Michael KreponHidden Agendas and Missile Defenses

Back in 1970, I had the good fortune of taking a graduate seminar taught by Mort Halperin, who was then working on his book, Bureaucratic Politics and Foreign Policy, with the help of a very bright research assistant, Arnie Kanter. A second edition of this fine book was published in 2006.

A key chapter, which also appeared as an article in the October 1972 issue of World Politics (“The Decision to Deploy the ABM: Bureaucratic and Domestic Politics in the Johnson Administration”) dealt with President Johnson’s decision to deploy a “light” ABM defense against a minimal Chinese ballistic missile threat.

The announcement of the Johnson administration’s decision came in one of the strangest speeches ever given by a Secretary of Defense – Robert McNamara’s address to the United Press International in San Francisco on September 18, 1967. Halperin was working in the Pentagon at the time, and had intimate knowledge of the pressures at work on McNamara and Johnson.

This was the speech in which McNamara railed against the “mad momentum intrinsic to the development of all new nuclear weaponry.” McNamara went on to say,

If a weapon system works – and works well – there is strong pressure from many directions to procure and deploy the weapon out of all proportion to the prudent level required. The danger in deploying this relatively light and reliable (sic) Chinese-oriented ABM system is going to be that pressures will develop to expand it to a heavy Soviet-oriented ABM system.

McNamara was strongly opposed to ABM deployments. So why go down this slippery slope? Because, as Halperin recounts, the Secretary of Defense “was not prepared to push the issue to the point of a break with the President” and because “the ABM was rapidly becoming a symbol of defense preparedness.” Since the Joint Chiefs unanimously supported deployments, as did defense-minded Members of Congress, Johnson and McNamara were in a bind. They didn’t want to destroy prospects for arms limitation talks with the Soviet Union, but neither could they allow the Kremlin to pursue BMD without a rejoinder. Johnson and McNamara threaded this needle by devising the thin veneer of an anti-Chinese deployment.

BMD architectures are especially suitable to hidden agendas – not just because for bureaucratic, domestic, and geopolitical reasons, but also because their symbolism can far exceed their capabilities.


  1. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Since Mort and Arnie co-chair my little endeavor here at New America, pretty much every day for me is like that graduate seminar.

    I am very fortunate.

  2. anon

    In the laundry list of hidden agendas you fail to mention my tax $$$$$$$$$$$$ that go to various defense contractors (boosted by ex-MDA directors like Obering and tax-and-spend republican think tanks).

    Funny we somehow find the $$$$$$$ to do MD and not health care.

  3. Bob Reed (History)

    I’m unclear as to the hidden agenda you are implying. Do you mean that BMD is merely a tool that enables a more reckless and aggresive foreign policy?

    Forgive me if I’m slow on the uptake today…

    Best Wishes

  4. MK (History)


    Given your handle, I doubt that you are slow on the uptake. The hidden agendas behind the LBJ/McNamara decision related to dealings with the Hill, forging an internal bureaucratic consensus, and preparing for the onset on strategic arms control talks with the Kremlin — not the ostensible purpose of defending against a Chinese attack.

    The machinations of the Nixon administration’s proposed BMD architectures — those assigned to the bureaucracy to consider, those presented to the Soviet negotiators, and those proposed by Kissinger in backchannel talks — required book-length treatment. One place to start untangling this web is Ambassador Gerard Smith’s book.

    The third site architecture chosen by the Bush administration was peculiar, since it was not well suited for the emerging Iranian missile threat. This strongly suggests a hidden agenda at work.

    It’s too early to reach conclusions about the Obama administration. My working assumption is that this President doesn’t specialize in geo-political machinations.

  5. Bob Reed (History)

    Thank you for your reply,
    In my opinion, I believe Mr. Bush’s motivation was as he stated on the surface; to protect the US from an Iranian ICBM. And that also may explain the pacing of the program. But you are correct in that there was a mismatch of the agreed upon defense to Iranian capabilities.

    Tha;s where Mr. Bush’s hidden agenda could come in. Although many look upon it as “fighting the last war”, I believe he was trying to put a cold-war-esque strategic trip line in place in the former eastern block nations. Also, I don’t believe he was above an antogonistic thumb in the eye of the Russians, having felt that Putin double-crossed him, so to speak.

    I think he was also counting on a combination of Patriot batteries in Israel, Turkey, and Iraq as well as AEGIS naval participation, in countering the short and mid-range Iraqi threats.

    I also believe that Mr. Obama’s sincerely wishes for strategic weapons reductions; in that pursuit I wish him success; but in an intelligent, verifiable, and equitable fashion…

    Thanks again, and all the best

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