Critical Issues Before the Democracy


Gerard B. Smith, 1984

Gerard B. Smith was Chief U.S. Negotiator to the first Strategic Arms Limitation Talks with the Soviet Union. Ambassador Smith has also been Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He is recipient of both the Albert Einstein Foundation Peace Prize and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In his interview Ambassador Smith shares some of his central views on negotiating successful arms control agreements.

Whiteley: Ambassador Smith, what do you consider to be the central components of the national security of the United States?

Smith: I would think that in the first instance the morale, the confidence of the American people is the most important part. Then these classical ideas are that the military component obviously is an essential element of our security. The treasure that we have been able to accumulate, the economic strength that we have is a very important part of it. And finally, it’s being recognized now that the control of arms, especially strategic nuclear weapons, is not only an important, but an essential element of our national security.

Whiteley: You’ve written that arms control can both reduce the cost of deterring war and dramatically reduce the risks of it occurring. What do you mean?

Smith: Well, for instance, in the ABM Treaty we were facing in 1969 tremendous Soviet defenses. And I remember seeing an estimate that they might have 12,000 ABM’s, anti-ballistic missiles, in 1975. As a result of the arms control arrangement that we made in the treaty of 1972, they have a hundred now. It seems to me that is a tremendous accomplishment because we would have had to match their defenses, and therefore we saved tremendous sums of money (billions of dollars). We’ve also reduced the risk of war because I think that if both sides have offensive weapons and defensive weapons, the prospect of their being used in a crisis would be greater than without the defenses.

Whiteley: Given the centrality in your thinking of arms control to the national security I’d like you to share with us your observations about the best way to go about achieving viable arms control agreements in this dangerous world. It’s been over a decade since there’s been a meaningful arms control agreement that was both signed and ratified. Given the kinds of debate that has been recurring in our society people need to know what to expect, and you’ve offered a list of do’s and don’ts about going about arms control, and I’d like to present those to you one at a time and ask you to share what you mean. First, you’ve indicated we should not rush to the summit.

Smith: Well, I think there’s an illusion in that heads of government, heads of state, if they can only sit down and talk with each other could quickly resolve the problems and reach arms control agreements. I think that’s not the case; I think that it’s a technical subject, it requires a great deal of preparation at lower levels, and only when you have agreements reached and you want to formalize them should you involve Presidents or chiefs of government.

Whiteley: The second recommendation you’ve made is to not conduct negotiations on two channels.

Smith: Well, when I wrote that piece I was still recalling very clearly the fact that in SALT I, the ABM negotiation, and the freeze on offensive weapons, the formal delegation was working under instructions from the President, and unbeknownst to us, Henry Kissinger was conducting a negotiation in a so-called back channel. And I thought that was a highly dangerous procedure and demeaning, and didn’t help the significance of the delegation because the Soviets knew that somebody else was negotiating behind our backs. And that led to confusion, it didn’t help the negotiation. I think we would have had a better agreement if only one channel had been used.

Whiteley: Your real faith is in the careful painstaking work that’s part of a process, so one knows exactly in detail what the agreements are.

Smith: Done by professionals, yes.

Whiteley: Third is don’t expect quick results.

Smith: Well, I think that when your - when the stakes are as high as in the negotiation on arms control, the security of great countries, every step in developing a treaty has to be taken with the greatest caution and deliberation, and this is not a matter of days or even weeks. Sometimes it's said, "Well, the Test Ban Treaty was concluded in fourteen days." But it’s overlooked that it was preceded by years, literally, many years of negotiations between us and the Soviets which laid the groundwork for the final fourteen days in which Governor Harriman conducted a very fine negotiation and closed out the Treaty.

Whiteley: You said don’t waste time on inequitable propositions.

Smith: Well I think we have a tendency to think of arms control as a way of solving a specific military problem. Mostly in the last ten years what we see to be the vulnerability of our intercontinental ballistic missiles, and we haven’t been able to figure out a way to do that through straight military means. And we constantly have been trying to work out an arrangement to reduce the threat to those ICBM’s, especially from cutting the numbers of the Soviet ICBM’s, and that has to my mind always led (in the first instance) to inequitable proposals on our part. Gradually we worked down so we have had equitable proposals, and I think in SALT I and SALT II they accomplished their purpose and led to an agreement.

Whiteley: The fifth point is to remember that the Soviets think about arms control differently than we do.

Smith: Well, we have what we call a Triad. We have much of our force in submarine-based systems which are quite invulnerable, and hopefully will continue to be indefinitely. We have a large force of intercontinental bombers, and then on top of that we have fixed land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. The Soviets have a much larger proportion of their forces in these fixed land-based missiles, and whereas we’re constantly trying to get them reduced, they are looking at our so-called Triad and trying to work out arrangements that will affect all elements of our forces. And that asymmetry makes it very difficult to negotiate an agreement.

Whiteley: You’ve indicated that the Soviets enjoy a tactical advantage because of the closed nature of their society. How does that work?

Smith: Well, in our case with very active press, it’s very difficult for the government to adopt a position without it being known almost instantaneously to the public. And this often obtains in the case of fallback positions. I can remember in the SALT I negotiations we occasionally would read in the paper what our instructions were about making a concession. Now the Soviets don’t have any such free press. They are able to operate a negotiation under much closer reins from the central part of their government; they do not have to share with the public at large their future plans. And as in any game if your future moves are exposed it makes it harder to play that game.

Whiteley: Another point is not to react too strongly to leaks.

Smith: Well, I guess this is just a prudential judgment that when you have a system such as ours which has all sorts of advantages over the Soviets, you shouldn’t be excessively concerned when these foreshadowings of your position are published in the newspapers. I think you just have to learn to live with them; you have to get use to it.

Whiteley: Just as the Soviet society has an advantage over being closed in these kinds of negotiations, you’ve indicated that our high technology gives us an advantage. How does that work?

Smith: Well, the Soviet system is not as good as ours in converting basic scientific discoveries into hardware. Now this is true for a number of reasons, but it gives us a great advantage. For instance, we’re a generation ahead of the Soviets in computer technology which is at the heart now of most high tech applications of weapons. Their system just doesn’t seem to advantage the part of the economy which is trying to make weapons - advanced weapons, and they are well aware of this. We have a great advantage there.

Whiteley: You’ve indicated that we should not interfere with the process once its begun.

Smith: I think it’s not useful for the White House to get involved in a negotiation until its final stages. This was the point about Dr. Kissinger being involved in the negotiations when there was a perfectly good negotiating delegation operating in the field. Deadlines, I think, are dangerous things because they tend to force concessions. If you know that you’re going to have to do something by the 1st of January of some year, even though your sense of timing suggests to you that it ought to take months to develop a new position, your tendency is to accelerate immoderately.

Whiteley: You’ve indicated we shouldn’t be concerned if you don’t get results at first, that there’s an inherent strength in the process of arms negotiations.

Smith: Well I think that, and this is just another cautionary piece of advice, not to be impatient. These things could take years and sometimes people after a few months tend to get impatient and say the system, the process isn’t working. I think that we’ve done pretty well if ten years ago or twelve years ago we would have been told we had an ABM Treaty fourteen years ago I think most people would have doubted it. It took us two and a half years to produce that treaty.

Whiteley: Well that gets to your tenth and final point. Given the capacity of arms control to strengthen the national security of the United States, you’ve called for this to become an irreversible process of arms control. How would you have us begin as a society?

Smith: Well I think it has been very useful that in recent years a large number of Americans have become educated on this subject. If we had in 1979 the public support for arms control that we presently have, I’m sure the SALT II Treaty would have been ratified, you wouldn’t have had that blocking third in the Senate. So that I think that’s the first thing. The second thing is we’ve got to learn how to tailor proposals that are more equitable. I’m not saying we should make immoderate concessions just to get an agreement, but we’ve got to start in, I think, from a more equal position. And then finally I think we have to try to get people who really are interested in the arms control process to represent us.

Whiteley: You’ve indicated that the day is past when citizens should be in awe of a super secret set of issues, that the major issues facing the country are really ones for citizen action. I would like to present to you a series of issues before the country and ask you to share how citizens ought to think about them, irrespective of the issue that the choice that they finally come to, what are the considerations. First, do we have to trust the Soviets to honor their agreements?

Smith: No, I think that we should only trust the Soviets to the extent that we think they will carry out commitments that seem to be in their national interest. I think that with so-called modern technical means of verification we can tell if the Soviets are living up to their agreements. For instance we have evidence now that in some cases they are not, and yet there is no disposition in any broad part of the population to get out of those agreements for that very reason. Even the people who criticize arms control most have said that these alleged violations have no military significance. People also - some people say that even the United States is not living up to certain parts of certain agreements, and this is something we should really examine our performance record on. So that it’s not a matter of trust, we have - we know whether there’s any serious violation that is affecting our military security. I think we have to have trust in the concept that we can advance the security of the United States through international arms control.

Whiteley: Do you think of bi-lateral nuclear freeze as in the national security interests of our country?

Smith: Well, when it was first brooded about I took the position that I thought it was a useful concept to get the attention of the White House to the importance of getting on with arms control. I had doubts about its practicality, and I had doubts about the fact that it was a very radical step away from the stage-by-stage method we had used in the past.

Whiteley: A central point for you is that it’s not a simple matter. People ought to study with great care what it would and would not mean. One of the advantages you’ve said the United States has is our capacity for high technology and turning that high technology into weapon systems. We will continue to produce, in the years ahead, with the same enthusiastic sense of accomplishment that has characterized the past, new ideas for a better world, and one idea that is suggested as contributing to a better and safer world is the application of our high technology to create a defensive shield. Given the hope that we all have that the world will be safer and that a defense that would save us from harm has real attraction, how would you urge people to think about a defensive system to counter the awesome offensive systems that are in the world today?

Smith: Well I should admit - confess at the start that I’m very worried about the proposed Star Wars defense that the President has pointed us towards. I think the way to look at the problem is to try to figure out how such a defense in the hands of the Soviets will look to us. Now the President says he’d like a system that would render impotent ballistic missiles - impotent and obsolete. Well, now how are we going to feel about the Soviets making our weapons impotent and obsolete? My guess is we wouldn’t feel comfortable in that situation. The President also said some future President might very well disclose, give to the Soviets this classified information about a whole new defensive system. To my mind this is very bizarre, the notion that we would take secret weapons information and give it to the Soviets and expect them to help us make their weapons impotent. I don’t think they’ll do that, and I don’t think we’ll do that to help them make our weapons impotent.

Whiteley: Is it your assessment that they will spend anything they need to to maintain the relative parity that they have achieved?

Smith: That’s certainly what the record of the past suggests they’ll do.

Whiteley: What in your mind is a better way to go about making the country more secure than an investment in a defensive system?

Smith: Well I think we ought to be looking at the present ban on nationwide defensive systems in the Treaty of 1972, and figure out how we and the Soviets together can tighten that ban, make it more effective. Presently both we and the Soviets are chipping away at that Treaty and if we don’t stop this process it’s going to be a dead letter within a few years.

Whiteley: Another line of argument you’ve offered to lower the risks of nuclear war is to renounce the first-use of nuclear weapons as a part of our strategy of countering Soviet conventional warfare in Europe. What do you mean?

Smith: Well, it’s not generally appreciated that we have a policy of preparing to start a nuclear war in the event the Soviets attack in Western Europe with conventional forces, and we’re not able to contain that attack. So we have a firstuse policy. Now, most people I know say that if nuclear weapons are ever used the process will quickly escalate into a general nuclear war. Now, if the President is right, and I think he is, that that would be unwinnable, our policy is to start a process that is unwinnable, which seems absurd to me. And that’s why I am in favor of a doctrine that we would not be the first to use nuclear weapons, we would not be the first to start a process that we couldn’t win. The Soviets had made a declaration in the United Nations that they would not be the first, but I wouldn’t go ahead on the assumption we can believe that. I think it’s in our interest to so posture our forces in Europe that we would not have any inclination or necessity for using nuclear weapons if it comes to a fight in Europe.

Whiteley: One consideration you’ve urged that all Americans take into account in thinking about this first-use policy is the need to honor our guarantees to our NATO allies, a number of whom have trusted us completely with the guarantee of their security.

Smith: Well, I think that there is a feeling in Western Europe that if we went - if we departed from the first-use policy it would constitute a beginning of a welching on our part on our security-guaranteed Europe. I think that once the process was started, if we combined a build-up in our conventional forces with a movement away from this first-use strategy, Europe would see that far from being an abandonment of the guarantee, it would be a strengthening of the guarantee because we would be presenting a possible aggressor with real force that could be used to stop it.

Whiteley: In your judgment it’s possible to guarantee the peace with an expanded investment in conventional forces and therefore not to need to depend on nuclear weapons as a guarantee.

Smith: Yes, it certainly won’t be easy because it will take additional treasure, it will take perhaps in this country a bigger Army and Navy and Air Force using conventional weapons; but General Rogers, who is the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, has estimated that for a 1% increase in defense expenditures by all of the countries of NATO, 1% over the present projected figures of a 3% increase, we could place the burden on the Soviets of having to be the first to use nuclear weapons. Now I don’t want to accuse him of saying he’s for no first-use because he isn’t, but he goes a long way towards it by saying we could shift the onus onto the Soviets. Instead of having us have that policy, they would have to be the first to move.

Whiteley: You’ve indicated that it’s possible to state the rationale for no first-use in strictly military terms. What are they?

Smith: Well, it gets back to whether nuclear weapons are a usable force. If they are not then to give up this threat of using them is of no military significance. I think that if you use nuclear weapons in Europe you would immediately have tremendous civilian casualties because of the size of countries in Europe, and the battlefields would be close to their build-up areas. So that this notion that one could have a nuclear war in Europe without millions of civilian casualties is nonsense, and I think that’s a very important, essential military consideration.

Whiteley: You’ve indicated that the abandonment of our current policy of firstuse of nuclear weapons would actually result in a lowered risk of conventional war. How does that work?

Smith: Well, I think that at present where we don’t have an adequate conventional defense in Europe, there would be some temptation in a crisis for the Soviets to think they could take over Western Europe with their conventional forces. I think that if we beef up our conventional forces that temptation would be reduced.

Whiteley: As you project ahead in your thinking to the decade ahead, what do you believe can reasonably be accomplished through arms control?

Smith: Well I think that given a strong enough will, with arms control agreements we can reduce the size of the forces on both sides; we can reduce especially, or avoid the most dangerous types of weapons systems: the first-strike systems. We could tighten up the defensive controls that we presently have and make sure that we don’t get into a second arms race, defensive as well as the offensive arms race that we’re presently in. And all of this would be a great blessing to American security and the world’s security. If the American people could somehow get into their mental stream what nuclear weapons effects really are then they would, I think, cry out for an abandonment of this tremendous dependence we have on nuclear weapons. They would say there must be some other way, be it arms control, be it increases in conventional forces, or a combination of both. It’s just impossible for me to conceive of a citizenry that really had taken aboard the fact that nuclear explosions can end this country.

Whiteley: Ambassador Smith, thank you for sharing with us your insights into the ways to lower the risk of nuclear war.