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Context of 'May 1977: Carter Promises to Break with Previous Focus on Military Buildup'

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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

President Carter attempts, and fails, to forge an agreement with the Soviet Union to drastically reduce the number of nuclear weapons the two countries possess (see Mid-January, 1977). Carter’s predecessor, Gerald Ford, left him with the framework of a potentially expansive SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) agreement signed in Vladivostok (see November 23, 1974), but that agreement still allowed for an astonishing number of nuclear weapons—2,400 apiece. (The US does not even have 2,400 delivery vehicles.) Carter proposes that both sides significantly reduce their nuclear stockpiles. But Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev, lacking the political capital among his more hawkish colleagues and rivals in the Kremlin, not only refuses, but decries the suggestion as nothing but American propaganda. The two nations will eventually sign the SALT II accords two years later (see June 18, 1979-Winter 1979), after a fitful negotiation process, but the agreement will differ little from the Vladivostok agreement of 1974. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 105]

Entity Tags: Leonid Brezhnev, Ford administration, James Earl “Jimmy” Carter, Jr.

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

President Jimmy Carter again indicates that he intends to break with the hard line, confrontational policies of the past, particularly regarding the Soviet Union (see Mid-January, 1977). Speaking to the graduating class at Notre Dame University, Carter decries the “intellectual and moral poverty” of the Vietnam War and the militaristic mindset that drove that war, saying that for years the US has “fought fire with fire, never thinking that fire is best quenched with water.” Now that the US is “free of that inordinate fear of Communism,” the country can pursue a much different course, featuring multi-lateral, interdependent relations with a variety of countries, and abandon the isolationism and endless military buildups of the past (see June 1977). Carter will achieve very little of these goals, and by the time his single term ends, he will have begun rebuilding the US’s military and nuclear arsenal again. [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 104-105]

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

Timeline Tags: US International Relations

President Jimmy Carter cancels the B-1 bomber program, calling it unnecessary and staggeringly expensive. He says that newly developed cruise missiles, in tandem with the aging B-52 bomber fleet, can adequately deliver nuclear weapons if ever the need arises. Critics call Carter a “unilateral disarmer,” willing to give up key weapons programs without asking for a quid pro quo from the Soviet Union. Vladimir Semenov, the head of the USSR’s SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitation Talks) negotiating team, complains that Carter should have announced the cancellation during US-Soviet negotiations “[s]o that we could both have gotten credit.” [Scoblic, 2008, pp. 105]

Entity Tags: Vladimir Semenov, 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

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

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