Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.


Paul Nitze and A Walk in the Woods  — A Failed Attempt at Arms Control

In 1976, the USSR deployed hundreds of intermediate-range SS-20s (pictured), which were an upgrade of the older SS-3 and SS-4  missiles. They carried nuclear warheads and, with a range of about 3400 miles, were capable of reaching almost any target in Western Europe and were thus considered a threat. Oddly enough, many arms control experts in the U.S. considered these weapons more destabilizing than the USSR’s longer-range strategic missiles which could strike the U.S, since the SS-20s only threatened European territory and thus delinked NATO from the United States, which in turn would make it difficult for Washington to reassure its allies.

The U.S. initiated a two-track response to address the SS-20 threat. Washington began developing a parallel system, extending the range of Germany’s Pershing missile, while simultaneously pushing for negotiations with the USSR over intermediate range missiles. Talks between the two countries began in November 1981, but they seemed doomed from the beginning. The USSR was set on blocking deployment of the American Pershing IIs without giving up their SS-20s; President Reagan proposed both nations go to zero.

When the U.S. deployed the Pershing II in November 1983, the Soviets walked out of the negotiations. Washington and Moscow remained at a standoff until March 1985 when talks re-started. Two years later, the United States and the Soviet Union would have a treaty banning all intermediate-range nuclear weapons, totaling 846 missiles for the US and 1846 for the USSR. Success was attributable largely to the unified stance of NATO members, Mikhail Gorbachev’s rise to power, and the realization by Moscow that it was better to eliminate an entire class of nuclear missiles rather than have to deal with the Pershing IIs.

Paul Nitze is widely viewed as one of the chief architects of Cold War defense policy. He participated in both Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I and II), and while he supported SALT I, he opposed the ratification of SALT II in 1979. Famously, in 1982, Nitze had his “walk in the woods” with the Soviet Ambassador, Yuliy Kvitinsky, during which they were able to outline possible concessions which  President Ronald Reagan and USSR leader Leonid Brezhnev could discuss later in the year.

While the walk in the woods deal was never implemented, it gave many other countries hope that there could be a thaw in the Cold War. Later, in 1986, the Reykjavik Summit would yield real progress in ending the Cold War.

Thomas Graham, who worked in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA)at this time, was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 2001. In the excerpt below, he talks about some of President Reagan’s policies, and meeting and working with Nitze during his “walk in the woods” with Kvitinsky. Peter Swiers was initially interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy in 1994. Swiers discusses the zero-option that came out of negotiations as well as Nitze’s walk in the woods.

Read Part II and Part III on the successful negotiations that ultimately led to the signing of the INF treaty. Go here for other Moments on negotiations and on the USSR/Russia.


“It was seen as an attempt to sabotage the negotiations since there was no way the Soviets would ever accept anything close to that”

Thomas Graham, ACDA, 1970-1997

GRAHAM:  NATO, as a result of the SS-20 threat, decided in December of 1979 that there would be a two-track policy:  for four years an arms control agreement would be pursued with the Soviet Union to see if this threat could be eliminated diplomatically. (At left: SS-20 and Pershing II missiles at the National Air and Space Museum)

If not, by the fall of 1983, the advanced Pershing II missile would be brought in to replace the Pershing I missiles that were in Germany. In addition, ground launch cruise missiles (GLCMs) would be deployed in four other NATO countries.

So there was kind of a deadline for arms control progress. In the fall of 1980 initial discussions took place. When President Reagan took office, his administration decided — it was already U.S. government policy obviously — that they were going to continue the negotiations. The question was in what forum.

The Secretary of State, Alexander Haig decided that Paul Nitze would be the best choice as U.S. negotiator. Meanwhile, President Reagan had made a speech at his alma mater, Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois [in 1982].

In that speech he proposed that the Soviet Union eliminate all of their 1200 SS-20s that, by this time, they had deployed, as well as their other older theater range systems. The SS-20 was a modern system and it was seen by us and by the Europeans as a war-fighting nuclear system as opposed to a defensive system. It was mobile, that is, road mobile; had three warheads which were MIRVs (multiple independent reentry vehicle); and was highly accurate.

The SS-20 contrasted with their old SS-4s and 5s, which were still there and which were fixed land-based, used liquid fuel, inaccurate and perceived unquestionably as defensive systems. Thus the SS-20 was seen as a real change and perceived as an attempt an attempt to try to dominate Western Europe.

In addition to a military issue, it became a major political issue. President Reagan’s proposal was that the Soviet Union should eliminate all these missiles that they had in the field, nearly 1200 SS-20s, several hundred 4s and 5s. In exchange for that, the U.S. would not deploy the ones it planned to deploy two years hence. So we were trading zero for whatever—1200, 1400.

That proposal, the brainchild of [Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Strategic Affairs, 1981-1987] Richard Perle and the Pentagon, was seen as impossible and ridiculous.

It was seen as an attempt to sabotage the negotiations since there were no way the Soviets would ever accept anything close to that, it was believed.

You know, you just never know what history is going to do to you because, in the end, that is exactly what happened after Gorbachev arrived although, by then, we had begun deployment. But we ended up with zero. That is the INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] treaty.

Also, if I recall correctly, President Reagan said in a speech —and certainly it was the U.S. position later — that there had to be onsite inspection. The U.S. had never asked for that before in strategic negotiations with the Soviets. That also was thought at the time to be unattainable.

“Paul Nitze was the archetypical figure of the Cold War and one of America’s greatest men of the era”

Secretary Haig decided that he would like to try to recruit Paul Nitze (pictured), who had been out of government since 1974 when he resigned from the U.S. SALT II delegation. This was seven years later [1981]. He had been a very strong critic of SALT II as a member of the Committee for the Present Danger, as had been Gene Rostow [then the Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, ACDA].

The thing about men like Paul Nitze and Gene Rostow — they might take strong conservative positions on certain issues that some supporters like myself have thought were in error and not the right course to pursue with regards to arms control, but they also were both brilliant, highly principled, practical men who, when given a problem to solve, tried to solve it. They were not ideologues; they were great American figures.

Paul Nitze was the archetypical figure of the Cold War and one of America’s greatest men of the era. He was a member of SALT I delegation and, for a while, the SALT II delegation, but stayed the entire course on the SALT I delegation with one of the most distinguished negotiating delegations the U.S. has ever fielded.

In any case, recruiting Nitze was Secretary Haig’s decision, which he communicated to Gene Rostow. Gene said to me, “You know Paul Nitze. Why don’t you go visit him” — this was summer time — “Why don’t you go visit him at his summer place in Maine and see if you can recruit him for this job?”

I said, “All right.” Maine’s a nice place in the summer. I went to Maine to visit Paul and his family. Although I sort of invited myself, Paul, as always, was gracious. I was there for two or three days — most of the time swimming in the ocean or playing tennis with his family—but we did put aside an hour here and there to talk about the negotiations.

At the end of our discussions he agreed that he would come to Washington and accept the offer and take the job. So he came to Washington in September, did some consultations and, in late September, began forming his delegation.

He asked six or eight senior figures from the various agencies to be the nucleus of these negotiations: General Bill Burns, who later became ACDA [Arms Control and Disarmament Agency] Director and who is the father of the [future] Deputy Secretary of State [Bill Burns]; along with senior figures from the National Security Council, Office of the Secretary of Defense, State Department, and me, representing ACDA.

He selected Colonel Norman Clyne as his Executive Secretary and Chief of Staff. Norm Clyne had held that same job for the three ACDA directors during the Carter administration and before that had been Executive Secretary for Alex Johnson, Chairman of the SALT II delegation under Nixon and Ford. Paul Nitze asked him to be his chief of staff.

“’Nitze does not want to be surrounded by yes men’”

We held our first meetings in October. The first debate was: “What should we call these negotiations?” Somebody said, “Well, the Soviets call it the medium-range missile negotiations.”

We proposed and insisted on “the Intermediate Nuclear Force Negotiations“(INF) — different words in English, the same words in Russian. Eventually the Russians accepted. We had that initial debate and then we started talking substance.

All of us were in awe of the great man, Paul Nitze and at our first two meetings whenever he posited —”What about the British and French? We can’t count the British and French systems,” [he heard] “Yes, Paul.” “You are absolutely right, Paul.” “Great idea, Paul.” “Brilliant thought, Paul.”

After two meetings like that, Paul asked Colonel Norm Clyne to call each one of us with the message, “Ambassador Nitze wants me to tell you that if you are going to continue to just simply agree with everything he says, he wants you to get off the delegation. If you are not prepared to challenge his views, you are of no value to him. He does not want to be surrounded by yes men.”

Each one of us was told that and that, in my view, is real leadership. It was just wonderful. That galvanized all of us and to me that was the essence of leadership. You want to be surrounded by people who will intelligently and constructively challenge your views.

But having said that, you didn’t take on Paul Nitze lightly. You had better know what you were talking about or he would cut you to pieces in front of everybody else. One always took on Paul carefully with plenty of preparation but we did take him on. We had quite lively and useful debates. I loved working for Paul Nitze and with Paul Nitze….

“If you didn’t like somebody during the Cold War, you just called him a Communist and left it at that”

So I began preparing for the INF negotiations. They were scheduled to begin on November 30, 1981. The Soviet negotiator was a man named Yuliy Kvitinsky, a young man in his mid-40s but an experienced NATO policy Soviet diplomat.

We went to Geneva. I was in my office the day before the negotiations were to open on November 30 and two interesting things happened that day.

First, I learned that large posters had been placed all over Geneva which said in French that important negotiations are going to open in Geneva tomorrow and please elect your council of state that’s running for election today, or something like that.

In all the years that we had been in negotiations in Switzerland — Geneva — we never attracted any local attention, ever — SALT I, SALT II, and so on….

Then the second thing happened. A couple of hours later another one of our delegation officers came running into the office. He said, “Tom, the principal newspaper in Geneva today says that the INF negotiations are to open tomorrow and the American delegation is led by Communists. You are named as one of the Communists.”

I asked, “Who are the others?” He said, “Paul Nitze, Norman Clyne and Jack McNeill.” I said, “I am happy to be whatever it is that Paul Nitze is.” Those kinds of things happened so often. If you didn’t like somebody during the Cold War — for whatever reason — or disagreed with him, you just called him a Communist and left it at that.

And so the negotiations opened in the fall of 1981 and immediately went nowhere. We had this “zero option” that I described earlier, which the Soviets rejected out of hand. Their proposal was, “Let’s have an equal number” but they counted in that number the British and French systems — a complete no-no for the U.S. “No, we will never count the British and French system, even though they had nuclear weapons targeted on Russia. No, that could never happen.”

A Walk in the Woods — “It would have settled the whole thing right then on very favorable terms to us”

So those negotiations continued on into the next year, 1982. In the summer of 1982, about eight months into the negotiations Nitze took a walk in the woods above Geneva with the Soviet Ambassador, Yuliy Kvitinsky, who was a NATO specialist for the Soviet Union and much younger than Paul.

They took a walk in the woods. They sketched out a solution. They sat down on a log, just the two of them, in the forest above Geneva and sketched out a solution. It was really, for the time, quite brilliant.

Let me back up and describe the two types of intermediate- range missiles that the U.S. was going to deploy. The new ones in Europe were to be, on one hand, a Pershing II missile to replace the existing single-warhead Pershings that were in Germany and had been there for a long time. There were going to be 108 Pershing IIs. Pershing II, if I remember correctly, had three warheads.

In any case, it was highly accurate, extremely accurate. It could put a warhead into the common area of the Pentagon from great distances, very accurately. The Soviets saw it as a decapitation weapon so they were very concerned about it being deployed.

In terms of the cruise missiles, we were going to deploy 464 cruise missiles in five different NATO countries. Those U.S. cruise missiles were called ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs) and their official designation was BGM-109G. They flew very low under the radar and were very accurate but took much longer to arrive. The Soviets were less threatened by them.

The preliminary agreement that Paul and Ambassador Kvitinsky worked out was that the U.S. would not deploy the Pershing II, but would have a certain number of GLCMs. Maybe it was the full 464, maybe it was more, I don’t remember. We would have a certain number of those. The Soviets would have SS-20s in equal numbers to those cruise missiles and British and French systems would not count. That was the deal.

The only people that knew about it were Bill Burns, representative for the Joint Chiefs, and Gene Rostow in Washington. Then, the session of negotiations ended. Kvitinsky went back to Moscow and Nitze came to Washington and sought approval of what they had done.

Of course, no American ambassador in an arms control negotiation had ever gone off on his own like that — never before and never since. It was a brilliant move. It would have settled the whole thing right then on very favorable terms to us.

There was a brief interagency discussion of it and then it went directly to a National Security Council meeting. The Chiefs who had been on board all along initially favored it and President Reagan, when he heard it for the first time, favored it as well. I won’t say, “favored” but was positively inclined toward it. Secretary of Defense [Caspar] Weinberger said little except to note that the Chiefs were for it.

It just happened that Richard Perle had been out of town and unaware of what was going on. When he found out, he called Weinberger and said, “Ask for another meeting.” So another meeting was held at which Weinberger was primed to trash the proposal.

Reagan said, “Well, okay. I won’t support it and you, Paul, tell the Soviets that I am one tough son of a bitch and I’m not going along with this.” In between the NSC meetings there was a large interagency meeting. Nitze was there, I was there, Richard Perle was there and some 25 or 30 people in a State Department meeting room.

At that meeting Richard Perle (pictured) levied his supreme insult against Paul Nitze. He said, “Paul, the trouble with you is you are just an inveterate problem solver.” I mean, what could be worse than that?

When Paul went back to Geneva, he didn’t bring up the walk in the woods deal. Neither did Kvitinsky and it just went away. In any case, the walk in the woods went away except it became a play on Broadway, a very successful play.

Also in early 1982 the SALT negotiations began again, except now they were called the START [Strategic Arms Reduction Talks] negotiations. The Reagan administration made much of the fact that these weak-kneed Carterites and Ford followers wanted to limit missile launchers because that’s what you could see by satellite.

They — these red-blooded Reaganites — were going to limit warheads because that’s what killed you. Of course, the way warheads are counted is to attribute a certain number to each missile and attribute a certain missile to each launcher so it amounted to exactly the same thing but much was made of that difference. The negotiations began but, of course, promptly went nowhere.

Then, the U.S. missiles began to be deployed in 1983. The first cruise missiles came to Greenham Common in Britain in September 1983, but more importantly the Pershing IIs began to be deployed in Germany in November of 1983.

As soon as the first Perishing IIs were deployed, as soon as the announcement was made, the very next day the Soviets walked out of the INF negotiations and brought them to an end and the day after that they did the same thing with respect to the START negotiations. That was the end of that phase of arms control negotiations.

Paul Nitze — in addition to being very interested in the negotiations — was very worried about the political reaction in Western Europe because the U.S. deployment of missiles was used by the left-wing opposition in many countries to stir up huge anti-American rallies with much chanting of the phrase “better Red than dead.”

I remember Paul Nitze commenting on that. He said, “That is the central purpose of American policy. The whole purpose of these negotiations is preventing that choice — either Red or dead — from ever having to be made.” I have always remembered that.

“A number of them were trying to close that Pandora’s Box, but didn’t know how to go about it”

Peter Swiers, State Department, Political/Military Affairs, 1981-1983

SWIERS: Our role was we had the lead in the Department to develop the U.S. negotiating position for these reductions — the zero-option was the one that came out. I believe that all the controversy was a tribute to Secretary Haig and to [Richard R.] Burt because the final U.S. position was at variance with the original instructions.

They were drafted with a major input by Richard Perle of the Defense Department. I don’t believe Richard Perle was truly convinced of the value of arms control for United States national security. He had no faith in this and he would have rather seen a modernization and increase in weapons if necessary.

The original instruction to our delegation, which was to be led by Paul Nitze and Gene Rostow (pictured), who was the director of the Arms Control Agency, was that we would simply make this proposal to the Soviets and if the Soviets turned it down we’d say, “Thank you,” go home, and starting putting in the weapons in Europe without any further discussion.

There was a little additional phrase that was put in the instructions that said, “You will also listen to what the Soviets have to say,” or something to that effect to keep the negotiating process going, which turned out to be very, very important.

There were a lot of people, the so-called neo-conservatives who came into the government with Reagan; many had been Democrats or leaned more to the Democratic side, but they turned against the Democrats on two counts. The first was their total lack of confidence in Carter. They thought that some people in the Carter administration were favoring the Arabs over the Israelis. Furthermore, they felt that the United States was not taking strong enough positions on arms control issues during the Carter administration.

This was false, in my view. I know General [George] Seignious personally; he was the director of the Arms Control Agency and there was no way he would have accepted the position if he felt that our positions were weak; after all, he was a Republican.

I think a number of the new Reagan team realized that they had opened a Pandora’s Box by employing people who were totally opposed to arms control and who wished to pursue a line vis-à-vis the Soviet Union that might actually lead to conflict.

I always felt that a number of them were trying to close that Pandora’s Box, but didn’t know how to go about it although they succeeded in the final analysis….

“I have to say that I shared the opinion that Paul’s proposal was deficient”

When Paul Nitze came back from his walk in the woods, there was a debate over whether we would go to support his suggestion or not…. Hal [Helmut Sonnenfeldt] sent me to the meeting to tell Paul that the Department of State would not support the “walk in the woods” proposal; we had decided to continue with the zero-option.

The “walk in the woods” proposal was a sincere effort by Paul to find some compromise, but it had still major verification problems because the missiles would be too hard to verify. Where were they, were they still being produced, were they being hidden? The only real measure you had was to go to a zero-option and thus if you saw one of them at some point you knew that they were violating the agreement.

We had reached that rather unfortunate stage of sophistication. It was the same, actually, if you want to look at it from the Soviet side, for our GLCMs [ground-launched cruise missiles] which we could conceal. Pershing IIs would be a little harder to conceal.

I remember Paul took it quite calmly. I think he probably realized the proposal would be turned down….

I have to say that I shared the opinion that Paul’s proposal was deficient. I shared it both for verification reasons but also for political reasons. In the Carter administration, there was thought being given to deploying a neutron bomb. This was a new type of atomic weapon which would kill human beings but not destroy infrastructure. We had reached that level of sophistication.

The reason it was neutron was because the radiation would be neutrons rather than explosives. [Chancellor of West Germany from 1974-1982] Helmut Schmidt had gone out on a limb very reluctantly to back this. He was literally on a limb and Carter suddenly reversed the decision, leaving Schmidt, the most loyal of allies supporting the thing, completely by himself.

That really was not only the beginning of the end of Schmidt in Germany; it was also the beginning of the end of total allied confidence in the wisdom of American decisions. Our credibility had been hurt by our withdrawal from Vietnam, but our reversal on the neutron bomb finally that cemented our perceived unreliability.

I said, “We cannot do this again.” The allies including the Germans, and Schmidt was still in office at the time, had totally committed themselves to the zero-option at our insistence. We had rejected “walk in the woods,” we had rejected the German’s “zero plus one hundred” option; we continued to pursue the zero-option. The Soviets helped us.

This one occurred on my watch when the Soviets attempted to mix themselves into the German elections in ’82. They threatened the Germans if INF deployment were carried forward; it actually hurt Schmidt. I left the office in December of ’82; by then we had decided to deploy because the Soviets had walked out of the talks and then they promptly came in with a rather remarkable agreement.