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1982 Commencement Speech: Edmund S. Muskie, Former Sec. of State, Former U.S. Senator

Source: Department of Special Collections and University Archives, Marquette University Libraries

I. Introduction

You must wonder, as have I, why thirteen years after strategic arms limitation talks (SALT) began, the United States and the Soviet Union are so far away from providing the citizens of our two countries (and the rest of the world) the security against the risk of nuclear war which they so greatly desire. Why?

In some ways we are like those famous Pandas at
the National Zoo, Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling. Their unproductive mating attempts have become an annual
rite of spring. Here is the Washington Post's description of the 1982 season:

“The lovers met in 'passion' beneath the willow trees in the soft gray dawn. He bit her ear. She slugged him, then shoved him down a hill. Then they joined – almost - in a ferocious 535-pound embrace.”

But once again, despite a new strategy by the zoological matchmakers, the attempted liaison was a washout. The action was fast and furious, but the outcome was again disappointing. The official verdict was “ineffective breeding posture.” Hsing-Hsing (at 285 pounds) was labeled as “inept”, and Ling-Ling - the 250-pound older woman - was criticized for rough and puzzling tactics, like standing on her head.

Later, after a lunch of 30 to 40 pounds of bamboo, plus honey, apples, carrots, sweet potatoes and powdered cottage cheese - picture this indulgence as standing for another round in the arms race - the two pandas tried again and again failed, with the female even more truculent, they paced. They pawed. They bleated. They grappled, tumbling together in the grass, rolling like a furry soccer ball. But with each attempt, either Hsing-Hsing lost his balance or Ling-Ling lost her temper.


While there was considerable laughing and joking among the voyeurs at the zoo, there was serious concern because time is running out on the aging pair. This may seem like a game, said a zoo spokesman, “but it is also a very serious effort to preserve a beautiful and endangered species.”

Perhaps we and the Soviets should re-examine our basic approach to the problem of preventing nuclear war - in the search for the elusive technical solution in weapon systems and arms control agreements. The magic formula has not appeared to date and, though I wish President Regan well in his efforts to find that formula, the weight of history is clearly against him.

As Roger Molander, the leader of the ground zero movement recently stated, the American people are not likely to wait much longer while we in Washington carry on yet another quixotic search for that elusive combination of weapons and arms control agreements that will make us all feel safer. They know that we simply do not have time to experiment with that hope for another generation - and then come up empty-handed in a world stocked with 50,000 more nuclear weapons. It goes against the grain of common sense. This may well be the time to re-examine the path we've been on, to paraphrase Robert Frost, and consider paths not taken.

II. Theological Dimensions


There are theological dimensions to this debate on the arms race as suggested by Lewis Lapham. Ever since World War I it has been assumed, at least in
some sophisticated intellectual circles, that all the “Gods” were dead. They were thought to have perished
in a succession of attacks mounted by subversive elements as various as Marxism and quantum mechanics.

But the current discussion of nuclear weapons
suggests that modern man has succeeded in creating an appropriately modern God. If looked at as theological discourse not subject to the laws of reason, contradictions in the tortured arguments of both sides resolve themselves into the Gospels of Revelation: If it is by paradox that the deity declares himself, the nuclear theorists offer several proofs of his divine existence. Consider:

  1. What was irrational becomes rational. The doctrine of “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD) which has governed American strategy for decades relies on a threat so monstrous, so beyond reason, that it becomes, in the words of Secretary of State Haig: “The only rational policy.” Only by promising to obliterate civilization can we protect civilization.
  2. What was human becomes divine. The sum of knowledge invested in the construction of a nuclear weapon comprises as brilliant a work of the human imagination as the world has ever seen, the collective genius of hundreds of thousands of mathematicians, physicists and engineers has managed to collect the wonders of the universe in a space not much bigger than a hat box. But the dogma of deterrence transfers the qualities of human courage and resourcefulness to supernatural objects, men are reduced to the primitive threat: “Our Gods will destroy your Gods.”
  3. The unknown takes precedence over the known. To the extent that the weapons become more complex and dangerous, the more impossible it becomes to predict what will happen if they were to be released from their shrines. What forms of life would continue to exist? What transmutations would take place? What savage race would rise from the ashes?
  4. What was temporal becomes spiritual. Statesmen come and go, but the nuclear fires abide, each congregation worships the terrible magnificence of the idols in their caves, furnishing them with greater degrees of speed
and accuracy and power. Despite immense sums of
treasure and intelligence offered in rituals of sacrifice, nobody can expect to live to see the God's birth - at least not for long.

Perhaps this final paradox permits a measure of
peace for those of us accustomed to a Christian understanding of the world. A Jesuit teacher, who was recently invited to speak on “the geography of Armageddon,” said: “These things are not of this world. They
belong to the afterlife.”

III. Arms and Men


But you and I are alive now, and we have to try to grapple with the danger. It is our moral responsibility even as we recognize that God created us out of the dust of the universe.

Presidents and their advisers have a special responsibility; no person with intelligence enough to reach the Oval Office is immune from the “sobering process” of seeing the world as it is.

Professor Stanley Hoffmann of Harvard noted recently that in every modern Presidency, there has been a swing one way or another. The men who at first emphasized
arms control found they had to pay more attention to armament, those who came to power preoccupied with beefing up America's defense had to make room in their thinking for arms control.

Hugh Sidey, a serious student of the Presidency, writes: “Contradictory lessons of history shout at a president every day, one is that peace comes through power. Another is that weapons, once developed and stockpiled, are eventually used. Yet another is that people periodically demand reassurance that the destructive forces of war can be diminished. Presidents are hostage to all these thoughts.”

IV. The Choices Before Us

What are the immediate political choices before us? Although I see no magic in past approaches to the
problem, and even though I recognize the paradoxes and contradictions in the tortured arguments of mere men -
who are not God - I am compelled to try to reach solutions, or to take preventive steps, within the political system of which you and I are citizens.

The recent eureka speech by President Reagan on the U.S. proposals for START negotiations, the recent calls for senate re-consideration of the un-ratified SALT II treaty, and the strong public interest in the “Nuclear Freeze” idea, provide a fresh opportunity for the examination of alternative approaches to the challenge of preventing nuclear war and reducing arms.

It is useful to characterize the three approaches as follows:

  1. “Go for it all.”
  2. “One step at a time.”

  3. “Don't bother me with the details, just stop it.”

I will briefly review the origins of the U.S.-Soviet effort to control strategic arms, and then turn to an analysis of the three roads proposed in our system today. The effort was begun by President Johnson late in his term, and pursued in earnest in 1969 under President Nixon. It had its origins not only in a recognition by both sides that it was in their mutual interest to control these weapons, but also in a belief by both countries that the other side had or was pursuing particular weapon systems which made nuclear war more likely.

In fact, the profound differences in the strategic nuclear force structures on the two sides gave vivid testimony to the existence of two distinctly different points of view on what constituted a safe or stable defense posture. Thus, the SALT talks to date, can be characterized as having two tracks. The first, and to date the dominant track is:

“Let's see how many avenues of
strategic nuclear weapons competition we can constrain - or freeze, in today's language.”

The second is:

“Why don't you make your force structure look like mine?”

Now to return to the three approaches on the table in Washington today.

It is clear that President Reagan's start proposal represents a significant departure from the negotiating approach begun under President Nixon, rather than emphasizing the control of different avenues of strategic competition, it essentially calls for the Soviets to restructure their strategic missile forces along lines much closer to our own. In that sense, START might be characterized as a call not only for a focus on reductions, but also as “STARTing over.”

The focus of the President's proposal is missile warheads and especially land-based ICBM warheads. The ratio between Soviet ICBM warheads and SLBM warheads is almost four-to-one. President Reagan's proposal calls for a one-to-one ratio, obviously, this would require profound changes in the Soviet force structure, however, it would not necessarily guarantee a decrease in the threat to our land-based forces. The inventories are so large to start with.
 On the U.S. side, we currently have a two-to-four ratio between land-based missile warheads and sea-based warheads. We could thus meet the President's ceiling on warheads, especially land-based, with relative ease.

In sum, the President's proposal would be a very good deal for us, and I think I and every other American would rejoice if the Soviets accepted the proposal.

At the same time, it should be pointed out that historical experience is not encouraging in terms of the likely success of a proposal of this character. It should be noted that the President's proposal calls for far and way the most dramatic restructuring of the other side's strategic forces of any proposal ever put forward in the history of the negotiations.

I point out this fact because it is important that we all recognize just how far-reaching this proposal is. In the past the response to such proposals has been either outright rejection or a comparable counter proposal, which leaves the two sides miles apart and struggling to find common ground, the term applied to such proposals is “sweetheart deals” and one of the clear lessons of negotiations to date is that they significantly extend the time required to reach agreement.

Thus, if history is any teacher, an agreement based on the President's new proposal will take, as he has admitted, many years to negotiate. But as the President must realize the American people are anxious to see concrete results in the arms control area soon - and not in the seven years that it took to negotiate SALT II. This of course raises the question of whether the President would be willing to accept interim steps between where we are now and the goals he has set - which brings us to SALT II.

SALT II is in fact such an interim step, albeit a modest one in light of the proposal put forth by the President. When SALT began in 1969, there were no limits on either strategic offensive or defensive weapons. In 1972, President Nixon signed the ABM treaty and the SALT I interim agreement on offensive weapons. In 1974, President Ford concluded the outlines of the so-called Vladivostok Agreement, a distinct improvement on the SALT I interim agreement. By the end of the Ford administration, additional limitations had been achieved in the emerging SALT II agreement. Finally, in 1979, the SALT II treaty was signed by President Carter. All of these were positive steps in the deliberate step-by-step approach to arms control carried on during the administrations of
 Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter. Each step fit the
Joint Chiefs of Staff characterization of the SALT II Treaty – “Modest but useful.

Finally, there is The Freeze Approach. This
 approach or sentiment stems from a clear popular frustration with the slow step-by-step approach of nuclear arms
control efforts to date. It is also clearly at variance with the “Let's start over and go for it all even if it takes many years” approach which the President has put forward. The strength of the popular support for the freeze - three out of four Americans support it, according to a recent poll - is a clear “no confidence” statement by the American public with respect to previous efforts by elected officials and technical experts to control the strategic arms competition. It rejects arcane arguments about the strategic balance, destabilizing weapons systems, windows of vulnerability, and countervailing strategy. The message is simple. It says stop the competition, do it in a verifiable manner, do it as soon as possible, and when you've done it, then let's talk about restructuring forces and the other arcane issues that seem to have been the impediment to constraining the competition, Unfortunately, I know that the problem is not that easy since much of the effort to date has gone to halting or freezing many of the avenues of competition. In fact, the SALT II treaty is essentially an agreement that freezes the competition in about ten different areas and slows it down in several others. The magnitude of that challenge is reflected in the pages of treaty text and the reams of testimony provided to Congress.

V. A Compromise Suggestion

In considering what is desirable, and what is possible, under today's political circumstances, I wish to suggest a compromise that can get us from where we are now to the laudable goal of major reductions the President has in mind.

It is only sensible not “to throw out the baby with the bath water” and to abandon all the limitations agreed upon up until now. As one of my predecessors, Henry Kissinger, stated recently:

“It seems to me a reasonable way to end
the current impasse establish a baseline for
later reductions and end the agitation for
quick fixes. I have great difficulty understanding why it is safe to adhere to a non-ratified agreement (SALT II) while it is unsafe
formally to ratify what one is already observing.”

Mr. Kissinger was referring to the Reagan administration's policy of saying “SALT II is dead” while in so many words - indicating that we intend not to undermine its terms so long as the Soviets do likewise.

This latter position is frequently stated rather casually, as if to suggest we may abandon even informal observance on short notice. If this were to happen, there would be no operating constraints on the arms race and we would be in a “free for all” situation.

There are major new additions to their strategic strength the Soviets could pursue outside of SALT II.

In considering my compromise proposal it is important to bear in mind that the SALT II treaty was never
debated and voted upon by the U.S. Senate, even though
it was reported out of the Foreign Relations Committee in the fall of 1979.

I believe there is wide spread support for the President's long-term START goals of major reductions in the most destabilizing intercontinental
sides and the reconfiguration of Soviet forces that threaten the United States. I also believe that there
is majority sentiment in both houses of Congress for the U.S. and the Soviet Union to abide by the terms of the SALT II treaty, now, while start negotiations are getting under way.

It is concern for the security of the United States over the next several years - while START is being negotiated - that causes me to urge a less casual and
more positive statement by the President on the value of
an interim SALT regime. We do not want the soviets to feel free to “break out” of SALT II’s limits on missiles and warheads; nor do we want them to be in a position to claim that the United States chose to abandon yet one more negotiated - but un-ratified - treaty on nuclear arms.

I believe that the policy of informal observance,
or passive adherence, could be strengthened by a formal statement by the United States Congress that it expected the Soviet Union to live by all the provisions of the main SALT II treaty document - including the requirement that they reduce the number of their strategic delivery vehicles by more than 250 right away.

Of course, I am keenly aware of the “political baggage” that the SALT II treaty, negotiated under the President I served, carries with it. Further, in a substantive sense the treaty in the minds of many served as a reminder of the bankruptcy of the SALT “process”: It could only ratify increases in arsenals but it had not worked to bring about reductions - points President Reagan has often made.


Therefore I recommend to President Reagan and the leaders of Congress the following course of actions:

1. Joint Congressional Resolution

The resolution could be worded as follows; “Pending the successful conclusion of the new START negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union, be it resolved by the Senate and the House of. Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that the United States shall continue to abide by the terms and provisions of the SALT II treaty so long as the Soviet Union fully abides by the terms and provisions of the SALT II treaty.”

This joint resolution approach, requiring action by both houses of Congress, and Presidential signature, is a way of avoiding a full-fledged formal consent-to-ratification battle over the treaty in the Senate. It would not necessarily require any formal action by the Soviet Union, whereas deeds - reductions in strategic delivery vehicles in the short run would be required. Actions would speak louder than words. Further, we would be taking a step now that gave promise of more reductions to come in a START I treaty to be negotiated no later than 1985 - when SALT II expires. The burden would be upon the Soviets, both to comply fully with the terms of SALT II and to agree to major reductions in the next three years.

2. A one-third
 reduction in warheads and a one-half reduction in missiles in the context of SALT II – by 1985

I believe there is a way to realize the President's “Phase One” goals for warhead and missile reductions in the span of a three-year negotiation, rather than a negotiation stretching over many years. This approach requires not starting from scratch, but reducing within the framework provided by SALT II.


The “Joint Statement of Principles and Basic Guidelines for Subsequent Negotiations on the Limitations of Strategic Arms” – which accompanied SALT II and was agreed to by both the United States and the Soviet Union - - called for a prompt third round of talks to bring about a “significant and substantial reduction in the number of strategic arms” on both sides.

My idea, in general terms, is to pursue in annual reductions, over 5-10 years, an overall reduction of 50 percent in the SALT II limits and sublimits. This will lead the Soviet Union, with such additional constraints as may be required, to make both the one-third cut in ballistic missile warheads and the approximate 50 percent cut in ballistic missiles which the President has advocated.

It is true that the SALT II treaty does not directly constrain either warheads or ballistic missiles per se, but instead restricts such things as MIRVED missiles, strategic launchers, and heavy missiles. But, in my considered judgment, a 50 percent cut in the limits and sublimits of SALIT II would, indeed, move the Soviet Union into the ball-park of the Reagan plan - albeit with some collateral restraints (for example, either no new light missile or a limit on warheads on a new missile).

SALT II’s provisions offer a ready agreed-upon context for reductions and make possible a less time-consuming START negotiation. In addition, such an approach could go a long way in achieving the other goal of holding Soviet missile warheads on land to half of their reduced total.

In conclusion, I believe that the course I have
 outlined would command broad, bipartisan support in Congress
and in the country. I also believe that it would be
supported by every former President, Secretary of State, and Secretary of Defense – as well as former National Security Advisers and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. A more positive statement about the SALT II agreement, linked to major reductions in START I, would be an act of great political consequence, at home and abroad.


I want President Reagan to succeed in doing more than any of his predecessors in bringing the nuclear threat under control. It is to that end that I raise my own compromise proposal.


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