University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History > The Public Politics of America's First Missile Defence System, 1967-1969

The Public Politics of America's First Missile Defence System, 1967-1969

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The signature of the ABM Treaty in May 1972 was a significant moment, both in the development of detente between the United States and the Soviet Union and the history of nuclear arms control. Yet the United States’ policy towards missile defence before the ABM Treaty has received little attention from scholars. My PhD thesis traces the evolution of missile defence from a broad concept in 1955 through to a working deployment programme in the mid-1960s and a diplomatic bargaining chip in the early 1970s. This paper addresses a key phase of this evolution: the passionate and highly contested public debate surrounding deployment of America’s first ABM system.

For the first time, foreign and defence policy elites of equal weight and standing disagreed openly over the wisdom of a major strategic nuclear weapons system, with many prominent scientists and intellectuals testifying against ABM in Congress. This divergence was in part driven by differing interpretations of the war in Vietnam. The war was also a component in rising popular participation on the ABM question, with suburban pressure groups objecting to the siting of the system near their homes and speaking out against Federal spending priorities that many felt privileged defence to the detriment of social programmes. The ABM debate culminated with a 50-51 vote in the Senate on appropriations for its deployment in August 1969, the closest vote in Congress on a defence issue since the extension of the draft in 1941. This was indicative of the resurgence of Congress as a counterpoint to the executive on questions of national security. In the process, the US ABM programme became highly politicised, facilitating its transition to a diplomatic tool in the SALT talks, which commenced in November 1969.

This talk is part of the Violence and Conflict Graduate Workshop, Faculty of History series.

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