A forerunner to America's current missile defense program was first proposed in the 1960s by President Lyndon Johnson. Called the Sentinel system, it would have deployed nuclear-tipped interceptor missiles at fifteen strategic sites across the United States. But Johnson lacked the political will to carry the project to fruition. Confronted by critics who charged that the program would be too expensive and too difficult to implement successfully, the President dramatically reduced its scope.
In March 1969, President Richard Nixon announced his own plan -- called "Safeguard" -- to deploy a defensive system designed to shield America's intercontinental ballistic missile fields from attack by incoming Soviet missiles. Three years of U.S.-Soviet negotiations followed, culminating in May 1972 with Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev signing the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT I) Treaty. This agreement included the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which limited the USSR and the United States to the deployment of two ABM sites (equipped with 100 interceptors) each. A 1974 protocol subsequently reduced the number of permitted sites to one for each side.
The next U.S. President to make a serious missile-defense proposal was Ronald Reagan, who in March 1983 announced his desire to develop a program formally called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Reagan's goal was not merely to protect the U.S. and its allies, but also to make the completed system available to the Soviet Union, thereby ending the threat of nuclear attack for all parties. SDI was promptly derided as a "Star Wars" fantasy by Senator Ted Kennedy and fellow Democratic detractors of the plan. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, much of the motivation to continue the SDI initiative disappeared.
Notwithstanding the USSR's demise, evidence mounted that rogue and hostile governments around the world remained engaged in their own quest to develop nuclear weapons that could someday threaten the United States. Thus, Republican lawmakers tried to resurrect SDI. But President Bill Clinton slashed spending on missile defense by half (from $2 billion to $1 billion), and assailed the program's legitimacy by declaring the 1972 ABM Treaty "a cornerstone of strategic stability."
Clinton later altered this position and committed himself to missile defense to counter the platform of Republicans in the House of Representatives, who had made the missile defense system a key provision of their 1994 "Contract with America." In turn, Clinton pledged to develop a missile defense system by 2000 and deploy it by 2005.
As events were to prove, it was a hollow promise. In 1997, Bill Gertz reports in his book, Betrayal, "the so-called national missile defense program was underfunded by an astonishing 100 percent." By September of 2000, Clinton announced that he was suspending its deployment. Likewise, during the 2000 presidential campaign Clinton's presumptive successor, Al Gore, declined to answer whether he would implement a missile defense program. "It depends on the tests. It depends on the findings of the research. It depends on a number of factors," Gore said.
Shortly after George W. Bush was elected President in 2000, his enthusiastic support for the program met with stiff Democratic resistance. Citing the the modus operandi of the 9/11 hijackers, Democrats asserted that the greatest danger to American security came from crude terrorist attacks rather than from high-tech missiles in the possession of rogue states.
In their crusade against missile defense, Democrats were joined by an array of nuclear abolition groups. Some, like the Institute for Defense and Disarmament Studies (IDDS), were relics of the nuclear-freeze movement that had pushed for unconditional American surrender during the Cold War. Others, like the lobbying group Abolition 2000, were newer ventures devoted to the same purpose: the immediate elimination of nuclear weapons and missile defense programs, particularly by the United States. In the aftermath of a North Korean missile test, Victoria Samson of the Center for Defense Information (CDI), a reliable foe of missile defense, asserted that the greatest danger to world peace was posed not by North Korea's missiles but by the "rising hysteria about their assumed capabilities [that] has done nothing except promote support for the U.S missile defense system."
Notwithstanding formidable opposition by Democrats and the anti-war Left, the Bush administration doggedly pursued missile defense -- spending nearly $43 billion on the program between 2001 and 2006. Some noteworthy progress was made during Bush's second term in particular, with the development of sophisticated technology that relied on a missile-defense radar stationed on land -- a strategic measure that previously had been beyond the military's means. In June 2006, a Navy ship off the coast of Hawaii successfully intercepted a "separating target," military shorthand for a target warhead that separates from its booster rocket. This represented the seventh successful test in eight months.
But problems persisted as well. As critics noted, the missile defense system had an underwhelming average success rate in tests: about 50 percent, with land-based interceptor missiles (60-40 success rate) marginally more successful than their counterparts on Navy ships (50-50 success rate).
To this day -- even after FBI stings have netted several arms traffickers and would-be jihadists in the market for missiles -- a pervasive and vocal lobby continues to denounce the missile defense program as the single greatest threat to international peace. The ranks of this lobby include far-left activists and aging nuclear-freeze advocates; congressional Democrats driven by a reflexive disdain for military spending; and nuclear disarmament groups that regard programs like missile defense as the main barrier to the dawn of international brotherhood that, but for the supposed belligerence of the United States and Israel, would be upon us. Not least, they include several prominent left-wing charities that are prepared to deploy their multi-million-dollar budgets in the service of efforts to derail missile defense. For instance, the MacArthur Foundation and the Ford Foundation have steered enormous sums of money to such organizations as IDDS and CDI.
These funders make no secret of the agenda underlying their spending. The Steven and Michele Kirsch Foundation (SMFK), for instance, depicts an American missile defense system as a greater threat to international peace than was the old Soviet Union: "Despite the Cold War being over for more than a decade and the Soviet Union no longer in existence, the nuclear legacy of that time period still remains," the foundation says. "Much more troubling, the U.S. is actively pursuing strategies, such as new nuclear weapons and a missile defense system, that seriously jeopardize the current international, treaty-based system."
In a similar vein, Barack Obama, throughout his 2008 presidential campaign and his subsequent stint as Commander-in-Chief, has consistently opposed America's development of a missile defense system. In June 2009, President Obama submitted to Congress a defense budget that called for cutting $1.4 billion in funding from the Missile Defense Agency. This move was particularly significant because it exposed Poland and the Czech Republic, two U.S. allies that had taken a major political risk by supporting American plans to deploy missile defense systems on their land, to potential reprisals by Russia, which strongly opposed the deployment of such systems in Eastern Europe.
On September 17, 2009, the Obama administration, bowing to intense pressure from Russia, abandoned agreements (forged during the Bush administration) to set up a missile defense shield in Europe. Former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose government had signed treaties with the Bush administration to build the system, said: "The Americans are not interested in this territory as they were before. It’s bad news for the Czech Republic." Poland’s National Security Office said the change was a "defeat primarily of American long-distance thinking about the situation in this part of Europe." The Russians, by contrast, hailed the decision. President Medvedev called it a “responsible move.”