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Context of 'February 1980: Soviet Intelligence Chief ‘Dejected’ by Likelihood of Nuclear War with US'

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A few days before his inauguration, President-elect Jimmy Carter says to the assembled Joint Chiefs of Staff that he can envision the US and the Soviet Union having much smaller nuclear arsenals—perhaps as low as 200 submarine-based nuclear missiles each, in essence a purely deterrent force. When the comment is leaked to conservative columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, the two write in their column that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General George Brown, was “[s]tunned speechless” by the remark. In his inaugural address, Carter continues the theme of nuclear disarmament between the two superpowers, saying he intends to try to “limit the world’s armaments to those necessary for each nation’s domestic safety.” As for the world’s nuclear arsenals, he says, “[W]e will move this year a step towards the ultimate goal—the elimination of all nuclear weapons from this Earth.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 105]

Entity Tags: James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr., George Brown, Rowland Evans, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Robert Novak

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

A test firing of an MX missile.A test firing of an MX missile. [Source: University of Wyoming]President Carter reluctantly gives public support to the MX nuclear missile program. The MX, first proposed in 1971, is a mobile missile platform that can, in theory, escape detection by Soviet spy satellites simply because it is mobile; by the time static satellite photos are developed and analyzed, and targeting data fed into Soviet nuclear missiles, the MX could have long since been moved. The MX has ten nuclear warheads, each capable of striking separate targets. To keep it out of Soviet sights, it can be moved around on railway cars, in vans driven on superhighways, even submerged in lakes. The MX program quickly earned heated opposition from ranchers and landowners in Western states, where the missiles would be deployed. And the Soviets do not like the program because the MX, being mobile, could be used to “spoof” the counts each side make of the other’s weapons, as mandated by treaties. Carter struggles with the program throughout his term, and finally orders 200 of the missiles and 4,600 “soft shelters” constructed in Utah and Nevada. Carter’s Republican challenger in the 1980 presidential race, Governor Ronald Reagan (R-CA), effectively lambasts Carter for his support of the program throughout the race, then after taking office in 1981, reverses course and enthusiastically supports and even expands the program (see 1981), in the process dubbing the MX the “Peacekeeper.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 50-51]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr.

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

US President Jimmy Carter and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev sign the SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) agreement in Vienna, after years of fitful negotiations. The basic outline of the accords is not much different from the agreement reached between Brezhnev and President Ford five years earlier (see November 23, 1974).
Conservative Opposition - The Senate must ratify the treaty before it becomes binding; Republicans and conservative Democrats alike oppose the treaty. Neoconservative Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson (D-WA—see Early 1970s) compares Carter to former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (who allowed the Nazis to occupy part of Czechoslovakia in 1938) in accusing Carter of “appeasement in its purest form” towards the Soviet Union. Members of the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD—see 1976) appear before the Senate 17 times to argue against ratification. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld testifies against it, calling instead for a $44 billion increase in defense spending and once again evoking the specter of Nazi Germany: “Our nation’s situation is much more dangerous today than it has been at any time since Neville Chamberlain left Munich, setting the stage for World War II.” The American Security Council launches “Peace Through Strength Week” (see November 12, 1979). And Governor Ronald Reagan (R-CA), embarking on his presidential campaign, warns the nation that the Soviets could just “take us with a phone call,” forcing us to obey an ultimatum: “Look at the difference in our relative strengths. Now, here’s what we want.… Surrender or die.”
Familiar Arguments - In 2008, author J. Peter Scoblic will write that the arguments advanced against the SALT II treaty are the same as advanced so many times before (see August 15, 1974), including during the infamous “Team B” exercise (see November 1976). The Soviet Union believes it can win a nuclear war, opponents insist, and a treaty such as the one signed by Carter and Brezhnev merely plays into the Soviets’ hands. Once the US loses its significant advantage in nuclear payloads, the likelihood increases that the USSR incinerates American missile silos and dares the US to respond—the US might get off a volley of its remaining missiles, but the Soviets will then launch a second strike that will destroy America’s cities. And that US strike will have limited impact because of what critics call the Soviets’ extensive, sophisticated civil defense program. The US will have no other choice than to, in Scoblic’s words, “meekly submit to Soviet will.” SALT II plays into what the CPD calls the Soviet goal of not waging a nuclear war, but winning “political predominance without having to fight.” Scoblic will note, “An argument that had started on the fringes of the far Right was now being made with total seriousness by a strong cross-section of foreign policy experts, backed by significant public support.” Scoblic then calls the arguments “fatuous… grounded in zero-sum thinking.” The facts do not support the arguments. It is inconceivable, he will observe, that the US would absorb a devastating first strike without immediately launching its own overwhelming counterstrike. And for the critics to accept the tales of “extensive” Soviet civil defense programs, Scoblic argues, is for them to be “remarkably credulous of Soviet propaganda.” No matter what the Soviets did first, the US could kill upwards of 75 million Soviet citizens with its single strike, a circumstance the USSR was unlikely to risk. And, Scoblic will note, subsequent studies later prove the conservatives’ arguments completely groundless (see 1994).
Senate Fails to Ratify - By late 1979, the arguments advanced by Congressional conservatives, combined with other events (such as the “discovery” of a clutch of Soviet troops in Cuba) derails the chance of SALT II being ratified in the Senate. When the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan (see December 8, 1979), Carter withdraws the treaty from further consideration. Scoblic will note that by this point in his presidency, Carter has abandoned any pretense of attempting to reduce nuclear armaments (see Mid-January, 1977); in fact, “[h]is nuclear policies increasingly resembled those of Team B, the Committee on the Present Danger, and groups like the Emergency Coalition Against Unilateral Disarmament” (see Early 1977 and Late 1979-1980). Carter notes that such a treaty as the SALT II accord is the single most important goal of US foreign policy: “Especially now, in a time of great tension, observing the mutual constraints imposed by the terms of these treaties, [SALT I and II] will be in the best interest of both countries and will help to preserve world peace.… That effort to control nuclear weapons will not be abandoned.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 105-109, 117]

Entity Tags: Ronald Reagan, Committee on the Present Danger, American Security Council, ’Team B’, Donald Rumsfeld, Emergency Coalition Against Unilateral Disarmament, Henry (“Scoop”) Jackson, J. Peter Scoblic, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr., Leonid Brezhnev

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Worn down by incessant opposition from conservatives, neoconservatives, and hawks in both Republican and Democratic parties, President Carter has by now abandoned his goal of drastically reducing the amount of nuclear weapons in the US and Soviet arsenals (see Mid-January, 1977). Not only has he withdrawn the already-signed SALT II treaty from consideration for Senate ratification (see June 18, 1979-Winter 1979), he has deployed nuclear missiles in Europe, approved development of the MX missile (see June 1979), and taken other steps to increase the US military buildup, including sharply increasing defense spending from his first year in office. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 109]

Entity Tags: James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr.

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

Markus Wolf, the chief of East Germany’s Hauptverwaltung Aufklarung (HVA) intelligence agency, has a sober conversation with Yuri Andropov, the head of the Soviet Union’s KGB intelligence agency. In his autobiography, Wolf will later recall: “We began discussing the East-West conflict. I had never before seen Andropov so somber and dejected. He described a gloomy scenario in which a nuclear war might be a real threat. His sober analysis came to the conclusion that the US government was striving with all means available to establish nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union. He cited statements of President Carter, his adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, and of Pentagon spokesmen, all of which included the assertion that under certain circumstances a nuclear first-strike against the Soviet Union and its allies would be justified.… Carter’s presidency had created great concern in the Kremlin, because he had presented a defense budget of more than $157 billion, which he invested in the MX and Trident missiles (see June 1979) and nuclear submarines (see Late 1979-1980). One of the top Soviet nuclear strategists confided to me that the resources of our alliance were not sufficient to match this.” [Fischer, 3/19/2007]

Entity Tags: Hauptverwaltung Aufklarung, Yuri Andropov, Markus Wolf, KGB

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

A Peacekeeper test firing at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.A Peacekeeper test firing at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. [Source: US Army]President Ronald Reagan, reversing his campaign opposition to the MX mobile nuclear weapons platform (see June 1979), now enthusiastically supports the program, which he dubs, without apparent irony, the “Peacekeeper.” He first proposes housing them in superhardened Minuteman missile silos, which is roundly derided as ridiculous given that the entire raison d’etre of the MX is its mobile capacity. Reagan then appoints a commission, chaired by former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and having former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as one of its members, to study ways of making the program work. The commission finally recommends that 100 MX missiles be deployed in Minuteman silos in Wyoming, as well as smaller, single-warhead MX missiles, dubbed “Midgetmen,” to complement the main missile program. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill (D-MA) opposes the program. Iconoclastic Republican John Perry Barlow, a Wyoming rancher and sometime-lyricist for the Grateful Dead, lobbies Washington lawmakers against the MX. He sees it as a huge step away from “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) and towards a first-strike policy, which would, in Barlow’s eyes, be potentially catastrophic. He finds Rep. Dick Cheney (R-WY), who strongly supports the program, a worthy adversary. “I must have lobbied more than one hundred members of Congress on this, and Dick was the only one who knew more about it than I did,” Barlow will later recall. Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory accompanies Barlow to one meeting with Cheney. After listening to the intense debate, McGrory tells Barlow, “I think your guy Cheney is the most dangerous person I’ve ever seen up here.” Barlow will recall: “I felt we were really arguing about the fate of the world.… Cheney believes the world is an inherently dangerous place, and he sees the rest of the world as… populated by four-year old kids with automatic weapons.” Congress will eventually give Reagan only fifty of the MXs, but in part to placate him, Cheney, and their allies, authorizes the start of what will become a multi-billion dollar weapons platform, the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), later dubbed “Star Wars.” [Dubose and Bernstein, 2006, pp. 51-53]

Entity Tags: Mary McGrory, Brent Scowcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, John Perry Barlow, Thomas Phillip ‘Tip’ O’Neill, Jr, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

President Reagan embarks on what will become the largest peacetime military buildup in US history. “I look forward with great enthusiasm and eagerness as we begin to rearm America,” says Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, one of the hard-liners in Reagan’s Cabinet (see January 1981 and After). (President Carter had never disarmed America; he had backed the MX missile (see June 1979) and steadily increased spending on conventional arms, raising the Pentagon’s budget significantly during his last year in office.) Reagan wants to more than double the US defense budget, from $171 billion to $368 billion, by 1986. He wants more weapons, more weapons programs, and more nuclear arms. He reauthorizes the B-1 bomber program canceled by Carter (see June 1977) and the so-called “neutron bomb,” a nuclear weapon designed to release more radioactivity—thereby killing more people—with a lessened explosive power—thereby damaging less property. He authorizes the deployment of 3,000 cruise missiles aboard aircraft, and accelerates the development of the Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), nuclear-capable ocean-based cruise missiles, and the B-2 “stealth” bomber. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 117]

Entity Tags: Caspar Weinberger, Ronald Reagan, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr.

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

American conservatives, recently contemptuous of former President Ronald Reagan (see 1988), use the fall of the Berlin Wall (see November 9, 1989 and After) to resurrect the image of Reagan as the victorious Cold Warrior who triumphed over world communism.
Historical Revisionism - In doing so, they drastically revise history. In the revised version of events, Reagan was a staunch, never-wavering, ideologically hardline conservative who saw the Cold War as an ultimate battle between good (Western democracy) and evil (Soviet communism). As author J. Peter Scoblic will describe the revision, it was Reagan’s implacable resolve and conservative principles—and the policies that emanated from those principles—that “forced the Soviet Union to implode.” Conservatives point to the so-called “Reagan Doctrine” of backing anti-Soviet insurgencies (see May 5, 1985) and to National Security Decision Directive 75, accepting nuclear war as a viable policy option (see January 17, 1983), as evidence of their assertions. But to achieve this revision, they must leave out, among other elements, Reagan’s long-stated goal of nuclear disarmament (see April 1981 and After, March-April 1982, November 20, 1983, and Late November 1983), and his five-year history of working with the Soviet Union to reduce nuclear arms between the two nations (see December 1983 and After, November 16-19, 1985, January 1986, October 11-12, 1986, and December 7-8, 1987).
USSR Caused Its Own Demise - And, Scoblic will note, such revisionism does not account for the fact that it was the USSR which collapsed of its own weight, and not the US which overwhelmed the Soviets with an onslaught of democracy. The Soviet economy had been in dire straits since the late 1960s, and there had been huge shortages of food staples such as grain by the 1980s. Soviet military spending remained, in Scoblic’s words, “enormous, devouring 15 percent to 20 percent of [the USSR’s gross national product] throughout the Cold War (meaning that it imposed three times the economic burden of the US defense budget, on an economy that was one-sixth the size).” Reagan did dramatically increase US military spending during his eight years in office (see Early 1981 and After), and ushered new and potentially devastating military programs into existence (see 1981 and March 23, 1983). Conservatives will assert that Reagan’s military spending drove the USSR into implicit surrender, sending them back to the arms negotiation table with a newfound willingness to negotiate the drawdown of the two nations’ nuclear arsenals (see Early 1985). Scoblic will characterize the conservatives’ arguments: “Whereas [former President] Carter was left playing defense, the Gipper [Reagan] took the ball the final 10 yards against the Reds, spending them into the ground and leading the United States into the end zone.” Scoblic calls this a “superficially… plausible argument,” but notes that Carter, not Reagan, began the tremendous military spending increase (see Late 1979-1980), and more importantly, the USSR made no effort to match Reagan’s defense spending. “Its defense budget remained essentially static during the 1980s,” he will write. “In short, the Soviet Union suffered no economic distress as a result of the Reagan buildup.” Scoblic will also note that conservatives had long insisted that the USSR could actually outspend the US militarily (see November 1976), and never predicted that increasing US military spending could drive the Soviet Union into bankruptcy. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 145-149]

Entity Tags: J. Peter Scoblic, Ronald Reagan

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

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