Henry Kissinger doesn’t do remorse. The closest he came to second guessing his arms control negotiating record has become a classic quote in Wonkdom:

I would say in retrospect that I wish I had thought through the implications of a MIRVed world more thoughtfully in 1969 and 1970 than I did.

Kissinger offered this thought at his December 3, 1974 background briefing for the press in Vladivostok, where he engaged (unsuccessfully, thanks in part to blocking maneuvers by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld) in negotiations to limit the damage resulting from letting MIRVs run free in the SALT I accords. Five years later, during his unenthusiastic SALT II testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kissinger offered a similar not-quite-mea culpa:

In retrospect, I think if one could have avoided the development of MIRVs, which means also the testing of MIRVs by the Soviets, we would both be better off.

Leaving MIRVs unconstrained, as William G. Hyland later wrote (Mortal Rivals, Superpower Relations from Nixon to Reagan, 1987), “was a truly fateful decision that changed strategic relations, and changed them to the detriment of American security.” Hyland served with distinction on the National Security Council staff and at the State Department during this period. He later became the editor of Foreign Affairs.

Kissinger’s accounts on the Nixon administration’s fateful decision on MIRVs are a bit disingenuous. In a Time magazine piece published on March 21, 1983, he wrote that “the Soviets ignored our hints to open the subject of a MIRV ban in the SALT talks.” Why hint about a topic so central to strategic stability? The memoirs of the Soviet Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Dobrynin (In Confidence: Moscow’s Ambassador to America’s Six Cold War Presidents, 1995), offered a more straightforward account:

By 1970 the United States had MIRVs ready for deployment whereas the Soviet Union had not even begun testing them. So the Americans did not exert themselves to discuss MIRVs during the SALT talks and definitely were not eager to ban them. In private talk Kissinger bantered with me, ‘Well, you are very smart indeed to suggest banning something you don’t have and we already do’… The American agreement to count MIRVs was then rather skillfully hidden under the cover of a condition which the Nixon administration (and Kissinger especially) knew Moscow could not accept: a link between a ban on MIRVed missiles and on-site inspections to verify the ban.

Actually, the conditions the Nixon administration required for a MIRV ban were more onerous than Dobrynin recalled. They included on-site inspections of SAMs, constraints on SAM upgrades, and the dismantling of early warning radars. For the painful details, Gerard Smith’s Doubletalk is required reading.

By offering a deal on MIRVs that the Kremlin couldn’t accept, the White House was able to deflect pressures from Democrats on Capitol Hill who were pushing for a ban. As Kissinger wrote in his memoirs (White House Years, 1979), “it would give us the positive public posture of having favored comprehensive limitations.”

Kissinger clearly understood the consequences of MIRVing: he wrote a memo to President Nixon on July 13, 1970 laying out the prospective problem of ICBM vulnerability that would result once the Soviets followed the US down this path. But MIRVs, as Kissinger wrote, were a crucial counterweight to the 200-300 new ICBMs and SLBMs the Soviets were deploying annually. The Pentagon was “passionate” about MIRVs and lukewarm toward ballistic missile defenses.

The Nixon administration concluded that banning MIRVs as well as severely limiting ABMs was not wise or politically feasible. As a consequence, the SALT I accords severely limited ABM systems, while letting MIRVs run free. The end result, as Kissinger foresaw and acknowledged in his 1983 Time magazine essay, “doomed the SALT approach.”