SALT II Is Signed Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The second treaty that came out of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks between the Soviet Union and the United States established limits on the size and technology of the nuclear arsenals of the two nations, thus limiting the nuclear arms race and creating a more stable deterrence.

Summary of Event

To facilitate the passage of an international treaty to limit the spread of nuclear weapons—the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968)[Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty] —the United States and the Soviet Union pledged to begin a process of mutually agreed-upon disarmament. Consequently, the two nations began the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) in 1969. From the beginning, however, it was clear that the goal was not disarmament but rather to create a state of stable deterrence and to reduce expenditures on new weapons systems. SALT II (1979)[Salt 02] Nuclear weapons;disarmament U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];nuclear disarmament [kw]SALT II Is Signed (June 18, 1979) SALT II (1979)[Salt 02] Nuclear weapons;disarmament U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];nuclear disarmament [g]Europe;June 18, 1979: SALT II Is Signed[03620] [g]Austria;June 18, 1979: SALT II Is Signed[03620] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;June 18, 1979: SALT II Is Signed[03620] Brezhnev, Leonid [p]Brezhnev, Leonid;U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations] Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations] Ford, Gerald R. [p]Ford, Gerald R.;U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations] Gromyko, Andrei Andreyevich Jackson, Scoop Kissinger, Henry [p]Kissinger, Henry;U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations] Kosygin, Aleksey Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations] Vance, Cyrus

Both the United States and the Soviet Union had adopted a strategy of nuclear deterrence, a policy that attempts to reduce the likelihood of nuclear war by threatening the other side with unacceptable levels of destruction. Deterrence, however, is undermined if one side gains a significant advantage in numbers of weapons or new technologies which would allow it to destroy its adversary in such a way that a counterattack becomes impossible. The purposes of SALT were thus to create a nuclear balance between the two superpowers and to limit the development of new technologies.

Despite mutual suspicion, a treaty (SALT I) SALT I (1972)[Salt 01] was completed in 1972. The treaty included a limited freeze on the construction of new long-range missiles but failed to take into account a new technology that permitted the placement of multiple independent reentry vehicles (MIRV)—that is, warheads—on each missile. The new technology thus defeated the purpose of the SALT I treaty of stabilizing the nuclear arsenals. In fact, this new technology allowed the Soviet Union to increase the number of its nuclear warheads from 2,300 in 1972 to 5,000 in 1979. The United States similarly increased its arsenal from 1,710 warheads to more than 8,000. As a response, both sides agreed to resume the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. The talks known as SALT II thus began in 1972 and struggled episodically through the administrations of three American presidents before a treaty was finally signed in Vienna in June, 1979.

U.S. president Jimmy Carter (left) and Soviet president Leonid Brezhnev sign the SALT II treaty in 1979.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The talks, which were initiated by Richard M. Nixon’s administration and by the Aleksey Kosygin-Leonid Brezhnev Politburo, were begun under conditions of suspicion and animosity. Commitment to the talks further eroded as President Nixon became absorbed in the Watergate scandal and finally had to resign his office. Gerald R. Ford, who then assumed the presidency, entered the talks with some reluctance. He faced a great deal of opposition from members of his own Republican Party as well as opposition from a group of “hawkish” senators under the vocal leadership of Senator Scoop Jackson. Nevertheless, by 1974 two agreements were signed, one of which further limited deployment of ABM (antiballistic missile) systems in accord with the SALT I treaty. The other was the Threshold Test Ban Treaty, Threshold Test Ban Treaty (1974) which restricted the size of explosions of underground nuclear tests. A meeting between President Ford and Leonid Brezhnev in Vladivostok in 1974 also set limits on strategic launchers (missiles armed with warheads) at 2,400 for each side and on MIRV weapons at 1,320 for each side. These were to serve as guidelines for the remainder of the negotiations. Henry Kissinger was to be a central negotiator during both the Nixon and Ford administrations, while Andrei Andreyevich Gromyko would serve as his counterpart on the Soviet side.

Faced with a campaign for reelection, the Ford administration backed away from the talks, taking a tough stand to show the administration’s opposition to the Soviet Union. The election of 1976, however, was won by Jimmy Carter, who entered office with a strong commitment to arms control. He was severely limited, however, by ongoing Republican opposition to the SALT talks, continued opposition from Scoop Jackson, and by the formation in 1976 of the Committee on the Present Danger. Committee on the Present Danger The committee was a private lobbying group that attempted to convince the public and Congress that any concessions in the area of nuclear weapons would leave the United States at a distinct disadvantage in its relationships with the Soviet Union. Lacking popular support, the Carter administration was limited in its ability to negotiate with the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, by 1979, an agreement was reached in Geneva that was then signed in Vienna. Cyrus Vance was a principal negotiator, a role that continued to be filled by Andrei Gromyko on the Soviet side. The final treaty was lengthy and complex.


The final SALT II treaty included three major provisions. First, it agreed to equal limits on strategic launchers at 2,250. This limit required the Soviet Union to destroy 250 of its launchers while allowing the United States to add to its arsenal. The treaty set limits on MIRVs, limiting the number of warheads per missile to that of the current technological capability. Second, as a way of slowing the arms race, the treaty placed a short-term moratorium on the development of new weapons systems. This limited the testing and deployment of new weapons systems but did exclude testing of cruise missiles, where the United States had a distinct advantage. Likewise, the treaty excluded air-launched cruise missiles, another area where the United States had superiority. Third, it included a statement of principles that pledged the two sides to actual arms reduction as the focus of what were intended to be the SALT III talks.

The treaty also included provisions for verification of compliance with the treaty. Neither side was permitted to interfere in intelligence gathering related to weapons deployment and development as related to the treaty guidelines. While this agreement was viewed by other countries as a positive first step toward a safer world, the agreement continued to meet opposition by the public and the Senate in the United States. Presented with the treaty, the Senate initially refused to consent to its ratification. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 to quell a violent revolution, suspicion of the Soviet Union and its motives further increased, and all possibility of senatorial consent was lost.

Carter lost to Ronald Reagan Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations] in the 1980 presidential election. Reagan had been a strong vocal opponent of the treaty and of arms negotiations with the Soviet Union. Following his election, the treaty was withdrawn from consideration by the Senate and the entire SALT process was discontinued. Nevertheless, while the Reagan administration did not recognize the validity of the treaty, it continued to abide by the provisions of it, as did the Soviet Union. While the treaty’s provisions were very limited and did nothing to facilitate actual disarmament, the treaty did have the effect of slowing the arms race. In addition, the talks presented an ongoing forum for conversation between the two superpowers, despite a period of mutual antagonism lasting until the mid-1980’s.

Reagan’s bold proposal for Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) initiated a period in which he and his counterpart in the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, Gorbachev, Mikhail [p]Gorbachev, Mikhail;U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations] began serious negotiations aimed at actual disarmament rather than mere arms control, which hitherto had aimed at only slowing down the pace of the arms race. The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s enabled the George H. W. Bush administration to press forward with real and significant START II START II (1993)[Start 02] negotiations that successfully reduced the numbers of missiles and nuclear warheads in American and Russian arsenals. SALT II (1979)[Salt 02] Nuclear weapons;disarmament U.S.-Soviet relations[U.S. Soviet relations];nuclear disarmament

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cimbala, Stephen J., ed. Strategic Arms Control After SALT. Wilmington, Del.: SR Books, 1989. A discussion of arms control negotiations in the wake of the SALT agreements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Geyer, Alan. The Idea of Disarmament: Rethinking the Unthinkable. Elgin, Ill.: Brethren Press, 1985. Includes a critical discussion of SALT II in the context of the history of nuclear arms control policy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morris, Charles R. Iron Destinies, Lost Opportunities: The Arms Race Between the USA and USSR. New York: Harper & Row, 1988. Places a discussion of SALT within the broader context of American and Soviet relationships.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Panofsky, W. K. H. Arms Control and SALT II. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979. A very specific discussion of the issues confronting the SALT II negotiators.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Gerald. Doubletalk: The Story of SALT I. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980. Includes an analysis of SALT II as a follow-up to SALT I by one of the chief negotiators of SALT I.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Talbott, Strobe. Endgame: The Inside Story of SALT II. New York: Harper & Row, 1979. A very detailed account of the SALT II negotiations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomson, David B. A Guide to the Nuclear Arms Control Treaties. Los Alamos, N.Mex.: Los Alamos Historical Society, 2001. Overview of the nuclear arms control treaties negotiated since the end of World War II.

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Categories: History