Jimmy Carter’s lasting Cold War legacy

Jimmy Carter was a dark horse Democratic presidential candidate with little national recognition when he beat Republican incumbent Gerald Ford in 1976.

The introspective former peanut farmer pledged a new era of honesty and forthrightness at home and abroad, a promise that resonated with voters eager for change following the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War.

His presidency, however, only lasted one term before Ronald Reagan defeated him. Since then, scholars have debated – and often maligned – Carter’s legacy, especially his foreign policy efforts that revolved around human rights.

Critics have described Carter’s foreign policies as “ineffectual” and “hopelessly muddled”, and their formulation demonstrated “weakness and indecision.”

As an historian researching Carter’s foreign policy initiatives, I conclude his overseas policies were far more effective than critics have claimed.

A Soviet strategy

The criticism of Carter’s foreign policies seems particularly mistaken when it comes to the Cold War, a period defined by decades of hostility, mutual distrust, and arms buildup after World War II between the US and Russia, then known as the Soviet Union or Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

By the late 1970s, the Soviet Union’s economy and global influence were weakening. With the counsel of National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Soviet expert, Carter exploited these weaknesses.

During his presidency, Carter insisted nations provide basic freedoms for their people – a moral weapon against which repressive leaders could not defend.

Carter soon openly criticized the Soviets for denying Russian Jews their basic civil rights, a violation of human rights protections outlined in the diplomatic agreement called the Helsinki Accords.

Carter’s team underscored these violations in arms control talks. The CIA flooded the USSR with books and articles to incite human rights activism. And Carter publicly supported Russian dissidents – including pro-democracy activist Andrei Sakharov – who were fighting an ideological war against socialist leaders.

Human rights were a cornerstone of President Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy. Here, a billboard with his picture on it in Liberia. AP Photo/Michel Lipchitz
Carter advisor Stuart Eizenstat argues that the administration attacked the Soviets “in their most vulnerable spot – mistreatment of their own citizens.”

This proved effective in sparking Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s social and political reforms of the late 1980s, best known by the Russian word “glasnost”, or “openness.”

The Afghan Invasion

In December 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in response to the assassination of the Soviet-backed Afghan leader, Nur Mohammad Taraki. The invasion effectively ended an existing détente between the US and USSR.

Beginning in July 1979, the US was providing advice and nonlethal supplies to the mujahideen rebelling against the Soviet-backed regime. After the invasion, National Security Advisor Brzezinski advised Carter to respond aggressively to it. So the CIA and US allies delivered weapons to the mujahideen, a program later expanded under Reagan.

Afghan rebels examine a Soviet-built armored personnel carrier and scores of other military vehicles left behind when the Mujahedeen fighters overran a Soviet-Afghan garrison. AP Photo/Joe Gaal
Carter’s move effectively engaged the Soviets in a proxy war that began to bleed the Soviet Union.

By providing the rebels with modern weapons, the US was “giving to the USSR its Vietnam war,” according to Brzezinski: a progressively expensive war, a strain on the socialist economy, and an erosion of their authority abroad.

Carter also imposed an embargo on US grain sales to the Soviets in 1980. Agriculture was the USSR’s greatest economic weakness since the 1960s. The country’s unfavorable weather and climate contributed to successive poor growing seasons, and their heavy industrial development left the agricultural sector underfunded.