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Journal of Policy History 14.3 (2002) 261-292

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The Carter Administration and the Evolution of American Nuclear Nonproliferation Policy, 1977-1981

J. Michael Martinez

In the wake of India's May 1998 decision to resume nuclear testing for the first time since 1974, as well as arch-rival Pakistan's subsequent response, the attention of the world again has focused on nuclear nonproliferation policy as a means of maintaining stability in politically troubled regions of the world. 1 The 1990s proved to be an uncertain time for nonproliferation policy. 2 Pakistan acquired nuclear capabilities. 3 Iraq displayed its well-known intransigence by refusing to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) arms inspectors access to facilities suspected of manufacturing nuclear weapons. 4 North Korea maintained a nuclear weapons program despite opposition from many Western nations. 5 Troubling questions about nuclear holdings persisted in Argentina, Brazil, and South Africa. 6 New nuclear powers were created in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. 7 Even the renewal of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons in 1995 failed to assuage the concerns of Western powers fearful of aggressive measures undertaken by rogue nuclear proliferants. 8

Although its importance has varied depending on other developments on the world stage, the nonproliferation issue has never completely disappeared from foreign policy calculations. Every American president since the end of World War II has had to reassess nuclear deterrence policies to a greater or lesser extent; as a result, American nonproliferation policy has undergone enormous [End Page 261] changes from 1945 to the present. 9 Beginning at the end of World War II until about 1960, the United States sought to prevent the Soviet Union and its satellites from developing nuclear weapons while simultaneously encouraging U.S. allies to develop defensive nuclear capabilities. For their part, the Soviets pursued a similar policy with countries of the Warsaw Pact. After France tested a nuclear bomb, the Superpowers changed their strategies and pursued strict nonproliferation policies after 1960. 10 Prior to the development of the first international nonproliferation agreement—the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), signed by the Johnson administration in 1968 and ratified under the Nixon administration two years later—nonproliferation generally was a secondary geopolitical issue. 11 Since the NPT was adopted, and especially since the Carter administration came to power in 1977, it has assumed center stage at crucial points in our history. 12

Although many specific policies developed during the 1970s have been modified since that time, the current framework for thinking about nonproliferation and its linkage to the domestic nuclear industry began during the Carter administration; for that reason, the thirty-ninth president's policies are especially relevant to the present. Initiatives to limit the spread of nuclear weapons had been debated since at least the Truman administration, but Carter changed the tenor of the debate. He came to the White House as a new era was dawning. The Cold War was not yet over, but the new president was looking to a future when the strategic arms race should be halted because it exacerbated tensions in an already tense stalemate between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its satellite states. 13

A series of domestic and international events highlighted the dangers of nuclear weapons during that decade. Congress ratified the 1968 NPT in 1970, but it remained on the periphery of the Nixon administration's foreign policy agenda in light of other, more pressing Cold War concerns. In May 1974, the analysis changed when India tested a nuclear device, thereby dramatically demonstrating the power exercised by any nation that possessed nuclear technology, including the technology necessary to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. 14 In effect, India served notice to the United States that nuclear nonproliferation was no longer a tangential foreign policy issue. 15

A month after the Indian incident, President Richard M. Nixon visited Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in the Middle East and announced [End Page 262] a plan to...


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