Presidency of Jimmy Carter

Presidency of Jimmy Carter
Presidency of Jimmy Carter
39th President of the United States
In office
January 20, 1977 – January 20, 1981
Vice President Walter Mondale
Preceded by Gerald Ford
Succeeded by Ronald Reagan
Personal details
Born James Earl Carter, Jr.
October 1, 1924 (1924-10-01) (age 87)
Plains, Georgia
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Rosalynn Carter
Children John William Carter, James Earl Carter III, Donnel Jeffrey Carter, Amy Lynn Carter
Alma mater Union College
United States Naval Academy
Profession Farmer (peanuts), naval officer
Religion Baptist

Jimmy Carter served as the thirty-ninth President of the United States from 1977 to 1981. His administration sought to make the government "competent and compassionate" but, in the midst of an economic crisis produced by rising energy prices and stagflation, met with difficulty in achieving its objectives.[1] At the end of his administration, Carter had substantively reduced both unemployment and the deficit but had not been able to completely eliminate the recession.[1] Carter created the United States Department of Education and United States Department of Energy, established a national energy policy and pursued civil service and social security reform.[1] In foreign affairs, Carter initiated the Camp David Accords, the Panama Canal Treaties and the second round of Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II). Throughout his career, Carter strongly emphasized human rights. He returned the Panama Canal Zone to Panama and he faced criticism at home for his decision, which was widely seen as yet another signal of U.S. weakness and of his own habit of backing down when faced with confrontation. The final year of his presidential tenure was marked by several major crises, including the 1979 takeover of the American embassy in Iran and holding of hostages by Iranian students, an unsuccessful rescue attempt of the hostages, serious fuel shortages, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.



In his inaugural address he said: "We have learned that more is not necessarily better, that even our great nation has its recognized limits, and that we can neither answer all questions nor solve all problems."[2]

Carter had campaigned on a promise to eliminate the trappings of the "Imperial Presidency," and he began taking action according to that promise on Inauguration Day, breaking with recent history and security protocols by walking up Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol to the White House in his inaugural parade. His first steps in the White House went further in this direction: Carter reduced the size of the staff by one-third; canceled government-funded chauffeur service for Cabinet members, ordering them to drive their own cars; and put the USS Sequoia, the presidential yacht up for sale.

Administration and cabinet

President Jimmy Carter 1977–1981
Vice President Walter Mondale 1977–1981
State Cyrus Vance 1977–1980
  Edmund Muskie 1980–1981
Treasury W. Michael Blumenthal 1977–1979
  G. William Miller 1979–1981
Defense Harold Brown 1977–1981
Justice Griffin Bell 1977–1979
  Benjamin R. Civiletti 1979–1981
Interior Cecil D. Andrus 1977–1981
Commerce Juanita M. Kreps 1977–1979
  Philip M. Klutznick 1979–1981
Labor Ray Marshall 1977–1981
Agriculture Robert Bergland 1977–1981
HEW Joseph A. Califano, Jr. 1977–1979
HHS Patricia R. Harris 1979–1981
Education Shirley M. Hufstedler 1979–1981
HUD Patricia R. Harris 1977–1979
  Maurice "Moon" Landrieu 1979–1981
Transportation Brock Adams 1977–1979
  Neil E. Goldschmidt 1979–1981
Energy James R. Schlesinger 1977–1979
  Charles W. Duncan 1979–1981


Jimmy Carter meets with his first Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance

Judicial appointments

Although Carter had no opportunity to appoint any justices to the Supreme Court of the United States, he appointed 56 judges to the United States Courts of Appeals, and 203 judges to the United States district courts. Carter also experienced a small number of judicial appointment controversies, as three of his nominees for different federal appellate judgeships were not processed by the Democratic-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee before Carter's presidency ended.

Domestic policies

Carter's reorganization efforts separated the Department of Health, Education and Welfare into the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services. He signed into law a major Civil Service Reform, the first in over 100 years.

President Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale in front of Presidential helicopter Marine One, January 1979

On Carter's first day in office, January 20, 1977, he fulfilled a campaign promise by issuing an executive order declaring unconditional amnesty for Vietnam War-era draft evaders.[3][4]

Under Carter's watch, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 was passed, which phased out the Civil Aeronautics Board. He also enacted deregulation in the trucking, rail, communications, and finance industries.[5]

Among Presidents who served at least one full term, Carter is the only one who never made an appointment to the Supreme Court.[6]

Carter was the first president to address the topic of gay rights.[7] He opposed the Briggs Initiative, a California ballot measure that would have banned gays and supporters of gay rights from being public school teachers. His administration was the first to meet with a group of gay rights activists, and in recent years he has acted in favor of civil unions and ending the ban on gays in the military.[8] He has stated that he "opposes all forms of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and believes there should be equal protection under the law for people who differ in sexual orientation".[9]


Despite calling for a reform of the tax system in his presidential campaign, once in office Carter did very little to change it.[10]

The federal government was in deficit every year of the Carter presidency.[11] His Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act created 103 million acres (417,000 km²) of national park land in Alaska.

Congressional relations

Carter successfully campaigned as a Washington "outsider", critical of President Gerald Ford, as well as the Democratically-controlled U.S. Congress. As president, Carter continued this theme. However, his refusal to play by the rules of Washington contributed to the Carter administration's difficult relationship with Congress. Hamilton Jordan and Frank Moore, in particular, feuded with leading Democrats like House Speaker Tip O'Neill from the start. Unreturned phone calls, verbal insults (both real and imagined), and an unwillingness to trade political favors soured many on Capitol Hill and tangibly affected the president's ability to push through his ambitious agenda.

During the first 100 days of his presidency, Carter wrote a letter to Congress proposing several water projects be scrapped. Among the opponents of Carter's proposal was Senator Russell Long, a powerful Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee.[12] Carter's plan was overturned and bitter feeling became a problem for him.[13]

A rift grew between the White House and Congress. Carter wrote that the most intense and mounting opposition to his policies came from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, which he attributed to Ted Kennedy’s ambition to replace him as president.[14]

A few months after his term started, and thinking he had the support of about 74 Congressmen, Carter issued a "hit list" of 19 projects that he claimed were "pork barrel" spending. He said that he would veto any legislation that contained projects on this list.[15]

This list met with opposition from the leadership of the Democratic Party. Carter had characterized a rivers and harbors bill as wasteful spending. House speaker Tip O'Neill thought it was unwise for the President to interfere with matters that had traditionally been the purview of Congress. Carter was then further weakened when he signed into law a bill containing many of the "hit list" projects.

Later, Congress refused to pass major provisions of his consumer protection bill and his labor reform package. Carter then vetoed a public works package calling it "inflationary", as it contained what he considered to be wasteful spending. Congressional leaders sensed that public support for his legislation was weak, and took advantage of it. After gutting his consumer protection bill, they transformed his tax plan into nothing more than spending for special interests, after which Carter referred to the congressional tax committees as "ravenous wolves."

Health care

Carter wrote in 1982, that Senator Ted Kennedy’s disagreements with Carter's proposed health-care reform plan thwarted Carter’s efforts to provide comprehensive health-care for citizens outside the Medicare system.[16]

Some progress was made in the field of occupational health following Carter's appointment of Dr. Eula Bingham as Director of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Bingham drew from her experience as a physiologist working with carcinogens to raise and simplify standards, redirect the office's resources to industry groups with the worst records, while enacting occupational particulate, lead and benzene exposure standards and regulations on workers' right to know about workplace hazards, including labeling of toxic substances. Bingham enacted many of these provisions over the opposition of not only Republicans, but also some in the Carter Admnistration itself, notably Council of Economic Advisers Chairman Charles Schultze and her own boss, Labor Secretary Ray Marshall; ultimately, many of her proposed reforms were never enacted, or were later rescinded.[17]

Energy crisis

Carter leaving Three Mile Island for Middletown, Pennsylvania, April 1, 1979

In 1973, during the Nixon Administration, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) reduced supplies of oil available to the world market, in part because of deflation of the dollars they were receiving as a result of Nixon leaving the gold standard and in part as a reaction to America's sending of arms to Israel during the Yom Kippur War. This sparked the 1973 Oil Crisis and forced oil prices to rise sharply, spurring price inflation throughout the economy and slowing growth. The U.S government imposed price controls on gasoline and oil following the announcement, which had the effect of causing shortages and long lines at filling stations for gasoline.[18][19] The lines were quelled through the lifting of price controls on gasoline, although oil controls remained until Reagan's presidency.[19] Significant government borrowing helped keep interest rates high relative to inflation.[citation needed] Carter told Americans that the energy crisis was "a clear and present danger to our nation" and "the moral equivalent of war"[20] and drew out a plan he thought would address it.[21] Carter said that world oil supply would probably only be able to keep up with Americans' demand for six to eight more years.[20]

In 1977, Carter convinced the Democratic Congress to create the United States Department of Energy (DoE) with the goal of conserving energy. Carter set oil and natural gas price controls, had solar hot water panels installed on the roof of the White House, had a wood stove in his living quarters, ordered the General Services Administration to turn off hot water in some federal facilities, and requested that all Christmas light decorations remain dark in 1979 and 1980. Nationwide, controls were put on thermostats in government and commercial buildings to prevent people from raising temperatures in the winter (above 65 degrees Fahrenheit = 18.33 °C) or lowering them in the summer (below 78 degrees Fahrenheit = 25.55 °C).

As reaction to the energy crisis and growing concerns over air pollution, Carter also signed the National Energy Act (NEA) and the Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA). The purpose of these watershed laws was to encourage energy conservation and the development of national energy resources, including renewables such as wind and solar energy.[22]

However, during the 1979 crisis, Carter reinstated some price controls on gasoline[citation needed], which again had the effect of causing lines at gasoline stations. During his "malaise" speech he asked Congress to impose a "Windfall Profit Tax" to help pay for energy efficiency initiatives. Enacted in 1980 on domestic oil production, the tax was repealed in 1988, as prices had collapsed in the 1980s oil glut, making it politically possible to remove the tax, said removal one of President Reagan's campaign issues.

Economy: stagflation and the appointment of Volcker

The economic history of the Carter Administration can be divided in two roughly equal periods. The first two years were a time of continuing recovery from the severe 1973–75 recession, which had left fixed investment at its lowest level since the 1970 recession and unemployment at 9%.[23] The second two years were marked by double-digit inflation, coupled with very high interest rates,[24] oil shortages, and slow economic growth.[25] The nation's economy grew by an average of 3.4% during the Carter Administration (at par with the historical average).[26] Each of these two-year periods, however, would differ dramatically.

The U.S. economy, which had grown by 5% in 1976, continued to grow at a similar pace during 1977 and 1978.[26] Unemployment declined from 7.5% in January 1977 to 5.6% by May 1979, with over 9 million net new jobs created during that interim,[27] and real median household income grew by 5% from 1976 to 1978.[28] The recovery in business investment in evidence during 1976 strengthened as well. Fixed private investment (machinery and construction) grew by 30% from 1976 to 1979, home sales and construction grew another one third by 1978, and industrial production, motor vehicle output and sales did so by nearly 15%; with the exception of new housing starts, which remained slightly below their 1972 peak, each of these benchmarks reached record levels in 1978 or 1979.[23]

The 1979 energy crisis ended this period of growth, however, and as both inflation and interest rates rose, economic growth, job creation, and consumer confidence declined sharply.[24] The relatively loose monetary policy adopted by Federal Reserve Board Chairman G. William Miller, had already contributed to somewhat higher inflation,[29] rising from 5.8% in 1976 to 7.7% in 1978. The sudden doubling of crude oil prices by OPEC, the world's leading oil exporting cartel,[30] forced inflation to double-digit levels, averaging 11.3% in 1979 and 13.5% in 1980.[23] The sudden shortage of gasoline as the 1979 summer vacation season began exacerbated the problem, and would come to symbolize the crisis among the public in general;[24] the acute shortage, originating in the shutdown of Amerada Hess refining facilities, led to a lawsuit against the company that year by the Federal Government.[31]

Carter, like Nixon, asked Congress to impose price controls on energy, medicine, and consumer prices, but was unable to secure passage of such measures due to strong opposition from Congress.[32] One related measure approved by Congress during the presidency of Gerald Ford, the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, gave Presidents the authority to deregulate prices of domestic oil, and Carter exercised this option on July 1, 1979, as a means of encouraging both oil production and conservation.[33] Oil imports, which had reached a record 2.4 billion barrels in 1977 (50% of supply), declined by half from 1979 to 1983.[23]

Following a August 1979 cabinet shakeup in which Carter asked for the resignations of several cabinet members (see "Malaise speech" below), Carter appointed G. William Miller as Secretary of the Treasury, naming Paul Volcker as Chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.[34] Volcker pursued a tight monetary policy to bring down inflation, which he considered his mandate.[29] Volcker (and Carter) succeeded, but only by first going through an unpleasant phase during which the economy slowed and unemployment rose. Inflation did not return to low single-digit levels until 1982, during a second, more severe recession; President Reagan re-appointed Volcker to the post in 1983.[12]

Led by Volcker, the Federal Reserve raised the discount rate from 10% when Volcker assumed the chairmanship in August 1979 to 12% within two months.[35] The prime rate outstripped the Federal funds rate, reaching 20% in March 1980. Carter then enacted an austerity program by executive order, justifying these measures by observing that inflation had reached a "crisis stage"; both inflation and short-term interest rates reached 18 percent in February and March of 1980.[36] Investments in fixed income (both bonds held by Wall Street and pensions paid to retired people) were becoming less valuable in real terms, and on March 14, 1980, President Carter announced the first credit control measures since World War II.[37]

The policy, as well as record interest rates, would lead to a sharp recession in the spring of 1980.[38] The sudden fall in GDP during the second quarter caused unemployment to jump from 6% to 7.5% by May, with output in the auto and housing sectors falling by over 20% and to their weakest level since the 1975 recession.[23] Carter phased out credit controls in May, and by July, the prime rate had fallen to 11%,[35] with inflation breaking the earlier trend and easing to under 13% for the remainder of 1980.[39] The V-shaped recession coincided with Carter's re-election campaign, however, and contributed to his unexpectedly severe loss.[32]

Lower interest rates and easing of credit controls sparked a recovery during the second half of 1980, and although the hard-hit auto and housing sectors would not recover substantially,[23] GDP and employment totals regained pre-recession levels by the first quarter of 1981.[26][27] The S&P 500 (which had remained at around 100 since 1976), rose to nearly 140 by the latter part of the year.[40] A resumption in growth prompted renewed tightening by the Fed, however, and the prime rate reached 21.5% in December 1980, the highest rate in U.S. history under any President.[41] The Carter Administration remained fiscally conservative during both growth and recession periods, vetoing numerous spending increases while enacting deregulation in the energy and transportation sectors and sharply reducing the top capital gains tax rate.[5] Federal budget deficits throughout his term remained at around the $ 70 billion level reached in 1976, while falling as a percent of GDP from 4% to 2.5% by the 1980–81 Fiscal Year.[23]

"Malaise" speech

When the energy market exploded, he was planning on delivering his fifth major speech on energy; however, he felt that the American people were no longer listening. Carter left for the presidential retreat of Camp David. "For more than a week, a veil of secrecy enveloped the proceedings. Dozens of prominent Democratic Party leaders—members of Congress, governors, labor leaders, academics and clergy—were summoned to the mountaintop retreat to confer with the beleaguered president." His pollster, Pat Caddell, told him that the American people simply faced a crisis of confidence because of the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the Vietnam War; and Watergate.[42] On July 15, 1979, Carter gave a nationally-televised address in which he identified what he believed to be a "crisis of confidence" among the American people. This came to be known as his "malaise" speech, although the word never appeared in it:[43]

I want to talk to you right now about a fundamental threat to American democracy. . . . I do not refer to the outward strength of America, a nation that is at peace tonight everywhere in the world, with unmatched economic power and military might. The threat is nearly invisible in ordinary ways. It is a crisis of confidence. It is a crisis that strikes at the very heart and soul and spirit of our national will. We can see this crisis in the growing doubt about the meaning of our own lives and in the loss of a unity of purpose for our nation. . . .

In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we've discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. . . .

I'm asking you for your good and for your nation's security to take no unnecessary trips, to use carpools or public transportation whenever you can, to park your car one extra day per week, to obey the speed limit, and to set your thermostats to save fuel... I have seen the strength of America in the inexhaustible resources of our people. In the days to come, let us renew that strength in the struggle for an energy-secure nation. . . .[44][45]

Carter's speech was written by Hendrik Hertzberg and Gordon Stewart.[46] Though it is often said to have been ill-received,[47] The New York Times ran the headline "Speech Lifts Carter Rating to 37%; Public Agrees on Confidence Crisis; Responsive Chord Struck" later that week.[48]

Carter's later election loss may have turned other politicians off the idea of asking Americans to conserve energy in a similar way.[49] Three days after the speech, Carter asked for the resignations of all of his Cabinet officers, and ultimately accepted those of five who had clashed with the White House the most, including Energy Secretary James Schlesinger and Health, Education and Welfare chief Joseph Califano, known as a supporter of Senator Ted Kennedy. After campaigning that he would never appoint a Chief of Staff, Carter appointed Jordan as a new White House Chief of Staff. Many in the administration chafed when Jordan circulated a "questionnaire" that read more like a loyalty oath. "I think the idea was that they were going to firm up the administration, show that there was real change by these personnel changes, and move on," remembers Mondale. "But the message the American people got was that we were falling apart." Carter later admitted in his memoirs that he should simply have asked only those five members for their resignations. In 2008, a U.S. News and World Report piece stated:

We would also do well to remember the sort of complexity and humility that Carter tried to inject into political rhetoric... Carter was unwilling to pander to the people... What Carter really did in the speech was profound. He warned Americans that the 1979 energy crisis — both a shortage of gas and higher prices — stemmed from the country's way of life. "Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns", the president said. Consumerism provided people with false happiness, he suggested, but it also prevented Americans from re-examining their lives in order to confront the profound challenge the energy crisis elicited. Despite [some failures] Carter left behind a way of talking about the country's promise and its need to confront what is undoubtedly one of its biggest challenges — to solve the energy crisis in a way that takes seriously both our limits and our greatness.[50]


Jimmy Carter has been dubbed as the 'environmentally conscious' president.[51] On December 11, 1980, he signed into law "Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA)" commonly known as Superfund, a United States federal law designed to clean up sites contaminated with hazardous substances.

He also installed a 32 solar-powered heating system on the White House roof On June 20, 1979,[51] to promote the use of solar energy.[52]

On December 2, 1980, he signed into law Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. The law provided for the creation or revision of 15 National Park Service properties, and set aside other public lands for the United States Forest Service and United States Fish and Wildlife Service. In all, the act provided for the designation of 79.53 million acres (124,281 square miles; 321,900 km²) of public lands, fully a third of which was set aside as wilderness area in Alaska.

Voyager 1 message

Carter's official statement was placed on the Voyager 1 spacecraft for its trip outside our solar system on September 5, 1977:[53][54]

We cast this message into the cosmos.... Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some — perhaps many — may have inhabited planet and space faring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message: We are trying to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope some day, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe.
—Jimmy Carter, [55][56]

Foreign policies

South Korea

During his first month in office, Carter cut the defense budget by $6 billion. One of his first acts was to order the unilateral removal of all nuclear weapons from South Korea and announce his intention to cut back the number of US troops stationed there. Other military men confined intense criticism of the withdrawal to private conversations or testimony before congressional committees, but in 1977 Major General John K. Singlaub, chief of staff of U.S. forces in South Korea, publicly criticized Carter's decision to lower the U.S. troop level there. On March 21, 1977, Carter relieved him of duty, saying his publicly stated sentiments were "inconsistent with announced national security policy."[57][58] Carter planned to remove all U.S. troops, with the exception of 14,000 U.S. air force personnel and logistics specialists, from South Korea by 1982, but after cutting only 3,600 troops, he was forced by intense Congressional pressure to abandon the effort in 1978.[59]

Arab–Israeli conflict/Camp David Accords

Ceauşescu (mediator between LPO and Israel) with Carter, in Bucharest, 1978
Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin meet on the Aspen Lodge patio of Camp David on September 6, 1978.
Celebrating the signing of the Camp David Accords, a key foreign policy issue of the Carter presidency: Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat, 1978.
Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin acknowledge applause during a Joint Session of Congress in which President Jimmy Carter announced the results of the Camp David Accords. September 18, 1978
Jimmy Carter greeting Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at the White House shortly after the Camp David Accords went into effect, April 8, 1980.

Carter's Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski paid close attention to the Arab–Israeli conflict. Diplomatic communications between Israel and Egypt increased significantly after the Yom Kippur War and the Carter administration felt that the time was right for comprehensive solution to the conflict.

In mid-1978, Carter became quite concerned as there were only a few months left before the Egyptian-Israeli Disengagement Treaty expired. As a result, Carter sent a special envoy to the Middle East. The American Ambassador flew back and forth between Cairo and Tel Aviv in search of ways to narrow the disagreement between the two countries. It was then suggested that the foreign ministers meet at Leeds Castle, England where they could discuss the possibilities of peace. They tried to come to an agreement, but the foreign ministers failed.[60] This led to the 1978 Camp David Accords, one of Carter's most important accomplishments as President. The accords were a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt negotiated by Carter, which followed up on earlier negotiations conducted in the Middle East. In these negotiations King Hassan II of Morocco acted as a negotiator between Arab interests and Israel, and Nicolae Ceauşescu of Romania acted as go-between for Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO, the unofficial representative of the Palestinian people). Once initial negotiations had been completed, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat approached Carter for assistance. Carter then invited Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Anwar El Sadat to Camp David to continue the negotiations. They arrived on August 8, 1978. Upon their arrival, neither leader had addressed one another since the Vienna meeting. President Carter inevitably became the mediator between the two leaders. He spoke to each leader separately until an agreement was reached. Almost a month had passed, but no resolution had been reached. President Carter decided to take the two of them on a trip to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to break this deadlock. He showed the two leaders the battlefield and gave them a history lesson about one of the battles that had taken place during the U.S. Civil War. Carter emphasized how important it was to have peace in order to bring prosperity to the people. A lesson was learned, and when Begin and Sadat returned to Camp David, they finally agreed that something had to be signed.[61]

On September 12, 1978, President Carter suggested dividing the negotiations over the peace treaty into two frameworks: framework #1 and framework #2. Framework #1 would address the West Bank and Gaza. Framework #2 would deal with Sinai.

The first framework dealt with the Palestinian territories (the West Bank and Gaza). The first point stated that the election of a self-governing authority would be allowed to provide full autonomy to the inhabitants of the West Bank and Gaza. This government would be elected by the Palestinians and would only look after municipal affairs. The second step would be to grant Palestinians autonomy mainly on those municipal matters. Five years down the road after having gone through steps one and two, the status of Palestine could then be negotiated. Framework #1 was not very well received; the Palestinians and Jordanians were furious. They objected to the fact that Begin and Sadat were deciding on their ultimate destiny without consulting them or their leaders. Framework #1 for that reason was not going to work; it was essentially a dead end.[62]

The second framework dealt with the Sinai Peninsula. This framework consisted of two points:

1. The two parties, Egypt and Israel, should negotiate a treaty over a period of six months based on the principle of Egyptian sovereignty over Sinai and the withdrawal of Israel from that region. 2. This treaty would be followed and included in it would be the establishment of diplomatic, political, economic, and cultural relations between Egypt and Israel.

President Carter admitted that "there's still great difficulties that remain and many hard issues to be settled."[63] This would be a peace that would establish normal relations between the two states. This was the basis of the two frameworks, but it had yet to be approved.[62]

The reaction to this proposal in the Arab world was very negative. In November 1978, there was an emergency meeting held by the Arab League in Damascus. Once again, Egypt was the main subject of the meeting, and they condemned the proposed treaty that Egypt was going to sign. Sadat was also attacked by the Arab press for breaking ranks with the Arab League and having betrayed the Arab world. Discussions pertaining to the future peace treaty took place in both countries. Israel insisted in its negotiations that the Israel-Egypt treaty should supersede all of Egypt's other treaties, including those signed with the Arab League and Arab states. Israel also wanted access to the oil discovered in the Sinai region. President Carter interjected and informed the Israelis that the U.S. would supply Israel with whatever oil it needed for the next 15 years if Egypt at any point decided not to supply oil to Israel.[64]

While framework #1 was already approved by the Israeli Government, the second framework also needed approval. The Israeli Cabinet accepted the second framework of the treaty. The Israeli Parliament also approved the second framework with a comfortable majority. Alternatively, the Egyptian Government was arguing about a number of things. They did not like the fact that this proposed treaty was going to supersede all other treaties. Egyptians were also disappointed that they were unable to link the Sinai question to the Palestinian question.

On March 26, 1979, Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in Washington, D.C.[62] Carter's role in getting the treaty was essential. Aaron David Miller interviewed many officials for his book The Much Too Promised Land (2008) and concluded the following: "No matter whom I spoke to — Americans, Egyptians, or Israelis — most everyone said the same thing: no Carter, no peace treaty."[65]

Rapid Deployment Forces

On October 1, 1979, Carter announced before a television audience the existence of the Rapid Deployment Forces (RDF), a mobile fighting force capable of responding to worldwide trouble spots, without drawing on forces committed to NATO. The RDF was the forerunner of CENTCOM.[citation needed]

Human rights

Carter initially departed from the long-held policy of containment toward the Soviet Union. In its place, Carter promoted a foreign policy that put human rights at the forefront. This was a break from the policies of several predecessors, in which human rights abuses were often overlooked if they were committed by a government that was allied, or purported to be allied, with the United States.[66]

He nominated civil rights activist Patricia M. Derian as Coordinator for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, and in August 1977, had the post elevated to that of Assistant Secretary of State. Derian established the United States' Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, published annually since 1977, and made their findings a factor in military aid determinations, effectively ending such aid for five Latin American countries for the remainder of Carter's tenure.[67] The Carter Administration ended support to the historically U.S.-backed Somoza regime in Nicaragua and gave aid to the new Sandinista National Liberation Front government that assumed power after Somoza's overthrow. However, Carter ignored a plea from El Salvador's Archbishop Óscar Romero not to send military aid to that country; Romero was later assassinated for his criticism of El Salvador's violation of human rights.[67] Generally, human rights in Latin America, which had deteriorated sharply in the previous decade, improved following these initiatives; a publisher tortured during Argentina's Dirty War, Jacobo Timerman, credited these policies for the positive trend, stating that they not only saved lives, but also "built up democratic consciousness in the United States."[68]

Many in his own administration were opposed to these initiatives, however, and the more assertive human rights policy of the Carter years was blunted by the discord that ensued between, on one hand, Derian and State Department Policy Planning Director Anthony Lake, who endorsed human rights considerations as an enhancement of U.S. diplomatic effectiveness abroad, and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who held Cold War considerations as paramount.[67] These policy disputes reached their most contentious point during the 1979 fall of Pol Pot's genocidal regime of Democratic Kampuchea following the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, when Brzezinski prevailed in having the administration refuse to recognize the new Cambodian government due to its support by the Soviet Union.[67] Carter was also criticized by the feminist author and activist Andrea Dworkin for ignoring issues of women's rights in Saudi Arabia.[69]

Carter continued his predecessors' policies of imposing sanctions on Rhodesia, and, after Bishop Abel Muzorewa was elected Prime Minister, protested the exclusion of Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo from participating in the elections. Strong pressure from the United States and the United Kingdom prompted new elections in what was then called Zimbabwe Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), which saw Robert Mugabe elected as Prime Minister of Zimbabwe; afterwards, sanctions were lifted, and diplomatic recognition was granted. Carter was also known for his criticism of Paraguay's Alfredo Stroessner, Augusto Pinochet (although both Stroessner and Pinochet, along with other Latin American dictators of whom Carter was critical, attended the signing of the Panama Canal Treaty[70]), the apartheid government of South Africa, Zaire (although Carter later changed course and supported Zaire, in response to alleged — albeit unproven — Cuban support of anti-Mobutu rebels[71][72]) and other traditional allies.

People's Republic of China

See also Sino-American relations
Deng Xiaoping with President Carter

Carter continued the policy of Richard Nixon to normalize relations with the People's Republic of China. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and China expert Michel Oksenberg who was serving on the National Security Council, traveled to Beijing in early 1978, where they worked with Leonard Woodcock, head of the liaison office there, to lay the groundwork for granting the People's Republic of China full diplomatic and trade relations. In the Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations dated January 1, 1979, the United States transferred diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. The U.S. reiterated the Shanghai Communiqué's acknowledgment of the Chinese position that there is only one China and that Taiwan is a part of China; Beijing acknowledged that the American people would continue to carry on commercial, cultural, and other unofficial contacts with the people of Taiwan. The U.S. unofficially recognized Taiwan through the Taiwan Relations Act.

Panama Canal Treaties

Carter and Omar Torrijos shake hands moments after the signing of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties.

One of the most controversial moves of Carter's presidency was the final negotiation and signature of the Panama Canal Treaties in September 1977. Those treaties, which essentially would transfer control of the American-built Panama Canal to the nation of Panama, were bitterly opposed by a majority of the American public and by the Republican Party. A common argument against the treaties was that the United States was transferring an American asset of great strategic value to an unstable and corrupt country led by an unelected but popularly supported General (Omar Torrijos). Those that supported the Treaties argued that the Canal was built within Panamanian territory therefore, by controlling it, the United States was in fact occupying part of another country and this agreement was intended to turn back to Panama the sovereignty of its complete territory. After the signature of the Canal treaties, in June 1978, Carter visited Panama with his wife and twelve U.S. Senators, amid widespread student disturbances against the Torrijos administration. Carter then began urging the Torrijos regime to soften its policies and move Panama towards gradual republicanism.

Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT)

President Jimmy Carter and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev sign the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT II) treaty, June 18, 1979, in Vienna

A key foreign policy issue Carter worked laboriously on was the SALT II Treaty, which reduced the number of nuclear arms produced and/or maintained by both the United States and the Soviet Union. SALT is the common name for the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks, negotiations conducted between the US and the USSR. The work of Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon brought about the SALT I treaty, which had itself reduced the number of nuclear arms produced, but Carter wished to further this reduction. It was Carter's main goal (as was stated in his Inaugural Address) that nuclear weapons completely disappear from the world.

Carter and Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union, reached an agreement to this end in 1979 — the SALT II Treaty, despite opposition in Congress to ratifying it, as many thought it weakened U.S. defenses. Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan late in 1979 however, Carter withdrew the treaty from consideration by Congress and the treaty was never ratified (though it was signed by both Carter and Brezhnev). Even so, both sides honored the commitments laid out in the negotiations.

Intervention in Afghanistan

Carter reacted with "open-mouthed shock" to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, and began promptly arming the Afghan insurgents.[73] Vice-President Walter Mondale famously declared: "I cannot understand—it just baffles me—why the Soviets these last few years have behaved as they have. Maybe we have made some mistakes with them. Why did they have to build up all these arms? Why did they have to go into Afghanistan? Why can't they relax just a little bit about Eastern Europe? Why do they try every door to see if it is locked?"[74] The Soviets, several times shortly before the invasion, had staged conversations with the Afghan leadership suggesting that they had no desire to intervene, even as the Politburo was—with much hesitation—considering such an intervention. Though some have argued that U.S. financial assistance to Afghan dissidents, including Islamists and other militants, prior to the invasion; along with a Soviet desire to protect the leftist Afghan government, helped convince the Soviets to intervene, the Soviets ironically brutally murdered the Afghan President and his son, replacing him with a puppet regime, immediately after the invasion for fear that the US had secretly been collaborating with him.[75]

One of the CIA's longest and most expensive covert operations was the supplying of billions of dollars in arms to the Afghan mujahideen militants.[76] The CIA provided assistance to the fundamentalist insurgents through the Pakistani secret services, Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), in a program called Operation Cyclone.

According to the "Progressive South Asia Exchange Net," citing an article in Le Nouvel Observateur, U.S. policy, unbeknownst even to the Mujahideen, was part of a larger strategy of aiming "to induce a Soviet military intervention."[77] The article includes a brief interview with President Carter's National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in which he is quoted as saying that the U.S. provided aid to the mujahideen prior to the Soviet invasion for the deliberate purpose of provoking one. Brzezinski himself has denied the accuracy of the interview.[78] According to Brzezinski, an NSC working group on Afghanistan wrote several reports on the deteriorating situation in 1979, but President Carter ignored them until the Soviet intervention destroyed his illusions. Brzezinski has stated that the U.S. provided communications equipment and limited financial aid to the mujahideen prior to the "formal" invasion, but only in response to the Soviet deployment of forces to Afghanistan and the 1978 coup, and with the intention of preventing further Soviet encroachment in the region.[79] Two declassified documents signed by Carter shortly before the invasion do authorize the provision "unilaterally or through third countries as appropriate support to the Afghan insurgents either in the form of cash or non-military supplies" and the "worldwide" distribution of "non-attributable propaganda" to "expose" the leftist Afghan government as "despotic and subservient to the Soviet Union" and to "publicize the efforts of the Afghan insurgents to regain their country's sovereignty," but the records also show that the provision of arms to the rebels did not begin until 1980.[80][81]

The Soviet military invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 significantly damaged the already tenuous relationship between Secretary of State Vance and Brzezinski. Vance felt that Brzezinski's linkage of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks to other Soviet activities and the MX, together with the growing domestic criticisms in the United States of the SALT II Accord, convinced Brezhnev to decide on military intervention in Afghanistan. Brzezinski, however, later recounted that he repeatedly advanced proposals on how to maintain Afghanistan's "independence" and deter a Soviet invasion but was frustrated by the Department of State's opposition.

According to Eric Alterman of The Nation, Cyrus Vance's close aide Marshall Shulman "insists that the State Department worked hard to dissuade the Soviets from invading and would never have undertaken a program to encourage it" and President Carter has said it was definitely "not my intention" to inspire a Soviet invasion but to deter one.[82]

Robert Gates, in his book Out Of The Shadows, wrote that Pakistan had actually been pressuring the United States for arms to aid the rebels for years, but that the Carter administration refused in the hope of finding a diplomatic solution to avoid war. Brzezinski seemed to have been in favor of the provision of arms to the rebels, while Vance's State Department, seeking a peaceful settlement, publicly accused Brzezinski of seeking to "revive" the Cold War.

The Soviet invasion and occupation killed up to 2 million Afghans.[83] Brzezinski defended the arming of the rebels in response, saying that it "was quite important in hastening the end of the conflict," thereby saving the lives of thousands of Afghans, but "not in deciding the conflict, because actually the fact is that even though we helped the mujaheddin, they would have continued fighting without our help, because they were also getting a lot of money from the Persian Gulf and the Arab states, and they weren't going to quit. They didn't decide to fight because we urged them to. They're fighters, and they prefer to be independent. They just happen to have a curious complex: they don't like foreigners with guns in their country. And they were going to fight the Soviets. Giving them weapons was a very important forward step in defeating the Soviets, and that's all to the good as far as I'm concerned." When he was asked if he thought it was the right decision in retrospect (given the Taliban's subsequent rise to power), he said: "Which decision? For the Soviets to go in? The decision was the Soviets', and they went in. The Afghans would have resisted anyway, and they were resisting. I just told you: in my view, the Afghans would have prevailed in the end anyway, 'cause they had access to money, they had access to weapons, and they had the will to fight." The interviewer then asked: "So U.S. support for the mujaheddin only begins after the Russians invade, not before?" Brzezinski replied: "With arms? Absolutely afterwards. No question about it. Show me some documents to the contrary."[84] Likewise; Charlie Wilson said: "The U.S. had nothing whatsoever to do with these people's decision to fight ... but we'll be damned by history if we let them fight with stones."[85]

The United States secretly began sending limited financial aid to anti-Soviet, Afghan Islamist factions on July 3, 1979. In December 1979 the USSR invaded Afghanistan and installed a new regime that would be loyal to Moscow. At the time some believed the Soviets were attempting to expand their borders southward in order to gain a foothold in the region. The Soviet Union had long lacked a warm water port, and their movement south seemed to position them for further expansion toward Pakistan in the East, and Iran to the West. American politicians, Republicans and Democrats alike, feared the Soviets were positioning themselves for a takeover of Middle Eastern oil. Others believed that the Soviet Union was afraid Iran's Islamic Revolution and Afghanistan's Islamization would spread to the millions of Muslims in the USSR.

After the invasion, Carter announced what became known as the Carter Doctrine: that the U.S. would not allow any other outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf. He terminated the Soviet Wheat Deal in January 1980, which was intended to establish trade with USSR and lessen Cold War tensions. The grain exports had been beneficial to people employed in agriculture, and the Carter embargo marked the beginning of hardship for American farmers. That same year, Carter also made two of the most unpopular decisions of his entire Presidency: prohibiting American athletes from participating in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, and reinstating registration for the draft for young males.

Carter and Brzezinski started a $3–4 billion covert program of training insurgents in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a part of the efforts to foil the Soviets' apparent plans. On the surface as well, Carter's diplomatic policies towards Pakistan in particular changed drastically. The administration had cut off financial aid to the country in early 1979 when religious fundamentalists, encouraged by the prevailing Islamist military dictatorship over Pakistan, burnt down a U.S. Embassy based there. The international stake in Pakistan, however, had greatly increased with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The President of Pakistan, General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, was offered 400 million dollars to subsidize the anti-communist Mujahideen in Afghanistan by Carter. General Zia declined the offer as insufficient, famously declaring it to be "peanuts"; and the U.S. was forced to step up aid to Pakistan.

Reagan would later expand this program greatly to combat Cold War concerns presented by the Soviet Union at the time. Critics of this policy blame Carter and Reagan for the resulting instability of post-Soviet Afghan governments, which led to the rise of Islamic theocracy in the region.

Iran hostage crisis

The Iranian Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, meeting with Arthur Atherton, William H. Sullivan, Cyrus Vance, President Jimmy Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski, 1977

The main conflict between human rights and U.S. interests came in Carter's dealings with the Shah of Iran. The Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, had been a strong ally of the United States since World War II and was one of the "twin pillars" upon which U.S. strategic policy in the Middle East was built (the other being Saudi Arabia). However, his rule was strongly autocratic, was seen as kleptocratic at home, and in 1953 he went along with the Eisenhower Administration in staging a coup to remove the elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh.

On a 1978 state visit to Iran, Carter spoke out in favor of the Shah, calling him a leader of supreme wisdom, and a pillar of stability in the volatile Middle East.

When the Iranian Revolution broke out in Iran and the Shah was overthrown, the U.S. did not intervene directly. The Shah went into permanent exile in January 1979. Carter initially refused him entry to the United States, even on grounds of medical emergency.

Despite his initial refusal to admit the Shah into the United States, on October 22, 1979, Carter finally granted him entry and temporary asylum for the duration of his cancer treatment. The Shah left the U.S. for Panama on December 15, 1979. In response to the Shah's entry into the U.S., Iranian militants seized the American embassy in Tehran in November, taking 52 Americans hostage.[2] The Iranians demanded:

  1. The return of the Shah to Iran for trial.
  2. The return of the Shah's wealth to the Iranian people.
  3. An admission of guilt by the United States for its past actions in Iran, plus an apology.
  4. A promise from the United States not to interfere in Iran's affairs in the future.

Though later that year the Shah left the U.S. and died in Egypt in July 1980, the hostage crisis continued and dominated the last year of Carter's presidency. The subsequent responses to the crisis — from a "Rose Garden strategy" of staying inside the White House, to the ill-prepared and unsuccessful attempt to rescue the hostages by military means (Operation Eagle Claw) — were largely seen as contributing to Carter's defeat in the 1980 election.

After the hostages were taken, Carter issued, on November 14, 1979, Executive Order 12170 — Blocking Iranian Government property,[86] which was used to freeze the bank accounts of the Iranian government in U.S. banks, totaling about $8 billion U.S. at the time. This was to be used as a bargaining chip for the release of the hostages.

In the days before President Ronald Reagan took office, Algerian diplomat Abdulkarim Ghuraib opened negotiations between the U.S. and Iran. This resulted in the "Algiers Accords" one day before the end of Carter's Presidency on January 19, 1981, which entailed Iran's commitment to free the hostages immediately.[87] Additionally, Executive Orders 12277 through 12285 were issued by Carter[88] releasing all assets belonging to the Iranian government and all assets belonging to the Shah found within the United States and the guarantee that the hostages would have no legal claim against the Iranian government that would be heard in U.S. courts. Iran, however, also agreed to place $1 billion of the frozen assets in an escrow account and both Iran and the United States agreed to the creation of a tribunal to adjudicate claims by U.S. Nationals against Iran for compensation for property lost by them or contracts breached by Iran. The tribunal, known as the Iran – United States Claims Tribunal, has awarded over $2 billion dollars to U.S. claimaints and has been described as one of the most important arbitration bodies in the history of international law. Although the release of the hostages was negotiated and secured under the Carter administration, the hostages were released on January 20, 1981, moments after Reagan was sworn in as President.

Resignation of Bert Lance

Bert Lance, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Carter administration, resigned his position on September 21, 1977, amid allegations of improper banking activities prior to his becoming Director. Lance was one of Carter's closest friends, and served as state highway director when Carter was Governor of Georgia. Carter supported Lance in his bid to succeed Carter as governor, but Lance was defeated in the primary. Lance was subsequently tried on various bank-related charges, but was acquitted. The Lance affair was an embarrassment to Carter, coming just a few years after the Watergate scandal.

Special counsel investigating campaign loans

In April 1979, United States Attorney General Griffin Bell appointed Paul J. Curran as a special counsel to investigate loans made to the peanut business owned by Carter by a bank controlled by Bert Lance, a friend of the president and the director of the Office of Management and Budget. Unlike Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski who were named as special prosecutors to investigate the Watergate scandal, Curran's position as special counsel meant that he would not be able to file charges on his own, but would require the approval of Assistant Attorney General Philip Heymann.[89] Carter became the first sitting president to testify under oath as part of an investigation of that president.[90][91]

The investigation was concluded in October 1979, with Curran announcing that no evidence had been found to support allegations that funds loaned from the National Bank of Georgia had been diverted to Carter's 1976 presidential campaign.[92]


Besides unconditional amnesty for a Vietnam War era draft dodgers, issued in his first full day in office (January 21, 1977), President Carter used his power in other cases. In general, he issued 566 pardons or commutations as President,[93] granting 20% of all requests that came before him.[94]

Most notable cases:[95]

Personal and family matters during presidency

With Rosalynn Carter and Amy Carter on the south lawn in front of the White House, July 24, 1977

Carter's youngest child Amy lived in the White House while her father served as president. She was the subject of much media attention during this period as young children had not lived in the White House since the early 1960s presidency of John F. Kennedy.

With his brother, Billy Carter, at the commencement ceremonies at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, February 20, 1979

Carter's brother Billy generated a great deal of notoriety during Carter's presidency for his colorful and often outlandish public behavior.[96] In 1977, Billy Carter endorsed Billy Beer, capitalizing upon his colorful image as a beer-drinking, Southern boy that had developed in the press during President Carter's campaign. Billy Carter's name was occasionally used as a gag answer for a Washington, D.C., trouble-maker on 1970s episodes of The Match Game. Billy Carter once urinated on an airport runway in full view of the press and dignitaries. In late 1978 and early 1979, Billy Carter visited Libya with a contingent from Georgia three times. He eventually registered as a foreign agent of the Libyan government and received a $220,000 loan. This led to a Senate hearing over alleged influence peddling, which some in the press dubbed "Billygate". A Senate subcommittee was called To Investigate Activities of Individuals Representing Interests of Foreign Governments (Billy Carter-Libya Investigation).

On May 5, 1979, Carter was the target of Raymond Lee Harvey, a mentally ill transient, who was found with a starter pistol awaiting the President's Cinco de Mayo speech at the Civic Center Mall in Los Angeles, and claimed to be part of a four-man assassination attempt.[97]

1980 election

The electoral map of the 1980 election
President Carter, October 1980

Carter lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election. The popular vote went 50.7 percent, or 43.9 million popular votes, for Reagan and 41 percent, or 35.5 million, for Carter. Independent candidate John B. Anderson won 6.6 percent, or 5.7 million votes. However, because Carter's support was not concentrated in any geographic region, Reagan won a landslide 91 percent of the electoral vote, leaving Carter with only six states and the District of Columbia. Reagan carried a total of 489 electoral votes compared to Carter's 49.

Carter's defeat marked the first time an elected president failed to secure a second term since Herbert Hoover in 1932. Furthermore, he was the first incumbent Democratic president to seek, but fail to achieve, re-election since Andrew Johnson (Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms while Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson served one full term in addition to taking over after the deaths of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy respectively and both Truman and Johnson did not seek re-election).

While Carter kept his promise (all 52 hostages returned home alive), he failed to secure the release of the hostages prior to the election. While Carter ultimately won their release, Iran did not release the hostages until minutes after Reagan took office. In recognition of the fact that Carter was responsible for bringing the hostages home, Reagan asked him to go to West Germany to greet them upon their release.

During his campaign, Carter was mocked for an encounter with a swimming rabbit while fishing on a farm pond on April 20, 1979.


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