Michael KreponEverett McKinley Dirksen, He Ain’t

Jon Kyl has become the second ranking Republican Senator by dint of hard work, perseverance, and attention to detail – all admirable traits. He has never voted for an arms control treaty transmitted to the Senate by a Democratic President. The Obama administration has gone the extra mile – well, several extra miles, actually – to satisfy Senator Kyl’s concerns over New START. So far, Team Obama has been taken to the cleaners.

A friend of mine, who worked on nuclear issues during the Reagan administration, likes to say that, back in his day, those who tried to block and parry nuclear negotiations and treaties were “under adult supervision.” The naysayers were mere Assistant Secretaries or lower; enough of their superiors understood that proper deterrence required complementary reassurance to audiences at home and abroad. A world leader and a leader of alliances needs to be able to make nuclear arms reduction treaties happen.

Now the supervisors are retired, and the blockers have risen to become former-undersecretaries-in-waiting for even more exciting positions in the next Republican administration. The supervisors – former Secretaries of State and Defense, former national security advisers, Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs, and a host of ex-commanders of the U.S. nuclear deterrent – understand what’s at stake, and urge the Senate’s consent to ratify New START. Senator Richard Lugar gets it. The rest of his Republican colleagues do not appear to be eager for a vote, at least without Senator Kyl’s blessing. The prospective crop of presidential candidates have been Palinized, and what’s left of the moderate wing of the DC chapter of the Republican Party fears Tea Party challengers in primary elections. There aren’t many profiles in courage on the Republican side of the aisle besides Sen. Lugar at this point.

Way back when, Minority Leaders like Everett McKinley Dirksen didn’t contract out to his Deputy the chore of assessing a treaty, as Sen. Mitch McConnell has done. Dirksen led a Republican caucus of 33 Senators in 1963, some deeply skeptical of the Limited Test Ban Treaty. One of their number, Barry Goldwater from Arizona, appeared likely to become the Republican Party’s standard bearer against LBJ.

President Kennedy sought and received public letters of support for the LTBT from Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. The Joint Chiefs supported the Treaty with safeguards that were far, far less costly than the ones endorsed by the Obama administration. Dirksen, speaking extemporaneously to his colleagues during the Senate’s debate over the Treaty, said this: The “preponderant evidence” from the “most competent” scientific, military, and diplomatic leaders supported the Treaty, and that the Senate’s failure to consent to ratify would “place us in an awkward and difficult position with other nations.” Dirksen then went on to say:

I should not like to have on my tombstone: ‘He knew what happened at Hiroshima but he did not take a first step’… If there be risks, I am willing to assume them for my country.

The roll was called, and the LTBT passed by a vote of 80-19. Eleven negative votes were cast by Democrats (ten from the old South), along with eight Republicans. Back then, the Senate voted on treaties.


  1. Nick Fernandez (History)

    The level of senseless politicization on this treaty is simply mind boggling. To disregard the preponderant evidence from the most competent scientific, military and diplomatic leaders is simply a waste.

    And for what? To deny Obama a “victory”? The clearly evident shortsightedness is rather troubling. Since when do United States Senators cower in the face of a vocal but poorly informed minority?

    • krepon (History)

      I feel your pain.
      The Republican Party’s elected representatives in DC may be on the verge of a victorious nervous breakdown, and we are all experiencing the symptoms. My guess is — not being privvy to the vote counts — that Sen. Kyl is denying a vote on New START because he doesn’t have the votes to kill it.

  2. bobbymike (History)

    Stick to the arms control analysis with a little less emphasis on the political psychology.

    So here is my question. You say all opposition is political to deny Obama a “victory” so if he had never negotiated New Start or let’s say codified SORT with expired Start verification and presented a plan to fully modernize the triad with new delivery systems and warheads with testing Kyl would have opposed it?

    Cause if its all about Obama they would have, right?

    • FSB (History)


      Kyl would ask for n+$100 billions whatever n the democrats offered.

      The mofo calls himself a conservative and wastes huge sums of taxpayer money — interesting definition of conservative.

      How about we keep America strong?:


    • Nick Fernandez (History)


      Not to sound trite, but given the broad-based support from arms control experts of all political persuasions, from scientists, and from Commanders of STRATCOM and SAC, it seems to me that there is little room for substantive disagreement on this treaty. Objections have been made by politicians and Heritage, each of which has been thoroughly refuted.

      Given the widespread agreement outside of Congress on the substantive merits of the treaty, what other the politics could be standing in the way right now?

      And to your comment about SORT:
      Why would you take a treaty that is simply window dressing, and add a verification protocol? There is simply nothing to verify in SORT as it is nearly impossible to be in violation of the treaty.

      The cuts are not required to be permanent, there are no benchmarks, and the deadline happens to be on the same day that the requirements cease to be legally binding. Russia could be said to simply “not be on track” for meeting the “deadline”, and that is the most that could be said.

      The only purpose of this scenario would be to gather intelligence, which is certainly beneficial, but one that should be coupled with a treaty with some teeth.

      And yes, Kyl certainly would have been drooling over a “modernized triad” and an end to the testing moratorium to make sure everything works perfectly. Such a suggested plan would be laughable, if people like you, Kyl, and John Bolton didn’t actually believe it was a splendid idea.

      Which brings us to a philosophical impasse. You appear to be arguing from a point of view that holds that a more capable arsenal would be beneficial.

      I hold the view that pursuing such a strategy is wasteful, shortsighted, and antithetical to a whole host of other strategic objectives.

  3. bradley laing (History)

    I thought I heard on a radio news broadcast that the 84 Bilion dollars in modernization funds for the weapons complex is in doubt, because of the Republican obstructionism. Are the weapons labs themselves in a win/win situation because the 84 billion will be there for them, no matter what happens to the treaty?

    Or are they showing up Kyle’s office, pressuring him to let the treaty pass?

  4. Ian (History)

    I think that for us in the rest of the world this is just one more test of whether there is any point in basing our thinking on policies that assume US leadership. We accept US leadership, even welcome it, not because we like you (though we do) but because we think it is efficient.

    But if you can’t agree on whether arms control represents a useful security policy instrument or not the rest of us will have to think about how best to position ourselves.

    We can’t be doing with a situation where the US spends 18 months saying how important a particular issue is then just walks away from it at the point where everyone else has aligned their policies around certain expectations about how Washington will behave.

    It is not limited to arms control, the same thing is happening in other security policy fields. It doesn’t give any pleasure to say this but if you can’t exercise leadership then the rest of us will have to find an alternative arrangement — which may turn out to be a good thing, who knows?

  5. FSB (History)

    The price being paid to the republican extortionists (what happened to fiscal conservatism!?) for START passage is too high.

    START is not worth the billions being poured into the weapons labs for un-needed modernization, and to the non-functional missile defense system.

  6. 3.1415 (History)

    Senator Kyl’s unspoken logic is very clear. You sign a deal only with a worthy adversary, not with someone that you can manage without a deal. Is Russia worthy of the deal? It is not about how modest the deal is or how much pork Obama can squeeze into the packaging. It is about letting Russians monitor our nukes. People only talk about monitoring Russian nukes on NPR; nobody wants to talk about letting the Russians take a peek at our nukes. It’s a macho thing like the AIT at the airport. You only do it when you have to. Right now, United State is the Numero Uno when it comes to nukes and it does not need to give a damn to anyone. Don’t blame Palin. Unlike Sarah, Senator Kyl is a serious believer of gravitas.

  7. Jonathan (History)

    Is it possible that the entire exercise is designed to change the framing of the debate and ensure modernization. I can imagine the question: “Sir, these new modernized weapons, have they ever been specifically, I mean these specifici weapons with these new modern features, have they ever been tested? Can you assure me that in forty years they will not have to be tested?” Well, we might still get START, but what about CTBT and the promises of progress toward disarmament? What about hte respect for the integrity of US promises to the international community. Feel the pain, feel the fear.

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