It was July 21, 1977, and Jimmy Carter was standing in a high school gymnasium in tiny Yazoo City, Mississippi, with his jacket off and his sleeves rolled up. The president was sweating.
That might’ve been because the air conditioning had broken down in the southern summer heat, but a pointed question on a topic he was hoping to avoid could also have been to blame.
“I understand the effect of the neutron bomb will serve to devastate human life through the spread of radiation while leaving property, military structures, and other tangible objects relatively unaffected through the minimal blast and heat effect,” a young man in the audience said. “In light of this, what is the rationale behind your encouragement of a production of a weapon of this nature, which would seem to prioritize property over the preservation of human life?”
Carter gamely thanked the questioner and said, “I have not yet decided whether to produce the neutron bomb or to deploy it among our own forces in Europe and other places … I have not yet studied the subject.”
But despite claiming he had not studied it, Carter then launched into a spirited defense of the weapon, arguing that the use of any nuclear weapon is “horrible” and he never hoped to use one, but the neutron bomb would allow U.S. or allied forces to move into the affected area more quickly than if a different kind of nuclear warhead were used. The young man was basically correct in that the proposed neutron bomb was designed to do less kinetic, explosive damage to structures and more to kill enemy forces through radiation that would then dissipate relatively quickly — but that was a good thing, Carter said.
“I might point out to you, too, that an M-16 rifle destroys human life and not the buildings and property,” he said. “This is not a new concept in war when the destruction of enemy forces is the prime objective. So, I don’t believe that the neutron bomb is more wicked or immoral than the present nuclear weapons we have and the Soviets have as well … So I’ll make a decision later this summer … And I hope and pray that I’ll make the right decision.”
What the young man and the American public didn’t know at the time — and what must’ve prompted a few tight smiles in the Kremlin later — was that he had just repeated almost word-for-word what the CIA would identify as a key talking point co-opted by the Soviets in part of what declassified documents describe as a massive, international propaganda operation. It was designed to do one thing: get Carter to say “no” to the production of the neutron bomb.
“This operation made use of every of printed and electronic medium, and was supported by a variety of front organizations, with their own means of influencing opinion,” an introductory letter to a September 1977 CIA study on the then-ongoing campaign said. “The study demonstrates the great resources of the Soviet Union in this field, and the ease with which they can advance their own interests and damage those of the U.S.”
At least for a time, the Russians got what they wanted. In the spring of 1978, Carter announced the U.S. would not produce or deploy the neutron bomb.
At a Halloween party in 1984, then-CIA Director William Casey told his guests, “We figure that the Soviets spent on the order of $100 million to pull that off.”
Carter and the Neutron Bomb
Carter was hardly the first president to grapple with the question of developing the neutron bomb, and he wasn’t the first to deal with that particular man-vs.-buildings argument against it.
Back in August 1961 a reporter referenced the neutron bomb and asked then-President John F. Kennedy, “Can you give us your estimate of the feasibility of developing a weapon which could destroy human beings without destroying real estate values?”
Kennedy responded, “No.”
By the time Carter won the 1976 election, however, the strategic calculation of the Cold War had brought renewed focus on the issue. “[A] dozen years of single-minded Soviet effort and a huge expenditure of resources had enabled the Soviets to close the strategic gap and establish a favorable military balance in Europe…,” former CIA Director Robert Gates wrote in 1996.
One idea in the minds of U.S. strategic planners to counter the Soviet conventional force build-up was to deploy tactical nuclear weapons to NATO bases in Europe. (This is how the U.S. ended up making real-life nuclear landmines.)
Among these smaller nuclear weapons, proponents envisioned the Enhanced Radiation Weapon (ERW), better known to the public as the neutron bomb.
“[The weapon] derives its destructive power not from the heat and concussive force associated with conventional thermonuclear weapons, but from intense, though limited and short-lived, bursts of lethal radiation,” says a Heritage Foundation report from 1978. “Fitted to short-range missiles and tactical nuclear artillery pieces currently deployed in Central Europe, (the Lance missile, for example) the neutron weapon would be especially effective against blitzkrieg-type frontal attack by the Warsaw Pact on NATO defense positions in West Germany.”
Sincere critics of the weapon argued that the “very ‘controllability’ of the weapon invites its early use against conventional attack, thus lowering the nuclear threshold and heightening the specter of retaliation and devastating escalation,” Heritage said.
But as Carter dithered over whether to produce and deploy the weapon, the Kremlin apparently saw a way to defeat the weapon before it even got off the production line. They would hijack those legitimate criticisms with what Gates called “one of the most aggressive covert operations ever mounted in Europe by the Soviets” and push Carter to cancel the neutron bomb for them.
‘Massive Propaganda Campaign’
A former Soviet official, who was at the time a junior diplomat, told RealClearLife he doubted the CIA’s $100 million price-tag and said that any influence campaign was likely more general in its scope than focused solely on the neutron bomb.
However, the 1977 CIA study on Soviet propaganda said that the agency originally set out to analyze a handful of “themes” including the neutron bomb, but found that “the data so overwhelmingly centered on the neutron bomb issue that the analysis was confined to this subject.”
“FBIS [Foreign Broadcast Information Service] statistics… suggest that the earliest sustained propaganda on the neutron bomb came from Moscow and that the Soviets escalated this attack in later weeks to support the propaganda campaign as it got underway elsewhere,” the report says.
Within days the campaign hit Eastern Europe and “employed all channels of public communications: press, radio, television, petitions, public letter writing and demonstration,” all of which “faithfully mirrored the Soviet effort.”
From there, the study says that “front groups” organized demonstrations from Istanbul to Bonn, all the way to Lima, Peru, mixing with legitimate anti-nuclear protests.
“The purpose of the front group activity was to keep protest momentum going and to draw non-communists into the campaign, particularly in Western Europe,” the study says. “To the extent that this could be accomplished, what had begun as largely a Soviet effort could now appear as a general public reaction to the horrors of the neutron bomb.”
In communist-leaning and other friendly newspaper outlets, the Soviets’ work was done in op-ed after op-ed.
“Given the emotional themes which were raised in the neutron bomb debate — saving buildings rather than people; the hypocrisy of Americans advocating human rights in the face of the bomb production; the endangering of detente — it was an old-fashioned editorial binge which many papers would not deny themselves,” the CIA study says.
Even some highly respected moderate publications were useful because after such publicity in one part of the world, the CIA said they felt the obligation to cover the issue and “carry both sides” of the argument. The CIA study cited the International Herald Tribune‘s publication of an op-ed by Soviet Nobel Laureate Nikolai Semionov that railed against the bomb. The CIA judged it a “priceless” propaganda coup.
A 1981 analysis by the U.S. State Department said that “not all opposition to the U.S. decision to produce the enhanced radiation weapon is Soviet inspired,” but the CIA said that in 1977 the “volume of propaganda against the neutron bomb, the timing and programmed developments within that outburst, and the re-occurrence of identical themes suggest only one possibility: an intricate Soviet propaganda campaign involving heavy Moscow media play, an East European cacophony, international front group action, direct media placement where possible in non-communist areas and the stimulation in the West of critical media comment.”
“In this, the Soviets were successful,” the study concluded.
The timeline of the CIA study ends upon its publication in September 1977, but the 1981 State Department analysis says what it covered was only “Phase one” of the Soviet push.
“Phase two,” beginning in January 1978 involved a high-level political letter campaign by then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and other Russian officials to numerous Western politicians, warning that the neutron bomb would be a “serious threat to detente.”
“Phase three,” which followed shortly after, involved a series of high-profile “Soviet-planned conferences, under different names and covers, designed to build up the momentum of anti-ERW [neutron bomb] pressure” for a coming U.N. disarmament meeting in the spring of 1978, the State Department said.
‘No Plan Now to Go Ahead’
The propaganda effort blindsided western Europe, and especially West Germany, according to Jonathan Haslam, a Soviet history scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey.
“What the Americans missed during the era of detente was that West European public opinion had been lulled into a false sense of security,” Haslam told RealClearLife. “The German public, in particular, were not ready for a new arms race on their soil without very good reason.”
Carter, as well as some top U.S. military and diplomatic officials, had expended significant political capital to pull West German leaders to the pro-neutron-bomb side, but by then, Carter was waffling.
In December 1977 he said he would not deploy the neutron bomb unless NATO agreed to it and that he wanted to discuss tactical nuclear weapons with the Soviets.
By a Q-and-A in Spokane, Washington in May 1978, Carter had made up his mind. He told the audience that the U.S. still reserved the right to pursue the neutron bomb if the situation in Europe changed, but for the time being “there is no plan now to go ahead with the neutron weapon.”
Gates, who worked in Carter’s National Security Council, later wrote that the president’s view was that “no ally wanted the weapon deployed on its soil, and he also regarded it as a political liability.” Gates said that view was likely shaped “to some extent” by the Soviet propaganda operation.
In his 1984 Halloween remarks, then-CIA Director Casey had no problem ascribing Carter’s fold to the Soviet effort.
Casey listed some of the worst traitors in espionage history only to say that those “dazzling penetrations pale into insignificance when compared to the concerted assaults which the Soviets have learned to make on public opinion in free countries. I have time only to mention their success in getting President Carter to reverse field on deploying the enhanced radiation weapon in 1978 after he had persuaded our European allies to commit to it at great political risk.”
A Hungarian Communist Party official said at the time that “the political campaign against the neutron bomb was one of the most significant and successful since World War Two,” according to the State Department analysis.
Former CIA officer John Sipher, who said he remembered the neutron debate from his college days, told RealClearLife the whole episode should serve as a reminder that Moscow has had decades of practice when it comes to complex, international “active measures” campaigns.
“I don’t think people remember or understand… the Russians are amazing at this stuff,” said Sipher, who worked undercover in Moscow and later ran the agency’s Russia operations.
But for the neutron bomb campaign, at least, any champagne toasts in Moscow would’ve been short-lived. After Ronald Reagan was sworn into office in 1981, he ordered the production of the neutron bomb in the U.S. And with that decision, the Soviets started their operation up again.
“The neutron weapon — incidentally, we have information that the Soviet Union spent about a $100 million in Western Europe alone a few years ago…” Reagan told reporters in August 1981, “and I don’t know how much they’re spending now, but they’re starting the same kind of propaganda drive.”
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