Bush Announces Nuclear Arms Reductions Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Evidencing improved relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, President George H. W. Bush announced plans for the unilateral reduction of U.S. nuclear armaments and level of military readiness.

Summary of Event

After four decades of Cold War Cold War;conclusion suspicion and periodic confrontations between the United States and the Soviet Union, an era of significantly improved relations between the two nuclear superpowers developed after 1985. A major foreign and military policy speech by President George H. W. Bush on September 27, 1991, marked the efforts of both nations to reduce their nuclear armaments and lessen the dangers of nuclear confrontation and possible war. What was especially striking about the president’s policy statement was that the reductions he announced were not the result of specific negotiations with the Soviet government, but were taken unilaterally by the United States. Nuclear weapons;disarmament U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations] Weapons;nuclear [kw]Bush Announces Nuclear Arms Reductions (Sept. 27, 1991) [kw]Nuclear Arms Reductions, Bush Announces (Sept. 27, 1991) [kw]Arms Reductions, Bush Announces Nuclear (Sept. 27, 1991) [kw]Reductions, Bush Announces Nuclear Arms (Sept. 27, 1991) Nuclear weapons;disarmament U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations] Weapons;nuclear [g]North America;Sept. 27, 1991: Bush Announces Nuclear Arms Reductions[08190] [g]United States;Sept. 27, 1991: Bush Announces Nuclear Arms Reductions[08190] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Sept. 27, 1991: Bush Announces Nuclear Arms Reductions[08190] Bush, George H. W. [p]Bush, George H. W.;nuclear disarmament Gorbachev, Mikhail [p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;nuclear disarmament

Since atomic weapons first appeared in 1945, the designs, destructive power, and possible uses of nuclear weapons had expanded greatly. By the 1970’s, both superpowers possessed large numbers of these destructive devices. Initial negotiations to limit the rate of growth of certain types of nuclear weapons earlier had resulted in two groundbreaking agreements stemming from the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks of 1972 (SALT I) and 1979 (SALT II), SALT I (1972)[Salt 01] SALT II (1979)[Salt 02] and U.S.-Soviet negotiations continued sporadically during the 1980’s, culminating in a 1987 treaty to eliminate intermediate-range nuclear missile systems located in Europe.

The greatest danger to both nations, in size and destructive power, involved powerful intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), Intercontinental ballistic missiles Missiles;intercontinental ballistic which possessed the necessary range to reach each other’s territory. Negotiations to limit this class of strategic weapons continued between the U.S. and Soviet governments for several years, leading to an agreement in July, 1991. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President Bush signed the first treaty of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START I) START I (1991)[Start 01] in Moscow as the first step to beginning the numerical reduction of these powerful strategic missiles (the treaty was ratified in early 1992). This atmosphere for greater cooperation, building on prior arms control efforts, provided the background for the president’s dramatic announcement in September.

Other favorable conditions in 1990 and 1991 also signaled an improved relationship between the two Cold War rivals. Soviet military intervention in neighboring Afghanistan had ended in 1989; Communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe had fallen from power in 1989 with minimal violence, the nations of East and West Germany had united in 1990, and growing economic ties between the Soviet Union and the West promised more cooperation. A significant agreement to limit military forces and nonnuclear weapons in Europe was adopted in November, 1990, by the Warsaw Pact Warsaw Pact (the Soviet Union and its European Communist allies) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), of which the United States was a member. The following year, the Warsaw Pact itself ended.

The Soviet Union’s cooperation with the United Nations and the West during the Persian Gulf War against Iraq in early 1991 also showed willingness to work together in common purpose. When the leaders of the world’s most economically powerful nations, known as the Group of Seven Group of Seven (G7), held their annual meeting in London in July, 1991, Gorbachev was invited to attend as an eighth participant. A few days later, Bush flew to Moscow to sign the START agreement. The conditions were thus favorable for additional proposals from each side to continue the trend to reduce the threshold of nuclear danger.

In a televised address to the nation on September 27, 1991, President Bush discussed a broad range of nuclear weapons systems and outlined the changes in military policies the United States would unilaterally adopt. He first described changes in the Cold War environment and the growing cooperation between the superpowers and asserted that the possibility of a Soviet attack on Western Europe was no longer likely. Essentially, Bush declared that the Cold War was over and said that the two nations could work together in the future. This opportunity to improve the relationship now required both sides to undertake additional steps toward increased cooperation and peace.

Building on previous arms control agreements, the president specified steps he intended to adopt for the U.S. military. Some decisions were immediate and unilateral, falling under Bush’s authority as U.S. commander in chief. For example, approximately twenty-one hundred U.S. nuclear artillery shells and short-range nuclear missiles located in Europe, originally designed for tactical battlefield use in case of war with the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies, were ordered withdrawn and destroyed. More than eight hundred nuclear weapons were removed from U.S. surface warships and naval aircraft.

U.S. president George H. W. Bush and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev sign the treaty of the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) in the Kremlin in Moscow, Soviet Union, on July 31, 1991, a few months before the dissolution of the Soviet Union.


Bush also gave orders for the U.S. long-range bomber force to end its twenty-four-hour alert status. This policy, in place since the 1950’s, had required warplanes with nuclear weapons to be kept in continual readiness in case of crisis and possible nuclear war. A category of ICBMs scheduled to be eliminated under the START agreement, 450 Minuteman IIs, would be dismantled immediately rather than during the longer period specified in START. Further development of several new types of nuclear missiles, including the controversial MX missile with ten nuclear warheads, was canceled.

In the speech, Bush further identified several long-term objectives requiring future negotiations with the Soviet government. He proposed joint talks to seek the eventual elimination of all land-based multiwarhead nuclear missiles as well as to improve procedures for the future supervision and dismantling of nuclear weapons of both nations. He recommended consideration of joint efforts to develop antiballistic missile defense systems for each nation.


President Bush’s dramatic announcement of September 27, 1991, caught the world by surprise because of its sweeping provisions and important implications for the future. Western military analysts interpreted the president’s overture as having several purposes. In addition to the arms cuts and other steps, the United States hoped to support Gorbachev, who faced the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union. If that occurred, it would be even more difficult to negotiate the control and elimination of the former nation’s nuclear armaments.

Prior to making his public speech, the president had privately communicated its contents to major world leaders, including Gorbachev. The Soviet response was considered to be the most significant. On September 28, Gorbachev gave cautious support to the U.S. proposals and reiterated the Soviet interest in reducing nuclear weapons. He noted his regret that the U.S. president had not gone further, however, such as suspending U.S. underground nuclear testing. The Soviet leader promised careful consideration of the U.S. declaration, and the Moscow government indicated that it would present its own proposals.

On October 5, the Gorbachev government announced a comparable set of reciprocal policies and unilateral cuts in Soviet military forces. Several steps paralleled Bush’s orders, including removal of the Soviet strategic bomber force from ready-alert status, removal and destruction of tactical battlefield nuclear armaments, and a promise to dismantle more than five hundred ICBMs. Several missile projects also were canceled. Additional Soviet proposals even went beyond Bush’s September announcement, including adoption of a one-year moratorium on Soviet nuclear weapons testing.

The two governments, within a two-week period, had announced substantial reductions in nuclear weapons systems and the general level of military preparedness. The extent of the decisions and the rapidity of their implementation signified continued cooperation between the two superpowers. The decisions announced by both leaders in their September 27 and October 5 statements provided the basis for further advances in shrinking the arms race and resolving the potential dangers of nuclear conflict, including the signing of the more ambitious START II START II (1993)[Start 02] agreement in January, 1993, by Bush and Russia’s new president, Boris Yeltsin. Nuclear weapons;disarmament U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations] Weapons;nuclear

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Arms Control: U.S. and Soviet Announcements and Proposals of Major Reductions on Nuclear Weapons.” Foreign Policy Bulletin 2, no. 2 (September/October, 1991): 47-51. Comprises the complete texts of three documents: Bush’s September 27 speech, a September 27 “White House Summary of U.S. Initiatives on Nuclear Arms,” and Gorbachev’s October 5 response.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beschloss, Michael R., and Strobe Talbott. At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War. Boston: Little, Brown, 1993. Assesses the major leaders involved and describes the events that took place between the United States and the Soviet Union in the period 1989-1991.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crockatt, Richard. The Fifty Years War: The United States and the Soviet Union in World Politics, 1941-1991. New York: Routledge, 1995. Shows the shift from confrontation to cooperation in agreements on nuclear weapons and other issues.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gaddis, John Lewis. The United States and the End of the Cold War: Implications, Reconsiderations, Provocations. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Presents a broad interpretation of the changing Cold War relationships by the 1990’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Oberdorfer, Don. The Turn: From the Cold War to a New Era—The United States and the Soviet Union, 1983-1990. New York: Poseidon Press, 1991. Covers the period of improved U.S.-Soviet Union relations under Reagan and Gorbachev.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Powaski, Ronald E. Return to Armageddon: The United States and the Nuclear Arms Race, 1981-1999. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Discussion of the arms race includes extensive attention to disarmament talks. Addresses the importance of the role of each of the U.S. presidents during the period discussed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rotblat, Joseph, ed. Nuclear Weapons: The Road to Zero. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998. Collection of essays covers a wide range of issues related to international nuclear disarmament.

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Categories: History