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Talbott on arms control and the Cold War

How the United States and the Soviet Union dealt with nuclear warfare and the outcome of The Cold War: Atomic Bomb, M.A.D, Cubam Missile Crisis, Deterrence, A.B.M Treaty. Fmr. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in conversation with Walter Isaacson, President & CEO of The Aspen Institute.

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Video transcript

I'm Walter Isaacson to the Aspen Institute i'm here with strobe talbott former Deputy Secretary of State we've been talking about the containment policy in the Cold War and now we're going to talk about the role of arms control we talked about how the United States had created an atom bomb that was usable by early nineteen forty-five when did the Russians first test an atom bomb 1949 but that was after the United States tested of course the United States used the bomb that attested to end the war in the Pacific by dropping two atomic bombs on two Japanese cities the Russians got the bomb a lot sooner than we thought not least because they had spies in the Western atomic program so it was when the Russians set off their own test which was called Joe one after mr. spell after mr. Stalin Joseph Stalin that's when the phenomenon of the Cold War required as recognized by all saying people a mechanism for making sure that the Cold War did not become a hot war what was the reaction when suddenly the West realized Russia had the bomb in many quarters it was panic surprise blame storming of course that's always part of the mix and on the part of people who were keeping their wits about them a realization that the weapon that was sometimes called a super weapon was so much a super weapon that it couldn't be used what's amazing is that it has not been used again right it was it was a brat ecologic abrade through so stupendous in the destructive power that could be unleashed that it almost deterred itself but in order to be deterred there had to be a bargain or a mutual recognition on the part of the two countries that had and would always have the largest Arsenal's namely the Soviet Union in the United States that whatever troubles arose between them they couldn't go to war but that involved something a little bit more complicated and complicating which is to say there had to be something like parity or equality between the two because there was always a worry that if one side had more nuclear power than the other side even though the other side could hit back it couldn't hit back as quickly and as effectively as the first side that had superiority so avoiding superiority and striking a balance was another part of the new netherworld Laurie had to make clear that neither side could actually win a nuclear war so explain what the concept of mutual assured destruction was which by the way makes for a nice and ironic and very deliberate acronym which is mad in other words it would be madness for either side to go first because even though side one went first side to would have enough weapons left over to strike back and the result would be the destruction of both societies when did the arms control process start and did it try to preserve a balance so that mutual assured destruction would be a deterrent to any war I think the credit for originating at least from the Oval Office that is the White House goes to Dwight Eisenhower he understood as a military man what the stakes were here how nuclear weapons had transformed warfare transformed peace transformed diplomacy and he went to the United Nations and proposed what he called an atoms for peace process which would have basically set up an understanding that would involve all the countries in the world and that is that all countries would eventually have no nuclear weapons but that would be a long time off and in the meantime the few countries that did have nuclear weapons would go to into negotiations and reach agreements that would lower their levels of nuclear weapons and those countries that had nuclear power would share it with other countries for peaceful uses I would say that was the beginning of the arms control process and the concept of deterrence would seem that you would avoid things like even having a missile defense system is that a concept that began back then it was a critically important idea that was an American idea that was developed starting in the in the Kennedy administration and going up through the Nixon administration and the idea was this and it was counterintuitive it almost sounded like upside down thinking I'm the good guy strobe and you're the bad guy Walter and Walter has something that he can use to kill me with why shouldn't I have a shield well the answer to that is because of the nature of nuclear weapons the offense will always have the advantage over the defense so if i have a shield then Walter is simply going to get more Spears and going to be able to overcome the shield and guess what else is going to happen I'm going to build up my own offenses in case Walter decides to have a shield so the best way to have a situation where there's a balance of nuclear power and also the best way to have the circumstances for negotiations that will lower those levels is to have no defensive systems at all which was the original intent of what became known as the anti-ballistic missile treaty so the ABM treaty was a way to say that neither side should have an impenetrable shield so that we could have this deterrence exactly and not only so that we could have deterrence but we could also have successful negotiations to lower the level of offense and that would not have been possible if there was a significant degree of Defense and does Kennedy and Khrushchev start the process of arms control well yes by almost taking the world into World War three the Cuban missile crisis so in 1962 the Russians put missiles into Cuba and people like yourself and myself when we were in high school had to do civil defense drills to prepare for a nuclear attack yes and while at the time it was presented of course as the insidious Soviets up to no good which of course was true but what is important to keep in mind in understanding the Cold War is that the Soviets were doing things that were dangerous and offensive because they were so afraid of what we would do to them for example there were American missiles in Turkey that could reach to the Soviet Union so the Soviets thought that they were playing a chess move in response to something that we were doing so when do the strategic arms limitation talks begin they began during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson he had a meeting with the Prime Minister of the Soviet Union Alexei Kosygin halfway between the United Nations headquarters in Washington DC in which they laid down the essential idea of what would be the strategic arms limitation talks and it included those talks would have to deal with the issue of defenses and minimizing strategic defenses thanks