Neutron artillery shells probably would have been deployed routinely in Western Europe if it had not been for the "sensational and eerie impression" of the weapons created by a series of Washington Post articles in 1977, according to a report by the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
The report, called "The Press and the Neutron Bomb," contained criticism and praise for the articles written by reporter Walter Pincus and detailed the Carter administration's efforts to persuade the European press to write favorable stories about neutron weapons, including a covert CIA program.
Pincus, on June 6, 1977, broke the story that the United States was planning to begin production of a neutron battlefield weapon "designed to kill people through the release of neutrons rather than destroy military installations through heat and blast."
The report said Pincus "came across the story quite by accident" while covering a "boring" House Appropriations Committee hearing on a public works bill, when he read a single reference to an "enhanced radiation" warhead for the Lance missile in the Energy Research and Development Administration's budget hearings.
A headline on the story said, "Neutron Killer Warhead Buried in ERDA Budget."
Although the neutron bomb was not a new idea and Pincus had written of it before in The New Republic magazine, his Post article "revived the language of the 1960s when neutron bombs had been described as uniquely insidious man-killers," the report said. And the headline "served to portray the neutron bomb as a singularly horrific, clandestine invention."
"We were quite unprepared for the political storm that hit us only 4 1/2 months after the inauguration," the report quoted Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, as saying.
"The 'storm' that developed built slowly over the next months and was largely attributable to the one-man reporting of Walter Pincus," the report said. It added: "The making of neutron bombs into a major news story was essentially accomplished during June through the persistence of Pincus and The Post's editorial board."
Pincus' stories were picked up by wire services, radio and television stations and other newspapers and created a political storm in the United States and Europe. This led to mass protests in Europe and hot debate within Congress and NATO, the report said.
Almost a year later, in April 1978, Carter deferred deployment and production of nuclear weapons. The report said there were reports at the time that his decision "was due partly to his reluctance to embrace a bomb that the public understood to 'kill people but leave buildings intact.'
"This sensational and eerie impression of the neutron bomb essentially was fostered by a series of articles written by Walter Pincus during the summer of 1977," it said. "Several members of Congress and most quarters of the journalism world hailed Pincus' stories as outstanding examples of investigative reporting that had brought a worrisome weapons development to the attention of the public.
"His critics . . . lamented the stories as errant sensationalism that had pried open the Pandora's box within the NATO alliance, leading to a weakening of the U.S. nuclear deterrent.
"But both his supporters and critics within the federal bureaucracy did appear to agree on one thing: without the appearance of the Pincus stories, the neutron bomb would probably have been routinely deployed in Western Europe. As Harold Brown, the secretary of defense, later summed up: 'Without the Pincus articles, neutron warheads would have been deployed and nobody would have noticed.' "
The report quoted several other Carter administration officials as being highly critical of Pincus. They said Pincus had characterized neutron weapons as a new killer weapon instead of a modernization of nuclear arms systems that would cause less damage on a battlefield.
"I felt then, and I feel now, that the sensational press coverage was largely demagogy," Brzezinski said, according to the report.
Jerrold Schecter, who handled press relations for the National Security Council, said, "We felt, frankly, that these articles contained some cheap shots, particularly the use of terms like 'killer warhead.' "
The report said Pincus was praised by journalists and educators, however, and won several awards.