Bring back the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency

Greg Nash

After 9/11, the U.S. government reorganized existing federal organizations and created new ones to address the threat of global terrorism. These new institutions reflected a renewed prioritization on the mission of homeland security because of the real possibility of additional terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.

Just a few years before, in the late 1990s, the United States disbanded an organization because its mission no longer was deemed as high a priority — the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA). With the end of the Cold War ushering in significant nuclear arms reductions and the permanent extension of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1995, the goals of ACDA no longer appeared urgent. ACDA lost its independent status in 1997 and the State Department absorbed it two years later. 

Looking back, this decision to eliminate ACDA was short-sighted.

The idea for a U.S. government office devoted to arms control and disarmament was suggested by several individuals in the late 1950s and early 1960s. According to historian Jonathan Hunt, President Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, Christian Herter, “bemoaned the lack of a dedicated office in charge of moderating conflict rather than steeling for it.” In 1960, Herter announced the creation of the United States Disarmament Administration within the State Department. During the 1960 presidential election, both Democrat John F. Kennedy and Republican Nelson Rockefeller called for a government agency devoted to arms control and disarmament activities. 

In his first month as president in 1960, John F. Kennedy appointed John McCloy, Washington insider and one of the “Wise Men,” as special adviser on disarmament and arms control. Later that year, McCloy presented a bill creating an Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, which Congress passed in September 1961. 

The mission of the organization was “to strengthen the national security of the United States by formulating, advocating, negotiating, implementing and verifying effective arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament policies, strategies, and agreements. In so doing, ACDA ensures that arms control is fully integrated into the development and conduct of United States national security policy.”

This independent organization, whose leader had direct access to the president, ensured that an arms control and disarmament perspective would be present at all interagency meetings when major international security decisions were being made. The ACDA’s existence meant arms control and disarmament would not become lost in bureaucratic fights between other departments.

President Kennedy prioritized the creation of an arms control and disarmament agency because the world had entered a new and dangerous period that posed challenges to national and international security, requiring dedicated attention and expertise.

The same is true today.

The promise of the early 1990s, which began with the United States and Russia agreeing to major reductions in their nuclear arsenals, appears to be over. President Obama offered to reduce the U.S. strategic arsenal by a third during a speech in Berlin in 2013 if the Russians would, too.  They were uninterested. As of August 2019, the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces treaty is defunct. Russia already has deployed missiles prohibited by this treaty, and the United States is testing missiles in the formerly prohibited range. We are at risk of losing the only strategic arms control treaty remaining, New START, after 2021.

But this is not all. New military capabilities and rising powers mean the strategic environment is much more complicated than ever before. Several states are pursuing hypersonic weapons — able to travel over five times the speed of sound — some of which could be maneuverable to avoid missile defenses. Such weapons open the possibility of targeting and destroying elements of nuclear command and control systems with conventional capabilities. 

Russia has declared plans for a nuclear-armed undersea drone that could wreak havoc on coastal cities and ports necessary for global trade. Other technologies, including advanced robotics, artificial intelligence, and cyber capabilities likely have strategic implications we have not yet fully grasped. If ACDA existed today, its employees would study the implications of these new technologies and consider how to shape arms control agreements. 

The United States and the international community also face a challenge within the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Next spring, all of the members of the NPT will come together at the United Nations to review the treaty on its 50th anniversary. The membership is divided over the best path forward on nuclear disarmament. Some favor the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which bans all nuclear weapons and related activities. Others, including the U.S. State Department, seek to improve global security before pursuing additional reductions. 

Beyond disarmament, the regime faces proliferation challenges in Iran because of U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal last year, and potentially in Saudi Arabia where leaders have stated they will, like Iran, seek to enrich uranium indigenously for their planned nuclear reactors. If ACDA existed today, its employees would brainstorm ways to improve and sustain the nuclear non-proliferation regime for the long-term.

A final challenge is how to sustain global institutions aimed at non-proliferation and disarmament in an increasingly multipolar world. Will China cooperate with the United States to promote nuclear non-proliferation? What about India, Brazil, Indonesia and other rising powers? Will these states cooperate to sustain global nuclear non-proliferation? If ADCA existed today, its employees would study how to sustain the nuclear order in a more complex international system.

To be sure, there are some State Department officials working on these portfolios today, but we need the concentrated effort that stems from having an entire organization with a mission to promote arms control and disarmament. 

Whoever is elected president in 2020 should consider JFK’s legacy in creating the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. In 1960, Kennedy could have been describing the present day when he stated: “The engines of death are multiplying in number and destructiveness on every side — the institutions of peace are not.” Addressing a more complex security environment with rising powers and new weapons will require sustained, dedicated attention from a cadre of U.S. officials. Recreating an institution like ACDA is a step in the right direction. 

Rebecca Davis Gibbons is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Southern Maine and a research fellow at the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. Follow her on Twitter @RDavisGibbons.

Tags Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Nuclear disarmament Nuclear proliferation State Department

More National Security News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video