The term ‘Peace Through Strength’ has a long history, dating from the ancient world. It remains a popular phrase in American politics, often seen as epitomising Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy. The history of the term ‘Peace Through Strength’ in the 1970s is a little more complicated, however, as this post will show.
It was actually President Ford, who first used ‘peace through strength’ to describe American foreign policy (in this case in the Pacific).
For Ford, ‘Peace Through Strength’ encapsulated the strategy of pursuing peaceful coexistence while at the same time maintaining a strong defence to ensure parity. Military strength alone was entirely insufficient. Ford spoke of his dedication to
America’s bipartisan policy of pursuing peace through strength and dedication to a new future of interdependence and cooperation with all peoples
Anticommunist groups’ criticism of Ford centred around this dedication to maintaining good relations with America’s Cold War rival, the USSR. They argued that promoting good relations ignored the fact that the Soviet Union represented an existential threat to the American way of life. The key to Soviet relations should be on maintaining military strength, they maintained, and not pretending that good relations would in any way resolve the Cold War struggle.
Carter, who defeated Ford in the 1976 election, promised to shift the focus of foreign policy away from an ‘inordinate fear of communism‘ towards policies reflecting values of ‘decency’ and ‘optimism’. Once again, suggested critics, a president was overlooking the realities of the Cold War.
Pretending the Cold War was over – the ‘illusion of detente’ – could only last so long before the USSR achieved military superiority, which would inhibit America’s ability to resist communist expansion for fear of escalation. The Cold War would eventually be lost.
The Anti-SALT II Campaign
In late 1978, a debate formed around the SALT II treaty. It quickly became a ‘lightening rod’ issue that expanded to encapsulate defence policy more generally. SALT II, its critics argued, was being negotiated from a position of weakness, a result of neglect by American leaders.
Paul Nitze, the most prominent of these critics, said it was a bad deal pursued only to maintain the ‘illusion of detente’ and would ‘lock in’ Soviet superiority in the arms race. This, he argued, was a terrifying development and became known as the ‘Window of Vulnerability’.
Nitze, a former SALT II negotiator and the Committee on the Present Danger’s Director of Policy Studies, formulated a series of detailed studies that criticised what he saw as the technical deficiencies of the SALT II negotiations. In particular, he emphasised the limitations of America’s nuclear weapons and its conventional forces and advocated substantially increased defence spending to match the capabilities of the Soviet Union. Only then, he argued, could a fair deal be negotiated.
The Committee on the Present Danger’s arguments were directed towards the political elite. They described their pamphlets as ‘bureaucrats memoranda’ rather than propaganda leaflets and were unlikely to even reach, let alone persuade, a mass audience.
To gain a wider audience for the anti-SALT message, the American Security Council announced the establishment of the Coalition for Peace Through Strength on 8 August 1978. Its objective was to reject ‘unilateral disarmament’ and restore American military strength.
To restore military strength the Coalition for Peace Through Strength created a Congressional caucus, counting 145 Congressman among its initial membership. It also affiliated with a number of anticommunist groups to amplify disparate efforts to oppose the SALT II treaty.
The meaning of this version of the ’peace through strength’ slogan had shifted since Ford’s 1975 speech. It no longer described the need to pursue peaceful policies alongside military strength to meet American objectives. Now, for the Coalition, ‘peace through strength’ expressed the notion that there would be no peace without sufficient military strength. There was no mention of interdependence or cooperation that Ford had regarded as equally important.
The SALT II Debate
What did the Coalition really mean by ‘strength’?
This question was the heart of the debate over Cold War strategy in the mid-1970s. Should America possess superior strength than the Soviet Union, or was it inevitable that parity would emerge? But it wasn’t clear how such parity might be measured.
The principal concern of the SALT II agreement was to create an equal ceiling of the number of nuclear launchers for each side. The ceiling would count the total number of devices capable of delivering a nuclear warhead: missiles, planes, submarines.
Agreeing what should be included within this equal ceiling occupied negotiators for years. For example:
– A single missile launcher could now contain multiple warheads (missiles were now MIRVed). How many should be permitted?
– Would emerging ‘cruise missile’ technology be counted in the limit on strategic launchers?
– Was the Soviet Backfire Bomber a medium-range or long-range launcher (it could only reach the American mainland on a one-way mission), should it be counted in the SALT II agreement?
The Coalition for Peace Through Strength wasn’t interested in such technicalities, its message was clear: America had been unilaterally disarming and had permitted the Soviets to gain military superiority. The SALT II treaty was therefore unacceptable as it threatened to place limits on the very defence programmes the Coalition deemed necessary to address military weakness.
To make this case, the Coalition for Peace Through Strength produced leaflets and TV documentaries designed to reach a mass audience and persuade that SALT II be rejected.
The following film predates the Coalition For Peace Through Strength (it was commissioned by its parent organisation, the American Security Council Education Foundation), but accurately demonstrates its argument.
Were They Right?
Comparing US and Soviet military strength was always ambiguous and fraught with uncertainties. Each side focused on – and was better at – different defence technologies. Claiming ‘prudence’, the Committee on the Present Danger and the Coalition For Peace Through Strength often assumed the worst of US capabilities and the best of Soviet capabilities.
Despite this ambiguity, it was certainly disingenuous to claim the United States was ‘unilaterally disarming’. As Henry Kissinger pointed out:
[Assuming the] equal ceilings were established at the American level, the Soviet Union would have to undertake an essentially unilateral reduction of its forces. If they were set at the Soviet level, we would acquire the right to a buildup for which we had no program or strategic theory.
The ‘strategic theory’ behind the Coalition’s mass campaign was simple and proved popular: to be Number One. ‘Peace Through Strength’ was a more appealing slogan than ‘Deterrence Through Rough Parity’.
The Coalition’s impact in the SALT II ratification debate was significant. Its various campaigns reached millions of Americans and influenced undecided Senators to signal their opposition to the treaty. There were never enough votes for ratification of the treaty, even before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Carter withdrew the SALT II treaty from Senate consideration in January 1980.
Later that year Reagan maintained the ‘Peace Through Strength’ slogan for his campaign. On a platform of restored pride and renewed confidence – in both domestic and foreign policy – he won the 1980 election.
Despite the Senate never ratifying SALT II the Reagan administration observed the treaty’s provisions until 27 May 1986, suggesting that the negotiations were not as one-sided as critics initially argued. However, the perception of weakness that the SALT II debate contributed to was critical. Carter’s own limitations, the accusations of the Committee on the Present Danger and the Coalition For Peace Through Strength, and the actions of the Soviets themselves – real and imagined – meant that Reagan’s confidence and promise of strength proved popular at the polls.
Strobe Talbott, Endgame: The Inside Story of SALT II