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Back-Channel Triumphant: Kissinger, Dobrynin, and the 1972 Treaty on Limiting Anti-Ballistic Missile

Runner-Up of The Politica's Research Essay Prize 2021

Henry Kissinger and Anatoly Dobrynin in the Map Room at the White House, March 17, 1972 (Source: Soviet-American Relations: the Détente Years, 1969-1972)

“Let us take as our goal: where peace is unknown, make it welcome; where peace is fragile, make it strong; where peace is temporary, make it permanent.” [1]

― Richard Nixon ―


On a cold day in January of 1969, a US Presidential administration began with an unorthodox foreign policy strategy bent on altering the balance of the increasingly hot Cold War. The War in Vietnam had cost President Lyndon Johnson another term while civil strife rose across the nation. An end to the Vietnam quagmire had been Nixon’s campaign trail promise. His inaugural address spoke of the need for a “peacemaker”. [2] How then to go about the process of peace with an ideologically motivated enemy resistant to decades of Western firepower and traditional military doctrine? For Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, the answer to the Vietnam dilemma lay in Moscow rather than Hanoi. [3] If a bridge could be built between the Soviet Union and the US, perhaps the “Nixinger” quest for peace and balance of power could be achieved.

The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) began in this presidential transition, as the US shifted towards detente with the Soviet Union as an end to a mean. Whereas the Johnson administration had seen the early days of SALT stalled, Nixon’s pragmatism combined with the tact diplomaticskill of Kissinger (and his emphasis on back-channel talks) would produce the 1972 Moscow Summit and Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missiles. The ABM treaty would become a crowning accomplishment of detente that brought the notion of “peaceful coexistence” to fruition. The road to 1972 faced numerous challenges as both Nixon and Brezhnev dealt with domestic pressures and international developments (particularly deteriorating Sino-Soviet relations and the People’s Republic of China’s increasing nuclear capabilities). Back-channel meetings were of particular importance in SALT, specifically the relationship between Kissinger and Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. As the negotiators on both sides improved their interpersonal relationships, the compromise reached at Moscow and the success of the ABM Treaty became a firm possibility rather than political promise.


President Richard M. Nixon (right), and Leonid Brezhnev (left) drink a toast at the White House in Washington, DC, June 21, 1973. (AP Photo)

In Moscow, Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev had shifted Soviet foreign policy away from the global adventurism of his predecessor Khrushchev towards a more Warsaw pact centric policy. Propping up and containing reform movements in socialist neighbors saw the Warsaw Pact intervene in Czechoslovakia in 1968 during the Prague Spring. Domestically, the Brezhnev era began a slow shift towards Soviet gerontocracy and relative stagnation as countries like the US advanced in information technology and the industrial economic post war boom faded. Unable to match Western consumer goods, Brezhnev conservatism would mark the beginning of the Soviet decline.

From the Politburo perspective, SALT was necessary to create balance at a time when the development of ABMs could make the mutually assured destruction concept mute and grant one side strategic advantage in the event of conflict. US development of MIRVs was an additional Soviet fear as this expanded the US nuclear capability while reducing the number of missiles necessary. Nuclear parity was in favor of the US by the end of the 1960s, but both archrivals still feared a “missile gap”. [4] US advances in ballistic missile technology (as evident in the US victory during the ‘Space Race’) exceeded any missile production increases made by the Soviet Union. Pragmatic acknowledgment that the US-Soviet technology gap was expanding brought Brezhnev to SALT looking for a deal.

In terms of Soviet negotiation structure during SALT and at the 1972 Moscow Summit, key figures included: Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, Soviet Ambassador to the US Anatoly Dobrynin, Soviet Premier (and policy savant) Alexei Kosygin, and Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Semenov. Meeting in Helsinki in November of 1969, Semenov lead the Soviet negotiation team in an official capacity with US counterpart Ambassador Gerard Smith. [5] Semenov had joined the Soviet Foreign Ministry in 1939, was a trouble shooter and was considered hardworking by Western diplomats. [6] Unbeknownst to Semenov, his mentor and boss Gromyko did not expect much success to come from the Helsinki (and later Vienna) meetings with Smith. Instead, Gromyko put his faith in the growing relationship between Nixon’s National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, and Dobrynin. [7]

As Dobrynin would write in his memoirs, In Confidence: Moscow's Ambassador to America's Six Cold War Presidents (1962-1986), the level of back-channel relationship was something he had never seen throughout his entire diplomatic career. [8] According to Dobrynin, the frequent communications led the Nixon administration to approve the installing of a direct phone line between Dobrynin’s office at the Soviet Embassy and Kissinger’s Office within the White House. [9] Kremlin leadership like Gromyko approved this relationship and as Dobrynin writes:

“I can say with certainty that had it not been for that channel, many key agreements on complicated and controversial issues would never have been reached.” [10]

The creation of a firm diplomatic channel directly between the Soviet leadership in the Kremlin and Nixon (with no middlemen in the State Department or the Executive Office apart from Kissinger) was an encouraging sign of détente. In the early days of the Nixon administration, Dobrynin grew worried that the US were not viewing SALT as a priority. He also worried that Nixon would try overtures towards the PRC to take advantage of the Sino-Soviet split. Back in Moscow, Brezhnev and Kosygin were engaged in an internal struggle for power as the two remained divided on economic policy. The Soviet approach would emphasize secrecy along the Dobrynin-Kissinger back-channel along with private flexibility. The SALT negotiations in Helsinki and Vienna would be public red herrings. As Dobrynin said of Soviet foreign policy at this time:

“[It] was largely shaped by events in the world, often through improvisation rather than according to some permanent grand plan.” [11]

Nixon’s surprise visit to Mao Zedong’s PRC in the early part of 1972 was certainly an event that put the ball in the Brezhnev court regarding an ABM deal. Such a shocking visit by a US President to a country which was embroiled in a break in relations with the Soviet Union would require an improvisational diplomatic response to save face. While the economy was based on plans, Soviet diplomacy would not be bound by the same concept.


Associated Press

The Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy dynamic would come to define the period of détente that occupied US-Soviet relations for the late 1960s through the 1970s. The ideal complement to Nixon the “peacemaker,” Kissinger was a prominent US academic who specialized in US nuclear policy and the peace conferences surrounding the Napoleonic Wars of the 19th Century. Nixon and Kissinger’s strategy in dealing with the Soviet Union was a trio of principles: concreteness, restraint, and linkage. [12] Of the three principles, linkage was the key principle that Kissinger and Nixon would frequent. Under such a principle:

“In [the Nixon administration’s] view, linkage existed in two forms: first, when a diplomat deliberately links two separate objectives in a negotiation, using one as leverage on the other; or by virtue of reality, because in an interdependent world the actions of a major power are inevitably related and have consequences beyond the issue or region immediately concerned.” [13]

For Kissinger, the one key link was that of ending the Vietnam War. Having just completed a successful diplomatic maneuver with a visit to Brezhnev’s rival Mao, the Nixinger duo was applying pressure on the Soviets to make an overture when it came to SALT and ABMs. Rather than through the Smith-Semenov negotiations taking place concurrently, it was the Dobrynin back-channel that gave the US the opportunity to push for a summit. In his memoirs, White House Years, Kissinger also emphasizes his friendly and personable relationship with Dobrynin. Using this relationship, Kissinger would be able to guide a summit between Brezhnev and Nixon to fruition.


Signed on May 26th, 1972, in Moscow during the Nixon-Brezhnev summit, the “Treaty on the Limitation of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems” was the culmination of years of negotiations held via SALT as well as the work of back-channel diplomacy conducted between Dobrynin and Kissinger. The treaty prohibited attempts by either side to expand usage of ABMs across their respective states, deploy ABM systems to allies overseas, and the development, testing, or deployment of sea, air, or land ABM systems. [14] What was permitted and created with the agreement consisted of the allowance of two ABM systems to defend the respective state’s capitol and an ICBM launch field, the researching of ABM systems, the use of technical means to ensure compliance (alongside a subsequent provision banning interference in the respective party’s verification of compliance), and the formation of a “Standing Consultative Commission” which would handle any issues raised from parties regarding the treaty. [15] In terms of length, the treaty specified that it would be applicable for “unlimited duration” and each party could opt out should events related to the treaty matters “jeopardized its supreme interests”.

For Nixon, the ABM treaty was a domestic political success. Heading into the 1972 Presidential election cycle, the agreement boosted his image as a peacemaker. Polls showed national approval of the ABM treaty at 80% and the path to ratification via the Senate was carried out with only minor hiccups. [16] Politically, Nixon did lose the support of more conservative elements of the Republican Party who admonished the shift from Nixon the “Cold Warrior” to Nixon the dealmaker. Liberal elements of American political society also bemoaned the ABM treaty for not bringing about a reduction in defense spending that they had associated with the SALT negotiations.

For Brezhnev, the ABM treaty was received positively. Not only had the Americans come to Moscow, but they had agreed to a treaty that levelled the playing field in terms of ABM systems. The key for Brezhnev had been economic; a desire to prevent a new arms race to build both new ABMs and more advanced ICBMs. By limiting the Americans to one ABM site while allowing themselves to maintain their ABM system surrounding Moscow was a victory for Brezhnev. Regardless of whether the ABM systems would be successful in the event of a nuclear war, by being able to keep their ABM system and force the US to accept only one, Brezhnev was evening out the US-Soviet relationship.


“For US-Soviet relations are now a permanent challenge for the American people, whose response will decide our security but also the prospects for a better world.” [17]

― Henry Kissinger―

The ABM treaty and the negotiation process that fomented it was a prime example of US-Soviet détente during Nixon’s first term. The treaty was beneficial for Nixon’s image, but was essential for the rising diplomatic star that was Henry Kissinger. His back-channel diplomacy with Dobrynin was vital in getting the ABM treaty and the Moscow Summit into motion. This back-channel diplomatic style fostered amicable relations between Brezhnev and Nixon so that when they met in Moscow, the goals of the ABM treaty could be respectably accomplished. Kissinger and Nixon’s egos did cause clashes within the US side, specifically the US State Department contingent working in Helsinki/Vienna throughout SALT. The more pronounced political egos plagued the American team whereas the flexible diplomatic structure of the Soviets let them proceed with calculus and tact. The ABM treaty was an accomplishment that cemented Nixon’s second term, enhanced his image as “peacemaker”, and brought the theatrics of détente to diplomatic fruition. Both the US and the Soviet Union got an agreement on a technology that would have been too costly yet was so new and unknown that a lack of an agreement may have pushed the leaders of the bipolar world towards greater polarization and military angst. While the ABM treaty would be abandoned by the US in the post Cold War era, the negotiation processes that went into the treaty represent a case study in back-channels, pragmatism, and détente style thinking.


[1] Nixon, Richard “First Inaugural Address of Richard Milhous Nixon, January 20th, 1969” The Avalon Project at the Yale Law School Lillian Goldman Law Library

[2] Ibid.

[3] Tal, David. US Strategic Arms Policy in the Cold War : Negotiation and Confrontation over SALT, 1969-1979. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2017. Accessed March 11, 2021. ProQuest Ebook Central. Pg 6.

[4] Labrie, Roger P. 1979. SALT Hand Book : Key Documents and Issues, 1972-1979. Washington : American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. Pg 31-3.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Tal 26-27

[7] Ibid.

[8] Dobrynin, Anatoliĭ Fedorovich. 1995. In Confidence : Moscow's Ambassador to America's Six Cold War Presidents (1962-1986). New York: Times Books, Random House. Pg 191-220.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Kissinger, Henry. White House Years. 1st ed. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979. Pgs 128-129

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Treaty Between The United States Of America And The Union Of Soviet Socialist Republics On The Limitation Of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems”, opened for signature May 26th, 1972.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Tal 112-113.

[17] Kissinger 1257.


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