US Anti Ballistic Missle (ABM) Deployment

Despite McNamara's sympathies with the ABM's opponents, events overseas pressured the defense secretary to consider some sort of antimissile defensive scheme. The detonation of an atomic bomb by China in 1964 meant that the United States faced a second potential nuclear threat if and when the Chinese deployed their own ICBMs. Furthermore, intelligence reports confirmed that the Soviets were building their defensive missile system. Realizing that President Lyndon Johnson was under growing pressure to deploy an ABM system, McNamara recommended a compromise, offering to field a defensive system should the Soviets not respond to proposed negotiations intended to limit such systems. Unfortunately at the June 1967 Glassboro, New Jersey, summit between President Johnson and Premier Aleksei N. Kosygin, the Soviet leader refused to accept the American overture. Kosygin defended the Soviet ABM program on the grounds that people-killing offensive missiles were morally wrong while missile- killing defensive missiles were morally defensible.

In September 1967, McNamara announced that the United States would deploy many elements of the Nike X program in the new Sentinel antiballistic missile defense system. The key components of the Sentinel system were the huge perimeter acquisition radar (PAR), the shorter-range missile site radar (MSR), and the Sprint and Spartan missiles. The PAR was designed to acquire and track targets at ranges in excess of 1,000 miles. The MSR, which had a range of several hundred miles, provided precise, close-in targeting information. The MSR also controlled launching the missiles and guiding them to their targets.

The goal of the Sentinel system was three-fold: to protect the nation's urban and industrial areas against ICBM attack from the People's Republic of China; to provide a defensive missile shield against an accidental launch; and to allow the United States to protect its Minuteman ICBM launch facilities.

The initial Sentinel deployment plan envisioned installing the Sentinel at 13 sites in the continental United States and at one site in both Alaska and Hawaii. Because Sentinel would be deployed around major cities such as Boston, Seattle, Chicago, Detroit, and San Francisco, opponents of the ABM system could unite with scientists and peace activists from those communities to halt construction. In Seattle the ABM Committee of the Seattle Association of Scientists attacked the deployment scheme. In Chicago, five scientists formed the West Suburban Concerned Scientists Group and argued that local ABM deployment would only subject the city to extra Soviet ICBMs in the event of war.

The scale of opposition became apparent when the Army began constructing the Sentinel facility at Sharpner's Pond near Boston. In the wake of a January 29, 1969, Army community relations meeting that gave opponents a forum to denounce Sentinel, Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) wrote a letter to the new Nixon Administration's Secretary of Defense, Melvin Laird, challenging Sentinel. Kennedy's letter touched off a heated debate within the Senate on the system's viability. The controversy in the Senate forced Laird to halt construction at the Sharpner's Pond site pending completion of an already-scheduled program review.

President Nixon also adopted a cautious position on ABM system development. He shared National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger's concern that construction of the ABM system could lead the Soviets to believe that the United States was attempting to achieve a first-strike capability that could survive a retaliatory counterstrike. Trying to avoid a move that could be construed as provocative, Nixon elected to modify the Sentinel system. Instead of trying to erect a limited nationwide ballistic missile defense, the President directed that the new ABM system be positioned to protect part of the United States' ICBM force. His goal was to ensure that a sizable portion of the nation's ICBMs survived a Soviet first strike, thus ensuring that the United States would always possess an adequate retaliatory capability. By leaving the nation's cities open to attack, Nixon hoped to assure the Soviets that the United States would never conduct a first strike. On March 14, 1969, Nixon announced the deployment of a "modified Sentinel system," which he called Safeguard.

The Safeguard program initially called for 12 sites. With the exception of the site intended to protect Washington, DC, all of the facilities were to be located well away from densely populated urban areas. Despite moving the system away from urban areas where it was vehemently opposed, Safeguard still faced rigorous Congressional scrutiny. Numerous ad hoc groups sprang up either to support or to stop Safeguard deployment. Again, scientists Jerome Wiesner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe played prominent roles in providing scientific arguments on behalf of the opposition. Meanwhile, former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Paul Nitze formed the "Committee to Maintain a Prudent Defense Policy" to pressure Congress to deploy Safeguard. In the Senate, the debate over Safeguard continued through much of July 1969, with anti-ABM forces making headway against the administration's arguments that the system would provide President Nixon an additional bargaining chip in upcoming strategic negotiations with the Soviets. However, on August 6, 1969, by a scant one-vote margin, the Senate voted to deploy Safeguard at 2 of the 12 sites.

When the Senate authorized construction of Safeguard sites in North Dakota and Montana to protect the nearby Minuteman ICBMs, U.S. negotiators found their Soviet counterparts more receptive at arms limitation talks that began in November 1969. As the talks continued, the Nixon administration hoped to provide its negotiating team additional leverage by having Congress appropriate funds for six additional sites, including one near the nation's capital. However, in 1970, the Senate Armed Services Committee extended appropriations to cover only the building of additional sites to defend ICBMs stationed near Whiteman AFB, Missouri, and F.E. Warren AFB, Wyoming. Again, when the bill went to the Senate on August 12, 1970, Safeguard proponents narrowly defeated an amendment cutting appropriations.