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Jimmy Carter and SALT II:
by Matthew M. Oyos

Part 3. Jimmy Carter's Strategic Arms Objectives

JIMMY CARTER SET STRATEGIC ARMS control as a high priority for his administration. He saw an unrestricted arms competition as destabilizing and sought to complete the unfinished SALT II accord left behind by his predecessors, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Carter made arms control a centerpiece of his foreign and military policies because he wanted to curtail military spending so that the federal government could undertake a broad range of domestic initiatives.4

During his 1976 campaign, Carter had claimed that he could trim the existing military budget by five to seven billion dollars and still maintain "a tough, muscular, well-organized and effective fighting force."5 He promised to fulfill this pledge by cutting "exotic" weapons systems like the B-1 bomber, streamlining the military bureaucracy, and reducing the American presence overseas.6 The President would use the resources saved from the military budget to combat unemployment, invigorate the economy, lower dependence on foreign oil, and hold down inflation.7

Besides vowing to cut a bloated military budget, Carter pledged to carry out United States foreign policy according to high moral standards. He charged that the conduct of foreign affairs had drifted into disrepute during the Nixon and Ford administrations and blasted, in particular, the worldwide merchandising of American arms, repeated disregard of allied opinion, and the exclusion of Congress and the public from the policymaking process. To restore traditional ethics to foreign policy, Carter planned to curtail weapons sales, stress human rights, and vigorously pursue strategic arms limitations and reductions.8

In the quest for a SALT II pact, the President followed the channels that the Nixon and Ford administrations had established but planned to expand greatly upon their work. The SALT I Interim Agreement had allowed the United States to retain launchers for 1,054 ICBMs and 656 SLBMs while permitting the Soviets 1,608 ICBM launchers and 740 SLBM launchers, but the accord was due to expire in October 1977.9 A SALT II treaty did not quickly follow this agreement, but the Ford administration had narrowed the remaining issues by January 1977. The Vladivostok accords of 1974 laid the basic groundwork for SALT II by placing a cap of 2,400 on all launchers and a 1,320 sub-limit for launchers carrying multiple warheads (MIRVs).10 Jimmy Carter reviewed these efforts and argued that previous administrations had not gone far enough. He would continue to work within the framework of the SALT talks but wanted deep cuts in the size of strategic arsenals and restraints on qualitative improvements.

Specifically, Carter desired fundamental changes in the strategic nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers. At the outset of his term, he hoped that the Soviets would agree to far-reaching alterations in a SALT II pact. He sent Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to Moscow in March 1977 with new proposals on SALT II. Vance submitted two offers, both of which promised major cuts in strategic weapons stockpiles.

  • The first proposition resembled the Vladivostok accords but sought a ten-percent reduction in arms.

  • Carter's second proposal was much more dramatic and would leave each nation with a minimal deterrent. This second plan would reduce the threat of a preemptive attack by sweeping cuts in nuclear arsenals and permit both countries just enough strategic weapons to deter war. Without an adequate capability to knock out each others' strategic forces, the Soviet Union and United States would possess means only to devastate the other's society, an option neither country was likely to undertake.

To insure that one side did not develop a qualitative edge over the other, Carter proposed a comprehensive test ban to accompany the arms treaty. The test ban would prohibit all nuclear explosions for a period of five years and would complement SALT II restrictions on missile tests and new missile deployments. Carter hoped that his efforts would begin the process of eliminating nuclear weapons from the earth.11

The March 1977 proposals suggested that the President perceived negotiations as a mere formality standing in the way of a mutually desired goal. Arms talks built up their own momentum and logic, which he proposed to circumvent. Carter believed that the Soviets would readily accept a substantial cut of strategic arms if only the United States would make a serious offer. He presumed that the reduction and eventual elimination of nuclear arms represented a worthy objective that responsible leaders could not refuse to embrace. The President's attitude indicated that he remained preoccupied with the idealism of his 1976 campaign and not fully prepared to deal with the realities of international power or the complexities of negotiations. He did not give due consideration to the fact that negotiators had to settle a complicated set of political, military, and technological issues before they could produce an arms pact, even one as near to completion as the unfinished agreement inherited from the Ford administration. The deeper the proposed cuts, the more difficult this task would be. Since Carter had recommended a major reworking of the structure of deterrence with his second proposal, quick agreement between the two parties was unlikely even if the Soviets accepted his general approach to arms control.12

Unlike previous Presidents, Carter presented his arms proposals to the public before forwarding them to the Soviets. This action angered the Soviets who were used to receiving initial proposals in confidence. Moreover, they resented Carter's attempt to discard the carefully crafted labors of past years with sweeping reductions. Soviet leaders also disliked the President's criticism of human rights in the U.S.S.R. and thus rejected all of the March 1977 proposals with an emphatic "Nyet."13

EVEN THOUGH HIS FIRST INITIATIVES ran into a wall of Soviet intransigence, Carter never surrendered the hope of rapid progress on strategic arms control until the last years of his administration. He obtained a SALT II agreement in 1979 but only after two years of hard negotiations following the failure of the March proposals.

The completed treaty resembled the one inherited from the Ford administration, but it contained an extra protocol regarding the deployment of cruise missiles, mobile ICBMs, and air-to-surface ballistic missiles, along with an understanding on the Soviets' intended use of their medium-range Backfire bomber.

At the signing of the arms pact in Vienna during June 1979, Carter revealed that he still believed in the possibility for significant reductions in SALT II. He sought a commitment from Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev to a five percent annual reduction of strategic arms over the five-year life of the treaty. Carter also asked Brezhnev to agree that the SALT III talks would aim for limits fifty percent below the level of arms that SALT II allowed. Brezhnev rejected the five-percent yearly cut and remained noncommittal on the SALT III talks. He was not about to abandon incremental procedures and endorse Carter's program of liberal reductions.14


  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


The Salt

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