Organization Trends

Hair-Trigger Alerts: How the Misnamed Union of Concerned Scientists Undermines National Security

Summary: Founded at the end of the radical 1960s, the well-funded Union of Concerned Scientists has consistently tried to undermine U.S. national security by twisting scholarship to suit its left-wing objectives. It presumes America is always in the wrong and uses scare-mongering and rank propaganda to promote its agenda. As North Korea attempts to flex its nuclear muscles, UCS will work to influence the public about the appropriate U.S. response.

When President Ronald Reagan launched his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in the 1980s, liberals dismissed the idea as “Star Wars” and maligned efforts to defend the United States from nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.

But even before this relentless campaign, progressive and anti-military scientists and engineers, originating at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the radical 1960s, formed an organization called the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which would turn “research…toward the solution of pressing environmental and social problems” and away from what would become today’s missile defense programs and any U.S. nuclear weapons development.

As investigative reporter Kevin Mooney observed in the April 2013 Green Watch,

UCS issued a report by astronomer and TV personality Carl Sagan and several MIT professors that purported to prove missile defense was unworkable and would destabilize the world, perhaps leading to nuclear war. (In 1984, Sagan and other prominent scientists-activists signed a newspaper ad describing President Reagan as the “performing star” of “Far-Rightists.” Reagan, they said, was a man whose campaign exuded “a scent of fascism in the air.”) UCS characterized missile defense as a virtual impossibility, akin to “hitting a bullet with a bullet.” SDI “is another wonder weapon,” declared Dr. Henry Kendall of UCS, and “its benefits are an illusion. It should be stopped.”

As noted by the late Robert Jastrow, a Dartmouth University physics professor who also worked for NASA, UCS and other SDI opponents misled the press and the public by greatly exaggerating the number of orbiting satellites that would be required for such a defense. The UCS report concluded that 2,400 satellites would be required for a ballistic-missile defense. But later in congressional testimony, a representative lowered the organization’s estimate to 800. The revisions didn’t stop there. The group later reduced the figure further to 300, then to 162. Oops. UCS’s claims that the available computing power would be insufficient to support a missile defense system proved equally foolish. Computers today are roughly half a million times as powerful as those that existed at the time of President Reagan’s proposal, a development that was entirely foreseeable.

Since Reagan first advanced his bold vision to deter the Soviets through a muscular nuclear arsenal combined with SDI, the U.S. missile defense program has been steadily whittled down: First in the 1990s by the Clinton administration, which cut its funding and limited its scope, and further since by the Obama administration’s nuclear and strategic defense policies, which seamlessly tracked those of UCS.


Since 1969, UCS has been at the forefront of the politicization of science, even though it is not actually an organization of scientists. Its “founding document” 1 called “for scientific research to be directed away from military technologies and toward solving pressing environmental and social problems.” UCS expressed its “determined opposition to ill-advised and hazardous projects such as the ABM system” (ABM standing for “anti-ballistic missile” system, a precursor to today’s missile defense programs) and “the enlargement of our nuclear arsenal.”

The founding document originated as a “Faculty Statement written at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in December 1968,” which portrays the United States alone as a threat to humanity. In so doing it pointedly ignores the threat that the communist regime in the Soviet Union posed during the Cold War to the U.S. and its free allies in the West.

The document, adopted by UCS in 1969, reeks of anti-Americanism, pontificating that scientists have become a threat to the planet and need to be made to move in a different direction. “Misuse of scientific and technical knowledge presents a major threat to the existence of mankind,” the document laments. “Through its actions in Vietnam our government has shaken our confidence in its ability to make wise and humane decisions. There is also disquieting evidence of an intention to enlarge further our immense destructive capability.”

The scientific community’s response “to these developments has been hopelessly fragmented.” These supposedly bad policies conceived by just a few actors have been opposed by “a handful of eminent men who have tried but largely failed to stem the tide from within the government.” Cueing the violins, the document states that the “concerned majority has been on the sidelines and ineffective. We feel that it is no longer possible to remain uninvolved.”

With this as its intellectual foundation, the Union of Concerned Scientists has sallied forth over the years waving the flag of social justice. To those on the Left, everything must be politicized. Science must serve left-wing utopianism.

UCS embraces what is today called “publicly engaged scholarship”—sometimes shortened to “public scholarship”—which is an academic euphemism for scholarship undertaken in aid of left-wing causes.

A notable advocate for publicly engaged scholarship is a radical project called Imagining America (IA), which grew out of a 1999 conference in the Clinton White House. Presently headquartered at Syracuse University, it plans to relocate to the University of California at Davis in mid-2017.

As Matthew Vadum wrote in the May 2014 Foundation Watch,

According to IA, publicly engaged scholarship “is defined by partnerships of university knowledge and resources with those of the public and private sectors to enrich scholarship, research, creative activity, and public knowledge; enhance curriculum, teaching and learning; prepare educated, engaged citizens; strengthen democratic values and civic responsibility; address and help solve critical social problems; and contribute to the public good.”

Such so-called scholarship, Vadum notes, “means politicized scholarship. It is not about the free pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. In other words, going to college is not about the disinterested pursuit of knowledge and truth. It’s about righting the perceived wrongs of the past and changing society in furtherance of so-called social justice.”

In a nutshell, that is what the Union of Concerned Scientists is all about. This perverse, anti-science thinking has driven the organization’s activities throughout its existence.

Not surprisingly, UCS pushes politicized pseudo-science.

Turning again to Mooney:

In the decades since the SDI proposal, UCS continued its war on science. Notably, in 1992, the group put together a “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” that combined doomsday demagoguery with pseudoscience. In apocalyptic terms, the statement invoked such then-fashionable dangers to humanity as ozone depletion, acid rain, and the “irreversible loss of species, which by 2100 may reach one-third of all species now living.” In a manner reminiscent of the eugenicists of the 1920s and ’30s, the UCS statement declared that we face “unrestrained population growth” and warned that, “[i]f we are to halt the destruction of our environment, we must accept limits to that growth.” The UCS added that humanity’s survival depends on foreign aid, “sexual equality,” and abortion.

“We the undersigned, senior members of the world’s scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead.” The UCS “Warning to Humanity” statement is comical, worthy of publication in the satirical newspaper The Onion, but it’s real.

UCS is a fraud. Anyone willing to pay $35 can join. One person even signed up his dog to drive the point home. The dog, Kenji, received a welcome kit and a signed letter from the president of UCS. And yet the media often quotes this group of laymen and activists as if it were a soberly scientific, rather than a political, organization.

Over the ensuing decades, UCS has agitated and propagandized for American disarmament. Think of someone telling you that it makes no sense, is provocative even, to take steps to defend yourself from potential harm. Or insure yourself against it. These are, at their core, the arguments of the UCS against missile defense and the possession of strategic nuclear weapons as a deterrent to possible attack. Emanating from this specious logic, the group’s current priority issues2 are “nuclear no-first use”; an end to “hair-trigger alert for the U.S. nuclear arsenal” (a position taken by both President Obama and Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein in her Sept. 15, 2016 appearance on “Special Report,” Fox News Channel); the futility of missile defense; and multi- and unilateral nuclear arms reduction.

In 1984, Sagan and other prominent scientists-activists described President Reagan as the “performing star” of “Far-Rightists,” whose campaign exuded “a scent of fascism in the air.” Credit: USGOV public domain. License:

“No First Use”

The principle of “no first use” in nuclear weapons-policy parlance is essentially a nation-state’s promise not to use nuclear weapons except in retaliation for nuclear attack. As with many progressive tropes, the idea sounds noble, but it has the fatal weakness of real-world impracticality. Put less charitably, it is a national suicide pact.

Nuclear weapons are useful, not only for their intrinsic destructive power, but even more so as a deterrent to any attack (nuclear or non-nuclear, aka “conventional,” in military jargon). Pledging “no first use” also requires the generous assumption that other nuclear weapon states will be as restrained, a risky proposition in an age of nuclear proliferation.3

“Hair-Trigger Alert”

Once more, the language of the supposed issue is dubious. As an Institute for National Security Studies analysis concluded,4 “the term ‘hair-trigger’ alert is often used to describe the current [nuclear weapons] alert posture. This term is unhelpful to the debate because it inaccurately implies that ICBMs are postured in a way that minimizes decision-making time should a crisis erupt, or subjects nuclear weapons to either theft or unauthorized launch.”

So-called “hair-trigger,” or more accurately, high-alert status for strategic nuclear forces is a reasonable way to exercise vigilance toward all potential threats to national security, contrary to the knee-jerk pacifist view that such a status amounts to a perpetual saber-rattling show of force. UCS’s founding document, in its open opposition to “military technology,” and its subsequent default anti-defense positions in service to it, has egregiously failed to contemplate this understanding of vigilance.

Missile Defense

Having opposed missile defense since its founding, UCS has incessantly denigrated research and development of missile defense and advocated against its funding. Broadly speaking, UCS has argued5 that missile defense is undesirable because of the high cost of overcoming technical challenges faced by “hitting a bullet with a bullet” interceptor programs, and the difficulty of defeating countermeasures and keeping pace with adversaries’ advances in technology. In other words, if you could not field a perfect system, and cheaply, it was not worth the attempt! Consider that premise as a guiding principle for any other field of government engineering or research, much less for building the world’s greatest military. And in the same breath, UCS also argues that the deterrent force of the U.S. nuclear arsenal makes missile defense unnecessary—even as the group advocates for nuclear disarmament!

Nuclear Disarmament

UCS, again hearkening back to its anti-military roots, strongly advocates U.S. nuclear arms reduction,6 if not outright disarmament. It has strongly supported the Iran Nuclear Agreement7 and the New START Treaty8 with Russia. It has predictably promoted aggressive nuclear disarmament9 with little to no concern for verification or compliance by U.S. treaty/agreement partners. USC says “more needs to be done”10 in terms of U.S. nuclear arms reductions, but UCS does not identify a minimum threshold for a U.S. nuclear deterrent. Does it have one?

The Obama Administration and UCS’s Nuclear and Missile Defense Agenda

The Iran nuclear deal, the New START Treaty with Russia, and the 2009 cancellation of missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic represent the Obama administration’s legacy in arms control policy and strategic defense. These initiatives’ objectives match the leftist, anti-defense, and anti-nuclear agenda of UCS.

As the Wall Street Journal11 opined at the time, while the Obama White House claimed the missile defense site cancellations were driven by new threat assessments of Iranian missile capabilities, the decision was likely driven as much or more by the infamous “reset” of U.S.-Russian relations in Obama’s first term, particularly with respect to garnering Russian support for an Iranian nuclear deal (which the administration ultimately obtained).

  • Obama onmissile defense: “I will cut tens of billions of dollars in wasteful spending. I will cut investments in unproven missile defense systems. I will not weaponize space.”12
  • Obama onnuclear weapons: “I will set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons. To seek that goal, I will not develop new nuclear weapons. I will seek a global ban on the production of fissile material…. I will negotiate with Russia…to take our forces off hair-trigger alert.”13
Congressional Missile Defense Action and White House Opposition

Congress annually passes a military budget bill known among Washington hands as the “National Defense Authorization Act,” or NDAA. The bill prescribes policies and budget levels for literally thousands of programs and projects at the Pentagon, as well as setting service members’ pay and benefits, and provides for the operation and maintenance of literally everything that goes into sustaining the United States military.

The most recent NDAA for the current fiscal year (2017) included provisions to broaden the scope of the National Missile Defense Act of 1999. Most significantly, it  removed restrictions on missile defense programs that required them to be “limited” in their scope—that is, national missile defense was only to be directed toward a “limited” threat. (Never mind that America’s potential enemies likely don’t consider themselves commensurately “limited.”)

In our present era of loosely verified arms control agreements and aggressive nuclear states like the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, Iran, and Russia, extending our defensive capability would seem to fall firmly in the category of common sense. Yet these kind of Congressional efforts probably spurred UCS to issue a 2016 broadside14 attacking the ground-based missile defense (GMD) system that it prefers to call a “national missile defense” (NMD) system. The report, by characterizing GMD as “national” and insisting that the system be either perfect or worthless, distorts the program into a technical failure, and predictably, a budget disaster.

Depending on the arbitrary standard it chooses to apply, UCS claims either six or nine tests of the GMD system have “failed.” An MDA fact sheet15 gives an overall testing record of 74 successful of 91 (“hit to kill”) overall program tests (of which GMD is but one part, and is credited with 9 successful out of 17 GMD tests). At a minimum, UCS has taken one component of the overall missile defense program and applied its own arbitrary standards and measures of “success” to propagate a misperception of the program.

In addition to its cuts to missile defense funding, the Obama administration objected to Congress’s extension of the scope of missile defense programs, and the President issued another among his serial veto threats to the National Defense Authorization Act. Remarkably, given its timidity in the face of other threats by Obama, Congress actually stood its ground, and Obama signed the bill on his way out the door in December 2016.

Interestingly, a review of the UCS website since this development finds it oddly silent on this victory for stronger missile defense policy.

UCS staff and funding

UCS’s policy staff is organized along typical nonprofit organization lines. Its policy experts on nuclear issues and “global security” typically have academic and government credentials. Among its nuclear/global security staff, only two do not have doctorates or hard science degrees.

UCS is led by Keith Kimmel, whose short bio proclaims him “an expert on climate change and environmental issues.” In fact, every staffer on its “Leadership” page boasts some variation of climate, environment, or ecological expertise (save the Director of Communications, typically a media professional, the Chief Development Officer, a fundraiser, and the Chief Administrative and Financial Officer).

The co-directors of the UCS Global Security Program are Drs. Lisbeth Gronlund and David Wright. Both earned doctorates in physics at Cornell. Both were Social Science Research Council-MacArthur Foundation fellows. Wright’s fellowship was at Harvard’s Kennedy of School of Government, but his UCS bio does not specify any particular area or field. Gronlund’s fellowship took place in international peace and security at the University of Maryland and was followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Defense and Arms Control Studies Program. Unlike their colleagues at UCS, they may possess some technical expertise in technologies their organization routinely derides.

UCS funding comes from numerous foundations and other benefactors, but the most generous known contributors to the organization are the Energy Foundation, Bright Horizon Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Erika Gregory & Carl Robichaud, “Reimagining the Nuclear Threat,” a multimillion-dollar, two-year pilot of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, et al. Credit: Peter Durand. License:

According to IRS filings, the following philanthropies have given grant money to UCS:

Energy Foundation ($17,155,200 since 1999)

Bright Horizon Foundation ($11,585,000 since 2002)

William & Flora Hewlett Foundation ($6,280,000 since 2002)

John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation ($5,731,450 since 1999)

Foundation for the Carolinas ($4,000,550 since 2004)

David and Lucile Packard Foundation ($3,718,510 since 2000)

Joyce Foundation ($2,271,667 since 1998)

Ploughshares Fund ($1,127,117 since 2003)

Ford Foundation ($1,040,000 since 2000)

Pew Memorial Trust ($1 million since 2002)

George Soros’s Open Society Institute and Foundation to Promote Open Society ($809,000 since 2006)

Carnegie Corp. of New York ($754,900 since 2000)

(Ted) Turner Foundation ($612,000 since 2000)

W.K. Kellogg Foundation ($600,000 since 2013)

UCS’s funders all place heavy emphasis on environmental programs, with the exception of the Ploughshares Fund, which focuses nearly exclusively on nuclear proliferation and disarmament.


To recap, for nearly the last half-century the Union of Concerned Scientists has openly promoted an anti-military, anti-nuclear weapons, and anti-strategic defense agenda. It does so from the belief that our military, our nuclear arsenal, and our strategic defenses pose dire threats to the planet and divert support from research that moves away “from the present emphasis on military technology” in order to focus on “the solution of pressing environmental and social problems.”

Given his progressive politics, it makes sense that President Obama’s strategic nuclear and defense policies and arms control agenda dovetailed with the UCS’s advocacy. His policy disagreements with a Republican Congress culminated last year in a standoff over missile defense policy and funding, and a concomitant veto threat. Americans who want to understand his views on these issues need more context than what was provided in the “statements of administration policy” the White House issued on the the House16 and Senate17 defense bills for the current fiscal year. Considering the constant danger posed by nuclear weapons proliferation and by other weapons of mass destruction, why would the President reject congressional efforts to address these vital threats? Did Obama share the UCS’s outlook that funding of these critical defense programs divert resources from environmental and social problems that are more dire?

Recent North Korean nuclear tests and the emergence of nuclear “first use” policy in the first presidential debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump gave these issues further urgency. Afterward, then-Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter reiterated the U.S. policy against “no first use.”18 And with Obama’s commitment to missile defense and nuclear deterrent cuts, how much confidence could Americans have genuinely had in strategic defenses?

Since the U.S. presidential election, North Korea has executed two ballistic missile tests in two months (February and March). Russia has brazenly deployed intermediate-range, nuclear-capable (if not in fact presently nuclear-armed) missiles in violation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987 (INF Treaty), first reported (also in February) by the New York Times.  The Times now reports19 that the Obama administration was aware of a separate INF Treaty violation dating back to 2013! Had U.S. missile defenses been deployed in Europe as planned in 2009, their effect on Russian missile deployments, not to mention ones prohibited by treaty, would seem worthy of consideration.

In response to the most recent North Korean missile launches, the Trump administration has begun deployment of its Theater High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to its ally, South Korea. The White House website also now commits to the development of state of the art missile defense systems. With Congress currently considering a new defense bill and more defense spending increases expected from the Trump administration, prospects for upgrading the U.S. nuclear deterrent and missile defenses appear vastly improved. Unfortunately, thanks to Obama’s funding cuts and the success of UCS’s contrived analyses in frustrating U.S. strategic defenses, too much of the new resources flowing to our diminished military will be devoted to, in effect, playing catch-up. We can only hope that the Trump administration has arrived in enough time to assert itself and, where necessary and feasible, deploy existing systems and capabilities, all the while beating back the incessant nay-saying of UCS.

UCS and its funders openly embrace a progressive agenda that for the last eight years has found consistent reflection in U.S. defense policy. Was that policy coincidental, or was its objective to downgrade nuclear forces and missile defenses in favor of the UCS’s (and President Obama’s) “environmental and social” priorities? If the U.S. is to reassert its strategic advantage over myriad bad actors around the globe, the Trump administration should also plan to confront those facing it at home like the Union of Concerned Scientists.


Clint Carson is a pseudonym for a Washington, D.C.-area consultant and lobbyist on defense issues.

1. “Founding Document: 1968 MIT Faculty Statement,”

2. “No President Should Be Able to Start a Nuclear War Single-Handedly,”

3. “Declaring a no-first-use nuclear policy would be exceedingly risky,”

4. “Declaring a no-first-use nuclear policy would be exceedingly risky,”

5. “US Missile Defense: Unproven and unaccountable,”

6. “The U.S. Nuclear Arsenal: A Dangerous Vestige of the Cold War,”

7. “The Iran Nuclear Deal: The Forest and the Trees,”

8. “UCS Statement on Ratification of New START,”

9. “Progress on Nuclear Arms Control (2015),”

10. “Progress on Nuclear Arms Control (2015),”

11. “Obama’s Missile Offense,”

12. “Barack Obama’s Anti-Military Problem,”

13. “In 52 secs Barack Obama said he would cut America’s military defense systems,”

14. “Shielded from Oversight: The Disastrous US Approach to Strategic Missile Defense (2016),”

15. “Ballistic Missile Defense Intercept Flight Test Record,”

16. site no longer available.

17. site no longer available.

18. “US not pursuing no-first-use nuclear arms policy: Carter,”

19. “Russia Has Deployed Missile Barred by Treaty, U.S. General Tells Congress,”