IN MEMORIAM: Edward M. Kennedy (1932-2009)

By Paine, Christopher | Arms Control Today, October 2009 | Go to article overview

IN MEMORIAM: Edward M. Kennedy (1932-2009)


Paine, Christopher, Arms Control Today


With the recent passing of Edward Moore Kennedy, the arms control community has lost its longest-serving and most stalwart champion in the U.S. Senate. Although he sponsored and supported numerous arms control efforts, including the nuclear freeze resolution, that influenced U.S. policy, the Massachusetts Democrat never fancied himself a nuclear arms control "expert." The dehumanizing arms control lexicon of force exchange ratios, throw weights, and strategic stability held no appeal for him. He left mastery of this arcane discipline to others, recognizing it for what it was - at best a temporary mechanism for containing the frightening risks and soaring costs of the nuclear arms race, at worst a lulling deception that ignored the mounting dangers of the world's nuclear predicament. Kennedy knew full well that the nuclear strategists and weapons scientists did not have the answers and that it was the task of political leaders to find a way to bridge the Cold War divide and set the world on a saner path toward nuclear disarmament.

His basic approach to arms control was political, not technical, and grounded in his fundamental conceptions of morality, our common humanity, and common sense. The touchstone of his abiding commitment to nuclear arms control, a treaty outlawing all nuclear tests, was itself an unfinished inheritance from his older brother, President John F. Kennedy. President Kennedy's pivotal speech at American University in June 1963, announcing that he was turning away from confrontation with the U. S. S. R. and sending Averell Harriman, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, to Moscow to negotiate a test ban, was a canonical text in the senator's office and encapsulates the younger Kennedy's own approach to controlling nuclear arms:

[W]e are both devoting massive sums of money to weapons that could be better devoted to combat ignorance, poverty, and disease. We are both caught up in a vicious and dangerous cycle, with suspicion on one side breeding suspicion on the other, and new weapons begetting counter-weapons. In short, both the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race. Agreements to this end are in the interests of the Soviet Union as well as ours. And even the most hostile nations can be relied upon to accept and keep those treaty obligations, and only those treaty obligations, which are in their own interest. So let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and the means by which those differ- ences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's futures. And we are all mortal.

Early Days

Drawing on the same Harvard-Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) brain trust that had influenced President Kennedy's turn toward arms control after the near-apocalyptic confrontation of the Cuban missile crisis, as a young senator in the 1960s and early 1970s, Senator Kennedy supported ratification of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT); opposed deployment of the Sentinel and Safeguard anti-ballistic missile (ABM) systems; supported the amendment by his Republican colleague from Massachusetts, Senator Edward Brooke, to bar flight testing of multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs); and supported the ABM Treaty and the Interim Agreement on Strategic Arms (SALT I).

In 1974, he sought to advance a test ban treaty by traveling to Moscow. He sat down with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and presented point by point the elements of a draft agreement banning all nuclear tests.

In the late 1970s, Kennedy opposed development and procurement of the B-I bomber and supported the Carter administration's efforts to negotiate a SALT II agreement and a test ban treaty, but it was a dispiriting time.

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