DEFENSE: Carter's Big Decision: Down Goes the B-1, Here Comes the Cruise

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Conservative Republicans were outraged. Snapped G.O.P. National Chairman William Brock: "A tragic error." Declared California Congressman Robert Dornan: "They're breaking out the vodka and caviar in Moscow." Republican House Leader John Rhodes of Arizona accused Carter of giving the House "a rather gratuitous slap in the face" by not announcing his decision prior to its vote on the B-1 funds. Only 48 hours before Carter dropped his bombshell, the House had beaten back, by a vote of 243 to 178, an amendment to delete from the defense budget $1.5 billion for production of five B-1s.

In fact, TIME learned, House Speaker Tip O'Neill considered going to Carter before the vote. O'Neill asked Texas Democrat George Mahon, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee: "Do you think I ought to call the President on this?" No, said Mahon. "We can handle it down the street." After Carter's announcement, O'Neill checked with his colleagues ("moseyed around the House floor") and concluded that Democratic leaders would have no difficulty persuading both the House and Senate to drop the funds or, as the White House would prefer, earmark them for cruise missiles and B-52 modifications.

Abroad, some U.S. allies were dismayed by Carter's announcement. The Japanese were worried that the decision, coupled with the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea, might lead to Soviet mischief. Said Masatake Okumiya, a former air chief of Japan's Self Defense Forces: "The issue has assumed a great psychological meaning, with the result that the veto might be taken by the Russians as a sign of weakness." A senior West German general agreed. "What the West needs is the most sophisticated set of arms possible," said he. "We've already lost numerical superiority tin several categories of weapons] to the Soviets, and we can't afford to slacken on quality."

But other European allies were cheered. Most regarded the B-1 as less well suited to their defense needs than the cheaper, more flexible cruise missile, which can be launched from land-,sea-or air-based vehicles. NATO Commander Alexander Haig, for example, describes the cruise missile as an "attractive alternative" to the B-1 for the alliance's arsenal. Declared General Georges Buis, a noted French military strategist: "The B-1 is a formidable weapon, but not terribly useful. For the price of one bomber, you can have 200 cruise missiles."

The President's announcement ended a fight that has raged for a decade. Carter called it "one of the most difficult decisions that I've made since I've been in office." Even he could not pinpoint for aides the precise moment when he finally made up his mind. Says Press Secretary Jody Powell: "It began with an inclination, and it just got firmer and firmer as time went along."

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