Russell E. Hershey,
INTERVIEW WITH HELMUT SONNENFELDT 29.8.1996
INTERVIEWER: First of all, sir, the trickiest one of all, can we have your name and your title for the transcripts.
HELMUT SONNENFELDT: My name is Helmut Sonnenfeldt and I am a guest scholar at the Bookings Institution in Washington, DC, a research institute and served at various times in the American government, in the State Department and the National Security Council. And I'm sorry about being hoarse.
INT: No, no problem at all. OK, first question then, sir. Can you, in simple terms, explain to us what exactly SALT was?
HS: Well, SALT stands for Strategic Arms Limitations Talks and some genius made an anagram out of it in the 1960s. It was an effort in the light of later events, a rather modest effort to try and put some kind of a cap on the accumulation of strategic delivery systems. It developed in the early '60s, as a way of perhaps putting some sort of a restraint on unlimited arms competition and to try to cope with what were seen as looming instabilities in the strategic equation, the advantage of disabling first attacks, first strikes, that sort thing. The efforts were hesitating and halting, although there was an enormous body of intellectual work in the United States in academic institutions and research institutes and, to some extent, in the government, but we were still very much in the Cold War, so the early approaches on this subject to the Soviets were limited and frustrating in many ways.
INT: Who were the instigators then of SALT? Was it America or was it Russia?
HS: Well, I think it has to be said that the initiators, and the people with the most original thought on this subject were in the United States. there was quite a large community of people that had dealt with strategic issues in the first instance, but gradually, in the 1950s, became interested in potential limitations, constraints, mutually agreed arrangements with the Soviets. As I recall, there was very little of this kind of thing from the Soviets. They tended, for the most part, both in their public discourse and even in their more scientific writings, speak much more in the old shibboleths about... doing away with nuclear weapons altogether and halting the nuclear arms race and saving humanity from death and so on and so forth. All of which may be really enterprises, but didn't really get you anywhere as far as dealing with highly complicated technical issues. So I would say the main impetus came from the United States.
INT: What would you say were the biggest stumbling blocks in trying to set this up?
HS: I think the biggest stumbling blocks first of all had to do with the nature of the American-Soviet relationship. It's true that even in the Eisenhower administration, which in some ways was the bottom of the nadir of the Cold War, although we still had missile crises to come and so the relationship had really become quite distant and the possibility for serious dialogue, which anything would involve some serious action with respect to strategic weapons, the crown jewels of power in those days, was very difficult. and of course there were tremendous mutual fears and suspicions and I think in this respect the Soviets were far more hesitant about doing anything that might involve some sort of intrusion into their society, because inevitably anything to do with real arms control would involve inspection, verification and so on and so forth. And this for the Soviets, remained anathema. It's not that the Americans were all that eager to have foreigners running around their own territory, but of course technology was advancing, so some of these things could be done from remote places without people crawling all over your territory. But this Soviet anxiety about penetration of their system, their power structure from the outside, I think, was another serious obstacle. And then I think the issues were extremely difficult intellectually. American and Soviet military forces were not identical, they were not mirror images. The Soviets had enormous ground forces in Europe and American nuclear forces were to some extent intended to balance those, NATO strategy in the middle and late '70s developed the theory of flexible response, which could have involved the use of nuclear weapons, short-range and even eventually long-range, in the event of a war. So there was an asymmetry, both in the nature of the forces and the way the military forces were arrayed. And then there were inherently technical issues. Just how you go about controlling, capping, limiting the construction of weapon systems. What criteria would you use? Could you agree on the criteria? How do you cope with the natural impulse of each side to try and maximize its own advantages? So you really had a whole barrel-full of complications before you could even get to the point where you might have a real negotiation that would deal with the hard, concrete, specific, legally-binding issues of an agreement.
INT: Was one of the problems - I mean, I'm putting an illustration that I've read of, is the '67 Glassborough summit, where Kosygin was reputed to have said that defense is moral, offence is immoral, and he was referring there to the ABM systems. Was the ABM system itself a problem in the SALT talks?
HS: Well, the problem of strategic defense was, of course, part of the whole question of the strategic... weapons equation. And there were many people in the United States, among the academic and other expert analysts who felt that in some ways potentially the most destabilizing development in the strategic equation might be the deployment of an effective, or reasonably effective strategic defense system, because that might give a potential aggressor the notion of being relatively invulnerable to a counter-attack and to retaliation and therefore free to use... his own strategic weapons in certain various ways. So there was in the United States a good deal of interest and it was personified, I guess, more than anything else by Robert McNamara that the next big stage in the arms race would be in defensive weapons. So many people wanted to include in any strategic dialogue with the Russians and any dialogue leading to negotiations, restrictions on defensive weapons and that encountered for many years and certainly in the sixties and in this encounter between President Johnson and Prime Minister Kosygin at Glassborough, vehement Soviet objection. The Soviets were very much defense oriented, historically they were, in some ways more than the United States, although the United States certainly was keen on making its own territory somehow immune from attack. It had been that way because of geography and the absence of long-range weapons for such a long time, including in World War Two basically. But the Soviets really had it in their gut, in the marrow of their bone, this right, this inherent right of a nation to defend itself and there wasn't really any argument in those days, early days of a technical nature, of a strategic analytical nature. It was just the God-given - they wouldn't have said God - right of a nation to defend itself and therefore it was a very difficult dialogue to begin with the Russians and it took quite a while before that actually happened.
INT: Would you say, as an outsider, someone sitting in the middle, so to speak, it seems to me that the Russians certainly had a state of mind that was reflected very much in the seeds of Leningrad, whereas America, I suppose if I'm looking for a term to describe it, I would say was almost a Pearl Harbor mentality. Is that an accurate way of looking at it?
HS: Well, there's not doubt that Pearl Harbor was one of the great traumas in American history. Although it wasn't the American mainland, but it was certainly a huge part of then existing American military power. And this fear of surprise attack especially when facing a totalitarian system, with all its secretiveness and so on, fear of surprise, concern about surprise attack was quite deep-seated in the United States. Later on, Soviet analysists, like Georgi Arbatov would say this was one of the great American traumasthat the Soviets had to cope with, because the Amesniffed a threat of surprise attack behind every corner and in every Soviet move. But the interesting point is that with all this American concern about surprise attack, which incidentally had led to a very unproductive effort in 1958 to have a major conference devoted to the problem of preventing surprise attack between the West, the United States, and others and the Soviet Union, that the American concern about surprise attack nevertheless led the Americans to conclude that strategic defense might in fact be destabilizing. This later produced all kinds of vehement debates in the United States and which have gone on for thirty or more years about attack is good, defense is bad, threatening cities is good, because it deters, presumably, threatening weapons as dangerous, because it leads the opponent to launch those weapons as soon as they sense that they're under attack. You had a whole series of perverse equations that developed in this period of the confrontation of the big strategic confrontation, which greatly complicated the debates, also made it easy for people that had simple answers to the problems, like why is defense bad, shouldn't we protect our cities, our mothers and children and so on and so forth. And those debates have continued to echo through the American strategic debate for beyond the end of the Cold War.