,300 missiles) and begin a system of on-site inspections. The INF Treaty was ratified by the U.S. Senate and the Supreme Soviet and went into effect after the Moscow Summit in May 1988.

In July 1991 Reagan’s successor, President George H. W. Bush, and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks Treaty (START). START restricted ballistic warheads and launchers, cut land-based ICBMS, and provided for on-site verification.

This treaty reduced U.S. and Soviet strategic nuclear forces by about 30 percent. In September 1991 President Bush proposed that both sides dismantle all of their ground-launched tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs). Gorbachev agreed, and all such weapons were scheduled to be destroyed.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the four former Soviet republics possessing nuclear weapons—Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan—signed the Lisbon Protocol to START I, thereby agreeing to recognize Russia as the heir to the Soviet nuclear arsenal. The three non-Russian republics agreed to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty as nonnuclear states and transfer all their nuclear warheads to Russia within seven years.

President Bush continued to campaign for further cuts in strategic nuclear weapons, proposing dramatic cuts in the number of warheads in existing ground- and sea-launched weapons systems. Bush also unilaterally and effectively canceled the U.S. nuclear modernization program.

Bush and Russian president Boris Yeltsin signed START II in January 1993, which provided for a 25 percent reduction in each country’s strategic forces to 3,000–3,500 warheads over 10 years. The two sides further agreed to the total elimination of MIRV intercontinental ballistic missiles.

In a landmark symbolic gesture in 1994, Presidents Bill Clinton and Yeltsin announced that their longrange missiles would no longer be targeted at each other’s territory. In May 2002 Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin signed the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty, reducing the number of nuclear warheads to a range of 1,700 to 2,200 within 10 years.

Although there remain some escape clauses and conditions, many view this agreement as the culmination of the arms control and disarmament process begun by Nixon and Brezhnev in the early 1970s.