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Missile Defense Thirty Years Ago: Déjà Vu All Over Again?

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 36

Published – December 18, 2000

Edited by William Burr

For more information contact:
William Burr 202/994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

More Archive Resources on Nuclear History:

Nuclear History Project

The Chinese Nuclear Weapons Program:  Problems of Intelligence Collection and Analysis, 1964-1972

U.S. Nuclear Weapons Deployments in Chichi Jima and Iwo Jima

United States Secretly Deployed Nuclear Bombs In 27 Countries and Territories During the Cold War

Taiwanese "Nuclear Intentions", 1966-1976

U.S. Nuclear Weapons and Okinawa

Israel and the Bomb

The U.S. Atomic Energy Detection System (AEDS)

India and Pakistan: On the Nuclear Threshold


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Washington, D.C., December 18, 2000 – President Clinton's decision in September to postpone deployment of a National Missile Defense (NMD) system puts the issue in the lap of the next president, George W. Bush.  A strong advocate of NMD, Bush has argued that "America must build effective missile defenses based on the best available options at the earlier possible date."  However, he has not yet publicly discussed the intractable technical and political problems raised by NMD that, so far, are without solution.  Strikingly, the difficulties that plague today's NMD parallel those that tied up the missile defense system of thirty years ago.  During the Johnson and Nixon administrations the system's name was the anti-ballistic missile (ABM).  The underlying technologies, especially the interceptor, are significantly different: anti-ballistic missiles relied on exploding nuclear weapons near the path of incoming reentry vehicles, while NMD seeks to hit "a bullet with a bullet."  In other respects, however, the issues raised in the earlier debates over ballistic missile defense are as fresh as today's headlines: Will it work? Will the allies object? Will it start a new arms race?  The old debate is worth revisiting because as George Santayana once observed, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

Both ABM and NMD can be seen as responses to the nuclear proliferation problem: NMD is ostensibly designed to ward off missile threats from small proliferators such as North Korea, while the first ABM program was aimed at China, the most recent nuclear power of the day.  Moreover, both systems faced significant opposition abroad and at home, although domestic U.S. critics are less influential today.  Finally, Moscow was opposed to an ABM race and worked hard to avoid one.  Besieged with criticism, the ABM was eventually abandoned; NMD could meet a similar end, although that appears less likely.1

Pressures to develop an ABM system emerged during the late 1950s, when it was feared that a "missile gap" would make the United States vulnerable to Soviet attack.  Although presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Johnson authorized significant R&D  funding, the ABM issue became apparently more acute when the Soviet Union deployed the Moscow ABM system ("Galosh") during the mid-1960s.   Under pressure from Congressional hawks and the Joint Chiefs, during mid-1967, the Johnson administration made a decision to deploy a light ABM system, eventually designated Sentinel. Not wanting to accelerate the arms race with the Soviet Union, when Secretary of Defense McNamara announced the decision, he rationalized it by emphasizing the need for defense against a prospective Chinese missile threat.  Sentinel's architects also expected it to play a role in providing some defense for Minuteman silos.  When the Nixon administration came to power in 1969, Sentinel was soon renamed Safeguard, but its missions were essentially the same.2

President Nixon sought a 12-site system to provide area defense against small-scale nuclear threats (China, unauthorized or accidental launches) and to protect Minuteman, but domestic and foreign policy considerations forced major program changes.  Unlike today, missile defense encountered powerful Congressional opposition that was supported by the expertise of influential scientists.  Opponents were skeptical that the system would work because of its great complexity.  Moreover, they worried that fielding an extensive ABM system would aggravate the arms race and create greater U.S.-Soviet tensions and instability.  Not only would a new area of competition--anti-missile systems--be created, deploying ABM systems would create pressure for more missiles and warheads to penetrate defenses.3

Domestic pressures and the requirements of arms control  negotiations forced Nixon to retrench.  By 1970, "area defense" was no longer a significant operational goal; Congress would only fund a few sites for Minuteman defense.  Also shaping ABM planning was a U.S. proposal, advanced during strategic arms limitations talks (SALT) in 1970, to limit ABMs to the defense of national capitals---National Command Authority (NCA).  Apparently national security adviser Henry Kissinger expected the Soviets to reject this proposal but the Soviets had concluded that an ABM race was not in their interest; they preferred tight limitations on ABMs.  Further, the U.S. plan would let them keep the Moscow ABM system.  Over the next year or so, Nixon and Kissinger would backtrack on the NCA proposal and try to convince the Soviets to approve more sites. In the end, however, they had to accept a severely truncated ABM system.4

By sharply limiting anti-ballistic missile deployments, the June 1972 ABM treaty prevented an anti-missile systems race and may have marginally reduced the intensity of the offensive forces competition.  Under the treaty, each signator could field only two sites; one for NCA defense, the other for defense of an ICBM base.  In 1974, with the U.S. Congress refusing to fund an NCA site, Washington and Moscow agreed to limit their ABMs to one site.  Thus, the Soviets would keep the Moscow system while the United States could go ahead with its Minuteman defense site in North Dakota.  Within a year or two, however, Congress learned that the Army had decided to make the North Dakota site non-operational.  Although the Ford administration wanted to keep the North Dakota site, it could not stop Congress from closing down the ABM, the first time that the legislative branch has independently terminated a nuclear weapons program.5

During the last several years, a growing volume of declassified documentation on the history of the ABM has become available at the National Archives, in the records of the State Department, the White House Office of Science and Technology, and the Nixon Presidential Materials Project.  These documents serve as useful reminders of the significant elements of continuity between the ABM program and the current NMD project.  For example, the "area defense" aspect of the Johnson-Nixon ABM program is particularly interesting in light of contemporary concerns.  Some critics have suggested that a defense capability against the PRC's small ICBM force is the hidden agenda of today's BMD program.  Even if that charge is untrue, that both the ABM and the NMD sought to provide a defense against supposedly irrational "rogue" nuclear proliferators--the PRC then; North Korea and Iraq today--suggests the enduring allure of expensive high-tech solutions to political and diplomatic problems.

   Declassified documents also suggest that early in its history, missile defense has been vulnerable to informed criticism.  Doubts about Safeguard were not limited to Congress and citizens groups; they were also expressed by insiders, Nixon's scientific advisers and Bell Laboratories.  Well placed critics of the ABM argued that it had significant flaws, just as today's critics point to serious deficiencies in the NMD program.  For example, Ted Postol of MIT, among others, argues that NMD cannot discriminate between reentry vehicles and decoys (e.g., balloons) that are designed to confuse defenses.6  This was a problem that  also dogged the Nixon-era ABM.  The technology was different but even the corporate contractors that devised the ABM system believed that its radars could not differentiate between decoys and reentry vehicles.

Today, the Russians, as well as the Chinese, are just as dubious of U.S. missile defense plans as they were thirty years ago.  Then as now, Moscow (and Beijing) worries that Washington would "break out" of a limited NMD system and establish a more extensive one that could thwart Russian or Chinese ICBMs.  Those concerns had a significant impact on Clinton's decision.  Whether Moscow or Beijing will accept substantial modifications of the ABM treaty or whether the next administration changes course on missile defense or risks a new arms race remains to be seen.  How George W. Bush addresses the problem of missile defense may be a defining moment in the early history of the twenty-first century.7



Document 1:President's Science Advisory Committee. Strategic Military Panel, "Report on the Proposed Army-[Bell Telephone Laboratories] BTL Ballistic Missile Defense System," 29 October 1965 [excised copy]

Location of original: National Archives, Record Group 359, Executive Office of the President's Office of Science and Technology, box 521, Strategic Military Panel 1965, released to Archive through Freedom of Information Act

A year after China tested its first nuclear device, the President's Science Advisory Committee reviewed plans by the Army and Bell Laboratories to produce and deploy a national missile defense system against prospective missile threats, in particular, a Chinese ICBM capability.  While the Joint Chiefs and influential members of Congress strongly supported an ABM deployment, the PSAC panel chaired by Princeton physicist Marvin Goldberger was sharply critical of the Army-BTL proposal.  While concerned about prospective "Chinese blackmail threats," the panelists concluded that focusing on ICBMs could be a mistake if the Chinese spent more resources on cruise or submarine-launched missiles.  Even if the Chinese developed ICBMs, Goldberger and his colleagues believed that a cheaper system could be just as effective as the BTU-Army plan. In any event, the United States could launch a "preemptive disarming attack" against the few ICBMs that Beijing was likely to field.8

The panelists also raised other questions about the Army-BTL plan.   Because the system could be effective against Soviet ICBMs, it would encourage Moscow to increase its missile forces but also to develop decoy and other devices that could be used to evade U.S. ABM interceptors.  Thus, an ABM was inconsistent with strategic stability.  Moreover, unless the U.S. extended an ABM network to Asia and Europe, the panel worried that the Army-BTL plan could decrease confidence in the U.S. nuclear deterrent and raise fears overseas "that we were abandoning them while constructing a Fortress America."

While recommending against deployment, PSAC supported  research and development funding on components for a simplified ABM system as well as on penetration aids to circumvent a Soviet ABM system.  Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara accepted the panel's basic arguments and the momentum behind ABM temporarily slowed.9


Document 2:"Statement by Ambassador Cleveland at Special Meeting of the [North Atlantic] Council," March 7, 1967, with letter from Cleveland and technical annex on "Nike X" attached, NATO Secret

Location of original: National Archives, Department of State Records, Record Group 59 (RG 59), Department of State Subject-Numeric Files, 1967-69, DEF 12 NATO.

While PSAC had influenced decisionmaking in 1965, by 1967 its impact was waning as political pressure for an ABM deployment grew, especially in light of intelligence on the Soviet deployment of the "Galosh" ABM system around Moscow.  The following text, a presentation by U.S. Ambassador to NATO Harlan Cleveland to the North Atlantic Council, shows where the issue stood in March 1967.  As Cleveland explained to the Council, even if an ABM system was not as destabilizing as some critics charged, it could intensify the arms race and increase Cold War tensions.  Cleveland minimized the Chinese ICBM problem, treating damage limitation during a U.S.-Soviet conflict as the major reason for deployment.  As he explained, however, the Johnson administration did not want to make any decisions until it had a chance to negotiate a possible ABM-limitation with the Soviets.   That so far the Soviets had rejected the idea that ABMs were "destabilizing" could not have provided much optimism that missile defenses could be negotiated away with great ease.


Document 3: Cable 1571 from U.S. Embassy to the State Department, 29 September 1967, "ABM - UK Views," Secret

Location of original: National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Subject-Numeric Files, 1967-69, DEF 1 US.

President Johnson and secretary of defense McNamara were interested in negotiating arms control agreements with Moscow, but domestic pressure constrained the administration to go ahead with the ABM.  Thus, in September 1967, McNamara announced that the United States would deploy a light ABM system that could protect population centers against prospective Chinese ICBMs.  Moreover, Sentinel would provide some defense for U.S. Minuteman ICBM silos (terminal defense).  McNamara's announcement surprised many, because he made it after a long disquisition about the destabilizing character of ballistic missile defense.  But in taking this tack, McNamara avoided provoking Moscow while offering the Joint Chiefs the possibility that a small-scale system could be later expanded.  Although the anti-China aspect of the speech received the most attention, for U.S. government insiders, the prospect of a defense for ICBMs was highly significant.10

Then, as now, British policymakers had doubts about U.S. missile defense plans.  Document three records  British counterpart Defense Minister Denis Healey's private objections to  ABMs a few weeks after McNamara's speech.  Not persuaded by the anti-Chinese rationale, Healey argued that the deployment could aggravate the U.S.-Soviet arms race.   McNamara disagreed noting that Moscow's reaction to a Chinese-oriented ABM would not start a "new spiral" of competitive nuclear deployments. Interestingly, McNamara played down Minuteman defense even though he had publicly claimed that it was a major feature of the plan.


Document 4: Henry Kissinger to Richard Nixon, "Issues Concerning ABM Deployment," 5 March 1969, Top Secret, annotated copy

Location of original: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials Project, National Security Council Files, Box 843, ABM Memoranda

Not long after Richard Nixon came to power in early 1969, he ordered a review of Johnson's Sentinel ABM program.  The review led to minor modifications of Sentinel as well as a name change, "Safeguard", to give it the administration's own stamp.  Document four suggests where the Nixon administration was heading before it made initial decisions on "Safeguard" in March and April 1969.  The declared emphasis would be roughly the same, on the Chinese "threat" and terminal defense for Minuteman silos.  As Henry Kissinger argued, however, deployment plans had to be artfully prepared so as to not alienate critics and supporters of a major damage limiting capability against the Soviet Union.  Critics believed that such a capability would generate a major arms race while supporters believed that a only a thick ABM system could offer an  "invulnerable deterrent."

Kissinger recognized that a move toward defense of cities was destabilizing--"it could stimulate a costly arms race"--and he was not convinced by the anti-Chinese rationale.  But he saw Minuteman defense (damage limiting) as a justifiable purpose for deployments.  Although a significant capability to defend Minuteman was not on the horizon, a system to protect some of them was an "insurance policy ... against unlikely but possible Soviet threats."  Even a limited terminal defense capability, Kissinger argued, would offer protection from accidental attack and protect population from a Chinese attack.

Nixon had a different take on the purposes of ABM and his speeches placed more emphasis on China than Kissinger may have preferred.  But the marginal notes that Nixon wrote on Kissinger's report show that the anti-Soviet angle was most compelling for him.  Noting that "they" (the Soviet Union) had "closed the gap," that is, reached strategic parity, Nixon wanted ABMs, presumably to ensure that the "gap is not widened on the other side," that is to reduce threats to U.S. Minuteman.

The ABM deployments that Defense was considering in the spring of 1969 included sites at Minuteman bases in Missouri and North Dakota as well as Boston and Washington, D.C. (see page 1 of document).  During the months that followed, however, the administration limited immediate plans to two sites near Minuteman bases in Montana and North Dakota.  The Congressional vote to authorize the funds was close; anti-ABM arguments were politically powerful and Vice President Spiro Agnew broke a tie in the Senate.11


Document 5: Cable 1432 from the U.S. SALT Delegation, Helsinki to the Department of State, "Sixth SALT Meeting: Semenov Statement," 28 November 1969

Location of original: National Archives, Record Group 59, Department of State Subject-Numeric Files, 1967-69, DEF 18-3 FIN (HE)

A few months after Congress authorized two ABM sites, SALT talks began in November 1969.  During the first phase of the discussions, the two sides articulated their views on key strategic issues before they began to table specific proposals.  One of the key issues was ABMs and on 28 November 1969, the chief Soviet delegate Vladimir Semenov reviewed Soviet thinking about the ABM problem.  Although the Soviets had been the first to deploy an ABM system on the "humane" grounds of "protecting man himself", by the time of the SALT talks they wanted to avoid an ABM race with Washington.  Thus, Semenov argued that an ABM race was a threat to "equal security" and ABMs were a technology that would be "important ... to curb, halt, and ... even reverse."12   Semenov suggested that the Soviets would not rule out banning ABMs altogether although he realized that other scenarios were possible, including the deployment of "heavy area ABM systems" that would necessitate high levels of strategic forces.  Perhaps what worried the Soviets the most was the prospect that even a limited area defense system would create a strategically unstable situation because the "other side" could "feel that, in time, such a thin system could evolve into a system facilitating a first strike."


Document 6: Memorandum from Laurence E. Lynn, NSC Staff, to Kissinger, "PSAC Strategic Military Panel Comments on Minuteman ABM Defense," 5 January 1970

Location of original: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials Project, National Security Council Files, Box 840, ABM System Vol. III

As this document shows, the ABM program encountered significant internal criticism, a development that infuriated Henry Kissinger.  At the turn of 1970, White House Science Adviser Lee DuBridge provided Kissinger with a report from PSAC's Strategic Military Panel signed by Stanford University physicist Sidney Drell (who had also signed the 1965 PSAC report).  Just as 1965, the advisers identified significant problems.  Not only were Safeguard's components inferior to alternative systems, it could not make a significant contribution to Minuteman defense.  Within a few years, the United States could not count on a minimum of 300 surviving a Soviet counterforce attack.  Even if deployed, Safeguard would make only a small difference for Minuteman's survivability rate.   The advisers recommended exploring the Hardsite ABM program, although it would be more expensive than Safeguard.

PSAC's concerns about Minuteman survivability were exaggerated--even if only a 100 survived, they could inflict horrible damage--but Kissinger aide Laurence Lynn recognized that it undercut Safeguard's rationale.  If it leaked, he worried that it would "significantly strengthen the opposition" to ABM.   Interestingly, Kissinger forgot PSAC's assessment in his memoirs,  White House Years as well as his fervent wish, expressed in a marginal note on this document, that "we must get PSAC out of strategy."  Not concerned about the specifics of PSAC's arguments, Kissinger wanted spending on Safeguard to continue, even if the program was flawed, in part to provide the administration with a stronger hand in arms control negotiations with Moscow.  In any event, PSAC was already marginalized.  Nixon had not consulted the advisers on ABM during 1969 and former White House science advisers from the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations had openly expressed their opposition to Safeguard, a development that angered both Nixon and Kissinger.13


Document 7: Memorandum for Dr. Kissinger from Lawrence E. Lynn, "FY 71 Safeguard ABM Decision", 16 January 1970, with attachments [excerpt], Top Secret

Location of original: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials Project, National Security Council Files, box 840, ABM System Vol. III, Memoranda and Misc.

A little over a week later, Lawrence Lynn, Kissinger' assistant for program analysis, presented his boss with a memorandum (later summarized for Nixon) that included more disturbing news.  Lynn supported deployment but he understood that the ABM program had weaknesses that could jeopardize its future.  As he pointed out, Pentagon analysts (just like PSAC) worried that an "all-out counterforce attack" would be able to overwhelm Safeguard leaving only a handful of Minutemen missiles.  That problem alone could make the White House vulnerable to rebukes that it was "proceeding with a virtually worthless system."  Moreover, Pentagon officials conceded that decoys and other penetration aids could make it "very difficult" for Safeguard to carry out its area defense mission.  Although the Chinese were far from developing ICBMs, much less decoys, Safeguard would be hard pressed to stop an accidentally-launched Soviet ICBM that was equipped with penetration aids.  Such problems, among others, could strengthen skeptics who asked "Will it work" while increases in cost estimates could reinforce objections that the "costs of the system are both excessive and unknown."

The critics did not faze Lynn who was convinced that ABM was a worthwhile project.  Not only did he argue that additional deployments would strengthen Washington's hand in the SALT talks, a twelve-site system would provide "significant", if not flawless, protection against accidental or unauthorized launches and "deliberate attacks by the 'first generation' Chinese ICBM force."  Moreover, an area defense system would "reduce Soviet flexibility in launching less than an all-out attack."

What concerned Lynn above all was the need for a "coherent rationale" for Safeguard.  The administration had to be able to defend Safeguard before Congress but the defense had to be adroit so that it added to bargaining power in SALT and did not cause problems for U.S. diplomacy.  For example, the "arguments that a limited area defense is diplomatically and strategically useful" could be "easily misstated in dangerous ways."  As Lynn  had already observed, "Too much hammering on the Chinese threat as the rationale" could weaken the administration's efforts at a "dialogue" with Beijing and "create panic in Asia."


Document 8: Memorandum for Secretary of State William P. Rogers and Under Secretary of State Elliot Richardson from Ronald I. Spiers, Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-Military Affairs, "MSC Discussion of SAFEGUARD - Briefing Memorandum," 21 January 1970

Location of original: National Archives, Record Group 59, Policy Planning Council Miscellaneous Records, 1953-72, box 291, MIRV/Verification/Safeguard January-February 1970

Writing on the eve of a major NSC discussion of Safeguard, Assistant Secretary Spiers sought to direct the attention of the Department's decisionmakers to two key issues: the relationship of Safeguard to U.S. policy in East Asia and to the SALT process.   A supporter of "area defense," Spiers worried about an eventual Chinese ICBM capability and believed that ABMs would neutralize it thereby "providing a politically desirable underpinning for diplomacy in the area." Nevertheless, Spiers did not see defense against a PRC missile force as the highest priority; he conceded that it "will have to be weighed in the balance against the advantages" of an ABM agreement with Moscow.  In any event, he also believed that U.S. "bargaining power" with Moscow in the SALT talks would be enhanced if it took additional steps on Safeguard deployment.  In this respect he differed from ACDA director Gerard C. Smith who wanted to limit Phase II of Safeguard to research and development.  That, Smith believed, would keep the commitment to Safeguard "sufficiently flexible" so that it would be possible to negotiate an agreement limiting ABM deployments.


Document 9: National Security Council Verification Panel, "Evaluation of Possible Strategic Arms Agreements Between the United States and the Soviet Union," 21 March 1970, Top Secret [excerpt]

Location of original: RG 59, Policy Planning Council Miscellaneous Records, 1959-72, box 298, SALT March 1970

In November 1969, a few months after the Senate debate on the ABM, Moscow and Washington began the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT).  At issue were the size and scope of U.S. and Soviet strategic forces as well as anti-ballistic missile systems.  Before formal negotiations began in April 1970, Nixon and the National Security Council had several discussions of SALT and negotiating options.  Before the first meeting, on 25 March, the National Security Council's Verification Panel reviewed the major issues associated with ABM systems and the possibility of negotiating limits on them.

ABM levels were an important SALT negotiating item and to help the decisionmakers establish what was essential and unessential, as well as to expose different points of view in federal agencies, the panelists carefully dissected the various rationales for missile defense: protection against Chinese ICBMs, against accidental/unauthorized launches, against attacks on bomber bases, Minuteman defense, and defense of National Command Authorities (NCA).  Moreover, the panel studied verification problems to determine whether the Soviets could cheat on agreements limiting ABM launchers and radars.

The review of the anti-Chinese ICBM justification exposed sharp differences over the technical capability of ABMs to screen incoming PRC ICBMs.  While some, perhaps at the Joint Chiefs, believed that an ABM could destroy 10 to 25 incoming reentry vehicles, other noted, using an argument that dovetails with current debates, that the Chinese could slip an RV through the system with decoys and that one armed with a high-yield warhead could destroy "one of our six largest cities."  Another line of argument stressed the political-diplomatic value of ABMs, with some claiming that a functioning system would strengthen the credibility of U.S. diplomacy in East Asia by permitting Washington "to take actions against a nuclear-armed China which we would deem too risky in the absence of" ABMs.  Other arguments cast doubt on claims that ABMs would strengthen U.S. credibility noting that "we would gain more by keeping Soviet ABM levels very  low."


Document 10: Memorandum from Kissinger to Nixon, "Contractor Doubts About Safeguard," 15 April 1970, attached to memorandum from Laurence Lynn to Kissinger, "Bell Labs on Safeguard," 14 April 1970.

Location of original: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials Project, National Security Council Files, Box 840, ABM System Vol. III.

Kissinger and Nixon received more bad news about the ABM in April. These memoranda, prepared by NSC staffer Laurence Lynn, show his surprise when top officials from AT&T's Bell Laboratories, the ABM's chief contractor, revealed their deep misgivings about the ABM program.  Lynn knew that Bell was uncomfortable with public criticisms of its role in defense contracting, but he did not expect that its scientists believed that ABM was technically unworkable.  Lynn claimed that the specific criticisms were unremarkable but the very fact that Bell Labs was making them had "potential for disaster."  Significantly, one of Bell's criticisms paralleled one that is made of today's NMD program and which the Verification Panel had also noted: that it would not be able to differentiate RVs from balloon decoys and other devices designed to confuse the defense.

Nixon wrote on the Kissinger memorandum: "my guess is that the real reasons are their scientists and P.R. fears."  Although many scientists supported ABM, Nixon was keenly aware that eminent scientists had leading roles in the opposition.  How  Nixon, Kissinger, and the Pentagon tried to mitigate the impact of Bell's changed thinking remains to be seen.


Document 11: Memorandum for the File, "Kissinger/Smith Conversation," 1 July 1971

Location of original: FOIA release by Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA)

Chief U.S. SALT negotiator Gerard C. Smith was an important internal critic of ABMs who was strongly interested in negotiating an ABM ban.  In 1970, the United States had offered the Soviets a ban but the Soviets were then more interested in the U.S. proposal to limit ABMs to NCA defense.  Smith wanted to make another effort to elicit Moscow's interest in a ban and, during the summer of 1971, Smith pressed Kissinger for authority to approach the Soviets.  In  response, but only to placate Smith,  Kissinger authorized him to explore the possibility of a "zero ABM" agreement.  Pressure to reach an agreement was high because several months earlier, on 20 May 1971, the two sides had announced that they would reach agreements on both on ABMs and a freeze of ICBM forces.  One U.S. proposal, mentioned is this document, is the "three-to-one" offer that would have allowed the United States to field three ICBM defense sites; in contrast, the Soviets would only have one site, the Galosh Moscow defense system.  The patent inequality of that proposal made it nonnegotiable.14


Document 12: Cable SALT 808 from U.S. SALT Delegation to State Department, "ABM Ban," 14 July 1971

Location of original: RG 59, Records of the Office of Undersecretary of State John Irwin, 1969-73, box 5: SALT July 1971

Following Kissinger's authorization, Smith informally raised the possibility of an ABM ban with Soviet negotiator Semenov.  This "nodis" (no distribution without  authorization) message shows that the Soviets were plainly interested in U.S. thinking on this subject.


Document 13: Cable 825 from U.S. SALT Delegation to State Department, "Semenov Statement on July 23, 1971"

Location of original: ACDA FOIA release

While unofficially interested in an ABM ban, in the formal SALT proceedings the Soviets continued to push for the ABM proposal for NCA defense only.  This document, reproducing part of Vladimir Semenov's presentation of the proposal, shows the strong Soviet opposition to plans for ABM "area defense."  Besides arguing that an ABM race would be dangerous and destabilizing, Semenov asserted that U.S. Minuteman defense sites constituted the "nucleus of an area defense system" because they could protect a "number of targets located deep in American territory."  The Soviet proposal for NCA defense, Semenov contended, would preclude such a possibility.


Document 14: Cable SALT 864 from U.S. SALT Delegation to State Department, "ABM Ban," 27 July 1971

Location of original: RG 59, Records of the Office of Undersecretary of State John Irwin, 1969-73, box 4: SALT August 1971

To give the idea of a ban more momentum, Gerard C. Smith forwarded to Washington the latest news on Soviet thinking about the "zero" option and his own line of reasoning on the benefits of the proposal, such as greater strategic stability.  Smith acknowledged possible "negative factors" and included a lengthy dissent from Air Force General Royal Allison, the senior Pentagon member of the delegation.  John Irwin's annotations on the document show that he found Allison's thinking less than persuasive.  A few days later, on 31 August, Smith sent a specific proposal for a ban that he wanted to use to "test Soviet interest in zero."15


Document 15: Message from Henry Kissinger to Gerard C. Smith, 3 August 1971

Location of original: ACDA FOIA release

In this back channel message to Smith, Kissinger showed his concern with the "leisurely pace" of the SALT talks.  Not too happy with the delegation's interest in an ABM ban, Kissinger admits that he believed that it was nonnegotiable.  While he writes that he "will yield to wiser heads" on the question of a ban, he continues to express concern that the delegation may be "traveling many byways," in other words, that the interest in an ABM may nothing more than a diversion.


Document 16: Message from Gerard C. Smith to Henry A. Kissinger, 7 August 1971

Location of original: ACDA FOIA release

Having received no official reaction to the ABM proposal, Smith used the private channel to urge Kissinger to give it more serious consideration.  He argued strongly for an ABM ban, noting that a rejection would inevitably leak and hurt Washington's position.  Further, perhaps to counter General Allison, he made a number of strategic arguments.  Smith argued that without Soviet ABMs, U.S. Poseidon SLBMs would have an easier time striking key targets (presumably Moscow).  So would "residual ICBMs" in the event that a Soviet first strike.  Also, given the concern that the Soviets might upgrade surface-to-air missiles so they could take on an ABM role, a ban would remove that worry.  Finally, under conditions of an ABM ban, if the Soviets launched a first strike, the United States would be able to retaliate more easily and destroy key urban-industrial and military targets.  Thus, "assured destruction" would be easier to calculate under various wartime scenarios.


Document 17: State Department cable 145329 to SALT Delegation, "August 9 Verification Panel Meeting," 9 August 1971

Location of original: RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1970-73, Def 18-3 Fin (He)

With its unflattering references to Henry Kissinger, this "nodis" message would have made him apoplectic.  It describes the debate over the zero ABM proposal at a meeting of the NSC's Verification Panel.  Not mentioning that he had authorized Smith to bring up an ABM ban with Semenov and probably not interested in confronting the Joint Chiefs (who opposed a ban), Kissinger structured the discussion in order to build a consensus against it.  As Raymond Garthoff suggests, apparently Kissinger did not believe that the Soviets were serious about a ban because Ambassador Dobrynin had not aired the issue during their secret back-channel conversations.  In any event, Kissinger does not discuss the zero ABM proposal in White House Years, so more needs to be learned about his thinking about the issue.

Only ACDA official Philip Farley supported tabling an ABM ban in Helsinki; others at the meeting, including Deputy Secretary of State John Irwin, CIA Director Richard Helms, Deputy Secretary of Defense David Packard, and the well-known strategic expert Attorney General John Mitchell, supported Kissinger.16  Also under discussion was a discussion of whether an ABM agreement would include a ban "exotic" high-tech ABMs (e.g., laser weapons).  A few days later, Nixon authorized the SALT delegation to seek such a ban.17


Document 18: Letter from John Irwin to Henry Kissinger, 10 August 1971

Location of original: RG 59, Records of the Office of Undersecretary of State John Irwin, 1969-73, box 4: SALT August 1971

The day after the Verification Panel meeting, John Irwin had a change of heart and registered the State Department's support for the ABM ban.  Rejecting Kissinger's argument that a ban was incompatible with the 20 May agreement, Irwin asserted that it was compatible with it.  Agreeing with Smith, Irwin observed that "tearing down the Moscow system" would better serve "our net interests" than "leaving each side with a limited system which we can modernize competitively."


Document 19: Letter from Richard Nixon to Gerard C. Smith, 12 August 1971

Location of original: ACDA FOIA release

Irwin's argument was too late and possibly irrelevant, given Kissinger's opposition to a ban probably irrelevant. Two days later, Nixon instructed Smith not to pursue zero ABM (a separate, more detailed message was sent to the delegation).  Undoubtedly drafted by Kissinger or one of his aides, the letter spelled out the argument that proposing an ABM ban was incompatible with the 20 May understanding.  Although Nixon pledged that a ban would appear in a later stage of arms control negotiations, the White House did not resurrect it during the SALT II negotiations.18


Document 20: Office of the Secretary of Defense, "FY 73 Safeguard Rationale," 27 February 1972, Top Secret

Location of original: National Archives, RG 59, Records of the Office of Undersecretary of State John Irwin, 1969-73, box 4, SALT Jan-Feb 1972

Signed off by Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, this document was one of the Pentagon's annual reviews of the Safeguard program.  Presenting Safeguard in the most favorable light possible, the Pentagon claimed that the system had "no technical problems."   Consistent with the emphasis on a "rationale" for Safeguard, the Pentagon provided considerable detail on the Soviet and PRC missile threats that the system needed to forestall.  For example, Pentagon analysts pointed to evidence of construction of missile silos (presumably detected by satellite photography) suggesting that the Soviets had plans to deploy new ICBMs.  Interestingly, the analysts hinted at the "gap" problem that bothered PSAC two years earlier, that "300 .. or less" Minuteman missiles might survive a strike by Soviet SS-9 and SS-11 ICBMs.  Unlike PSAC, the Pentagon did not quantify whether a Safeguard system would significantly change that outcome.  However, the report acknowledged that even four Safeguard sites might not be enough to counter a mass attack by advanced Soviet ICBMs.  Thus, the Pentagon sought funding for a Hardsite Defense program to augment Safeguard.

The Pentagon was seeking additional funding to expand Safeguard's scope by developing an NCA defense site.  Concerned that Soviet submarine launched ballistic missiles could destroy the NCA, Defense planners believed that a Safeguard site near Washington, D.C. could give the president and his advisers "additional valuable time for decisionmaking."  Interestingly, the Pentagon made no claims that an NCA defense could thwart an attack altogether, only that it could "discourage" a "surprise attack perhaps with a small expenditures of enemy resources."  The possibility of an NCA defense for Washington became a moot point, however, because Congress refused to fund it in 1973.



ASW - Anti-submarine weapons
IOC - Initial operational capability
MSR - Missile site radar
NCA - National Command Authorities
NPG - NATO Nuclear Planning Group
NPT - Nuclear Proliferation Treaty
PAR - Phased array radar
SAM - Surface-to-air missile



1.  For a significant account of the controversy over NMD that includes useful background on the ABM treaty, see Harold Feiveson et al., The Nuclear Turning Point: A Blueprint for Deep Cuts and De-Alerting of Nuclear Weapons (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1999), 63-99.

2.   For useful background on the history of the ABM, see Stephen Schwartz et al., Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 1998), 284-88.

3.  For a helpful study of pro and anti-ABM scientists, see Ann H. Cahn, "American Scientists and the ABM," in Albert H. Teich, Scientists and Public Affairs (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1974), 40-120.

4.  Raymond Garthoff, Detente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan, 2nd ed. (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1994), 162-63.

5.  Feiveson, The Nuclear Turning Point, 64-65; Schwartz, Atomic Audit, 288-89.

6.  See, for example, Postol letter's 11 May 2000 letter to White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, see <http://www.fas.org/spp/starwars/program/news00/postol_051100.html>.

7.  For an inside view of the Clinton administration's so-far failed effort to convince the Russians to accept national missile defense, see leaked documents published on The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' World Wide Web page, <http://www.thebulletin.org/issues/2000/mj00/treaty_doc.html>.

8.  Gregg Herkin, Cardinal Choices: Presidential Science Advising from the Atomic Bomb to the SDI (Oxford University Press, 1992), 160-61.

9.  Herkin, Cardinal Choices, 161.

10.  For background on the ABM decision, see Robert A. Divine, "Lyndon Johnson and Strategic Arms Limitation," in Divine, ed., The Johnson Years, Volume Three: LBJ at Home and Abroad (University Press of Kansas, 1994), 254-58, and Morton Halperin, "The Decision to Deploy the ABM: Bureaucratic and Domestic Politics in the Johnson Administration," in Halperin, National Security Policy-Making (Lexington: Lexington Books, 1975), 111-40.  For State Department concern about overemphasizing China at the expense of defense of U.S. Minuteman complexes, see Kohler to the Secretary, "McNamara's ABM Speech," 5 September 1967, RG 59, Subject-Numeric Files, 1967-69, DEF 12 (also available in National Security Archive published microfiche collection, U.S. Nuclear History: Nuclear Weapons and Politics in the Missile Era, 1955-58, Bell & Howell/Chadwyck Healey, Washington, D.C., 1998), item number 1248.

11.  For the domestic U.S. controversy, see David N. Schwartz, "The Historical Legacy," in Ashton Carter and David N. Schwartz, Ballistic Missile Defense (Brookings Institution, 1984), 341-42.

12.  For different perspective on shifts in Soviet thinking about ABMs, see Sayre Stevens, "The Soviet BMD Program," and Raymond Garthoff, "BMD and East-West Relations", in Ashton B. Carter and David N. Schwartz, editors, Ballistic Missile Defense (Washington, D.C.: Brookings, 1984), 200-03 and 286-314 respectively.

13.  See Herken, Cardinal Choices, 168-170.

14.  For a thorough account of the ABM negotiations, with full references to other sources, see Garthoff, Detente and Confrontation, 153-56 and 161-79.

15.  See cable SALT 875 to State Department, "ABM Ban," 31 July 1971, Records of John Irwin, box 5, SALT July 1971.

16.  Apparently, Mitchell was on the panel to represent Nixon's political interests.

17. See Garthoff, Detente and Confrontation, 175.

18. Garthoff, Detente and Confrontation, 173.


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