‘Visualising’ SALT II: Debating Nuclear Arms Control with Images

US USSR Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles

The ‘SALT II Debate’, the argument over the ratification of a nuclear arms control treaty in the late-1970s, was fought with passion on both sides. While the ‘pro-treaty’ position maintained that any control was better than none, the ‘anti-treaty’ stance was that a sub-optimal deal was simply not worth signing.

The treaty debate was highly abstract. Disagreements centered around throw-weight, circular-area-probable, MIRVing, SLCMs, GLCMs; all terms that meant little to anyone outside of the small number of people that actually thought about these issues.

While both sides in the debate thought that ‘reason’ would ultimately lead their position to victory over ratification, the need to make the argument accessible often resulted in sloganeering and over-simplification, sometimes in imagery.

I found the poster here in the Committee on the Present Danger Papers at the Hoover Institution. It was produced by the American Security Council and was included in materials they distributed, which opposed ratification of the SALT II treaty.

The image contrasts the few, white weapons of the American arsenal, with the numerous, large, dark missiles of the Soviets. The implication is that the Soviet weapons are plentiful and menacing in contrast to their U.S. counterparts. The ASC argument – and also the Committee on the Present Danger’s – was that SALT II should be opposed because the American strategic arsenal needed to be larger in number and in size to match the Soviet force.

Whatever we think about the SALT II debate – whether the treaty should or should not have been ratified – the simplistic notion that more and larger missile-types were needed was disingenuous. Many Soviet missiles were bigger for two important reasons. Firstly, because the Soviet advantage was making big missiles with big warheads, the ‘upgrading’ of forces generally meant making their missiles capable of carrying a larger warhead with greater destructive power. Secondly, because circuitry technology was inferior, meaning guidance systems were less accurate, Soviet nuclear weapons needed to be more destructive to account for the fact that they were less likely to land near their hardened target.

This poster, then, actually depicts American parity, if not superiority. More accurate American weapons could be smaller as a less destructive warhead was required. The U.S. had fewer missile variants because it retired its obsolete models; a more cost efficient method than continually adding to the missile-stock. (This was often characterised as ‘unilateral disarmament’ by SALT II critics.)

Imagery often requires interpretation to have meaning and it was not provided with this American Security Council poster.

Further Reading: Strobe Talbott, Endgame: The Inside Story of Salt II (1980)