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1987: Superpowers to reverse arms race

Leaders of the world's two superpowers - the Soviet Union and the United States of America have signed the first ever treaty to reduce the size of their ground-based nuclear arsenals.

After a three-day summit in Washington, US President Ronald Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev put their names to the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in a first attempt to reverse the nuclear arms race.

The treaty aims to destroy all medium- and shorter-range nuclear weapons in Europe capable of hitting European targets including western Russia.

Mr Reagan described it as the realisation of "an impossible vision".

Mr Gorbachev said it had "universal significance for mankind".

'New thinking'

There are fears that hawkish elements in the US Senate will kill off the treaty with amendments when the time comes for it to ratify the agreement.

But if approved it will require the dismantling of all 1,752 Soviet and 859 US missiles with ranges of between 300 and 3,400 miles (482 to 5,472km) within three years.

Both leaders stressed that this was only the first step towards an even more radical agreement to cut by half long-range nuclear weapons to be signed when Mr Reagan visits the USSR next year.

Earlier, Mr Gorbachev - who is famed for his policy of "glasnost" (openness) - held a meeting at the Soviet embassy broadcast live on television with leading scientists, artists, writers, actors and religious figures.

They included former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Defence Secretary Robert McNamara, evangelist Billy Graham, writer Norman Mailer and actor Paul Newman. He tried to win them over to his "new thinking" on nuclear disarmament.

He then went to the White House for the signing ceremony where the two leaders put their names to the treaty eight times.

After the signing the two heads of state retired to separate rooms to make speeches to the world's television audience.

Verification

During this his first visit to the US, Mr Gorbachev acknowledged the "historical, ideological, socio-economical and cultural" differences between the two superpowers but emphasised his objective of a world living in peace without nuclear weapons.

President Reagan, too, recognised "fundamental moral differences" but also expressed a wish to make the world a safer place.

At one point he quoted one of his favourite Russian proverbs to Mr Gorbachev - "Dovyerai no provyerai" - meaning "You should trust but you should also verify". Mr Gorbachev replied with a smile: "You say that every time we meet!"

Under INF, both countries have accepted stringent verification procedures to check nuclear weapons are being destroyed.

In Context
One of the reasons the US and the USSR became confident enough to agree a reduction in nuclear weapons was because both countries were working on their own defence systems that aimed to destroy incoming nuclear missiles in space. In the USA this was called the Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), also known as "star wars".

The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement was followed by the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (Start I) in 1991, which cut the numbers of long-range nuclear weapons by roughly half.

Two years later Start II agreed to scrap a further 3,000 to 3,500 warheads.

The Treaty of Moscow in 2002, signed by Presidents George Bush and Vladimir Putin, reduced the number of weapons by a further 1,700 to 2,200.

SDI was abandoned by President Bill Clinton in 1993 amid allegations test results had been falsified. It was resurrected by President Bush in 2002 as the Ground-based Midcourse Defence (GMD) Test Bed.

The arms race
Nuclear-armed countries

  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • Russia
  • China
  • France
  • India
  • Pakistan
  • Israel
  • Suspected nuclear aspirants

  • Iran
  • North Korea
  • Total warheads worldwide

  • Over 40,000

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