Remembering Jimmy Carter, the President
by Joseph Nevins
December 11, 2002
Jimmy Carter's recent pronouncements on U.S. policy are befitting of the Nobel Peace Prize that he received on Tuesday in Oslo, Norway. He has called upon the United States to take the lead in global disarmament by eliminating its stockpiles of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. He has also publicly criticized the Bush White House for its unilateralist warmongering against Iraq, and its one-sided policy favoring Israel and its illegal occupation of Palestinian lands.
Such words--combined with his work in resolving conflicts and overseeing elections around the world, and in supporting socio-economic development for the poor--have helped to earn Carter a reputation as a man of peace and human rights. But this, combined with a certain mythology surrounding his administration, has led many to mistakenly conflate Carter's post-White House life with his presidential years. It was during this time (1977-80) that he was best positioned to implement policies conforming to his present-day reputation. Here, Carter's record is far less flattering. If for no other reason than historical accuracy, it is time to take stock of that record.
Writing in the memoirs of his presidency, Carter stated that prior to taking office, he had been "deeply troubled by the lies our people had been told; our exclusion from the shaping of American political and military policy in Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile and other countries; and other embarrassing activities of our government." But despite such moving prose, Carter the president made no efforts to provide restitution to those victimized by these "embarrassing activities."
In the case of Vietnam, Carter was hardly a strong critic of the American war, one that killed 2-3 million Vietnamese. As governor of Georgia, he responded to the 1971 sentencing of Lt. William Calley of My Lai massacre infamy by calling upon his fellow Georgians to "honor the flag" as Calley had done, and to leave their headlights on to show their support. As president, he explained in 1977 that that there was no need to dispense monies to Vietnam to repair damage caused by Washington's war of aggression --as stipulated by a secret protocol to the Paris Peace Treaty--nor even to apologize to the Vietnamese people as "the destruction was mutual."
Carter's refusal to repent for past American wrongdoing was not limited to Vietnam. His administration also repudiated the "profoundest regrets" expressed by a U.S. official at the United Nations Human Rights Commission for the American role in overthrowing the democratically elected Allende government in Chile in 1973 and backing the Pinochet regime.
How one understands and accounts for the past informs how one behaves in the present. Thus, while Carter did use his presidential power in some instances to support human rights--such as cutting off military aid to a number of South American dictatorships-many of his policies followed a long-standing Washington practice of supporting authoritarian governments in the name of a narrowly defined set of global interests.
Carter lauded and supported the brutal regime of the Shah of Iran until the bitter end, for example. In Nicaragua, his administration provided significant support to the hated Somoza dictatorship. And in El Salvador, he extended large amounts of military and economic aid to a country whose army was engaging in widespread massacres, even after the slaying of its Catholic archbishop, and four Americans--three Maryknoll nuns and one lay churchworker.
In the case of Indonesia's illegal invasion and occupation of East Timor, Carter followed a similar path. In late 1977, when Indonesia was actually running out of military equipment, his administration authorized a dramatic increase in arms sales to Jakarta. And over the next several months, the Carter White House approved sales of fighter jets and ground-attack bombers to Indonesia's Suharto regime, whose military employed them in East Timor to bomb and napalm the population into submission. An Australian parliamentary commission would later characterize the period as one of "indiscriminate killing on a scale unprecedented in post-World War II history."
For such reasons, it is a mistake to present the human rights record of Carter's presidency as qualitatively different from those that came before and after. Indeed, Carter's support for brutal regimes, combined with the significant growth in military spending that he oversaw during his White House years, helped to lay the foundation for the even more odious policies of the Reagan years that followed.
Remembering the true Jimmy Carter allows us to draw lessons about the global role of the United States and to act accordingly and, hopefully, to help build a world more consistent with the principles of peace and human rights.
Joseph Nevins is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Operation Gatekeeper: The Rise of the "Illegal Alien" and the Making of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary, and is currently completing a book on East Timor's "ground zero" in 1999. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org