25 years in arms control's bureaucratic trenches. Shift in political winds brings thrill of diplomacy, sting of purge

Today is the 25th birthday of the only government bureaucracy in the world whose job is thinking up ways to halt the arms race -- the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. The agency in its youth has known both the thrill of being at the forefront of diplomacy and the sting of purges launched by distrustful presidents. It enters early adulthood symbolizing the controversy that surrounds Reagan administration arms control ideas.

ACDA was founded to fulfill a campaign promise of President John F. Kennedy, who had charged that the Eisenhower administration had fewer than 100 people studying the vast problems of nuclear disarmament. Since it was established by a stroke of his pen on Sept. 26, 1961, memorable moments in the agency's history include:

Early glory under its first director, William C. Foster. A dynamic former Marshall Plan administrator, Mr. Foster was chief US negotiator at such arms control age milestones as the Limited Test Ban Treaty, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Ground-breaking of talks on curbing strategic nuclear arms. Second agency chief Gerard Smith also headed the US SALT I delegation.

The days of President Nixon's wrath. Nixon considered arms controllers as a suspect group, and he felt ACDA in particular was less than loyal to his administration. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger eventually negotiated the groundwork for SALT I behind ACDA's back; after the 1972 elections 20 percent of the agency's employees were dismissed and its budget cut by a third.

Controversial nominations for director. Washington attorney Paul Warnke, President Carter's choice as his first ACDA director, was attacked virulently by hard-liners -- veteran arms negotiator Paul Nitze called Warnke's views ``screwball.'' Kenneth Adelman, current ACDA chief, was hit hard by Democrats as anti-arms control and had to survive a tough confirmation fight.

Under the legislation that created ACDA, its director is officially the principal adviser to the president, the National Security Council, and the secretary of state on arms control and disarmament matters. It is the support organization for US delegations at all arms talks, such as the current negotiations in Geneva.

The agency's founding officials conceived its role to be that of a countervailing balance to the Pentagon, an institutional voice calling for fewer weapons. Some of those officials feel that under the Reagan administration ACDA has abandoned its principles, and is now nothing but a bit player in the big game of superpower negotiations. These critics charge the agency is run by people who don't think arms control helps national security at all.

``In the last four years its influence has been nil, maybe negative,'' says Gerard Smith. ``It's now run by arms control skeptics. Maybe `heretics' is a better word.''

Current director Adelman retorted that Reagan administration arms control attitudes simply go against ``conventional wisdom.'' He says arms pacts don't guarantee peace or stability, that the SALT II agreement was a flawed document that caused the US to slacken its defense effort and allowed the Soviets to forge ahead with theirs.

Though no arms pacts have been signed, the Reagan administration has succeeded in getting the Soviet Union to talk about real reductions in nuclear weapons -- an accomplishment in itself, says Adelman.

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