35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Unilateral U.S. nuclear pullback in 1991 matched by rapid Soviet cuts

President George H.W. Bush

President George H.W. Bush announces his Presidential Nuclear Initiatives in a prime-time speech from the Oval Office, September 27, 1991. Credit: National Defense University Press.

Published: Sep 30, 2016
Briefing Book #561

Compiled and edited by Svetlana Savranskaya and Thomas Blanton
Research assistance by Tal Solovey and Nadezhda Smakhtina
Additional documentation provided by William Burr
Web design by Rinat Bikineyev

For further information, contact:
Svetlana Savranskaya: 202.994.7000 and nsarchiv@gwu.edu

Declassified documents tell inside story of “most spontaneous and dramatic reversal” of the arms race

Bush initiatives took up Gorbachev proposals from years earlier; combined effect produced “real disarmament at lightning speed”

Washington D.C., September 30, 2016 – The unilateral nuclear withdrawals announced by President George H.W. Bush 25 years ago this week drew an eager response from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to produce what experts call “the most spontaneous and dramatic reversal” ever of the nuclear arms race, according to newly declassified documents from Soviet and U.S. files posted today by the National Security Archive to mark the anniversary of the Bush initiative.

The documents include the verbatim transcripts of Bush’s September 27, 1991 phone call to Gorbachev giving the Soviet leader a heads-up on the imminent White House announcement, and Gorbachev’s phone call with Bush on October 5 spelling out the dramatic Soviet nuclear pullbacks that matched and in some cases exceeded the American moves. 

Also in today’s posting – just declassified this year – are the actual Pentagon orders to U.S. military commanders on carrying out the nuclear withdrawals, the State Department reports on follow up talks in Moscow, translations of the Soviet transcripts of those talks, and internal Soviet assessments of how much the USSR would save from cutting the nuclear weapons involved in the initiative.

The Bush initiative and the Gorbachev response, together with the post-Cold War cooperation between the Soviet Union and the U.S. on a wide range of issues, produced in 1991 the largest step back from nuclear midnight ever marked on the famous “Doomsday Clock” of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

Doomsday Clock

The Bush initiatives helped produce the biggest step back from midnight in the history of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ famous Doomsday Clock. Credit: Larry Hatfield 2007, used by permission.

Pulitzer-Prize-winning author David Hoffman later wrote of the September initiative, “Only weeks before, in St. Vladimir’s Hall in the Kremlin, Bush and Gorbachev had signed a strategic arms treaty [START I] that took nearly a decade to negotiate and allowed seven years to implement; now they both acted immediately, without a single negotiating session. Nothing was binding, and nothing was verifiable, but it was the most spontaneous and dramatic reversal of the Cold War arms race.” (The Dead Hand, p. 383)  Hoffman called the process “real disarmament at lightning speed.”

According to the subsequent memoir account written by Bush with his national security adviser, Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the president came up with the idea for a unilateral move on nuclear weapons while vacationing at the family home in Kennebunkport, Maine.  The August 1991 coup attempt against Gorbachev had signaled the beginning of the end for his tenure, and for the Soviet Union; Bush was eager to make progress while he still had Gorbachev as a partner; command and control of nuclear weapons was a real concern in a disintegrating USSR; and Bush told his National Security Council on September 5, 1991, that he wanted a “handful” of proposals that “would put us on the offense.”  (A World Transformed, pp. 539-547)

Scowcroft came up with the idea of getting rid of all tactical nuclear weapons (except air-launched ones), as he later wrote, because doing so would address several concerns: German opposition to short-range nukes there (they would all explode on German soil in the newly unified Germany), South Korean requests to lessen the U.S. nuclear presence there as part of engaging North Korea, and U.S. Navy problems over port visits in anti-nuclear countries like Japan and New Zealand.  Other parts of the Bush initiatives took bombers and missiles off alert, pressed de-MIRVing of missiles (most controversial in Moscow, because of the higher proportion of MIRVed ICBMs in the Soviet triad), and canceled some nuclear modernization programs (the U.S. Senate had already voted to stop several on budgetary grounds).

The documents show that top State Department officials conceded during talks in Moscow that Bush’s presidential nuclear initiatives picked up offers that Soviet leader Gorbachev had made years earlier.  Gorbachev had even proposed a “third zero” on short-range nuclear weapons when he negotiated the “double zero” on intermediate-range missiles with President Reagan in 1987. 

Gorbachev had explicitly raised naval arms control at the Malta summit in 1989, and earlier with Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, in February 1988 – only to be roundly rejected by the Americans.  Records from the Malta summit to be published in November in the National Security Archive's latest volume, The Last Superpower Summits (CEU Press), show some American officials argued that tactical nuclear weapons only equalized what were otherwise two very unequal navies (ie. getting rid of them was in the U.S. interest), but reflexive turf protection by U.S. military leaders kept naval arms control off the table until it was almost too late for Gorbachev to reciprocate.

Gorbachev’s October 5 response came as the result of an extraordinary internal debate in which Soviet generals opposed the loss of MIRVs, but saw the value of pulling back tactical nuclear weapons from the Soviet republics that were on the verge of independence – especially Ukraine.  Gorbachev went beyond the American proposals by including a nuclear testing moratorium, reducing the Soviet army by 700,000 troops, and proposing to destroy – not just withdraw to storage – Soviet tactical nuclear warheads.

Gorbachev’s aide Andrei Grachev later wrote that “President Bush’s nuclear initiative gave Gorbachev the chance to take up his position as the head of one of the world’s two nuclear superpowers” at a time when the August 1991 “putsch” had reduced the USSR to a “temporary governmental structure.” (Final Days, p. 26-27)  Grachev described the committee that developed the Soviet response as including the foreign ministry, the defense ministry, the KGB, and two political advisers, Alexander Yakovlev and Yury Ryzhov, to serve as “‘democratic counterweights’ to the corporate interests of the military-industrial complex.”

Today’s posting includes remarkable fly-on-the-wall accounts of the internal Soviet debates by Gorbachev’s national security adviser, Anatoly Chernyaev, and a never-before-published assessment by Vitaly Katayev, deputy head of the Defense Industry Department of the Soviet Central Committee, of the USSR’s potential savings from the unilateral and reciprocal arms reductions.


Read the documents