Department or Program

Political Science

Primary Wellesley Thesis Advisor

Stacie E. Goddard


In 1976, Americans elected Jimmy Carter on a promise of arms control and a reduced role for nuclear weapons in U.S. military strategy. While Carter remained committed to arms control, he ultimately strengthened the damage limitation strategy laid out in the Nixon administration, pushing the U.S. toward nuclear modernization and an increased reliance on nuclear weapons. Why did the Carter administration adopt this strategy necessitating nuclear superiority? Using qualitative analysis of newspapers, private memos, and public government documents, I find conventional explanations of Carter’s policy downplay the prominent domestic debates about nuclear strategy during this time. Drawing on theories of agenda setting and legitimation in national security, I argue Carter shifted his strategy partly because coalitions legitimated alternative policies and successfully mobilized against his initial vision. The tension between weapons modernization and arms control pervades the development of U.S. nuclear policy; this work suggests contradictions in U.S. nuclear strategy reflect contestation between domestic elites trying to frame their desired policy as the optimal deterrence strategy.