The 1972 Moscow Summit; One Time Richard Nixon Did Something Really Right

When President Richard Nixon arrived in Moscow May 22, 1972, he became the first American president to visit the city. It wasn’t his first rodeo there, but it might have been his most important one. He once visited as the VP.

He’d just left The People’s Republic of China, where he was the first president to visit there too, a successful trip at that. Nixon was in Moscow to meet with the Soviet leader, Leonid Brezhnev.

For most historians, what started that day in May was the first step in what we would later call the détente, a de-escalation of the Cold War which lasted until President Reagan declared it unfair to the United States.

Historians can debate about the value of Nixon’s Moscow visit, whether it was all talk, but over the course of the eight days he was there, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. signed concessions which at the very least, quelled the fears of their citizens.

The Meet & Greet

Nixon on the tarmac |

Nixon’s reputation as a diplomat was on the line, but he wouldn’t go it alone in the Soviet Union. On his elbow was his wife, Pat, and to his side was national security advisor, Henry Kissinger.

“In this case, we are not going there simply for a better spirit,” said Nixon to an audience gathered outside Air Force One before departing the U.S. “…We are going there for substance, very important substantive talks.”

They were there for business, that was true, but that didn’t mean skipping pleasantries. Both countries had high hopes for eased tensions.

Soviet president Nikolai Podgorny, their Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin, and the Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko met Nixon and his party on the tarmac.

By Soviet ideology, none of these men were in charge. Their leader, Leonid Brezhnev, did not hold a political office but was a vanguard for the people.

It was confusing enough that Nixon mentioned Brezhnev’s absence. The Soviets were clear, Brezhnev was not a politician. Whatever. They spent 20 minutes with a guard of Soviet troops, there to honor the U.S. President.

The soviets played both national anthems, waved flags from both countries, then whisked away Nixon’s party for a private audience with Brezhnev.

The two of them spent over an hour and a half chatting that first day, the details of which we may never know, but the White House press secretary, Ronald Zeigler reported it was on “international issues.”

The Environmental Protection Agreement

The cooperation agreement signed on the second day of the summit was unprecedented. Environmental concerns were nothing new, but cross country commitments to improvement were nascent.

Nixon and Brezhnev agreed to mutually beneficial cooperation, with the goal of environmental protection. They agreed to share key learnings from each other’s scientists, and devote energy to preventing pollution to air, water, agriculture, urban environments just for starters.

They even agreed to form a U.S.-U.S.S.R. joint committee to oversee cooperation. Brezhnev condoned it, but Nixon and Podgorny signed the agreement.

The Apollo-Soyuz Test Project

The project connecting NASA and the Soviet Space program did not start until July of 1975, but Nixon and Brezhnev laid the groundwork for it that third day of the summit in Moscow.

The Premier of the Soviet Union Alexei Kosygin signed the agreement with Nixon. The end result took place years later when an Apollo service module and a Soviet Soyuz docked together in space.

For the two superpowers, that even marked the end of the space race. We would work cooperatively after that, all thanks to the Moscow Summit.

The Arms Limitation Agreements

May the 26th, the biggest event of the summit took place. It was the signing of two agreements related to nuclear arms.

The Strategic Arms Limitation Talks or SALT I as history remembers it, froze the number of strategic ballistic missiles at the levels they were at on May 16th, 1972.

That agreement was the what would later lead to the START treaties, further nuclear arms agreements made in the 1990s. The second agreement signed that day was the Anti-Ballistic Missiles Treaty, which froze both side’s assets of anti-ballistic missiles at 100 each.

Later that night, Richard and Pat joined the Soviet leadership at a banquet. It was there, as reported by the New York Times, Nixon said:

“We look forward to the time when we shall be able to welcome you in our country and in some way respond in an effective manner to the way in which you have received us so generously in your country.”