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Bush & Gorbachev Signed START to Reduce Nuclear Arms On This Date

by Countable | 7.31.18

On July 31, 1991, President George H.W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (aka START), the largest nuclear arms control treaty in history.

Why did it come up?

Once the Cold War began in the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. and Soviet Union began a nuclear arms race which nearly put the strategy of “mutually assured destruction” to the test during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

In 1969, the U.S. and Soviet Union embarked on the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (aka SALT) in Helsinki, Finland. Those talks led to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which placed a freeze on defensive nuclear ballistic missile launchers and only allowed new sub-based missiles (SLBMs) with a corresponding reduction in the number of inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

A second round of negotiations led to the SALT II agreement in 1979, which would’ve banned new nuclear missile programs. However, six months after President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the U.S. discovered a Soviet combat brigade had been stationed in Cuba since 1962 ― events which deterred the Senate from ratifying the treaty. That distrust led in part to a renewed nuclear arms buildup by both sides of the Cold War divide in the 1980s.

START was initially proposed by President Ronald Reagan in May 1982 in a commencement address at his alma mater, and consisted of two phases: the overall reduction of nuclear warheads with additional limits on ICBMs and their “throw weight” (ie the warhead’s power); followed by similar limitations on warheads carried by heavy bombers. The proposal gave the U.S. a temporary strategic advantage, given that the Soviet Union had more powerful ICBMs while the U.S. had more bombers.

Negotiations between the U.S. and Soviet Union hit delays several times in the years that followed. Talks broke down in 1983 following Reagan’s introduction of the proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) ― the missile defense system referred to as “Star Wars” ― and a deployment of nuclear weapons to Europe.

In 1985, Secretary of State George Shultz and his Soviet counterpart discussed a three phase strategy involving intermediate-range missiles, strategic defense, and missile defense. At the 1986 Reykjavik Summit, Reagan and Gorbachev nearly reached an unexpected breakthrough agreement to eliminate all nuclear weapons, but Reagan refused to confine SDI to laboratory research and the deal went by the wayside.

However, the progress made at Reykjavik led to the elimination of all nuclear weapons with ranges less than 3,420 miles with signing of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 1987. At that point, the focus switched back to negotiating the START Treaty, which wouldn’t be completed before the conclusion of the Reagan administration.

On July 31, 1991 President George H.W. Bush offered the following statement to his counterpart when he and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed START:

“Mr. [Gorbachev], by reducing arms, we reverse a half-century of steadily growing strategic arsenals. But more than that, we take a significant step forward in dispelling a half-century of mistrust. By building trust, we pave a path to peace.”

The signing ceremony wasn’t the end of the process for START, ratification by the Senate came with a 93-6 vote in 1992 before START formally took effect in December 1994.

What did it do?

START imposed restrictions on the number of ICBMs, SLBMs, heavy bombers, and the “throw weight” of deployed nuclear warheads and created a verification regime to ensure both parties abided by it over its 15 year lifespan.

The U.S. and Soviet Union (USSR) undertook the following reductions in their nuclear arsenals:

Deployed Warheads:

  • 1990: U.S. - 10,563 warheads; USSR - 10,271 warheads.
  • 2009: U.S. - 5,916 warheads; USSR - 3,897 warheads.

Deployed Launchers, Subs, and Bombers:

  • 1990: U.S. - 2,246; USSR - 2,500.
  • 2009: U.S. - 1,188; USSR - 809.

Throw weight of Deployed ICBMs & SLBMs:

  • 1990: U.S. - 2,361 megatons; USSR - 6,626 megatons.
  • 2009: U.S. - 1,857 megatons; USSR - 2,297 megatons.

START’s verification regime was incredibly complex, and included 12 different types of inspections. Those ranged from data exchanges and declarations about the location, movement, and status of offensive nuclear weapons to protected satellites. The regulatory system was constantly manned by a representative of each side through START’s on-site inspections and the Perimeter and Portal Continuous Monitoring provisions.

What has its impact been?

Compliance with START ran into an early challenge, as the Soviet Union’s collapse left three newly independent nations in possession of large stockpiles of nuclear weapons ― Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan ― all of which disposed of the weapons or transferred them to Russia.

START led to several attempts at further nuclear arms reduction agreements, some successful and others less so, including:

  • President George H.W. Bush and Russian President Boris Yeltsin reached a successor treaty known as START II in 1993, which would’ve banned nuclear missiles with multiple warheads had Russia not withdrawn in 2002 in response to the U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.
  • President Bill Clinton and Yeltsin started negotiations on START III, which would’ve further reduced nuclear weapons stockpiles but talks eventually broke down.
  • The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT), was agreed to by President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2003 and required the U.S. and Russia to reduce their arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 operational warheads through the end of 2012.
  • The New START, agreed to by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague in April 2010 further reduced stockpiles to less than 1,550 operational warheads and less than 700 deployed launchers.

New START will be in effect until February 5, 2021 when it will expire, unless both the U.S. and Russia agree to extend it for another five years or reach another nuclear arms reduction agreement.

— Eric Revell

(Photo Credit: George Bush Presidential Library / Public Domain)

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