Michael KreponCrime and Punishment

A dedicated band of anti-arms controllers, led by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard Perle, sought to foil President Ronald Reagan’s pursuit of nuclear arms reduction treaties with Moscow. One tactic was to publish charge sheets of Soviet treaty violations. For example, the Kremlin constructed a large phased array radar in the interior, instead of the periphery of the Soviet Union, where it belonged under the ABM Treaty. Threat inflation turned this radar and Soviet air defense programs into a comprehensive, game-changing, master plan to build national missile defenses. This didn’t happen when the Treaty was in force, and it hasn’t happened since its demise. The Soviet Union also blatantly disregarded the provisions of the Biological Weapons Convention. Other perceived violations relating to nuclear testing were subsequently disproven by intrusive monitoring. The largest category of transgressions related to treaty provisions that Washington sought but that the Kremlin cunningly refused to accept.

Critics of arms control rallied around these reports. One was finalized just prior to President Reagan’s first summit meeting with Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva. On November 18, 1985, while Reagan was en route to the summit, the Washington Post ran a front page story written by Walter Pincus headlined “Weinberger Urges Buildup over Soviet Violations.” The story cited a private letter from Weinberger to Reagan, accompanied by an eleven-page summary of the latest compendium of Soviet treaty violations, warning that “current and future Soviet violations pose real risks to our security and to the process of arms control itself.” The letter’s purpose was to dissuade Reagan from seeking new treaties by reminding him of the Kremlin’s premeditated, systemic “policy of treaty violations.”

Some concluded that Weinberger, who didn’t accompany Reagan in Geneva, or someone else in the Pentagon, leaked this material to sabotage the summit. Anti-arms controllers might well have wanted these documents — which were not only unclassified, but also lacked “for official use only” markings — in the public domain. But they didn’t leak them. I did. They were sent to me by someone who didn’t work at the Pentagon, and I passed them along to Pincus.

Reagan couldn’t have been pleased about the timing of this leak, but he was on Weinberger’s wavelength – at least with respect to treaty violations. In his very first presidential press conference, Reagan characterized Soviet leaders as having “openly and publicly declared that the only morality they recognize is what will further their cause, meaning they reserve unto themselves the right to commit any crime, to lie, to cheat.” Even so, Weinberger and Perle were unsuccessful in steering Reagan away from pursuing ambitious nuclear arms reduction treaties.

These ambitions are now in short supply. No-one mistakes Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin for Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. New treaties seem unlikely any time soon, but this hasn’t stopped the usual suspects from taking blocking actions and gnawing away at useful cooperative practices with Moscow. True, the Kremlin is back to its old tricks, unhappy with the treaty negotiated by Reagan and Gorbachev. Missile flight tests that either circumvent or violate the INF Treaty’s provisions warrant tweaks in Pentagon programs; Putin’s annexation of Crimea warrants more than tweaks.

In my view, Putin’s actions provide more than sufficient reason to cast off the fixed pursuit of deficit reduction in the United States. US friends and allies have always taken cues about Washington’s resolve by looking to the Pentagon’s budget, and continued shrinkage invites more trouble abroad. Reversing this trend in applicable, non-pork barrel, and non-nuclear ways would send useful signals. This would require making new deals on Capitol Hill over defense and domestic spending, reassessing political orthodoxy, and having the White House do some heavy lifting. If these requirements continue to be in short supply after this fall’s election, they would provide further evidence, if more were needed, of Washington’s deep dysfunction.

What punishments make the most sense in response to Putin’s annexation of Crimea? How about a one percent reduction in Russia’s economic growth? Capital flight? A lowering of ratings to near-junk bond status? A weakened currency? The drying up of foreign direct investment? Economics is not my strong suit, but these seem like these meaningful measures, and more economic penalties appear likely. Putting in motion and implementing a five-to-ten year plan to substitute US for Russian natural gas exports to Europe seems like a no-brainer.

What punishments don’t make sense? Messing with cooperative US-Russian practices that continue to serve US national security interests. Cooperative aerial overflights under the Open Skies Treaty, as discussed here previously, certainly fall into this category. Messing with collaborative efforts on nuclear security is another.

The Nunn-Lugar CTR authority has ended, and continued cooperation with Russia’s Ministry of Defense will be hard to resuscitate. The United States has made significant investments in upgrading security at Russian nuclear weapons storage sites. It would be wise to seek collaborative sustainment of these upgrades, which were given impetus by President George W. Bush and Putin at the Bratislava summit in 2005. Work on these security upgrades managed to survive Russia’s military action in Georgia.

In 2003, the Bush administration also negotiated a new, fifteen-year framework agreement to allow for security upgrades at Rosatom facilities. Some on Capitol Hill now wish to predicate their continuance on reversing Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Trickle-down security upgrades at Rosatom facilities are as uneven and unreliable as trickle-down economics in the United States. US assistance with physical security and material accounting in the past have undeniably improved Russian efforts to prevent acts of nuclear terrorism. There is no evidence that nuclear security initiatives in Russia would be maintained, let alone improved, if Congressional opponents had their way, and considerable reason to conclude otherwise. Much of this work is done by the US nuclear labs, which would be penalized by their supporters on Capitol Hill if nuclear security programs with Russia were stopped.

Why take aim at collaborative steps to reduce nuclear dangers and cross-border tensions, especially when bilateral relations are deteriorating? Caspar Weinberger’s arguments were not convincing to President Reagan. Will they now be convincing to Reagan Republicans?


  1. Stuart Wilder (History)

    “. . . Putin’s actions provide more than sufficient reason to cast off the fixed pursuit of deficit reduction in the United States.” Good luck with that. In a day when a First Lady’s efforts to recover kidnapped schoolgirls gets mocked as partisan drool, we’re lucky they can agree to sign soldiers’ pay checks. All they can agree on in defense spending is to buy stuff the Pentagon does not want to keep a bunch of fork lift drivers and the like working in every congressional district with a member on an armed services committee.

  2. kevin (History)

    Dying to hear more on your motivations for leaking the Weinberger letter to Pincus. Maybe in another post?

    • krepon (History)


      Around these parts, we remind each other to say ‘to live for,’ rather than ‘to die for.’

      Weinberger added this smarmy passage in his letter to Reagan:

      “I hope you will not consider it too negative or too lacking in hope. I have great hopes myself, based on my certain knowledge of how much you want agreements that will reduce arms.”

      What a crock. The letter and the attachment were written precisely because Reagan appeared so eager to do deals that Weinberger and Perle opposed. Everyone who read this letter, including the President himself, must have known this was a crock.

      I decided to pass this unclassified material over to Pincus because (1) it would shed light on the efforts within the administration to block Reagan’s pursuit of a deal; (2) it would put Weinberger and Perle on the defensive and weaken their position in these internal battles. It seemed reasonable to assume that most readers of the Pincus story would blame them for the leak.

      A postscript: Pincus asked me to acknowledge the leak after the story appeared, so he could write some more about it. I declined and he honored my decision.


    • kevin (History)

      thanks. Inside baseball is the best kind.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      “Anti-arms controllers might well have wanted these documents — which were not only unclassified, but also lacked “for official use only” markings — in the public domain. But they didn’t leak them. I did. They were sent to me by someone who didn’t work at the Pentagon, and I passed them along to Pincus.”

      This is a little vague. Were you the real leaker? Or simply the go-between leaker and press, all the better to disguise the real leaker?

    • krepon (History)

      can’t be clearer than what I wrote: someone gave thye documents to me, I gave them to Pincus.

  3. Fred Miller (History)

    “US friends and allies have always taken cues about Washington’s resolve by looking to the Pentagon’s budget”,
    Most of those “friends and allies” are the sort that like the guy who buys a round at the bar: when you stop, their friendship ends.

    Being the military superpower means resigning ourselves to becoming a third rate nation in terms of education, industrial leadership, health care, etc.

    Al Qaida taught Putin that our military prowess leaves us vulnerable to attack by anyone who doesn’t give us a clear military enemy to strike back at. Putin’s example is being noted by others.

    A 25% cut in US military spending would still leave us far ahead of any other nation, especially in light of our huge advantage in foreign bases and lack of hostile neighbors.

    Putting half of the savings into non-military foreign policy would allow us to be “firstest with the mostest” in disaster response, support for education, public health, economic development, democracy promotion, and environmental protection. We might find we’re making more friends than at present, and that proliferating foreigners are less energetic when faced with an America that is not itself the ultimate proliferator of conventional and nuclear weapons.

  4. j_kies (History)

    So your punishment was being ‘forced’ to co-found Stimpson?

    At least the vision or myopia was in government, now we have OpEds ghosted by the marketing departments of various multinationals building weapons for the DOD and others. Eisenhower was soooo right.

    • krepon (History)

      Co-founding Stimson was a great opportunity, not a punishment. My long innings at the Carnegie Endowment were up, and becoming my own boss seemed way more appealing than other alternative futures… as long as we could raise the money. Co-signing that first lease for office space was almost as hard as signing the first mortgage on our first house.

  5. Jeannick (History)

    “Why take aim at collaborative steps to reduce nuclear dangers and cross-border tensions, especially when bilateral relations are deteriorating? ”

    Why indeed ,
    talking about the Crimea without mentioning the going on in Kiev is downright misleading .
    there was Neo-con footprints all over the place

    there seems to be some constituency who believe
    the proper U.S. posture is right to the edge ,
    with one step forward.

    • krepon (History)

      The annexation of Crimea is the Neocons’ fault. Got it.

  6. anon (History)

    Why don’t we increase our military spending until it equals all our plausible opponents’ spending, combined?

    Oh wait, that’d be a decrease. More spending just to send a “signal” is money wasted.

  7. Bradley Laing (History)

    5. Complete India’s nuclear weapons triad by faster induction of nuclear submarine INS Arihant and its follow-on sister ships with long-range missiles. Land and air legs already in place with Agni ballistic missiles and fighter-bombers.


    —“6 top priorities for the ministry of defence,” from the Times of India newspaper.

  8. Bradley Laing (History)


    The American Nuclear Society’s Decommissioning and Environmental Services Division selected the K-25 demolition project to receive its Project Excellence Award. The K-25 building, located at East Tennessee Technology Park, was built as part of the Manhattan Project in the 1940s. The facility was shut down in 1964 after two decades of producing enriched uranium for defense and commercial purposes. As the massive, mile-long building began deteriorating, its demolition was considered one of the highest priorities for the environmental cleanup program in Oak Ridge.