Carter received a B.A. in his double-major of Physics and Medieval History from Yale University, summa cum laude, in 1976. He then became a Rhodes Scholar and studied at the University of Oxford, from which he received his D.Phil. in theoretical physics in 1979. He worked on quantum chromodynamics, the quantum field theory that was then postulated to explain the behavior of nuclear reactions and the structure of subatomic particles. He was a postdoctoral fellow research associate in theoretical physics at Rockefeller University from 1979 to 1980 and a research fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies from 1982 to 1984.
Carter taught at Harvard University, beginning in 1986. He ultimately rose to become chair of the International & Global Affairs faculty and Ford Foundation Professor of Science & International Affairs at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs within the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Carter is author or co-author of 11 books and more than 100 articles on physics, technology, national security, and management.
Carter served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy during President Clinton's first term, from 1993 to 1996, responsible for policy regarding the former Soviet states, strategic affairs, and nuclear weapons policy. He was Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics from April 2009 to October 2011, with responsibility for procurement of all technology, systems, services, and supplies, bases and infrastructure, energy, and environment, and more than $50 billion annually in R&D. He was then Deputy Secretary of Defense from October 2011 to December 2013, serving as the chief operating officer of the DOD overseeing an annual budget in excess of $600 billion, 2.4 million civilian and military personnel, and global operations.
For his service to national security, Carter has on five occasions been awarded the DOD Distinguished Public Service Medal. He has also received the CJCS Joint Distinguished Civilian Service Award, and the Defense Intelligence Medal for his contributions to Intelligence.
Ashton Baldwin Carter was born on September 24, 1954, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His father is William Stanley Carter, Jr., a World War II veteran, Navy neurologist and psychiatrist, and department chairman at Abington Memorial Hospital for 30 years. His mother is Anne Baldwin Carter, an English teacher. He has three siblings, including children's book author Cynthia DeFelice. As a child he was nicknamed Ash and Stoobie.
He was raised in Abington, Pennsylvania, on Wheatsheaf Lane. At age 11, working at his first job at a Philadelphia car wash, he was fired for "wise-mouthing the owner".
Carter was educated at Highland Elementary School (class of 1966) and at Abington Senior High School (class of 1972) in Abington. In high school he was a wrestler, lacrosse player, cross-country runner, and president of the Honor Society. He was inducted into Abington Senior High School's Hall of Fame in 1989.
He attended Edinburgh University in Scotland in the spring of 1975. In 1976 Carter received a B.A. in his double-major of Physics and Medieval History from Yale College, summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa. His senior thesis, “Quarks, Charm and the Psi Particle”, was published in Yale Scientific in 1975. He was also an experimental research associate at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in 1975 (where he worked on quark research) and at Brookhaven National Laboratory in 1976.
Carter then became a Rhodes Scholar, studying at the University of Oxford, from which he received his DPhil in theoretical physics in 1979.
He was subsequently a postdoctoral fellow research associate in theoretical physics at Rockefeller University from 1979 to 1980, studying time-reversal invariance and dynamical symmetry breaking. He was then a research fellow at the MIT Center for International Studies from 1982 to 1984, during which time he wrote a public report assessing that the Reagan-proposed "Star Wars" initiative could not protect the US from a Soviet nuclear attack.
Carter taught at Harvard University, as an assistant professor from 1984 to 1986, associate professor from 1986 to 1988, professor and associate director of the Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government from 1988 to 1990, and director of the Center from 1990 to 1993. At the Kennedy School, he became chair of the International and Global Affairs faculty and Ford Foundation Professor of Science and International Affairs. He concurrently was co-director of the Preventive Defense Project of Harvard and Stanford Universities.
From 1993 to 1996, Carter served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy during President Clinton's first term. He was responsible for strategic affairs, including dealing with the threat of weapons of mass destruction elsewhere in the world, nuclear weapons policy (including overseeing the U.S. nuclear arsenal and missile defenses), the 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, the Agreed Framework signed in 1994 which froze North Korea's plutonium-producing nuclear reactor program, the 1995 extension of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the negotiation of the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, and the multibillion-dollar Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program and Project Sapphire that removed all nuclear weapons from Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus. Carter directed military planning during the 1994 crisis over North Korea's nuclear weapons program. He was also responsible for dealing with the establishment of defense and intelligence relationships with former Soviet countries in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and its nuclear arsenal, and was chairman of NATO’s High Level Group. He was also responsible for the Counter proliferation Initiative, control of sensitive US exports, and negotiations that led to the deployment of Russian troops as part of the Bosnia Peace Plan Implementation Force.
From April 2009 to October 2011, Carter was Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, with responsibility for DOD's procurement reform and innovation agenda and completion of procurements such as the KC-46 tanker. He also led the development and production of thousands of mine-resistant ambush protected (MRAP) vehicles, and other acquisitions. He instituted "Better Buying Power", seeking smarter and leaner purchasing. From October 2011 to December 2013, Carter was Deputy Secretary of Defense, serving as the DOD’s chief operating officer, overseeing the department's annual budget and its three million civilian and military personnel, steering strategy and budget through sequester, and directing the reform of DOD's national security export controls. He was confirmed by Senate voice vote for both positions.
In an April 4, 2013, speech, he affirmed that the 'Shift to Asia' initiative of President Obama was a priority that would not be affected by the budget sequestration in 2013. Carter noted that The Shift to Asia is principally an economic matter with new security implications. India, Australia, and New Zealand were mentioned as forthcoming security partners. His Pentagon arms-control responsibilities included matters involving the START II, ABM, CFE, and other arms-control treaties.
Carter was nominated by President Obama to be the 25th United States Secretary of Defense on December 5, 2014.
In his nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said he was “very much inclined” to increase U.S. military aid to Ukraine. Speaking on the Middle East, he said the U.S. must militarily ensure a “lasting defeat” of Islamic State (ISIL) forces in Iraq and Syria. He said he is not in favor of increasing the rate of prisoner releases from Guantanamo Bay. He also opined that the threats posed by Iran were as serious as those posed by the ISIL forces.
He was approved unanimously on February 1, 2015, by the Senate Armed Services Committee. He was confirmed by the Senate on February 12 by a vote of 93–5 and sworn in by Vice President Joe Biden on February 17.
In May 2015, Carter warned China to halt its rapid island-building in the South China Sea.
In October 2015, Carter condemned Russian air strikes against ISIL and other rebel groups in Syria. On October 8, 2015, Carter, speaking at a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels, said he believed Russia would soon start paying the price for its military intervention in Syria in the form of reprisal attacks and casualties.
A controversy arose in December 2015 when it was revealed that Carter had used a personal email account when conducting official business as Secretary of Defense.
In January 2016, at Carter's direction, the Department of Defense opened all military roles to women, overriding a request by the Marine Corps to continue to exempt women from certain positions. In June 2016, Carter announced that transgender individuals would be allowed to join and openly serve in the military.
Carter resigned one day before the end of the Obama administration.
From 1990 to 1993, Carter was chairman of the Editorial Board of International Security. Previously, he held positions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, and Rockefeller University.
In 1997, Carter and former CIA Director John M. Deutch co-chaired the Catastrophic Terrorism Study Group which urged greater attention to terrorism. In 1998 Carter, Deutch and Philip Zelikow (later executive director of the 9/11 Commission) published an article on “catastrophic terrorism” in Foreign Affairs. From 1998 to 2000, he was deputy to William J. Perry in the North Korea Policy Review and traveled with him to Pyongyang. In 2001–02, he served on the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism, and advised on the creation of the Department of Homeland Security.
Carter was also co-director of the Preventive Defense Project, which designs and promotes security policies aimed at preventing the emergence of major new threats to the US.
Carter had been a longtime member of the Defense Science Board and the Defense Policy Board, the principal advisory bodies to the Secretary of Defense. During the Bush administration, he was also a member of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's International Security Advisory Board; co-chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Policy Advisory Group; a consultant to the Defense Science Board; a member of the National Missile Defense White Team, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on International Security and Arms Control. He has testified frequently before the armed services, foreign relations, and homeland security committees of both houses of Congress.
In addition to his public service, Carter was a Senior Partner at Global Technology Partners, focused on advising investment firms in technology and defense. He has been a consultant to Goldman Sachs and Mitretek Systems on international affairs and technology matters, and speaks frequently to business and policy audiences.
He was also a member of the boards of directors of the Mitre Corporation and Mitretek Systems and the advisory boards of MIT Lincoln Laboratory and Draper Laboratory. Carter was also a member of the Aspen Strategy Group, the Council on Foreign Relations, the American Physical Society, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. Carter was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was named as a Fellow in the American Physical Society (Forum on Physics & Society) in 2015.
Carter's views on Iran have been perceived as hawkish. In 2006, he authored a report for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace advocating use or threat of force to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Carter has supported diplomacy with Iran and written about methods of containing a nuclear-armed Tehran.
Carter was a supporter of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as well as an advocate of "preventative" invasions of North Korea and Iran. In response to increase in tension in Ukraine, Carter considered proposing deployment of ground-launched cruise missiles in Europe that could pre-emptively destroy Russian weapons.
U.S. Representative Ted Lieu has criticized Obama's administration for its continued support for Saudi Arabian-led military intervention in Yemen. On 2 March 2016, he sent a letter to Carter. Lieu, who served in the U.S. Air Force, wrote in the letter that the "apparent indiscriminate airstrikes on civilian targets in Yemen seem to suggest that either the coalition is grossly negligent in its targeting or is intentionally targeting innocent civilians."
Carter is married to Stephanie (DeLeeuw) Carter. He was previously married to the current and 8th President of Bates College, Clayton Spencer, with whom he has two grown children, Ava and Will.
Carter received the Ten Outstanding Young Americans award from the United States Junior Chamber in 1987. For his service to national security, Carter has been awarded the DOD's highest civilian medal, the Department of Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, five times. For critical liaison efforts with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the geographic combatant commanders, he was awarded the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joint Distinguished Civilian Service Award in 2013. He also received the Defense Intelligence Medal for his contributions to intelligence.
In addition to authoring numerous articles, scientific publications, government studies, and Congressional testimonies, Carter co-edited and co-authored 11 books:MX Missile Basing (1981)
Ballistic Missile Defense (1984)
Directed Energy Missile Defense in Space (1984)
Managing Nuclear Operations (1987)
Soviet Nuclear Fission: Control of the Nuclear Arsenal in a Disintegrating Soviet Union (1991)
Beyond Spinoff: Military and Commercial Technologies in a Changing World (1992)
A New Concept of Cooperative Security (1992)
Cooperative Denuclearization: From Pledges to Deeds (1993)
Preventive Defense: A New Security Strategy for America (1997)
Keeping the Edge: Managing Defense for the Future (2001)