The SALT Treaties 1 & 2: Nuclear Non-Proliferation

Instructor: Christina Boggs

Chrissy has taught secondary English and history and writes online curriculum. She has an M.S.Ed. in Social Studies Education.

Beginning in 1945, the U.S. and the Soviet Union entered into the Cold War. This lesson discusses the SALT I and SALT II Treaties that were aimed at reducing tensions and conflict between the two countries.

The Cold War

In 1945, the world was in an interesting state. World War II had finally come to an end after six years of fighting. Countries in Europe were devastated with their cities and towns destroyed. Economies were in shambles and people were struggling to rebuild. In the aftermath of the war, two countries remained relatively undamaged: the United States and the Soviet Union.

While World War II was over, the Cold War was just beginning. The United States and the Soviet Union had an uneasy relationship during World War II. Both countries had very different political and economic ideologies, and both were intent on spreading these ideologies around the world. From 1945 to 1990, relations between the two countries were tense. These tensions were largely the result of a large-scale nuclear arms race involving both nations. The countries were prepared to completely destroy each other.

Lyndon B. Johnson and the Soviet Union

During the 1960s, the United States received intelligence that the Soviet Union had finally developed an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The ICBM was capable of reaching the United States from Russia. At the same time, the Soviet Union was also developing an anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defense system. The ABM had the potential to shoot down ICBMs that came into Russian airspace. If the Soviet Union decided to attack the U.S., the country might be capable of defending itself against any sort of U.S. counter-strike. This news was very troubling for the U.S.!

In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson decided to take action. However, instead of bolstering U.S. defenses, Johnson opened up talks with the Soviet Union. The president along with U.S. Secretary of State Robert McNamara and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin met to discuss a way to decrease tensions between the two countries. Both sides knew that banning nuclear weapons was probably never going to happen, but there were things that each country could do to improve their relationship.

On July 1, 1968, the U.S., Soviet Union, and Great Britain signed an early agreement that limited nuclear development. Each of these countries already had the technology to produce a nuclear weapon. As a part of the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, the countries agreed not to help any other country develop their own nuclear technology. The word non-proliferation means to make sure something doesn't spread. The countries feared that the spread of nuclear weapons would increase tensions around the world. Along with the U.S., Soviet Union, and Great Britain, 59 other countries also agreed to the treaty.

SALT I

In November of 1969, President Richard Nixon and Soviet Union General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev opened up the official strategic arms limitations talks (SALT). Talks lasted for over two years. During this time, the United States and the Soviet Union hammered out the first of two major agreements. On May 26, 1972, Nixon and Brezhnev signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Interim Agreement and Protocol on Limitation of Strategic Defense Weapons (SALT I). As a part of the treaties, the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to:

  • limit the number of interceptors (a type of strategic missile defense) to 200
  • limit missile defense to just two sites (to defend the capital and a single ICBM field)

SALT I acted as a preliminary agreement. However, there were still a number of issues the U.S. and Soviet Union did not agree upon!

SALT II

The U.S. and the Soviet Union entered into a second round of talks in 1972. This time, the discussion focused on multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs). MIRVs were able to carry more than one nuclear warhead at a time. Instead of releasing all warheads at once, MIRVs were able to release individual warheads at different times and direct them towards different targets. While both sides agreed to limit the number of MIRVs, they disagreed over how many warheads they were allowed to have. In 1974, at the Vladivostok Summit, the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to:

  • limit the number of strategic nuclear delivery systems both countries were allowed to have
  • limit the number of MIRVs to 1,320
  • stop building land-based ICBM launchers

Leonid Brezhnev and President Gerald Ford at the Vladivostok Summit
Leonid Brezhnev and President Gerald Ford at the Vladivostoc Summit

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