From Nuclear Arms Reductions and Détente to PD-59 and Limited Nuclear Strikes: Understanding the Change in the Carter Administration's Nuclear Strategy
CitationHolmgren, Tatevik. 2013. From Nuclear Arms Reductions and Détente to PD-59 and Limited Nuclear Strikes: Understanding the Change in the Carter Administration's Nuclear Strategy. Master's thesis, Harvard University, Extension School.
President Jimmy Carter took office with the intention to halt nuclear proliferation, to implement reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal and to maintain détente with the Kremlin. Yet the president ended his tenure with more weapons programs in the works, a more explicit posture of nuclear war fighting, and dwindling Soviet-American relations. This thesis seeks to answer the following questions: Why did Carter change his mind? Why did his desire to reduce the U.S. nuclear arsenal and to continue SALT negotiations with the Soviets instead turn into the issuance of Presidential Directive 59 (PD-59)? To what degree did America's NATO allies and/or the Soviet nuclear force structure influence the emergence of the new nuclear strategy? Was his dovish Secretary of State Cyrus Vance's 1980 resignation instrumental in Carter's inclination to sign PD-59 and to proceed with the countervailing strategy? What was the role of the civilian and military bureaucracies in shaping the Administration's nuclear posture? What was the countervailing strategy, and why did the Carter administration see it as the most befitting nuclear posture at the time?
Using historical analysis and mainly primary sources, I tested the hypothesis that both domestic and international impediments made détente and steep arms reduction unachievable goals during Carter's presidency. Ergo, the following study surveys the domestic and international factors that derailed President Carter's abolitionist plans and begot the Administration's decision to modify the U.S. declaratory policy and nuclear strategy.
Because of the hawks' overblown arguments vis-à-vis the Soviet conventional and nuclear superiority, Washington thought that NATO was militarily inferior and worried about the strategic forces balance. America's European allies also called for a better defense of Europe, emphasizing the need for theater nuclear force modernization. With the allies' concerns and the domestic opposition in sight, the Administration also had to counter the Soviet overseas incursions to defend American interests in the Persian Gulf region. The loss of an important ally to the Iranian Revolution and the later Soviet intervention in Afghanistan had weakened the Administration's strategic confidence. As the U.S. presidential elections neared, Carter and his team succumbed to the internal and external pressures to take an assertive stance toward the Soviets. The countervailing strategy presumably expressed that assertiveness by envisioning options and strengthening the U.S. deterrent. In reality, the resulting war plans were impractical and the weapons systems unnecessary. But the wave of anti-Sovietism, the demands of electoral politics, and the pressures engendered by the international crises trumped Carter's abolitionist plans and secured the triumph of nuclear theology.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37367533
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