This article was last modified on May 2, 2011.

Jimmy Carter: Man of Peace?

“I hope that history will present me with maybe two words. One is peace. The other is human rights.” – Jimmy Carter, to the Philadelphia Daily News

“I feel that my role as a former president is probably superior to that of other presidents.” – Jimmy Carter, on the NBC Nightly News in September 2010

President Jimmy Carter has traditionally been seen as a “peace” president by those who view him favorably. His accomplishments seem to be summed up by human rights concerns and cementing a peace proposal in the Middle East. And, certainly, Carter should be given as much credit as he has earned on these matters. But there are many instances where Carter can be fairly seen as the cause, rather than the solution, of some problems.

The media and his advisers were on top of painting Carter with the peace brush. In the March 13, 1977 issue of the Boston Globe, historian Arthur Schlesinger declared that “President Carter’s promotion of human rights as an international issue must be judged thus far, I think, a considerable and very serious success.” Schlesinger went on to say that “human rights is replacing self-determination as the guiding value in American foreign policy”. Likewise, on March 31, 1977, William Beecher wrote in the Globe that National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski urged Carter “to continue to take the ideological high ground on human rights not only out of conscience, but also because it may restore American prestige that was badly bruised in Vietnam and during the Watergate scandal.”

Carter himself was sure to to place human rights at the forefront of his vision for America. “Human rights is the soul of our foreign policy, because human rights is the very soul of our sense of nationhood,” proclaimed Carter in December 1978, at the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Carter’s current world efforts (circa 2010) also indicate a man with concern for human rights and lasting peace. As the head of the Carter Center, he frequently travels the world, ensuring that elections are free and fair, and if not that the rest of the world knows. By putting pressure on governments through increased scrutiny and media exposure, Carter is giving millions of people hope for true representation in their elected officials. As much as one can hope to be represented in politics, that is.

But he was not above flexing his military might when need be, or claiming American interests in foreign regions and resources. On January 23, 1980, Carter delivered his final State of the Union address, where he laid out what is now known as the Carter Doctrine:

“The region which is now threatened by Soviet troops in Afghanistan is of great strategic importance: It contains more than two-thirds of the world’s exportable oil. The Soviet effort to dominate Afghanistan has brought Soviet military forces to within 300 miles of the Indian Ocean and close to the Straits of Hormuz, a waterway through which most of the world’s oil must flow. The Soviet Union is now attempting to consolidate a strategic position, therefore, that poses a grave threat to the free movement of Middle East oil.

This situation demands careful thought, steady nerves, and resolute action, not only for this year but for many years to come. It demands collective efforts to meet this new threat to security in the Persian Gulf and in Southwest Asia. It demands the participation of all those who rely on oil from the Middle East and who are concerned with global peace and stability. And it demands consultation and close cooperation with countries in the area which might be threatened.

Meeting this challenge will take national will, diplomatic and political wisdom, economic sacrifice, and, of course, military capability. We must call on the best that is in us to preserve the security of this crucial region. Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

On the face of it, his speech may seem to imply that Carter was in favor of keeping the Middle East economy “free” and safe from aggression. But this is not what he said — his concern was that an economic rival, Russia, was in position to control the flow of oil. His worry was about “the vital interests of the United States”, not about the people of the Persian Gulf. American control of the flow of oil, oil prices and the like is not seen as an “outside force”, but simply the natural course of business. Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan was clearly an act of aggression, but America’s response was predicated not so much on helping the people as protecting the interests of the business community — and military might, at the expense of the local population, was a likely response.

The Carter administration began to build up the Rapid Deployment Force on March 1, 1980, a military division actually announced in October 1979, months before the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. The RDF headquarters were placed at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida. Initially commanded by three-star Marine Corps General P.X. Kelly who later became the Commandant, the headquarters was originally supported by U.S. Readiness Command (formerly U.S. Strike Command), also located in Tampa. In the interim between the announcement and the buildup, the administration expanded the U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean. RDF would eventually become CENTCOM.

Chomsky wrote in March 1980 that “the Carter Doctrine has been proclaimed, calling for a substantial increase in the military budget including not only intervention forces but also preparations for a peacetime draft and the MX missile system, vast in scale and cost and a major contribution to an escalating arms race.”

Carter contra Vietnam

Carter also had little sympathy for the people of Vietnam, whose country was in smoldering ruins. During a news conference March 24, 1977, Carter was asked by a CBS newsman whether the United States “has a moral obligation to help rebuild Vietnam.” He evaded the question, and it was asked again. Carter then said we have no obligation because “the destruction was mutual.” Since “we went to Vietnam without any desire… to impose American will on other people” but only “to defend the freedom of the South Vietnamese”, there is no reason for us “to apologize or to castigate ourselves or to assume the status of culpability.” Nor do we “owe a debt.” Perhaps Carter was unaware that at no point did Vietnam pose a threat to America or ever took the battle to American soil — every bullet and bomb was put to use in Southeast Asia.

Carter contra Iran and Pakistan

Carter actively supported the tyrannical Shah of Iran, and complimented him on “the respect, admiration and love which your people give to you.” In the mid-1970s, the Shah had supplied Pakistan with US helicopters that were used to murder the Baluchi people and destroy their villages. We were still in Carter’s time supplying Iran with the means to repress a popular uprising against the Shah. In fact, between 1972 and 1977, the United States sold $15 billion of American arms, hardly something to scoff at.

Carter even supplied General Zia of Pakistan directly with arms, allegedly for use of defense against Russia. In reality, these weapons were used for internal repression.

1977 saw the appointment of William H. Sullivan to the role of ambassador to Iran. This appointment received some criticism because Sullivan had previously been the director of CIA-backed mercenaries in Laos from 1964 to 1969. This stint was followed up by being ambassador to the Philippines at the time of the Marcos dictatorship. Again, hardly a man with human rights qualifications. To his credit, though, Sullivan stood firm against Carter’s support of the Shah as the momentum for revolution grew, and Carter referred to Sullivan as “specifically insubordinate”. Sullivan was replaced in the spring of 1979, just before fifty-two Americans (including his successor) were taken hostage.

Jimmy Carter spoke to the Shah’s son in Washington on October 31, 1978. He said, “Our friendship and our alliance with Iran is one of our important bases on which our entire foreign policy depends… We’re thankful for this move toward democracy [i.e. the Shah’s liberalization policies]. We know it is opposed by some who don’t like democratic principles, but his progressive administration is very valuable, I think, to the entire Western world.” [Cody 1978] The son, Reza Pahlavi, completed the United States Air Force Training Program at the former Reese Air Force Base in Lubbock, Texas.

Carter visited the Shah mere months before his overthrow and again praised his “progressive administration”. Carter said, “Iran under the great leadership of the Shah is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world. This is a great tribute to you, Your Majesty, and to your leadership, and to the respect, admiration and love which your people give to you.”

Carter contra the Wilmington 10

The Washington Post made an interesting revelation June 3, 1977, claiming that, “The Carter Administration issued a pointed warning yesterday that it will not be dissuaded from its public campaign for human rights around the world by the harassment of individual dissidents in foreign countries.” While we must commend Carter and company for remaining steadfast on their human rights campaign, if the campaign is leading to those dissidents (most notably in Russia) being further oppressed, the method would appear to be not working. Would another outlet, such as United Nations pressure or support of human rights NGOs, be the more wise decision?

On that same day (June 3, 1977), public affairs columnist William Raspberry wrote in the Washington Post that, “If President Carter is serious about freeing political prisoners — if he is genuinely concerned about the whole range of human-rights issues — he needn’t look to Africa or Latin America or the Soviet Union. Let him look to North Carolina and the incredible case of the Wilmington 10… President Carter may be as powerless to do anything about the Wilmington 10 as he is in the case of, say, Russian dissidents. But it would be a most useful thing if he could bring himself to speak out on it. Human rights, after all, don’t begin at the water’s edge.”

A mere ten days later (June 13), President Carter was asked at a press conference about this very issue, with the questioner pointing out that the decision to pardon the people involved was backed by “several prominent business and political and elected leaders”, and responded as follows: “Well, the only comment I am free to make under our own system of Government is that I hope that justice will prevail… I trust the system in its entirety… I’m not trying to evade the question; I think that it would be improper for me to try to impose what I think should be a judgment in a case that I’ve not heard tried and I don’t have any direct familiarity with the evidence. I believe that justice will prevail.”

While Carter’s comments have some degree of truth to them, particularly that making a statement on an unfamiliar topic would be ill-advised, there is something to be said about his response. First, the condemnation of human rights violations in other countries does not require Carter to be directly familiar with evidence. And moreover, he is certainly “free to make” any comment he chooses. Whether it influences justice or not is completely beside the point. Presidents are no less entitled to their opinion than the average citizen, and in cases of national importance ought to be outspoken — particularly if the president in question is known to be a bulwark of human and civil rights.

Carter contra Nicaragua

President Reagan is remembered for his dealings with Nicaragua, but it was Carter that set the stage. In 1977, Nicaragua was receiving more aid per capita than most Latin American countries, due to its willingness to support American investment. That seems reasonable, but where was the money going?

Those on the ground were not sure what to make of Carter, though opinion leaned negatively. “I know that Carter has good intentions, but above all, he’s a North American. A North American politician. We are a small country, and talking against the dictator suits U.S. purposes right now. But it means nothing here,” said Juan Molina, Nicaraguan House of Deputies, circa October 1977.

Le Monde wrote on September 23, 1978, in regard to Somoza, that “the dictator would have been highly vulnerable to a total suspension of U.S. aid, a practical embargo on arms shipments and an unequivocal condemnation of his ghoulish style of government. By refusing to take this decisive step, President Carter had seriously damaged the credibility of the stances he has often taken on behalf of human rights.”

In November 1978, the Policy Review Committee of the National Security Council “emphasized again that the unity of the [Nicaraguan National] Guard was an important objective for U.S. policy.”

Walter LaFeber points out that in May 1979, the United States supported Nicaragua’s request for $66 million in loans from the IMF. The White House openly supported the Guard, saying they had to be kept to “preserve order” while, according to LaFeber, “troops were dive-bombing slums, murdering unarmed people in the streets, and looting the cities… killing thousands of women and children.” Perhaps a better cause could have been supported?

Lawrence Pezzullo’s job was to bar the FSLN from power through the “preservation of existing institutions, especially the National Guard”, according to Viron Vaky (US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs) on June 15, 1979. Although civilians were being murdered by the tens of thousands, Pezzullo cabled Washington on July 6 that, “I believe it ill-advised to go to Somoza and ask for a bombing halt.” The FSLN entered Managua on July 19, and the Carter Administration evacuated Guard commanders on US planes disguised as Red Cross planes. This is a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.

In Carter’s defense, he did publicly call out dictator Anastasio Somoza for human rights abuses, denied his entry into the United States, and stopped an Israeli ship from delivering arms to the dictator’s regime. Somoza’s memoirs also blamed Carter for his downfall.

Carter Contra El Salvador

Archbishop Oscar A. Romero wrote a letter on February 17, 1980 calling for President Carter to withhold military aid from El Salvador’s military junta, warning they would use it to “sharpen injustice and repression against the people’s organizations” struggling “for respect for their most basic human rights.” Romero warned that “political power is in the hands of unscrupulous military officers who know only how to repress the people and favor the interests of the Salvadoran oligarchy.”

Romero told Carter that “if you truly want to defend human rights”, there are only two objectives — “forbid that military aid be given to the Salvadoran government” and “guarantee that your government will not intervene directly or indirectly, with military, economic, diplomatic, or other pressures, in determining the destiny of the Salvadoran people.” Carter ignored this plea and shortly after the letter arrived, Romero was assassinated.

President Carter’s Latin America adviser Robert Pastor said that America wants other nations “to act independently, except when doing so would affect U.S. interests adversely”. One may recall that Henry Ford once said that consumers can but any color car they want, so long as it’s black. That sentiment is echoed here: do what you want, as long as it is what we want.

Carter contra Grenada

In a precursor to President Reagan’s full-scale invasion of Grenada, Carter actively pursued to undermine the Marxist-Leninist Maurice Bishop regime by economic pressures.

40 percent of Grenada’s banana crop was destroyed by a hurricane in August 1980, and Carter refused to provide any aid. The West Indian Banana Exporting Association sought aid for affected countries, and Carter denied them funding if Grenada was on the list. Refusing to remove Grenada, no country received US aid.

Carter contra Cuba

The Carter Administration, with the support of US courts, condoned hijacking of Cuban ships in violation of the anti-hijacking convention that Castro was respecting.

Without irony, Carter also said, “If I can be convinced that Cuba wants to remove their aggravating influence from other countries in this hemisphere, will not participate in violence in nations [such as Angola] across the oceans, will recommit the former relationship that existed in Cuba toward human rights — then I would be willing to move toward normalizing relations with Cuba, as well.” This was in February 1977, apparently able to overlook American influence on countries in the hemisphere or American-supported violence overseas.

Carter contra South Korea

Cyrus Vance, Secretary of State under Carter, instructed U.S ambassador to South Korea William Henry Gleysteen, Jr. (1926-2002) that the American objectives in South Korea were to achieve a “maximum US share of economic benefits from economic relations with increasingly prosperous South Korea.” In practice this meant backing a fascist military tyrant — Chun Doo-hwan (b. 1931) — who was willing to give American corporations free range in exchange for vital U.S support for his dictatorship.

Those interests clashed most notably with the interests of the populace on May 18, 1980 when students launched in earnest what would eventually become a massive pro-democracy demonstration by over 100,000 people, the Gwangju Democratization Movement. On May 18, two hundred students defied government orders to protest the closing of their University. They were opposed by thirty paratroopers who attempted to break up the demonstration by charging the students, but by mid-afternoon the demonstration had grown to 2,000 participants and moved into downtown Geumnamno (the street leading to the Jeollanamdo Provincial Office).

The military responded harshly by beating and killing demonstrators and onlookers alike, but the brutality only further stoked the strong pro-democracy sentiment. Within two days over 100,000 people were on the streets demanding democratic reforms. Chun responded by slaughtering pro-democracy activists in the Gwangju Massacre. Estimates of the number of people killed in the crackdown range from just under 200 to over 2,000. The soldiers killed more than scores of civilians, they killed the democratic spirit. The Gwangju Massacre was rated the greatest tragedy in Korean history since the end of World War II, surpassing even the Korean War, in a poll of South Koreans.

When questioned about U.S involvement in the massacre Richard Holbrooke commented that “[t]he idea that we would actively conspire with the Korean generals in a massacre of students is, frankly, bizarre; it’s obscene and counter to every political value we articulated”. Sadly, declassified US documents show that to be exactly what occurred. They show that on May 9, 1980 the U.S, which in addition to the tens of thousands of American troops had operational command of 80% of the South Korean Army, was aware of the discontent, authorized Chun to use force to disperse pro-democracy demonstrations. On May 17, with U.S support Chun declared martial law and prepared to bring out his Special Warfare Command troops, which, according to declassified U.S documents, he had been training since the beginning of the year to suppress internal opposition.

On May 8 Ambassador Gleysteen met with Chun to determine how to handle demonstrations which had already began on a smaller scale across the country. Gleysteen gave Chun the green light to crush any demonstrations as he saw fit and arranged for elements of the Korean Army under joint command to be released to the Korean dictator to crush the demonstrations. This plan was approved by Washington which cabled to Gleysteen saying “[w]e agree that we should not oppose R.O.K. [government] contingency plans.” Holbrooke made clear that the U.S should demonstrate to the Korean Generals that it was “in fact trying to be helpful to them provided they in turn carry out their commitments to [economic] liberalization.” Holbrooke shared the concern of many policymakers that Korea could become “another Iran,” this time the movement that could “lead to chaos or instability in a key American ally” was the movement for democracy. In his remarks Holbrooke preceded to belittle pro-democracy “Christian extremist dissidents” who defied the military’s ban on meeting and instructed the Ambassador to make it clear the U.S opposed their peaceful defiance of martial law. The State Department later exonerated itself declaring “[w]hen all the dust settles, Koreans killed Koreans, and the Americans didn’t know what was going on and certainly didn’t approve it.” said one official adding that the U.S “has no moral responsibility for what happened in Kwangju.” However, this account is directly contradicted by the declassified diplomatic cables to Seoul mentioned above. Commenting on the massacre one former official noted “[t]he way they [the South Korean dictatorship] handled law and order was rough,” the official said. “But we had a way of tolerating it by that time. This was not an aberration or a sudden departure from the norm. It was the norm.”

Chun was sentenced to death in 1996 for the Gwangju massacre, but later pardoned by President Kim Young-sam with the advice of then President-elect Kim Dae-jung, whom Chun himself had sentenced to death some 20 years earlier.

Carter contra Indonesia

In late February 1977, there was a petition to President Carter from 94 members of the Australian Parliament “charging atrocities by Indonesian troops”and asking Carter “to comment publicly on the situation in East Timor”. (New York Times, March 1, 1977)

Of course, Carter could not comment openly without making outrageous claims or outright lies. Richard Dudman noticed that “amid all the talks about human rights, the country with perhaps the worst record has been getting increasing amounts of economic and military aid from the Carter administration.” [Dudman 1978] He was, of course, referring to Indonesia.

Other departments were no less quiet than the oval office. Bernard Gwertzman noted that the 1978 State Department Human Rights Report “was gentle on alleged atrocities in East Timor, asserting that most lives were lost before Indonesia’s intervention in the former Portuguese colony.” (New York Times, February 10, 1978)

Israel-Egypt Peace

The Camp David Accords were signed by Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on September 17, 1978, following twelve days of secret negotiations at Camp David. This lead to the 1979 Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty, which was signed in Washington, DC on March 26, 1979. The Accords had two objectives: bring peace to Israel and Egypt, and to sort out the Palestinian problem. One of these was solved, and today (2011) the situation remains largely unchanged.

While I do not personally feel the Accords are a bad thing, and had little to do with Carter, there is one area he could be given blame for: the Accords increased aid to both nations, particularly Israel. Egypt has received roughly $38 billion since the treaty went into effect. Funneling money into the Middle East is like pouring gasoline on a fire. Aside from that, though, the Accords did lead to increased tourism across the border (mostly Israelis visiting Egypt, not the other way around) and freed up Israel Defense Forces from the Egyptian border, which is good in and of itself (though depending on where they were sent may not have been an improvement).

The Arab nations, and especially the Palestinians, condemned the treaty and considered it as a stab in the back. PLO leader Yasser Arafat said “Let them sign what they like. False peace will not last.” Anwar Sadat became unpopular in the Arab circle as well as within his own country. Egypt was suspended from the Arab League as a result of the treaty for 1979-1989. His unpopularity grew, leading to his assassination on October 6, 1981 by members of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad. These criticisms are easy to play down, however. Despite Sadat’s assassination and Egypt’s alienation, the cause of peace is a good cause, even if it produces a “false peace”. Egypt regained the Sinai Peninsula and the surrounding waterways opened up internationally. While Arafat was right on a number of his criticisms of peace treaties, I think he was at least partially wrong here.

US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks suggest that the Egyptian military continues to see Israel as its primary adversary. The Egyptian army conducts yearly military exercises in the Sinai against their ‘enemy’, Israel. But exercises are still an improvement over open war. For Carter, this should be considered a victory. I can scold him for the increased aid, but any advance in the Middle East deserves acclaim.


We may be able to make the claim that President Carter was the most peaceful president ever. No major wars took place under his command, keeping American troops largely safe from harm. But even if the most peaceful, he was far from perfect, aiding in the oppression of others by foreign governments, threatening Russia over their invasion of Afghanistan, and making allies with leaders who were clearly not men of peace. Carter’s legacy is one we should admire, but at the same time not hold back on warranted criticism. The blame that history has handed down to Reagan should not ignore that Carter was instrumental in setting up the enemies for destruction.


(Please note: The Chomsky books were used to direct me to other sources. No fact was taken solely from Professor Chomsky.)

Chomsky, Noam. Radical Priorities AK Press, 2003.

Chomsky, Noam. Year 501: The Conquest Continues South End Press, 1993.

Cody, Edward. “The Shah of Iran Given Assurance of U.S. Support,” Washington Post. November 1, 1978.

Dudman, Richard. “American Aid to Indonesia Ignores Human Rights Abuses,” St. Louis Dispatch. January 1, 1978.

Also try another article under Historical / Biographical, Political
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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