The INF Treaty: When the Nuclear Arms Race Got a Little Less MAD

When President Ronald Reagan assumed office in 1981, the Cold War took an immediate turn for the worse. Amidst his belligerent talk towards the Soviet “Evil Empire” and the largest expansion of the US military in history, including the introduction of new nuclear missiles and bombers, many progressives at the time assumed that if anyone were actually crazy enough to push the nuclear button, it would be Reagan. But instead, in an amazing turnaround, Reagan became the President who signed the first treaty with the USSR that actually eliminated a large number of nuclear weapons from both arsenals.


The Soviet SS-20 “Saber” and the American Pershing II intermediate-range nuclear missiles, the targets of the INF treaty.

Throughout the Cold War, the nightmare scenario envisioned by the Americans and NATO was a Russian invasion of Western Europe. The Soviets had a huge numerical advantage in conventional forces, with a much larger army and tank force than NATO could ever hope to match. NATO’s announced policy, therefore, was that any conventional-force Soviet invasion would be met by the use of tactical nuclear weapons.

In 1976, the USSR began deploying a new missile to counter the NATO stockpile of intermediate-range nuclear forces. The SS-20 “Saber” was a two-stage solid-propellant rocket with a range of just over 3,000 miles, armed with three independently-targeted nuclear warheads with a yield of 150 kilotons each. Based on mobile launch vehicles, the SS-20 could be launched within minutes from virtually along the Soviet border, and could reach all of Europe.

Immediately upon taking office, the Reagan Administration began a series of new military programs to counter what it claimed were Soviet military advantages; work began on deploying the new MX “Peacekeeper” strategic missile, the B-1 nuclear bomber was put into production (and the top-secret B-2 Stealth bomber was also developed), nuclear-armed cruise missiles were introduced, a new class of “binary” chemical weapons was manufactured, the new M1 Abrams main battle tank was introduced, and work was renewed on deploying the “neutron bomb”–a small nuclear warhead that used a burst of lethal radiation to kill Soviet tank crews inside their armored vehicles. And, in what turned out to be of particular importance, the US began deploying the Pershing II intermediate-range missile–a mobile launcher which could deliver an 80-kiloton warhead to a range of just over 1,000 miles.

Reagan’s unprecedented and massive military buildup had an immediate effect in both the US and Europe. In the US, the “nuclear freeze” movement appeared, which condemned the social, political and economic impact of this new arms race, and which advocated a “freeze” on any new nuclear military systems, and negotiations to reduce the world’s nuclear arsenals. Cold War military strategy was based on the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), which held that both sides should have enough firepower to absorb an attack and still be able to destroy the other side–and by this point the US and USSR both had sufficient nuclear weapons to blow up the entire planet several times over. In Europe, the introduction of intermediate-range nuclear weapons by both sides was seen as particularly threatening, since it indicated that Europe would be the first target of any nuclear war. The “freeze” movement in Europe was even more massive and politically powerful than it was in the US.

At first, the Reagan Administration simply ignored the “freeze” movement, dismissing them as leftists and Soviet dupes. Although the White House and NATO often claimed that the new weapons systems were part of a “dual track” strategy of building new  weapons as “bargaining chips” to be used in negotiations with the Russians, there were no serious attempts towards any arms-control treaties. The US had proposed a “Zero Option” plan which would have removed both the Soviet SS-20 and American Pershing II intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe, but the proposal did not include any of the French or British nuclear capabilities in Europe. The Soviets turned down the offer and walked out of the talks. The Cold War continued to get hotter and hotter.

Then in March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev took over as the leader of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev had inherited a country that was in a shambles. The USSR was an economic mess, which was being forced to shovel spiraling amounts of money into military hardware in order to keep up with the Americans in the Cold War arms race. The economic chaos was also causing signs of increasing political instability, as the domestic dissident movement inside the Soviet Union grew ever larger and louder. Gorbachev realized that a radical change was needed.

After assuming power, Gorbachev introduced two sweeping new policies.  The first was known as “perestroika” (‘restructuring”), which introduced massive structural changes in the Soviet bureaucracy, making it more decentralized and flexible and giving more decision-making power to the lower level officials, especially in the economic sphere. The second reform was “glasnost” (“openness”) which relaxed the rigid Soviet censorship and encouraged open criticism of government inefficiency, corruption, and failures.

And, in the international sphere, Gorbachev sought to relieve the economic pressure on the Soviet Union by ending the arms race. In a breathtaking turnaround, Gorbachev not only agreed to accept Reagan’s “Zero Option” proposal for removing intermediate-range missiles from Europe, but also proposed a massive cut in strategic nuclear arsenals, up to 50 percent, to go into effect by 1991. The proposal would, effectively, end the Cold War.

The Reagan Administration was taken completely by surprise–for years the US had been accusing the USSR of being aggressive war-mongers, and now the Russians had not only accepted the American proposal for disarmament, but were offering to go far beyond anything the US was prepared to propose. The Administration became divided into two factions–the hardliners viewed Gorbachev’s apparent willingness to negotiate deep nuclear cuts as some sort of ploy and wanted to reject it, while others in the Administration thought it was a genuine opportunity to reduce or even end the Cold War and should be pursued. It fell to Reagan to make the decision.

In his speeches, Reagan had often proclaimed that his deepest wish was to eliminate nuclear weapons and end the Cold War. During his first State of the Union address, he had declared, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The only value in our two nations possessing nuclear weapons is to make sure they will never be used. But then would it not be better to do away with them entirely?” Nobody, least of all his own advisers, took him seriously–it was dismissed as political rhetoric. But when Reagan introduced the massive new missile-defense program that became known as “Star Wars”, it was not only an attempt to force the Soviets into bankruptcy in trying to keep up, but was also an apparently sincere attempt (though it proved to be technically-impossible) to make nuclear missiles ineffective. In the end, Reagan surprised everyone by agreeing to talks with Gorbachev.

To test the waters, the two focused on an Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty first. Both sides agreed to remove and destroy all their short-range missiles–not just from Europe, but globally. In all, 846 missiles were destroyed by the US and 1846 by the USSR. The treaty also contained an extensive and detailed verification protocol with intrusive inspection procedures, including random inspections and permanent stationing of observers in each side’s former missile factories. The INF Treaty was signed on December 8, 1987.

The success of the INF led to new talks towards limiting the numbers of strategic nuclear weapons, which would go on to produce the START treaty. Gorbachev achieved his goal of ending the arms race and freeing up Soviet economic resources. But his perestroika and glasnostreforms had already snowballed much further than he had intended. In 1989 and 1990, popular rebellions in Eastern Europe swept away all the Soviet satellite regimes, and by 1991, the Communist Party had lost power within the Soviet Union itself. The Cold War was over.


The three independently-targeted nuclear warheads on the Soviet SS-20


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