American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

December 1996

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Jimmy Carter and SALT II:

by Matthew M. Oyos

JIMMY CARTER HOPED that his presidency would a bring fresh start to America. He vowed to lend a new openness and honesty to government to help heal the deep and festering wounds that the Watergate affair had inflicted.


  1. Introduction
  2. The Structure of Strategic Deterence
  3. Jimmy Carter's Strategic Arms Objectives
  4. Strategic Arms Control Negotiations
  5. Domestic Political Considerations in the United States
  6. Conclusion

Carter also pursued an ambitious set of domestic reforms that would complete a legacy launched by Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, expanded by Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, and even enlarged by the disgraced Richard Nixon. To complete his plans for renewal, Carter planned to recapture a moral high ground lost in American foreign policy during the Vietnam War, specifically, and over the course of the Cold War as a whole. His human rights standards raised the moral tone of American foreign policy, and he sought to bring greater candidness to the conduct of American diplomacy as well.

To build lasting bridges of international trust, Carter wished especially to put U.S.-Soviet relations on a new plane of peaceful understanding. Thus, the reduction of strategic nuclear arsenals became a centerpiece of his foreign policy. On this front, however, as in so many others, Jimmy Carter would face frustration. His efforts to end the nuclear arms race would founder on naive expectations and a structure of strategic deterrence that did not bend easily to change.

Over the span of the Cold War, an elaborate structure of strategic nuclear deterrence arose between the United States and the Soviet Union. By the 1970s, deterrence involved a complex intertwining of sophisticated weapons technologies, operational doctrines, and political strategies designed to preserve the security of the superpowers and their allies. The United States and Soviet Union established new military and civilian bureaucracies to develop and support their nuclear forces, and weapons analysts in each country provided a political and military rationale for the maintenance of nuclear stockpiles.

Because nuclear arms absorbed significant intellectual and economic resources, involved numerous organizations, and played a crucial role in international affairs, the strategic relationship between the superpowers tended to resist sudden alteration. This feature of deterrence contained certain benefits, especially in a crisis when stability was most desired. The nature of deterrence also carried important implications for efforts to limit or reduce strategic arms. Because the structure of strategic nuclear deterrence normally remained closed to rapid change, arms control between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 1970s often entailed a long and difficult process of negotiation and deliberation.

UPON TAKING OFFICE in January 1977, Jimmy Carter established a second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) as one of his major foreign policy objectives and wanted to begin negotiations on substantial reductions of nuclear weaponry. Carter believed rapid progress was possible on a SALT II treaty, the achievement of which would set the stage for deep cuts in strategic arsenals. Rather than quick movement on arms limitation, the President confronted the realities of the strategic relationship between the superpowers.

Political, technological, diplomatic, and military obstacles all hindered Carter's ambitious plans and prevented him from making significant changes in the structure of strategic nuclear deterrence. By 1979, he obtained a SALT II accord only after much difficulty and then found himself unable to secure Senate ratification of the treaty. Carter discovered that gradual rather than swift progress held the greatest prospect for success in strategic arms control.

The experience of the Carter administration illustrated the problems involved with negotiating arms control agreements with the Soviet Union.

To obtain a SALT II pact, both nations needed to overcome differences in the composition of their strategic arsenals and find a common basis for security despite the varying political and military threats that each faced.

The Soviet Union and United States also had to surmount dissimilar approaches to negotiations and avoid complications from events unrelated to the arms talks.

As a consequence, the negotiation of arms control agreements usually required years of talks before both sides found mutually acceptable positions on all issues. Because the safety of the superpowers, their allies, and the world was ultimately at stake, the cautious resolution of all arms control questions was not undesirable.

THE CARTER ADMINISTRATION ENCOUNTERED TROUBLE with SALT II not only at the negotiating table but at home as well. Jimmy Carter's mounting problems with the ratification of SALT II during 1979 demonstrated the political hurdles that strategic arms control efforts confronted in the United States.

Internal political debates over arms control occurred in both countries, but the scope of discussion remained far broader in America. Owing to the closed nature of Soviet political life, debates over arms control were limited to the uppermost tiers of the political and military apparatus. In contrast, the openness of American society encouraged an intense public discussion of arms control, and many voices both inside and outside of government were heard regarding the merits of SALT II. Besides United States senators, members of the arms control bureaucracy, academicians, former government officials, and political interest groups made influential contributions to the domestic discussion. This often contentious collection of public and private opinion led to a slowing of the arms control process, especially because questions remained about SALT II's effect on American security.


  1. Introduction
  2. The Structure of Strategic Deterence
  3. Jimmy Carter's Strategic Arms Objectives
  4. Strategic Arms Control Negotiations
  5. Domestic Political Considerations in the United States
  6. Conclusion
  7. Endnotes


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