Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT)

Gautam Krishnamurthi
March 14, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015


Fig. 1: Atlas ICBM - The First US Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union led to the significant buildup of nuclear weapons, specifically intercontinental ballistic missiles (Fig. 1) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Both sides built up these weapons in an arms race in order to deter the other side from using them for fear of larger retaliation. By the 1967, around the time of the talks, the number of missiles held by the US was 1,054 ICBMs and 656 SBMs.

By the late 1960s, the Soviet Union began to increase their stockpiles of nuclear weapons in order to match the number held by the United States. In January 1967, President Lyndon Johnson announced that the Soviet Union had placed an anti-ballistic missile defense system (ABMs) around Moscow that would prevent the US from attacking the Soviet capital. This led to the beginning of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), in which limiting the strategic arms of both sides would allow for stable US-Soviet relations.

This paper will explore both of the Limitation Talks, SALT I and SALT II, as well as the talks that followed.


The SALT I talks began on November 17th, 1969 in Helsinki, Finland and lasted until May 1972. [1] The US delegation was headed by Gerard Smith. The treaty that was formed halted the number of strategic ballistic missile launchers for both sides, saying "the aggregate number of fixed, land-based ICBM launchers and SLBM launchers will be limited; starting construction of additional fixed, land-based ICBM launchers is prohibited" [2], as well as froze the number of ballistic missiles allowed. There was a provision that allowed for the increase in SBMs as long as the same number of ICBMs were dismantled. [1] The text from the treaty included "deployment of additional SLBM launchers above a specified number for each Party requires an offsetting reduction of ICBM launchers of older types or SLBM launchers on older ballistic missile submarines." [2]

The main agreement in SALT I was over the number of ABMs allowed by each side. [1] Both sides were only allowed two missile defense sites, one for the capital and one for a missile launch site. The ABM Treaty states: "Permitted ABM deployments will be limited to two widely separated deployment areas in each country - one for defense of the national capital, and the other for the defense of ICBMs." [3] President Richard Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev signed both the ABM Treaty and SALT I on May 26, 1972. [2,3] SALT I is considered to be the pinnacle of Detente, the Nixon-Kissinger strategy of deterrence.


Fig. 2: Signing of SALT II by President Jimmy Carter and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

SALT II were talks between the US and USSR to slow the manufacture of nuclear weapons by both sides. [4] These talks lasted from 1972 to 1979. These talks were a continuation of the first set of talks between the two sides. SALT II included a limit on strategic nuclear delivery vehicles (ICBMs, SBMs) to 2,250 and a 1,320 Multiple Independently Targeted Re-Entry Vehicles limit for both sides. [4] SALT II was signed by Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev on June 18th, 1979 (Fig. 2).

However, when the treaty was put before congress later that year, both Republicans and Democrats felt that the USSR was becoming increasingly interventionist and that the verification policy in the treaty was unclear. On Christmas Day 1979, the USSR invaded Afghanistan. As a result, the treaty was never ratified by the US Senate. [1] President Ronald Reagan, the next president, agreed to follow SALT II till its expiration, but then moved to further arms reduction through the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). [1]

© Gautam Krishnamurthi. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. L. Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan, 2nd ed. (Brookings Institution, 1994).

[2] "Interim Agreement between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on Certain Measures with Respect to the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms," in United States Treaties and Other International Obligations, 23 UST 3462 T.I.A.S. 7504 and Department of State Bulletin 26, 920 (1972).

[3] "Treaty between the United States of America and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems," in United States Treaties and Other International Obligations, 23 UST 3435, T.I.A.S 7503 and Department of State Bulletin 67, 918 (1972).

[4] S. Talbott, Endgame: The Inside Story of Salt II (Harper Collins, 1979)