Chapter 6 – Carter’s “Détente” Confusion, Soviet Violations, and Catalysts for Change - 1977 to 1981


When Democrat James “Jimmy” Carter narrowly defeated the Republican incumbent U.S. President, Gerald Ford, in the 1976 election and became president in January 1977, U.S. “détente” strategy was changing under severe stress from aggressive Soviet actions compounded by Congressional defense cuts. Carter’s confused handling of mounting Cold War tensions and international crises took this faltering strategy to new levels of U.S. accommodations and setbacks in international crises.

Carter’s Defense and Foreign Policy Failures. Together with Carter’s trifecta of severe domestic economic problems (inflation, unemployment, and debt), his defense and foreign policy weakness fatally undermined his presidential effectiveness. Special concerns arose early from Carter’s confused organizational and personnel policies, his contradictory March 1977 SALT II arms control proposals and his May 1977 address at Notre Dame University warning of Americans’ “inordinate fear of Communism.” Carter’s leadership failures included Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) policy in 1977, his “enhanced radiation” or “neutron” weapons policy in 1978, and his reaction to Iran’s seizure of the U.S. embassy and fifty-two U.S. hostages in 1979.

Ignoring Threat Assessments. Carter’s rejection of expert official and independent intelligence assessments warning of mounting Soviet threats became an increasingly notable problem. The assessments included U.S. National Intelligence Estimates, and Joint Staff and Department of Defense reports as well as reports of the bipartisan Committee on the Present Danger. These assessments provided compelling evidence of aggressive Soviet programs, including unprecedented treaty violations, military buildups, “Socialist Camp” crackdowns, propaganda and active imperial aggression directly and through Communist proxies in Afghanistan, Latin America and Africa. While Carter had some success in fostering an Israel-Egypt agreement, his January 1979 “malaise” speech, mishandling of the Iran hostage crisis, the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and his cuts in core U.S. defense and intelligence capabilities left him with a legacy of weak leadership and decreased U.S. ability to counter growing Soviet imperial momentum and other international threats.

1. Carter’s Leftward Turn, National Security Policy Divisions, Drift, and Statement on Communism—1976 to 1977

Carter was little known nationally when he announced his campaign to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in the 1976 election. He introduced himself as a folksy governor and former peanut farmer from the southern state of Georgia and the small town of Plains, who was ready to take on Washington, D.C. He presented himself as a political centrist in defeating his chief rival for the Democratic Party nomination, Senator Ted Kennedy, who stood well left-of-center, and in his campaign against President Ford, a moderate Republican conservative. Carter’s supporters looked to him to bring greater national unity and to boost America’s strength and confidence both at home and abroad. 

Campaign, Cold War, and Defense Reductions. On international issues, Carter criticized President Ford’s policies, emphasized human rights, and invoked his experience as a former U.S. Navy submarine officer with knowledge of national security issues. To those paying close attention, he also foreshadowed his presidency’s approaches that ignored troublesome Cold War realities like the Soviet Union’s militant Brezhnev Doctrine and the adverse military trends confirmed by U.S. intelligence, military, Congressional and private sector experts. For strategic nuclear forces, Carter campaigned against the U.S. B–1 bomber program (to replace the B–52 bombers that were older than the pilots that flew them) and against the modern land-based MX Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) to replace the Minuteman ICBM. He suggested elimination of the ground-based element of the U.S. strategic triad through a phase-out of all U.S. ICBMs and a shift to sea-based missiles. He spoke of limits on the new, high-tech longer-range cruise missiles U.S. military leaders thought important to help restore the military balance.

On Arms Control “Freezes” and Defense Cuts. Carter favored “freezes,” but these lacked high-confidence verification, were unlikely to be complied with by the Soviet Union, and would lock-in the Soviet advantages gained by the Kremlin’s unilateral 1970s arms buildup. Also controversial was his proposal to withdraw all U.S. ground troops from South Korea, where they constituted a core element of the United Nations forces deterring North Korea. He pledged $5 to $7 billion in U.S. defense budget reductions, even as defense threats and U.S. requirements were rising. Since over half of the U.S. military budget involved personnel costs for its volunteer forces and veterans, U.S. expenditures for other defense areas of procurement, maintenance, research, and development were greatly exceeded by accelerating Soviet military expenditures of which only a relatively small percentage involved personnel costs.

The 1976 Election. During the 1976 election race, Carter benefited from public concerns over former President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, the collapse of Vietnam, and anger over President Ford’s pardon of Nixon’s impeachment charges. During a national TV debate, Carter was aided by Ford’s mistake asserting that the people of Eastern Europe were “not under Soviet domination.” (Ford later said he meant their spirit had not been defeated). Carter suggested that Ford’s grasp of domestic and Cold War issues was weak and presented himself as a capable leader and credible future Commander in Chief. On November 8, 1976, Carter defeated Ford with a popular vote margin of approximately 50% to 48%, and an electoral vote margin of 297 to 240.

Carter’s Leftward Turn in the Cold War. As Carter shaped his national security team, he generally selected those from the Democratic Party’s left wing that had taken over leadership positions in the party, the Congress, and in “progressive” or “peace” policy institutes after the stormy U.S. presidential campaigns of 1968 and 1972. He neglected leading Democratic centrists like 1968 presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey (Johnson’s Vice President and former U.S. Senator) and Senators Daniel Moynihan and Henry Jackson, who stood for a mix of moderately “liberal” social programs at home and strong U.S. defense postures in support of a pro-freedom, anti-Communist agenda abroad. By 1976, however, such Democrats and other centrist Democratic governors and intellectuals had lost influence in a party that increasingly pushed anti-defense, weak arms control, and concession-oriented foreign policies even as Soviet détente violations and new imperial threats mounted.

[Book pg. 122]