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Understanding the Washington Summit

What you need to know about the Reagan-Gorbachev proposal

Ronald Reagan, Mikhail Gorbachev

President Ronald Reagan talkng to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in November of 1985.

AFP/Getty Images

By itself the new arms-control treaty signed at the Washington summit does nothing more than make a small nick in the nuclear-arms race. All of the intractable forces that drive the cold war remain to be conquered.

The historic accomplishment was not the treaty but what Ronald Reagan said. After forty years of bellicose anti-Soviet rhetoric, the Gipper sounded like a dewyeyed peacenik. The “evil empire” label is now inoperative, he told reporters. “In the past,” Reagan explained, “Soviet leaders have openly expressed their acceptance of the Marxian theory of the one-world Communist state, that their obligation was to expand in the whole world. They no longer feel that way.”

Thus, with a few words, one of the staunchest anti-Communists of American politics abruptly downsized the “global menace” that has driven American foreign policy and military mobilization for more than a generation. Words are cheap, of course, but Ronald Reagn’s words at the summit could open a new, commonsense era for the world. As regular readers well know, I have been severely critical of the Reagan presidency, convinced that it has been reactionary and destructive on many fronts. This time, however, I am applauding with the multitudes. Ronald Reagan has truly moved history in a forward direction.

The politics of arms control is utterly altered by Reagan’s conversion. Gorbachev, he asserts, is “looking for a situation of competing but living peacefully together in the world.” That, of course, is what the so-called doves have been saying about the Soviets for many years. Reagan has painted his old right-wing allies into a political corner. They gnash their teeth and accuse their former champion of apostasy. Ronald Reagan “soft” on Communism? A “useful idiot,” as one right-winger put it, for the Soviets? The right depreciates its own standing with such ludicrous claims.

Gorbachev understands a basic paradox of American politics–nothing advances the cause of peace more in the United States than an advocate who is himself a zealous anti-Communist. Richard Nixon recognized China after a generation of denouncing the Red Chinese. Ronald Reagan has recognized the value of mature relations with the Soviets after attacking every previous president who tried the same thing. There is no point dwelling on the political hypocrisy of this–so long as it leads to real accomplishments.

Reagan’s final year has become a rare opportunity for another breakthrough. At the very least, it can create forward motion that will carry over into the next presidency. In these circumstances the Soviet leader is shrewdly pushing to achieve as much as he can while Reagan is still minding the store. With evident sincerity, both sides are aiming for a broad agreement that would have been unthinkable a few years back, under the “old” Reagan–a treaty that reduces the strategic nuclear warheads in both arsenals by 50 percent. This is a much tougher problem to solve than the more limited intermediate-missile treaty, and they probably won’t get it done in time. But if they do succeed, a Reagan treaty would win Senate ratification easily, even with the opposition of hard-core right-wing Republicans.

If Reagan’s negotiators fall short, the effort should at least create a political framework that the next president can exploit. If there is a Democrat in the White House in 1989 trying to accomplish genuine arms reductions, he will be able to deflect rightwing attacks by pointing out that he is merely pursuing the Gipper’s plan–keeping alive the Reagan legacy of peace through strength. The right wing won’t buy that, of course, but maybe the general public will.


Having congratulated the president for what he has achieved, let us put aside the euphoria and concentrate on the hard realities. The arms race has been under way for 40 years, and despite the recent positive events, its basic momentum is still strong.

During the last three decades the politics of negotiating arms-control treaties with the Soviets has always contained a dangerous deception–an illusion of progress that concealed the trade-offs. To win support for arms control, to appease the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon and the defense industry and their congressional supporters, every president has been compelled to promise the development of new weaponry in exchange for the limitations imposed by the treaties. This bargaining is done in private, and no one ever acknowledges the existence of the deals.

The long and twisted saga of arms control has always been a story of two steps forward and one step back (or sometimes two steps back). John F. Kennedy accomplished an important break-through in 1963 with the nuclear-test-ban treaty. The military and the defense industry went along cheerfully after insisting that the treaty prohibit only atmospheric explosions–not underground testing. They have been happily setting off nukes in Nevada ever since.

In 1972, Richard Nixon won a historic firebreak with the first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I). But Nixon’s negotiators, led by Henry Kissinger, paid a dreadful price for that victory, agreeing to let the Pentagon go forward with the technology of multiple-warhead missiles. Instead of one or two nukes, the new intercontinental ballistic missiles could each be armed with as many as 12 bombs, each with its own target.

Once the United States began multiplying its warheads, the Soviets did the same. That single trade-off has propelled the proliferation of nuclear armaments ever since.

Finally, when Jimmy Carter attempted to win political approval for SALT II in 1979, he made a trade-off, too. Carter negotiated ceilings on different kinds of weapons, but to get the hawks on board, he agreed to build the mobile MX missile–a monster with ten war-heads that was supposed to replace the Minuteman III, with only three. Two steps forward, one step back.

Taken together, these compromises explain why the arms race has powered forward over the last three decades–despite the occasional arms-control treaties and sometimes because of them.

The terrible momentum is visible in these figures: in 1970, when Nixon was negotiating SALT I, the United States had about 4,900 strategic warheads deployed and ready to launch at the Soviet Union. By the time Jimmy Carter was signing SALT II, the total American arsenal approached 11,000 strategic warheads. When Ronald Reagan signed his treaty with the Soviets last month, the United States had about 13,000 warheads in place.

The Soviet Union has about the same number now. Up to the early Seventies the Soviets lagged far behind, but now they have caught up. If nothing changes, if no new agreements are signed, each side will add several thousand more warheads–just by following through on the weapons systems that are already approved and under construction.

This is madness, of course, and it appears that American and Soviet leaders have at last recognized what common citizens understood a long time ago–that the destructive duplication of 12,000 or 13,000 nukes makes things more dangerous, not more secure. Still, it takes hard politics to get from madness to common sense; bargaining and trading must take place not just between the Soviet Union and the United States but also within the power structure of each government. A president who wants arms control has to buy off the Joint Chiefs. Gorbachev presumably has to make similar deals with the generals inside the Kremlin.

Even Reagan’s recently signed treaty, though modest in scope, required this same sort of deal. To head off opposition by the generals of NATO, the Reagan administration granted a ridiculous concession. The implicit swap, never acknowledged as such, authorized “modernization” of the thousands of tactical nuclear weapons still stationed in Europe. Any sensible statesman would wish to abolish tactical nuclear weapons entirely: they are dangerous and unusable. Instead, we have promised to upgrade them.

The new treaty eliminates a total of 2,600 medium-and short-range warheads from both sides. But the United States alone has about 4,000 tactical nukes on the ground in Europe, unaffected by the new treaty, ready to detonate should the Russians ever invade. These tactical weapons include nuclear artillery shells, nuclear land mines, nuclear ground-to-ground missiles and fighter aircraft carrying nuclear bombs. The Soviets, of course, have their own supply.

Many Europeans, especially the Germans, recognize that the deployment of tactical nukes in their territory represents an invitation to self-immolation. If Soviet tanks ever do rumble across Central Europe, Germany would presumably be reduced to radioactive rubble. In other words, despite the Gipper’s progress, the world is still a long way short of real sanity.


The crucial question is this: what sort of political trade-offs will be required to appease the military-industrial complex and achieve genuine arms reductions? In theory, the Reagan-Gorbachev proposal to cut the number of strategic warheads by 50 percent ought to put a serious dent in the defense budget and frustrate the defense contractors. But the arms industry has an impressive history of surviving the threat of peace.

Gordon Adams, director of the Defense Budget Project at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, has been studying the prospects and is not optimistic. Adams, one of Washington’s most sophisticated critics of defense spending, has plotted out the alternative routes by which the government could reduce an arsenal of 12,000 or so nukes to about 6,000. It is not as hard to do as it might seem, he says, nor would it necessarily disrupt the profits of defense manufacturers.

“It depends entirely on how you decide to achieve the fifty-percent reduction,” Adams says. “You can get to a level of 6,000 warheads just by retaining old stuff and not building the new systems. I call this the ‘old wine’ approach. You retain the current weapons systems and decide not to build the new ones already planned. Then you could gradually retire some of the older weapons as they come up for replacement–B-52 bombers, Minuteman missiles and Poseidon submarines. That would mean not building the Stealth bomber, not building the advanced cruise missiles, the 500 Midgetman missiles, the mobile MX or the 7 new Trident submarines already scheduled. From a budget perspective, this approach offers enormous savings–about $150 billion in reduced acquisition costs over the next five or ten years.”

Arms control, in other words, could make a dramatic impact on America’s economic problems, specifically the huge federal budget deficits. This was the logic of the freeze proposal a few years ago–halting the proliferation of new weapons systems.

Unfortunately, Adams doesn’t expect the defense lobby to let the president, Congress or the Pentagon settle for “old wine.” He suspects they will insist on buying “new wine,” spending another $150 billion on new nuclear weapons, even while reducing the arsenal by 50 percent.

“There’s a good chance that an agreement could prove to be very expensive for us,” Adams says. “I’m worried that the people who want arms control are…so excited by the possibilities of large reductions that they aren’t looking at the implications.” The “new wine” approach would scrap existing systems–a costly process in itself–and replace them with modernized weaponry.

The Midgetman, for instance, has only one warhead and would replace Minuteman missiles, with three warheads. The arsenal shrinks–and still provides rich new contracts for the defense industry. While no one in official circles has publicly acknowledged this approach, Adams thinks it explains why the military-industrial complex has not screamed its opposition to the idea of deep cuts in the nuclear arsenal.

With “new wine,” they will still be drinking lustily at the public trough. “I think the negotiators are structuring an agreement that doesn’t allow us to save much money,” Adams warns. “You have to get the Joint Chiefs on board to win Senate ratification, and the chiefs want the new weapons, so they’ll insist on ‘new wine.’ I don’t see any big crunch for any defense contractors.”

What Adams is describing is the real trench warfare of arms control–the struggle that ought to be fought. If the arms race is to be slowed, the national addiction to the manufacture of arms has to be broken. As with any other drug, the addicts don’t want to give it up. Cold turkey can be very painful.

Defense manufacturers are now getting hooked on a new drug called Star Wars.

Ironically, Gorbachev is in a better position to gain economic benefits from arms reduction than we are. The structure of the Soviet nuclear force makes it easier for him to save money as he reduces warheads. The Soviet military-industrial complex isn’t as obsessed with expensive high-tech weapons as ours is.

Furthermore, reforming the Soviet economy is a major Gorbachev goal in pushing arms reductions. The Soviet planners understand the potential benefits–the chance to redirect scarce capital away from arms and to economic development. The choice is not so obvious to most American political leaders.

The cold warriors who insist on building every new weapon devised by corporate engineers may be handing the reds the most important victory of all–the economic advantages of peace.

In the coming years the United States is headed toward a collision with Reagan’s bloated defense commitments. The next president is going to be confronted with the bill–billions of dollars in weapons that the Pentagon has already agreed to buy. If the next president lacks the courage, if he decides to keep the defense lobby well fed, them perhaps history will some day conclude that in an ironic sense, the Soviet Union did win the arms race after all.


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