Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev and U.S. President Richard Nixon, meeting in Moscow, sign the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) agreements. At the time, these agreements were the most far-reaching attempts to control nuclear weapons ever.
Nixon and Brezhnev seemed unlikely candidates for the American and Soviet statesmen who would sign a groundbreaking arms limitation treaty. Both men carried reputations as hard-line Cold War warriors. Yet, by 1972, both leaders were eager for closer diplomatic relations between their respective nations. The Soviet Union was engaged in an increasingly hostile war of words with communist China; border disputes between the two nations had erupted in the past few years. The United States was looking for help in extricating itself from the unpopular and costly war in Vietnam. Nixon, in particular, wished to take the American public’s mind off the fact that during nearly four years as president, he had failed to bring an end to the conflict. The May 1972 summit meeting between Nixon and Brezhnev was an opportune moment to pursue the closer relations each desired.
The most important element of the summit concerned the SALT agreements. Discussions on SALT had been occurring for about two-and-a-half years, but with little progress. During the May 1972 meeting between Nixon and Brezhnev, however, a monumental breakthrough was achieved. The SALT agreements signed on May 27 addressed two major issues. First, they limited the number of antiballistic missile (ABM) sites each country could have to two. (ABMs were missiles designed to destroy incoming missiles.) Second, the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles was frozen at existing levels. There was nothing in the agreements, however, about multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle missiles (single missiles carrying multiple nuclear warheads) or about the development of new weapons. Nevertheless, most Americans and Soviets hailed the SALT agreements as tremendous achievements. In August 1972, the U.S. Senate approved the agreements by an overwhelming vote. SALT-I, as it came to be known, was the foundation for all arms limitations talks that followed.