Making Sense on SALT

President Reagan is expected to decide this weekend whether the United States will continue to abide by the SALT II treaty placing certain limits on U.S. and Soviet offensive missiles. The answer should be yes.

The 1979 treaty was never ratified by the Senate, and was assailed by Reagan as a “flawed” agreement during his 1980 campaign for President. After his election, however, Washington and Moscow each agreed to abide by the treaty’s terms.

Continued adherence to the agreement is an issue because of allegations that Moscow has violated the accord by scrambling signals from missiles in test launches and by developing at least two new types of land-based missiles instead of the one permitted by the treaty.

The United States will have to retire an older Poseidon submarine or destroy more than a dozen land-based missiles in order to make room within the treaty-set ceilings for a new Trident submarine scheduled to put to sea in the fall.


Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger is urging Reagan to abandon the treaty to show Moscow that arms-control agreements cannot be violated with impunity. Fortunately, the President is getting better advice elsewhere.

Secretary of State George P. Shultz feels strongly that walking away from the SALT II agreement would be a mistake on diplomatic grounds. He takes seriously the warnings from this country’s European allies, reiterated this week, that abandoning SALT II would be a propaganda windfall for the Soviet Union in Europe, and would undermine confidence that the Reagan Administration is interested in arms control.

The most persuasive arguments for adherence are those offered by at least three members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. These top-ranking officers feel that, with treaty restraints removed, the Soviets would be able to outbuild the United States in a nuclear arms race because of budgetary and political constraints on the American side. To the extent that this country did respond with an accelerated nuclear buildup of its own, the senior military men fear that other vital military programs--including efforts to enhance U.S. non-nuclear fighting capabilities--would be shortchanged, undercutting national security.

As for sending the Soviets a signal about cheating, the resolution passed by the Senate on Wednesday will do nicely. The resolution, engineered and supported by senators in favor of arms control, urges the President to observe the SALT II limitations through 1986 or until the treaty is superseded by a new agreement. But it would allow him to take “proportionate responses” to Soviet violations.


The language apparently means that the Senate does not consider SALT II a barrier to development of the single-warhead Midgetman missile, in view of developments on the Soviet side. The resolution also is consistent with a proposal within the Administration to take a Poseidon submarine out of service in the fall, removing the missiles but keeping the sub in dry dock for at least six months while Soviet compliance with the treaty is assessed.

The Senate has handed the President what amounts to bipartisan support for dealing with the question of Soviet violations on a selective basis instead of by wholesale abandonment of the treaty. He would be wise to accept it.