The history of arms control is unpromising. Prior to the Second World War, the principal agreements were limitations on the number and tonnages of battleships. Despite the comparative simplicity of verifying the size of such large vessels, most parties to those pacts cheated, except the Japanese, who had the grace to renounce the Washington agreements of 1923 before constructing the two largest battleships in history.
The first Strategic Arms Limitations Talks agreement (SALT 1) in 1972 was an admirable effort by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to stabilize relations with the Soviet Union, de-emphasize Vietnam, re-elect the President, and accustom the American public to the long-drawn trials of the superpower minuet. (The United States had not really had to practice diplomacy, as most countries would have defined it, for nearly two centuries prior to that, after Franklin and Jefferson padded around Europe drumming up support for the revolution. One hundred and fifty years of isolationism followed by soaring pre-eminence in its cold war alliance systems made U.S. diplomacy more a matter of information than of negotiation.)
The first SALT agreements attempted to halt the erosion of the U.S. strategic position, which arose from the grievous Kennedy-Johnson blunders of pouring military resources into Vietnam and assuming that a unilateral missile development and deployment standstill would cause the Russians to achieve parity and rest on their nuclear oars. In fact, of course, the Russians blinked at their good fortune and responded to U.S. restraint with the greatest peacetime military buildup in the history of the world, outspending the United States on nuclear arms by $250 billion in the 1970s, achieving a preponderance in deliverable nuclear capacity of between three and four to one, and narrowing the technological gap in delivery systems. SALT I counted launchers rather than speed, accuracy, throw-weight, relaunch capacity, warheads, or interceptability, and was a good beginning, but not a great success.
SALT II (signed in 1979) was an unequal agreement that was deservedly left unratified by the U.S. Senate. Serious strategic analysts in the United States, such as Kissinger and Senator Sam Nunn, endorsed it only conditionally upon massive defence spending increases.
The doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD) has lost many of its former adherents. It holds that a casus belli of one of the superpowers against the other will bring, and be discouraged by, an unlimited mutual assault upon civilian populations, which are thus reciprocally held hostage.
Few people today consider it credible or desirable that the superpowers entertain hostilities that would destroy much or all of the world's life because of a fracas at the fringe of their spheres of influence, even a vital one such as Central Europe or the Middle East. That fact renders more vivid the spectre of conventional war, which, as two world wars have demonstrated, can produce tens of millions of deaths and cumulative destruction at nuclear levels. It also leads to a lot of anxious war-gaming in the European theatre, where the Warsaw Pact has an advantage over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization of two to one in military aircraft and artillery pieces, four to one in anti-tank guns and surface-missile launchers and the astonishing total of 46,000 tanks (Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 with 3,000) to 17,000 for NATO. Even adding the French and Spanish to NATO and deducting the satellites from the Warsaw totals, those figures are disquieting. MAD raises continuous worries about "windows of vulnerability" to a first strike, and to preserve an invulnerable deterrent capability the proverbial genie will always be popping out of the bottle in rather unverifiable forms such as "midgetman" portable ICBMs, undetectable ground-hugging cruise missiles and more accurate submarine-launched ICBMs. The sub-carried missiles have been, up to now, too inaccurate to pinpoint on military or command control targets, but could be relied upon to hit and devastate metropolitan areas. Hence the notional validity of V.S. concerns that in the event of a Russian first strike against U.S. ground-launched ICBMs an emasculated U.S. defence establishment would be left with the choice of surrender (i.e. no retaliation), or suicide by an attack on Soviet cities that would depopulate that country but leave the surviving Russian garrison with a twilight capacity to return nuclear destruction on the American people.