By Robert C. Donnelly
Former President Jimmy Carter, who has entered hospice care at age 98 at his home in Plains, Georgia, was a dark horse Democratic presidential candidate with little national recognition when he beat Republican incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976.
The introspective former peanut farmer pledged a new era of honesty and forthrightness at home and abroad, a promise that resonated with voters eager for change following the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War.
His presidency, however, lasted only one term before Ronald Reagan defeated him. Since then, scholars have debated – and often maligned – Carter’s legacy, especially his foreign policy efforts that revolved around human rights.
Critics have described Carter’s foreign policies as “ineffectual” and “hopelessly muddled,” and their formulation demonstrated “weakness and indecision.”
As a historian researching Carter’s foreign policy initiatives, I conclude his overseas policies were far more effective than critics have claimed.
A Soviet strategy
The criticism of Carter’s foreign policies seems particularly mistaken when it comes to the Cold War, a period defined by decades of hostility, mutual distrust and arms buildup after World War II between the U.S. and Russia, then known as the Soviet Union or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).
By the late 1970s, the Soviet Union’s economy and global influence were weakening. With the counsel of National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Soviet expert, Carter exploited these weaknesses.
During his presidency, Carter insisted nations provide basic freedoms for their people – a moral weapon against which repressive leaders could not defend.
Carter soon openly criticized the Soviets for denying Russian Jews their basic civil rights, a violation of human rights protections outlined in the diplomatic agreement called the Helsinki Accords.
Carter’s team underscored these violations in arms control talks. The CIA flooded the USSR with books and articles to incite human rights activism. And Carter publicly supported Russian dissidents – including pro-democracy activist Andrei Sakharov – who were fighting an ideological war against socialist leaders.
Carter adviser Stuart Eizenstat argues that the administration attacked the Soviets “in their most vulnerable spot – mistreatment of their own citizens.”
This proved effective in sparking Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s social and political reforms of the late 1980s, best known by the Russian word “glasnost,” or “openness.”
The Afghan invasion
In December 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in response to the assassination of the Soviet-backed Afghan leader, Nur Mohammad Taraki. The invasion effectively ended an existing détente between the U.S. and USSR.
Beginning in July 1979, the U.S. was providing advice and nonlethal supplies to the mujahideen rebelling against the Soviet-backed regime. After the invasion, National Security Advisor Brzezinski advised Carter to respond aggressively to it. So the CIA and U.S. allies delivered weapons to the mujahideen, a program later expanded under Reagan.
Carter’s move effectively engaged the Soviets in a proxy war that began to bleed the Soviet Union.
By providing the rebels with modern weapons, the U.S. was “giving to the USSR its Vietnam war,” according to Brzezinski: a progressively expensive war, a strain on the socialist economy and an erosion of their authority abroad.
Carter also imposed an embargo on U.S. grain sales to the Soviets in 1980. Agriculture was the USSR’s greatest economic weakness since the 1960s. The country’s unfavorable weather and climate contributed to successive poor growing seasons, and their heavy industrial development left the agricultural sector underfunded.
Economist Elizabeth Clayton concluded in 1985 that Carter’s embargo was effective in exacerbating this weakness.
Census data compiled between 1959 and 1979 show that 54 million people were added to the Soviet population. Clayton estimates that 2 to 3 million more people were added in each subsequent year. The Soviets were overwhelmed by the population boom and struggled to feed their people.
At the same time, Clayton found that monthly wages increased, which led to an increased demand for meat. But by 1985, there was a meat shortage in the USSR. Why? Carter’s grain embargo, although ended by Reagan in 1981, had a lasting impact on livestock feed that resulted in Russian farmers decreasing livestock production.
The embargo also forced the Soviets to pay premium prices for grain from other countries, nearly 25 percent above market prices.
For years, Soviet leaders promised better diets and health, but now their people had less food. The embargo battered a weak socialist economy and created another layer of instability for the growing population.
The Olympic boycott
In 1980, Carter pushed further to punish the Soviets. He convinced the U.S. Olympic Committee to refrain from competing in the upcoming Moscow Olympics while the Soviets repressed their people and occupied Afghanistan.
Carter not only promoted a boycott, but he also embargoed U.S. technology and other goods needed to produce the Olympics. He also stopped NBC from paying the final US$20 million owed to the USSR to broadcast the Olympics. China, Germany, Canada and Japan – superpowers of sport – also participated in the boycott.
Historian Allen Guttmann said, “The USSR lost a significant amount of international legitimacy on the Olympic question.” Dissidents relayed to Carter that the boycott was another jab at Soviet leadership. And in America, public opinion supported Carter’s bold move – 73% of Americans favored the boycott.
The Carter doctrine
In his 1980 State of the Union address, Carter revealed an aggressive Cold War military plan. He declared a “Carter doctrine,” which said that the Soviets’ attempt to gain control of Afghanistan, and possibly the region, was regarded as a threat to U.S. interests. And Carter was prepared to meet the threat with “military force.”
Carter also announced in his speech a five-year spending initiative to modernize and strengthen the military because he recognized the post-Vietnam military cuts weakened the U.S. against the USSR.
Ronald Reagan argued during the 1980 presidential campaign that, “Jimmy Carter risks our national security – our credibility – and damages American purposes by sending timid and even contradictory signals to the Soviet Union.” Carter’s policy was based on “weakness and illusion” and should be replaced “with one founded on improved military strength,” Reagan criticized.
In 1985, however, President Reagan publicly acknowledged that his predecessor demonstrated great timing in modernizing and strengthening the nation’s forces, which further increased economic and diplomatic pressure on the Soviets.
Reagan admitted that he felt “very bad” for misstating Carter’s policies and record on defense.
Carter is most lauded today for his post-presidency activism, public service and defending human rights. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for such efforts.
But that praise leaves out a significant portion of Carter’s presidential accomplishments. His foreign policy, emphasizing human rights, was a key instrument in dismantling the power of the Soviet Union.
Robert C. Donnelly is Associate Professor of History at Gonzaga University.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
Too funny, Carter had the worst inflation in American history, that is until Biden. Biden wasn’t lying, he’s been there before, the photo is evidence of that.
Ray W. says
You are backsliding again, Jimbo99. Hope springs eternal. A little more intellectual rigor, please. I know you can do it.
Dennis C Rathsam says
This is the only good thing about Carters presidency. Its sad to see him this way but he had a good life, the pearly gates of heaven will open when his soul arives. But as a young man, I waited in gas lines, miles long. Iran held Americans captive for years. During his presidency, I worked at GM, I got laid off for almost 4 years. If you want to tell a story about famous people, dont sugar cote it. The real thruth will set you free. I feel that Jimmy Carter was the worst president of my life time. Iam sure many people feel like me.
Cote = coat. No Carter was not the worst. I am sure dump has that title. And yes I waited in the same lines.
Ray W. says
Sometimes, even Dennis C. Rathsam has to admit that other people just might be well educated, more experienced, better informed, and possess a greater understanding of national and international politics than he does. President Carter is one of them. Oy, vey!
By the way, the gas lines from Dennis C. Rathsam’s youth were, for the most part, the result of OPEC’s payback for the United States backing Israel, particularly during the Yom Kippur War (there were two related embargos several years apart, with each triggering a national bout with recession). Solely blaming Carter for helping Israel to satisfy incurious commenters, but such blame is not an accurate account of what really happened. Can it be argued that there is a difference between those who complain and those who explain?
Iranians did hold Americans captive for 444 days during the Carter presidency, but most historians assess cause to decades of exploitation of Iranian oil supplies, to decades of support of the Shah’s regime, including his hated secret police, and to the CIA overthrow of a popularly elected government in the ’50’s that tossed the Shah out of power. Yes, the Eisenhower administration reinstalled the Shah, gathering the enmity of perhaps millions of Iranians. Yes, all administrations after that gave the Shah significant military and political support. Yes, Carter opened the door to the Shah’s travel to America at a time when the Shah was dying of cancer and at a time when Iran was demanding his extradition so they could kill him, and that is a very important causal factor, but we really have to go back to WWII to more fully contemplate the British and American promises that encouraged the Shah to overthrow his own father’s government. The Shah’s father was believed ready to join the Axis powers, which would have cut off the twin-line railroad that British and American engineers had built in order to more rapidly supply the Soviet war effort. Convoys carrying aid to the Soviets were travelling to an Iranian port and offloading their cargo onto rail cars to be shipped through the mountains to southeastern Soviet satellite nations. The original single rail line slowed turnaround times, so the original line was upgraded, and a second line built. Churchill wrote about that effort in his history of WWII, including references to his concerns that Iran joining the Axis would significantly and negatively impact the Allied effort to keep the Soviets in the fight.
As an aside, the jury is still out of the worst president in U.S. history. Some will argue Trump, others, Biden. Some stick to old 19th century favorites. Only the more gullible argue that Carter falls anywhere near that ignominy. Carter did something no other president has even come close to accomplishing, which was presiding over the negotiations that led to the Camp David Accords. Yes, Sadat and Begin were soon enough assassinated by extremists within their own societies. But no one can dispute that Carter took Egypt and Jordan off the table of Israeli enemies. Israel has been under unceasing threat ever since, but not from either Egypt or Jordan. Just think, a president who significantly weakened the Soviet empire and bolstered Israel’s chance for survival in a region filled with enemies, cannot possibly be ranked near the bottom of historical presidents, despite Dennis C. Rathsam’s memories that a corporation decided to lay him off. Was it GM nearsightedness?
A long-term economic malaise, started during the Johnson presidency (after all, Nixon did sign an executive order freezing prices and wages in a vain effort to deal with his own version of hyperinflation, indeed the term stagflation was coined before the Carter years). Economists posit that the Great Inflation lasted from 1965 to 1982, during which era, American macroeconomic policy began to shift away from the eventually abandoned Bretton Woods agreement forged in 1944 among many of the leading economic nations of the world. In 1974, during the first OPEC oil embargo, inflation peeked at an average of 11.5 percent for the year; it peaked again in 1980 after the second oil embargo, at an average of 13.55 percent for the year. Inflation rose again during our recent economic downturn, though it has been dropping in recent months. While the most recent economic struggle has not yet met the economic definition of a recession, time will tell if our economy may eventually transform into one of recession, though there can be little argument that in 2021 OPEC voted to cut crude oil production and in 2022 the Russian’s decided to invade the Ukraine, with both events interrupting international crude oil supplies.
I will continue to focus on the differences between a view presented by a partisan member of faction, like Dennis C. Rathsam, and those commenters who engage in zealous advocacy, based on the exercise of intellectual rigor.
James Madison, in Federalist Paper #37, described partisan members of faction as “pestilential.”
Our founding fathers celebrated zealous advocacy, based on reason and choice. They gathered in their myriad political views to discuss the Declaration of Independence. Others gathered in their myriad political views to discuss the Articles of Confederation. Still others gathered in their myriad political views to discuss a proposed Constitution. Still others gathered in their myriad political views to discuss ratifying that proposed Constitution. Still others gathered in their myriad political views to discuss the Bill of Rights. Few enough attended two of these events. Even fewer attended three. There is little that can be said to be wrong with zealously presenting an argument during a gathering of reasoning minds. There is almost everything wrong with engaging in partisan politics, complete with closed minds, based on the arbitrary, capricious, and unreasoning exercise of force.
Thank you for this!
Ray W.: Can it be argued that your intellectual rigor would be considered liberal, or coastal, elite, and therefore a good reason to vote for Trump (who talks down to his constituents) because they can relate to him and not have to do any real research or reading of history, ever?
Hard to control the educated; they are a threat to some.
I have been registered NPA my adult life only to have the chance to listen to both sides before forming an opinion. Today, however, it is really, really hard!
If I remember correctly, the Iranians purposely held out on releasing the captives until Reagan was in office, depriving Carter of credit.
Ray W. says
Thank you for the questions and comments, Laurel.
30 years ago, a slew of editorial columns addressed a long-held belief that a prominent member of the Reagan election team met with Iranians prior to the 1980 presidential election. The staffer allegedly struck a deal that if Iran would agree to hold the hostages until Reagan took office, the embargo against selling arms to Iran would be lifted. This part of the story remains in dispute. There is no dispute of the fact that within minutes of Reagan taking office, Iran announced the release of the hostages. Within days, it is undisputed that Israel began selling large quantities of munitions, parts, and weaponry to Iran. Reagan admitted to wrongdoing in the Iran-Contra scandal, which involve American delivery of arms to Iran. The Iran-Iraq war had already begun in September 1980 and Iran became increasingly desperate for all types of armaments. The Carter administration had been inflexible on all Iranian efforts to lift the embargo. Israel, too, had approached the Carter administration to get around the embargo but had been denied.
The story gained enough traction that President H. W. Bush stated in the early 1990’s that he welcomed a formal investigation into the matter, but none ever occurred.
There is little doubt that both of my well-educated and progressive parents fostered a strong sense of curiosity in me and in all of my siblings. My family migrated from North Carolina to DeLand in 1948, with my father enrolling in Stetson’s law school. My maternal grandmother was Quaker, my mother attended Greensboro College for Women, and my father attended Guilford College, a Quaker institution, before enrolling in law school. My oldest sister and I graduated with undergraduate degrees from Chapel Hill. In that sense, I am a product of a liberal arts family and education. I have registered as Republican and Democrat, though not at the same time (we all know the ancient election ditty: Vote early, vote often).
I have written before of my study of the conservative tradition in Great Britain and America, dating from the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, when Parliament stood up to King James II (separation of powers, indeed). The more I studied that movement, the more I realized that I was more conservative than liberal, but not in the sense of today’s so-called conservative politics. Today’s version of Republicanism bears little resemblance to true conservatism, which might explain why so many prominent conservatives have left the Republican Party. On the other hand, I have commented a number of times of the challenge posed by one of my professors at Chapel Hill, which was to find the word with the greatest number of meanings. It turned out to be “run”, which at that time had 105 different meanings in the dictionary. A person can run a race, a disease can run its course, a stream can run, we can experience a runny nose, there can be a run on a bank, and on and on. In that sense, today’s Republicans can claim they are conservative simply be redefining the meaning of conservatism. The insurmountable problem today’s Republicans face, however, is that none of the now-hundreds of different meanings of “run” mean “to stop.” One simply cannot be the opposite of conservative and still claim to be conservative, no matter how good it makes a Republican feel to claim to be a conservative. A Congress filled with Republican members that obediently submitted their now former executive leader, that embraces the Big Lie, that promotes insurrection and secession, that openly courts financial gain over public good, is not conservative. It may be Republican, but it is not conservative.
The author of Albion’s Seed wrote:
“There was a striking paradox in attitudes towards schools and schooling in Virginia. The elite was deeply interested in the education of gentlemen. ‘Better to be never born than ill bred,’ wrote William Fitzhugh in 1687. By ‘ill bred’ in that passage, he meant ‘unschooled.’
“At the same time, visitors and natives both agreed that schools were few and far between, that ignorance was widespread, and that formal education did not flourish in the Chesapeake. This condition was not an accident. It was deliberately contrived by Virginia’s elite, who positively feared learning among the general population. The classic expression of this attitude came from Governor William Berkley himself. When asked in 1671 by the Lords of Trade about the state of schools in Virginia, he made a famous reply: ‘I thank God’, he declared, ‘that there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these [for a] hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both.”
Thank you, FlaglerLive, for printing, aka, “divulging”, information to the masses in Flagler County.
Ray W.: Thank you FlaglerLive indeed! A free thinking, free speech forum.
Now, I’m trying to figure out whether I’m “chatting” with a person of intellectual rigor who has an exceptional photographic memory (dates, quotes and such) or AI. Either way, I’m envious!
Meanwhile, maybe you can help me understand something else. The word “run,” even with 105 meanings, to me, means progression from point A to point B, as in “progressive” rather than “conservative,” which to me means standing still. I understand that today’s conservative is almost opposite of recent past’s conservatives, and has been drastically redefined. However, even with past conservatives, I cannot figure out what they are trying to conserve! They do not seem to be interested in conserving air, water, wildlife and the Earth in general. The closest I can come up with is conserving personal strength, belief, self sufficiency and self governing, much of what I agree with, but I also want progression.
My husband was a lifelong Republican, and changed to NPA as he watched the party change into something he could not abide by. I’m a lifelong NPA. To look at his values, I see that he, too, has progressive leanings, though not quite as fast as me. So, even then, I still cannot figure out just what a “conservative” is, or what is so supposedly wrong with progression.
Ray W. says
No chatbot in this space.
One oddity in my thinking is that when I read something I find memorable, I fold a crease in the bottom of the page, so I can easily go back and find it. Perhaps the impetus comes from the importance I placed on building each case file a particular way, so I could find everything I needed on short notice. That approach was extremely labor-intensive, with many a late night at the kitchen table or in the office, but if a judge wanted to discuss any issue, I was usually able to quickly find the appropriate folder in the client’s file in order to more completely and adequately address my client’s approach on that issue.
Madison wrote extensively in the margins of his many books, which were eventually donated to what is now the Library of Congress. For centuries now, scholars have poured over his notes, comments and ideas, and how he interpreted the ideas of others.
Perhaps I should confess that I rarely write about my personal political views. Instead, I rely on the writings, quotes, or expressions of others, etc., to make points, provoke ideas, castigate the errant-minded, and on and on. I do rely on my life experiences and perhaps it can be said that I speak in parable form. In that sense, I am a blend of many minds, manifold ideas and ideals. I greatly admire many of my former compatriots in the Public Defender’s Office, including the support staff, who so often contributed their ideas to my cases.
I have commented on a number of occasions that I began posting comments to FlaglerLive in earnest when I read of the Flagler political figure who took to the local radio waves to suggest that it was time to start beheading Democrats. I could just as easily poke away at the foibles of Democrats, but the great danger to us all is the fringe of the Republican Party that really wants to kill Democrats. Today’s Republican Party is a party of malice; there can be very little dispute about that element that surges among that party today. A FlaglerLive commenter recently expressed a wish that another commenter stop breathing.
I have repeatedly commented of an exchange I had with my oldest daughter in 2015. She expressed wonder and worry about the then-current political climate around her generation. I originally told her of my belief that America gets a stomachache from time to time; we just have to throw up every once in a while, a belief I still hold, but on a limited scale. I called her back after Trump had announced his candidacy and begun decimating his Republican opponents on the campaign trail. I apologized to my daughter and told her I had been wrong, that we were entering into an age of long-term political violence, that the disaffected among us had found a voice through which to vent their anger.
So here goes. The conservative tradition, not the form of Republican so-called conservatism as it is preached today, began when England’s Parliament stood its ground to King James II in 1688, eventually removing him from the throne. In time, a Bill of Rights was passed, limiting the Crown’s powers. Parlaiment established a level of autonomy previously unknown, but the new royal line still held significant powers. Conservatism, then, was not quite what we call it today. Conservatism was not holding onto the past; it did not attempt to preserve a monolithic ideal. Rather, the conservative tradition established a future that involves a separation of powers, respect for the rule of law, individual liberties and freedoms, separation of church and state, etc. Eventually, the conservative tradition evolved into an unwritten Constitution in Great Britain and a written Constitution in the United States. What we know today as liberalism has as its base the conservative tradition. True conservatism would never bow to one man or woman; it was designed to be displayed in a representative Parlaiment or Congress, zealous in its protection of its limited powers. Perhaps this is why David Brooks considers Trump’s comment that only “he” could fix America’s problems as perhaps the least conservative comment that could ever have been said.
Many people today have a vested interest in rewriting the definition of conservatism so as to meet their current needs and desires. I accept that as a normal human activity, i.e., to stretch the boundaries of language. As I commonly told my children, if they define right and wrong by what they want, then right and wrong will change every day, because what they want changes every day. There has to be some stability of thought that allows for a consistent judgment of right and wrong. But, just as the verb “to run” cannot mean “to stop”, the conservative tradition cannot mean what today’s Republicans claim it to mean, but they keep trying to redefine conservativism to reflect whatever it is that they want at the dawning of each new day. Conservatism cannot possibly be redefined to mean obedience to a new king, particularly a new king beset by the daily turbulence of whim and caprice.
Ray W.: That definition of “conservative” made absolute sense to me, and I understood it. Thank you for that!
I read what you wrote to my husband, and he agreed wholeheartedly. I feel bad that his party has changed so drastically, as it has been a part of his identity for the majority of his life. A friend was here to hear it as well, and that was interesting, because he is somewhere just barely left of today’s conservatives, and he agreed with what you wrote as well.
I think (wish) you should submit an article to Flagler Live with what you wrote here, and maybe add how Democrats have been labeled “liberals.” It’s not going to be seen back here by too many people, but should be an article front and center.
Pierre, Flagler Live, are you listening? This is a great opportunity to get through to some people. Not all, of course, but some may be effected.
Anyway, Ray, your “comment” here has enlightened me and I would love to see you pass this valuable information on to others here. At the very least, if will force some to think, and even if they don’t admit it, it may be stuck somewhere in the back of their brains! Oooooh, progress!
Ray W. says
Thank you, Laurel, for your support and encouragement. Perhaps, when Joseph Campbell’s Fire of the Mind strikes, I will attempt to formulate in my own mind a multifaceted understanding of that most complex of political ideas: That of the evolution of liberalism as a democratic ideal worthy of spreading across the world into a pejorative term corrupted by so-called conservatives to fit their daily changing definitions of right and wrong.
I await, too, the appropriate comment to inspire me to address the three forms of rhetorical thought that were used by our founding fathers to determine truth, to determine their conception of human nature. I told Mr. Tristam many months ago that I was waiting for the right moment. I am a patient person who believes in that fire of the mind moment that can so consume my thoughts at any time.
I tip my hat to #39.
Jimmy Carter was the most decent human being to ever occupy the White House—sadly, that quality was his downfall.
I’m agnostic but do hope that when the time comes, there’s a heavenly reward waiting with a welcoming committee.
Maranatha! How I wish…for Jimmy Carter…
Thank you, Jimmy, for 98 years of abundant, precious kindness.
Tell it like it is. says
Not to mention jimmy carter’s boat loads of Castro’s crazy people that he let into this country and Miami went to hell along with any decent human rights. Ask Joe “Full of It” Scarbol and Mika Brezinkie whose dad helped good old JC get rid of the Sha of Iran and bring in Komanie and created Iran of today. Yes, JC can put on this holy front of kindness. maybe that can cover up some of his stupidity. Check out good old Joe Biden and his leading us down the same path, only this time it could lead to war with Russia. Who’s going to pull us out? Ronald Reagan is dead.
Having just read your asinine throat-clearing, and diseased comment, it becomes clear why shampoo bottles have instructions.
Too bad we can’t shampoo your inexhaustible doltishness away.
Carter was a better President than he got credit for. As a humanitarian, Carter is hard to surpass. He did great work, and helped many people.
Jimmy Carter never met a Fascist dictator he couldn’t love and to whom he wasn’t willing to turn America’s “other cheek” in order for them to sneak in a harder slap. He thought it made him more “saintly”. It actually just made America look weak. That was true in the case of Iran, Cuba, North Korea and certain other terrorist organizations. Also, just like other human beings, Jimmy Carter was not without his prejudices and some of those prejudices effected his political judgement at times.
Despite the above being the case, it is true that Jimmy Carter led a life of purpose and service. His loss should and will be mourned. But he was, by no means, as perfect” as he tried (sometimes too hard) to be.