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Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, 1991 and 1993

The Strategic Arms Reductions Treaties, known as START I and START II, were agreements to reduce the number of long-range nuclear weapons in the United States and the former Soviet Union. START I was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1991, and it was followed by the conclusion of the START II treaty between the United States and Russia in 1993.

When Ronald Reagan assumed the U.S. Presidency in 1981, provisions for continuing the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT) that yielded two arms agreements between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1970s were already in place. The first round of SALT produced the Antiballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) and a framework for reducing caps on nuclear warhead delivery systems, and the second round (SALT II) produced a treaty limiting these delivery systems that was signed but never ratified. In spite of the difficulties involved in ratification of the second agreement, both sides adhered to the terms of SALT II and expressed an interest in moving forward with a third round of talks. In late 1981, Reagan proposed that the talks be renamed the Strategic Arms Reductions Talks, to place the focus of the subsequent negotiations on deep cuts in existing weapons, not simply limits on future deployments. As a part of this announcement, Reagan also suggested bilateral negotiations on the elimination of intermediate range nuclear weapons.

The initial proposals offered by the Reagan Administration to the Soviet Union called for a fifty percent reduction in total strategic weapons. U.S. officials realized that such a drastic change in policy would likely be rejected by the Soviets, but they had their own reasons to make the suggestion. In the 1980s, a growing nuclear "freeze" movement called for the elimination of nuclear weapons, spurred on in part by the promulgation of scientific studies that forecast a "nuclear winter" effect. This scientific prediction assumed that the use of nuclear weapons anywhere in the world would effectively destroy the earth's capacity for sustaining human life. The Reagan proposals for broad reductions in nuclear arms reflected an effort by Reagan Administration officials to deflect the criticism directed at them by antinuclear activists for continuing the arms race. By proposing reductions that the Soviets were sure to resist, the Reagan Administration could blame the ongoing arms race on the Soviet Union and justify continued U.S. development of strategic weapons. At the same time, however, this approach to arms control led Moscow to abandon talks in 1983.

After Mikhail Gorbachev took power in the Soviet Union in 1985, the two countries resumed arms control discussions. At a summit meeting in Reykjavik in 1986, Reagan once again proposed a fifty percent reduction in long range strategic weapons. At this point, Gorbachev was far more inclined to consider the proposal and act upon it, because economic problems in the Soviet Union made ending, or at least curtailing, the expensive nuclear arms race a necessity. What prevented a deal at this juncture was not the ambitious nature of the proposal, but the ongoing U.S. research into a missile defense system under President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative. The Soviets argued that under the1972 Antiballistic Missile Treaty developing a missile defense system was illegal, and they demanded that the United States halt research on the project before any agreement be reached on long-range strategic weapons reductions. A 1987 agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union provided a way around this impasse by calling for fifty percent reductions in long-range strategic weapons and a new treaty to reconfirm a mutual commitment to the ABM Treaty. Although this agreement appeared to have solved the problem, the treaty was not completed before the end of the Reagan Administration.

By the early 1990s, after President Reagan had been out of office a few years, domestic support in the United States for the Strategic Defense Initiative dwindled and Cold War tensions were dying away with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Instead, there was a renewed desire to see an arms reduction treaty signed. In 1991, Presidents George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev met in Moscow and finally signed the first START agreement, which required the two countries to reduce their total number of nuclear warheads and bombs by one third. Later that year, however, the collapse of the Soviet Union raised doubts about the efficacy of the treaty, as Soviet nuclear weapons and delivery systems were spread out between three republics and Russia, each of which was now independent of Soviet control. One by one, the republics ratified the START treaty and agreed either to destroy the weapons housed in their territory or turn them over to Russia. A second START agreement signed by President Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1993 called for further reductions in strategic weapons. START II therefore translated to an overall fifty percent reduction in nuclear weapons, limiting each country to a total of between 3,000 and 3,500 strategic weapons. The United States ratified the START II agreement in 1996, and Russia followed suit in 2000.


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