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At the Negotiating Table for SALT

U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War were marked by increasing tension. Emerging from WWII as the two strongest countries, competition between the two states was inevitable. This competition ranged from the space race, the ability to exert ideological influence on other nations, and perhaps most deadly of all, the arms race.

Richard Nixon meets Leonid Brezhnev June 19, 1973 during the Soviet Leader's visit to the U.S. (2011) Robert L. Knudsen |
Richard Nixon meets Leonid Brezhnev June 19, 1973 during the Soviet Leader's visit to the U.S. (2011) Robert L. Knudsen |

People all over the world feared the repercussions that could ensue from this cold war turning “hot” with the deployment of nuclear weapons with unprecedented lethal capabilities.

However, a point must come when enough is enough.

On May 26, 1972, Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev and U.S. President Richard Nixon signed the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) agreement. The agreement capped the maximum number of anti-ballistic missile sites each country could possess at two. Furthermore, the agreements also established that the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles was to be frozen at current levels, and further construction of these missiles was prohibited. These treaties were the most far-reaching agreed upon attempts to control nuclear weapon production during the Cold War.

Brezhnev and U.S. President Jimmy Carter signed a second round of agreements, SALT II, on June 17, 1979. The treaty attempted to address issues left unresolved by the first set of negotiations. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, however, the treaty was never ratified, therefore never going into effect.

Ambassador David J. Fischer was involved in the first round of SALT talks from the summer of 1969 to May 1972 while working at the State Department. Prior to these talks, Fischer served in Frankfurt, Germany as a Consular Officer from 1961 to 1963 and in Warsaw, Poland as a Rotational Officer from 1964 to 1968. Later in his career, he served as the Ambassador to the Seychelles from 1982 to 1985. In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, Fischer describes what he experienced at the SALT negotiating table and an unexpected turn that produced disastrous effects for the Nixon administration.

Fischer’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy and Robert S. Pastorino on March 6, 1998.

Read Fischer’s full oral history HERE.

Read about Fischer’s wild adventures in the Seychelles HERE.

Read about Fischer’s encounters with a Nepali ambassador HERE.

Drafted by Sophie May

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“There were nights when I had nightmares of what might happen in time of conflict with the Soviets.”

Starting Strong:
Q: When you started this what was your feeling and what was the feeling of the team? Was it one of optimism, what was the general thrust?

FISCHER: I think there was an enormous amount of professional dedication. This is probably the first job I had in the Foreign Service where I really believed that what I was doing was important. Whether you’re a Political Officer in Warsaw, these are all kind of peripheral jobs. But here you were really engaged in something that absolutely drove to the heart of national security, and our ability to survive the cold war. I had a more than passing understanding of nuclear weapons, and there were nights when I had nightmares of what might happen in time of conflict with the Soviets. I don’t think that anybody, with the exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis, thought that we would likely go to war, but I was involved in issues such as targeting. I had access to the targeting lists. I had a much better appreciation I suppose than ninety-nine percent of people in the Foreign Service what the consequences would be if diplomacy ever failed. So I think we all entered this with a sense of optimism and hope that we would achieve an agreement.

“There was a strong feeling that the Soviets saw nuclear weapons as a way to win a war.”

Learning Process—The World’s at Stake:
Q: Had there been any signs as you were doing this from the Soviet Union. Did it look like they had interest in this too?

FISCHER: Oh, yes. I think all of us went into that first negotiation with a sense that an agreement was possible. What became clear very early on in the SALT talks, I would say for the first year and a half, that it was less a negotiation than an education process for the Soviets. When the talks began we didn’t know whether the Russians understood, much less accepted, our doctrine of mutual deterrence. There was a strong feeling that the Soviets saw nuclear weapons as a way to win a war. For our part we were afraid the Russians really sought a strategic superiority over the U.S. So the first 12 or 18 months were important ones in getting the Russians to understand our doctrine. In the end both sides came to understand that a nuclear war was unwinnable, that nuclear weapons made no sense in terms of war-fighting capability.

“They (SALT I) introduced an element of predictability into the U.S.-USSR relationship.”

Differing Opinions:
Q: Let’s talk about during these talks, were there in 1969 and 1972, a fairly long time, were there stages of agreement, steps which led inexorably to an agreement?

FISCHER: … It was very clear that one of the major issues in this was whether or not the Joint Chiefs of Staff were prepared to put limits on the development, research, testing and development of weapons which they wanted. It was an enormously difficult process. I think as far as the Russians were concerned, the Russians saw those negotiations as far more political than technical. That’s to say their primary motive in the SALT talks was to gain political parity with the United States; to be seen as an equal. We approached it, the United States, as a very technical negotiation. …[omitted material] Ultimately it was Kissinger and Dobrynin who made the breakthrough that resulted in an agreement in 1972.

Q: While you were looking at the American delegation, did you see a split hawks and doves, military officers who were opposed to the idea of negotiating limits with the Soviet Union?

FISCHER: The real split in the delegation was between the State Department, CIA and the Arms Control Agency on one side, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, their representative was a General Graham Allison and Paul Nitre who was ostensibly representing the Secretary of Defense. That made negotiations enormously difficult because Kissinger could not afford to negotiate anything that would in any way jeopardize possible JCS approval and ratification of the agreement. In retrospect, many of us on the arms control side were somewhat naïve as to what could, in fact, be achieved. We had hoped that SALT would place real limits on the strategic forces of both sides. There were lots of efforts to halt the growth in numbers of warheads, none of which were acceptable to the Joint Chiefs. Kissinger lost an important opportunity by allowing both sides to move ahead with MIRVs, multiple warheads on strategic missiles. Once that was allowed, then it became inevitable that the number of warheads would multiply.

On balance, I think the kindest thing one can say about SALT I and SALT II was that they introduced an element of predictability into the U.S.-USSR relationship. There were ceilings beyond which neither side could go. But in reality neither the Soviets nor the Americans gave up a single weapons system that they had planned to deploy. In the late 1960s we were developing the first cruise missiles which were designed as nuclear systems, even though by the 1990s these systems were important because of conventional warheads. We wanted to make sure that we could deploy these systems when they became available. The talks were successful, too, in limiting Soviet defensive system, the anti-ballistic missiles they were in the process of developing. Of course, having done so we now find ourselves in the position of having to amend or break the agreement because of our own desire to deploy such systems.

“I came away from the SALT process with the strong feeling that profession can be a closer bond than nationality.”

 A Mark 7 Nuclear Bomb at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio (USA). (2007) Chairboy  |
A Mark 7 Nuclear Bomb at the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, Ohio (USA). (2007) Chairboy |

One in the Same:
Q: What was your impression of the Soviets and the Soviet delegation and where they were coming from?

FISCHER: There were some phenomenal people on that delegation. The head of the Russian delegation was Ambassador Semenov who had been the Commissar, the Russian Commissar in East Germany for many years. He was himself a member of the Academy of Sciences although he was a diplomat, trained in physics. He loved German music, particularly Beethoven. General Ogarkov who was head of the Soviet Strategic Rocket Forces was a military representative. Ambassador Grinevsky was there who was a very senior, more or less head of the arms control unit of Foreign Ministry. Very serious very business-like people. I think at the end of the first two or three sessions, we had reached a state of—camaraderie is too strong a term—but mutual respect in which you could really have some very genuine discussions. Certainly within the parameters of the negotiating guidelines. But there were clear limits on the ability of members of the teams to “go off the reservation” by negotiating on their own.

I was the secretary of the delegation, the junior most officer, arranging all the various meetings, taking notes and the usual stuff that junior officers do. I had a Soviet counterpart. We held a series of social events with the Russians from time to time. Joint parties, joint dinners some of that were hosted by the Finnish government. The Russians came to us and said look. We don’t think it is a good idea that put American and Russian military officers together unless we have members of the State Department and the Foreign Ministry present. Their point, which was a damned good one, was that Russian and American generals had a great deal in common, perhaps more than they had with civilians on their own delegations. I came away from the SALT process with the strong feeling that profession can be a closer bond than nationality. I want to be clear that I’m not accusing the generals of trying to sabotage the talks, but they certainly made plain their distrust of the process.

“I was also naïve enough to believe that this guy really was from the FBI.”

Stealing SALT Secrets-The NY Times Leak: One of the more interesting things that I should talk about was the famous leak in the New York Times that led Nixon to create the infamous “plumbers” who subsequently broke into the Watergate Hotel. I was on the SALT backstopping team in Washington. The New York Times published the secret U.S. fallback position in the talks before we had a chance to present it to the Soviets. Nixon went absolutely bananas, as well he should. And although it was unknown to me at this time, Nixon set out to find out who had leaked the story, using every means, legal and illegal. These were the “plumbers.” I was one of thirty-one people that had had access to that telegram and to that piece of paper. Unbeknownst to me, I was as concerned as anyone was that this thing had been leaked to the Times, and I knew that people were upset, but I came into my office on a Sunday in ACDA [Arms Control and Disarmament Agency]. I walked into my office and I found a guy there photographing my appointment diary. I said who are you etc. He flashed a badge and said I’m from the FBI. I’d like to have a record of who you’ve met with over the last three weeks or whatever. Needless to say I was a little upset. But I was also naïve enough to believe that this guy really was from the FBI. So I gave him access to my diary, walked him down the hall to use the Xerox machine and everything else. On Monday morning I went down to the State security office to report this and to cover my ass if there was an active FBI investigation. I never heard a peep thereafter. However, the following Saturday or perhaps two weeks thereafter, my wife and I, we had a small house in Bethesda, MD. My wife was with our children in Texas, and I went out to some shopping or whatever on Saturday morning. I came back three hours later and our house had been broken into. I had a small desk, a kind of home office, and all the papers were askew. I called the Bethesda police who came out, nothing was missing, so the investigation was closed. To this day I do believe it was the plumbers who were out looking for who had leaked that paper. I can’t prove it, all those papers are still classified, but for the life of me I cannot imagine why someone would break into a small suburban house on a Saturday morning.


BA in History, Brown University 1956–1960
Independent Study Program at University of Vienna 1958–1959
Harvard Law School 1960
Joined the Foreign Service 1961
Frankfurt, Germany—Consular Officer 1961–1963
Warsaw, Poland—Rotation Officer 1964–1968
Sofia, Bulgaria—Political/Economic Officer 1972–1974
Kathmandu, Nepal—Political/Economic Officer 1974–1977
Seychelles—Ambassador 1982–1985
Munich, Germany—Consul General 1987–1991