Michael KreponRobert S. McNamara, Arms Control Hero

Quote of the Week:

“Mr. Prime Minister [Kosygin], if you put a defense in place, we’re going to have to expand our nuclear offensive forces. You may think, as the Congress apparently does, that a proper response to the Soviet defense is a U.S. defense; but I tell you the proper response – and it will be our response – is to expand our offensive force.”   — Robert S. MacNamara at the 1967 Glassboro summit

Robert S. McNamara, a hero? Of arms control?

I kid you not.

No less a figure than Paul Warnke credited McNamara as being the person who “basically invented strategic nuclear arms control.” He was convinced by scientific expertise not beholden to the military-industrial complex that deploying nation-wide ballistic missile defenses was a terrible idea. He helped convince the Kremlin leadership that strategic defenses were dangerous, ineffective and counterproductive — no mean feat. He warned about the “mad momentum” of the nuclear competition and about the “action-reaction” syndrome, where one superpower felt obliged to respond to the other’s strategic modernization program.

In Lyndon Baines Johnson’s attempt at a last hurrah, McNamara oversaw the first draft of the U.S. negotiating position in strategic arms limitation talks — and managed to keep the Joint Chiefs on the reservation. His tenure marked the only time when a Pentagon Chief actively took a sympathetic lead, rather than adopting a wary approach to arms control negotiations. These were significant accomplishments, one and all, despite McNamara’s overwhelming preoccupation with Vietnam.

But McNamara being McNamara, he was a tragic figure who found himself aiding and abetting the very dynamics of strategic competition he railed against. There wasn’t enough time to convince the Kremlin to move quickly to negotiate limits on anti-ballistic missile defenses. And so, before the strategic arms talks were set to begin in 1968 — and before they were delayed by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia — he announced LBJ’s decision to deploy a “thin” nationwide defense ostensibly directed against China, after clarifying in great detail the reasons why this was an unwise decision.

On paper, this “thin” missile defense would consist of the deployment of no less than 672 interceptor missiles against a China that would not flight test a ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States for another thirteen years. At the time of the Sentinel system’s unveiling, the Soviet Union possessed less than 900 land- and sea-based launchers capable of reaching the United States.

From Moscow’s perspective, Sentinel seemed well suited to nullify the Soviet deterrent after a U.S. first strike. Moscow’s concerns were reinforced after President Richard Nixon subsequently changed the system’s name to “Safeguard” but left its design essentially intact. Safeguard would have a new primary mission — to protect the U.S. deterrent against attack. Secondary missions were to defend against a small Chinese attack and against accidental or unauthorized launches.

The over-design of Sentinel/Safeguard actually served McNamara’s purposes: it helped convince the Kremlin to strictly limit U.S. and Soviet missile defense deployments in the SALT I negotiations.

Limiting missile defenses was insufficient to prevent a significant increase in offenses because the technologies to place several warheads atop a single missile and guide them independently to separate targets were advancing. Unlike ballistic missile defenses, these MIRVs could perform quite effectively. And with advances in accuracy, as was entirely foreseeable (despite the Nixon administration’s fleeting attempt to downplay this prospect), MIRVs could be deeply unsettling to calculations of strategic stability.

Only eleven days after announcing the Sentinel deployment decision, McNamara revealed the existence of MIRVs in an interview in Life magazine. Why? One reason for going public was that the lid of secrecy over MIRVs would soon be lifted with the beginning of flight tests in the summer of 1968, and McNamara wanted to get ahead of technologies he couldn’t stop, but might somehow try to control. This time, however, he offered no warnings of the potential consequences of MIRVs on the arms race. He was fending off the Air Force’s pressure for thousands more intercontinental ballistic missiles; the way to hold the line against a vastly expanded force structure and huge increases in the budget for strategic forces was through MIRVs, which were cost-effective alternatives to excavating more missile silos.

McNamara and others hoped that MIRVs could be controlled in the upcoming negotiations. There was a strong interest in doing so at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, led by Bill Foster and Butch Fisher, as might be expected. McNamara was also hearing about the MIRV issue from Paul Warnke, then an Assistant Secretary of Defense, backed up by Morton Halperin and Ivan Selin, who proposed a six month moratorium on MIRV flight tests.

No go: The Joint Chiefs and their allies on Capitol Hill insisted on letting MIRVs run free. The Soviet Union was racing to catch up to U.S. launcher numbers before the start of negotiations, including a new missile, the SS-9, that could carry three warheads, each packing a five-megaton wallop that endangered U.S. land-based missiles. MIRVs were the U.S. counter to the Soviet missile buildup with its silo-killing capabilities. The instructions written for the U.S. negotiating team in 1967 were explicit in rejecting constraints on qualitative improvements for U.S. missiles.

So why should McNamara still be considered a heroic figure? Because unlike in the movies, heroes don’t always succeed. In real life, they can fail tragically. McNamara couldn’t control the political and technological dynamics he warned about. He knew the consequences of the decisions he was obliged by LBJ to announce, and he provided cautions that his fellow citizens needed to hear.

As noted above, McNamara did succeed in part. His warnings on national ballistic missile defenses were taken on board by the Kremlin and were reflected in the ABM Treaty negotiated during the Nixon administration. As a result, one of the preconditions for the control and subsequent reduction of strategic forces was put in place. This design eventually worked as intended. Two decades later, the second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty negotiated in the George H.W. Bush administration finally mandated the elimination of land-based missiles carrying MIRVs. Alongside the ABM Treaty, this accord could have stabilized the strategic arms competition for decades to come.

Then came a series of ill-advised decisions that torpedoed McNamara’s framework. President George W. Bush and the Vulcans around him did away with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2001. In response, Vladimir Putin withdrew from the Treaty banning MIRVed ICBMs.

McNamara lived long enough to witness the fruition of his strategic design as well as its disestablishment. Now it will be up to others to tackle the problems that McNamara tried to solve.

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