The ABM Treaty, 1972-2001


The ABM Treaty, 1972-2001

Jul 30, 2001 2 min read
Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.


Edwin J. Feulner is the founder and former president of The Heritage Foundation.

Note: Here's an obituary that should have appeared in your local newspaper.

WASHINGTON-The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, a flawed and shortsighted agreement between the United States and the late Soviet Union, died this summer. It was 29.

The treaty, which forbade the deployment of a national missile defense, had been ailing for years because of growing support for a missile shield that would protect the United States and its allies. One such system was successfully tested on July 15, when a missile launched from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific hit a dummy warhead shot from a site in California some 4,800 miles away. Insiders say the missile hit dealt a sharp blow to the treaty's health.

A further setback occurred the morning of July 17, when a New York Times editorial suggested it may be time to "modify or supersede" the treaty in talks with Russia. The agreement never seemed to recover from this unexpected reversal by the Times editorial page, a long-time treaty booster.            

Death came just five days later in Genoa, Italy, as Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George Bush agreed that a U.S. missile defense could proceed, accompanied by large nuclear arms cuts by both nations. The Genoa Medical Examiner's Office said the treaty died of natural causes.

Baker Spring, a missile-defense expert at The Heritage Foundation, disputed the official account of the cause and timing of the treaty's demise. Spring contends it actually died in 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved. "When the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist, so did the ABM Treaty," he said.

President Bush also had declared the treaty dead during an address on May 1 at the National Defense University. But the Times, standard bearer of liberal elite opinion, disagreed-insisting the treaty be kept on life support until a cure for its multiple defects could be found.

The ABM Treaty was born May 26, 1972, in Moscow. The proud parents were Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

The treaty's health began to decline in 1982, when The Heritage Foundation published the 175-page book, "High Frontier." The book proposed a new national strategy to end the threat of nuclear annihilation. Instead of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), the doctrine that governed U.S-Soviet relations throughout the Cold War, Heritage proposed a new doctrine based on protection.

The treaty entered critical condition in 1983, when President Reagan proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a missile shield that would defend the United States against nuclear attack. The former president said he saw missile defense as a way to get beyond MAD. "Somehow this didn't seem to be something that would send you to bed feeling safe," he wrote in his 1990 autobiography. "There had to be a better way."

The treaty's health improved slightly during the Clinton administration, which saw it as "the cornerstone of strategic stability," despite the fact that the Soviet Union no longer existed and that a growing number of nuclear nations-China, Iraq, Iran and North Korea, to name just a few-weren't party to the treaty anyway.

The ABM Treaty is survived by an emerging international consensus that missile defense offers a better way to protect peace and avert nuclear war. Preceding it in death are Brezhnev, the Soviet Union, President Nixon, the Cold War and outdated thinking on defense issues.

Funeral arrangements are pending.

Edwin Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation ( ), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

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