Arms Control in the Reagan Era

Although agreeing to abide by the unratified SALT II accord, the Reagan administration felt the agreement tipped the strategic balance in favor of the Soviet Union. Before engaging in new arms control negotiations, the administration embarked on a wholesale modernization of U.S. strategic forces. Although staying within the confines of SALT II, during the 1980s the United States replaced its aging Titan II ICBMs with the controversial MX and deployed the B-1B bomber and Trident SLBM. With this modernization program underway, in a speech before the National Press Club on November 18, 1981, President Reagan outlined his strategy and proposed to engage the Soviets in Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) aimed at substantially reducing the number of nuclear weapons deployed by the two superpowers.

Nearly 10 years would pass before a strategic arms reduction accord was reached, and another 3 years would pass before it could be implemented. A complicating factor in these negotiations was the United States' decision to deploy long-range Pershing II missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) in western Europe to counter the Soviet Union's earlier deployment of SS-20 intermediate-range missiles in western Russia. The crucial sticking point was determining which missiles would, and would not be covered under the agreement. From the Soviets' viewpoint, the new American nuclear-tipped weapons, capable of striking targets deep within their territory, affected the overall superpower strategic balance and thus should be included as part of any strategic arms reductions. In contrast, the Soviets argued that their SS-20 missiles could not reach U.S. cities, and therefore should not be included in the negotiations. However, despite a Soviet propaganda campaign that helped feed a huge antinuclear movement in western Europe as well as pressures at home to compromise, the Reagan administration stuck with its "zero-option" plan: the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would remove the U.S. missiles only if all Soviet SS-20 missiles were also dismantled.

Other factors that delayed the strategic arms reduction talks were leadership changes within the Kremlin that finally stabilized with the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev, and President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), unveiled in 1983. Over the next 4 years the arms control talks lagged as the Soviets tried to place limits on SDI as a condition for reducing their stock of offensive ballistic missiles.

In 1987, with U.S. Pershing II and cruise missiles in place, the Soviets finally yielded to Reagan's zero-option plan for eliminating intermediate- and short-range missiles from Europe. The signing of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on December 8,1987, removed one of the major obstacles on the way toward strategic arms reductions. But as negotiators haggled over the strategic arms balance, the geopolitical balance rapidly began to change, and in 1989 the "Iron Curtain" dividing eastern and western Europe tumbled down.