SALT I Is Signed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

U.S. president Richard M. Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev took an important step in signing the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreement, an arms control treaty that specified maximum limits on the numbers and types of offensive and defensive nuclear systems the two nations could possess.

Summary of Event

To appreciate the significance of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), it is important to understand the context in which the negotiations evolved. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union after 1945 created significant tensions and competition between the two superpowers. The potential of catastrophic nuclear war became increasingly obvious. The 1960’s were particularly dangerous: the Cuban Missile Crisis, a war in the Middle East, Soviet military intervention in Eastern Europe, and the Vietnam War are several major examples. The arms race continued unabated during the period, with major improvements in nuclear weapons technology and potential destructive power. Opportunities for the two superpowers to consult and negotiate important agreements also existed in the decade, however. The 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty Limited Test Ban Treaty (1963) is a notable example of this effort, and the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968)[Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] also sought to reduce the spread of nuclear weapons to other nations. SALT I (1972)[Salt 01] Nuclear weapons;disarmament Weapons;nuclear U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];nuclear disarmament [kw]SALT I Is Signed (May 26, 1972) SALT I (1972)[Salt 01] Nuclear weapons;disarmament Weapons;nuclear U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];nuclear disarmament [g]Europe;May 26, 1972: SALT I Is Signed[00760] [g]Soviet Union;May 26, 1972: SALT I Is Signed[00760] [g]Russia;May 26, 1972: SALT I Is Signed[00760] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;May 26, 1972: SALT I Is Signed[00760] [c]Cold War;May 26, 1972: SALT I Is Signed[00760] Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;SALT I[Salt 01] Brezhnev, Leonid [p]Brezhnev, Leonid;SALT I[Salt 01] Kissinger, Henry [p]Kissinger, Henry;SALT I[Salt 01] Smith, Gerard C. Semyonov, Vladimir

U.S. president Richard M. Nixon (left) and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sign the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreement in Moscow on May 26, 1972.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In 1964, the United States proposed to the Soviet government the desirability of a nuclear arms agreement affecting both nations, but no positive movement took place until 1969, with the advent of a new administration in Washington. Initial talks began in October, 1969, in Helsinki, Finland, with the goal of providing greater stability and predictability in the expanding and continuing arms race. These negotiations came to be known as the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks.

Given the complexity and technical details of powerful nuclear weapons, as well as the competing national interests of the United States and the Soviet Union, the SALT negotiations proceeded slowly. Even agreeing on an agenda and essential definitions of armaments proved difficult. Each delegation included a primary group of principal negotiators, usually five to six members, who represented the government, military, and scientific community. Technical experts, interpreters, and other support personnel provided valuable assistance. Gerard C. Smith, head of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, led the American side, and Vladimir Semyonov led the Soviet delegation.

Several years of negotiation were required to achieve the desired objectives. Negotiators met alternately in Helsinki and Vienna between 1969 and 1972, in a total of seven sessions averaging approximately three months each. Additional discussions involved high-ranking officials in Washington and Moscow. Henry Kissinger, national security adviser to President Richard M. Nixon, played an important role in shaping U.S. policies and negotiating positions. Neither side wanted to give a negotiating or strategic advantage to the other. Nonetheless, the delegates sought an agreement that would provide approximate parity in specific weapons and the destructive power each nation possessed. It became obvious that not all issues could be resolved, leaving other categories of offensive nuclear weapons and delivery systems to be considered in a future permanent agreement once the initial treaty was adopted and implemented for a limited five-year period. Even deciding that duration was a contentious issue for the SALT negotiators, as the initial Soviet proposal favored only an eighteen-month period.

President Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreement (now known as SALT I) in Moscow on May 26, 1972. The treaty included two major components. The Interim Agreement focused on offensive strategic nuclear weapons. It limited the existing number of American long-range land-based launchers with intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to 1,054, while the Soviets were permitted 1,618. The apparent numerical discrepancy stemmed from the fact that some of the U.S. missiles had multiple warheads (MIRVs, or multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles), whereas the Soviets at that time had only single-warhead nuclear devices. In addition, the destructive power varied according to the precise missile types included; the Soviet Union SS-9 missile, for example, was larger than many of the American types. The total warhead destructive capability, however, was determined to be approximately the same.

The agreement permitted an increase in submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), but only if some older SLBMs or single-warhead ICBMs were withdrawn to reach the agreed ceiling. This shows that the primary goal of SALT I was not to reduce or eliminate nuclear weapons; rather, it was to establish numerical limits of existing levels of nuclear strength of the two states. The objective was to reduce the unregulated, disruptive, asymmetrical, and potentially more dangerous nuclear arms race of prior years. Article VII of the treaty called for the continuation of nuclear arms control negotiations to expand what the Moscow summit achieved.

The two governments also signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (1972)[Antiballistic Missile Treaty] This second major component of SALT I limited both nations in their development of defense complexes designed to protect offensive land-based ICBMs from destruction in case of nuclear attack. Both governments agreed to limit their ABM systems to two areas, each deploying no more than one hundred ICBM missile launchers and one hundred interceptor missiles.

As in the agreement on offensive nuclear weapons, the ABM Treaty sought to provide a level of approximate weapons parity and strategic stability to prevent either side from having an advantage in its defensive systems. It also prohibited future development, testing, or deployment of a variety of ABM systems: air-launched, sea-based, or in space. An additional component limited the numbers and types of long-range radars intended to identify hostile nuclear missiles headed to their targets. The two governments agreed to review the ABM Treaty every five years to make sure that it was adequately meeting its objectives. The agreement permitted amendments if both sides concurred.

Formulation of a comprehensive method of verification and compliance with the restrictions on nuclear offensive and defensive weapons systems played a key role in the negotiations, and this essential and legitimate concern prolonged the talks until a satisfactory solution could be designed. The final agreement called for the creation of a joint consultative committee to monitor the treaty’s implementation.

The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly ratified the ABM Treaty by a vote of eighty-eight to two in August, 1972, and the treaty took effect on October 3, 1972. Although Senate approval was not required for the interim offensive weapons agreement, both houses of the U.S. Congress gave their approval in September, 1972. The Soviet Union’s parliament also accepted both documents. The ABM Treaty had no time limit, but the offensive weapons agreement would end in 1977. By that year, negotiations for the follow-up treaty, SALT II, SALT II (1979)[Salt 02] were under way although not yet completed. Washington and Moscow agreed to continue existing nuclear arms arrangements under the 1972 criteria until SALT II was signed.


The danger of nuclear war was so frightful to contemplate that both the U.S. and Soviet governments sought to reduce the possibility of such a catastrophe. Obviously, more had to be done to continue and expand Soviet-American efforts to regulate the nuclear arms race, but SALT I was a significant step in this effort.

The agreements signed in May, 1972, encouraged a period of cooperation between the two superpowers known as détente. Détente (U.S.-Soviet relations) Although new or renewed Cold War problems and confrontations in the 1970’s threatened to undercut arms control efforts and cooperative relations between the two governments, diplomatic efforts continued, although at a slower pace. Soviet-American negotiations for a permanent agreement to delineate and limit additional nuclear weapons systems began in late 1972, and SALT II was signed in 1979, two years beyond the scheduled deadline. In future years, especially 1987 and 1992, further treaties and agreements for the first time imposed significant reductions in the numbers and types of several existing categories of nuclear weapons. This showed that the two Cold War rivals occasionally were able to find common ground to create and promote a framework for a more stable and cooperative relationship during the nuclear age in the latter decades of the twentieth century. SALT I (1972)[Salt 01] Nuclear weapons;disarmament Weapons;nuclear U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];nuclear disarmament

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edmonds, Robin. Soviet Foreign Policy: The Brezhnev Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. Assesses Soviet objectives and policies, including the SALT negotiations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gartoff, Raymond L. Detente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994. Scholarly account by a leading adviser in the American SALT delegation places nuclear arms control in the broader framework of U.S.-Soviet relations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graham, Thomas. Disarmament Sketches: Three Decades of Arms Control and International Law. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002. Memoir by a member of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency assesses Soviet-American nuclear arms agreements, including SALT, in which the author participated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kissinger, Henry A. White House Years. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979. President Nixon’s foreign policy adviser recalls diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, including the SALT negotiations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newhouse, John. Cold Dawn: The Story of SALT. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973. Provides a comprehensive, detailed assessment of the SALT negotiations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nixon, Richard. RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1978. Includes Nixon’s account of the SALT negotiations and the signing of the agreement in Moscow in May, 1972.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Gerard C. Doubletalk: The Story of the First Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980. Memoir by the leader of the American delegation in the SALT negotiations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolfe, Thomas W. The SALT Experience. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger, 1979. Compares the objectives of both governments before and during the negotiations.

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Categories: History