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by Matthew M. Oyos

JIMMY CARTER HOPED that his presidency would a bring fresh start to America. He vowed to lend a new openness and honesty to government to help heal the deep and festering wounds that the Watergate affair had inflicted.

Carter also pursued an ambitious set of domestic reforms that would complete a legacy launched by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, expanded by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and even enlarged by the disgraced Richard Nixon. To complete his plans for renewal, Carter planned to recapture a moral high ground lost in American foreign policy during the Vietnam War, specifically, and over the course of the Cold War as a whole. His human rights standards raised the moral tone of American foreign policy, and he sought to bring greater candidness to the conduct of American diplomacy as well.

To build lasting bridges of international trust, Carter wished especially to put U.S.-Soviet relations on a new plane of peaceful understanding. Thus, the reduction of strategic nuclear arsenals became a centerpiece of his foreign policy. On this front, however, as in so many others, Jimmy Carter would face frustration. His efforts to end the nuclear arms race would founder on naive expectations and a structure of strategic deterrence that did not bend easily to change.

Over the span of the Cold War, an elaborate structure of strategic nuclear deterrence arose between the United States and the Soviet Union. By the 1970s, deterrence involved a complex intertwining of sophisticated weapons technologies, operational doctrines, and political strategies designed to preserve the security of the superpowers and their allies. The United States and Soviet Union established new military and civilian bureaucracies to develop and support their nuclear forces, and weapons analysts in each country provided a political and military rationale for the maintenance of nuclear stockpiles.

Because nuclear arms absorbed significant intellectual and economic resources, involved numerous organizations, and played a crucial role in international affairs, the strategic relationship between the superpowers tended to resist sudden alteration. This feature of deterrence contained certain benefits, especially in a crisis when stability was most desired. The nature of deterrence also carried important implications for efforts to limit or reduce strategic arms. Because the structure of strategic nuclear deterrence normally remained closed to rapid change, arms control between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1970s often entailed a long and difficult process of negotiation and deliberation.

UPON TAKING OFFICE in January 1977, Jimmy Carter established a second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) as one of his major foreign policy objectives and wanted to begin negotiations on substantial reductions of nuclear weaponry. Carter believed rapid progress was possible on a SALT II treaty, the achievement of which would set the stage for deep cuts in strategic arsenals. Rather than quick movement on arms limitation, the President confronted the realities of the strategic relationship between the superpowers.

Political, technological, diplomatic, and military obstacles all hindered Carter’s ambitious plans and prevented him from making significant changes in the structure of strategic nuclear deterrence. By 1979, he obtained a SALT II accord only after much difficulty and then found himself unable to secure Senate ratification of the treaty. Carter discovered that gradual rather than swift progress held the greatest prospect for success in strategic arms control.
The experience of the Carter administration illustrated the problems involved with negotiating arms control agreements with the Soviet Union.

To obtain a SALT II pact, both nations needed to overcome differences in the composition of their strategic arsenals and find a common basis for security despite the varying political and military threats that each faced.
The Soviet Union and United States also had to surmount dissimilar approaches to negotiations and avoid complications from events unrelated to the arms talks.

As a consequence, the negotiation of arms control agreements usually required years of talks before both sides found mutually acceptable positions on all issues. Because the safety of the superpowers, their allies, and the world was ultimately at stake, the cautious resolution of all arms control questions was not undesirable.

THE CARTER ADMINISTRATION ENCOUNTERED TROUBLE with SALT II not only at the negotiating table but at home as well. Jimmy Carter’s mounting problems with the ratification of SALT II during 1979 demonstrated the political hurdles that strategic arms control efforts confronted in the United States.

Internal political debates over arms control occurred in both countries, but the scope of discussion remained far broader in America. Owing to the closed nature of Soviet political life, debates over arms control were limited to the uppermost tiers of the political and military apparatus. In contrast, the openness of American society encouraged an intense public discussion of arms control, and many voices both inside and outside of government were heard regarding the merits of SALT II. Besides United States senators, members of the arms control bureaucracy, academicians, former government officials, and political interest groups made influential contributions to the domestic discussion. This often contentious collection of public and private opinion led to a slowing of the arms control process, especially because questions remained about SALT II’s effect on American security.

Part 2. The Structure of Strategic Deterrence


ALMOST SINCE THE DAWN of the atomic era, American strategic policy rested on deterrence of Soviet military action against the United States or its allies. Deterrence stood on the premise that the potential for unparalleled devastation represented by nuclear weapons would prevent a possible opponent from challenging American or allied security.

Defense analysts long held that the United States must at least possess the capability to endure a first-strike and still inflict unacceptable devastation to maintain a valid deterrent against the Soviet Union. From the Soviet perspective, a similar potential would help insure that the United States would not resort to nuclear arms, especially in a political or military crisis when such a temptation would be at its greatest.1

Although differences marked American and Soviet thinking on deterrence, the two nations constructed their strategic arsenals along roughly similar lines. The United States relied on a triad of forces to maintain a second-strike capability and allow the President various options in case deterrence failed. Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), manned bombers or air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs), and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) formed roughly equal legs of the American triad.

Each weapons system contributed different strengths to American strategic capabilities:

  • ICBMs represented the quickest, most accurate technology and could attack a full range of targets, especially an enemy’s ICBMs;
  • bombers were slower and recallable, thereby furnishing a less drastic instrument to threaten an opponent;
  • SLBMs were the least vulnerable system and therefore insured best the maintenance of a second-strike capability.

Each part of the triad, however, had its weaknesses. Housed in fixed land-based silos, ICBMs remained most exposed to attack; bombers had little protection on the ground; and communications were problematic, although accuracy was fast rising among this force.

The Soviets also relied on a strategic triad, but its legs were hardly equal. Commanding a huge landmass, Russian leaders chose to stock their strategic inventory with a large number of ICBMs, maintain a much smaller amount of SLBMs, and retain even fewer bombers. With a formidable ICBM force, the Soviets possessed a potentially greater capability to launch a preemptive attack than the United States, but their deterrent remained less survivable owing to the smaller proportions of their SLBM force.

For both superpowers, strategic nuclear weapons protected basic foreign policy interests. American political and military leaders had perceived Western Europe as an area of vital concern since the end of World War II and extended strategic nuclear deterrence over that region as part of the United States commitment to NATO. Deeming European economic and military strength crucial to American security, presidents since Harry Truman considered the extension of strategic nuclear protection a way to insure that Western Europe kept close ties with America. American leaders worried that a perception of insecurity in Western Europe might lead some nations, especially West Germany, to seek accommodation with the Soviet Union and to loosen connections with the United States. Such an event would reduce American access to Western Europe’s sizable military and economic resources while exposing that key region to Soviet domination. To cement the relationship with Western Europe, the United States strove to maintain a strategic nuclear arsenal that would not only deter Soviet aggression but convince Western European countries of the American political and military commitment to their defense.2

IN THE EYES OF THE SOVIET leaders, strategic nuclear arms functioned less to seal alliances and more to further political prestige. After suffering two major invasions during the twentieth century, the Soviets regarded Eastern Europe as vital to their security and, since 1945, maintained a firm military grip on that region. The substantial Soviet military presence in Eastern Europe and apparent determination of the Kremlin to preserve a sphere of influence there insured loyalty to Moscow.

Rather than guarding the integrity of the Eastern Bloc, strategic nuclear arms demonstrated the Soviet Union’s stature as a superpower. The Soviets lacked the economic power of the United States and, instead, stressed their military might as a means to extend influence. A limitation or reduction of strategic arms, therefore, might lessen Soviet influence in international affairs. To Moscow, arms control needed not only to protect national security but also provide political benefits in the world arena as compensation for any weakening of military power.

Part 3. Jimmy Carter’s Strategic Arms Objectives

JIMMY CARTER SET STRATEGIC ARMS control as a high priority for his administration. He saw an unrestricted arms competition as destabilizing and sought to complete the unfinished SALT II accord left behind by his predecessors, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Carter made arms control a centerpiece of his foreign and military policies because he wanted to curtail military spending so that the federal government could undertake a broad range of domestic initiatives.4

During his 1976 campaign, Carter had claimed that he could trim the existing military budget by five to seven billion dollars and still maintain “a tough, muscular, well-organized and effective fighting force.”5 He promised to fulfill this pledge by cutting “exotic” weapons systems like the B-1 bomber, streamlining the military bureaucracy, and reducing the American presence overseas.6 The President would use the resources saved from the military budget to combat unemployment, invigorate the economy, lower dependence on foreign oil, and hold down inflation.7

Besides vowing to cut a bloated military budget, Carter pledged to carry out United States foreign policy according to high moral standards. He charged that the conduct of foreign affairs had drifted into disrepute during the Nixon and Ford administrations and blasted, in particular, the worldwide merchandising of American arms, repeated disregard of allied opinion, and the exclusion of Congress and the public from the policymaking process. To restore traditional ethics to foreign policy, Carter planned to curtail weapons sales, stress human rights, and vigorously pursue strategic arms limitations and reductions.8

In the quest for a SALT II pact, the President followed the channels that the Nixon and Ford administrations had established but planned to expand greatly upon their work. The SALT I Interim Agreement had allowed the United States to retain launchers for 1,054 ICBMs and 656 SLBMs while permitting the Soviets 1,608 ICBM launchers and 740 SLBM launchers, but the accord was due to expire in October 1977.9 A SALT II treaty did not quickly follow this agreement, but the Ford administration had narrowed the remaining issues by January 1977. The Vladivostok accords of 1974 laid the basic groundwork for SALT II by placing a cap of 2,400 on all launchers and a 1,320 sub-limit for launchers carrying multiple warheads (MIRVs).10 Jimmy Carter reviewed these efforts and argued that previous administrations had not gone far enough. He would continue to work within the framework of the SALT talks but wanted deep cuts in the size of strategic arsenals and restraints on qualitative improvements.

Specifically, Carter desired fundamental changes in the strategic nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers. At the outset of his term, he hoped that the Soviets would agree to far-reaching alterations in a SALT II pact. He sent Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to Moscow in March 1977 with new proposals on SALT II. Vance submitted two offers, both of which promised major cuts in strategic weapons stockpiles.

  • The first proposition resembled the Vladivostok accords but sought a ten-percent reduction in arms.
  • Carter’s second proposal was much more dramatic and would leave each nation with a minimal deterrent. This second plan would reduce the threat of a preemptive attack by sweeping cuts in nuclear arsenals and permit both countries just enough strategic weapons to deter war. Without an adequate capability to knock out each others’ strategic forces, the Soviet Union and United States would possess means only to devastate the other’s society, an option neither country was likely to undertake.

To insure that one side did not develop a qualitative edge over the other, Carter proposed a comprehensive test ban to accompany the arms treaty. The test ban would prohibit all nuclear explosions for a period of five years and would complement SALT II restrictions on missile tests and new missile deployments. Carter hoped that his efforts would begin the process of eliminating nuclear weapons from the earth.11

The March 1977 proposals suggested that the President perceived negotiations as a mere formality standing in the way of a mutually desired goal. Arms talks built up their own momentum and logic, which he proposed to circumvent. Carter believed that the Soviets would readily accept a substantial cut of strategic arms if only the United States would make a serious offer. He presumed that the reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear arms represented a worthy objective that responsible leaders could not refuse to embrace. The President’s attitude indicated that he remained preoccupied with the idealism of his 1976 campaign and not fully prepared to deal with the realities of international power or the complexities of negotiations. He did not give due consideration to the fact that negotiators had to settle a complicated set of political, military, and technological issues before they could produce an arms pact, even one as near to completion as the unfinished agreement inherited from the Ford administration. The deeper the proposed cuts, the more difficult this task would be. Since Carter had recommended a major reworking of the structure of deterrence with his second proposal, quick agreement between the two parties was unlikely even if the Soviets accepted his general approach to arms control.12

Unlike previous Presidents, Carter presented his arms proposals to the public before forwarding them to the Soviets. This action angered the Soviets who were used to receiving initial proposals in confidence. Moreover, they resented Carter’s attempt to discard the carefully crafted labors of past years with sweeping reductions. Soviet leaders also disliked the President’s criticism of human rights in the U.S.S.R. and thus rejected all of the March 1977 proposals with an emphatic “Nyet.”13

EVEN THOUGH HIS FIRST INITIATIVES ran into a wall of Soviet intransigence, Carter never surrendered the hope of rapid progress on strategic arms control until the last years of his administration. He obtained a SALT II agreement in 1979 but only after two years of hard negotiations following the failure of the March proposals.

The completed treaty resembled the one inherited from the Ford administration, but it contained an extra protocol regarding the deployment of cruise missiles, mobile ICBMs, and air-to-surface ballistic missiles, along with an understanding on the Soviets’ intended use of their medium-range Backfire bomber.

At the signing of the arms pact in Vienna during June 1979, Carter revealed that he still believed in the possibility for significant reductions in SALT II. He sought a commitment from Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev to a five percent annual reduction of strategic arms over the five-year life of the treaty. Carter also asked Brezhnev to agree that the SALT III talks would aim for limits fifty percent below the level of arms that SALT II allowed. Brezhnev rejected the five-percent yearly cut and remained noncommittal on the SALT III talks. He was not about to abandon incremental procedures and endorse Carter’s program of liberal reductions.14

Part 4. Strategic Arms Control Negotiations

THE COMPLEXITIES INHERENT IN SUPERPOWER negotiations blocked the rapid movement that Jimmy Carter sought on strategic arms control. The United States and Soviet Union took different approaches to negotiations and often attempted to tie strategic arms talks to political behavior outside the realm of arms control. Bureaucratic concerns, disparities in geographical position, and variances in strategic capability also complicated arms negotiations. In short, a wide range of issues required resolution before a strategic arms control pact could become reality.

The superpowers’ divergent views of arms negotiations were a principal reason for the slow progress on SALT II. While President Carter considered the talks simply an obstacle to surmount, Soviet leaders treated negotiations as part of the overall superpower competition. They strove to advance their political and military position rather than just secure a mutually advantageous agreement. As a consequence, the Soviets might endorse rapid progress on arms control but only when such movement promoted their overall interests. More often, they regarded proposals for swift action as a ploy and favored a slower pace.15

Each side’s style of negotiation provided an added drag on the arms talks. The Soviets were suspicious of American openness, which they encountered in abundance with the presentation of the March 1977 proposals. They believed that President Carter was simply trying to score a propaganda advantage rather than achieve serious objectives.16 On the other side of the table, Americans often found the Soviets to be unpleasant bargainers. Commenting on one encounter, President Carter said that the Soviets impressed an American delegation with behavior that was “heavy-handed, abrupt, rude, and argumentative.”17 Clashes of personality and culture, these conflicts hurt the negotiations by raising doubts about the other side’s sincerity and intentions.

Besides the two nations’ dissimilar approaches to arms talks, an asymmetry in the geopolitical circumstances of each country created complications. Varying perceptions regarding Soviet and American security hampered the efforts of negotiators to reach common ground.

  • Geographically isolated from other major powers, the United States could maintain a high level of national security with a much smaller strategic arsenal, provided that the Soviet Union agreed to reciprocal cuts and reduced conventional forces in Europe.
  • The Soviets, however, confronted many potential enemies on their borders and remembered a series of devastating invasions throughout Russian history. Soviet leaders remained less willing to weaken strategic striking power because of added potential threats from Western Europe and China and because the legitimacy of the Soviet regime rested, in large part, on its ability to preserve the territorial integrity of the nation.18

As a result of these asymmetries, the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations all experienced difficulty achieving equal ratios of strategic arms, a principle demanded by the Jackson Amendment to the SALT I Interim Agreement. The Soviets justified a larger strategic arsenal by repeatedly pointing to the threats they faced from British, French, and Chinese nuclear forces along with American forward-based systems (carrier-based aircraft and tactical aircraft stationed in Europe capable of striking the Soviet homeland). American leaders resisted such arguments and considered any deliberate inequality in forces that favored the Soviet Union as militarily and politically unacceptable.19

Dissimilarities in the make-up of strategic arsenals complicated matters further. As noted, the strategic forces of the superpowers had differing strengths and weaknesses, a situation that plagued negotiators as they worked to eliminate inequality in SALT II.20 To help solve the problems that arose over the variances in strategic arsenals, the two sides aimed for essential equivalence rather than exact equality in strategic armaments. Essential equivalence meant that the superpowers did not have to match each strategic system on an exact basis; instead, only their overall strategic capability had to be equal.21

ESSENTIAL EQUIVALENCE OVERCAME MANY problems, but this formula did not settle all technological questions. Weapons development remained a highly dynamic process despite arms control efforts, and negotiators often had to deal with new, more advanced weapons capabilities.

During the final months of the Ford administration and the first two years of the Carter administration, the Soviet Backfire bomber and long-range American cruise missiles remained sticking points.

  • Some Americans claimed that a modified Backfire bomber could cover most targets in the United States and demanded that the Soviet Union limit the Backfire as an intercontinental system.
  • The Soviets perceived a danger from low-flying, highly accurate cruise missiles and wanted this technology severely restricted. American officials saw cruise missiles as an inexpensive way to modify bomber forces and refused to surrender the system.

After much delay, the two sides finally compromised when the Soviets agreed that they would not use the Backfire as an intercontinental weapon, and the United States accepted a 600-kilometer limit on the range of cruise missiles and promised not to deploy the device for three years.22

Compounding the negotiators’ problems, the United States and Soviet Union both tried to link the international activities of the other to success at the arms control table. To varying degrees, the leadership of each country assumed that their counterparts attached great value to arms control and tried to use that interest as leverage in other areas of the Soviet-American relationship.

  • For the Soviets, the American recognition of the People’s Republic of China in December 1978 proved annoying and led them to stall the arms control process. The Soviets feared that the United States would exploit its new ties with China to their disadvantage and wanted to prevent a closer Chinese-American relationship. They demonstrated their displeasure by postponing the summit between Presidents Carter and Brezhnev to sign the SALT II agreement. They knew that the Carter administration desired a new arms control pact and used SALT II to obstruct further rapprochement between the Americans and the Chinese. Eventually the two leaders met, but the Soviet tactic cost the SALT process three to four months and robbed President Carter of precious time needed to win Senate ratification.23
  • To a greater extent than the Soviet Union, the United States linked progress on arms control to other aspects of U.S.-Soviet relations. The concept of linkage did not originate with the Carter administration but was, of course, first pushed by National Security Advisor (later Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration. Kissinger saw military, political, and economic affairs as interrelated and declared that the Soviets could not disturb one area without affecting the others. He intended to create a series of vested interests that would lessen Soviet-American competition at a time when United States power had begun to decline.24 In the late 1970s, officials in the Carter administration wanted to use arms control to curb Soviet activities in the Third World. They hoped to check the Kremlin’s involvement in conflicts in Southern Africa, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and Southeast Asia by tying further progress on arms control to Soviet restraint in those troubled regions. The President himself lent little support to such proposals and pushed forward with SALT II despite Soviet activities.25

CARTER WORKED TO UNCOUPLE ARMS CONTROL from other parts of the Soviet-American relationship but discovered that complete delinkage was impossible. Critics on Capitol Hill and in the informed public insisted on linking progress on SALT to the Soviets’ behavior abroad and their human rights policies, even though Carter resisted such efforts.

By June 1979, the President already expected a tough fight on SALT II ratification, and Soviet actions gave opponents of the treaty additional ammunition. Revelations of a Russian combat brigade in Cuba damaged the treaty’s prospects for a time in September 1979, but the real blow fell that December when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Ratification of SALT II became politically impossible after the invasion, and Carter withdrew the treaty from Senate consideration.26

The linkage of arms control to other areas of the Soviet-American relationship failed to produce significant results because neither power was prepared to sacrifice other important interests for the sake of SALT II.

  • The political stakes were too high for the Soviets to retreat from their recently gained influence in the Third World. A withdrawal would damage their claim to Socialist leadership and suggest that their stature as a superpower remained less than that of the United States, a perception that Soviet leaders had long wanted to erase.
  • The Carter administration also was unwilling to accommodate the Soviets on China to keep the SALT process on track because closer relations with the Chinese promised too many economic, diplomatic, and military advantages. In fact, the President had felt initially that recognition of China would pressure the Soviets to move forward on SALT II.

By their actions, the leaders of both governments demonstrated that they believed arms control would continue despite other events in the international arena. SALT II promised benefits of its own and ultimately would be judged on that basis. Furthermore, arms control appealed to a large constituency, especially in the West, and could not be easily sacrificed to extract concessions in other areas of Soviet-American relations.27

Aside from linkage and other problems, arms talks stalled at times because the respective governments lacked a unified voice on strategic arms limitations. Both the United States and Soviet governments consisted of large bureaucracies, several of which had an important voice on strategic arms control. In the Soviet Union, the military, the Communist Party, and the foreign ministry played major roles in molding positions on arms control, while the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), the Defense Department, and the State Department helped determine negotiating positions in the United States. A lack of consensus in Washington or Moscow could slow arms talks even when all other elements of the superpower relationship seemed on course.

The closed nature of the Soviet system obscured the effect of internal disagreements on arms control, but this problem was readily apparent in the United States.

  • For instance, Henry Kissinger admitted that SALT II had remained unfinished between 1975 and 1977 in part because of discord inside the Ford administration.
  • During Jimmy Carter’s tenure, Secretary of State Vance and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, respectively, advocated soft- and hard-line positions on arms control.

Such factionalism did not occur only at the highest level but extended down into the various bureaucracies, which made the task of establishing a negotiating stance even more difficult.28

ALTHOUGH CONCERNS ABOUT BUREAUCRATIC “TURF” influenced top policymakers, organizational interests affected internal disputes even more at the lower levels. Governments established agencies to perform various specialized missions such as national defense and foreign relations. As a result, officials tended to view the same policy in a different light depending on how they thought it might influence their particular task. Bureaucrats naturally supported policies that enhanced the execution of their duties and opposed proposals that reduced their sphere of operation.29

To gain a consensus, governmental leaders often placated bureaucracies by compensating them in other ways. In the case of strategic arms control, the White House promised to increase conventional defense spending, in part to gain the military’s support for SALT II. This process of internal maneuvering could delay formulation of a unified negotiating position, however, which in turn could slow the progress of arms talks.30

Part 5. Domestic Political Considerations
in the United States

THE COMPLEXITIES OF THE NEGOTIATING PROCESS derailed Jimmy Carter’s plans for swift movement on arms limitations, but the President confronted major obstacles to his arms control program at home as well. Carter encountered stiff political opposition to SALT II as he worked to complete the treaty and win its ratification.

The President’s troubles reflected his personal political weakness but also demonstrated the decline of the chief executive’s stature in the 1970s. Presidents have always felt more limits on their authority than popularly perceived; however, the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair injured severely the credibility and influence of the chief executive. As a consequence, Congress and political interest groups assumed a greater voice in foreign affairs and complicated the President’s task of concluding an acceptable arms treaty.31 Carter thus discovered that arms control often moved at an incremental pace not only because negotiations were inherently complex but also because of the American political process.32

From 1945 to the mid-1960’s, the climate of the Cold War and a bipartisan coalition on Capitol Hill had permitted the President wide latitude in foreign affairs. Although the executive branch traditionally exercised the greatest influence on foreign policy, the President received even more discretion after 1945 because his office was best suited to respond to overseas crises. The maintenance of a consensus on foreign policy became harder when superpower tensions eased in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and with the coming of U.S.-Soviet detente in the early and mid-1970’s. Severe damage to executive authority resulted, however, from the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. The apparent gap between statements from Lyndon Johnson’s White House and the reality of the Vietnam conflict caused doubts about presidential credibility by the late 1960’s and helped fracture the bipartisan alliance on foreign policy between political liberals and conservatives. No sooner had the American role in Vietnam ebbed when the Watergate affair and impending impeachment of President Nixon dealt a grave blow to the trust and reverence that remained around the Presidency.33

As a consequence, Jimmy Carter inherited an office that commanded less power to influence Congress. After Vietnam, many Senators and Representatives were less willing to defer to executive leadership and stood ready to challenge foreign policy initiatives with which they did not agree. Legislators tried to take more of a lead in foreign affairs because they assumed that Capitol Hill would exercise greater prudence than the President and resist unwise foreign interventions or unfavorable bargains with the Kremlin. Reviewing the SALT II talks, some charged that President Carter desired an arms control pact so strongly that he had jeopardized the safety of the country, and they vowed to counter this danger by amending or rejecting the treaty.34

STIFF CRITICISM OF SALT II actually came both from inside and outside of Congress and promised the Carter administration a tough battle on ratification. Whether Republican or Democrat, most critics of the treaty tended towards the right on foreign policy issues. Opponents included such figures as Senator Henry Jackson of Washington, retired Lieutenant General Daniel Graham, Richard Pipes of Harvard University, and Paul Nitze, a former arms control negotiator and member of the Committee on the Present Danger, an organization established to warn the public of a growing Soviet military threat.

Through Congressional testimony, speaking engagements, and the printed or broadcast media, critics such as Jackson, Graham, and Nitze spread their message that SALT II, as completed by President Carter, would tip an eroding military balance in favor of the Soviet Union. They claimed that the pact left the Soviets too much room to augment their strategic capabilities through qualitative improvements, which the United States could not detect with confidence because of inadequate verification provisions in the treaty. Besides urging revision or rejection of the agreement, critics demanded increased military spending and modernization of American strategic arms to counter the Soviet military build-up of the previous twelve years.35

The opponents of SALT II offered strong resistance because they perceived the treaty as part of an overall reduction of American power and feared the political consequences of that decline.

Rendering an assessment shared by many, General Graham declared to a Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee that “as the Soviet strategic advantage grows, it will be the United States which will be deterred from acting to protect free world interests against ever more adventurous Soviet initiatives.”36 In essence, he argued that a direct correlation existed between strategic capabilities and political influence in international affairs.

Graham and others believed that the Soviets accepted this thinking and might exploit a perception of strategic superiority to gain a military or political advantage over the United States, especially during a crisis. They worried, in particular, that the Soviets might employ their strategic strength to make the United States retreat in a confrontation similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis.37 All in all, the critics’ efforts dimmed the prospects for the ratification of SALT II. When the invasion of Afghanistan finally settled the issue, the question of ratification had become too close to call.38

The President’s personal political difficulties assisted the work of SALT II’s critics. Arms control was not the only area where Carter was having trouble by 1979. During 1978, his popularity had dipped below forty percent in national polls, and Congress had refused to accept his legislative program. Carter’s success later that year with the Camp David Peace Accords raised his standing for a time and broke the logjam in Congress. By mid-1979, however, his administration had returned to the doldrums, and questions reappeared about the President’s political competence and his prospects for reelection in 1980.39

CARTER’S DECLINING POLITICAL EFFECTIVENESS in 1979 accounted for some of SALT II’s growing problems with ratification. A President with strong popular backing and a string of legislative successes commanded many more levers of power to counter opponents and secure passage of desired measures. Still, the institutional damage to the Presidency during the 1970’s figured large in Carter’s troubles with SALT II. Immediately after Vietnam and Watergate, the office no longer carried the prestige necessary to help compensate for the political weaknesses of its occupant.

Part 6. Conclusion

JIMMY CARTER FAILED TO ACHIEVE HIS MOST AMBITIOUS GOALS for strategic arms control, but he did not depart office in 1981 without progress in this area. The complex nature of superpower negotiations and the impact of American domestic politics meant that progress on arms control would normally move at a slow pace. As a result, Carter did not obtain deep or even moderate reductions of strategic arsenals and concluded the SALT II limitations only after much difficulty.

This accomplishment, however, should not be belittled. Carter possessed enough influence to insure observance of the pact even without Senate ratification, a state of affairs that continued during the Reagan administration. Though SALT II did not bring sweeping reductions of strategic arsenals or strict constraints on qualitative improvements, the treaty reduced uncertainties in superpower relations. The provisions on verification and weapons ceilings helped planners to learn the military capabilities of the other side, and the arms talks proved valuable for keeping open lines of communication, especially as U.S.-Soviet relations deteriorated in the late 1970’s. SALT II thus increased stability in the superpower relationship in a time of growing tension and marked another gradual step ahead for the strategic arms control process.40

Carter scored some success on strategic arms control, but the lack of dramatic gains on this front helped frustrate his plans to focus on domestic affairs during his Presidency. Rather, he pushed the modernization of strategic forces and raised spending on conventional capabilities. Despite his early promises to cut defense spending, Carter responded to worries about growing Soviet military power, especially after the invasion of Afghanistan, and lobbied Congress and America’s NATO partners for three-percent annual increases in real defense allocations over a five-year period. He justified a strategic modernization program by arguing that the United States needed to maintain essential equivalence with the Soviets as long as each nation possessed a sizeable strategic arsenal. To maintain a rough strategic balance, the President moved ahead with development of the MX missile, continued improvements on the accuracy of warheads, and began deploying Trident I SLBMs. He did cancel the B-1 bomber program but advocated cruise missiles as an alternative way to modernize the strategic air arm.

Ironically, Carter also sanctioned nuclear war-fighting measures to maintain deterrence. In 1980, he signed Presidential Directive 59, which codified a “countervailing” strategy to fight a nuclear war below the level of an all-out exchange. In addition, the Carter administration recommended a modest civil defense program to limit casualties in case deterrence failed. These actions helped deter the Soviets below the level of a general attack but enhanced American capabilities to fight a nuclear war, a stance far from the position of minimum deterrence that Carter endorsed when he first took office.41

JIMMY CARTER ACHIEVED ONLY LIMITED SUCCESS on arms control because of the inflexible nature of strategic nuclear deterrence. By the late 1970s, the structure of deterrence between the United States and Soviet Union had become increasingly impervious to change as it became more complex. This structure involved assumptions about military capabilities, political resolve, and vital foreign interests and eventually became a foundation for East-West stability. Altering this arrangement through strategic arms limitations or reductions required the settlement of a broad range of interrelated military and political questions before an accord could be reached.

The difficulties involved in settling these issues were well represented in the SALT II negotiations and in the American domestic debate over the arms control pact. For President Carter, this process consumed nearly three years of his administration before the invasion of Afghanistan abruptly ended it in December 1979. With SALT II, Carter learned that a matter as important to the security and status of both nations as strategic arms control required careful consideration, or the structure of deterrence could be upset.

To reach arms control agreements, the superpowers also had to overcome complications that affected negotiations from outside the immediate context of the arms talks. Both the United States and Soviet Union linked each other’s behavior to success at the arms control table. The Soviets expressed disapproval of the American recognition of China by delaying the Vienna Summit of 1979, but American policymakers attempted to a larger degree to tie progress at the arms talks to Soviet good behavior. Some officials wanted to use the SALT II accord as leverage to check Soviet intervention in Third World conflicts and to obtain other concessions from the Kremlin. Such linkage produced few identifiable benefits and succeeded mainly in slowing the arms control process.

The difficulties that accompanied SALT II during the Carter administration were products, in part, of American domestic opposition and the President’s political weakness. In a period when American power and influence appeared in decline, a treaty that left some questions unanswered about national security remained vulnerable to serious political challenge. Soviet intentions also seemed suspect as the Kremlin actively pursued SALT II but still intervened in the Third World and pushed ahead with a large military build-up. Many American critics interpreted this behavior as part of a general Soviet strategy to weaken the United States and demanded revision or rejection of the treaty. Jimmy Carter confronted this hostile climate with the Presidency weakened from the turmoil of previous years and his own political prestige sagging. As President, he lacked the influence necessary to assure domestic acceptance of the treaty in the face of considerable criticism.

FINALLY, IT MIGHT BE ASKED WHY RAPID PROGRESS WAS POSSIBLE ON MORE RECENT strategic arms control agreements, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START I and II), if such progress was not possible for Jimmy Carter. The simple and obvious answer is that a dramatic shift took place in the entire context in which strategic arms control occurred.

  • In a rapid succession of events leading to the end of both the Cold War and the Soviet Union, the complex web of issues that had hindered arms control a few years before melted away. Just as armies and armaments serve a political purpose, so does arms control, and the political and diplomatic climate of the late 1980s and early 1990s placed the emphasis less on competition and more on cooperation and reduction. This shift allowed the swift completion of START I and II, and also made the goal for a minimal deterrent seem more realistic. Serious debate even began on the desirability of a post-nuclear world.
  • Whatever its merits, the idea of a post-nuclear age belonged more to the realm of fantasy when Jimmy Carter suggested it in the 1970s, a time when threat and deterrence were more the order of the day than reduction and cooperation. Ultimately, then, Carter’s greatest misfortune, perhaps, lay in that fact that his vision applied more to the future than to the time in which he governed.


1. Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), pp. 2-3; William W. Kaufmann, The McNamara Strategy (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1964), pp. 5-6, 11-12; U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Subcommittee on Arms Control, Oceans, and International Environment, United States-Soviet Strategic Options, 95th Cong., 1st Sess., 1977, p. 11; U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Hearings on Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, 93rd Congress, 2nd Sess., 1974, p. 155; U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report, Fiscal Year 1979 (1978), p. 45; U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Subcommittee on Arms Control, International Law and Organization, Briefing on Counterforce Attacks, 93rd Cong., 2nd Sess., 1975, p. 8.

2. James L. Buckley and Paul C. Warnke, Strategic Sufficiency: Fact or Fiction? (Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 1972), pp. 2-3; Committee on Foreign Relations, Nuclear Weapons, pp. 16-17; C.L. Sulzberger, “When Mud Gets in Your Eyes,” New York Times, 28 January 1976, p. 33.

3. Robert O. Freedman, “The Soviet Image of the Carter Administration’s Policy Toward the USSR from the Inauguration to the Invasion of Afghanistan,” Korea and World Affairs 4 (Summer 1980): 230; David Holloway, The Soviet Union and the Arms Race (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983), pp. 89, 92.

4. U.S. Congress, House, Message from the President of the United States Concerning the State of the Union, January 19, 1978, House Doc. 95-273, 95th Cong., 2nd Sess., 1978, p. 2; Strobe Talbott, Endgame, The Inside Story of SALT II (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1979). Talbott provides a detailed narrative of the Carter administration’s efforts to negotiate a strategic arms control treaty.

5. Jimmy Carter, “Speech before the Council on Foreign Relations,” 15 March 1976, as quoted in Robert Turner, ed., “I’ll Never Lie to You,” Jimmy Carter in His Own Words (New York: Ballantine Books, 1976), pp. 122-23.

6. Jimmy Carter, “Platform on the Pentagon Budget,” May 1976, as quoted in Turner, “I’ll Never Lie,”, pp. 123-24.

7. Jimmy Carter, Keeping Faith, Memoirs of a President (New York: Bantam Books, 1982), p. 218; State of the Union, 1978, pp. 2-6, 11.

8. Text of the Second Presidential Debate, 6 October 1976, San Francisco, Calif., as found in Sidney Kraus, ed. The Great Debates, Carter vs. Ford 1976 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), pp. 476-77, 489-90, 496; State of the Union, 1978, pp. 32-33.

9. Department of Defense, Annual Report, F.Y. 1979, p. 46; Fen O. Hampson, “SALT I, Interim Agreement and ABM Treaty,” in Albert Carnesale and Richard N. Haass, eds. Superpower Arms Control (Cambridge, Mass., Ballinger Publishing Co., 1987), p. 78.

10. Stephen J. Flanagan, “SALT II,” in Carnesale and Haass, Superpower Arms Control, p. 112.

11. Carter, Keeping Faith, pp. 217-18, 245; Jimmy Carter, “United Nations Speech,” 13 May 1976, in Turner, “I’ll Never Lie”, pp. 130-31; State of the Union, 1978, p. 7.

12. Godfrey Hodgson, All Things to All Men, The False Promise of the American Presidency (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980), pp. 23-24; Carter, Keeping Faith, pp. 220-21.

13. Second Presidential Debate, Great Debates, p. 480; Flanagan, “SALT II,” pp. 115-16.

14. Carter, Keeping Faith, pp. 246-47, 251-55.

15. Ibid., p. 219; Holloway, Soviet Union, p. 88; Flanagan, “SALT II,” pp. 115-16.

16. Flanagan, “SALT II,” pp. 115-16.

17. Carter, Keeping Faith, p. 236.

18. Ibid., pp. 214, 250, 255-56; U.S. Department of State, The United States and the Soviet Union, Remarks by President Carter at the 1978 U.S. Naval Academy Commencement on June 7 [1978], General Foreign Policy Series 307, 1978, p. 7; Les Aspin, “The Soviet Military Threat: Rhetoric Versus Facts,” in Fred W. Neal, ed., Detente or Debacle, Common Sense in U.S.-Soviet Relations (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1979), p. 97; Richard Pipes, “Why the Soviet Union Thinks It Could Fight and Win a Nuclear War,” Commentary 64 (July 1977): 22, 29-31.

19. Carter, Keeping Faith, pp. 214, 250, 255-56; Aspin, “Soviet Military Threat,” pp. 97; Paul Nitze, “Assuring Strategic Stability in an Era of Detente,” Foreign Affairs 54 (January 1976): 217-18; Committee on Foreign Relations, Nuclear Weapons, pp. 6-7; Hampson, “SALT I,” p. 94.

20. Sidney D. Drell, “SALT and Beyond–Possibilities and Prospects,” in Neal, Detente or Debacle, p. 79.

21. Nitze, “Strategic Stability,” pp. 217-18.

22. Jan M. Lodal, “Assuring Strategic Stability: An Alternative View,” Foreign Affairs 54 (April 1976): 473; Flanagan, “SALT II,” pp. 115, 122-23; Carter, Keeping Faith, pp. 216, 231-32, 238; Talbott, Endgame, pp. 156-61; Aspin, “Soviet Threat, pp. 101-03. Other technological questions such as qualitative improvements to missile forces and verification of treaty compliance prolonged the negotiations. Strict limitations on MIRV technology and the upgrading of missile accuracy would have strengthened strategic stability but were not included in the treaty; however, the agreement did contain restrictions on maximum numbers of warheads and the size of the heavy Soviet ICBM force. The treaty allowed both sides limited modification of existing missile systems, one completely new ICBM, a large number of delivery vehicles, and eventual deployment of mobile land-based systems. The United States also demanded assurances that it would be able to monitor Soviet compliance with SALT II, especially after the Iranian Revolution denied American intelligence two key listening posts on the Soviet border. Specifically, the Americans wanted promises that the Soviets would not encrypt telemetry data from missile tests, which would indicate whether Moscow was developing new systems outside the treaty. The superpowers finally reached an understanding on this point, but the verification issue remained controversial in the American domestic debate over treaty ratification.

23. Craig R. Whitney, “Soviets Ask Chinese to Talks in Moscow,” New York Times, 6 June 1979, p. A-11; Carter, Keeping Faith, pp. 237, 258-59; Hodgson, All Things, pp. 27-28.

24. Theodore Draper, “Appeasement and Detente,” Commentary 61 (February 1976): 28; Kiron K. Skinner, “Linkage,” in Carnesale and Haass, Superpower Arms Control, pp. 277-78.

25. Carter, Keeping Faith, p. 252; Department of State, United States and Soviet Union, Series 307, p. 5; John A. Marcum, “Lessons of Angola,” Foreign Affairs 54 (April 1976): 407-25; Bayard Rustin and Carl Gershman, “Africa, Soviet Imperialism, and the Retreat of American Power,” Commentary 64 (October 1977): 33-34, 38-39; C.L. Sulzberger, “Whom the Gods Would Destroy,” New York Times, 7 January 1976, pt. 1, p. 37; Georges Steyermark, “A Question About Survival of Our Country,” New York Times, 16 February 1978, p. 22; Skinner, “Linkage,” pp. 287-88, 293; Flanagan, “SALT II,” pp. 130-31.

26. Carter, Keeping Faith, pp. 222, 254-55; Hodgson, All Things, pp. 28-29; Skinner, “Linkage,” p. 285.

27. Holloway, The Soviet Union, p. 89; Carter, Keeping Faith, p. 256; Rustin and Gershman, “Africa,” p. 39; “Soviet is Reported Building a Second Base in Somalia,” New York Times, 2 February 1976, pt. 1, p. 11; Skinner, “Linkage,” pp. 284, 297.

28. McGeorge Bundy, “To Cap the Volcano,” Foreign Affairs 48 (October 1969): pp. 6-7; Flanagan, “SALT II,” p. 115; Skinner, “Linkage,” p. 293.

29. Morton Halperin, “Why Bureaucrats Play Games,” Foreign Policy 2 (1971): 71-75; Donald L. Hafner, “Bureaucratic Politics and ‘Those Frigging Missiles’: JFK , Cuba, and U.S. Missiles in Turkey,” Orbis 21 (1977): 315-16, 327.

30. Leslie H. Gelb and Morton Halperin, “Diplomatic Notes: The Ten Commandments of the Foreign-Affairs Bureaucracy,” Harper’s Magazine 244 (June 1972): 30; I. M. Destler, Presidents, Bureaucrats, and Foreign Policy, The Politics of Organizational Reform (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 53; Charles Mohr, “Joint Chiefs Support Arms Treaty But Urge Higher Nuclear Spending,” New York Times 12 July 1979, p. A-1.

31. Hodgson, All Things, pp. 13-14, 30, 35-36; Sulzberger, “Whom the Gods Would Destroy,” p. 37.

32. Destler, Presidents, p. 54; Walter Laqueur, “The West in Retreat,” Commentary 60 (August 1975): 5.

33. Theodore C. Sorenson, “Political Perspective: Who Speaks for the National Interest?” in Thomas M. Franck, ed., The Tethered Presidency, Congressional Restraints on Executive Power (New York: New York University Press, 1981), pp. 3-7, 12; Bruce Russett, “The Americans’ Retreat From World Power,” Political Science Quarterly 90 (Spring 1975): 1-10, 14-17.

34. Sorenson, “Political Perspectives,” pp. 7-8, 10.

35. The critics of SALT II left behind an enormous record of their views. Their testimony before Congress is especially insightful and can be found in: U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on the Armed Services, Military Implications of the Treaty on the Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms and Protocol Thereto, 96th Cong., 1st Sess., 1979, and U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, The SALT II Treaty, 96th Cong., 1st Sess., 1979. The material published by SALT II opponents is also extensive. Some examples include: John F. Lehman and Seymour Weiss, Beyond the SALT II Failure (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1981); Eugene V. Rostow, “The Case Against SALT II,” Commentary 67 (Feb. 1979); and Amrom Katz, “The Fabric of Verification: The Warp and the Woof,” in William C. Potter, ed., Verification and SALT: The Challenge of Strategic Deception (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1980).

36. Committee on Foreign Relations, Strategic Options, p. 124.

37. Ibid., pp. 61, 124; Nitze, “Strategic Stability,” pp. 207, 215-16; Pipes, “Soviet Union,” p. 26; Barry M. Blechman and others, The Soviet Military Buildup and U.S. Defense Spending (Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution, 1977), p. vii; Paul C. Roberts, Letter to the Editor, Commentary 64 (September 1977): 4.

38. Carter, Keeping Faith, pp. 224-25, 238-39.

39. Hodgson, All Things, pp. 22-26, 28-29.

40. Flanagan, “SALT II,” pp. 131-34.

41. State of the Union, 1981, pp. 2, 48, 50-53; Carter, Keeping Faith, 222-23, 230; Committee on Foreign Relations, Counterforce, p. 9; Department of Defense, Annual Report, F.Y. 1979, pp. 4-6, 55-57, 105, 109, 111, 115-16, 126-27; U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report, Fiscal Year 1981, (1980), pp. 65-68; U.S. Department of Defense, Annual Report, Fiscal Year 1982, (1981), pp. 38-43; U.S. Congress, House, Message from the President Transmitting His Views on Defense Spending, September 1979, House Doc, 96-184, (1979), pp. 1-2; Richard Burt, “U.S. Decides Not to Match Soviet First-Strike Efforts,” New York Times, 5 February 1978, p. 5; Bernard Weintraub, “Pentagon is Seeking $56 Billion Increase Over Next Five Years,” New York Times, 3 February 1978, pt. 1, p. 1.


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