President James Earl (Jimmy) Carter

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President James Earl (Jimmy) Carter

In 1976, Jimmy Carter rose from near obscurity to capture the Democratic nomination for president. The little known Georgia governor was a religious and ethical southern politician who went out of his way to treat African Americans with respect. He focused his campaign on the fact that he was a Washington outsider and repeatedly told voters, "I'll never lie to you." The promise was popular with many Americans still leery about the government and fallout from the Watergate scandal.

The race for the presidency was close with neither Ford nor Carter generating overwhelming support. Eventually, Carter's positive record with minorities proved to be the decisive factor as he received 97 percent of the black vote. The Democratic candidate defeated the Republican incumbent 297 electoral votes to 241, and set his sights on creating a friendlier, people-oriented administration.

Foregoing the customary limousine ride, Carter walked to the White House from the Capitol after giving his inaugural address. Carter hoped to show the American public that he was just like them; however, his straightforward ideals and inexperience handling complicated national and international issues would eventually cause him trouble.

During his first two years in office, Carter announced his human rights concerns on the global stage. He criticized the Soviets for not following the Helsinki Accords by inhibiting free speech and preventing its citizens the right to emigrate. Later, the president withheld financial aid from South Africa, Guatemala, Chile, and Nicaragua, which were known to have long records of human rights abuses. Some critics, however, called Carter's actions hypocritical because he failed to condemn South Korea, the Philippines, and other nations for their human rights violations.

Perhaps the highlights of the Carter administration's tenure in Washington were the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel. In 1978, Carter successfully brought Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin together for a peace discussion at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland. With America already in the midst of a serious energy crisis, avoiding war in the Middle East became imperative because any conflict would most likely eliminate oil supplies from the Arab nations. After meeting for two weeks, Carter helped mediate successful negotiations between the two leaders. The treaty called for Israel to withdraw from territory captured from Egypt during the Israeli-Egyptian war, and Egypt would recognize Israel as a nation.

Also in 1978, President Carter negotiated two treaties with Panama. The first returned jurisdiction over the canal to Panama, but allowed the U.S. to continue operating and defending it until the end of 1999. The second treaty gave America the permanent right to defend the neutrality of the canal. Although many Republicans worried that the United States gave away too much, Congress narrowly approved the plan.

Carter's success also included significant environmental initiatives, including a bill to control strip mining, a "superfund" of $1.6 billion to clean up chemical waste sites, and a proposal to protect from development more than 100 million acres of Alaskan wilderness. To battle the rising fuel prices, the Carter administration looked for alternatives to fossil fuels. The president, who was trained by the navy as a nuclear engineer, generated some controversy and debate when his administration considered nuclear power. However, it would be the near-meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania that stalled any discussions of expanding nuclear power capability.

Carter's management of the faltering national economy produced more critics than supporters. His decision to attack unemployment first by implementing tax cuts and spending increases caused inflation to more than triple. By midterm, he reversed his strategy by delaying the tax cuts and vetoing spending programs he promised during his first year. By the time Carter left office, the recession deepened with unemployment figures reaching 7.5 percent, mortgage rates at 15 percent, and interest rates peaking at an all-time high of 20 percent.

The administration's national defense agenda included signing the new Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT II) with the Soviet Union. The agreement did not try to end the nuclear arms race, but rather it established parameters for reducing weapon stockpiles. It allowed both sides to maintain 2,250 bombers and missiles and limited the number of warheads and new weapons systems. However, when Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to defend the crumbling Communist government there, Carter refused to sign the treaty and suspended grain shipments to the USSR. The president also announced a boycott of the 1980 Olympics, which were to be held in Moscow.

In 1979, the Iranian revolution again tested the Carter administration's ability to handle world affairs. The crisis began when Iranian militants forced the Shah of Iran from power. The revolutionaries backed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a Muslim religious leader who followed the Islamic values the Shah allowed to be replaced with Western ways. Khomeini's hatred of the United States resulted from the CIA-sponsored coup of Iranian Premier Mossadegh in 1953.

During a visit to the United States to undergo cancer treatment, the Shah was helpless as radicals toppled his regime. An angry mob then stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and took 52 Americans hostage. In exchange for their freedom, Khomeini demanded the return of the Shah. While many Americans called for military action against the Iranians, Carter decided to freeze Iranian assets and appeal to the United Nations for help. Khomeini balked at the U.N. request to release the hostages. Carter also asked European allies to engage in a trade embargo of Iran. Several nations, though, wavered on the request because they did not want to lose their access to the Iranian oil supply.

In 1980, months after the capture of the hostages, Carter disregarded protests from the secretary of state to approve a secret rescue plan. But the commando raid was aborted when helicopters malfunctioned and crashed into a transport plane in the desert, killing eight servicemen. With his options limited, Carter finally agreed to release several billion dollars of Iranian assets as ransom for the American hostages. The Iranians, now in a full scale war with Iraq, desperately needed the money and spare parts for its American-made planes and tanks. After 444 days, the hostages arrived home on the same day as Ronald Reagan's inauguration, and the Iranian hostage crisis was finally over.

As Carter's presidential term came to a close, opinion polls revealed that his approval rating had plummeted to only 26 percent, lower than Nixon's during the Watergate investigation. Americans felt that drastic changes were needed at the top to right the troubled nation.

Copyright 2006 The Regents of the University of California and Monterey Institute for Technology and Education

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