"I find hope in the work of long-established groups such as the Arms Control Association...[and] I find hope in younger anti-nuclear activists and the movement around the world to formally ban the bomb."

– Vincent Intondi
Professor of History, Montgomery College
July 1, 2020
Congress Responds to Bush Missile Plans Along Party Lines

Wade Boese

Congressional Republicans applauded President George W. Bush’s May 1 declaration that the United States would deploy missile defenses, but top Democrats warned Bush against rashly abrogating the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which proscribes nationwide defenses against strategic ballistic missiles. With control of the Senate reverting to the Democrats because of Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords’ decision to leave the Republican Party, it appears likely that Bush will face new challenges in his pursuit of an ambitious missile shield.

Appearing at a May 2 press conference with Senators Carl Levin (D-MI), Jack Reed (D-RI), and Joe Biden (D-DE), then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) proclaimed that the president’s speech “begins one of the most important and consequential debates that Americans will see in our lifetime.”

At the press conference, Biden suggested that, if the United States unilaterally withdrew from the ABM Treaty and deployed missile defenses, Russia could halt its nuclear reductions and China would increase its number of ICBMs from the 20 or so it has today to “closer to 800.” He further projected that a Chinese missile buildup would prompt India and then Pakistan to expand their nuclear forces, creating a more dangerous Asia that could in turn put pressure on Japan “to go nuclear.”

Biden, who will be the next chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also expressed doubt concerning the premise that rogue states would not be deterred from attacking the United States. Levin, who is expected to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, questioned the urgency and priority of the threat, noting that both the U.S. intelligence and defense communities rank the possibility of a missile attack against the United States as the “least likely threat to us.”

In a separate floor statement the same day, Senator John Kerry (D-MA) argued that, if Russia and China remained unconvinced by Bush administration assurances that U.S. missile defenses are not directed at them, a defense could make the United States less safe because Moscow and Beijing could respond by “developing, and eventually selling, new ways to overwhelm our defenses.”

On the House side, Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-MO) said Bush’s approach “may have the effect of undermining our nation’s security rather than enhancing it.” Gephardt stated that Bush is “jeopardizing an arms control framework that has served this nation and the world well for decades” by pushing his plans to deploy “as yet unproven, costly, and expansive national missile defense systems.”

Another Missouri Democrat, Ike Skelton, who started his May 1 statement by noting that he does not oppose missile defense, counseled against pursuing missile defenses at the expense of other military spending and diplomatic approaches. “Every missile not built is one we do not have to defend against,” Skelton stated.

Largely echoing the president, Republican senators and representatives all spoke of the growing threat from countries that have or will soon have long-range ballistic missiles to deliver weapons of mass destruction against the United States. Citing a 1998 commission headed by now-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that reported the United States might have “little or no warning” before a hostile state deployed such a missile, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), then chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, stated May 2 that “there is no time to lose” in deploying missile defenses.

Although currently only Russia and China possess ICBMs capable of striking the United States, a September 1999 National Intelligence Estimate concluded that within the next 15 years the United States will also most likely face an ICBM threat from North Korea, probably from Iran, and possibly from Iraq.

Republicans also embraced Bush’s judgment of the ABM Treaty as a Cold War relic. Senators James Inhofe (R-OK) and Fred Thompson (R-TN) described the treaty as “outdated,” while House Armed Services Committee Chairman Bob Stump (R-AZ) said that U.S. security strategy “must move beyond the now-obsolete framework that was once the cornerstone of our national security.” Long a critic of the accord, then-Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-NC) declared, “It is time to scrap the ABM Treaty.”