Arms Control and Disarmament Act (1961) and Amendments

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Arms control and Disarmament Act (1961) and Amendments

David A. Koplow

The Arms Control and Disarmament Act (P.L. 87-297, 75 Stat. 631) was landmark legislation designed to entrench arms control as a key component of United States national security policy during and after the Cold War. With this act, Congress achieved three main tasks: (1) it set ambitious goals and purposes for coordinating disarmament with other defense strategies; (2) it created the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), a body that would make the country's commitment to arms control a part of its governing institutions; and (3) it established standards and procedures for integrating all aspects of security policy.


Arms control emerged as a highly controversial issue after World War II. The two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, exchanged a series of ambitious proposals, with each government criticizing the other's as one-sided. Virtually no progress was made in achieving actual arms reductions. The issue became central to American politics, with intense controversy between the legislative and executive branches over who should exercise how much control over the direction of U.S. diplomatic moves. Arms control was also a hot issue in presidential election campaigns. Senators Hubert H. Humphrey, Democrat of Minnesota, and John F. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, championed the idea of creating a new governmental organization devoted solely to arms control matters. After his election in 1960, President Kennedy submitted exactly such a proposal. It swept through Congress with large majorities and became law on September 26, 1961.


Congress grandly declared that an "ultimate goal of the United States is a world which is free from the scourge of war and the dangers and burdens of armaments; in which the use of force has been subordinated to the rule of law; and in which international adjustments to a changing world are achieved peacefully." Accordingly, it created "a new agency of peace" to pursue those objectives. ACDA was intended to be permanent (not depending on international and domestic politics); focused (not carrying a broad set of substantive responsibilities that would detract attention from its core missions); independent (not dominated by the Department of State or other existing government agencies, each of which had its own institutional objectives and limitations); and small (not costing a great deal of money).

The new agency was to have four principal tasks:

  1. To conduct, support, and coordinate federal research on arms control issues
  2. To prepare for and manage U.S. participation in international arms control negotiations
  3. To inform the American public about arms control
  4. To prepare for and operate or direct "control systems" that might be useful in monitoring and enforcing compliance with international arms control agreements

Not surprisingly, the small ACDA (usually staffed by only 200 to 300 personnel) was unable fully to carry out those ambitious objectives. Still, it often exerted a disproportionate degree of leadership in each area.

The act also contained several other notable features. It made the agency's director "the principal adviser to the Secretary of State and the President on arms control and disarmament matters." This double responsibilityreporting to both the president and the secretarywas often referred to as a "dual hat" mechanism. The director, under this mechanism, would express an "independent voice," ensuring the forceful articulation of an arms control perspective in the most senior-level national security debates, while not straying too far from the Secretary of State's leadership in international diplomacy. In practice, the personal relationships among the director, the secretary, and the president fluctuated over the years. The more closely the director was tied to the top national leadership, the greater the agency's influence.

The act, as amended, required ACDA to compile and submit to Congress a variety of reports that sometimes influenced national policy. Under section 37, ACDA was to evaluate "verifiability"in other words, how well the United States could monitor compliance with arms control treaties and major proposals for treaties under negotiation. For many years the agency was also given the task of leading an interagency process to draft "arms control impact statements" to study and publicize the effect that major U.S. weapons development and acquisition programs have on international arms races.

Many members of Congress were skeptical about ACDA, and section 33 of the act reflected their suspicions. First, it specified that the mandate for pursuing international arms control did not encompass domestic gun control; nothing in the act would permit the agency to "interfere with, restrict, or prohibit the acquisition, possession, or use of firearms by an individual for the lawful purpose of personal defense, sport, recreation, education, or training." Second, section 33 provided that no action could be taken to disarm or to reduce or limit the armed forces or armaments of the United States "except pursuant to the treaty making power of the President under the Constitution or unless authorized by further affirmative legislation." In this way, Congress sought to disallow arms control accords that might be fashioned as "executive agreements" concluded on the sole authority of the president without congressional affirmation.


In many respects, the act was a tremendous success. It led to an impressive array of legally binding arms control treaties, with ACDA in the lead role. The 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty (prohibiting atmospheric nuclear weapons tests), the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (establishing the "rules of the road" for peaceful operations in space), the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (restricting the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities), and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (banning the development and production of germ weapons) were hallmark early successes, approved by large majorities in the U.S. Senate, and still in force today. The series of bilateral SALT (Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty) and START (Strategic Arms Reduction Talks) negotiations on nuclear arms limitation and reduction would not have been possible without ACDA, and all participants acknowledge the agency's leadership role on other such diverse subjects as chemical weapons and conventional forces.

More generally, the act made arms control a legitimate tool of U.S. policy. The concept of seeking enhanced security through negotiation, rather than solely through arms procurement, became an accepted feature of the political landscape, and even national leaders who were not inclined to value diplomatic approaches were frequently nudged in that direction by the arguments and information provided by ACDA.


The agency was unable, however, to escape controversy. Its popularity, influence, and resources fluctuated wildly under different presidents and congressional leaders. Opponents charged that ACDA was too willing to secure an agreement "at any price," insufficiently vigorous in enforcing existing treaty obligations, and, especially after 1990, unnecessary when the end of the Cold War had so radically altered international security relationships. The agency's supporters, on the other hand, argued that the real reason for the objections was resentment of the agency's sheer effectiveness, saying that those who continued to reject the whole concept of arms control wanted to eliminate ACDA, its most successful proponent. At various times, numerous initiatives were undertaken to abolish or shrink the agency or restrict its influence. For several years ACDA limped along with minimal funding and without U.S. Senate confirmation of its key presidential appointees. Finally, a reorganization of the foreign affairs bureaucracy merged ACDA into the State Department on April 1, 1999. The agency was abolished by statute, and its core functions and personnel were absorbed by State.

See also: Atomic Energy Acts; Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act; weapons of Mass Destruction Control Act.


Clarke, Duncan L. Politics of Arms Control: The Role and Effectiveness of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. New York: Free Press, 1979.

Krepon, Michael, Amy E. Smithson, and James A. Schear. "The U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency: Restructuring for the Post-Cold War Era." (Pamphlet) Washington, DC: Henry L. Stimson Center, 1993.

Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century

In 2003 there were an estimated 17,500 operational nuclear weapons in the world. The vast majority of nuclear weapons have been built by either the United States (55 percent) or Russia (43 percent). Since 1945 the United States has spent more than $5 trillion in preparations to fight a nuclear war.

The Cold War

Cold War is the term used to describe the hostility between the United States and the Soviet Union and their respective allies from the end of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. During the Cold War standoff of more than forty years, actual warfare occurred not between the two superpowers but between their proxies in regional conflicts. The superpowers battled directly with propaganda, espionage, and economic pressures. This restraint was due in large part to "mutually assured destruction," the principle that an attack by one of the countries would result in its annihilation by the other's nuclear weapons.

The Cold War began at the end of the World War II, when the Soviet Union drew the countries of Eastern Europe into a group of Soviet-dominated satellites and sought to spread Communism elsewhere around the globe. The United States developed a policy of "containment" to limit Soviet power, supporting anti-Communist efforts in countries destabilized by the war or by Soviet pressures. Global politics became polarized as the two countries sought to increase their influence worldwide, and the United States used the CIA to overthrow governments that seemed to be turning pro-Communistin the process coming to support ruthless regimes whose policies were no more democratic than those of the Soviets. During the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan made opposition to Communism a central tenet of his presidency, and ballooning military spending brought crushing levels of debt to both countries. The Soviet economy began to collapse, in part due to the strain of its military spending, and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev began to scale back the country's military, dismantle nuclear weapons, and institute internal reforms to democratize the Soviet system. In 1989 Communist regimes were suddenly overthrown in the Soviet satellites of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and East Germany. The Soviet system collapsed completely in 1991, and with it the bipolar structure that had defined international politics since World War II.

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Arms Control and Disarmament Act (1961) and Amendments

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