Michael KreponACDA

Quote of the week:

“[The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency can become] a Mecca for a wide variety of screwballs… It would be a great pity to have this agency launched and shortly become known as a sort of bureau of beatniks.”  — former Secretary of Defense Robert Lovett’s congressional testimony against the creation of ACDA

The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was a small, semi-autonomous agency situated in the State Department. Some might describe as an independent agency because the Director was supposed to have direct access to the White House, but ACDA never felt independent when I worked there in the Carter administration. Dwarfed by the State Department’s workforce and seriously overmatched by the Pentagon and Department of Energy, ACDA depended on support from State and presidential guidance to have a positive impact.

ACDA was established in 1961 at the outset of the Kennedy administration to help conceptualize and realize plans to control dangerous armaments. The “disarmament” aspect of ACDA’s name and mandate reflected more of the past than the foreseeable future. Washington and Moscow had been trading ritualized affirmations of “general and complete disarmament” in the period after the Bomb’s unveiling up through the late 1950s, without meaningful intention or result. A new, more serious approach was needed.

The creation of ACDA was designed to provide a home for dedicated public servants and technical expertise that might implement ideas for nuclear arms control along the lines proposed by the new body of literature written by Thomas Schelling and Mort Halperin, Hedley Bull, Donald Brennan and others. The focus would be on what might be doable rather than on ambitious end states, although many of ACDA’s critics believed otherwise — that every proposed step led inexorably to disarmament, and that arms control agreements with a sworn geopolitical and ideological foe would be a snare and a delusion.

ACDA’s heyday was early on. The Agency’s first two Directors  — William C. Foster and Gerard C. Smith — were highly accomplished, drawn from the ranks of pedigreed Republicans with prior governmental service. ACDA’s foster father was John J. McCloy, a heavyweight adviser to JFK who oversaw the drafting of its statute and served on its General Advisory Committee. Lovett was also a founding member in a move to reassure skeptics. This Republican coloration was purposefully designed to clarify that the Agency would be operating within the mainstream.

During Foster’s tenure (1961-68) ACDA officials contributed to the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty that banned nuclear testing everywhere but underground, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Those of us of a certain age who raged against Lyndon Baines Johnson’s war in Vietnam might think more kindly of him: two foundational treaties governing the peaceful uses of outer space and nuclear nonproliferation were negotiated on his watch.

Things got dicey for ACDA under Gerard Smith (1969-73), a man who took his Agency’s mandate seriously and who knew his briefs as well, if not better, than Henry Kissinger. Smith was frustrated repeatedly by President Richard Nixon’s controlling national security adviser who sent government experts off on analytical tangents while privately manipulating diplomatic moves from the confines of the White House. Smith, the lead negotiator of the first strategic arms limitation accord and the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, had plenty of company, including Secretary of State William Rogers, who was also in the dark about backchannel moves. ACDA weighed in with warnings about letting missiles bearing multiple warheads run free and the disutility of nationwide ballistic missile defenses, much to the annoyance of Nixon, Kissinger, and those deeply skeptical of arms control.

ACDA officials loyally defended the SALT I accords, taking the flak for the Interim Agreement’s loopholes and the ABM Treaty’s prohibition of nationwide defenses. Nixon and Kissinger blamed others — including Congressional Democrats and arms controllers for diminishing their leverage to negotiate something better. The seeds of rebellion against the SALT “process” were planted at this juncture, but in 1972 Republicans didn’t rebel against the Nixon administration’s handiwork. Both accords were approved overwhelmingly on Capitol Hill along with funding for new weapon systems. The Kremlin moved forward with its own strategic modernization programs. It took another decade to control and reduce the consequences of the loopholes permitted by the SALT I Interim Agreement.

Nixon’s re-election was marked by a changeover at several Cabinet posts as well as steps to diminish ACDA’s budget and influence. The new Director was an accomplished defense intellectual, Fred Charles Iklé, a reliable skeptic. His Deputy, John Lehman, subsequently joined him from the NSC staff, providing sharp elbows. New analysts were brought on board, the beginning of a schism within the Agency between strong enthusiasts and opponents of strategic arms control.

When Democrats again controlled the White House, President Jimmy Carter appointed Paul Warnke to run the Agency and lead the SALT II negotiations. Warnke was close to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, which made him even more of a threat to those who opposed Carter’s ambitious negotiating agenda. The daggers were out for Warnke, who responded to his critics in full measure. He felt it wise to step down from ACDA in late 1978 so as not to be a distraction during a forthcoming highly contentious ratification debate over SALT II. Two Directors followed him in the remainder of the Carter administration, a clear indicator of declining fortunes, both for the Agency and for Carter’s arms control agenda.

During the outset of the Reagan administration, ACDA usually lined up with deal-quashers at the Pentagon battling dealmakers at the State Department. The Agency stabilized under Bill Burns and Ron Lehman, who acquitted themselves well. ACDA’s last hurrahs — the negotiation of the the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, as well as the indefinite extension of the NPT — came during the first Clinton administration.

Team Clinton initially hesitated to appoint a new ACDA Director in deference to the State Department that sought to absorb the Agency. In 1992, Stimson released an assessment on the choices facing the Clinton White House — rejuvenation or absorption — written by Amy Smithson, Jim Schear and me. Our preference was rejuvenation around the central mission of controlling the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and we offered specific ways in which this might be realized. An internal administration assessment came to the same conclusion, but State continued to press for absorption.

Eventually, the Clinton White House decided to appoint a new ACDA Director, John Holum, without taking steps to strengthen his hand. Thomas Graham has written an anecdotally-rich account of this sad chapter — and of his long and distinguished career at ACDA — in Disarmament Sketches: Three Decades of Arms Control and International Law (University of Washington Press, 2002). I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the bureaucratic politics of arms control.

The roof fell in for ACDA during the second Clinton administration. Its demise was linked to securing the Senate’s consent to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention. Senator Jesse Helms, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opposed the CWC but agreed to allow the Treaty to pass through his Committee for the full Senate’s consideration on the condition of ACDA’s absorption into the State Department. Helms and other ACDA critics assumed, correctly, that the influence of arms control in national security decisions would be diminished as a result.

The Clinton White House accepted these terms.The CWC is now a bulwark against the possession and use of chemical weapons. Very few outliers, led by Syria, are willing to disregard its terms. ACDA is now largely forgotten. Very few remember its achievements and it’s role in establishing norms against proliferation and controls on strategic arms. Try Googling ACDA now and you’ll initially come across the American Choral Directors Association.


  1. Matthew Bunn (History)

    Nice summary! A voice within the government keeping nonproliferation and arms control near the top of the agenda is still needed. For those who are interested, Leon Ratz wrote an interesting piece advocating the recreation of something resembling ACDA some years ago: https://www.belfercenter.org/publication/organizing-arms-control-national-security-implications-loss-independent-arms-control

    It’s also worth noting ACDA’s role as a focus of path-breaking analysis and incubator of talent. Many U.S. arms control and nonproliferation experts (at least those of a certain age) started their careers at ACDA.

    George Bunn did the actual drafting of the legislation that established ACDA, under McCloy’s direction. Unfortunately, George’s book, Arms Control by Committee: Managing Negotiations with the Russians did not describe the political fight involved in creating ACDA. https://www.amazon.com/Arms-Control-Committee-Negotiations-INTERNATIONAL/dp/0804720398

    • Michael Krepon (History)

      Thanks, Matt.
      Dave Koplow got back to me after this post and has rightly taken me to task for downplaying ACDA’s role in nurturing talent and supporting advocacy. ACDA was the EPA-equivalent in this regard before an Environmental Protection Agency ever existed. The EPA was created a decade after ACDA. It’s abolition seems completely beyond the pale, unlike ACDA, but it is still subject to being led by individuals who do not subscribe to its mandate.
      The talent just below the Director’s level was critical to ACDA’s early successes. Your Dad, George, was a pillar. I never got to know Adrian “Butch” Fisher, Foster’s Deputy. My loss.
      Best wishes,