THE great disarmament achievement under the Nixon administration was contained in the agreement known as SALT I (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty), signed April 26, 1972, well in advance of Richard Nixon's run for reelection. The agreement set limits on the number of land-based and submarine-launched missiles the United States and the Soviets could have, limits well above what they already had. Both countries then moved to build to the maximums allowed by the treaty, and to build other weapons and weapons systems not covered by SALT I. The US increased its emphasis on multiple-warhead missiles, the multiple warheads making the number of missiles that were agreed to all but irrelevant.
The US also proceeded to build Trident submarines, to develop cruise missiles, and to consider the neutron bomb. The Soviets built new and larger missiles. They also developed and deployed their own multiple-warhead system and were reported to have made great strides in the development of laser weapons.
SALT I was not a disarmament agreement, but an agreement allowing further but somewhat limited arms buildups. It allowed both countries to have more arms than they had when the agreement was made, but possibly fewer arms, of some kinds, than they would have had if the agreement had not been entered into.
In the Carter administration a major disarmament conference was held in the summer of 1978. In anticipation of those talks, both the US and the Soviets announced significant increases in military spending and arms buildups.
Both either claimed to have plans for new, sophisticated weapons of a higher order, or were accused of having such weapons. Both began actively peddling arms to client nations -- the Russians mainly to African nations, the Americans to the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
The US Senate failed to ratify the SALT II agreement signed in 1979 by Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev. While the two superpowers have nominally abided by that treaty's terms, there has been a further buildup of arms by both Russia and the United States and among their allies.
Today, as triple-threat disarmament teams from Moscow and Washington -- one group dealing with heavy missiles and bombs, one with intermediate weapons, and the third with defensive weapons in space (the Strategic Defense Initiative, or ``star wars'') -- go off to confer, the American negotiators are strengthened, supposedly, by the fact that the US defense budget has reached new highs. It appears that at least 42 MX missiles will be built and deployed. President Reagan seems likely to get most of the funding he seeks for research and development of ``star wars.''
Agreements to deploy cruise missiles have been reached with Belgium and at least tentatively with West Germany. Congress seems headed toward approval of production of new instruments of chemical warfare in the not-too-distant future.
President Reagan and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney of Canada have promised the rebuilding and reactivation of the Dew Line early-warning system across Alaska and northern Canada (a system first installed in the 1950s to warn of the approach of Russian bombers, and now intended to warn of the coming of Russian cruise missiles).
The record shows that, as a rule, what is taken to arms conferences under the name of bargaining chip subsequently becomes -- whether the arms conference is a success or failure -- a permanent part of the weapons system of the country that brought the chip to the table.
The MX missile, taken to the conference table by the Carter administration supposedly as a bargaining chip, is now, under the Reagan administration, being produced as part of our weapons complex. Cruise missiles designed under the Carter administration, supposedly as a chip, are now about to be deployed by the Reagan administration. The concept of binary chemical projectiles, developed under the Carter administration, will, if House-Senate conferees agree on a bill, become reality within the next three years. Deployment may have to wait for the next administration.
Eugene J. McCarthy is the former Democratic senator from Minnesota.