Russell E. Hershey,
INT: Why then in SALT, given all these problems that people were facing, why does it seem that MERVs were not really part of that discussion?
HS: Well, MERVs were, in fact, a part of the discussion, certainly very much in the American strategic community, very much among people who themselves were instrumental in inventing and develop MERVs in the sixties and the concern that this possibility of dispensing huge numbers of weapons with a very modest number of launchers, could in the end prove to be very destabilizing as well. You could hit many targets in a very cost-effective way, but one launcher attacked by the other side could destroy an enormous number of your own warheads. There was a kind of an ambivalence about the inclusion of MERVs in the SALT talks at the outset. It was also a problem of technically how you would verify the absence of MERVs or how you could prevent the development of MERVs. MERVs didn't really get going until the late sixties, seriously. There were tests, there were different kinds of dispensing mechanisms that were tested, there were huge disputes in the late sixties and early seventies as to whether the Soviets had themselves gone the same... or were going the same route that the United States in developing these dispensing buses, as they were called, from which the warheads would be spewed in various places. And the question of how you would cope with it, how you would verify the limitation or prohibition of MERV testing, all of these issues were extremely complicated. Actually in the Nixon administration there were proposals on MERV limitations that were put forward in the SALT negotiations, but it was very controversial and so in these early phases of the whole strategic negotiation, which of course went on for many years in the seventies and eighties, there wasn't really a way found to deal with the MERVs. I should make one other point... it's a paradox in my view. As long as there were single warheads only, the problem of strategic defense was technically a relatively feasible problem, which was one of the reasons why neither side, despite American interest in limiting in strategic defense, was all that interested in trying to abolish the possibility of strategic defense, because it seemed technically do-able. Once you got into the MERVs, the problem of strategic defense became infinitely more complicated, infinitely more expensive, because you had to devise ways of going after a multiplicity of warheads and all kinds of chaff and other kinds of... junk that would be put into the atmosphere to mislead the defense. And ironically enough, in my view, because of this enormous quantum leap in the difficulty of strategic defense, eventually each side became more interested in seeing if it might be limited.
INT: Very good answer.
INT: Can I ask you, I admit from a very naive point of view and definitely in hindsight, looking back on SALT, given the number, the huge increase in warheads, not in delivery systems, but in warheads that followed the ratification of SALT, was it naive not to have included MERVs at that period?
HS: Well, I don't know whether it was naive not to have included MERVs. My own feeling at the time was, and it remains in retrospect, that there might never have been any agreement at all, because of the sheer complexity of dealing with the MERV issue. We actually did, in the Nixon administration, instruct our SALT delegation to try out a possible approach to the MERV issue. That was an approach that the delegation was not particularly keen about and I've never quite found out how seriously they really put this forward to the Soviets. In any case, the way the negotiations were conducted in the Nixon administration, unless an issue was put forward in the famous back channel, the Soviets probably didn't pay as much attention to it as they did even with the very prestigious and competent formal American delegation. But I think probably the MERV issue was such that if you were really going to do something about it, that is if you stopped the testing or at least seriously limit the testing, or if you force the sort of telemetry that the tester was required to provide, the other side, you would run into insuperable issues of secrecy and so on. I think, in the end, the conclusion was reached politically, on both sides, that they should make a start with SALT. and leave the issue of MERVs to a later round and a kind of an aphorism in those days in the early seventies, which said that whatever is really significant is not negotiable and whatever is negotiable is not really significant. So that in a way, well, I don't mean to diminish altogether, denigrate altogether from the concrete results of the first SALT agreement. I think it was more a political act, a kind of stepping over the first threshold of then trying somehow to come to grips with the more complicated issues and the issues that ultimately would have to be somehow coped with if you were going to really make the world a safer place. I think SALT was very much a first step, which didn't change things a whole lot, but at least seemed to buy yourself an entrance ticket to the next round.
INT: Excellent answer. On a personal, more general level, what were the Russians like to deal with?
HS: Well... I think that the Russians didn't really change very much from how they had been in earlier Cold War encounters. The delegations tended to be very heavily instructed, constrained and so on, not that ours weren't instructed. And it was very slow going, there was a lot of formality, a lot of reading of carefully prepared statements, and personally, I think relationships were pretty good, but they were distant. But it also has to be understood that really basically, starting in the Nixon administration - it began to some extent in the Johnson administration, what was then stopped cold because of Czechoslovakia and the end of the Johnson presidency - but starting in the Nixon administration, a certain amount of contact by letter-writing, and then eventually face to face began to develop between the top leaders, something that really hadn't been true since World War Two, or since the end of the World War Two. And you did begin to develop, not so much a great compatibility, but a sense of the temperament and the style and the working methods of the other side, that we really hadn't had for the better part of a quarter of a century. I think eventually that paid off in the relationship. Sometimes when we got ourselves into a big crisis, there'd been a bit of that in the missile crisis in the Kennedy period, mostly through the Soviet ambassador here in Washington, Dobrynin, who stayeon and on and on into the seventies. and those encounters were more spontaneous, and less stylized and in a way more efficient, because there was lessof a requirement to repeat Pravda editorials or, well honed American phrases about Communism and so on and so forth. I think that the contribution that was made, especially in the seventies, with all the ups and downs that were yet to follow, was a more direct form of dialogue. I think a more valid form of communication back and forth that enabled decision-makers on both sides to reach decisions with a bit more sense of who you were really dealing with on the other side.
INT: Were there problems with the languages? I mean, we're talking very technical subjects and translation is always difficult?
HS: Well, there were problems with language.... the... obviously the American leaders at the top didn't master Russian and the Russian leaders at the top, with a few exceptions, like Gromyko, the long-time Foreign Minister and some of their ambassadors and negotiators, but certainly not the Brezhnev level, the Politburo level, didn't master English or any foreign language. So there were problems with that, but it's also true that the more contact there was, the more these interpreters that traveled along developed their style, their sense of catching not only the actual words, but the meaning that it was intended to convey. The Russians had a very skilful interpreter and we had two or three of them as well, and they really, I think, bridged, in many ways, the language gap and they understood that some words, literally translated, might actually turn out to be misleading and while they were being good interpreters and did the literal translation, they might then add another word to make sure that on the other side the real intended meaning of that word or phrase or idiom was properly understood. So my sense is that language was a problem, but the statesmen, the leaders, learned to surmount it and to rely on their interpreters, or even the other side's interpreters to some extent, to make sure that that meaning was properly conveyed. It's very important not in chit-chat so much, but if you have a serious problem, whether it's a negotiating problem or whether you may be moving toward the brink of war, that you communicate what you want to communicate with the greatest clarity. Even if you want to be unclear, you want to be clearly unclear, rather than produce a misunderstanding which could be very dangerous when you had the kind of confrontation that we had.
INT: Can you tell me a little bit about what exactly the back channel was and how important was it to the SALT negotiations?
HS: Well, the back channel wasn't invented in the Nixon administration. There were lots of communications during the Cuban Missile Crisis that weren't sent through embassies, which would be the front channel, or through the official contacts. Bobby Kennedy got into it, and others in the sixties, even back in the forties, at the time of the Berlin blockade there were messages conveyed in unconventional ways back and forth. But the back channel did have a much more... specific role and developed role at the beginning of the Nixon administration. What it meant was that communications were made by the President of the United States or his immediate representative, in this case mostly Kissinger, not through the normal channels of the State Department and the American embassy, but through the Soviet ambassador in Washington, who would, it was thought and was understood, be able to communicate directly with Brezhnev and the top leadership around the Soviet diplomatic channels. I don't know, we never did, whether perhaps Gromyko got wind of it, anyway, but it seemed to be a method by which the leaderships could communicate with each other, could perhaps cut through some of the deadlocks that had been reached in the more formal negotiations, or determine that there really was a deadlock and that there wasn't much more than simply going through the motions, perhaps for political benefit or propaganda advantages and what have you. So it came to be a rather important device of communicating. In our case, the American case, the front channel negotiators were not always kept informed and because of the peculiar relationship that developed between the White House and Department of State in the Nixon administration, the State Department was not always kept informed. That created problems sometimes, because they were still on another line or an old line and the one that had been explored by the White House, or they simply felt that they were being made fools of, because the Soviets would know that they didn't know. So they felt very badly about it and that is one of the limitations of the back channel. You have to make sure that you don't demoralize your normal diplomatic establishment, because in the end, even if per back channel you reach some understandings and you reach some agreement, somebody has got to go and write it down and the lawyers have to look at it and you can't really keep the professionals that do the detail, the tough, hard grinding detail, and in our case, that do the detail that eventually has to be ratified and justified in the Congress, if you keep them out of it too long, so that question of how far you go with the back channel before you bring everybody into it, without compromising the existence of the back channel, because you might want to use it later, you don't really want leaks in the back channel, and there was another issue and that is that the Soviets clearly worked better secretively. Now, you know, you don't want to acknowledge that you lapse into the Soviet style of doing things, but if there was an issue that was sufficiently delicate, sufficiently important to affect vital national interests, I don't think there's anything wrong in using this unconventional way, even if it doesn't quite conform to Wilsonian open covenants openly arrived at, which Wilson himself didn't quite live up to. and so one should have certain limits on the back channel use. It becomes quite addictive once it looks like it's productive. But it was a way, in my view, of breaking through some things that couldn't have been unlocked otherwise.
INT: Excellent answer. One of the criticisms at the time was that both President Nixon and Dr Kissinger were keen to take power away from the National Security Council and take it into the White House. Is that a fair criticism?
HS: Well, there's no doubt that Nixon wanted to conduct his own foreign policy and that Kissinger was very much his colleague and instrument in doing this. Nixon distrusted the State Department, even though the Secretary of State, William Rogers, had been pretty close to Nixon, going back to the Eisenhower administration, but he distrusted the State Department. Nixon wanted to be able to deal with issues and avoid premature leaks and he thought the State Department was just a sieve. He was keenly interested in foreign policy and, you know, under our constitution, it is in fact the President that conducts foreign policy, there was nothing unconstitutional about. All Presidents... or many Presidents since the United States became an active international player did some of that. Wilson had Colonel Howes, Roosevelt had Harry Hopkins and so on and they got keenly interested in foreign policy. So there's no question that that was the Nixon style was to bring as many of these strings together in the Department in the White House and use the National Security Council's staff, largely staffed with experts, to do some of the staff work needed for an active foreign policy role by the President of the United States and his immediate assistant. It eventually... the balance shifted and Kissinger became Secretary of State and learned to use the State Department and found that it was possible to do it, but certainly in the first Nixon and beginning till his resignation, second Nixon administration, the White House was the focus.