155. Memorandum From the Deputy Secretary of Defense (Vance) to President Johnson1

There are five purposes for which we might want to deploy an anti-ballistic missile system (ABM). They are:

To protect against a Communist Chinese missile attack.
To protect against an accidental missile launch.
To protect against “nuclear blackmail,” which could take the form of a light attack on a single target of moderate value.
To help protect our land-based strategic offensive forces.
To protect our cities against a large Soviet missile attack.

Today there are three options open to you.

Do nothing at this time except continue a vigorous research and development program.
Deploy a “thin” ABM system, which would meet Items 1 through 4 above.
Deploy a “thick” ABM system, which would meet Items 1 through 4 and would, in addition, give local protection to 25 selected cities. This option is recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

I will discuss each one of these options briefly.


The arguments in favor of Option a are: 1) it is unnecessary now to deploy a system against the Chinese threat because they are 8 to 9 years away from having any significant ICBM capability; 2) we have such missile superiority over the Soviet Union with our Polaris submarines which are essentially invulnerable, and our penetration aids for both sea and hardened land-based missiles, that it is unnecessary to protect our land-based strategic forces with an ABM; 3) the chance of an accidental missile launching is remote; 4) a blackmail attack is unlikely, because an attacker would know that he was risking all-out nuclear war which would destroy his country; 5) a system designed to protect our cities would ultimately leave us in essentially the same position as we are now vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, because they would be forced to react to preserve their assured destruction capability. In the end, each [Page 475] would have the capacity to kill [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] and we would have wasted $30 to $40 billion.

It has been argued that one need only expend about $10 billion to deploy a system which would give protection to 25 selected cities. This argument, however, ignores the fact that if we were to deploy such a system, the Soviet Union would be forced to take countermeasures in the same fashion as we have done. This would require us to thicken our system to meet such countermeasures. In the end, our commitment to defend our cities would force us into deployment of a very thick system at a total cost of between $30 and $40 billion.

Further, if we were to deploy a system protecting only 25 cities, the pressures in the Congress would be tremendous to extend such a system to protect other population centers not covered by the $10 billion system.

Finally, there are still difficult technical problems remaining to be solved, such as the development of the extended range Spartan missile and its associated [less than 1 line of source text not declassified] required for exoatmospheric intercept, the development of the high acceleration Sprint missile for local defense, the development of the very complex radars, and the integration of all of these into a reliable system.

The argument against this option is the probable attitude of the Congress and our people. The first reaction of most Americans will inevitably be in favor of an immediate start on deployment, if for no other reason than the Soviets are deploying an ABM system.

The second option, i.e., to deploy a “thin” system, would meet the first four objectives listed in the first paragraph of this memorandum, probably at a cost of between $4 and $5 billion. It would have to be made clear that this system would not be expanded to attempt to protect our cities against a heavy Soviet attack. This system would not only meet the first four objectives but, for a limited period of time, would also have the side benefit of reducing population losses in the United States against a Soviet attack by 20 or 30 million. This benefit would disappear in time as the Soviets improved their missiles—as we have done—by the development of penetration aids and multiple warheads. If this option were chosen, the deployment decision could be coupled with talks with the Soviet Union, seeking to reach an understanding with respect to the further deployment of both ABM’s and offensive missiles. A decision in favor of this option would draw the teeth of much of the argument that the Soviets have a defense and we do not. However, there would be continuing pressures from some sources to expand to a “thick” system.

The third option would, as indicated above, deploy a system designed to meet the first four objectives and to protect 25 selected cities. [Page 476] The Joint Chiefs of Staff have recommended that you decide in favor of this option. For the reasons given above, this would not produce a stable situation because the Soviet Union would be forced to react and thus would negate the effectiveness of the system. In the end, we would spend $30 to $40 billion in thickening this system, and would not be able to protect our country from devastation from a Soviet missile attack.

The Congress is divided on the issue of deploying an ABM system, but we believe that a substantial majority favor going ahead with some form of deployment. The group in favor of proceeding with an ABM deployment is led by Senator Russell and has strong backing in the Armed Services Committees of both Houses.

Cyrus M. Vance 2
  1. Source: Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330 71 A 3470, ABM Memo and JCS View Folder 103. Top Secret. This memorandum was prepared in response to Secretary McNamara’s paper discussed at the December 6 meeting; see Document 150 and footnote 3 thereto. For responses by Hornig and Rostow to this request, see Documents 156 and 157. Responses by Katzenbach, Thompson, and Helms are printed in Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. XI, Documents 169, 170, and 171. Kohler’s December 10 written statement is in the Washington National Records Center, OSD Files: FRC 330 70 A 4662, 471.94 ABM (Nov & Dec) 1966.
  2. Printed from a copy that indicates Vance signed the original.