Jimmy Carter: The Bridge from Nixon to Reagan

Image of President Carter.

Image via Library of Congress.

It was Election Day 1976. I stood outside a polling station in suburban Maryland. Although I was surrounded by a dozen or so people handing out campaign literature for the Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, I was still debating whether I should vote for him. I did not want GOP candidate Gerald Ford to continue in the White House–a position he had been appointed to by Richard Nixon after Nixon realized the only way he was going to keep his pension was by resigning. At the same time, Jimmy Carter and I did not share too many points of commonality when it came to politics. Yeah, he was cool in that he quoted Bob Dylan, hung out with him, Willie Nelson and some of the Allman Brothers, and had stated that he was in favor of some kind of amnesty for those who dodged the military draft during the US war on Vietnam. He was kind of cool, but I felt his essential political philosophy was founded in the belief that the private sector could solve many problems of inequality and racism. In other words, capitalism could solve the very problems it had created and its adherents depended on to continue gaining wealth and power. Ultimately, it would be a line from his 1978 State of the Union address which stated this quite clearly: “Government cannot solve our problems, it can’t set our goals, it cannot define our vision. Government cannot eliminate poverty, provide a bountiful economy, reduce inflation, save our cities, cure illiteracy, or provide energy.”

This is the essence of what would end up being called neoliberalism when the Reagan and Thatcher governments took this philosophy down its logical path. By the time Bill Clinton was in the White House, US corporations would be ramming the NOrth American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) down our collective throat and Clinton would be celebrating the destruction of the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, calling it welfare reform. Both phenomena would intensify the economic inequality of the Reagan years; an inequality most obvious in the growing numbers of unhoused residents across the nation. Furthermore, Carter opposed a national health insurance system, despite growing support for it in the Democratic Party. His energy policy included the expansion of coal use and the deregulation of natural gas. Although he decried the dependence on foreign fuels, in 1980 he introduced what is known as the Carter Doctrine. This doctrine matched the arrogance of presidents James Monroe and Harry Truman and so-called doctrines named after those rulers and was directly related to the access to foreign fuel. The doctrine’s key sentence is: “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force..” That doctrine remains US policy to this day.

Which brings us to Carter’s foreign policy. Perhaps the key architect of that policy was Zbigniew Brzezinski. It was Brzezinski who, with Carter’s blessing and together with CIA director Stansfield Turner, established Operation Cyclone, the code name for the CIA program to arm and finance the Afghan mujahideen in Afghanistan. As we know, this program would end up provoking some of the greatest backlash of any foreign policy decision made by the United States in the last forty-five years. Carter was an ally of the Indonesian military’s repression of its own population, as well as the slaughter of the East Timorese people. Although Carter originally provided arms to the Somoza dictatorship against the Sandinista revolutionary forces in Nicaragua, his decision to end military aid to the regime while appointing an ambassador whose role was to convince the dictator to step down would ultimately create a situation for the Sandinistas and their supporters to assume power in Managua. However, first he tried to organize an invasion to support Somoza under the auspices of the Organization of American States. Similarly, he refused to end aid to the death squads in El Salvador, even after the soon to be martyred Bishop Romero asked him to.

Around the same time as the events in Nicaragua, there was a popular revolution approaching its apex in Iran. After years of organizing, repression and a growing popular discontent with the US-installed regime of the Shah, street protests in Iran’s cities reached a critical mass. Despite the fact that the Shah’s regime was the largest recipient of US military aid in the middle east (along with Israel) and enjoyed apparently steadfast support from Washington, the Shah left Iran in defeat in January 1979. It had been only a couple years previous that he and President Carter had been forced to tears from tear gas thrown by police at anti-Shah demonstrators in Washington, DC. Eleven months later, a group of Iranians overran the US Embassy in Tehran and took several dozen employees hostage. The occupiers’ primary demand was a return of the Shah so he could face trial. As the Shah was secretly flown to different cities in the west, the hostage crisis, as it became known, took over US broadcast media and the presidential campaign. Ultimately, this would result in the election of the right wing GOP candidate Ronald Reagan and the release of the hostages immediately after his inauguration. The democratic socialist president of Iran at the time, Abolhassan Banisadr, wrote in his memoirs (My Turn to Speak: Iran, the Revolution and Secret Deals with the US) that he and Carter’s team had negotiated terms of a release which was overridden by the religious/capitalist elements in the revolutionary government under the direction of Imam Ruyollah Khomeini who were negotiating with candidate Reagan’s team. In other words, Reagan and his team committed treason in order to win the election. If nothing else, Carter’s presidency reminded us leftists that US foreign policy came in two forms: liberal imperialism and reactionary imperialism.

I think the support Carter received from the counterculture reflected the end of leftist politics on a grand scale in the counterculture. In ten years time, there would be acidheads defending Reagan. This still pisses me off, especially when I hear these kind of clowns talking about how microdosing helps them focus so they can make more money. George McGovern’s 1972 campaign would end up being the closest the Sixties counterculture left would be involved in the national electoral process. The endorsement of Carter’s candidacy by Hunter S. Thompson, albeit lukewarm and dosed with a cynicism Thompson always had, but which had been intensified at least a thousandfold during the Nixon presidency, threw me off. Still, it wasn’t enough to convince me that Carter was fundamentally different from the Democrats who came before. Indeed, besides Thompson’s classic descriptions of the fools and oinkers who make up our nation’s ruling classes, the best thing about his endorsement was the title stolen from a popular song of the time: “Third Rate Romance, Low Rent Rendezvous.” Electoral politics was only getting shabbier. I subconsciously knew then that there would come a time when people would try to convince me that Richard Nixon was a liberal, Democrats were all communists and Ronald Reagan was a great communicator and friend to the working man. However, I don’t think I would have foreseen Donald Trump in the White House. Not even if I was high on angel dust.

I think I ultimately did vote for Jimmy Carter in 1976. And, yeah, he was a pretty decent guy after he got out of electoral politics and became a carpenter. However, his work for the Empire was already in the books.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com