Michael Gordon Jackson

First Case Study – The Carter Administration and the Neutron Bomb

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First Case Study – The Carter Administration and the Neutron Bomb

Origins and Development of the Neutron Bomb

Like Edward Teller, who is known as the father of the hydrogen bomb, Samuel T. Cohen is rightly described as the scientist who invented the neutron bomb. Until his death in 2010, he was a fierce and unapologetic defender of ERWs. Beginning in the summer of 1958, Cohen was convinced that if the uranium casing of a hydrogen bomb were removed, the neutrons released would travel great distances, penetrating even well shielded structures such as tanks with lethal doses of radiation, killing anyone inside and nearby. As Cohen argued, the neutron bomb, “…has been described as a weapon that primarily destroys human beings rather than physical objects” with “bursts of radiation and minimal blast and heat.” In short, “…a weapon that promises greater military effectiveness, fewer civilian casualties, and less property damage.”(Cohen, 1978, p. 76-77). Not only were there obvious military and political advantages associated with neutron bombs, there was also a clear moral case to be made for deploying them. In one of his last interviews before his death, Cohen strongly maintained,

“It’s the most sane and moral weapon ever devised…It’s the only nuclear weapon in history that makes sense in waging war. When the war is over, the world is still intact.” (McFadden, 2010)


Advocates for neutron bombs were impressed with the idea that a small initial blast and limited fallout was ideal for use in densely populated areas within Central Europe. However, from the beginning, there was political and military opposition to the idea. Opponents stressed that the neutron bomb made the idea of using nuclear weapons in war more conceivable. By limiting casualties to combatants and limiting damage to property, it could make it more usable and likely to be employed. The taboo against the use any nuclear weapons might be removed. The risks of nuclear escalation, at first, overruled the perceived military battlefield advantages of neutron bombs. In 1961, the Kennedy Administration rejected the idea of integrating the use of ERWs within US force structures. It concluded that its deployment could threaten the moratorium on nuclear testing just agreed to by the United States and the Soviet Union.

However, after the Soviets broke the moratorium, testing of neutron bombs was allowed. In 1962, the first neutron devices were successfully tested. Then, beginning in 1977, the Carter administration began to seriously consider whether to authorize the full production and deployment of ERWs. Proponents with the administration argued that in order to modernize the US nuclear deterrent and war fighting capabilities, it would be necessary to put neutron warheads on new Lance missiles and nuclear artillery designed to defend Western Europe. However, the road to deployment of ERWs would be a rocky one, with significant opposition, greatly complicating President Carter’s decision-making about the use of neutron weapons.

The Political & Strategic Context of the Neutron Bomb Controversy 1977-1978

By the time Jimmy Carter came to office in 1977, a great deal of thinking and action about whether to produce and deploy this type of weapon had already taken place during the Ford Administration. This was an era when strategic doctrine stressed the theory of “flexible response” instead of the inflexibilities of mutual assured destruction (MAD). And, serious consideration about preparing for limited nuclear war had taken place within the Ford Administration. As Defense Secretary James Schlesinger put it, “What we are seeking once again is the ability to conduct constrained nuclear warfare, so that if deterrence were to fail…the use of nuclear weapons would not result in [an] orgy of destruction.” (Auger, 1996, p. 22). With support from the Congress, Schlesinger in May 1975 issued a report about the desirability of modernizing theater nuclear forces; he also mentioned the need to develop a new ERW warhead for the proposed Lance missile systems. In November 1976, President Ford signed off and authorized the production of ERWs.

However, with the new Carter Administration, Jimmy Carter was determined to reduce the role of using the threat of nuclear weapons in order to defend the US. In his inaugural address, his administration would actively seek to reduce the dangers of nuclear war,

“The world is still engaged in a massive armaments race designed to ensure continuing equivalent strength among potential adversaries. We pledge perseverance and wisdom in our efforts to limit the world's armaments to those necessary for each nation's own domestic safety. And we will move this year a step toward our 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” (Jimmy Carter, 1977).

Carter’s intentions were quite genuine. However, it would soon face a storm from decisions made earlier by the Ford Administration about funding ERWs. With only a few months on the job, the administration was suddenly faced with a full scale controversy, namely the desirability and morality of this new weapon.

Given a heads up, Walter Pincus of the Washington Post on June 6, 1977 broke the story that the Carter Administration was considering the production of a neutron weapon that killed people, not property (Pincus, 1977). Within the Energy Research & Development Administration (ERDA) budget, funding for it had been approved “Neutron Gate “was in full swing. A flurry of mostly negative articles and media commentaries ensued. Most high officials in the administration had never even heard of the neutron bomb. An NSC staff member recalled that the “political center” of the administration was “quite literally unaware of the weapon, even though it was in the Administration’s own budget Carter himself said that he was not aware of this funding and impending project before the Pincus article was published.

For the next 11 months, the Carter Administration was shaken by both advocates and critics of ERWS from the media, the Congress, NATO alliance members, and vociferous opposition from the Soviet Union. The record does suggest that within the administration it was not clear among key officials about what steps to take. At times, the Federal Republic of Germany appeared to support deployment of ERWs upon German soil; at other times, there was real opposition, e.g., one West German politician calling neutron bombs “symbols of moral perversity.” NATO planners debated with the US about whether ERWs were needed. Then there would be momentum in favor of deployment, with reversals in position taking place in response to negative public opinion within their own countries. However, key US officials in charge of pushing for neutron bombs seemed to think that their efforts were in step with the presidents wishes. On March 8 the Dutch Parliament voted 100-40 against deployment of neutron bombs. Then, in a rapid series of decisions, Carter finally made clear his misgivings about the whole project. On March 19, 1978 the president surprised Secretary of State Vance, National Security Advisor Brzezinski, and Defense Secretary Brown. They had all assumed the road to deployment was had been favored by Carter. The president then rejected a detailed memorandum written by them that outlined the next steps for deployment of ERWs within NATO. The next day, Carter announced cancellation of an upcoming NATO meeting in which the US would announce to its allies that it would produce and deploy neutron bombs. In early April, the New York Times announced that Carter was now against deployment.. On April 7, 1977, President Carter formally announced that his decision was to “defer” production of neutron bombs in order to further the spirit of arms controls initiatives like SALT II andMBFR (Burt, 1977). Though technically only deferred, for all intents and purposes, Carter had cancelled the neutron bomb project by the US.

This decision resulted in a firestorm of harsh criticism leveled against President Carter by the media, politicians and NATO alliance partners. He was described as weak, incapable of making or sticking to tough decisions, confused about his own policies, adrift and directionless, lacking control over his own bureaucracy, and guilty of poor communication with his aides. The key question was why Carter made the decision he made? Was it for political and strategic reasons? Or, as will be argued, was it the fact that ultimately he could not proceed by approving the production of a new weapons that killed people but not damaged building? In his eyes, it was an immoral weapon. That in fact a decision in favor of ERWs would have gravely weakened his moral determination to help rid the world of the dangers of nuclear war?

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