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TSA Conference 2016


“It was a recipe for struggles” Cyrus Vance, Zbigniew Brzezinski and the Decision Making Structure of the Carter Administration

When the Carter administration entered office on January 20, 1977 there was growing speculation in the newspaper press that President Carter’s two key foreign policy advisors, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Advsior Zbigniew Brzezinski, were on course to clash with one another over the course and nature of the administration’s foreign policy agenda. The Boston Globe noted that ‘a sense of competition could develop simply by their presence in the administration’ while Bernard Gwertzman in The New York Times wrote ‘The common belief amongst those who follow foreign affairs closely in Washington is that…Mr Brzezinski will eventually begin to encroach on Cyrus R. Vance’s preserve as Mr Carter’s no.1 foreign policy advisor.’ Marilyn Berger meanwhile quoted a State Department official as saying ‘It is inevitable that Zbig will become an originator of policy and not just a co-ordinator. And once he starts making foreign-policy recommendations to the President, his ideas will cut across the bow of the Secretary of State.’

Presented at the 2016  Transatlantic Studies Association Conference, Plymouth University, this paper analyses how the decision making structure that Carter eventually settled on only served to exacerbate the sense of competition between the State Department and the NSC as well as Vance and Brzezinski with the conflict manifesting itself for the duration of the Carter’s time in office, contributing to a tapestry of inconsistencies that resulted in the administration’s inability to create a settled foreign policy strategy and agenda.

I have just recently returned from my first major academic conference hosted by the Transatlantic Studies Association at the University of Plymouth. It was a real honour to have my paper proposal accepted and been allowed to present my research to an esteemed audience. My paper, which was entitled ‘”It was a recipe for struggles” Vance, Brzezinski and the Decision Making Structure of the Carter Administration’ focused on the bureaucratic tensions between the two men and their respective departments exploring how the sense of competition between the two developed in the opening days and weeks of the administration entering office. I was fortunate enough to be presenting my work on a panel devoted to the Carter administration! Sotiris Rizas from the Academy of Athens presented his paper on the Carter administration and the Cyprus, Greece and Turkey dispute while Todd Carter from Oxford University presented his work on Anglo-American relations and the end of the Rhodesian crisis. Both were fascinating papers and I enjoyed them immensely and it was privilege to be on a panel with them.

Attending the TSA was certainly a learning curve and a nerve-racking experience. Although this was the first time presenting at an academic conference, it was not my first time presenting a paper. I’ve started to find it curious how much planning and meticulous detail I’ve put into what is a twenty minute’s of my life. Nevertheless, it offered me to present my work to some of the most respected academics in the field of transatlantic studies and U.S. foreign policy. Over the course of the three days there were some very interesting papers presented. I particularly liked Barbara Keys keynote ‘Friendship in Diplomacy: Henry Kissinger’s Personal Relationships’ as well as Stephan Kieninger’s ‘Dynamic Détente
– The United States and Europe, 1964–1975’, Werner Lippert’s ‘Confronting Russia through Money, Oil or Power: Transatlantic Discrepancies in Dealing with a Resurgent Russia’and the the whole panel on Anglo-American relations through the 20th Century and the Fulton Speech. All in all it was a very rewarding and stimulating few days with some great talks and lots to chew over! The full programme is available at the TSA website. The conference was held at the University of Plymouth, perhaps the farthest university from Newcastle I could have gone too but after a few hours of Trains, Planes and Automobiles I arrived in Plymouth via Exeter. The city of Plymouth is a very relaxed city with a beautiful seafront that one can just simply absorb for the whole day. The University itself is more modern, akin to Northumbria, and is just a stones throw away from the city centre. Despite being so far away, it was an ideal location for the conference and is a beautiful city to visit!

A full copy available on request at

The Benefits of Oral Histories

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAIMAAAAJDBiYWY1NzU0LWUxNjAtNDdhNi05OWI0LTVmYzA3MjMwM2ExOAOver the past year during my various trips to the United States I’ve been fortunate enough to conduct seven oral histories with former members of the Carter administration. Oral history is a common form of research and I am luckier than some of my fellow PhD students in having the ability to do this. The experience of being able to sit down and speak with numerous individuals whom I have read about and who have been present at some of the most historic moments of the Carter presidency has truly been an honor but its value to my project has been invaluable. I happen to believe oral histories can play a crucial role in one’s research and I hope to set out some do’s and do not do’s and some of the benefits I’ve experienced so far.

DON’T…ASSUME THAT THE PEOPLE WON’T BE INTERESTED: When I first started this process I did not think for a minute any of my interviewees would even consider taking part in an interview with me given their stature and I guess we all suffer from the ‘I’m just a student’ complex at some point or another. However within twenty minutes of sending out my first request, I had an acceptance. Within a few days, I had two. Reflecting on those days I think I did those interviewees a disservice in thinking that they wouldn’t be interested. On the contrary, overall all those I’ve interviewed have been very helpful. One even gave me a lift to the metro station while others got back in touch later on giving me advice about who to contact next. Although I’ve only ever once been offered a cup of tea or coffee but I think that’s a British thing. Point being, don’t be scared of asking, most people are very forth coming and willing to help out.

PRO: Also don’t be put off by a person’s stature or reputation. I’ve sent invites to two former Secretaries of Defense and had replies from both with one taking part in a telephone interview. Having a former Secretary of Defense give you there time is an immense honour and some their insights are highly significant plus having that footnote at the bottom of a page is huge.

CON: It goes without saying that oral histories can be very subjective and the participants can be very biased although I must confess I have no reason to believe the people I have interviewed have been wrong in anything they told me. But it’s important to keep an open mind. So try and backup what they’ve told you with evidence. Sometimes archival materials can do just that which is a PRO in itself in that you’re adding substance to your argument.

DO…RESEARCH BEFOREHAND: Prior to interviewing it’s important that you do your research prior. If anything this shows the interviewee that you are well schooled in your research field and that you know what you are talking about. Similarly, do your research on the people you’re interviewing. What did they do? What is their background? Etc. In one meeting, my interviewee bemoaned how assumed knowledge about his background. Fortunately for me, I had read another oral history where the interviewer had wrongly made this assumption and was told so. Similarly, come prepared with questions. Don’t think them up on the spot. Also take into account what they’re saying, listen carefully. I’ve found that a lot of questions I’ve asked have actually resulted from some of the things they told me.

PRO: In my second interview, when discussing the 1979 Iranian Revolution, my interviewee remarked: “A lot of people claim that they knew that this was going to happen. So whenever somebody tells me that they say “Oh well everyone knew what was coming”, I say “Where did you see that in writing? Did you write that down in any place? Did you write that down in any place if you’re a reporter or a political analyst or whatever you are or whether you are working for some other government or not? Did you actually say that?” Herein lies one of the benefits of doing oral histories. It allows participants, like the ones I interviewed, to set the record straight. Where statements or stories have been made that lacked accuracy, it allows people to tell their side of the story and dispel myths. Sometimes even the most inacious quotes are beneficial. One interviewee talked about literally walking across a street but in regards to my own research it was an incredibly important statement.

DON’T…LET YOUR INTERVIEWEES TELL THINGS YOU ALREADY KNOW: The interviewee doesn’t know what you know, so let them know what you do not. For example, three interviewees have all mentioned the same story to me. It was a meeting in early 1979 at the White House between Carter and some State Department employees. This point relates to doing research beforehand but I know this meeting took place, I’ve read it in books and I’ve heard them mention it in other oral histories but it usually comes up. Clearly that meeting was important to them but I know what was said and what happened. It’s important to gauge their emotions around the meeting but ask them something about the meeting that they’ve never been asked. Clearly this is a critical episode so try and expand your knowledge of it but avoid getting into a narrative of things you already know.

DON’T…ASK SILLY QUESTIONS: Recently I read about an interviewer asking Henry Kissinger where he got his suit from. Kissinger then promptly replied that the interview was now over and left. If you interview a former U.S National Security Advisor you do not ask him questions like that. I’ve found some of my interviewees to be very businesslike at first and they don’t engage in chit chat that much but as time progresses during the interview they usually become more relaxed and at ease. Some have been incredibly friendly from the get go but I would always recommend approaching things in a professional manner.

DO…MAKE SURE YOU GET AN IDEAL LOCATION: All my locations have been appropriate for my interviews however sometimes people can recommend places which are not good for interviewing, cafes, restaurants, bars etc. where the background noise can interfere with your recording. Also make sure you have your interviewee pinned down to a date. In one of my experience, I took a day flight to Chapel Hill, North Carolina and turned up to my interviewees’ office only to find he wasn’t there. Luckily he was tracked down and was very apologetic but just a brief email or letter in the week prior just to make sure they remember.

DON’T…TAKE REJECTION PERSONALLY: You are bound to have some rejections however in my experience some of these rejections have actually been very pleasant. One individual wrote back saying he was unavailable but told me to keep in touch as he was very interested in the subject while another responded advising me to look up certain chapters in books that maybe helpful. The best reply I’ve had thus far came from a relative of Cyrus Vance who declined an interview but pointed me in the direction of some materials and then at the end of the email replied that she was very happy that I was doing work on Vance and that he would have been very proud that scholars were still interested in his career. For me personally, it was a very touch and confidence boosting moment.

Luckily for me, my interviewees were very kind, open and honest during their interviews. It was a real honour and privilege to meet with them and hear their experiences and their thoughts. I appreciate the fact that the people I interviewed were well known having served in government and had been in the public eye but other historians or researchers may have issues with contacting individuals, particularly if they were not well known or little is known about them. Nevertheless, I would greatly encourage any other historians whether at undergraduate level, Masters level or PhD level to utilise this kind of research. I did not think I would be so lucky to get these interviews and while some may agree others will decline an interview. However at the end of the day, shy bairns get nowt as they say up north. All you can do is ask. It could be a crucial for your research!

Roosevelt Study Center PhD Seminar

Screenshot_20160309-122240_1“They were at sword’s point from day one” Cyrus Vance, Zbigniew Brzezinski and the Bureaucratic Wars of the Carter administration.

When Jimmy Carter became president, he declared his intention to forge ahead with a new Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) with the Soviet Union, stating: “we will move this year a step toward our ultimate goal–the elimination of all nuclear weapons from this Earth. We urge all other people to join us, for success can mean life instead of death.” With the terms of the original 1972 SALT agreement nearing its conclusion, the new administration pressed ahead with fresh negotiations regarding a new treaty. It was hoped that an agreement would be signed and sealed within Carter’s first few months in office however negotiations fell victim to the growing tensions within the administration between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Ideologically, the pair had differing interpretations on U.S.-Soviet relations and what an arms control agreement may include but adding to their disagreements was the implementation of the new internal decision making structure that served to exacerbate tensions and fuel the sense of competition between the two men and their respective departments. The roots of the conflict can be attributed to those early negotiations over SALT II where the ideological and bureaucratic fault lines were exposed contributing to the administration’s inconsistent and at times incoherent position on the negotiations. SALT II would ultimately become a by-product of the struggles between Vance and Brzezinski and the differences between them became manifested within the administration very early on, as Harold Brown reflected: ‘they were at sword’s point from day one.’

At the end of 2015, I successfully applied to present a paper at the 2016 Roosevelt Study Center PhD Seminar. Along with eight other PhD students from across Europe, we were required to submit fifteen page paper outling an aspect of our research prior to attending the event as well as providing a ten minute presentation on the work submitted and the topic of research more generally. The paper I submitted was entitled ‘”They were at Sword’s Point from Day One”: Cyrus Vance, Zbigniew Brzezinski and the Bureaucratic Wars of the Carter Administration’ which focussed specifically on the events surrounding the early negotiations over SALT II which culminated in an early embarrassment for the administration. This was the first of many episodes where the ideological and bureaucratic struggles between Vance and Brzezinski for influence over the administration’s foreign policy were laid bare. SALT negotiations thus became a victim of the internal wrangling between the two. The paper will form part of a chapter I am writing about the first year of the Carter presidency during which SALT negotiations were a particularly hot topic for the administration.

I was honoured to meet with the academics present and all the other PhD students and I found all of their presentations and papers fascinating and enjoyable. After an evening of meeting and greeting over wine and food, the presentations began.

In respect of the paper, I was quite happy with the content although I feel a few more primary sources (some that I did discover at the RSC via the DDRS, see below) would have contributed to the paper immensely and maybe altered some of the conclusions that I had drawn. I did note only one spelling error, which is one two many but by my standards is pretty decent. The paper I delivered placed the paper in the wider context of my research. I opted to focus on key aspects of the Vance-Brzezinski relationship, namely the ideological and bureaucratic sources of their conflict and intersperse these points with examples from the SALT negotiations.

Although I’m not an experienced speaker and, I must confess, tend to keep a script close by, I felt as though my public presentation is developing nicely. After my talk I took questions from the other PhD candidates and the academics attending. I felt as though my work generated a fair amount sincere of interest in my research while a number of comments gave me food for thought about how I should proceed with my chosen topic.Some of the positive comments from those attending also provided me with somewhat of an ego boost but also reinforced my belief in my project and its value on an academic level.As with all events of this nature it has been an enormous confidence boost and has certainly energised me to attack my next chapter with extra vigour! Being able to attend events like this are an incredible opportunity for researchers. Prior to making the trip, it suddenly dawned on me that apart from myself, only my supervisors had actually seen my work! So being able to have feedback from more then two people is incredibly beneficial but particularly from other experts in the field and from those who have done similar projects. Hopefully the feedback I received as well as the documents picked up at the RSC via the DDRS will aid the next chapter no end thus adding to the value of what was a very enjoyable experience and fantastic few days in Middelburg.


Thank you for visiting my site!

My name is Christopher Wallis and I’m a PhD candidate at the University of Northumbria where I’m currently writing my thesis on the foreign policy of the Carter Administration, 1977-1981 working under the supervision of Prof. Sylvia Ellis and Dr. Michael Cullinane.

My research focuses on the internal debates within the Carter Administration. Specifically, the relationship between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Zbigniew Brzezinski.

This site/blog is primarily designed for me to showcase aspects of my research but also provide some general musings on PhD life, the universe and everything that goes with it.

I hope you find this page useful and all feedback (good and bad) is welcome.