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The Neutron Bomb — A Negotiating Dud

The neutron bomb, a low-yield thermonuclear weapon which would be especially lethal to enemy ground troops but would not seriously damage buildings, became the focus of international controversy when the U.S. and a few others had proposed deploying the weapon in Western Europe to counter the Soviet threat.

Many NATO countries were unwilling to accept the bombs on their territory, as they did not want to become Cold War hot spots. The United States, however, wanted a forward deployed weapon that could deter Soviet aggression, allow for great flexibility after it was used, and which presented a more credible threat to Soviet tanks.

Long negotiations with NATO allies, specifically the Dutch, Danish, and Germans, led to initial plans to deploy the warheads in Germany in 1978. There was some thought of using the neutron bomb as a bargaining chip with the Soviets, perhaps to get a reduction in the number of tanks.

However, after considerable vacillating, President Jimmy Carter announced on April 7, 1978 that the U.S. was abruptly cancelling the program, angering NATO members, especially German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. The negotiations with the German Chancellor had been especially fraught and politically costly for Schmidt; he ended up using much of his political capital in order to convince his own party in Parliament to support the deployment of the neutron bomb in Germany, only to see the rug pulled out from under him.

Ironically, the neutron bomb fiasco led the Carter administration to stiffen its resolve on longer range missiles, which NATO agreed to deploy in 1979, which in turn sparked angry protests in opposition throughout Europe.

David T. Jones (interviewed initially beginning in March 1999) worked at the U.S. Mission to NATO in Brussels, Belgium from 1976-1980. William Woessner (November 1999) was Director of Central European Affairs at the State Department from 1997-1999. Robert McCloskey (May 1989) served as Ambassador to the Netherlands from 1976-1978.

Warren Zimmermann (interviewed beginning December 1996) was Political Counselor at Embassy Paris from 1977-1980. Susan Klingaman (May 1998), served as the Austria-Swiss desk officer at the State Department from 1977-1980. Thomas Dunnigan (September 1990) was in The Hague from 1978-1981, while James Goodby (December 1990) was in the European Affairs Bureau at the State Department from 1977-1980.

Read other Moments on arms control and on negotiating.


“The explosion will cause less damage to buildings but it may cause greater civilian casualties. If you can turn that into any kind of public virtue, I defy you.”

JONES: We began studying a variety of new advanced nuclear technology in an effort to find ways to make our nuclear weapons more usable on a tactical basis. But the effort to use what later became known as the neutron bomb was indeed conceived of as a very humane exercise on our part, an effort to deal with the problems of Soviet armored formations.

Their armor was just large enough and heavy enough with thick enough armor that our regular conventional weapons were seen as not that effective at that juncture. Soldiers using it were regarded as pretty vulnerable in trying to use it.

Consequently one of the things that they turned to was, “How can we use nuclear weapons, our most powerful and effective weapons, against armor formations in a way that would be tactically effective and less damaging to the area in which they would be fighting?”

We never thought that Warsaw Pact allies were particularly hostile to the West or particularly combat effective so far as that was concerned. There was some concern about the likelihood that the Russians would push these people to the front of the assault and force us to waste our weaponry on inferior troops while they were more or less behind Warsaw Pact formations.

But the nuclear philosophy was also not a last-ditch philosophy. We were not going to put ourselves in a situation where we wouldn’t choose nuclear weapons until we were at the point of defeat. That was also both an American concern and a European concern.

DUNNIGAN: The neutron bomb was a form of expended uranium put inside our artillery shell that, when it was exploded in a confined area, was lethal to everything involved. Without damaging much of the surroundings, in a tank or in a house or a building it could kill everything within. It was considered a very advanced, a very desirable, weapon by our military in the mid-70s, and our desire was to introduce it into the NATO arsenal.

MCCLOSKEY: Its principal feature is that the explosion from the warhead will cause less damage to buildings than other nuclear warheads, but it may cause greater civilian casualties. If you can turn that into any kind of public virtue, I defy you.

In any case, the odd thing about this entire story is that the ERW [enhanced radiation weapon] had been around for quite a long time, had been the subject of some news coverage and somewhat more extensive treatment in scientific or military journals that weren’t making that much news, until a Washington Post reporter found some testimony where funds were being requested that year, being 1979, for the weapon. He wrote a story, repeated much of what had been written in the past and it caused an uproar, because it was the weapon that wouldn’t damage buildings, but would kill people.

GOODBY: It was not particularly secret; it was buried, however, in the budget of the Energy Department, which of course runs the weapons laboratories. And President Carter, when first he was asked about it, said he didn’t know anything about it. Again, I think, a mistake for a president to get to the point where he says he doesn’t know what’s in his own budget, but that’s what he said.

It became, in Europe, quite a serious issue because the Soviets got onto it right away, and of course the Germans always are sensitive about nuclear weapons. So Carter essentially, in the United States, had a free ride; he could basically do anything he wanted to. What he did do was say, “We’ll study the issue.”

“After a great deal of effort with the Europeans, we had gotten their technical acceptance of these weapons”

KLINGAMAN: The issue was whether or not a European country would agree to deploy the neutron bomb if the U.S. decided to produce it. It was kind of a circular thing because the U.S. didn’t want to produce it if nobody in Europe would agree to have it on their soil. The Germans didn’t want it. Nobody in Europe really wanted this thing deployed and it got all tied up in German domestic politics.

JONES: After a great deal of effort and consultations with the Europeans, we had gotten their technical acceptance of these weapons. Whether they expected them to be used, I have no idea.

But the credibility of NATO nuclear use was always regarded as one of the key elements of deterrence. I did not hear demurs from my European colleagues and other NATO diplomats about the use of these weapons or necessarily other nuclear weapons.

On nuclear weapons specifically, the only system about which they appeared to be unhappy was the atomic demolition munitions. [(ADMs), colloquially known as nuclear land mines, were developed for both military and civilian purposes. As weapons, they were designed to be exploded in the forward battle area, in order to block or channel enemy forces. They were also designed for demolition, mining or earthmoving. They have never been used for either purpose.] That concern devolved into a long argument about “pre-chambering” for specific areas and whether you would drill the holes ahead of time for the use of atomic demolition munitions.

There was reluctance to do this; it was more political than military reluctance. It would drive home to the guy in the neighborhood that the likelihood of using a nuclear weapon was right there. On the flip side of it, the Germans had developed special equipment that would allow the drilling of emplacement chambers for atomic demolition munitions on relatively short order.

But the technical decision that we could move ahead with enhanced radiation weapons was one that had been made. It had been endorsed. It had been approved at the various levels within NATO. My recollection sense is that it had been endorsed at a ministerial meeting by the acceptance of the report. The study being done on these weapons and the general NATO approval as a result meant that the alliance was regarding enhanced radiation weapons as part of its military capability.

MCCLOSKEY: [Dutch] Prince Bernhard…made a very balanced and somewhat sympathetic presentation to the Parliament, which took the edge and the curse off what Bernhard had gotten himself into….The [governing] coalition leader was Socialist. They were dovish on defense issues. They maintained an army, a fairly sizable one, and that liberalism which beats in the Dutch breast, was venting itself as much on domestic issues, than as, I think, it was on foreign policy issues, with the exception of neutron weapons. Yet the Dutch were quite prepared to take the neutron bomb.

“The French saw Carter and Brzezinski and company as insensitive to Europe”

ZIMMERMANN: The Germans as I recall, were totally resistant. It was the [Helmut] Schmidt government, and Carter really didn’t know when to stop and just kept going. The French were very close to the Germans in those days as they have been lots in recent days as well. I am sure Giscard [d’Estaing, French President] was getting all this from Schmidt. The two were very close; spoke to each other in English, by the way.

I think the conclusion the French drew was not whether the neutron bomb was a mistake or not a mistake, but they just felt that Carter and [pictured, Zbigniew] Brzezinski, his National Security Advisor, just loved to lecture the Europeans on what they should do. The neutron bomb was an example of that.

They weren’t understanding the signals back from the Europeans that they really didn’t want to get into this. So I think it was a question of style more than substance. That the French saw Carter and Brzezinski and company as insensitive to Europe, as arrogant, as fixated on the Russian threat too much, and basically not competent to deal with the problems of the time.

KLINGAMAN: It was difficult in the sense that I guess it sort of mirrored Carter’s personality. He started out well in a public relations sense with the American people.

Remember he had these town meetings on radio and television. That was all nice public relations, nice folksy touch. And Carter really studied the issues but he studied them in great detail for a long time. Consequently, in a sense the NSC (National Security Council) that we dealt with, the NSC people in the White House dealing with Germany, moved very slowly.

I’m thinking of little procedural things that to Germans made a big difference. For example, Schmidt would come over for a visit. This was the head of the government on an official visit. But we wouldn’t know until the morning of a proposed event whether or not President Carter would agree to have lunch with Chancellor Schmidt that day! Germans want to have things lined up, in advance, well in advance, and on their schedules.

But we could not get a timely decision out of the White House. We would send over papers recommending that Carter have lunch with Chancellor Schmidt on ‘X’ date. ‘X’ day would come and it wouldn’t be until the morning of that day that the White House would say that yes, the President would have lunch with Chancellor Schmidt. This did not set well with Schmidt.

It was one of those atmospheric things that for us might seem not all that important. For Germans, for a German like Schmidt, it made a lot of difference. And when you add to that the substantive issues that were involved, it did not make for a good combination. It was very frustrating to us to have to wait until the last minute for decisions on procedural matters. So some of that probably spilled over into the policy area in the sense that it annoyed Schmidt.

“The Germans were certainly not enthusiastic about nuclear weapons”

JONES: You had Schmidt and the Socialists for the first time in many years in power in Germany. There was concern about the left side of the ruling party. No matter where you went in Europe, the left was hostile to nuclear weapons, was hostile to NATO, was hostile to the neutron bomb, or fostered the “ban the neutron bomb” exercise.

The Communists said that the neutron bomb was the perfect capitalist weapon, that it killed people and preserved property. Our response was that the neutron bomb was the perfect Communist weapon because it would kill capitalists and preserve the means of production. But that was a propaganda tit-for-tat exercise.

There was a clear expectation that the Europeans were not only going to be on board….We had argued and persuaded them that they should accept these weapons and this philosophy and this report.

The Germans were certainly not enthusiastic about nuclear weapons that looked as if they could be used. They were even less enthusiastic about nuclear weapons that looked as if they might be usable in their neighborhoods. There was a “not in my backyard” view of nuclear weapons.

Whether these people were no longer screaming, “Better red than dead,” we thought of them as exactly the same type of people that would find any excuse to surrender. (Photo: Getty Images)

Well, we were also in the situation where we couldn’t force the Allies to take these weapons. They had to invite us to make these deployments. This was orchestration, in that they knew that they had to ask; and they knew that if they asked, we would make the deployments.

So, Schmidt got far enough out on a limb that he endorsed the deployment. This is my sense, that there was indeed no question that Schmidt, who had to be the leader on this subject because the key deployment of nuclear weapons presumably would be in Germany, whether there were ER [enhanced radiation] weapons in other areas. The most likely storage facilities would be in Germany, so Schmidt had to make this kind of endorsement. He did

WOESSNER: It was absolutely venomous. Helmut Schmidt didn’t suffer fools gladly. He certainly didn’t suffer pious politicians gladly. Jimmy Carter was no fool, but he certainly came across as a real pious person. The chemistry was just awful.

Schmidt could be bad, really bad, in his personal relationships, the way he treated people. There were examples of rudeness, discourtesy. I remember a lady in his cabinet saying, “You don’t want to take that so seriously. He treats us even worse.”

Schmidt was the Chancellor and he never lost an opportunity to bitch, moan, and criticize the President. Jimmy Carter, for his part, you have to assume there was no love lost, but I’m not aware of any occasion on which he badmouthed the Chancellor. It was a one-way street. After every flare-up, they would be brought together and have a wonderful talk. The aides would all go around saying, “This is a new beginning for a relationship” and in a matter of weeks, Schmidt would be back in his office and it would start all over again.

“Jimmy Carter knelt at his bedside one night, talked to God, and the next morning decided he couldn’t do this”

But the nadir of the relationship was the neutron bomb. The neutron bomb was not a bomb; it was a weapon. We wanted to develop it and deploy it and the Europeans had a lot of misgivings. Schmidt was crucial to the whole effort to sell it to the other Europeans. Carter leaned on him heavily and against his better judgment and at some political cost domestically, Schmidt went along and the Europeans endorsed the idea.

Then you know the famous story where Jimmy Carter knelt at his bedside one night, said his prayers, talked to God, and the next morning woke up and decided he couldn’t do this, that it was an immoral weapon. Just a stunning turnaround which to this day nobody has explained satisfactorily to me.

It was my happy chore to call [West German Ambassador to the U.S.] Berndt von Staden and say, “Could you come down right now? The Secretary wants to see you.”

“Oh, yes, be right there.” He came.

I went to the entrance and met him. Going up in the elevator, he whispered to me, “What’s going on? What is this about?”
I said, “It’s about the neutron bomb.” I probably shouldn’t have done that. He was my friend. He looked at me and I made a thumbs down. The color literally drained out of Berndt’s face and at that moment, the door opened, he walked out, and walked off with the Secretary.

Of course, Schmidt never forgave him. In fact, I think the Europeans generally after that had no confidence in the reliability of our promises. It was a long time before anybody went out on a domestic limb for us.

Then Carter decided to rethink it all. His decision to rethink it was a type of decision that was completely inexplicable at the time. We had no answer. There was no explanation. There was no defense for what the President had done. We got Helmut Schmidt out on a limb, and we sawed it off and left him standing there in midair.

There was no way in which you could figure this decision on Carter’s part. It left one speechless. All we could do as a result was say, “Well, we’re rethinking it. It’s delayed rather than stopped. We’re re-configuring.” Try to make some sort of rational explanation out of what was going on in his mind. This decision left us with no idea on how it had happened.

At that point, there was the general expectation that European confidence in Carter just disappeared. Ostensibly, they met with him, everyone was very straightforward, we were all together, one for all, all for one, but there was the feeling that Carter had lost essential trust or essential appreciation in his decision making, that he was not reliable.

ZIMMERMANN: The neutron bomb fiasco, I think, caused the French to write off Carter. They just decided they were dealing with a second-rate amateur who didn’t understand anything. I think after that they didn’t take him seriously. Then when he got on his human rights kick they dropped him down still another notch.

“We developed a scheme that we would trade the neutron bomb for something, if the Soviets were ready to engage in arms control”

GOODBY: We worked out a strategy in NATO — by this time the issue had dragged on into the spring of ’78 — and the strategy essentially consisted of working out an agreement whereby those countries, like the Dutch, for example, that were not particularly anxious to take on nuclear weapons would be able to step aside, not say anything, and NATO would make a decision, which would be announced by the Secretary General of NATO. It was kind of an elaborate scheme, but it was well on its way to success.

The Germans, incidentally, had taken the view that they did not want to be the only ones to accept the neutron bomb. Helmut Schmidt said, “Look, we don’t want to be singled out.” The Germans have a longstanding policy of avoiding what they call singularity. They did not want to be the only ally in whose country nuclear weapons of that type were stationed. And so we spent a bit of time making sure that other countries would accept the idea of neutron bombs being stationed on their territory.

And then we developed a scheme, and this was mainly because of Helmut Schmidt, that we would trade the neutron bomb for something, if the Soviets were ready to engage in arms control.

So here, you see, you’re beginning to get all of the pieces that later became part of the Theater Nuclear Forces negotiation, or Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces negotiation: no singularity; various Allies have to take the neutron bomb; a negotiating offer to the Soviets so we will not deploy this weapon, if the Soviets will give us something.

We never did really settle on what that something would be, but there were talks about their reducing the number of tanks (which is what the neutron bomb was supposed to be there for) and we wouldn’t deploy; or perhaps they’d do something about the SS-20, which was the new Soviet intermediate-range missile targeted in Western Europe. So that if the Soviets were ready to concede something, we would not deploy the neutron bomb.

Everything was ready to go and there was going to be a meeting of the NATO Council. I think the first meeting was going to be on a Monday, and the next meeting was going to be on a Wednesday; it was going to be a two-phase kind of thing. And at the Wednesday meeting, as I remember it, the Secretary General of NATO, Joseph Luns, would make the announcement that the Allies agreed that the United States should go ahead and produce this bomb, and it would be deployed in due course, and so forth.

Well, I got to my office on Monday morning and I found a note on my desk saying that the President had decided to cancel that meeting of NATO. After I looked into it, I found that that weekend he had been in Georgia and he had somehow not understood what was happening, that we were on our way to a NATO decision.

He had been given a memorandum on the Friday beforehand, which I’d had a hand in drafting, from Secretary of State [Cyrus] Vance, from Secretary of Defense [Harold] Brown, with a note on it from [National Security Advisor Zbigniew] Brzezinski saying, “Here’s what’s going to happen next week, boss.

“NATO’s going to have a meeting. They’ll discuss it. There’ll be another meeting. At the end of that, there’ll be an announcement by the Secretary General, Joseph Luns, that we can go ahead and produce this neutron bomb. It’ll be deployed in various countries in Europe when it’s finally ready. And an offer of arms control negotiations will be made to the Soviets.”

The President, although he’d been given information about this (the NSC was fully in the picture, had been throughout), the President somehow didn’t realize until the very last moment this was happening, and he canceled this.

“The leader of the free world has signaled that he doesn’t have the guts to follow through on something”

Again, this came to my attention later exactly what happened, but what did happen is the President had a meeting that Monday with Vance and Brzezinski and Brown, the Secretary of Defense, and chewed them out for getting him out on a limb where he didn’t want to be.

And he, in effect, killed it at that point. There were various statements put out about how we would do this and that, produce something that might be usable later on, but it was, in effect, a walking away from a decision.

VEST: What I was told later, I talked to people like Stu Eizenstat and others who were in the White House. [White House Domestic Affairs Advisor] Stu Eizenstat said, “It was very clear. Mr. Carter himself told me that Brzezinski himself told him that the Germans were going to back out.”

I said, “But the Germans weren’t about to back out. They’d already signed on to a whole scenario.” Well, that’s what Mr. Carter believed was that the Germans were going to back out so he would drop it first, even after we had gone so far. So, in the end, that is what happened….

I accompanied Warren Christopher, the Deputy Secretary of State (pictured), and we flew over to Germany to try to explain to the Germans. We first stopped in Bonn and saw [Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich] Genscher, who was relieved to have the thing go because he particularly didn’t like it. And then we flew onto Hamburg and called on Schmidt. And the three of us met with Schmidt, and the only other person there was Jurgen Ruhfus, who [was later] the German ambassador to Washington, who was then the sort of chef de cabinet for Schmidt.

Mrs. Schmidt was there and saw us into the dining room. We all sat around the table. She carefully served us all some beer and it was all very nice, and Schmidt was very cool. He did make the point.

He said, “You realize that I personally — personally — had to threaten to resign to make the government in Bonn, the Bundestag, agree to going ahead with this. And I only did this about a day and a half ago, and now you have done this.” Mr. Christopher did the best one could of this, and I don’t remember too much what he said because it wasn’t very easy and very convincing, and we left.

And flying out, the three of us, [Ambassador to West Germany Walter] Stoessel, [Deputy Secretary of State Warren] Christopher and I, Christopher said, “Well, I don’t understand. You warned me how tempestuous and difficult Schmidt was, but he seemed to be very controlled. He didn’t seem to be upset at all.”

Walt Stoessel and I both jumped in just about the same time saying exactly the same thing, that, “Look, it’s too serious to be excited about and lose your self-control because, from his point of view, the leader of the free world has just signaled to the world outside that he doesn’t have the guts to follow through on something.”

And from Schmidt’s point of view, that’s what it was, and he no longer had respect for Carter as a leader after that. And both Walt and I agreed this is exactly what it was. And he was. He was just as cool as could be. What a wonderful period.

“What are we going to do about longer range missiles in Europe?”

GOODBY: President Carter, so far as his own domestic political scene was concerned, could make whatever decision he chose to make; it was just not an issue.

And, therefore, for him to accept this decision, which probably would put the onus of a decision that was unpopular in Europe, that he saw as something that was unfair and that was being pushed on him by Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and he just wasn’t going to do it.

In other words, he personalized this relationship with Helmut Schmidt to the point where it led to really so much damage to his administration that it was one of the things that led to his not being reelected.

And it was a tragedy, because whether the neutron bomb was the right thing or the wrong thing, it could have been handled either way. I mean, if the President said, “Look, I don’t want to do this,” and said that right away, then we would have managed NATO in such a way that it would have gone away.

“If he’d said, “Go ahead, boys, get it done,” again we would have got it done in a way that would have not caused him any damage at all in the United States and very little in Europe. And that’s what we were on our way to doing, that latter scenario, when he pulled the rug out….

This decision the President made on the neutron bomb led to a need for the President to make a decision pretty fast on another pending issue. Namely the issue was: What are we going to do about longer range missiles in Europe? And I would say we all felt that, given the President’s decision on the neutron bomb, a decision on INF [Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces] had to be made, it had to be clear cut, it had to be worked out with the Allies, and there could be no going back from it.

So, in that sense, the experience led us to say to the President: “You’ve got to give us a decision right now. We cannot operate in the dark the way we did on the neutron bomb. This would be catastrophic.” So it had its impact all right, but not in the sense of making us pull back from telling the President what we thought he needed to know and what he needed to hear from us.

And I finally concluded that the relationship with Germany was so important that we had to go down this road of deploying missiles. And, of course, the neutron bomb episode only reinforced that need. So that the decision to deploy long-range missiles really in effect was made in the minds of people in Washington long before the decision actually was made within NATO.

The decision to deploy was made in December 1979 in Brussels. I was there at the meeting of foreign ministers and defense ministers. But the decision really was made, in effect, more than a year earlier, when it became apparent, because of the damage the President had done to himself over the neutron bomb episode, that we had to somehow recoup that loss.

And the Germans, with the help of this unfortunate speech of Schmidt, began to put us under pressure to go ahead and deploy. And I think, further, we had no choice.

And, from that point on, in early ’78, I was supportive of that, although I had very serious misgivings about the whole enterprise. And, frankly, although there were riots, demonstrations, and great pressures against this deployment for several years in the streets of Germany, as it turned out, of course, there was a successful negotiation that got rid of the [Soviet] SS-20s.

So you can argue in one sense the decision was a correct one.

But, on the other hand, all of this discussion and dialogue not only about the INF, but also about the neutron bomb, so sensitized the people of Europe, and especially the people of Germany, to the whole nuclear issue that today it’s almost impossible for us to deploy any new nuclear weapons in Germany.

So I think it’s debatable whether it was a wise decision or not, even at that point in time when we had a highly successful negotiation that got rid of the SS-20, if our intent was to retain some kind of nuclear capability in Germany as a deterrent.

We lost that ability because of those decisions that we made about the neutron bomb and about the INF.