July 29, 2016

1968. The U.S. and Russia Sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

Moscow Sees Nuclear Parity
A naval rocket on display in the Red Square during Moscow's May Day parade, May 1, 1963 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

July 1, 1968

President Johnson's announcement today that the United States and Moscow will soon start talking about nuclear arms reduction has made the world a little less nervous . . . but not less dangerous.

One of the unspoken factors inherent in the Russian agreement to sign the international treaty outlawing the proliferation of nuclear weapons is a fact of military logistics possessed by the Kremlin.

If history is any guide, the Soviet general staff would never have acceded to such a pact—nor approved the impending U.S.-Russian negotiations concerning anti-ballistic missile systems and nuclear arms reduction—if the Kremlin leaders were not sure of one thing: that the Soviet Union now feels it is in a position of such assured power that she can deal from a position of strength with the United States. In other words, the Communist leaders in Moscow now judge that they have nuclear parity with America.

Bolstering the assessment is the final military posture report by outgoing Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. Submitted to the Congress last February, that report revealed that last year the Russians had more than doubled their land-based intercontinental missiles to more than seven hundred . . . not including a growing number of smaller, intermediate range nuclear rockets aboard submarines and ships.

Thus the unofficial estimates here in Washington conclude that, during the last ten months of accelerated Soviet missile production, the Russians have equaled, if not surpassed in numbers, the 1,000 plus ICBMs in the land-based United States arsenal. However, they have not yet approached the almost seven hundred Polaris and Poseidon missiles which arm the American nuclear submarine fleet.

A few years ago, any report that the Russians might have "caught up" or "pulled even" with U.S. nuclear weaponry would have had dramatic and chaotic military and political repercussions. The repercussions may still come.

But in the doomsday mathematics of nuclear warfare, mere numbers of supersonic weapons or megatonnage of a warhead or bomb have long ceased to have any meaning. The fact of life and death in this nuclear age is that, for the past decade, the United States and Russia have been locked in a nuclear stalemate, and nuclear warfare has been prevented by the certain knowledge of both of these superpowers that an attack by one would mean automatic national suicide.

Perhaps of equal significance is Russia's sudden agreement to discuss the limitation of nuclear weapons, including the controversial anti-ballistic missile systems. Credit for this diplomatic breakthrough in nuclear arms policy certainly must go to former Secretary McNamara. Last September McNamara addressed a meeting of United Press International editors in San Francisco, where he protested against the "mad momentum" of a nuclear arms race with the Soviets and proposed that the two governments sit down and discuss ways and means nuclear arms control and limitation.

The new nuclear agreements with the Russians do not mean that the US will suddenly cancel the so-called $5 billion "thin-line" anti-missile system designed for defense against Red China. And the Russians have no intention of tearing down their own uncompleted ABM system.

But today's diplomatic ceremonies at the Kremlin and the White House were an act of sanity in an unstable world, and in a sense they were a tribute to the vision of Robert McNamara.