Extrication from Vietnam and the opening to China were two strategies of Nixon's statecraft designed to produce a more favorable balance of power in the East. In the West, a policy of political and military détente with the Soviet Union, coupled with expanded East-West trade, formed the cornerstone of Nixon's diplomacy.
Prior to entering the White House, Nixon had been identified with the hard-line anti-Communist politics of the Republican right because of his confrontations with Soviet leaders while vice president and his role in the Alger Hiss case. (Nixon, as a first-term member of Congress, had pursued an investigation of a former State Department employee, Alger Hiss, which had resulted in Hiss's conviction on a perjury charge.) But Nixon had been part of an administration in the 1950s that had negotiated an end to the war in Korea, participated in the accord that led to the withdrawal of Soviet occupation forces from Austria, held summits with Soviet leaders, and proposed major arms-limitation initiatives. Nixon had seen firsthand the political advantages of summit conferences in the Eisenhower administration, as well as observing the worldwide acclaim given to President Kennedy for negotiating the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963. From the first days of his administration, the major goat of his diplomacy was to conclude an arms-limitation agreement with the Soviet Union, to be capped by a successful summit conference. The enticement was to be the prospect of increased trade; pressure was to come from the Soviet fear of a successful American opening to China.
The first moves toward détente were made by Chancellor Willy Brandt of West Germany. His Ostpolitik led to the Moscow Treaty of 1970, in which Bonn recognized the territorial adjustments of World War II and renounced German territorial claims in the East. By April 1971, Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, in a speech to the Communist Party Congress, signaled Soviet interest in an arms control agreement. Further negotiations by the West Germans culminated in a treaty between East and West Germany, signed in December 1972.
American arms negotiations with the Soviets were formally conducted in Helsinki, Finland, where Ambassador Gerard Smith, head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), led the American delegation. But the real negotiations were conducted between Henry Kissinger, national security adviser and chairman of the NSC's Verification Panel, and Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin. Kissinger, rather than the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), was responsible for intelligence estimates and the reports reaching the president about Soviet capabilities and intentions in the arms race. These reports painted a grim picture of rapid Soviet escalation, which was not always shared by other agencies, particularly the State Department, the CIA, and the ACDA.
In May 1971, Kissinger and Dobrynin reached preliminary agreement. In the summer they agreed that a summit conference could take place in the spring of 1972. At the Moscow summit, Nixon and Kissinger conducted the crucial negotiations. No representatives from other agencies were allowed in the negotiating rooms, and even the translators were supplied by the Soviets, thus freezing out Secretary of State William P. Rogers, ACDA director Smith, and Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird.
The first set of strategic arms limitation talks (SALT I) agreements, concluded in Moscow in 1972, limited the deployment of antiballistic missile (ABM) defenses to two sites, one of which would be the capital of each nation. This was advantageous for the United States, since the Soviets were considerably ahead in the development and deployment of ABM systems. An interim agreement, to last five years, placed a limit on the number of missiles (referred to as launchers) that each side could deploy. The United States was limited to 1,710 missile launchers, which at the time consisted of 1,054 land-based and 656 sea-based missiles. The Soviets were limited to 2,328 missile launchers; at the time the agreement went into effect, these included 1,607 land-based and 740 sea-based missiles.
The numerical disparity favoring the Soviets had several factors. American rockets were considered more accurate, and more of them were equipped (or soon would be equipped) with "multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles" (MIRVs), or war-heads that could be targeted with great accuracy on several different sites. The Soviets had bigger war-heads and more powerful rockets but were behind in accuracy and had not yet deployed the MIRV missiles they had been developing. The agreement left the United States with 3,500 war-heads and the Soviets with 2,350 warheads.
In several respects the agreement was not very advantageous to the United States. For one thing, it dealt with the quantity but not the quality of launchers or warheads. Each side could equip its missiles with MIRVs and improve their accuracy, a situation that would have a destabilizing effect as each side moved closer to a first-strike capability in the late 1970s. The agreement did provide that neither side would substitute heavy for light launchers (which would increase the payloads) but did not define terms. The Soviets deployed the SS-19, a heavy launcher, in silos designed for the SS-11, an action that led some commentators in America to charge that they were violating the agreement. These charges, in turn, would make it impossible for the Carter administration to secure Senate approval of the SALT II agreement.
The American side made several other concessions to obtain the agreement. Although the Soviets had 42 operational submarines for sea-launched missiles, of which a number were obsolete, the agreement set the number on the Soviet side at 48, which would allow them to finish construction of 6 additional vessels without violating the accord. Moreover, under one of the terms, the Soviets could build additional launchers, up to a maximum of 950 launchers for 62 submarines, provided they dismantled as many as 210 of their land launchers. The United States would be permitted to substitute sea launchers for its 54 obsolete Titan missiles. Kissinger, defending these terms, argued that unless an agreement had been reached, the Soviets would have constructed more than 80 submarines with as many as 600 additional missiles. Critics argued that this overstated Soviet capabilities and that the Soviets could not have built more submarines or sea-launched missiles than the agreement permitted, so in effect there was no real arms limitation for the Soviets in the accord.
Finally, the American side gave up its option to convert the obsolete Titans into 3 new submarines, in return for a Soviet agreement to count 30 missiles on their H-class submarines that had not until then been included in their ceilings. The Soviets also agreed to dismantle some of their obsolete ICBMs at the beginning of the agreement and wait until the end before taking advantage of their option to increase their total number of launchers to the ceilings permitted. During the life of the agreement, the Soviets modernized their forces, gained a much more effective sea-launching capability, and improved the accuracy of their MIRVs, but so did the United States. By the end of the first five years, the United States would have 9,000 warheads, and the Soviets, 4,000.
Along with the SALT I accords, Nixon and Kissinger negotiated a major grain deal (with financial credits) at the summit. The secrecy surrounding the negotiations enabled grain dealers to buy large amounts of grain early in the spring from American farmers at depressed prices and then reap windfall profits from their inventories when the Soviet Union entered the grain markets late in 1972. These purchases were followed by a rise in food prices, which in turn contributed to an increase in the cost of living. In the years following, however, American farmers benefited from rising grain prices and exports.
The Moscow summit also produced a memorandum on "Basic Principles of U.S.-Soviet Relations." The two governments agreed to work for the peaceful resolution of disputes and the reduction of tensions in various areas. There is little evidence that either side paid much attention to them when formulating its approach to regional conflicts. The Soviet resupply of Egypt and Syria during the Mideast war of 1973, the American nuclear alert and resupply of Israel, and successful attempts to freeze out the Soviets from Mideast peace negotiations indicate the limited utility of détente in dealing with regional crises.
The final product of détente was the agreement to hold a conference on European security the following year at Helsinki. Two years of talks there eventually resulted in various agreements between the Warsaw Pact and NATO groupings, most of which would ratify the status quo in Europe. But it also produced the accords on human rights, which the Soviets may have intended as a sop to the West but which became a standard by which public opinion judged repressive regimes all over the world.
The Nixon statecraft had a profound effect on the American military establishment. Withdrawal from the Vietnam quagmire would provide the opportunity to modernize the forces, upgrade the caliber of the men and women serving, and reorient the military toward new missions. The administration went ahead with a new generation of strategic submarines (the Trident program) and increased funding for strategic forces by 15 percent the year after SALT I was concluded. But it also reduced the size of the armed forces from 3.5 million to 2.3 million, withdrew units from several Asian nations, cut the army from nineteen to thirteen divisions and the marines from four to three divisions, ended the draft, and reduced the number of ships in the navy and wings in the air force. The military was ordered to prepare for one major war and one minor war, rather than for two major wars and one minor war, as in the Kennedy and Johnson years.