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

Administration National Security Personnel and Divisions. Within the Carter Administration, more centrist views on Cold War strategy were ascribed to very few senior officials. One was Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzesinski (a long-time critic of Soviet ideology and empire), yet he had promoted the controversial Trilateral Commission that sought what some critics considered a weak consensus among U.S., Western European, and Japanese elites in dealing with Soviet power. Other “centrist” professionals included Carter’s Secretary of Defense Harold Brown and some members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. However, their views were countered by Carter and ranking officials within the White House, including Vice President Walter Mondale, Brzezinski’s National Security Council deputy David Aaron and other NSC staff, Secretaries of State Cyrus Vance and Edmund Muskie, Paul Warnke and others at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA), and Ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young. As Carter launched a series of initiatives reflecting the latter group’s views, a summer 1977 article on “Springtime for Carter” in the journal Foreign Policy included the early characterization that: “In its initial months, the administration has launched so many foreign policy initiatives on so many fronts . . . [that] Given the imprecision of many of these initiatives, the accompanying flow of occasionally overblown rhetoric, and the emerging contradictions in certain areas, a sense of perplexity, if not confusion has inevitably arisen in Washington regarding the overall thrust of the Carter policies.”

Carter, Arms Control, and the Warnke Nomination. An early indication of Carter’s weak Soviet policy arose in Carter’s First Press Conference on February 8, 1977, with views that confirmed controversial campaign statements. In arms control, he called for a Comprehensive Test Ban (thought by critics to block the reliability and safety requirements of the U.S. nuclear deterrent and not effectively verifiable). He proposed a potential trade of the core strategic U.S. MX ICBM modernization program for the intermediate-range Soviet SS–20 INF missiles. And he soon raised further concerns with his nomination of the “dovish” Paul Warnke as Director of ACDA, a position which would include leading the U.S. team in the ongoing Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) with the Soviet Union.

Warnke’s “Apes on a Treadmill” Statement. Warnke received strong criticism from both Republican and Democratic critics when media reported that he had dismissed the number of weapons held by a superpower as “totally irrelevant” and had compared the Soviet Union and the U.S. to “apes on a treadmill” in an “arms race” as if they were equally culpable. Yet public data backed by official U.S. intelligence reports and supported by U.S. and international experts and institutes had demonstrated that mounting U.S.-Soviet weapons asymmetries were in fact highly “relevant” for nuclear and other forms of deterrence. The evidence was compelling that the Soviet Union was racing, while the U.S. was unilaterally cutting and constraining its defense capabilities, even as international threats were increasing.

Other Warnke Statements and Controversies. Warnke was also quoted as dismissing U.S. cruise missile development (a key U.S. program the Soviets were seeking to curtail in the SALT negotiations) as “a nuclear arrowhead shot from a crossbow.” Meanwhile, Democrats like Paul Nitze (a drafter of Truman’s NSC–68 (see Chapter 4), former Deputy Secretary of Defense, and a prominent critic of U.S. détente policy), were reported by media as describing Warnke as “not a qualified student or competent judge of any [arms control] matters,” while Democratic Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd was reported as stating he might vote against Warnke as chief U.S. arms negotiator. Warnke and Carter’s arms control credibility was wounded early, and ACDA’s role and record continued to suffer setbacks throughout Carter’s presidency.

Carter’s Notre Dame Speech: Inordinate Fear of Communism and Faith in Détente—May 1977. Carter’s weak policy foundations became unambiguously clear to the American people (and Soviet leaders) within four months of his inauguration, when he outlined his vision for America and the world in a controversial commencement Address at Notre Dame University on May 22, 1977. The speech revealed an accommodationist perspective on America’s main Cold War protagonist and on his own future policies. He called for an America “free of that inordinate fear of communism,” a fear he saw as “moral poverty.” He proposed a “freeze on modernization of weapons” and a new “foreign policy that the American people both support and, for a change, know about and understand.” Thus:

[Inordinate Fear of Communism] Being confident of our own future, we are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear. I am glad that this is being changed. . . . We have been willing to adopt the flawed and erroneous principles and tactics of our adversaries, sometimes abandoning our own values for theirs. We have fought fire with fire, never thinking that fire is better quenched with water. This approach failed, with Vietnam the best example of its intellectual and moral poverty.

[Book pg. 123]