The downside to US political memory is that substance often counts for little. If it were taken more seriously, Jimmy Carter would be credited for having seeded the Soviet Union’s demise and Ronald Reagan would not have been canonised as a modern saint. But marketing is a powerful drug. Conventional wisdom insists that Carter played Chamberlain to Reagan’s Churchill. After four years of Carterian vacillation, Reagan grabbed the reins in 1981 and the rest is history. Except that it is shoddy history. Understanding how the US won the last cold war is key to managing the next one.
America’s distorted memory stems partly from the fact that the right adores Reagan while the left disowned Carter. Such was its sense of betrayal that influential Kennedy-era liberals, such as Arthur Schlesinger, refused to vote for the Democratic party in 1980 for the only time in their lives. Carter is thus an orphan of partisan historiography. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama went out of their way to ignore him. Joe Biden is the first of Carter’s successors to have paid his respects to America’s 39th president. That is no coincidence. Biden and Carter have overlapping world views.
The source of liberal disdain is twofold. First, Carter put an end to the cold war detente of his predecessors. Detente entailed the US recognizing the USSR’s sphere of interest and pledging non-interference in each other’s affairs. Detente also enabled the Soviets to reach nuclear parity with the US. America’s defense spending fell by almost 40 per cent in real terms in the eight years before Carter took office. Carter reversed both. He invested in a new class of strategic nuclear weapons and installed Pershing and cruise medium-range weapons in Europe. He also undid Henry Kissinger’s neglect of Soviet dissidents and the satellite states. Charter 77, Solidarity and other protest movements took off during Carter’s presidency. “Human rights is the soul of our foreign policy,” he said.
It is no accident that Carter’s first state visit as president was to Poland. Unfortunately, his interpreter mangled his words. Carter said that he was glad to be in Poland and wished to have close relations with its people. It came out as saying that he had left America for good and wanted to have sex with locals. Poles did not seem to mind. A US president who preached universal rights helped America turn the corner from its Vietnam-era notoriety. Carter’s weaponization of human rights lit a fuse that contributed to the Soviet Union’s peaceful implosion. He is unique among modern presidents in having no US combat deaths on his watch.
The second liberal gripe against Carter is that he lost to Reagan. As the saying went, Carter was defeated by the three Ks — Khomeini, Kennedy and Koch. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Iranian revolution led to the hostage crisis that was a millstone round Carter’s neck. After 444 days in captivity, the US hostages were released a few minutes after Carter left office. It has not been proved that Reagan struck a back channel deal with Khomeini’s government to keep the hostages until after the 1980 election. But the evidence is very strong. Carter believes that William Casey, Reagan’s campaign manager, did strike a bargain. Such an unnatural Rolodex would also explain Reagan’s Iran-Contra shenanigans a few years later.
Ted Kennedy’s primary challenge also damaged Carter. Though Kennedy infamously could not explain why he wanted to be president, Carter had his own theory: Kennedy saw it as his birthright. The gap between the rural Georgian farmer who grew up without shoes and the Boston aristocrat is a faultline that still hobbles the Democratic party. Biden is on Carter’s side of it.
Ed Koch was New York’s Democratic mayor who thought Carter was biased against Israel. Carter’s Camp David deal neutralised Egypt — Israel’s most potent enemy — and thus did more for Israel’s security than any US president since. No good deed goes unpunished. Carter was the only Democratic president to get less than half of the Jewish vote.
Paul Volcker’s last name does not start with a K. However, the then chair of the US Federal Reserve is probably the largest contributor to Carter’s defeat. With interest rates at 20 per cent, Carter stood little chance at the ballot box. It is worth noting that Carter picked Volcker in full knowledge of his anti-inflation credentials.
On that, as so much else, Carter did the right thing but got no credit. The left hated him for it. The right pretended it was Reagan’s doing. Much the same can be said of how America won the cold war. The moral of Carter’s story is that virtue must be its own reward. History is a biased judge.