The Zero Option sounds like the title of a Cold War thriller with something as threatening as the shrouded and guarded Pershing II missile in the background image being fired in a risky attempt to destroy Soviet Command and Control capabilities during an implausible NATO/Warsaw Pact throwdown. In reality The Zero Option is much less menacing. The term comes from arms control negotiations and refers to parties either agreeing to decline to deploy a class of weapons or agreeing to mutually withdraw a class of weapons. This hasn’t happened often. And the most important time it ever happened, it looked like this:
That’s a BMG-109G Gryphon cruise misslie, a land based version of the Navy’s Tomahawk, being cut in precisely in places required by the INF treaty. Yes, the treaty specified what parts of each weapon had to be cut by saws. Soviet monitors measured the cuts, just as American monitors watched SS-20 missile bodies being torn apart by explosives.
Given Reagan’s hard Cold War stance, the INF treaty of 1987 could not have been predicted in 1981. US negotiators proposed a zero option in 1981 to give the Soviet Union the opportunity to withdraw the SS-20 and other missiles before deployment of Pershing II and Gryphon which had been planned in ’79 and ’80. It was a generous offer, but not one taken seriously. The proposed zero option was mostly a propaganda ploy, though it was worth trying.
The INF zero option would come during Reagan’s second term. Gorbachev took the initiative, and Reagan followed. But why? You have to remember that Reagan was really as weird and goofy as his critics portrayed him back in the 80’s, but in a better way than we thought. Yes, he was horrible on domestic and economic issues, and his policies on Central America led to terrible results. But thanks to his black hat/white hat view of strategic affairs we came through pretty well. I credit Secretary of State George Shultz, military advisor Colin Powell, and advisor Suzanne Massie for the INF Treaty.
Who’s Suzanne Massie? If you google “the woman who won the Cold War” you’ll mostly get links to her own website. She overstates things, but she was there when it happened, as she deserved to be. Here’s Massie, Gorbachev, and Reagan in 1987 at the White House after signing of the INF Treaty:
Suzanne Massie was the researcher and editor of her husband’s book Nicholas and Alexandra. She spoke fluent Russian and had traveled extensively in the Soviet Union. Suzanne and Robert Massie divorced soon after the death of their son from complications of hemophilia and she would go on to write two other books on Russian history by the time Reagan took office. I am not sure how Suzanne Massie became such a trusted Reagan advisor. I know Reagan had read Land of the Firebird before the 1985 Geneva Summit, but he had not met her before that time. I can find no information about how Massie and Reagan met. I think Nancy may have arranged this.
What About a Real Zero Option?
Yes, the INF was impressive, but at the 1986 Iceland Summit The Gipper and Gorby tossed around a real zero option at the Reykjavik summit in 1986. They played around with the idea of reducing strategic weapons to a token deterrent force. Gorbachev pointed out that this would require that the US give up research on the Strategic Defense Initiative. Reagan refused, he really believed that SDI would be his legacy.
Building down to a minimum deterrence stance requires embracing Mutual Assured Destruction. As much as I dislike MAD, I probably would have accepted Gorbachev’s offer.
In any case, it doesn’t matter that Reagan rejected Gorbachev’s proposal. Gorbachev could never have stayed in power long enough to make it work.
The INF Today:
The INF allowed the US and USSR up to a hundred warheads as long as they were not pointed anywhere in Russia or Europe. The US destroyed all systems as there’s no reason to threaten to nuke Canada or Mexico, though we could. Don’t get any ideas, Canada. Russia redeployed some of their INF forces to near China.
Lately the US has claimed that Russia has rapid mobile systems that could be easily deployed to threaten Europe in violation of the INF treaty. That’s correct, But Bill Clinton in his second term, W Bush, and Obama have all broken promises about NATO expansion and strategic deployment made by GHW Bush.
I expect the INF treaty to become void in the next four years.
Bonus Research Link:
if you want to read more about the goofiness of the mid 80’s, this 2009 Vanity Fair article is good. It details a secret meeting between Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. It’s a good thing that Reagan trusted Suzanne Massie rather than Dick Nixon.
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