"SALT II and the Growth of Mistrust," Musgrove, St. Simons Island, GA, 7-9 May 1994

The Musgrove conference of May 1994, the first full session in the Carter-Brezhnev series, took on perhaps the most critical element of the superpower relationship – arms control. The meeting traced the early attempts of the Carter administration to break the impasse that had developed in attempts to place limits on, and indeed achieve deep reductions in, the levels of armaments in both countries.

In January 1977, the newly-elected president came to Washington with the intention of accomplishing a breakthrough in the slow and indeterminate process of arms limitations, seeking a decisive advance toward meaningful cuts in strategic arsenals. In Moscow, meanwhile, the aging and ailing Brezhnev was determined to achieve a secure and predictable relationship with the United States and to have the USSR be recognized as an equal power, not a rogue state. In August 1975 he had signed the Helsinki Final Act, hoping that it would guarantee stability in Europe, the borders established by Stalin's armies, and a leading place for the Soviet Union among the global community of nations. The Soviet leader was prepared to finalize the SALT II treaty, which was 95 percent ready by the time Carter came to the White House and, like his American counterpart, he wanted to move (albeit in due time, not so rapidly) to the next stage of reductions, not just limitations, in nuclear weapons.

Negotiations began practically the instant the new American administration settled into office - but they almost as quickly got off on the wrong foot with Cyrus Vance's trip to Moscow in March 1977. During that visit, the secretary of state raised a proposal to move to deep cuts immediately, thereby bypassing (but in the Soviet view, throwing away) all the earlier understandings painstakingly reached between Brezhnev and the Nixon and Ford administrations, and for which the Soviet leader had paid a considerable domestic political cost with the military. Vance's proposal was coupled with an active campaign in defense of human rights, which had become a centerpiece of Carter's foreign policy. The Soviets felt singled out, especially when their great rival, China, was not subjected to the same strident criticism.

Mistrust and grievances accumulated on both sides and gradually derailed the main engine of the relationship - the arms control talks. This made it impossible for either leader to achieve his aim of meaningful weapons reductions. By the time Carter and Brezhnev finally signed the SALT II Treaty in the Summer of 1979, it was already in danger in the U.S. Senate. Then, the events of the Fall of 1979, culminating in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December, drove Carter to pull it from consideration for ratification. High hopes on both sides had been shattered by ingrained suspicions and the negative trends in the international sphere to which both sides had contributed.

The declassified documents in this section offer a detailed grounding in the questions surrounding arms control during the Carter-Brezhnev period. Read in tandem with the retrospective accounts of some of the era's key actors, they give the reader a multi-dimensional picture of the complexities of U.S.-Soviet relations as they entered the tailspin that began the final decade of the Cold War.