Part I -- ROOTS AND STRATEGIES OF THE COLD WAR BEFORE REAGAN

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

the anti-missile defense issue, Carter continued to constrain U.S. programs increasingly warranted by the unilateral Soviet strategic offensive force buildup, by possible to probable Soviet violations of the SALT and ABM Treaties, and by questions about locking the American people into the morally and strategically questionable U.S. nuclear doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD).

3. Carter’s “Neutron” Weapon Controversy—1977 to 1978

A notable example of a serious Carter defense and diplomatic failure was the controversy he generated in 1978 on the issue of the “Enhanced Radiation” (ER) weapon (called “neutron bomb” by its opponents). Carter’s statements on this sensitive military issue neglected important moral and military principles, ignored Soviet ER programs and asymmetric NATO/Warsaw Pact doctrine and capabilities, pushed Allied leaders into a political and diplomatic corner, and seriously damaged the credibility of U.S. arms control, defense, and diplomatic strategy.

Pre- and Early Carter. Before Carter became president in January 1977, U.S. military leaders and the Ford Administration had supported confidential NATO consultations on the potential U.S. development of this ER weapon as a U.S. alternative to the destructive “tactical” nuclear weapons then deployed in central Europe. Little, if anything, was publicly known about the ER weapon until June 1977 when media reports mentioned the program and indicated divided Pentagon and Congressional views. The reports referenced classified Congressional testimony from March 1977 by General Alfred Starbird, Assistant Head of the U.S. Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA) as having endorsed the program. Media also reported that President Ford had signed a production order for an ER warhead for U.S. Lance artillery systems and that the FY 1978 Defense budget had requested such funds.

The Nature of a “Neutron” Weapon. The ER or “neutron” weapon was to deliver a short-range, short-duration, “neutron” burst of energy that could knock out electronics and thereby immobilize the critical firing and communications mechanisms of attacking forces. Within a very small local area of 200 to 300 yards, the ER burst would destroy the attacker’s electronic communication and kill people, but would not leave any nuclear radiation, and the area could be reentered within a matter of hours. Such a weapon would be developed for the currently deployed nuclear-armed U.S. Lance artillery system (with a 75-mile range) and would be considered for U.S. 8-inch howitzers and possible air delivery. The U.S. knew that the Soviet Union was working on such a weapon, but Soviet propaganda, including public letters from Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev to NATO leaders in January 1978, denounced Carter, the U.S., and NATO allies like Germany’s Chancellor Helmut Schmidt for considering development of a “neutron bomb,” or what the propaganda called a “capitalist bomb,” designed to “save property and kill people.”

Ignoring Soviet Buildups and Possible U.S. Leverage. U.S. General Alexander Haig, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, was cited by media in March 1978 as protesting that NATO’s public attention should be paid less to the potential ER weapon than to the actual highly destabilizing new Soviet deployments of its SS–20s Intermediate-Range Nuclear ballistic missile (see Chapter 11) that, according to Haig, was “even in the most moderate estimate is 2,000 times more devastating in its explosive consequences.” Other NATO leaders pointed to Soviet deployments of the Backfire bomber and strengthened Soviet conventional and chemical forces. Early in April, 1978, however, media reported a March proposal—supported by Carter’s National Security Advisor, Secretaries of State and Defense (Brzezinski, Vance, and Brown), and NATO officials—to announce a decision to begin ER production later in the year, with deployment to be delayed for two years pending Soviet SS–20 developments.

Carter’s ER Statement. Notwithstanding such sensitive considerations, Andrew Young, Carter’s Ambassador to the United Nations, was reported by media on April 4, 1978 as publicly coming out against any U.S. neutron weapons and as telling the White House privately that the weapon’s deployment would require the prior public support of NATO leaders. Along these lines, a Carter Statement on Enhanced Radiation Weapons, on April 7, 1978, included the following controversial remarks deferring a decision and requiring, now public, NATO discussion:

I have decided to defer production of weapons with enhanced radiation effects. The ultimate decision regarding the incorporation of enhanced radiation features into our modernized battlefield weapons will be made later, and will be influenced by the degree to which the Soviet Union shows restraint in its conventional and nuclear arms programs. . . . I have ordered the Defense Department to proceed with the modernization of the Lance

[Book pg. 128]

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