May 26, 1972 – Nixon and Brezhnev Sign First Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty

During the late 1960s, the United States learned that the Soviet Union had embarked upon a massive Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) buildup designed to reach parity with the United States. Moreover, the Soviet Union had begun to construct a limited Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) defense system around Moscow. The development of an ABM system could allow one side to launch a first strike and then prevent the other from retaliating by shooting down incoming missiles.

President Lyndon Johnson, as a State Department history site recounts, called for strategic arms limitations talks (SALT), and in 1967, he and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin met at Glassboro State College in New Jersey. Nothing was resolved, however.

Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon, also believed in the importance of arms limitations, and on November 17, 1969, his administration began formal talks with the Soviets in Helsinki, Finland and in Vienna, Austria. The negotiations lasted until May of 1972.

On this day in history, May 26, 1972, American President Nixon and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev signed the first strategic arms limitation treaty. The landmark “SALT I” accord limited nuclear defense systems and froze the number of missiles on each side. (SALT stands for Strategic Arms Limitation Talks.) It also provided for the addition of new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers after the same number of older intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and SLBM launchers had been dismantled. You can read a summary of all the provisions here. They also signed the “Interim Agreement Between The United States of America and The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on Certain Measures With Respect to the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms.” (You can read the text here.)

President Nixon shaking hands with Brezhnev after the signing of SALT; Photo via Richard Nixon Foundation & Library

The State Department site claims that SALT I is considered the crowning achievement of the Nixon-Kissinger strategy of détente. But a number of important issues were not addressed and negotiations for a second round of SALT began in late 1972.

Although SALT II resulted in an agreement in 1979, the United States Senate chose not to ratify the treaty in response to the Soviet war in Afghanistan, which took place later that year. The Soviet legislature also did not ratify it. The agreement expired on December 31, 1985 and was not renewed.

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