Michael KreponWilliam C. Foster

The most successful and longest serving Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was the first man to hold this job, William C. Foster. During his tenure, the United States negotiated the Limited Test Ban Treaty and the Nonproliferation Treaty, despite strenuous political, bureaucratic, and diplomatic opposition. Foster’s influence and skills had much to do with these results, and yet he is little remembered.

The creation of ACDA was one of the many initiatives favored by President John F. Kennedy’s principal rival in the Democratic primaries, Hubert Humphrey. When JFK signed up to this initiative, he knew ACDA could become a third rail in domestic politics. So he chose a public relations-savvy, international businessman to be in charge. Foster fit this mold to a “T,” having served as Director and Vice-President for Public Affairs of the Olin Mathieson Chemical Corporation. Although he looked like one of the Mad Men in the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce Advertising Agency, Foster was no mere PR flack. He had solid government credentials, having previously served as Undersecretary of Commerce and then a high-ranking official at the Economic Cooperation Administration after World War II.

Foster needed to make powerful allies for his fledgling agency. He found them in the White House for the LTBT and in the Pentagon for the NPT. In both cases, the State Department was as much a hindrance as a help. One of Foster’s skills was an ability to recruit an exceptional team of civil servants to help him accomplish big ambitions. His team leaders, especially Adrian “Butch” Fisher and Charles Van Doren, deserve far greater recognition, as well.

Foster didn’t write very much, but part of the job description of ACDA Directors was to broadcast messages to domestic and foreign audiences via Foreign Affairs magazine. His article, “New Directions in Arms Control and Disarmament” in the July 1965 issue still resonates today. My guess is that Foster’s essay was primarily designed to lend impetus to President Lyndon Johnson’s endorsement of the Gilpatric Committee Report’s secret recommendations, the subject of an earlier post. Gilpatric & Co. called for a major push to negotiate a nonproliferation treaty.

The first Chinese nuclear test in October, 1964 was one major driver behind LBJ’s decision to seek to halt further proliferation. U.S. plans to arm NATO allies with nuclear weapons (as a Multilateral or Atlantic Nuclear Force) stood in the way. Once these plans collapsed, the State Department, which did not wish to harm alliance relations, and the Kremlin, which did not want West Germany to have the Bomb, came on board. Here’s how Foster framed the pursuit of the NPT:

Balancing the risks and costs of letting nuclear proliferation run its course against those that may be incurred in a determined effort to stop it is clearly one of the most difficult problems in international relations today — and far more complex than the one we faced in deciding upon the limited test-ban treaty. It is particularly trying because success in stopping the spread of nuclear weapons may elude us despite the best efforts and intentions of many nations. But stopping nuclear proliferation is a problem from which the world cannot shrink, and one which requires very prompt action if there is to be any reasonable hope of success. May others conclude — as we have — that, all things considered, a most serious and urgent effort is justified!

As for China, an outlier state with great capacity for trouble making, Foster proposed taking the long view:

We can now make progress in arms control and disarmament with out Chinese participation. A comprehensive test-ban treaty to which China did not accede would be better than none at all and should be acceptable to us. With or without a treaty, our testing program would not be contingent on what China might do in the next few years. Similarly, a non-proliferation agreement to which China did not accede would be better than none at all. And we could negotiate a freeze — even a substantial reduction –of strategic delivery systems without fear that we were compromising whatever nuclear capability was needed to deal with China. But a few years hence, none of these things will be true unless we make progress in bringing China into arms-control and disarmament agreements. Nor will U. S. or Soviet or even joint guarantees for China’s neighbors be very credible. Clearly, progress in dealing with China is as essential a long-term requirement for success in a non-proliferation effort as Soviet-American cooperation is in the near term…

Over the next decade or two we cannot expect major changes in China’s objectives, which are in so many respects antithetical to ours. But with changes in Chinese leadership, which are inevitable soon, and with economic growth, which will give China more to lose through war, it is at least possible that the Chinese may conclude — as apparently have the Soviets — that they have much to gain by accepting the concept of peaceful coexistence. While this hope is based on the optimistic belief that time may bring restraint and wisdom to the Chinese leaders, the alternative is bleak indeed.

Foster also offered sage advice on how to manage the divide between nuclear “haves” and “have nots:”

In stressing that such measures as reductions in Soviet and American nuclear capabilities are important if we are to succeed in dealing with nuclear proliferation, it should be made clear that it is not a question of our setting a good example, a factor of regrettably little influence in international affairs, but rather the fact that we would, by negotiating such measures, be giving evidence of our determination to reverse the arms race and move toward a world order in which the role of nuclear weapons would be diminished. Lacking at least reasonable prospects of movement in this direction, it is hard to see how, in the long run, we can hope to put any limits on the membership in the nuclear club.”

William C. Foster’s road map is still being traveled.


  1. Bill (History)

    Excellent post. Foster made his mark on the early history of arms control but as you say is little remembered today. Not only did he push away on the test ban and nonproliferation agreements, he strongly supported the fissile material production cutoff even when it was meeting more opposition from the Pentagon and Atomic Energy Commission. Too bad that his papers as ACDA director are largely unprocessed at the National Archives.

  2. krepon (History)

    I’m not aware of a Ph.D. dissertation or a book on Foster. Another reason for the National Archives to do the needful.

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