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The Carter Administration’s Response to the Soviet Intervention in Afghanistan
From December 24, 1979 to January 4, 1980

by Brandon J. Libro

“This is the most serious international development that has occurred since I have been President,” wrote U.S. President Jimmy Carter in January 1980, referring to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.1 Confronting the hardest winter of his administration, Carter was face to face with the Kremlin. How did Carter and his administration reply to the Soviet intervention? Deciphering an answer sheds light on how the Carter administration responded to a crisis; moreover, it could provide guidance for future presidential administrations.

Consider a trident; it is used to thrust. It has one handle which possesses a single blunt end. On the opposite end are three sharp points, with the middle point longer than the other two, which are the same length. Consider the reactions to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan of Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs Zbigniew Brzezinski, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, and President Jimmy Carter. While the reactions of Carter, Brzezinski, and Vance were multifaceted, the action taken by the Soviet Union was decisive and singular. On the solitary, blunt end of the trident is Moscow’s justification of its intervention within Afghanistan. On the opposite end of the trident, there are three sharp points: Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter, and Cyrus Vance. Brzezinski is the right point which represents his being generally more anti-Soviet and less liberal. Vance is the left point which represents his being generally less anti-Soviet and more liberal. Carter is the middle, spearhead point which represents his sharing of both the left and the right point, as well as being responsible for deciding what the U.S. reaction to the Soviet intervention would be. Brzezinski, Vance, and Carter each offer their own reaction to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan; as a result, the Carter administration’s reaction is multifaceted. When Leonid Brezhnev, General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, thrust the Soviet trident into Afghanistan, he elicited three different reactions—of Brzezinski, Vance, and Carter.

Act One: Exposition

Afghanistan has long stood at a crossroads of empires. In the late 1970s, those empires were the United States and the Soviet Union. For Washington, Afghanistan became a Cold War issue in April 1978; for Moscow, it was more complex. Washington’s complaint was increasing Soviet influence over the Afghan government, while Moscow’s complaint was that, just as the United States had been unable to control Diem in South Vietnam, the Soviet Union could not control its puppets in Kabul. The two complaints were not parallel—the Kremlin’s issue with Afghanistan was not directed against the United States in relation to the Cold War.

Life was challenging for people in Afghanistan in 1978; the life expectancy was low due to lack of electricity, disorder and lawlessness, and decades of war. The land was mountainous and jagged, making travel difficult; due to these divisions, people were more loyal to their ethnic groups or clans rather than to the central government. The population which was overwhelmingly Muslim, was extremely religious and conservative, not favoring change that threatened their way of life.

Nur Muhammad Taraki, a founding member of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), and Hafizullah Amin, a well-educated Afghan radical, were hardline communists. On April 27, 1978, they led a coup against Daoud, the President of Afghanistan since 1973, and Taraki became President of the Revolutionary Council, Prime Minister, and Secretary General of the PDPA of the newly established Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. Amin became Deputy Prime Minister. Initially, Babrak Karmal, leader of a rival faction, was included in the government, but soon he was exiled to Prague.2 Taraki’s and Amin’s radical Communist reforms were leading Afghanistan into disorder and civil war.

U.S. and Soviet anxieties about disorder in Afghanistan spiked in 1978 due to the turmoil in Iran. Both Washington and Moscow feared the spread of radical Islam. The radical reforms of the Taraki regime were giving rise to dissent throughout the Afghan population, much of it expressed through radical Islam. The Mujahedeen, which was composed of various guerilla-type military outfits of radical Islamists, posed a threat to the stability of the Afghan government. The Mujahedeen were motivated by long-standing distrust of any central government, particularly one, such as Taraki’s Communist regime, that posed a direct threat to their traditional way of life. For the United States in 1978, Afghanistan’s troubles were a marginal issue; however, for the Soviet Union, Afghanistan was a grave complication.

Throughout its first eighteen months of rule, from April 1978 to September 1979, the PDPA applied a program of modernizing reforms which were viewed as opposing Islam by much of the Afghan population. There was a belief amongst the Afghanis that their government had sold their culture to the Soviet Union.3 The PDPA’s changes in marriage customs and land reform were unpopular throughout Afghanistan. During the summer of 1978, rebellions erupted against the reforms; soon, an incipient civil war seemed to spread throughout the country.

The situation in Afghanistan deteriorated and more anti-Soviet sentiment emerged, resulting in the Herat uprising. The Herat uprising took place in Afghanistan in March 1979; it was a wake-up for the Kremlin. Afghan army troops rose against their government in Herat as Amin and Taraki appealed to its Soviet allies for help. Afghanis in Herat specifically targeted Soviet advisors because they had already deeply resented their influence in Afghanistan.4 After the massacre (the Afghan regime re-took the city with its own forces via aerial bombardments leaving 25,000 of its inhabitants dead) ending the Herat uprising, the Afghan people deepened their already fierce beliefs that Amin and Taraki were being controlled by the Kremlin.5

In a high-level Politburo meeting on March 18, 1979, Moscow concluded that the stakes were too high for intervention in Kabul—it would spell disaster for its relationship with Afghanistan. Moreover, Moscow did not want to jeopardize SALT negotiations with Washington. Politburo Member Konstantin Chernenko said, “If we introduce troops and beat down the Afghan people then we will be accused of aggression for sure. There’s no getting around it here.”6 Yuri Andropov, the head of the KGB and a Politburo Member, said, “To deploy our troops would mean to wage war against the people, to crush the people, to shoot at the people. We will look like aggressors, and we cannot permit that to occur.”7

Instead, the Kremlin made it clear to Taraki and Amin that they should stop trying to impose unpopular land reforms upon the Afghan population. Moscow sent in Soviet civilian and military advisors to help the Afghan regime. Despite Moscow’s pleading, Amin and Taraki continued on their hard-line revolutionary course.

Several months later, the Kremlin, which had more confidence in the good sense of President Taraki then in Amin, urged him to take action against the Deputy Prime Minster; however, Amin got wind of the plot and suddenly seized power, arresting and then, on September 14, 1979, killing President Taraki. Two months (September 1979 – November 1979) of unsteadiness overwhelmed Amin’s regime while he moved against his opponents in the PDPA. The relationship between Amin in Afghanistan and Brezhnev in the Soviet Union was strained, and the Soviets began to groom Karmal, in exile in Prague, to return to Afghanistan.8

Amin had continued into late 1979 to rely primarily on the support of the Soviet Union. He had faced opposition to his regime, fueled in large part by the Mujahedeen. Amin had asked the Kremlin to station Soviet troops in Afghanistan. When, in mid-December, the Kremlin agreed to send four hundred troops into Afghanistan, Amin was pleased and urged it to send more. Amin remained, to his final days, trusting of Soviet support despite his strained relationship with the Kremlin. Moscow’s decision to send advisers into Afghanistan in late 1979, however, was not a sign of continued support for Amin; rather, it was the first step in a new Soviet policy that had been formed after Taraki’s assassination.9

On December 12, 1979, Moscow decided to intervene forcefully to remove Amin and to bolster a new Afghan government. The Politburo had contemplated—and rejected—intervention in March after the Herat uprising; however, by December, Moscow understood that SALT II would not be ratified by the U.S. Senate and anti-Soviet sentiment was untameably rampant within Afghanistan. There was a lot more to lose by not intervening in Afghanistan, including the spread of political Islam and the possibility that Amin would turn to Washington; thus the Kremlin concluded reluctantly to send forces into Afghanistan, aware that it would incite U.S. condemnation.

Jimmy Carter was an obstinate man; as he served his four years as president of the United States, he would see Brzezinski and Vance offer their own perspectives, yet it was Carter who would in the end make the final decisions. Carter saw the Soviet intervention of Afghanistan as one of the most significant crises of his term; while he listened to suggestions offered by, among others, his National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. Carter himself chose how to react to Moscow’s threat; this is why he symbolized the middle, spearhead point of the trident. 10

Act Two: Rising Action


The month is December. The year is 1979. The Soviet Union is preparing to intervene in Afghanistan. Moscow’s intentions remain unclear; however, Washington begins to acknowledge the increasing chance that the Kremlin will introduce armed forces into Afghanistan. On December 11, Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher expresses U.S. concern to the Soviets. On December 19, the State Department Spokesman Hodding Carter expresses further U.S. anxiety.11 On the same day the Situation Room reports the Afghan government is initiating plans for a major expansion of the air-base in Kabul; all the facilities, which include buildings and runways, are to be expanded.12 There is a build-up of Soviet forces near Afghanistan. On December 20, the Situation Room reports Soviet efforts to increase anti-American propaganda in Pakistan and to advertise Moscow’s support of the Afghan government.13 Richard Burt of the New York Times writes that the Soviet Union moved three army divisions to its border with Afghanistan.14 By December 24, more than ten thousand Soviet armed forces are massed at the Afghanistan border, which Hodding Carter refers to as “blatant military interference into the internal affairs of an independent sovereign state.” 1516

On the evening of December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union began its intervention in Afghanistan. The immediate U.S. response to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan remains murky. President Carter was well informed about the build-up of Soviet forces on Afghanistan’s border, but he made no public statement about it. This may have been in part because Carter was on Christmas vacation with his family in Camp David. Perhaps the early stage of the Soviet intervention, the build-up of Soviet forces on Afghanistan’s border, wasn’t that serious a development, or even a surprise, to Carter. Did Carter know the larger intent of Soviet operations in Afghanistan? There was no way to be certain.

On December 26, 1979 at 5:52am EST, the American embassy in Kabul cabled the State Department and the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency. Bruce Amstutz, chargé d’affaires in Afghanistan, was in charge of the U.S. embassy. (After Ambassador Adolph Dubs was assassinated in February 1979, no replacement had been appointed.) Amstutz reported that he observed Soviet aircraft, AN-22s (strategic airlifters) and AS-12s (heavy jets) in large numbers, which began arriving at Kabul International Airfield one day earlier, at 5:00am EST on December 25, 1979. The aircraft landed in groups of three, unloaded their cargo (most likely a small number of Soviet personnel and equipment; Amstutz could not verify), and immediately took off. The total number of aircraft coming into Kabul from the Soviet Union was anywhere from one hundred fifty to two hundred, and there were Soviet markings on the outside of the aircraft. Amstutz reported that he could not verify Soviet troops patrolling the streets of Kabul; furthermore, Afghanistan’s military alert status in the capital was not increased.17

The SCC was unsure of Soviet motivations; nonetheless, it decided to make the operations as costly as possible for the Kremlin. First, the SCC permitted the information of the newest Soviet actions to reach the U.S. media. Concerned countries in the region would be briefed about the new developments in Kabul as well as other interested parties in order to begin to raise international opposition. Third, the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Tom Watson, would reiterate U.S. concerns and press for an explanation of recent events. The SCC concluded that Moscow had probably passed the point of no return. A PRC meeting was scheduled for the following day to discuss the broader regional impact of Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and to develop options for dealing with the issue. The Carter administration limited its actions as it waited for a more definitive picture of the scope of Soviet intervention.18

On December 26, 1979 at 12:07pm EST, Amstutz again cabled the State Department, specifying that Soviet troops and equipment were being unloaded from the aircraft in Kabul. Amstutz identified an estimated eight hundred Soviet troops dressed in combat uniform with winter hats and overcoats stationed at Kabul airport. He relayed that Soviet troops and equipment were being grouped at the south side of the runway. Amstutz observed as many as six to seven Soviet aircraft in the skies above Kabul at one time, and Soviet operations continued into the afternoon. As the day ensued, Soviet forces began crossing the border into Afghanistan. 19

Brzezinski’s reaction to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was swift, decisive, and accusatory. As the Soviet intervention wasn’t a complete surprise to Brzezinski, he quickly laid out a detailed, aggressive list of suggestions for President Carter, although he later claimed that he had not expected Carter to adopt all of them.20 “Our objective had to be to ostracize and condemn the Soviets and to reinforce regional confidence,” wrote Brzezinski.21

Vance, in his memoir Hard Choices, published in 1983, opposed the explanation of the Soviet intervention that Brzezinski had elaborated in his December 26, 1979 memo to President Carter, which stated that Moscow’s “decisiveness” would be sharply contrasted with American “restraint.” Vance wrote that the spread of Islamism could lead the Kremlin into a long, drawn-out war, similar to Vietnam. He concluded that by December 1979 when SALT was stalled in the Senate and détente seemed dead, Moscow believed it had little to lose in its relationship with Washington; had it felt like it had more to lose, the Soviets may have acted more cautiously. Vance noted that Soviet leadership vastly miscalculated the extent of the military resistance it would encounter in Afghanistan. It had not foreseen the strong reaction of the Islamic nations and the global community; above all, Vance noted, the Soviets disastrously miscalculated the reaction of the United States.22

“Two days after Christmas there was another shock to a world which yearned for peace,” wrote President Carter in his memoir Keeping Faith.23 On December 27, 1979 Carter wrote in his diary:

The Soviets have begun to move their forces in to overthrow the existing government…. 215 flights in the last 24 hours or so. They’ve moved in a couple of regiments and now have maybe a total of 8,000 or 10,000 people in Afghanistan—both advisers and military. We consider this to be an extremely serious development.24

“The threat of this Soviet invasion to the rest of the region was very clear and had grim consequences,” wrote Carter later in his memoir.25

The Kremlin immediately sought to justify sending its troops into Afghanistan to the international community. Simultaneously with the invasion, the CPSU CC sent a message to all ambassadors justifying its actions by declaring that it was attempting to stabilize Afghanistan. It also claimed that the gains that were made as a result of the April 1978 Revolution were dissolving. It alluded to Washington’s aid to the Mujahedeen:

The gross interference on the part of several powers into the affairs of Afghanistan is continuing, its scale is increasing, and armed formations and weapons are being sent into Afghanistan for counterrevolutionary elements and groups whose activity is being directed from abroad. The goal of this interference is completely obvious—the overthrow of the democratic and progressive system established by the people of Afghanistan as a result of the victory of the Revolution.26

The manner in which the CPSU CC justified its intervention in Afghanistan is significant. Moscow said that its action was justified because it was responding to the request of a nation struggling against foreign aggression and in need of assistance; it was operating within the parameters of universally recognized international law.

Washington was unsure of Moscow’s next step regarding its intervention in Afghanistan. On December 27, 1979, Bernard Gwertzman from the New York Times wrote:

There remains uncertainty about the mission of the Soviet forces. Some American officials believe that the Soviet military will try to provide security only for the major towns and cities and to keep roads open, while 50,000 troops of the Afghanistan army seek out the insurgents. Other officials believe that the Russians may mount an anti-insurgency operation.27

Meanwhile, Brezhnev was prepared to take action. The Kremlin did not trust Amin. It feared he could reverse alliances and seek the protection of the United States. (There is some evidence that Amin had contact with the CIA, and USSR was alarmed; no U.S. documents about the extent of it are declassified.)28 Nor could the Kremlin afford chaos in Afghanistan because it could lead to a fundamentalist Islamic regime on its border. The Soviet Union’s strongest argument for intervention was the absence of an acceptable alternative. Moscow could not see its southern neighbor succumb to disintegration or defection to the west. Policymakers in the Kremlin saw Amin as unreliable, hostile, and incapable of handling the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. The threat of Islamic fundamentalism penetrating the Soviet Union’s southern republics was real; if Afghanistan fell to its allure, then it might spread to the “stans”—the breadbasket of the Soviet Union.29 Thus, Moscow’s decision to intervene rested on a reluctant conclusion that failure to do so would threaten its security.

Act Three: Climax

On December 27, 1979, Soviet Special Forces assassinated President Amin. On the same day, Leonid Brezhnev wrote Babrak Karmal, former Prime Minister of Afghanistan who had been in exile and was now the chosen Soviet puppet, congratulating him on his appointment as General Secretary of the PDPA. Brezhnev wished Karmal success in his undertakings and expressed the hope that he do well for the Afghan people.30 The Soviet Union had been deeply troubled by the inability of the Amin government to put down the rebellions in Afghanistan, which were largely fueled by the Mujahedeen. Nonetheless, by assassinating Amin, the Soviets undermined their legal justification for intervention—that they had been invited by Amin—which rendered it an act of raw aggression.

The U.S. administration was determined to make Moscow pay a price for its brutal invasion. Vance wrote that the administration’s fundamental objective was to bring about the withdrawal of Soviet forces within Afghanistan; however, he recognized that it may not be possible in the short-term. Thus, Vance dedicated himself to making the Soviet involvement costly for the Kremlin.31

Vance recognized it was necessary to promptly demonstrate to the Soviets that their behavior was unacceptable. However, he also realized that the more the Soviets had to pay, the more they would be inclined to keep what they had paid for. In other words, Vance thought that no matter what Washington did, Moscow was going to stay in Afghanistan until it established a stable pro-Soviet regime. He was realistic about the limits of U.S. power in a post-Vietnam world in determining outcomes in remote places.32

On December 28, 1979, President Carter convened a National Security Council (NSC) Meeting focusing on the situation in Afghanistan. The President listened to Brzezinski and Vance list key concerns about the Soviet intervention into Afghanistan. The first concern dealt with how to encourage other leaders to speak out against Moscow’s belligerence. The President said that he did not want to raise the issue at the United Nations because he did not want to dilute that body’s focus on the Iranian Hostage Crisis; he noted that either Britain or China could raise the Afghan issue. Carter concluded that the North Atlantic Council (the principal political decision-making body of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO]) would be a better platform for Washington to publicize the issue before it reached the United Nations.33 The NAC had been convened when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia; therefore, it seemed appropriate given the precedent to start there.

Carter would make personal calls to West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Italian PM Cossiga, and Pakistan’s President Zia-ul-Haq.34 He would suggest to these allies that the NAC meet on this issue. Carter worried that the rest of the world might be reluctant to condemn the Soviets; the United States had been warning the world for several weeks about the buildup of Soviet forces on the Afghan border, and there had been no reaction from anyone. In President Carter’s opinion, Washington could not go through the night without a public response and contact with the Allies; if the Americans waited too long, Carter feared that Moscow would persuade everyone that their actions were legitimate. As a result, Carter instructed both the NSC and State Department to prepare messages.

The second issue dealt with assistance to the Afghan rebels, the Mujahedeen. Although they would not have any prospect of taking over the government, Secretary Vance believed they could hang on, draw out the conflict, and make it costly for Moscow. On the other hand, Brzezinski noted that the success of the Mujahedeen depended on Washington’s own attitude. Carter thought there was little hope that Moscow could put down the rebellion, even with fifty thousand men, because of the asymmetric style of warfare conducted by the rebels. Brzezinski believed that the psychological impact of U.S. aid to the Mujahedeen could make or break the conflict. If the United States did nothing to assist the Mujahedeen, the feeling of isolation could overwhelm them.35

Brzezinski noted that the Kremlin was typically successful at counter-insurgency efforts; they had success in Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine, where their strategy had been the holding of the cities. Admiral Turner noted that if Afghan army units were released to fight the Mujahedeen, U.S. assistance to the rebels would be all the more significant. Carter stated that he desired the greatest possible flexibility regarding assistance to the Mujahedeen, emphasizing the positive goals that Washington hoped to achieve. What was the ultimate aim of Washington in the Afghan situation? Carter stated that the maximum goal of his administration was to get the Soviets out of Afghanistan.36

“The Soviet action is a major matter of concern to the entire international community,” said Carter in the Briefing Room at the White House on December 28, 1979 in his first public response to the crisis.37 Carter continued, “I have discussed this serious matter personally today with several other heads of government, all of whom agree that the Soviet action is a grave threat to peace…and extensive consultation between ourselves and with our allies are urgently needed.”38 The administration sought to form a broad coalition that condemned the Kremlin’s actions in Afghanistan.

On December 29, 1979, Carter sent Brezhnev a message over the hotline. It was, he wrote, “the sharpest message of my Presidency.”39 “When such military forces are those of a superpower and are then used to depose an existing government and impose another,” Carter concluded, “there are obvious implications both for the region and for the world at large.”40 Carter cited the Soviet violation of the Basic Principles of Relations, the Helsinki Agreement, which had been signed in 1975 to improve relations between the Communist bloc and the West. Carter wrote, “I want to ensure that you have fully weighed the ramifications of the Soviet actions in Afghanistan, which we regard as a clear threat to the peace.”41 Carter wrote that his administration could not accept Moscow’s justification that Soviet military forces were sent into Afghanistan to bolster its leadership. He noted that Amin and his family had been murdered by Soviet forces.42 Carter was alarmed by the trend of Soviet policy, which appeared to be unsettling and dangerous.

Carter assured Brezhnev that Washington could raise military alert status; the U.S. military could be prepared for quick deployment as a cautionary measure. In a veiled reference to the ratification of SALT, Carter warned, “Unless you draw back from your present course of action, this will inevitably jeopardize the course of U.S.-Soviet relations throughout the world.”43 Carter concluded by telling Brezhnev to withdraw Soviet forces, which continued to pour across the border into Afghanistan, and cease interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Carter had received reports that an additional 15,000 to 20,000 Soviet troops had crossed into Afghanistan in the last 24 hours, raising the total number of Soviet military personnel in Afghanistan to 25,000 to 30,000. Pakistani officials reported that Soviet troops were crossing the Amu Darya River into Afghanistan in “substantial numbers.” Carter specifically called the Soviet Union to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan or face “serious consequences” in its relations with Washington.44 If Brezhnev refused, Carter believed that many years of promoting more stable and productive relations between the two countries could well be undermined and have serious consequences for U.S.-Soviet relations.45

Act Four: Falling Action

On December 31, 1979, Peter Tarnoff, Executive Secretary of the State Department, conveyed the State Department’s array of possible sanctions to impose against the Soviet Union to Brzezinski. First, the State Department listed punitive sanctions; those that might make Moscow pay a price for “infringing fundamental principles of international behavior.”46 Washington could immediately recall Ambassador Watson from Moscow and force a reduction in Soviet diplomatic staff in Washington. The White House could also impose an embargo on U.S. grain shipped to the Soviet Union. The Kremlin relied on American grain; thus, Washington could cause widespread pain within the Soviet Union.

Second, the State Department listed coercive sanctions against the Kremlin; those that might cause it to withdraw their troops and allow Afghanistan to return to sovereignty. Washington could raise the military alert. The U.S. military could be prepared for quick deployment; however, this was probably the least viable option and remained on the list as a cautionary measure. Washington could supply the Mujahedeen with increased money and even arms.47

Third, the State Department listed deterrent sanctions; those that might prevent the Soviets from crossing further thresholds, such as an escalation of fighting with the Mujahedeen.48 Washington could urge the international community, including all NATO capitals, to increase broadcasts to Muslim countries and the Soviet Central Asia. The goal would be to inspire global Muslim condemnation of Soviet action in Afghanistan. Further, the White House could publicize the horrors of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan at home and abroad.49

Brzezinski thought that a few substantial measures – limits on grain sales to the Soviet Union, transfers of defensive arms to China, and providing an aid package to Pakistan—would send a sufficiently strong message to the Kremlin.50 In fact, Carter thought that “Brzezinski was remarkably sober, concerned about future relationships with the Soviet Union.”51

Carter and Brzezinski were surprised to find Vance approving measures such as aiding the Pakistanis militarily.52 Carter commented that the State Department’s advocacy of adopting stronger measures than the NSC staff was a “reversal of their usual attitudes.”53 This was an instance where the trident image grew nuanced; it was tempting to be simplistic and say that Vance was the dove and Brzezinski the hawk – but the facts suggest it was much more complicated.

Carter determined his course of action, based on the choices Brzezinski and Vance gave him, with which to punish Moscow for its intervention in Afghanistan. Direct U.S. military action would be used only as a last resort. Carter stressed, above all, the power of worldwide criticism generated by continuing publicity of the Soviet intervention, economic sanctions that would devastate the Soviet economy, and military assistance to the Mujahedeen.54

Carter suspended the Senate’s consideration of the SALT II treaty. During an NSC meeting on January 2, 1980, it was decided that there would be no effort to bring the SALT II treaty to the floor for a vote. The NSC decided that American public posture would be to reaffirm that SALT is important irrespective of the tone of its relationship with the Soviet Union but, at this time, it did not believe it advisable to bring it to a vote.55 “The worst disappointment to me personally,” Carter wrote later in his memoir, “was the immediate and automatic loss of any chance for early ratification of the SALT II treaty.”56 What he had worked on for the previous three years came crashing down.

On the afternoon of January 4, 1980 Carter informed his Staff and Cabinet, Vice President Mondale, Ambassador Watson, and Congressional leaders of his chosen penalties against the Soviet Union; the goal of which was to make Moscow bear a significant burden for its actions. That evening, he described them to the nation.

“I come to you this evening to discuss the extremely important and rapidly changing circumstances in Southwest Asia,” said Carter on January 4, 1980.57 Carter sat at the desk in the White House Oval Office. As he spoke, his right hand rested on the desk while his pointer finger stuck out and bobbed up and down for emphasis; his left hand sat firm on the bindings of a folder that contained a copy of the speech. Throughout, Carter consistently paused to look down and study the next sentence. He always looked into the camera while he spoke and did so with deliberate sincerity. Certain phrases were stressed, yet Carter fell back toward a monotonous tone. His tired eyes rested on his austere face.58 Carter said:

This invasion is an extremely serious threat to peace because of the threat of further Soviet expansion into neighboring countries in Southwest Asia and also because such an aggressive military policy is unsettling to other peoples throughout the world… Fifty nations have petitioned the United Nations Security Council to condemn the Soviet Union and to demand the immediate withdrawal of all Soviet troops from Afghanistan… I have already recalled the United States Ambassador from Moscow back to Washington… I have asked the United States Senate to defer further consideration of the SALT II treaty …I’ve directed that no high technology or other strategic items will be licensed for sale to the Soviet Union until further notice… Fishing privileges for the Soviet Union in United States waters will be severely curtailed. The seventeen million tons of grain ordered by the Soviet Union…will not be delivered…The Soviet Union must realize that its continued aggressive actions will endanger both the participation of athletes and the travel to Moscow by spectators who would normally wish to attend the Olympic games…We will provide military equipment, food, and other assistance to help Pakistan defend its independence and its national security… With the support of the American people and working with other nations, we will deter aggression, we will protect our Nation’s security, and we will preserve the peace. The United States will meet its responsibilities.59

President Carter’s Address to the Nation summarized the reaction of his administration between December 24, 1979 and January 4, 1980; he addressed the consequences of Soviet action toward Afghanistan, observing that it threatened stability and peace in the region. He outlined the economic and political restrictions that Washington placed on the Kremlin and called on other nations to stand up to Soviet aggression. He wanted to make Moscow pay for its brutality. “If the Soviets are encouraged in this invasion by eventual success…,” said Carter, “…the stable, strategic, and peaceful balance of the entire world will be changed.”60

Act Five: Dénouement

It was enticing, when I began my research, to create an image portraying Brzezinski as the right point, more anti-Soviet and conservative, Vance as the left point, less anti-Soviet and liberal, and visualize their reactions as noticeably different. That is not, however, what the evidence showed. When I began my research, I was confident that I could unfold the story and use it to support my hypothesis. However, the facts suggest it was far more complicated.

In the period prior to December 24, 1979, Vance was content with a policy of “wait and see” toward the turmoil in Afghanistan while Brzezinski was attempting to aid the Mujahedeen as early as July 1979. In this circumstance, Vance was less anti-Soviet and Brzezinski was more anti-Soviet. Thus, this supported my trident hypothesis.

However, in the immediate aftermath of the intervention, Carter noted that the State Department’s advocacy of adopting stronger measures than the NSC staff was a “reversal of their usual attitudes.” Brzezinski then referred to this list as a menu from which measures could be adopted, and thought that only a small number of actions would be appropriate to send a message to Moscow. In this situation, Vance appears to have been more anti-Soviet than Brzezinski. This was an instance where the trident image grew nuanced; it was tempting to be simplistic and say that Vance was the liberal and Brzezinski the hawk—but the facts suggested it was much more complicated.

As I read the documents, a new image came to mind. I envisioned a strand of DNA, which consists of two long nucleotides twisted into a double helix and joined by a hydrogen bond between the complimentary bases. I saw Brzezinski and Vance as the long nucleotide twists, shifting back and forth until they formed into a double helix, and Carter as the hydrogen bond that joined both Brzezinski’s and Vance’s reactions. Both Brzezinski and Vance reacted strongly at different times throughout the administration’s response to the crisis in Afghanistan; however, Carter drew from, and ultimately, combined, those reactions.

What options did Carter have? Could he have reacted in a different way? Certainly, as the State Department list indicated: Carter could have chosen an array of actions ranging from no response to deploying the U.S. military. Carter decided to make the intervention as costly as possible for Brezhnev and the Soviet Union while not jeopardizing global peace.End.


Archives, Digital Archives, Databases, and Collections of Documents
American Presidency Project (APP)
Cold War International History Project. Digital Archive. (CWIHP)
Declassified Documents Reference System. (DDRS)
Digital National Security Archive. (DNSA)
Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume VI (1977-1980), Soviet Union. (FRUS)
Jimmy Carter Presidential Library (Atlanta, Georgia)
New York Times Database. (NYT)

Brzezinski, Zbigniew. Power and Principle: Memoirs of National Security Adviser. Farrar Straus & Giroux. 1983.
Carter, Jimmy. Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press. 1995.
Carter, Jimmy. White House Diary. Farrar Straus & Giroux. 2010.
Garthoff, Raymond. Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan. Washington D.C. The Brookings Institution. 1994.
Roy, Olivier. Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1992.
Vance, Cyrus. Hard Choices: Critical Years in American Foreign Policy. Simon and Schuster. 1983.

Maps and Images
“Dixie Whistles a Different Tune: Governor Georgia Jimmy Carter.” Time Magazine. May 1971.
United States Central Intelligence Agency. Soviet Union, East and South Asia. Perry-Castaneda Library Map Collection. University of Texas at Austin. 1987.


1. Carter, White House Diary, January 3rd, 1980

2. Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation, 977-1006

3. The Troubles in Southwest Asia, December 26, 1979, NLC-24-102-1-10-0 (“NLC” signifies the “Remote Archives Capture Documents” at the Carter Library)

4. Roy, Olivier, Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan, 108

5. Ibid, 108

6. Chernenko to CPSU CC, March 18, 1979, CWIHP, Document 112465

7. CPSU CC Meeting, March 17, 1979, CWIHP, Document 113260

8. Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation, 1006

9. Ibid, 1008-1009

10. Figure One, “Dixie Whistles a Different Tune: Governor Georgia Jimmy Carter,” Time Magazine, May 1971

11. Burt, “U.S. Voices Concern Repeatedly to Moscow over Afghan Buildup,” New York Times, December 23, 1979

12. From the Situation Room to Brzezinski, December 19, 1979, NLC-1-13-5-26-3

13. From the Situation Room to Brzezinski, December 20, 1979, NLC 1-13-5-29-0

14. Burt, “Soviet Buildup Seen at Afghan Frontier,” New York Times, December 21, 1979

15. Burt, “U.S. Voices Concern Repeatedly to Moscow over Afghan Buildup,” New York Times, December 23, 1979

16. Figure Two, Soviet Union, East and South Asia, Perry-Castaneda Library Map Collection, University of Texas at Austin, 1987

17. Amstutz, From Kabul to DOS, December 26, 1979, Foreign Relations of the United States, Document 244

18. Ibid

19. [Author redacted; almost certain Amstutz], from Kabul to DIA, December 26, 1979, DNSA Afghanistan

20. Brzezinski, Power and Principle, 429

21. Ibid, 429

22. Vance, Hard Choices, 388-389

23. Carter, Keeping Faith, 480

24. Carter, White House Diary, December 27, 1979

25. Carter, Keeping Faith, 481

26. CPSU CC, From CPSU CC to Soviet Ambassadors, December 27, 1979, CWIHP, Document 113048

27. Gwertzman, “U.S. Reports Troop Move by Soviet…,” New York Times, December 27, 1979

28. Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation, 1036

29. Ibid, 1036

30. Brezhnev to Karmal, December 27, 1979, CWIHP, Document 111551

31. Vance, Hard Choices, 389

32. Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation, 1056

33. National Security Council Meeting, December 28, 1979, NLC-25-98-28-2-5

34. Ibid

35. Ibid

36. Ibid

37. Carter, Remarks to Reporters on American Hostages in Iran and Soviet Intervention of Afghanistan, American Presidency Project, December 28, 1979

38. Ibid

39. Carter, Keeping Faith, 481

40. Carter to Brezhnev, December 29th, 1979, FRUS, Document 248

41. Ibid

42. Ibid

43. Ibid

44. Gwertzman, Bernard, “Carter Tells Soviets to Pull its Troops Out of Afghanistan,” New York Times, December 29th, 1979

45. Carter to Brezhnev, December 29, 1979, FRUS, Document 248

46. Memorandum from Tarnoff to Brzezinski, December 31, 1979, NLC-33-5-10-1-8

47. Ibid

48. Ibid

49. Ibid

50. Carter, Keeping Faith, 476

51. Memorandum from Tarnoff to Brzezinski, December 31, 1979, NLC-33-5-10-1-8

52. Ibid

53. Ibid

54. Carter, Keeping Faith, 482-483

55. NSC, to Mondale, Vance, and Brown, January 2, 1980, DDRS

56. Carter, Keeping Faith, 482

57. Carter, Address to the Nation, January 4, 1980, DNSA Afghanistan

58. Carter, Address to the Nation, Video: Miller Center, University of Virginia, January 4, 1980

59. Carter, Address to the Nation, January 4, 1980, DNSA Afghanistan

60. Ibid



Brandon J. Libro

Born in Morristown, New Jersey and raised in the Poconos, Pennsylvania, Brandon J. Libro earned a bachelor’s degree in history—with honors—from North Carolina State University in 2015. He currently teaches per-diem at the high school level at the Pocono Mountain School District in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania. From 2013 until 2015, he was an officer candidate in the United States Marine Corps where he trained at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and in Quantico, Virginia. In the fall of 2015, Mr. Libro taught a historical studies course as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of California, Santa Barbara. A historian by trade, Mr. Libro focuses on United States foreign policy during the Cold War. He received funding from the Department of History at North Carolina State University to conduct research at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum in Atlanta, Georgia under the guidance of Professor of History, Dr. Nancy Mitchell. Upon completion of his research in the spring of 2015, Mr. Libro was accepted to present his findings to the Triangle Institute for Security Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. From 2016 until 2017, Mr. Libro studied at Saint Joseph’s University—based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—and is nearing completion of a master’s degree in education with certification to teach high school social studies. He anticipates enrolling in the graduate history program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston in 2018 where he plans to continue studying diplomatic history and teach at the junior college level.


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