The SALT I agreement signed at the 1972 Moscow Meeting by Brezhnev and President Richard Nixon had intended only to restrain the arms race for ten years, during which time the superpowers would negotiate a more comprehensive accord. At the 1974 Vladivostok Meeting, Brezhnev and President Gerald R. Ford agreed to establish ceilings for the sum total of missiles and bombers that each side could have and the number of those that could be fitted with multiple warheads. A SALT II agreement seemed within reach. Because of the worsening international climate and the complexity of arms control talks, however, negotiations took longer than expected. They were further delayed in 1977 when Carter sought extensive arms reductions, far beyond those agreed to at Vladivostok. As a result, the treaty was not completed until 1979.
SALT II, the high point of U.S.-Soviet relations during the Carter presidency, followed the guidelines set at Vladivostok. It limited each side to 2,400 strategic launch vehicles through 1981 and then 2,250 until 1985. Limits were also placed on the number of multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs) on land-based missiles (820), land-based and submarine-launched missiles (1,200), and MIRV missiles and heavy bombers equipped with long-range cruise missiles (1,320). The Soviet Union still held the advantage in total throw weight and in the number of land-based missiles. The United States possessed more submarine-based weapons, cruise missiles, and forward-based systems not covered by the agreement. Each side retained vast quantities of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), air-to-surface ballistic missiles (ASBMs), and MIRVs, but the arms race had been slowed, and the treaty called for future negotiations to achieve more significant cuts in the nuclear arsenals of both powers.
Before signing SALT II, Carter and Brezhnev discussed a variety of issues privately, without reaching any common ground. They sparred over human rights; Iran; Afghanistan; the Middle East; Southeast Asia; and Soviet adventurism in Central America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Brezhnev spent much of this time warning Carter not to threaten the Soviet Union by "playing the China card." Carter insisted that the Soviet leader understand that the Persian Gulf represented a vital interest to the United States. Each leader described what he considered provocative behavior of the other country while claiming nothing beyond a basic desire for peace. They then looked toward the future of arms control. Carter wrote twelve suggestions for a SALT III on a yellow pad and handed it to Brezhnev. Most notably, he suggested a freeze on the production of warheads and launchers, a total ban on nuclear tests, 5 percent annual reductions in strategic arms, and annual summit meetings. Neither harm nor good resulted from this overture. Carter simply demonstrated his vision of achieving further progress on arms control.
The U.S. Senate never ratified SALT II. Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, a Washington state Democrat, blasted the treaty as "appeasement" even before it was signed and led a determined opposition. Carter tried to save the treaty by convincing conservative senators that he was tough on defense by pushing for deployment of the MX missile and moving ahead on stationing Pershing II and cruise missiles in Western Europe to counter new SS-20 Soviet missiles. But Carter's sagging popularity and a number of mounting irritants in U.S.-Soviet relations during the fall of 1979—for example, the discovery of a Soviet brigade in Cuba and Congress's failure to grant the Soviet Union most-favored nation trade status—made Senate ratification unlikely. Carter then withdrew the treaty from Senate consideration.
Equally important, the 1979 Iranian Revolution cost the United States some of its best facilities for monitoring Soviet treaty compliance. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 ended any chance of ratifying the treaty and solidified a shift in Carter's Soviet policy from one of attempting to sustain a weak policy of détente to confrontational containment. This was clearly evident by the refusal to sell U.S. grain to Moscow, the American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and the pronouncement of the Carter Doctrine in 1980.
Although the treaty failed to gain Senate approval, both Washington and Moscow professed to abide by it up to and beyond its expiration at the end of 1985.
Garthoff, Raymond L. Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1994.; Smith, Gaddis. Morality, Reason, and Power: American Diplomacy in the Carter Years. New York: Hill and Wang, 1986.