When talking about the lives and work of American presidents, most of the focus tends to lie with the political career and the terms in office.
Many of the greatest presidents were strong leaders that did great work to improve the fortunes of the country and handle foreign affairs. They were held in great regard and then left to fade into retirement having done their duty.
Then some are not so well-regarded because of their questionable efforts and decisions as president, as well as a lack of any positive impact on the American public. Then you have someone like Jimmy Carter.
The history of Jimmy Carter is one of two halves.
Many historians agree that the presidency itself wasn’t one of the best for the nation. There were questionable decisions made and conflicts and crises that would tarnish Carter and his time in office.
But, then there is the second act with life after the presidency. Carter has gone on to live for another 40 years following his loss to Ronald Regan. In that time, he has had an even greater influence, creating the Jimmy Carter image most of us think of today.
There is the risk that this will skew our views on his career, with the assumption that he was this loved and appreciated with the same level of positive work throughout his career. That is why we have to continue to separate President Jimmy Carter from retired humanitarian Jimmy Carter.
Carter is elected to power in 1976.
Victory in the 1976 election didn’t come easily. Carter would lose ground over the course of the race and the result was narrow. The Electoral College vote was 297 to 240, which actually meant fewer states declaring for Carter than Ford. The popular vote was 50.1% to 48%. It was slim, but it was enough.
Jimmy Carter’s impact on foreign relations.
There are two sides to Carter’s efforts on the international stage. On the one side, you have the president working to broker peace with nations and dealing with crises across the world. Then you have the issues of the Iranian hostage crisis and the growing tensions with the Soviet Union in the Cold War.
Understandably, many will focus on the latter, as they are seen as pivotal in the loss of voter confidence and the loss of the election in 1980.
The Camp David Accords were part of many positive and peaceful measures on the world stage.
The Camp David Accords were the result of a long process of peaceful negotiations between Israel and Egypt. The aim was for the US to act as a neutral ally brokering peace and guiding the countries to a resolution.
After this 14-day process under the guidance of Carter at Camp David, the two countries would go on to form a peace treaty. In addition to this, Carter would work to ratify the Panama Canal treaties and improve diplomatic relations with China. It is work such as this that undoubtedly led to his later recognition with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.
However, other conflicts would sway public opinion and help ensure that he only served one term as president.
The problem was that Carter was also accused of escalating the Cold War due to his response to the Soviet Union.
At first, relations with the Soviet Union seemed to be going pretty well. Carter stated on February 8th, 1977 that there was an agreement with the Soviets to create a comprehensive ban on the testing of all nuclear weapons for an extended period of time.
It was also reported that the Soviet Union would cease the deployment of the RSD-10 Pioneer. Things were civil and there seemed to be ongoing progress between the nations. This would continue later in the year when Carter announced a close relationship with the Soviets regarding a further ban. This time, it was the prohibition of any nuclear devices without the atmosphere or underground. Again, this seemed like a step in the right direction. However, it would all turn sour the following year.
On April 27th, 1978, the leadership of Afghanistan was seized by a group of communists. In December 1979, the Soviet Union would then invade Afghanistan to support this new People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, fearing a loss of power from insurgent forces.
The US decided to step in and Carter committed efforts to the Persian Gulf defense, part of a 5% annual increase in defense spending. Furthermore, he would retaliate and punish the Soviet Union through embargoes and boycotts. This included an embargo on grain shipments and the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics.
Then came the Iranian hostage situation.
On the 4th of November 1979, the US Embassy in Tehran was taken over by a group of Iranian students with links to the Iranian Revolution. The students would take 52 Americans hostage – a group of both diplomats and citizens within the embassy – leading to a long and distressing situation for all involved.
To begin with, Carter had insisted that the conflict should be resolved without any need for military action. There was no desire to place any of the 52 hostages at risk when there may have been a chance for a peaceful resolution. During this time, Carter would stay within the White House working on his response.
However, just over five months into the situation, Carter would issue an executive order imposing economic sanctions and prepared for further action to secure a safe release. Two weeks later, he ordered Operation Eagle Claw to storm the embassy, capture the students and free the hostages.
The mission was a failure and lead to the loss of eight US servicemen. The US Secretary of State resigned over the failure, Carter’s popularity declined over the mishandling, and the situation continued.
The hostages were not released until January 20th, 1981 – the day that Carter left office and Ronald Reagan took over the presidency.
Major events on American soil during Carter’s presidency.
It is easy for historians to focus on the international side of the Carter administration’s policies. There were that many deals and opportunities across continents and numerous foreign trips in four years. But, we can’t overlook the positives and negatives within domestic politics either. The administration worked hard in many areas for improvements in education, civil rights, social services, the environment, and more. This includes the creation of the Department of Education and the expansion of the national park system with 103 protected acres in Alaska.
Environmental issues continued with the US energy crisis.
The 1970s saw an ongoing energy crisis in the US that would threaten the economy and energy usage across the nation. Carter believed that he had a responsibility to encourage Americans to do their bit to help and to show that he was part of that action.
He called the situation the moral equivalent of war, which may have been too strong a phrase. He would go on to encourage energy reduction by being seen to wear sweaters instead of using heating and by placing solar water heating panels on the White House.
This all sounds great from a modern perspective with what we know about climate change. Back then, it was harder to get the message across. Carter would have an ongoing fight dealing with energy producers and the impact on the economy.
Additional economic issues would see Carter working to manage spending, inflation, and unemployment.
On the subject of economics, Carter inherited some big economic issues from his predecessor in the form of inflation and unemployment.
During his four-year term, he would continue to work to stabilize the issues and improve prospects for citizens. This is was a success in some areas, as there was an increase of around 8 million jobs in that period and a decrease in the budget deficit. However, he failed to handle inflation adequately and this, along with high-interest rates, led to a short recession.
This economic issue would add fuel to the fire when it came to deciding who to vote for in the 1980 election. Carter was, at this point, the man that had made too many questionable choices in both foreign and domestic affairs. The early work at Camp David wasn’t enough anymore.
The 1980 election would go the way of the Republicans – both the presidency and the Senate.
And so, when the election race came back around in 1980, Carter found himself in trouble on both sides. Not only did he have issues with the Republicans trying to get into power, but he also had a lack of support from the Democrats.
There were many in the party leaning towards the more liberal Ted Kennedy for the nomination. Carter would go on to run for the Democrats but do so in a position of weakness. The Republicans would then win decisively across most states and even took control of the Senate. This was the first time they had done so since 1952.
Jimmy Carter outside of the White House.
One of the most notable parts of Carter’s legacy is the time spent away from the role. While historians can spend decades analyzing the man’s body of work as President for that short period, we can’t overlook his efforts outside of the White House.
He won many prizes and awards during this time including the United Nations Human Rights Prize and the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Prize came for his “untiring effort” to create find peace in international conflicts.
Today, the elderly former president has an image of a great humanitarian and someone many of us look up to. A large part of this comes from his efforts in organizations like Habitat For Humanity.
In October 2019, the then 95-year-old Carter fell at his home in Georgia and required stitches. But, the very next day, he was up and out continuing to build homes with this project. This work is something that has been a part of the lives of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter for more than 30 years and they still make the time to volunteer for a non-profit each year.
Carter also established the Carter Center in 1982 as a way of expanding human rights.
Political views in later life.
There is still a strong interest in politics and a desire to speak out when needed on certain issues, such as the ongoing situation between Israel and Palestine. There is also the sense that if he was fit enough to attend, he would have been at the Biden inauguration.
Carter’s interest in current affairs and issues has also led to some open opinions about a number of civil and equal rights issues. There are many modern Democrats and liberals that are pleased to see Carter side with them on many major issues. Carter has never been shy about his religion and the impact of his faith on his beliefs.
While this can lead to some more old-fashioned views on some issues, such as abortion, he has come out in favor of gay marriage and women’s issues. He has also supported stronger gun control, opposed the death penalty, and spoken out against the use of torture at Guantanamo Bay.
The future for Jimmy Carter and his legacy.
At the time of writing this, Jimmy Carter is still with us and quite possibly planning his next non-profit project for when the Covid-19 pandemic is over. Still, plans are in place for his death and funeral. It is reported that there will be a funeral in Washington to honor him – which will undoubtedly be watched by millions of supporters and fans that weren’t even alive when he left office.
Younger generations will have no living memory of the Iranian hostage situation or the fear of the Cold War. To those under 40, Carter will remain the ex-president that built all those homes. However, it is still important that these younger voters see both sides of the Jimmy Carter story.
Whether they end up agreeing with his decisions in the hostage crisis, questioning his approach with the Soviet Union, or focusing on the Camp David Accords, they can see both sides of his history.