Economic hardship and international mayhem dogged the short lived presidency of Jimmy Carter. Carter’s 1977 through 1981 term remained marked by intense hardship and included a steep learning curve for the former peanut farmer with a single term as the governor of Georgia under his belt.
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Stagflation, the near botching of U.S. interests in the Panama Canal, the death of the Shah of Iran and ensuing hostage crisis, the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, and the 1980 boycott of the Olympic Games all took place during Carter’s presidency and challenged his human rights based platform relentlessly.
This essay analyzes the economic situation in place in the United States at the time that Carter took power, and argues that in those four short years the persistently moribund domestic economy hardened public opinion toward foreign policy, particularly in the SALT II arms control treaty negotiations with the Soviet Union.
Despite the fact that the Carter administration garnered the presidency borne on the wings of a human rights platform, stagflation, “a previously unheard of combination of high unemployment (stagnation) with high inflation” created an economic environment in the United States that adversely affected domestic public opinion toward foreign policy (Cummings 73).
This essay adopts an anecdotal though consistent observation toward voter behavior as its foundation: when people feel weak or powerless at home, that feeling invariably gives rise to the need for a show of strength abroad.
In essence the continued economic downturn at home steadily inspired a more muscular approach to arms treaties between the United States and the USSR, their old antagonist in the theater of the Cold War. Carter’s flip flopping on economic policies during his tenure at the White House also precipitated the more aggressive economic stance taken by his successor Ronald Reagan.
Since Carter’s policies did not seem to translate into immediate economic improvement for American voters, they were quickly viewed as too weak and ineffective, and a hard line stance on both fronts became the rallying cry that created the Reagan administration’s protracted nuclear war dance that characterized the 1980s. This essay argues that Carter’s human rights beliefs and the political efforts that he made on behalf of those beliefs did not take into consideration the power of the economy in dictating public opinion.
Carter’s personal beliefs adhered to “the principle of self-determination for all people” (Miller Center, n.p.). He understood that as a world power the United States needed to set an example for the world and “take the lead in promoting universal human rights” (Miller Center, n.p.).
His goals for foreign policy at the beginning of his term followed the principle that American military might needed to be tempered internationally, and that military aggression needed to be avoided altogether by the United States as a symbol of its commitment to freedom and self determination for all the peoples of the world (Miller Center, n.p.).
This veiled reference to the post Cold War practice of détente – the “stable international equilibrium” achieved in the area of nuclear capabilities amongst the world’s superpowers – was not simply rhetoric for Carter (Suri 216).
Carter actively promoted the building of trust between the United States and the Soviet Union and he genuinely “hoped that American relations with the Soviet Union would continue to improve and that the two nations could come to economic and arms control agreements that would relax Cold War tensions” (Miller Center, n.p.).
The economic environment surrounding the Carter administration remained disastrous from start to finish and essentially undermined whatever foreign policy aspirations Carter began office with. When Carter came to power in 1977, stagflation had already been in place for three years (Free 351).
Inflation had risen from 6.2 per cent to 11 per cent in 1974, while unemployment numbers increased apace, from 4.9 per cent to 5.6 per cent in 1974 (Free 351). By 1975 unemployment was at 8.5 per cent (Free 351). In 1975 the United States economy entered “the worst recession since the Depression;” though inflation had dropped slightly, the monthly unemployment rate sat at 9 per cent (Free 351).
Unemployment and fear of the economic future characterized the year Carter took power. Between the years 1979 and 1980 – a presidential election year no less – inflation “averaged 11.3 per cent” and actually ballooned to over 13 percent by 1980 (Free 351). Amidst rising inflation the unemployment rate shot up to 7.1 per cent (Free 351).
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In 2010 L.A. Times reviewer Timothy Rutten said of Jimmy Carter’s book White House Diary “there’s little in this diary about stagflation or the economy — and the fact that little else matters to the American people when they’re out of work and financially insecure” (Rutten 3).
How then did stagflation affect public opinion of the SALT II treaty? In his deeply ironic inaugural address, Carter decreed that “our Nation can be strong abroad only if it is strong at home. And we know that the best way to enhance freedom in other lands is to demonstrate here that our democratic system is worthy of emulation” (Carter n.p.).
Public opinion polls at the time revealed the growing “below surface anxiety” and frustration with the economy playing itself on the world stage, particularly in the ongoing attempts by the Carter administration to have the SALT II treaty ratified by the Senate (Katz 674).
Before he took office, Carter expressed to Anatoly Dobrynin, the ambassador of the USSR at the time, that he was “very interested in the question of non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, which along with the question of limitation of strategic arms will be a priority in his plans regarding negotiations with the Soviet Union after he assumes the post of President” (Dobrynin 1).
A correlation appears in the years between 1977 and 1981 between the sluggish economy and the stubbornly persistent unemployment with the increased call for a show of strength against the Soviet Union and resistance to the ratification of the SALT II arms control treaty.
Carter admitted to Dobrynin that he was “very worried by the spread of nuclear technology around the world. And although many chances had already over the past years been missed, there is still, in his opinion, time to take certain joint measures to put a brake on this process” (Dobrynin 1). Public opinion poll respondents at the time however seemed out of step with Carter’s vision.
Respondents admitted that they were “pessimistic about the standing of the U.S. in the eyes of the rest of the world,” and expressed concern that “the perception of U.S. weakness at home and abroad would become reality” (Katz 677). Hamilton Jordan, one of Carter’s advisors at the time, presciently echoed ideas that would later prove integral to the election platform of Ronald Reagan when he argued that “it is much more important that our people have their self-respect and some respect from the international community” (Katz 677).
Carter’s commitment to human rights and human freedoms at home and aboard seemed empty to the American public, mired as they were in lingering economic insecurity. Public insecurity was effectively mined and manipulated by the Republican opposition, the majority of which opposed the ratification of the SALT II treaty (Katz 680).
Détente was viewed as an effete stance, and Carter’s esteem in the public declined as he developed a “growing reputation as an inveterate compromiser” (Katz 680). Carter’s advisors again warned that the “public will be highly susceptible to attention-arresting, seemingly plausible criticisms of SALT,” and indeed this became Carter’s undoing in the election (Katz 680).
Waning public trust in Carter’s vision for the continued role of détente in dealings with the Soviet Union materialized in polls that inquired as to support for the ratification of SALT II. When asked “whether there was any point in negotiating an arms control treaty with the Soviet Union, who “won’t keep their part of the bargain anyway” 37 percent agreed whereas 43 percent disagreed” (Katz 680).
Consider these answers in light of double digit inflation combined with near double digit unemployment, not to mention the fact that OPEC had once again “exercised it’s monopoly power and pushed crude oil prices over $30 a barrel” (Free 351).
The 1979 Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan rang the death knell for SALT II. The treaty was never ratified and Carter and his team lost their bid for a second term in the White House. Though stagflation crushed Carter’s foreign policy hopes, Carter himself went on to higher pursuits and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002, the first President to achieve such an honor post presidency.
Carter, James Earl. 1977. “Inaugural address.” Bartelby.com, https://www.bartleby.com/124/pres60.html .
Cummings, Stephen D. 1998. The dixification of America: The American odyssey into the conservative economic trap. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Dobrynin, Anatoly. 2000. “The Path to Disagreement: U.S.-Soviet Communications Leading to Vance’s March 1977 Trip to Moscow.” The Cold War. Ed. Walter Hixson. Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Media.
Free, Rhona F. 2010. “Economic Instability and Macroeconomic Policy.” 21st economics: A reference handbook, Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Katz, Andrew Z. 2000. “Public Opinion and the Contradictions of Jimmy Carter’s Foreign Policy.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 30.4: pp-pp.
Rutten, Timothy. 2010. “Book review: White House diary by Jimmy Carter” LATimes.com https://www.latimes.com/ .
Suri, Jeremi. 2003. Power and protest; Global revolution and the rise of détente. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.