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

Further ER Developments and Leadership Implications—1978. In October 1978, press reports indicated that (under pressure from U.S. and NATO military leaders, defense professionals, and leading Democrats like Senator Nunn), the Carter White House had quietly indicated that “the President had ordered key elements of the neutron weapon be manufactured and stockpiled in the United States, to cut down possible delays when and if he decides to produce the actual weapons and ship them to Western Europe.” Details were kept classified, but long-lead items were reportedly involved, with decisions on short-term ER system parts to be made in eighteen months. In Europe however, Carter Administration ER leaks, dissension, and public demands had predictably sensationalized a sensitive nuclear issue, intensified anti-nuclear fears, and energized mass movements, including Soviet fronts that politically hurt Allied leaders. Among U.S., Allied, and Soviet observers alike, perceptions of Carter’s confusion and weakness grew.

4. Carter’s SALT II Arms Control Failure, his MAD Nuclear Deterrence Policy, and Soviet Strategic “First-Strike” Momentum—1977 to 1981

Carter’s arms control policy at the center of his Cold War détente strategy was congruent with his reluctance to take key Cold War realities seriously. Such realities included the facts and implications of the Soviet military buildup; the illusions and risks of unilateral U.S. constraints in the face of aggressive Soviet strategic doctrines, actions, and program asymmetries; and increasingly urgent U.S. requirements to develop capabilities to counter the growing Soviet threats. In strategic weapons arms control, as in other Cold War areas of superpower interaction, Carter came to be seen as avoiding difficult facts and choices, increasing strategic dangers, and rejecting opportunities to favorably change the terms and course of the Cold War. Reagan, in contrast, would later achieve real reductions in the weapons and risks of nuclear war, while modernizing U.S. forces, and pressing for the peaceful change and collapse of the Soviet empire.

Carter’s Missed SALT II Opportunity—March 1977. A major early example of Carter’s arms control confusion was his approach to the U.S.-Soviet Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) that were a central point of focus in U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War. They provided a Cold War policy test for the American public, Congress, media, Allies, and Soviet leaders. Yet from the beginning of Carter’s administration, his handling of SALT failed tests of serious arms control and encouraged Soviet diplomatic opportunism. In March 1977, just weeks after his inauguration, Carter met with Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, the Democratic Party’s leading critic of U.S. existing “détente” and SALT policy. Jackson proposed to Carter a new strategic arms control initiative drawing on the Jackson Amendment to SALT—1972, passed as a condition for ratification of President Nixon’s controversial Strategic Arms Limitation Agreement (SALT I) and the ABM Traety of 1972. The popular Jackson Amendment (reviewed in Chapter 5) mandated two key requirements to reduce arms control risks. The first was that future U.S. arms treaties must incorporate reductions to equal levels, i.e., including numbers and capabilities. Second, ratification of future treaties must be accompanied by a national commitment to assure the U.S. strategic force modernization required to achieve and/or maintain such agreed levels and a “prudent strategic posture.”

Senator Jackson’s New Proposal to Carter was offered in the spirit of the 1972 Jackson Amendment and was staffed by Jackson’s assistant Richard Perle, an influential future Assistant Secretary of Defense in the Reagan Administration. The Jackson proposal was radical in its call for deep, effectively verifiable, asymmetric reductions to equal levels of strategic arms. Strategic Nuclear Delivery Systems (SNDVs), i.e., missiles and bombers, were to be reduced to 1,800 to 2,000 with a 1,100 to 1,200 sub-limit on Multiple Intercontinental Reentry Vehicles (MIRVs), i.e., multiple-warhead SNDVs. Multiple-warhead land-based Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) were to be reduced to 550, with a sublimit of no more than 150 “heavy” missiles, like the new Soviet SS–18 (a category in which the U.S. had none). Mobile ICBMS, such as those coming into the Soviet inventory, were to be banned (the U.S. had none). ICBM and Sea-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) flight tests were to be limited to six per year. The Soviet “Backfire” bomber range would be restricted by basing limits.

Carter’s SALT II Vacillation. Carter vacillated in his response to Jackson’s proposal and gave contradictory orders about it to his Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. Vance, Warnke, Gelb, and other Carter officials accustomed to a so-called “non-adversarial” 1970s-style of U.S. SALT arms control, thought the proposal would provoke the Soviets. They preferred to return to the controversial Vladivostok framework of November 1974 that had essentially been dropped by the Ford Administration. Although Carter instructed Vance to present

[Book pg. 130]