Jimmy Carter’s Ambiguous Legacy

His post-presidency has been exceptional, but his tenure in the White House was far from praiseworthy.

Mark Haim Mar 2, 2023

As I write this, Jimmy Carter is approaching the end of his life, and I know I’m running the risk of being told I should not speak ill of those who’ve reached the end. And I recognize that Carter has done lots of good things in his post-presidency, which is exceptional and stands out in contrast to other former presidents.

That said, Carter’s tenure in the White House was, put mildly, not much to write home about. For a Democrat of the 1970s, he was pretty far to the right and was certainly not the presidential choice of the progressive wing of the party (it supported Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma in 1976 and Ted Kennedy in 1980).

Some of the reasons those of us on the left were not big fans of his include:

Carter pursued center-right economic policies and put monetarist Paul Volcker in as Chair of the Federal Reserve — bad for the economy and also hurting Carter’s reelection hopes, as unemployment soared in tandem with higher interest rates. Carter  also was an early proponent of corporate-directed globalization prior to being elected, serving as a member of the Trilateral Commission.

On foreign policy, he claimed concern about human rights but backed rightwing dictatorships around the world — especially in Latin America — and engaged in multiple interventions, including Nicaragua (his administration started the Contra War), El Salvador, Afghanistan (his administration started the covert backing of the Mujahidin six months before the Russian invasion, and it was this action that prompted the invasion), Angola, etc. 

On foreign policy, Carter claimed concern about human rights but backed rightwing dictatorships around the world— especially in Latin America.

His administration also armed and provided diplomatic cover for the Indonesian military rape of East Timor, which was genocidal, with one-third of the population being slaughtered.

On the nuclear-weapons front, Carter did negotiate arms treaties with the Soviets, but he also pushed for the development and deployment of multiple new weapons systems on land, air and sea. Virtually each program (Cruise, Pershing, MX, B2 Bomber, etc.) the Nuclear Freeze movement was working to halt during the Reagan years had its inception under Carter.

While he took some symbolic actions, like putting solar water heaters on the White House, he was all about dirty synthetic fuels (shale, liquefied coal, etc.) and nuclear power. He ran on a platform of making nuclear an option of last resort, but as soon as he got into office, Carter made a U-turn and decided to forge ahead with more nukes and he put former Atomic Energy Commission Chair James Schlesinger, a strong nuclear booster, in charge of the new Department of Energy.

He also was no friend of labor and will long be remembered for invoking the Taft-Hartley Act to break the United Mine Workers strike in 1978. 

Carter moved the Dems to the right, and only looks good to progressives either based on his post-presidency or in comparison to the center-right Dems who’ve held the presidency since him. His  legacy is a mixed bag, and his one term in office was certainly not praiseworthy. 

Mark Haim has been a lifelong activist for peace, justice, sustainability and climate action. He serves as director of Mid-Missouri Peaceworks.

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