Richard Jimmy Carter has been a marvelous ex-president – perhaps, as he has claimed, the best in U.S. history. Although John Quincy Adams, who returned to Congress to wage an impassioned struggle against slavery, could have given him a run for his money, Carter can make a very strong case. In 1982, he founded the Carter Center, through which he has promoted democracy, improved health care in underdeveloped countries, secured the release of prisoners, helped restore Haiti’s democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power, and spoken on Cuban TV urging the United States to end its embargo and imploring Castro to improve civil liberties. In 1994, he negotiated a nuclear deal with Kim Il Sung that significantly slowed the growth of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. In his work monitoring elections around the world, he dismissed the opposition’s claims of fraud in sanctioning the 2004 recall election victory of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He has tried to inject reason into the long-festering Arab-Israeli conflict issuing highly controversial criticisms of all the antagonists, including the Israelis. He decried George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, called for the shuttering of the prison at Guantanamo Bay, and labeled the Bush-Cheney administration “the worst in history.” He has called for the abolition of nuclear weapons and remains the only U.S. president ever to have visited the city of Hiroshima. For his courageous stands and global leadership, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
Yet Carter, who has performed in such exemplary fashion out of office, was inept in office, disappointing his supporters, betraying his convictions, and leaving with an approval rating of 34 percent. Carter’s most enduring legacy as president was not his hypocrisy-stained campaign for human rights; it was his opening the door to the dark side, legitimizing the often brutal policies of his successor, Ronald Reagan – policies that rekindled the Cold War and left a trail of innocent victims stretching from Guatemala to Afghanistan and back again to the World Trade Center. How did that happen? Were the same forces at work during the Carter years that had undermined the administrations of other Democratic presidents, including Wilson, Truman, Johnson, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama?
Nixon’s resignation in August 1974 and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam paved the way for a serious assessment of what had gone wrong and a reversal of the policies that had led the nation astray, both domestically and globally. But that rarely occurred – certainly not during the presidency of the amiable and well-meaning but extremely limited Gerald Ford, a man who, Lyndon Johnson said, could not walk and chew gum at the same time. From the start, Ford sent all the wrong signals.
First, he announced that Henry Kissinger would stay on as both secretary of state and national security advisor. Kissinger understood that the United States was facing severe economic and political challenges. After seventy years of trade surpluses, it had run its first deficit in 1971. Now that deficit was widening. The oil-exporting countries in the Middle East, which had joined together to form OPEC, decided to punish the United States, Western Europe, and Japan for supporting Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. The price of oil quadrupled in the next year. The United States, which in the 1950s had produced all the oil it needed, was now importing more than one-third of its supply, making it very vulnerable to this kind of economic pressure. With wealth and power shifting to the Middle East, several U.S. allies adopted more Arab-friendly policies, which Kissinger denounced as “contemptible.” Kissinger and other top officials contemplated a different kind of response, even floating the idea of invading Saudi Arabia.
Did the United States really want another war? The country was still reeling from its humiliating defeat by Vietnam, which Kissinger had denigrated as “a little fourth-rate power.” No wonder he was felling despondent over the future of the American Empire. Two months into the Ford administration, he told the New York Times’ James Reston, “As a historian, you have to be conscious of the fact that every civilization that has ever existed has ultimately collapsed. History is a tale of efforts that failed, of aspirations that weren’t realized, of wishes that were fulfilled and then turned out to be different from what one expected. So, as a historian, one has to live with a sense of the inevitability of tragedy.”
North Vietnam began its final offensive in March 1975. The South offered little resistance. Without U.S. forces there to fight its battles and bolster its resolve, the South Vietnamese army simply collapsed. One South Vietnamese officer called it a rout “unique in the annals of military history.” With the South Vietnamese troops in full flight, chaos engulfed much of the country. Soldiers murdered officers, fellow soldiers, and civilians. Defense Secretary James Schlesinger told Ford that only tactical nuclear weapons could prevent defeat. Ford resisted the temptation to use them. Journalist Jonathan Schell realized that this final collapse revealed “the true nature of the war.” He wrote of South Vietnam, “It was a society entirely without inner cohesion, held together only by foreign arms, foreign money, foreign political will. When deprived of that support, it faced its foe alone and the mirage evaporated.”
Under pressure from the United States, Nguyen Van Thieu resigned on April 21. On April 30, General Duong Van Minh surrendered to North Vietnamese Colonel Bui Tin. Minh said, “I have been waiting since early this morning to transfer power to you.” Bui Tin responded, “You cannot give up what you do not have.” Images of South Vietnamese soldiers shooting their way onto planes and U.S. marines beating down desperate Vietnamese trying to escape on the last U.S. helicopters lifting off the embassy roof would remain indelibly imprinted in the American psyche for decades to come. Two years earlier, at the Paris Peace Conference, Nixon had signed a secret protocol promising between $4.25 and $4.75 billion in postwar aid “without any political conditions.” Nixon and Secretary of State William Rogers denied the protocol’s existence. “We have not made any commitment for any reconstruction or rehabilitation effort,” Rogers insisted. Ford cited the North Vietnamese victory as proof that Hanoi had reneged on the Paris Agreements and blocked the promised aid. He also imposed an embargo on all of Indochina, froze Vietnamese assets in the United States, and vetoed Vietnamese membership in the United States.
The Vietnamese, who had suffered so deeply during the U.S. invasion, would be left to rebuild their war-raved land on their own. Nearly 4 million of their citizens had been killed. The landscape was shattered. The beautiful triple-canopy forests were largely gone. In 2009, land mines and unexploded bombs still contaminated over a third of the land in six central Vietnamese provinces. Efforts by the Vietnamese government, the Vietnamese Veterans of America Foundation, and the Vietnam Veterans of America, sometimes led by dedicated U.S. veterans like Chuck Searcy in Quang Tri Province, had cleared over 3,000 acres. But over 16 million acres remained to be cleared. Beyond the terrible toll of the war itself, 42,000 more Vietnamese, including many children, were killed by leftover explosives in the years after the war ended. U.S. veterans would suffer too. By some estimates, the number of Vietnam vets who have committed suicide has exceeded the 58,000-plus who died in combat.
Instead of helping the American people learn from the execrable episode in U.S. history, Ford encouraged Americans to “regain the sense of pride that existed before Vietnam.” The fact that the United States had not learned the lesson that it should never again support a corrupt dictatorship determined to silence the cries for justice from an oppressed people would come back to haunt it repeatedly in future years.
Reeling from the defeat in Vietnam, the United States went out of its way to cultivate anti-Communist allies in the region. Ford and Kissinger visited General Suharto, Indonesia’s right-wing dictator, in early December. The day they left, Suharto’s military invaded the newly independent nation of East Timor, a former Portuguese colony. Suharto had asked his guests for “understanding if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action” in toppling East Timor’s left-wing government. Ford assured him, “We will understand and not press you on the issue.” Kissinger urged Suharto to postpone the invasion until he and Ford had returned to the United States and to finish the job quickly. The invasion proved to be bloody and the occupation prolonged. The estimated death toll from the invasion plus starvation and disease ranges from 100,000 to 200,000 and more. Three hundred thousand people, over half the population, were relocated to camps run by the Indonesian military. The United States continued providing military aid to Indonesia until 1999, and East Timor did not regain full independence until 2002.
Following Nixon’s ouster, conservatives set out to purge the intelligence community of CIA analysts who didn’t believe the Soviets were out to conquer the world. Led by Air Force Intelligence Chief Major General George Keegan, they convinced CIA Director George H. W. Bush to give a group of anti-Soviet hardliners, labeled Team B, unprecedented access to the country’s most sensitive intelligence so that they could challenge the CIA’s findings about the Soviet Union. In the eyes of CIA analysts, Keegan had already discredited himself with fanciful reports of a Soviet-directed energy weapons program that would give the Soviet Union an enormous advantage over the United States. Rebuffed by military and intelligence experts, he went public with his outlandish theories when he retired. He convinced the editors of Aviation Week & Space Technology to write in May 1977, “The Soviet Union has achieved a technical breakthrough in high-energy physics applications that may soon provide it with a directed-energy beam weapon capable of neutralizing the entire United States ballistic missile force and checkmating this country’s strategic doctrine. … The race to perfect directed-energy weapons is a reality.” Despite the fact that no such Soviet project existed, the United States began its own space-based laser weapons program in 1978 under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). This eventually led to the much-ballyhooed and incredibly wasteful Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Keegan also incorrectly insisted that the Soviets were building a large-scale civil defense system designed to safeguard much of the Soviet population in the event of a nuclear war. Howard Stoertz, who oversaw the production of the National Intelligence Estimates on the Soviet Union, explained why he and others at the CIA objected to this type of outside scrutiny: “Most of us were opposed to it because we saw it as an ideological, political foray, not an intellectual exercise. We knew the people who were pleading for it."
Harvard Russia historian Richard Pipes, a virulently anti-Soviet Polish immigrant, was put n charge of Team B. Pipes quickly recruited Paul Nitze and Paul Wolfowitz. According to Anne Cahn, who worked at the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency under President Carter, Team B members shared an “apoplectic animosity toward the Soviet Union.” They greatly overestimated the USSR’s military spending and capabilities, predicting that the Soviets would have around five hundred Backfire bombers by early 1984, more than double the actual number. They put the most malign interpretation on the Soviets’ intensions, accusing them of using détente as a ruse to gain hegemony. They rejected the CIA assessment that Soviet nuclear capabilities were primarily defensive in nature, designed to deter and retaliate, not attack.
Pipes complained that the CIA assessments “happened to favor détente and to place the main burden for its success on the United States.” He attributed this to the fact that the CIA’s “analytic staff…shared the outlook of U.S. academe, with its penchant for philosophical positivism, cultural agnosticism, and political liberalism.” Actual Soviet behavior, Pipes argued, “indicated beyond a reasonable doubt that the Soviet leadership…regarded nuclear weapons as tools of war whose proper employment…promised victory.” Pipes’ report found the Soviets far ahead in every strategic category. The CIA dismissed it as “complete fiction.” Cahn concluded, “if you go through most of Team B’s specific allegations about weapons systems,…they were all wrong.
On November 5, Team B members debated the CIA Soviet analysts, most of whom were younger and less experienced. One of the CIA participants recalled, “We were overmatched. People like Nitze ate us for lunch.” A CIA official reported, “It was like putting Walt Whitman High versus the Redskins.” The Agency had blundered, Pipes had gloated, by putting “a troop of young analysts, some of them barely out of graduate school” against “senior government officials, general officers, and university professors.” Pipes reported that when Team A’s “champion,” the young analyst Ted Cherry, began his criticism of Team B’s findings, Nitze “fired a question that reduced him to a state of catatonic immobility: we stared in embarrassment as he sat for what seemed an interminable time with an open mouth, unable to utter a sound.”
Though Bush and his successor, Stansfield Turner, both joined Kissinger in dismissing Team B’s findings, Bush made sure that this harsher assessment of Soviet capabilities and intentions was incorporated into intelligence reports.
The ill-fated intervention in CIA affairs turned more ominous in September 1978 when former high-level CIA official, John Paisley, went missing after sailing in the Chesapeake Bay. Paisley, who had been deputy director of strategic research, was an expert on Soviet nuclear and other weapons programs, with authority to request launching of spy satellites. He had been the CIA liaison with Team B. His son claimed that he had been responsible for leaking the story of Team B’s existence to the press.
A week later, a badly decomposed body was pulled from the bay and identified as Paisley’s by Maryland police. It had a gunshot to the head. The police quickly concluded that it was a case of suicide. But if so, it was a bizarre suicide indeed. The body found had two nineteen-pound diver’s belts strapped across its midsection. It was four inches shorter than the five-foot, eleven-inch Paisley. And, according to writer Nicholas Thompson, “If the body was his, and if he had done himself in, he had chosen an awkward method. Paisley was right-handed, but he would have had to have attached the weights, leaned over the side, and shot himself, execution style, through the left temple.”
In addition to the investigation by the Maryland State Police, investigations were conducted by the CIA, the FBI, and the Senate Intelligence Committee. Meanwhile, the CIA put various cover stories, which were quickly discredited. The CIA described Paisley, who had supposedly left the Agency in 1974, as a “part-time consultant with a very limited access to classified information,” a description that a former high-level staffer on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) found “shocking.” “There is no question that Paisley, at the time of his death, had access to highly classified intelligence information,” he informed the Baltimore Sun, which conducted its own three-month investigation.
One former PFIAB White House staffer revealed, “It was Paisley who developed the list of people who would serve on the B Team. It was his job to get these guys clearances…to discuss their backgrounds with us. Then, after the team had been selected, he would schedule the briefings. He shaped the entire process.” The Sun reported that at the time of his death, Paisley was writing a “retrospective analysis” of Team B for an in-house agency publication. Among the papers found on the boat were Paisley’s notes on the history of the project. Other highly classified documents relating to Soviet defense spending and the state of Soviet military readiness were also in his possession.
Speculation abounded that something more nefarious had occurred. Some CIA insiders told reporters that they believed the KGB had murdered Paisley. Others contended that he was a KGB ‘mole,” who had been whacked by the CIA. Paisley’s wife charged that the body didn’t belong to her estranged husband and hired an attorney and investigator. “My feeling is that something very sinister is happening,” she said, accusing the CIA of telling “lies” about her husband. Two prominent insurance companies initially refused to pay benefits to Mrs. Paisley because of doubts that her husband was actually dead. After a lengthy investigation, the Senate Intelligence Committee decided to keep its report secret. The mystery has never been solved.
Meanwhile, the hard-line anti-détente forces were roiling the waters on a number of fronts. In March 1976, Nitze, James Schlesinger, and former Undersecretary of State Eugene Rostow had set in motion what in November would become the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD). A committee by that name had been established once before in 1950 to back Nitze’s NSC 68. Three Team B members – Nitze, Pipes, and William Van Cleave – served on the executive committee. Among the early supporters were Mellon heir Richard Mellon Scaife and the future Director of Central Intelligence William Casey. Members included Commentary magazine editor Norman Podhoretz, Richard Perle, Dean Rusk, and Ronald Reagan. The CPD’s founding statement warned that the Soviet Union sought dominance through “an unparalleled military buildup” and that under the cover of arms control, it was preparing to fight and win a nuclear war.
The Team B CPD efforts to subvert the intelligence community and drive country to the right were cheered on by a network of newly formed organizations and think tanks funded, in part, by the Scaife family, the Coors family, and William Simon, president of the John M. Olin Foundation. Among the recipients of such largesse were the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Manhattan Institute, the Federalist Society, the Washington Legal Foundation, the Institute for Justice, the Hoover Institute, Freedom House, and the Ethics and Public Policy Center. These interests backed a series of right-wing publications, including National Interest/Public Interest, Commentary, and The American Spectator.
This burgeoning right-wing network had little use for a relative moderate like Gerald Ford. Its members itched to put a real right winger like Reagan into the White House. Ford and his White House chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld, attempted to mollify Ford’s critics. They engineered a major cabinet shake-up in October 1975, known as the “Halloween Day Massacre.” Rumsfeld took over for Schlesinger at Defense. General Brent Scowcroft replaced Kissinger as national security advisor. Bush replaced William Colby at the CIA. Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld’s deputy, took over as White House chief of staff. And Vice President Nelson Rockefeller was informed that he was off the ticket in 1976. Kissinger, furious, drafted a letter of resignation that he never sent. Many saw Rumsfeld’s fingerprints all over this shake-up. Nixon had described Rumsfeld as a “ruthless little bastard.” Kissinger later said Rumsfeld was the most ruthless man he’d ever met.
Spurning his once-moderate views, Rumsfeld had moved steadily to the right, positioning himself as a staunch defender of Team B and foe of Kissinger’s détente policies. He helped bock a new SALT treaty in early 1976. “The opposition came from Secretary Defense Don Rumsfeld and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and I recognized that they’d held the trump card,” Ford later wrote. Rumsfeld began warning that the Soviets threatened to overtake the United States in military strength and that détente was not in the United States’ interests. Ford got the message, announcing in March 1976, “We are going to forget the use of the word détente.”
That capitulation was not enough to placate the party’s resurgent right wing. Ronald Reagan excoriated the “moderate” policies advocated by Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger, which, he believed, were weakening the United States in the fight against its mortal Communist foe. In late March, he accused Kissinger of saying “The days of the U.S. is past and today is the day of the Soviet Union. … My job as Secretary of State is to negotiate the most acceptable second-best position available.” Kissinger, not surprisingly, denied having ever made such remarks.
Ford managed to stave off the attack from the neocon-infused Republican Right but was narrowly defeated in November by former Governor Jimmy Carter, a millionaire peanut farmer and longtime Sunday school teacher from Plains, Georgia. Carter, and evangelical Baptist, ran as a populist and an outsider, appealing to blacks, farmers, and disaffected youth. More of a New Southern agri-businessman than a small farmer, Carter, as historian Leo Ribuffo pointed out, harked back to the pre-World War I progressives, who stressed scientific efficiency and public morality, more than the New Deal and Great Society reformers, who wanted to strengthen the welfare state. Carter promised to restore trust in government and heal the would resulting from the division over Watergate, the Vietnam War, and years of generation, gender, and racial discord.
The little Carter knew about foreign policy came from meetings of the Trilateral Commission, an organization founded in 1972 by Chase Manhattan Bank Chairman David Rockefeller, who also headed the influential Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Rockefeller and many of establishment cronies were troubled by recent developments. Not only was the United States suffering a monumental defeat in Vietnam, it was facing a destabilizing economic crisis. Many found Nixon’s response threatening. By abandoning the gold standard and imposing wage a price controls and a tariff on imports, Nixon was undermining the liberal internationalism that had reigned supreme since 1945. When Nixon’s measures were viewed alongside labor’s and Congress’ efforts to limit imports and punish multilateral corporations that shipped jobs overseas, some members of the CFR feared the resurgence of economic nationalism and even the outbreak of an international trade war.
Looking for a new instrument to help stabilize the international order – the CFR had been rendered largely ineffectual by a sharp split over Vietnam – Rockefeller seized upon the approach suggested by Columbia University Professor Zbigniew Brzezinski. In his 1970 book, Between Two Ages, Brzezinski called for a “community of developed nations” from Western Europe, the United States, and Japan to guide the international order. The two New Yorkers, who vacationed near each other in Seal Harbor, mapped out the kind of organization that could bring this to fruition.
At the June 1972 annual meeting of the secretive Bilderberg Group, held at the Hotel de Bilderberg in Oosterbeek, the Netherlands, Rockefeller proposed forming an organization that would bolster the world capitalist order by strengthening ties among leaders on the three continents. Brzezinski, who was a member of both the Bilderberg Group and the CFR, enthusiastically seconded the proposal. Seventeen members attended a planning meeting at Rockefeller’s New York estate the following month. Beginning with sixty members on each continent, they set up offices in New York, Paris, and Tokyo. Most rejected CPD’s knee-jerk anticommunism, hoping instead to lure the Soviets into an international system that promoted economic interdependence and free flow of trade and capital. Third-world economic and political problems would be addressed outside the Cold War framework.
Brzezinski served as executive director of the commission’s North American branch. The son of a Polish diplomat and probably the most unreconstructed anti-Communist among the founding members, he tapped Carter for membership. He and Rockefeller saw in Carter a rising, although still little-known, southern governor who was eager to be educated about the world. Always confident and ambitious, Carter was already discussing a run for the presidency with his close advisors. He had yet to make a splash on the national scene. When he appeared on the television show What’s My Line? In December 1973, none of the panelists, Arlene Francis, Gene Shalit, Soupy Sales, could identify what he did for a living. Perhaps Brzezinski was impressed that Carter nominated hard-line anti-Communist and neocon favorite Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson for president at the 1972 Democratic National Convention.
Brzezinski and Rockefeller saw something in Carter that convinced them that he was worth cultivating and got behind his candidacy early. Carter’s deputy campaign manager Peter Bourne revealed that “David and Zbig had both agreed that Carter was the ideal politician to build on.” Brzezinski served as Carter’s foreign policy advisor and speechwriter during the campaign. Carter filled out his administration with twenty-six fellow Trilateralists, including Vice President Walter Mondale, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, Treasury Secretary Michael Blumenthal, and Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. At the CIA, Carter replaced Trilateral Commission member Bush with fellow member Stansfield Turner. Trilateralists, including Warren Christopher, Anthony Lake, and Richard Holbrooke, also populated the secondary ranks. Most significantly, Carter selected Brzezinski as his national security advisor. Trialteralist Kissinger was not offered a position in the administration.
Despite his inexperience, Trilateralist connections, and centrist instincts, Carter came into office with a moderately progressive vision of what the United States could become. Among his top priorities was cutting defense spending. During the campaign, he had denounced U.S. nuclear hypocrisy: “by enjoining sovereign nations to forgo nuclear weapons, we are asking for a form of self-denial that we have not been able to accept ourselves.” Rejecting the typical double standard that powerful nations imposed on weaker ones, he recognized that the United States didn’t have the “right to ask others to deny themselves such weapons” unless it was actively moving to eliminate its own nuclear arsenal. “The world is waiting, but not necessarily for long,” he realized. “The longer effective arms reduction is postponed, the more likely it is that other nations will be encouraged to develop their own nuclear capability.”
Such honesty was refreshing, as was his promise to restore the United States’ moral standing in the world and learn from Vietnam. He declared that “never again should our country become militarily involved in the internal affairs of another country unless there is a direct and obvious threat to the security of the United States of its people.” He vowed never to repeat the “false statements and sometimes outright lies” that his predecessors had used to justify the U.S. invasion of Vietnam. He raised the hopes of mankind by announcing that the United States would “help shape a just and peaceful world that is truly humane. … We pledge…to limit the world’s armaments. … And we will move this year a step toward the ultimate goal – the elimination of all nuclear weapons from this Earth. We urge all other people to join us, for success can mean life instead of death.”
Just how heartfelt Carter’s comments on Vietnam were is difficult to ascertain. They clearly represented a welcome departure from the apologetics of his predecessors and successors. But they may have represented a kind of dissembling intended to make the new president seem much more liberal than he actually was or than his record as president would suggest. While campaigning in 1976, Carter responded to a reporter’s question about Vietnam by asserting, “I called for a complete pullout” in March 1971, after having previously taken a more typical southern pro-war position. However, in August of that year, he had written a column saying that he had supported the initial U.S. involvement in Vietnam to fight “Communist aggression,” but now, “since we are not going to do what it takes to win, it is time to come home.” The following year, he had supported Nixon’s bombing of North Vietnam and mining of harbors and urged Americans to “give President Nixon our backing and support – whether or not we agree with that decision.” Even as late as April 1975, with Saigon about to fall to the Communists and their supporters, he told reporters that the supported giving the Saigon regime $500 million to $600 million in military aid for another year to help stabilize it.
Thus, Carter may never have been as liberal on foreign policy as many assumed he was. But he did manage to rile the CPD crowd by selected dovish Paul Warnke to head the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, appointing liberal former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, an African American, as UN ambassador, and siding, at least initially, with Vance’s lawyerly pragmatism and commitment to détente over the toxic anticommunism of Brzezinski. That allowed Carter to score significant early successes. He successfully renegotiated the Panama Canal treaty. In 1978, he helped secure the Camp David Accords, which led to Israeli withdrawal from Egyptian territory captured in the 1967 war and the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries. He also made headway in arms controls. Warnke negotiated the SALT II treaty with the Soviets, mandating a reduction in nuclear missiles and bombers, and helped convince Carter to resist the Pentagon’s pressure to build the B-1 bomber. SALT II, for all the fanfare surrounding its signing in June 1979, was only a measured success, actually allowing both sides to continue their buildups at a reduced rate. Both parties were permitted to add another four thousand warheads by 1985 and deploy one new weapons system over the five-year life of the treaty. The CDPers denounced the treaty, claiming that it would give the Soviets “strategic superiority” and open a “window of vulnerability.” They called for massive growth in defense spending and civil defense. With the Scaife Foundation pouring over $300,000 into the CDP, foes of SALT II outspent treaty backers by fifteen to one.
But Carter’s lack of foreign policy experience would come back to haunt him, and his growing reliance on Brzezinski and other hawkish advisors would doom his progressive agenda, leaving the administration’s foreign policy awash in a sea of Cold War orthodoxy. Brzezinski quickly instituted a significant change in procedure that allowed him to exert inordinate influence on the president. Whereas in the past, a top CIA official had given the President’s Daily Brief, Brzezinski arranged to do this himself, with no one else present. “From the very first day of the Presidency,” he wrote, “I insisted that the morning intelligence briefing be given to the President by me and by no one else. The CIA tried to have me take a briefing officer with me, but I felt that this would inhibit candid talk.” Brzezinski overruled Turner’s objections.
In his memoirs, Brzezinski outlined the deliberate, systematic process whereby he came to shape Carter’s thinking on foreign policy issues:
In effect, the morning briefing involved a touching of bases, some prodding of the President to think about problems that in my judgement needed attention, the planting of basic ideas, and – especially in the first months of his Presidency – some wider discussions of conceptual or strategic issues. This was particularly important in the initial stages, when we were defining our goals and setting our priorities. I also used the sessions occasionally to make suggestions to Carter as to what he ought to stress in his public statements, including possible formulations or wordings. He was extremely good at picking up phrases, and I was often amazed how after such a morning briefing he would use in a later press conference or public appearance words almost identical to those we had discussed.
Priding himself on being Carter’s ventriloquist, Brzezinski outlined the additional steps he had taken to make sure that his lessons sank in. In addition to repeated daily conversations, he began sending Carter a weekly NSC report, which was “meant to be a highly personal and private document, for the President alone.” I usually opened with a one-page editorial from Brzezinski in which “commented in a freewheeling fashion on the Administration’s performance, alerted him to possible problems, conveyed occasionally some criticism, and attempted to impart a global perspective.”
Brzezinski noted that Carter sometimes disagreed with his analysis and was “irritated” by his reports. But the record of the administration that Brzezinski’s obsessive anti-communism – he bragged about being “the first Pole in 300 years in a position to really stick it to the Russians” – eventually wore Carter down and won him to Brzezinski’s point of view.
Carter came to office committed to promoting human rights, but he used human rights as a vehicle for attacking the Soviet Union, causing relations between the two countries to chill. The Soviets, proud of the fact that they had expanded civil liberties and decreased the number of political prisoners in recent years, countered that Soviet citizens had rights that Americans didn’t enjoy. The Kremlin instructed Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to ask Vance how the Americans would feel if the Soviets tied détente to ending U.S. racial discrimination of unemployment.
Carter also overreacted to the USSR’s support of Mengistu Haile Mariam in Ethiopia. Mengistu had come to power in a 1974 coup that had overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie. During those years, the Soviet Union was taking advantage of the turbulence throughout Africa and the rest of the world to align with progressive forces and push socialist models of development. But third-world involvements would repeatedly trap the Soviets in their own quagmires economically, politically, and militarily. Ethiopia proved to be such a case. In late 1977, Soviets leaders, encouraged by Castro and his support for African liberation movements, responded to requests from Mengistu, who was facing invasion from neighboring Somalia and opposition from a Somali-supported Eritrean independence movement. Despite their criticism of Mengistu’s often brutal behavior, the Soviets significantly increased support for Ethiopia’s revolutionary government, providing over a billion dollars’ worth of military equipment and a thousand military advisors. They also assisted in transporting 17,000 Cuban military and technical personnel to assist the Ethiopians. Most African nations applauded the Soviet intervention, viewing it as a legitimate response to Somali aggression.
Carter responded mildly at first, sharing Soviet leaders’ sense that détente and arms control were the top priorities. Brzezinski, however, urged the president to stop being “soft” and stand up to the Soviets. “A president must not only be loved and respected; he must also be feared,” the national security advisor argued. He urged Carter to pick some controversial subject on which you will deliberately choose to act with a degree of anger, even roughness, designed to have a shock effect.” Carter thought Ethiopia was a good place to start. Despite Vance’s strong objections, Carter accused the Soviets of “expanding their influence abroad” through “military power and military assistance.” Brzezinski was thrilled by Carter’s denunciation of Soviet actions. He would later remark on several occasions that “SALT lies buried in the sands of the Ogaden.” The Right was more strident in its attack on Soviet adventurism in Africa. Reagan warned:
If the Soviets are successful – and it looks more and more as if they will be – then the entire Horn of Africa will be under their influence, if not their control. From there, they can threaten the sea lanes carrying oil to western Europe and the United States, if and when they choose. More immediately, control of the Horn of Africa would give Moscow the ability to destabilize those governments on the Arabian peninsula which have proven themselves strongly anti-Communist…in a few years we may be faced with the prospect of a Soviet empire of protégés and dependencies stretching from Addis Ababa to Capetown.
Soviet leaders did not anticipate such a strong response in light of similar U.S. actions in its sphere of influence. But they did overestimate U.S. willingness to accord them equal status. Many within the Soviet hierarchy and intelligentsia were already questioning the wisdom of Soviet involvement in countries such as Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Somalia, and South Yemen, given the repeated unwillingness of their repressive leaders to heed Soviet advice on political and economic issues.
Carter’s support for human rights prompted Soviet countercharges. In July 1978, Carter “deplored” and “condemned” Soviet sentencing of dissident Anatoly Sharansky to thirteen years in prison for allegedly spying for the CIA. Carter’s charges particularly galled the Soviet leaders because he and Brzezinski had been cozying up to China, whose human rights record was far, far worse. Brzezinski admitted to Carter that China was executing as many as twenty thousand prisoners a year. However, the sting of Carter’s accusation was blunted by UN Ambassador Andrew Young’s telling a French newspapers that there were “hundreds, maybe even thousands of people I would call political prisoners” in U.S. jails.
Criticizing Soviet human rights lapses while supporting other egregious human rights offenders was a dangerous game to play and sometimes backfired. In 1967, Great Britain announced plans to withdraw its forces from east of Suez. The United States decided to fill the void. It built a military base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, from which the British had expelled almost two thousand natives between 1968 and 1973. The United States would use the base as a launch pad to protect its interests in the Persian Gulf. It also tied its fortunes even more closely to the Shah of Iran, who, along with Israel, became the principal defender of U.S. economic and geopolitical interests in the Persian Gulf, which held 60 percent of the world’s known oil reserves. During these years, the oil-rich Gulf states had begun to play an important role in world economic affairs, importing goods from the United States and Europe and investing billions of petrodollars in U.S. banks.
During the 1960s and ‘70s, the United States supplied Iran with an arsenal of sophisticated weapons. In what must seem a cruel irony to a later generation, the United States even urged Iran to begin a large-scaled nuclear power program to save its abundant oil reserves. U.S. leaders’ open embrace of the repressive shah so soon after the CIA had overthrown an extremely popular Iranian leader enraged most Iranians. One leading opponent of the Shah and his modernization program, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared, “Let the American President know that in the eyes of the Iranian people, he is the most repulsive member of the human race today because of the injustice he has imposed our Muslim nation.” For this and other outbursts, the Shah’s government exiled Khomeini from his homeland in 1964. Over the next fifteen years, the Iranian cleric kept p a steady stream of invective against both the Shah and his U.S. backers from Iraq and Paris.
Iranian discontent continued to grow, fueled by the 1970s economic slowdown. Despite the Shah’s dismal human rights record, Carter backed additional arms sales to Iran, which had already been receiving more than any other nation. Ties between Carter and the Shah, whom the New York Times described as “a rule as close to an absolute monarch as exists these days,” seemed to be strengthening, provoking many to decry Carter’s hypocrisy on human rights. The Iranian royal couple paid a visit to the Carters in November 1977, staying at the White House. During their discussions, Carter gave preliminary approval to the sale of six to eight light-water nuclear reactors to Iran. When combined with the fourteen to sixteen that the Shah was negotiating to buy from France and West Germany, Iran would have a substantial nuclear power program.
Hoping to show support for their beleaguered ally, President and Mrs. Carter shared an ornate and lavish New Year’s Eve with the Shah in Tehran as protesters demonstrated in both nations’ capitals. Five crystal wineglasses adorned the place setting of each of the four hundred guests. Carter was effusive in his praise for his host: “Our talks have been priceless, our friendship is irreplaceable, and my own gratitude is to the Shah, who in his wisdom and with his experience has been so helpful to me, a new leader. There is no leader with whom I have a deeper sense of personal gratitude and personal friendship.”
In subsequent months, huge protests renewed across Iran. In September, the Shah imposed martial law. Brzezinski urged Carter to either aggressively support the shah, or support a military coup. Fearing that the Soviets would seize the opportunity to move into the Gulf, he asked the Pentagon to draw up plans for the United States to occupy Iran’s oil fields. In December, he warned Carter that the United States faced “the most massive American defeat since the beginning of the Cold War, overshadowing in its real consequences the setback in Vietnam.” Brzezinski maneuvered behind the scenes to see if a coup was possible. Ambassador William Sullivan recalled, “I received a telephone call relaying a message from Brzezinski, who asked whether I thought I could arrange a military coup against the revolution. … I regret the reply I made is unprintable.”
In January 1979, the Shah fled his country. Brzezinski feared a Communist takeover. In what turned out to be a colossal failure of intelligence, the CIA and State Department downplayed the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. Henry Precht, the State Department’s Iran desk officer, recounted how he figured out what was brewing:
Late in November 1978, we called in all the experts on Iran…to discuss what to do about Iran and what was going to happen…the night before I’d guest-lectured at a class at American University, and…there were a lot of Iranian students there…when I asked them what they thought was going to happen in Iran, they all said: Islamic government. The next day, at our conference, we went around the room all saying what we thought would happen, and people were saying things like, “There will be a liberal government, with the National Front, and Khomeini will go to Qom.” When my turn came I said, “Islamic government.” I was the only one.
In February, seventy-seven-year-old Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran to a hero’s welcome and set about establishing an Islamic republic based on Sharia law. The goal was to create a new caliphate. The head of the Iran branch at Langley assured the CIA’s Tehran station: “Don’t worry about another embassy attack. The only thing that could trigger an attack would be if the Shah was let into the United States – and no one in this town is stupid enough to do that.” No one, that is, except for Carter, who buckled under pressure from Kissinger, David Rockefeller, Brzezinski, and other friends of the shah. The Iranian public erupted in anger. In November, students burst into the embassy and seized fifty-two American hostages, whom they held for 444 days. Fearing Soviet intervention to quell the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism, Carter rushed twenty-five warships to the Persian Gulf, including three nuclear-armed aircraft carriers, and 1,800 marines. He also blocked the release of Iranian assets in the United States and cut off oil imports from Iran.
When those measures didn’t lead to the hostages’ release, the American public grew restive. Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan alerted Carter to the fact that “the American people are frustrated at our country’s inability to do anything to free the prisoners and retaliate in a fashion that makes us feel better about ourselves.” But Carter continued to show restraint. Khomeini’s mistrust of the Soviet Union and his left-wing Iranian allies limited the extent to which the Soviets could exploit the situation. Khomeini’s anti-Soviet feelings deepened when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and hardened further after Soviet-allied Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980.
The Americans were lucky in one regard in terms of Iran. As part of Eisenhower’s “atoms for peace” program, the United States had sold dozens of research reactors to countries all over the world, including Iran, and had been supplying highly enriched uranium to fuel them. Some of the reactors used fuel enriched to 93 percent. Shortly before the Shah’s ouster, the United States had sold Iran fifty-eight pounds of weapons-grade uranium. Fortunately, the fuel had not yet been delivered when the revolutionary government seized power, and the sale was suspended.
Crises seemed to be flaring all over. Central America, after suffering decades of poverty under U.S.-backed right-wing dictators, was ready to explode by the late 1970s. In Nicaragua, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, named after martyred guerilla leader Augusto Sandino, threatened to overthrow President Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The Somoza family’s brutal and corrupt forty-three-year rule had united the impoverished citizens in opposition. Carter administration officials feared that a Sandinista victory would embolden revolutionary forces in neighboring countries, especially Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Brzezinski argued for military intervention, citing the humiliation of appearing “incapable of dealing with problems in our own backyard.” While Carter weighed his options, the Sandinistas seized power in July 1979 – Latin America’s first successful revolution since Cuba’s twenty years earlier – and began an ambitious program of land, education, and health reform. They put out feelers for better relations with the United States, and Congress responded by appropriating $75 million in emergency aid to the new government. But as reports surfaced that Nicaragua was transferring arms from Cuba into El Salvador, Carter halted aid twelve days before Reagan took office in January 1981.
Carter also faced a moment of reckoning in El Salvador, where a small group of wealthy landowners – the Forty Families – had ruled for over a century, using any means at their disposal to subdue the impoverished masses. Death-squad murders increased in the 1970s to quell growing popular resistance. Following the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the various insurgent groups had coalesced to form the Frente Faribundo Mari para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN). By late 1980, with the FMLN insurgents poised to triumph, Carter, pressured by Brzezinski, opted to restore military aid to the dictatorship.
A storm was also gathering in Afghanistan, a backward nation with a per capital annual income of only $70 in 1974. In 1976, the State Department reported that the United States “is not, nor should it become, committed to, or responsible for the ‘protection’ of Afghanistan in any respect.” But things changed when pro-Soviet rebels led by Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin seized power in April 1978. Taraki, the new head of state, proclaimed, “The future for the people looks very bright.” New York Times reporter William Borders took issue with that assessment: “By the standards of almost any place else in the world, however, the future really does not look all that bright – not in a land where the life expectancy is 40 years, where infant mortality is 18 percent and no more than one person in ten can read.” Borders continued, “Afghanistan has very few highways and not one mile railway, and most of its people live either as nomads or as impoverished farmers in brown mud villages behind high walls, a life scarcely different from what it was when Alexander the Great passed this way 2,000 years ago.”
The Soviet Union, which had friendly relations with the previous government, actually opposed the coup, despite the prior government’s repressive behavior toward Afghan Communists. The new government’s reform policies – particularly educational programs for women, land reform, and plans for industrialization – and harshly repressive tactics animated the growing insurgency by Afghan mujahideen, Islamist hoy warriors operating out Pakistan. A civil war was soon raging.
The United States cast its lot with the mujahideen. Carter, uncomfortable with the religious zealotry and reactionary views of the insurgents, initially rejected Brzezinski’s plans for covert operations against the new government. Brzezinski instead worked with the CIA to train and secure outside funding for the rebels. In February, Islamic extremists in Kabul kidnapped U.S. Ambassador Adolph “Spike” Dubs, who was killed when Afghan police and Soviet advisors stormed the hotel in which he was being held. The United States subsequently deepened its involvement in the country.
Brzezinski saw more opportunity than danger in the growing Islamic fundamentalism. For several years, the United States had been working with Iranian and Pakistani intelligence to develop a right-wing Islamic fundamentalist movement within Pakistan that would challenge governments sympathetic to the Soviet Union. Brzezinski later acknowledged that the United States had been supporting the mujahideen even before the Soviet invasion: “It was July 3, 1979, that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day I wrote a note to the president in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention.”
Brzezinski understood the Soviets’ fear that the Afghan insurgency would spark an uprising by the 40 million Muslims in Soviet Central Asia. Afghan leaders had been pressing Moscow to send troops to quell the uprising and the Russians rebuffed their requests. Brezhnev instead urged them to ease repression of political opponents. Soviet leaders concluded correctly that the Americans were instigating the insurgency in cooperation with extremist elements in Iran and Pakistan. They figured that China might also be playing a role. But they still hesitated to intervene. Gromyko summed up their concerns: “We would be largely throwing away everything we achieved with such difficulty, particularly détente, the SALT-II negotiations would fly by the wayside, there would be no signing of an agreement (and however you look at it that is for us the greatest political priority), there would be no meeting of [Brezhnev] with Carter,…and our relations with Western countries, particularly the FRG, would be spoiled.”
The Soviets opted to oust Amin, the driving force behind the repression, and replace him with Taraki. But the plan backfired, leaving Taraki dead and Amin more firmly entrenched in power. Not only did Amin then widen the repression, he also reached out to the United States for help. Dreading the thought of a pro-American regime on their southern border, replete with U.S. troops and Pershing II missiles, Soviet leaders decided to replace Amin with Babrak Karmal, despite knowing that the resulting instability might require them to send troops into the country. Military leaders opposed intervention, fearing that it would incite a unified Muslim response that would bog them down for years in a place they had no business being in. But Brezhnev foolishly insisted the war would be over in three to four weeks. His decision to send troops was made easier by the fact that détente with the West had already begun to unravel with growing U.S. opposition to ratifying SALT II and NATO’s decision to deploy new intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe. Still, as historian Melvyn Leffler reminded readers, “When they made their decision to intervene in Afghanistan, Soviet leaders saw threat, not opportunity.”
Defying his wary military advisors, Brezhnev deployed over 100,000 Soviet troops on Christmas Day, 1979. Up to the very eve of the invasion, the CIA kept assuring Carter that no such action was forthcoming. The world scoffed at the Soviet claim that it was defending against covert U.S. efforts to destabilize a government friendly to Moscow on the Soviet Union’s border. Brzezinski cheered the invasion, believing he had lured Moscow into its own Vietnam trap.
In full Cold War mode by that point, Carter called the invasion of Afghanistan “the greatest threat to peace since the Second World War” – a statement so hyperbolic that New York Times columnist Russel Baker felt compelled to remind his of the Berlin Blockade, the Korean War, the Suez crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the war in Vietnam. In his January 23, 1980, State of the Union address, Carter declared:
The region which is now threatened by Soviet troops in Afghanistan is of great strategic importance: It contains more than two-thirds of the world’s exportable oil. The Soviet effort to dominate Afghanistan has brought Soviet military forces to within 300 miles of the Indian Ocean and close to the Straits of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world’s oil must flow. The Soviet Union is now attempting to consolidate a strategic position, therefore, that poses a grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil. … Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.
The final sentence, which became enshrined as the Carter Doctrine, was interpreted in the Kremlin as a clear threat of war – even nuclear war. Vance attempted to remove it from the address, striking it from the draft that the State Department submitted to the White House. Brzezinski fought to keep it in, convincing Press Secretary Jody Powell that without it the speech was devoid of content. Powell persuaded Carter that his national security advisor was right.
Interviewed the following month on NBC News, Assistant Secretary of State William Dyess reiterated the threat, pointing out that “the Soviets know that this terrible weapon has been dropped on human beings twice in history and it was an American president who dropped it both times.”
The Soviets thought that U.S. accusations of Soviet aggression in the Middle East were preposterous, yet Carter withdrew the U.S. ambassador from Moscow and took SALT II off the table. He cut trade between the two countries, banned U.S. athletes from participating in the upcoming Moscow Olympics, increased defense spending, and sent Secretary of Defense Harold Brown to China to sound out Chinese leaders about establishing military ties.
As many of Brezhnev’s advisors had warned, the Soviet intervention did spark a much larger uprising on the part of Islamists both inside and outside Afghanistan. Resistance groups based in Peshawar, Pakistan, joined with madrassa-trained zealots from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan to aid the Afghan resistance fighters. In Islamabad, thirty-five Muslim nations condemned the Soviet aggression. Brzezinski began looking for ways to fan the flames of potential discontent among Muslims in Soviet Central Asia. In earlier decades, the United States had employed Islamic fundamentalism as a weapon in the fight against secular Arab nationalism. It would now use Islamic extremism against the Soviet Union. But that meant cooperating with Pakistan’s president, General Muhamad Zia-ul-Haq. Carter had cut off aid to his repressive government in 1977 because of Zia’s contempt for human rights and his nuclear weapons program. Now, within days of the invasion, Carter offered Zia hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of military and economic aid in return for supporting the Islamist insurgents. In February 1980, Brzezinski traveled to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to work out financial and military collaboration. Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal told a CIA officers, “We don’t do operations. We don’t know how. All we know how to do is write checks.” The Saudi’s agreed to match the U.S. contributions.
Despite Carter’s sabre rattling, the United States would not have been able to repel a Soviet invasion of the Gulf, short of beginning a nuclear war. Carter therefore took measure to rectify that situation. He built up a rapid deployment force with new bases in Somalia, Kenya, and Oman from which several thousand U.S. troops could be quickly deployed to the Gulf in a crisis. He strengthened ties with friendly governments in the region, such as Saudi Arabia. And he made a major adjustment in nuclear strategy, issuing Presidential Directive 59, which changed the U.S. nuclear war-fighting strategy from fighting wars of mutually assured destruction to fighting “flexible” and “limited” nuclear wars that the United States could win. Not only did Carter’s effort to eliminate nuclear weapons fall flat, PD-59 initiated a massive increase in conventional and nuclear arms. Under it, the United States prepared to fight a protracted nuclear war, first targeting Soviet leaders, while holding attacks on cities in abeyance.
Thus were dashed, once and for all, the hopes that Carter embodied for a safer and more peaceful world. During his one term in office, he managed to support research on the neutron bomb, authorize deployment of nuclear-armed cruise missiles to Europe, commission the first Trident submarine, and double the number of warheads aimed at the Soviet Union. Thus, despite having Carter in the White House, the CPD’s campaign to defeat SALT II and increase defense spending had succeeded beyond its wildest dreams. In fact, by the end of his term, Carter had done a complete about-face and bought the CPD’s view of an aggressive Soviet Union that had to be contained. Détente was dead. Carter even repudiated his earlier criticism of the Vietnam War. Vietnam veterans had long since become freedom fighters who “went to Vietnam without any desire to capture territory or to impose American will on other people.” Despite his best intentions, he had laid the groundwork for the extreme views that Ronald Reagan would bring to the White House. As Anne Cahn summarized in her book Killing Détente:
By the 1980 presidential election, the choice in foreign and defense policy was between that of the Carter administration, which favored the MX missile, the Trident submarine, a Rapid Deployment Force, a “stealth” bomber, cruise missiles, counterforce targeting leading to a first-strike capability, and a 5 percent increase in defense spending, and that of the Republicans under Ronald Reagan, who favored all of these plus the neutron bomb, antiballistic missiles, the B-1 bomber, civil defense, and an 8 percent increase in defense spending.
Not only did Carter not fulfill his promise to sharply reduce defense spending, he significantly increased it, from $115.2 billion in his first budget to $180 billion in his final one. Nor was he apologetic about this reversal. During his reelection campaign, he even got into a proxy war with the Republicans over the issue. Appearing on the Today show in early July, Defense Secretary Harold Brown attacked the Republicans for cutting defense spending by more than 35 percent between 1969 and 1976, whereas the Carter administration had raised it by 10 percent during its time in office and planned to raise it an additional 25 percent during its second term. Former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird challenged Brown’s math but admitted that defense spending had gone up faster under Carter than under Nixon or Ford.
From the Soviet vantage point, U.S. behavior was quite alarming. As future CIA director Robert Gates later admitted, “the Soviets saw a very different Jimmy Carter than did most Americans by 1980, different and more hostile and threatening.” At that point, Soviet leaders didn’t know what to expect from Carter. In later 1979 and early 1980, the U.S. early-warning system malfunctioned on four occasions, triggering combat alerts of U.S. strategic forces. The KGB believed that they were not malfunctions but deliberate Pentagon ploys to lower Soviet anxiety and response time during future alerts by lulling them into a false sense of complacency, thereby making them vulnerable to a surprise attack. The Soviets weren’t the only ones frightened by the episodes. Gates reported Brzezinski’s account to him of the November 9, 1979, incident in his memoirs:
Brzezinski was awakened at three in the morning by [his military assistant William] Odom, who told him that some 220 Soviet missiles had been launched against the United States. Brzezinski knew that the President’s decision time to order retaliation was from three to seven minutes after a Soviet launch. Thus, he told Odom he would stand by for a further call to confirm a Soviet launch and the intended targets before calling the President. Brzezinski was convinced we had to hit back and told Odom to confirm that the Strategic Air Command was launching its planes. When Odom called back, he reported that he had further confirmation, but that 2,200 missiles had been launched – it was an all-out attack. One minute before Brzezinski intended to telephone the President, Odom called a third time to say that other warning systems were not reporting Soviet launches. Sitting alone in the middle of the night, Brzezinski had not awakened his wife, reckoning that everyone would be dead in half an hour. It had been a false alarm. Someone had mistakenly put military exercise tapes into the computer system. When it was over, Zbig just went back to bed. I doubt he slept much, though.
The dangerous incident, which was leaked to the press, caused alarm in the Kremlin. Ambassador Dobrynin conveyed Brezhnev’s “extreme anxiety” over what happened. Brzezinski and the Defense Department drafted the response, which senior State Department advisor Marshall Shulman characterized as “gratuitously insulting and inappropriate for the Carter/Brezhnev channel.” Shulman considered it “kindergarten stuff – not worthy of the United States” and wondered, “Why do we have to be so gratuitously snotty?”
Beset by a struggling economy and a series of poorly handed foreign policy crisis, Carter appeared weak and out of touch as the 1980 election approached. Perhaps the final nail in his coffin came in April 1980, when the United States completely bungled a hostage rescue attempt, leaving eight Americans dead in the Iranian desert after a helicopter collided with a refueling plane. The Iranian government triumphantly displayed the charred bodies, adding to the humiliation. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who had consistently opposed this harebrained scheme, resigned in protest – something no secretary of state had done since William Jennings Bryan. He wrote his letter of resignation four days before the ill-fated raid. Columnist Mary McGrory noted that Vance had served in the Johnson administration during another war he had come to opposed and knew full well that his resignation would be divisive at a critical time. In fact, she wrote, “He apparently intends it to be. He found out a long time ago that keeping your mouth shut during discussion of madness is often the greatest disservice you can do your country.” Carter’s approval rating plummeted 40 percent.
Although widely recognized as the most respected member of the administration, Vance had been increasingly marginalized for quite some time as Brzezinski’s hawkish viewed drowned out Vance’s efforts at diplomacy. Vance’s influence had steadily waned and, by the late 1970s, virtually disappeared. The Washington Post observed, “Mr. Vance had fallen out of phase with the president The secretary, and the early Carter, spoke for a benevolent and rationalistic world in which the United States, by accommodating certain legitimate imperatives of others, would find its proper place. The world to which Mr. Carter, much more than Mr. Vance, has sought to adjust recently is one in which factors of power and perversity loom large.” As the Wall Street Journal noted, the motivating force behind Vance’s decision was “the increasingly hawkish tone in the administration’s foreign policy,” beginning in 1978 with the president “buying the case put by…Brzezinski.” Vance weighed in a few days later, telling an interviewer that the national security advisor should act as the coordinator of different views, “But he should be the one who makes foreign policy or who expresses foreign policy to the public.”
Carter himself entered the fray a few days later. In what seemed a very petty reaction, he told a Philadelphia town meeting that his new secretary of state, Edmund Muskie, would be “a much stronger and more statesmanlike senior citizen figure who will be a more evocative spokesman for our nation’s policy” than Vance had been. For Carter, who had been holed-up in the White House throughout the Iran hostage crisis, a symbolic hostage of his own making, it was the first major public address outside Washington in over six months.
Following the Iranian Revolution, U.S. officials cozied up to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, whom they saw as a regional counterweight to the hostile Iranian regime. They feared that Iranian-style Islamic fundamentalism could threaten pro-American regimes in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. Brzezinski strategized ways to sever Iraq from the Soviet orbit. In September 1980, Saddam, with at least tacit U.S. approval, invaded neighboring Iran, attacking across the Shatt al-Arab waterway leading to the Persian Gulf. Iraq, however, did not secure the easy victory that U.S. intelligence sources had predicted. Within a week, the United Nations called for a cease-fire. In late October, Carter, playing both sides, announced that if the Iranians released the U.S. hostages, the United States would send the $300 to $500 million in arms that had been purchase by the prior regime.
Reaganites smelled an “October surprise” that would hand Carter the election. In what Carter White House Iran aide and Columbia University political scientist Gary Sick called “a political coup,” a group of Reagan supporters were alleged to have cut a deal with the Iranian government. At the time, the presidential race was still tight. Some mid-October polls even had Carter in the lead. The details are murky and impossible to confirm, but it appears that Reagan campaign officials met with Iranian leaders and promised to allow Israel to ship arms to Iran if Iran would hold the hostages until Reagan won the election. In response to a 1991 query from Indiana Congressman Lee Hamilton, the Supreme Soviet’s Committee on Defense and Security Issues reported that a series of secret meetings had taken place in Europe between top Reagan campaign officials and Iranian officials. The Soviet report identified Reagan campaign manager and future CIA Director William Casey, vice presidential candidate and former CIA Director George Bush, and NSC staffer and future CIA Director Robert Gates as attending and offering substantially more military supplies than the Carter team was offering. Iran released the embassy personnel on January 21, 1981, Reagan’s first day in office. The United States continued arms sales to Iran via Israel, often channeled through private dealers, for several years. An early chance to end the war, which Saddam offered to do in return for Iraqi control of the Shatt al-Arab waterway and an Iranian promise not to interfere in Iraq, was also squandered. With the United States helping fuel the conflict, the Iran-Iraq War would continue for eight years, leaving, some estimate, over a million dead and costing over a trillion dollars.
Next, Chapter 11: THE REAGAN YEARS – Death Squads for Democracy