Before Trump, Russia Was an Enemy That Threatened War on U.S. Cities

Soviet Missile
Before President Trump, Russia was once an enemy that threatened nuclear war on the U.S. Reuters Pictures

Newsweek published this story under the headline of "Reckless Concessions" on August 23, 1976. In light of recent events involving President Donald Trump and Russia, Newsweek is republishing the story.

It is passing strange that President Ford, like his predecessor, is anxious to sign an election-year strategic-arms pact. Doing so will focus attention on the Nixon-Ford Administration's negotiating policy of unreciprocated concessions.

That policy bore sour fruit in 1972 when Nixon signed an agreement conceding to the Soviets a 40 percent numerical advantage in missile launchers. Where the U.S. was behind, in numbers of launchers, the agreement froze the U.S. in inferiority. Where the Soviets were behind, in clusters of warheads (multiple independently target re-entry vehicles, MIRV's), the agreement was silent, leaving the Soviets free to surpass the U.S. The next agreement may fit this pattern by severely limiting U.S. cruise missiles and insignificantly limiting Soviet Backfire bombers.

At Vladivostok in 1974 the Soviets granted, and Mr. Ford gratefully accepted, a cosmetic equality. They agreed that the next pact would limit both sides to 2,400 missiles (1,320 MIRVed) and "heavy" bombers. But Soviet missiles have much more power, measured in "throw-weight," the amount of destructive material that can be delivered. (A U.S. Minuteman III carries three MIRV's. A Soviet SS-18 can carry sixteen that size.) So the Vladivostok "equality" is a chimera. And subsequent Administration concessions have brought it to the brink of two reckless concessions."


It seem inclined to accommodate the brazen Soviet claim that Backfires are not "heavy" bombers. Until recently U.S. intelligence sources agreed that Backfires, like the less competent Soviet Bisons (which count as "heavy" bombers under Vladivostok limits. But suddenly the CIA under George Bush (former GOP chairman) has produced a report, based on partial data, that says Backfires have only about half the range previously thought. This report is politically convenient if the Administration wants to rationalize a concession.

Another concession may concern cruise missiles - pilotless, subsonic, nonballistic winged aircraft. Using them, American bombers could stand off from Soviet targets and still hit them. (The ability of B-52s to penetrate Soviet air defenses is limited and will become more so, especially if we continue to sell the Soviets sophisticated computers.)

Ballistic, not cruise, missiles were discussed at Vladivostok. But U.S. cruise missiles are superior to Soviet models. So now the Soviets insist sea-launched cruise missiles must have only a 370 mile range. That means few Soviet targets would be in range of U.S. missiles while 125 million Americans would be in range of Soviet missiles.

Worse than that Soviet impertinence was the gratuitous Administration offer to count each bomber carrying cruise missiles against the limit of 1,320 MIRV missiles. This means that unless the U.S. dismantles some of the 1,286 MIRVed missiles deployed or planned, the U.S. can have only 34 bombers carrying cruise missiles. This probably would kill the cruise-missile program.

(Feeling a twinge of dejavu? U.S. antiballistic missiles were much superior to Soviet AMB's in 1972 when Nixon agreed to a virtual ban on ABM's.)


Common sense and self-respect should have led the Administration to insist that Backfires obviously are "heavy" bombers limited by Valdivostok, and cruise missiles obviously are exempt from those limits. But the Soviet demands triggered the Administration's appeasement reflexes, and it began pondering concessions that would substantially accept the Soviet position on both cruise missiles and Backfires.

As the Soviets approach nuclear superiority, the Administration's response is to suggest that "superiority" is meaningless. The Administration is deep in dogmatic slumbers. Its dogma is "mutual assured destruction." According to that, stable deterrence exists if both sides can absorb a first strike and still have surviving strategic forces sufficient to inflict destruction the attacker would consider intolerable. The crucial variables are the potency of the attacker's first strike, and what he considers tolerable losses from retaliation.

Nixon - Ford concessions have hastened the day when Soviet leaders may conclude that their throw-weight advantage (and improving accuracy) will enable them to eliminate a large fraction of U.S. strategic forces with a first strike, while holding back sufficient forces (e.g! ballistic missiles and Backfires) to devastate U.S. cities if the U.S. launches a suicidal retaliation strike. Far from being meaningless, superiority will mean that the Soviets can confront a President with the sort of choice with which Kennedy confronted Khrushchev during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

Secretary Kissinger says nuclear war is unthinkable. The Soviets disagree. Since 1962 they have invested vast sums in civil: defense programs. They think their social infrastructure would survive a nuclear war. Much new industry is away from large cities. Factories are protected by blast shields; machinery is mounted on shock absorbers. Nebraska grain is stored underground. There are plans for evacuations, shelters and post-attack recovery. Obviously Soviet leading a nuclear war.

Most Americans, including their "leaders," cannot bring themselves to think that Soviet leaders are planning for the unthinkable. But all Americans should at least wonder: "What kind of people do they think we are?" and "Given what they think, how are they apt to behave?" Soviet leaders believe that decline, and a terminal crisis, are inevitable for the U.S. The Nixon-Ford unreciprocated concessions have reinforce Soviet preconceptions about U.S. flaccidity. Such preconceptions are a spur to the aggressiveness that has characterized Soviet behavior during detente.


The Soviet abetted Hanoi's overthrow of the Paris accords (which the Soviets signed), incited the Arab aggressors in the Yom Kippur war, organized subversion in Angola, all the while secure in their contemptuous (and correct) belief that nothing would slow the flow of U.S. concessions in arms talks.

The deterioration of the U.S. negotiation position has accelerated under Mr. Ford. Soviet intransigence has destroyed the Administration's poise. In a recent seven-month period of frantic improvising the Administration submitted five different proposals, piling concession upon concession, without receiving a serious Soviet response. The Soviets know that things come to those who wait.

If Mr. Ford now suddenly produces an election-eve arms agreement, he will be inviting public scrutiny of the pattern of concessions that produced it. Then he will need uncharacteristic ingenuity to argue persuasively that a Carter administration would do worse.