In January 2010 the Middle Powers Initiative, a coalition of eight international civil society organizations working for a world free of nuclear weapons, held a consultation at the Carter Center in Atlanta on the May 2010 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference.  A highlight of the meeting was a session with President Carter in which he expressed his views on the need for stronger efforts to achieve nuclear disarmament and prevent nuclear proliferation.  In the question and answer period that followed his remarks, I posed a question to the former president about his own strong moral standards and his preparedness to use nuclear weapons in a counterattack against the Soviet Union.  Douglas Roche, the chair emeritus of the Middle Powers Initiative, called President Carter’s response “the most poignant moment I have ever experienced at an MPI meeting.”  The question and President Carter’s response follow.

Q: President Carter, thank you so much. I was struck when you said in your remarks that you were prepared to launch a counterattack against the Soviet Union.  Knowing you as a deeply moral individual – this is a personal question – I wonder how you could in your own mind take your moral, religious, spiritual values and contemplate retaliation with nuclear weapons with all the results and consequences that this would have.

President Carter: The most difficult issue I’ve ever had to face as a human being is what to do if a nuclear threat materialized when we were in the midst of the Cold War. I prayed constantly that I would not be faced with this decision. I didn’t see the rationality—it is difficult for me to talk about it. I couldn’t sit acquiescently and let the Soviet Union destroy my country without a response when we had the capability to do so.

I had been a submarine officer and military professional. I was ready to take action that would take human life to protect the integrity of my country. At the same time, I did everything I could to avoid it. I bent over backwards to understand the partially paranoid concerns of the Soviet leaders. I would sit sometimes in my White House office—I had a large globe there and I would deliberately turn the globe to Moscow and I would imagine myself as Brezhnev.  I would imagine what things might cause me to resort to nuclear use and what might cause me to avoid it. We began to work with the Soviet Union in many ways, including on human rights.

I can’t say in good conscience now that my decision to respond would have been the correct one. It would have cost millions of American lives if we were subject to attack and it would have cost millions of Russian lives if we attacked. I cannot answer your question adequately. It is incompatible with my basic Christian beliefs to do that. What Jesus Christ would have done, I don’t know. When I took the oath of office of President, before God, I took the oath to defend my country.  I felt that was the way I could prevent further destruction of my country. The fact that the Russians believed I would respond was the essence of the mutual deterrence.  If I made any sort of public insinuation that the Russians could attack us with nuclear weapons without being the recipient of a response—that would have been unacceptable, unimaginable for me to do.