18. Editorial Note

During mid-June 1969 Congressional opposition to the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system requested by the Nixon administration intensified. The ABM debate was closely tied to a controversial new weapons system, the multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV), which would neutralize an opponent’s ABM, increase second strike capability, and improve accuracy in wiping out missile sites. Congressional opposition was led by Senators Clifford Case (R–NJ) and Edward Brooke (R–MA) who urged the administration to postpone MIRV testing pending U.S.-Soviet arms control negotiations. In their view, MIRV would escalate the arms race by necessitating Soviet ABM deployment to reestablish deterrent balance. Moreover, once deployed, MIRV was impossible to inspect. On June 17 Brooke introduced a resolution sponsored by 41 Senators that urged President Nixon to propose a joint suspension of MIRV testing to the Soviet Union. (Congressional Quarterly, June 20, 1969, pages 1067–1070)

In his memoirs President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs Kissinger explained the administration’s view: “All of this [Congressional opposition] was being advocated while the Soviet missile arsenal was growing at the rate of two to three hundred missiles a year. If the Soviets were building while we abandoned our programs, what [Page 64] would be their incentive to negotiate limitation in an agreement? Our unilateral restraint would be an incentive for the Soviets not to settle but to procrastinate, to tilt the balance as much in their favor as possible while we paralyzed ourselves. To abandon ABM and MIRV together would thus not only have undercut the prospects for any SALT agreement but probably guaranteed Soviet strategic superiority for a decade.” (Kissinger, White House Years, page 212)

On June 19 President Nixon gave a televised press conference at which he stated his position on MIRV testing. Referring to the Brooke resolution, he declared that “it is certainly a very constructive proposal insofar as they, themselves are thinking about it. We are considering the possibility of a moratorium as part of any arms control agreement. However, as far as any unilateral stopping of tests on our part, I do not think that would be in our interest. Only in the event that the Soviet Union and we could agree that a moratorium on tests could be mutually beneficial to us, would we be able to agree to do so.” (Public Papers: Nixon, 1969, page 474)

In his memoirs Nixon described the ABM vote as “the first significant congressional vote on defense measures in my administration, and I wanted the signal to go out that we had not lost our national sense of purpose and resolve—because I did not think we had.” He concluded that “I am absolutely convinced that had we lost the ABM battle in the Senate, we would not have been able to negotiate the first nuclear arms control agreement in Moscow in 1972.” The administration did not lose, but it was a “cliff-hanging one-vote margin of victory.” ( RN: The Memoirs of Richard Nixon, pages 415–418) On August 6 the Senate approved the Safeguard ABM system by a vote of 51–49. Vice President Spiro Agnew cast the tie-breaking vote. Congress passed the bill authorizing spending on defense projects, including ABM, on November 19.