A History of Peace Through Strength in the 1970s


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 Result

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.

Further Reading:

Dan Caldwell, The Dynamics of Domestic Politics and Arms Control: The SALT II Treaty Ratification Debate

Raymond Garthoff, Détente and Confrontation: American-Soviet Relations from Nixon to Reagan

Strobe Talbott, Endgame: The Inside Story of SALT II


Dr Strangelove Would be Proud: How to Hide a Nuclear Missile

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union was introducing all kinds of intimidating weapon systems. After its Cuban Missile Crisis experience, Kremlin leaders wanted to ensure the USSR would never again be outgunned, a sort-of ‘Cuban Missile Syndrome.’1

As a result, during the 1970s the USSR added new nuclear missile systems. The SS-18 ‘Satan’:


SS-18 “Satan” Missile System. Source:

Read more

  1.  Zubok, Vladislav M. A Failed Empire : The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2007., 243

Text Mining in Diplomatic History: Nuclear War, Disarmament, and Detente

Google N-Grams Nuclear War, Disarmament, and Detente

Google N-Grams Nuclear War, Disarmament, and Detente


Here is a Google N-Grams search including the terms ‘nuclear war,’ ‘disarmament,’ and ‘detente.’

Google N-Grams searches for instances of the search-terms in the Google library database, which includes millions of scanned volumes, journals, and newspapers from libraries and universities across the world. I set the search parameters to begin in 1945: the birth of the nuclear age.

The visualisation of this search is particularly interesting, as within its three lines a number of historical events and themes are represented. The rising Cold War tensions that culminated in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, are shown by the increasing frequency of ‘disarmament’ and ‘nuclear war’ in the Google library database over the late 1950s and early 1960s.

This N-Gram search seems to graphically represent the correlation between rising Cold War tensions and support for more conciliatory policies, including disarmament. (It should be noted that instances of ‘disarmament’ in raw numbers exceeds those of ‘nuclear war’ because there are a number of terms that describe atomic warfare, whereas the policy of disarmament is a more fixed term.)

The term ‘detente’ alongside ‘nuclear war’ and ‘disarmament’ demonstrates the lowering of Cold War tensions from the early to late 1970s. A sharp increase in ‘nuclear war’ instances in 1980 clearly pinpoints the decisive end point of the period of detente, at least as far as language in text is concerned. (The lag in the ‘detente’ curve is explained by the fact that the policy was still discussed in written text, and these discussions are reflected in the ‘detente’ N-Gram frequency.)

The focus of my own research is the 1975 to 1981 period, during which the Committee on the Present Danger sought to educate Americans about the supposed “dangers of detente.” The work of the group and its pro-defense allies is represented in the increasing frequency of ‘nuclear war’ after 1975, when the CPD formed. I would suggest that as the Committee on the Present Danger and its allies conducted their activities discussions of nuclear war – here reflected in Google’s scanned texts – increased.

N-Grams cannot prove that the CPD itself was successful in its aims, but it does illustrate that the conversation about Cold War policies altered in the late 1970s. Alternative archival evidence suggests the Committee on the Present Danger did prompt discussion of nuclear war within the Carter Administration, culminating in the release of PD-59 in July 1980.

The beginning of Ronald Reagan’s and Mikhail Gorbachev’s summitry diplomacy is shown within the significant drop-off in instances of ‘nuclear war’ and ‘disarmament’ after 1986. Could this N-Grams search add credence to the suggestion that the Cold War was all but over after the Reykjavik Summit in 1986? To be sure, significant diplomatic and political hurdles remained, but the language of the cold war – two highly significant terms within it at least – were  falling out of use from this date. There is clearly room for debate about causation, but it is a debate worth conducting.

Ultimately, N-Grams by itself proves little. It is a useful tool, however, to visualise the change over time in the use of the specialised language surrounding a historical issue. “Change over time” is what historians do and I am excited at how I can use N-Grams in my own research.

The 1980s. More than the Reagan Revolution


Bradford Martin’s ‘The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan
(Hill & Wang: New York, 2011)’ challenges the dominance of the ‘rise of conservatism’ theme in our understanding of the 1980s.

‘More than 40 percent of American voters demurred from sanctioning this movement, not to mention the roughly 50 percent of voting-age Americans who declined to exercise their right altogether.’ [p. x]

He seeks to demonstrate that there are additional movements that developed in the decade, including the Nuclear Freeze Campaign, environmentalism, the opposition to America’s wars, Feminism; all representing the ‘other’ 1980s.

I was particularly interested in Martin’s chapter on the Nuclear Freeze Campaign. The opposition to nuclear arms control in the 1970s, and in particular the Committee on the Present Danger, clearly oversold the threat of the Soviet Union and while a successful tactic in the short term, inciting such fear was to the detriment of their longer term goals.

The fear of Communism was balanced with a fear of nuclear war, which served not to create lasting support for high defense spending – as was hoped – but instead created a broad constituency for just the reverse; a nuclear freeze and, for many, outright abolition.

The importance of the movement, Martin points out, was that ‘the freeze debate successfully eroded the nuclear priesthood’s aura of expertise and opened up national discourse on disarmament and national security policy.’ [p. 23]

When Ronald Reagan surprised many of his conservative allies by taking seriously his dream of abolishing nuclear weapons while negotiating with Gorbachev in the mid-1980s, it was this movement that had demonstrated (quite literally, on June 12, 1982, with a 750,000 crowd) that he could expect public support.

Martin’s book shows that we should move beyond a characterisation of the 1980s as a simple narrative of the rise of conservatism. Its increase in popularity is true, but it also sparked opposition in a variety of issues, by a variety people, in a variety of locales. And this is an important legacy of the 1980s just as much as the ‘Reagan Revolution’ itself.

See: The Other Eighties: A Secret History of America in the Age of Reagan

Ronald Reagan and the End of the Cold War


Dealing with scholarship on Ronald Reagan can be difficult. Using just book titles, it is often a challenge to differentiate between serious attempts to understand the administration of the 40th President and efforts that simply bask in his glory. I’ve fallen into the trap before, but I recently tried James Mann’s ‘The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan‘ and it most definitely fits into the former category.

Grappling with the ‘triumphalist’ paradigm, Mann’s book recognises Reagan’s ‘crucial role’, even if ‘Gorbachev played the leading role’ [1]. The U.S. President buttressed Gorbachev’s position, facilitating the progressive reforms that would ultimately lead to the end of the Cold War. Reagan’s contributions were important, and he should be credited for his role, but Gorbachev’s actions were vital.

That is the overall argument of ‘Rebellion‘. But I was most interested in Mann’s analysis of Reagan’s changing attitude towards the Soviet Union. The Committee on the Present Danger was extremely proud to count Reagan among its membership prior to 1980 presidential campaign. Reagan certainly appears to have been an enthusiastic supporter; fully 32 Committee on the Present Danger officials joined the new administration [2]. However, within a few short years a number of these figures had left, including Committee on the Present Danger Executive Board Members, Richard Pipes and Eugene Rostow. Reagan had moved on.

The message of the Committee on the Present Danger in the late 1970s, I would argue, encapsulated a moment in U.S. history; the fear of U.S. decline and of Soviet ascendency. But, contrary to Committee plans, this fear would not rebuild the anti-Communist consensus of the late 1940s. Reagan began to understand that this represented a static view of the world. The universal truth of ‘freedom’ in which he believed meant he could look beyond Soviet totalitarianism. He really meant it when he spoke of Communism as ‘a sad and bizarre chapter in human history’, and he was eager to help turn the page [3].

The ‘Rebellion’ in Mann’s title, therefore, refers to Reagan’s disagreement with ‘traditional’ conservatives. As President he could perceive that change was not simply desirable, but actually possible. The Committee on the Present Danger, as just one example, was too dogmatic to appreciate that Gorbachev’s Soviet Union was evolving, so focused was it on the ‘Strategic Balance’.

Reagan, in this account, deserves praise. Mann does not commit himself in the debate on whether Reagan had a clear vision, or instead acted on ‘crafty instinct’, but argues that it hardly matters [4]. The traditional conservative view in the late-1980’s was clearly resistant to Reagan’s conciliatory approach, but it was exactly this approach that allowed Gorbachev to take the reform path.

True to form, the Committee on the Present Danger, as late as the early 1990s, continued to label the Soviet Union as America’s greatest threat and advised against conciliation. Not because of ‘loose nukes’, but because its military was still capable of invading Western Europe.

For whatever reason, Reagan was able to transcend this type of traditional Cold War thinking. Groups including the Committee on the Present Danger could not, or did not want to, make this shift. Reagan deserves credit for his ability to look beyond the stereotype of the Soviet Bear, even if, as Mann concludes, it does not make him the pivotal figure in the end of the Cold War.

[1] Mann, J., ‘A History of the End of the Cold War: The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan‘, (Penguin Books: New York, 2010), p. 346
[2] The Committee on the Present Danger, ‘The Fifth Year and the New Administration‘, 1980, in the Hoover Archives, CPD Papers, Box 177
[3] ‘Ronald Reagan: In His Own Words‘, BBC News, 06-06-2004, [], accessed 13-01-2012
[4] Mann, ‘Rebellion of Ronald Reagan‘, p.342