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Jimmy Carter and SALT II:
by Matthew M. Oyos

Part 5. Domestic Political Considerations in the United States

THE COMPLEXITIES OF THE NEGOTIATING PROCESS derailed Jimmy Carter's plans for swift movement on arms limitations, but the President confronted major obstacles to his arms control program at home as well. Carter encountered stiff political opposition to SALT II as he worked to complete the treaty and win its ratification.

The President's troubles reflected his personal political weakness but also demonstrated the decline of the chief executive's stature in the 1970s. Presidents have always felt more limits on their authority than popularly perceived; however, the Vietnam War and the Watergate affair injured severely the credibility and influence of the chief executive. As a consequence, Congress and political interest groups assumed a greater voice in foreign affairs and complicated the President's task of concluding an acceptable arms treaty.31 Carter thus discovered that arms control often moved at an incremental pace not only because negotiations were inherently complex but also because of the American political process.32

From 1945 to the mid-1960's, the climate of the Cold War and a bipartisan coalition on Capitol Hill had permitted the President wide latitude in foreign affairs. Although the executive branch traditionally exercised the greatest influence on foreign policy, the President received even more discretion after 1945 because his office was best suited to respond to overseas crises. The maintenance of a consensus on foreign policy became harder when superpower tensions eased in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and with the coming of U.S.-Soviet detente in the early and mid-1970's. Severe damage to executive authority resulted, however, from the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. The apparent gap between statements from Lyndon Johnson's White House and the reality of the Vietnam conflict caused doubts about presidential credibility by the late 1960's and helped fracture the bipartisan alliance on foreign policy between political liberals and conservatives. No sooner had the American role in Vietnam ebbed when the Watergate affair and impending impeachment of President Nixon dealt a grave blow to the trust and reverence that remained around the Presidency.33

As a consequence, Jimmy Carter inherited an office that commanded less power to influence Congress. After Vietnam, many Senators and Representatives were less willing to defer to executive leadership and stood ready to challenge foreign policy initiatives with which they did not agree. Legislators tried to take more of a lead in foreign affairs because they assumed that Capitol Hill would exercise greater prudence than the President and resist unwise foreign interventions or unfavorable bargains with the Kremlin. Reviewing the SALT II talks, some charged that President Carter desired an arms control pact so strongly that he had jeopardized the safety of the country, and they vowed to counter this danger by amending or rejecting the treaty.34

STIFF CRITICISM OF SALT II actually came both from inside and outside of Congress and promised the Carter administration a tough battle on ratification. Whether Republican or Democrat, most critics of the treaty tended towards the right on foreign policy issues. Opponents included such figures as Senator Henry Jackson of Washington, retired Lieutenant General Daniel Graham, Richard Pipes of Harvard University, and Paul Nitze, a former arms control negotiator and member of the Committee on the Present Danger, an organization established to warn the public of a growing Soviet military threat.

Through Congressional testimony, speaking engagements, and the printed or broadcast media, critics such as Jackson, Graham, and Nitze spread their message that SALT II, as completed by President Carter, would tip an eroding military balance in favor of the Soviet Union. They claimed that the pact left the Soviets too much room to augment their strategic capabilities through qualitative improvements, which the United States could not detect with confidence because of inadequate verification provisions in the treaty. Besides urging revision or rejection of the agreement, critics demanded increased military spending and modernization of American strategic arms to counter the Soviet military build-up of the previous twelve years.35

The opponents of SALT II offered strong resistance because they perceived the treaty as part of an overall reduction of American power and feared the political consequences of that decline.

Rendering an assessment shared by many, General Graham declared to a Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee that "as the Soviet strategic advantage grows, it will be the United States which will be deterred from acting to protect free world interests against ever more adventurous Soviet initiatives."36 In essence, he argued that a direct correlation existed between strategic capabilities and political influence in international affairs.

Graham and others believed that the Soviets accepted this thinking and might exploit a perception of strategic superiority to gain a military or political advantage over the United States, especially during a crisis. They worried, in particular, that the Soviets might employ their strategic strength to make the United States retreat in a confrontation similar to the Cuban Missile Crisis.37 All in all, the critics' efforts dimmed the prospects for the ratification of SALT II. When the invasion of Afghanistan finally settled the issue, the question of ratification had become too close to call.38

The President's personal political difficulties assisted the work of SALT II's critics. Arms control was not the only area where Carter was having trouble by 1979. During 1978, his popularity had dipped below forty percent in national polls, and Congress had refused to accept his legislative program. Carter's success later that year with the Camp David Peace Accords raised his standing for a time and broke the logjam in Congress. By mid-1979, however, his administration had returned to the doldrums, and questions reappeared about the President's political competence and his prospects for reelection in 1980.39

CARTER'S DECLINING POLITICAL EFFECTIVENESS in 1979 accounted for some of SALT II's growing problems with ratification. A President with strong popular backing and a string of legislative successes commanded many more levers of power to counter opponents and secure passage of desired measures. Still, the institutional damage to the Presidency during the 1970's figured large in Carter's troubles with SALT II. Immediately after Vietnam and Watergate, the office no longer carried the prestige necessary to help compensate for the political weaknesses of its occupant.


  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


Carter's Vision Ahead of His Time

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