Jimmy Carter

1924 -

Jimmy Carter, 39th president of the United States (1977-1981). Carter had served one term as governor of Georgia and was considered an outsider to traditional party politics. From the beginning his presidency was marked by caution, conservatism, frustrations, and disappointments. Many reforms he promised were never carried out—some because they were abandoned by Carter, others because of congressional hostility.

During the 1976 campaign, for example, Carter had vowed to reform the tax system, which he called “a disgrace”; yet as president he gave only token support to tax reform. He had also promised to reduce drastically the number of agencies in the federal bureaucracy—which he called “the worst, most confused, bloated, overlapping, and wasteful” in history—and to slash the number of federal employees. Instead of eliminating departments, however, he added the departments of energy and education to the Cabinet, and the number of government employees continued to increase during his presidency.

Carter's management of the economy differed little from that of his Republican predecessors. Unlike every Democratic president since Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945), he did not propose any new or sweeping solutions to social problems. Carter, unlike any of the other Democratic presidents in the 20th century, did keep the United States out of any foreign wars, and he substantially increased the percentage of minorities and women in high-level bureaucratic and judicial positions. Opinion polls regularly showed that the public liked Carter as a person but lacked faith in his leadership abilities.

Early Life

James Earl Carter, Jr. was born in 1924 in Plains, Georgia, a tiny farming community of 600 people. He was the oldest of four children. His father was a peanut farmer and storekeeper. Jimmy Carter worked on the farm, but he had an uncle in the United States Navy who sent him postcards from exotic ports, so as a boy he dreamed of attending the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He was the first member of his family ever to go to college, starting at Georgia Southwestern College in 1941 for a year, followed by a year at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He then went to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, graduating in 1946, ranked 60th in a class of 820.

After his graduation, Carter married Rosalynn Smith, his high school sweetheart, also from Plains. She became an essential partner in all phases of his life, from the peanut farming business to politics. The Carters had three sons, John William, James Earl III, and Donnel Jeffrey, and a daughter, Amy Lynn.

Early Career

Carter was assigned to the nuclear submarine Seawolf and later worked for Admiral Hyman Rickover in a nuclear engineering project. Rickover, an extraordinarily brilliant, icy, and disciplined man, made a lasting impression on young Carter. Late in 1953 Carter resigned from the navy and went home to take care of the family peanut farm when his father was diagnosed with cancer.

The early years back in Plains were not easy for Carter. In 1954 there was a drought and he earned only $200. But he built the farm into a large business, warehousing and shelling peanuts for other farmers in the vicinity.

Because Carter was from the South, his attitudes on race were closely scrutinized during his presidential campaign. His father was a politically active man who had believed in racial segregation, or separation of blacks and whites. But Carter's mother, Lillian, a nurse, did not share her husband's views. In the 1960s she joined the Peace Corps and went to India, at the age of 68. In the 1950s, Jimmy Carter was the only white man in Plains who refused to join the White Citizens Council, an organization devoted to preserving segregation. That refusal caused a short-lived boycott of the family's peanut warehouse. In the mid-1960s, the Carter family and one other person were the only members of the Plains Baptist Church who voted to admit blacks to the congregation.

Governor of Georgia

Carter won his first elective office, a seat on the local school board, in 1960, and two years later he moved up to the state senate after proving that his opponent in the Democratic primary had broken voting laws. After two terms in the state senate, in 1966 Carter ran for the Democratic nomination for governor of Georgia. He only finished third in a crowded field, behind Lester Maddox, a segregationist restaurant owner who came in first and later won the general election, and Ellis Arnall, a liberal former governor, who believed in using the power of the state to aid those who suffered from racism or poverty.

Carter's defeat was a bitter one for him. He said later that he felt sour about life after the loss, and it was at that point that he underwent a religious experience. His sister Ruth, a Christian evangelist, was with him when he decided to dedicate his life to God. He did missionary work in some Northern states for brief periods, taught Sunday school in his hometown, and spoke about Christianity across the South.

Carter's renewed religious convictions did not keep him from using questionable tactics when he again ran for governor in 1970. Carl Sanders, his principal opponent in the Democratic primary, was a moderate former governor. Carter accused Sanders of being a “Humphrey Democrat.” He was referring to former Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, a Democrat from Minnesota who supported such liberal causes as civil rights for blacks, an unpopular cause among many whites, especially in the South. Some of Carter's campaign workers circulated a picture of Sanders joking with a black athlete. Carter ran a campaign to appeal to conservative rural voters. During the campaign he refused to condemn Governor George C. Wallace of Alabama, a leader in the movement to preserve segregation. Carter received less than 10 percent of the black vote in defeating Sanders and then won the general election.

Although Carter's campaign had been tinged with racism, there was no trace of racism in his subsequent actions. In his inaugural speech in 1971, Carter declared, “The time for racial discrimination is over.” Carter's record as governor was quite liberal by Georgia standards. He appointed both blacks and women to many state boards and positions and had a portrait of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the assassinated civil rights leader, displayed in the state capitol.

While he was governor, Carter worked for tough consumer protection laws and banking regulation. He developed new programs in health care and education, and to reform the prisons. The achievement he later boasted about as a presidential candidate, however, was a governmental reorganization plan that consolidated Georgia's 300 state agencies into 22 superagencies. Although Carter liked to imply that this reorganization had saved the taxpayers a great deal of money, his new programs more than made up for the savings.

Election of 1976

Carter apparently decided as early as 1972, halfway through his four-year term as governor, that he would seek the presidency of the United States. Soon after the 1972 election, his campaign manager drew up a detailed campaign strategy. Carter followed the plan closely, beginning an exhausting schedule of campaigning as soon as his gubernatorial term ended.

When Carter formally announced in January 1975 that he was a candidate for president, he had almost no national reputation. There were nine other Democratic candidates in the nomination race, some of whom had been prominent in national politics for decades. But from the first Democratic caucuses in Iowa and the first primary in New Hampshire in 1976, Jimmy Carter's ability to win votes was evident. Carter did not win by talking about issues; in fact, he became notorious for being vague.

In his campaign, Carter promised to restore morality and honesty to the federal government. Voters were troubled by the country's experience in the Vietnam War (1959-1975) and the Watergate scandal. The Vietnam War had ended in 1975 when the government of South Vietnam, which the United States had supported in the war, surrendered to the North Vietnamese. Many Americans felt discouraged by the loss of a war that had caused significant dissent at home and U.S. casualties in Vietnam. The confidence of the people in their government was further eroded by the Watergate scandal, which had implicated high officials in the administration of President Richard Nixon and led to his resignation from the presidency in 1974. Carter, who was not part of the political scene in Washington, D.C., had an advantage. However, his frequent references to his evangelical Southern Baptist faith became a controversial aspect of his campaign. While it made his emphasis on moral values more credible to some, others found his pious tone overbearing.

Oddly enough, those most inclined to trust Carter were blacks, who gave him more than 90 percent of their votes. Other Democrats were suspicious of Carter as a Southerner and a man who seemed to be running against his own party. Those who believed that the war in Vietnam had been wrong were particularly critical of his long-standing support of that war and feared that his naval background would lead him to favor high military spending. Labor leaders were not eager to support him because he was a businessman from an antiunion state. Carter gained some support, however, by endorsing national health insurance and a bill to guarantee a job for all Americans who wanted one.

He won 17 of the 30 primaries he entered and easily won the nomination on the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention. His choice of the liberal Senator Walter F. Mondale of Minnesota as his vice-presidential candidate helped him to win the active support of labor unions.

Public opinion polls immediately after his nomination gave Carter a huge lead, but his advantage dwindled steadily after President Gerald R. Ford was nominated as the Republican candidate. Because Carter's campaign was based primarily on personality, the Republicans could point to the difference between the two sides of himself that Carter displayed, the canny politician and the born-again Christian who promised never to tell a lie. In three televised debates between the two candidates, Ford also challenged Carter's credibility on issues. He attacked Carter as a liberal whose spending on social programs would produce higher rates of inflation and require tax increases for most Americans.

Carter achieved a narrow victory, however, by sweeping most of the South and narrowly winning a few major Northern industrial states. He won 297 electoral votes to Ford's 241, and 40.8 million popular votes to Ford's 39.1 million.

President of the United States

Foreign Affairs

Panama Canal Treaties

Though Carter had promised during the campaign to reduce the defense budget and arms sales overseas, both continued to climb sharply. Nevertheless, his administration was generally conciliatory in foreign affairs. In 1977 the United States and Panama agreed on two new treaties to replace their 1903 agreement about control of the Panama Canal. These treaties recognized Panama Sovereignty over the Canal Zone, and control of the canal itself, beginning in 2000; however, they left the United States the right to defend the canal's neutrality. The treaties took effect in 1979.

Camp David Accords

Carter did prove to be an able negotiator. In September 1978, he met at the presidential retreat in Camp David, Maryland, with Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. They agreed on a framework for peace between Israel and Egypt. This framework, called the Camp David Accords, led to a peace treaty between the two countries that was signed in Washington, D.C., on March 26, 1979.

In 1979 Carter formally recognized the government of Communist China and severed diplomatic ties with the Chinese Nationalist regime on Taiwan. He also signed in June 1979 the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). This agreement set precise limits on the numbers and types of strategic arms that each nation would maintain.


The Islamic revolution in Iran created the first major foreign-policy problem for Carter. In January 1979 the followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, a conservative Muslim clergyman, forced Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, who had ruled Iran for 37 years, to flee abroad. In November 1979, militant Iranians, who supported the ayatollah and opposed Western influences, especially the United States, stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran (Teheran), the capital of Iran, taking 66 Americans hostage. Thirteen were soon released, but for the release of the other 53, Iran demanded a U.S. apology for acts committed in support of the shah, his return to face trial (unimportant after his death in July 1980), and return of the billions of dollars that he was said to have hoarded abroad. Negotiations did not secure their release, nor did a U.S. commando raid the following April. See Also Iran: History.


In 1979 the USSR invaded Afghanistan to support a Soviet-backed government that was fighting Muslim insurgents. In response to the invasion, Carter halted arms-control talks with the USSR and asked the Senate not to ratify the second Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty. He also stopped U.S. participation in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, but neither of these actions caused the USSR to remove its troops from Afghanistan. See Also Afghanistan: History.

Domestic Affairs

Carter's relationship with the Congress of the United States, which was controlled by his own party, was often strained. Many members found Carter aloof and clumsy at political dealing. The administration's inexperience in dealing with Congress contributed to the defeat, among other things, of a proposal for a consumer protection agency and a bill to make labor union organizing easier.

Carter eventually won congressional approval of a program to decrease U.S. dependence on imported oil by encouraging alternative sources of energy and deregulating the price of oil and natural gas produced in the United States. Freeing domestic oil prices, however, caused a rise in inflation, an increase in prices of goods and services without an increase in their value. Inflation, which had been increasing since the late 1960s, now reached its highest point since the end of World War II in 1945. Carter refused to impose price or wage controls; instead, he asked large businesses to hold down prices and labor unions to avoid new wage demands. Unfortunately, these measures had little effect.

Personnel problems also plagued the Carter administration. Budget Director Bert Lance was forced to resign in 1977 amid charges of banking irregularities; a medical-policy adviser left in the wake of a minor drug scandal; and United States Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young resigned in 1979 after the disclosure of a diplomatic indiscretion.

Carter's brother, Billy, received at least $220,000 from Libya, either as a loan or for services never revealed; the Libyan government had been denounced by the State Department for supporting terrorism. Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti, moreover, was accused of covering up Billy Carter's relationship with Libya, but a Senate investigation in 1980 failed to clear up these matters.

Also in 1980, a federal grand jury decided that charges that White House Chief of Staff Hamilton Jordan had used cocaine were not supported by sufficient evidence to file charges, and the Justice Department decided against formally investigating Treasury Secretary G. William Miller, who had denied knowing that a company of which he had once been chairman had spent millions of dollars on illegal payoffs.

Election of 1980

Nearing the end of his term, Carter believed that his most critical problem was a vague sense of ill-being in the United States that, he felt, had produced a crisis of “national will.” The gloom hanging over the administration deepened even further when in 1979 Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts announced that he would challenge Carter for the Democratic nomination. Party leaders generally supported Carter, however. Claiming that he was needed to watch over the nation's business, Carter did almost no primary campaigning and refused even to debate Kennedy.

This strategy paid off in the short run: Carter won two-thirds of the primaries. But he lost several important primaries to Kennedy, those of New York, Pennsylvania, and California. Kennedy, refusing to concede defeat even after Carter had won many more than the 1666 delegates required for nomination, fought on for a more liberal party platform. Carter was forced to accept most of his proposals.

Unfortunately, during the campaign Carter could never quite arouse Democratic enthusiasm. In fact, former California Governor, Ronald W. Reagan who was the Republican nominee, successfully competed with Carter for the votes of many Democrats. Reagan was able to appeal to many people by taking advantage of resentment against the decline of U.S. power overseas, the problems of the economy, and the decay of traditional moral attitudes. Although a large body of voters (according to public-opinion polls) were concerned about Reagan's reputation for an aggressively anti-Soviet foreign policy, Carter's attempt to make arms control the main issue of the campaign failed. The main issue of the campaign was Carter himself and what many people considered to be his record of failure. Carter and Mondale (who was also renominated) lost overwhelmingly to Reagan and his vice-presidential running mate, George Bush, with 41 percent of the vote to 51 percent for the Republicans. The Democrats also lost control of the U.S. Senate for the first time in 26 years.

Carter's last major official action was to secure the release of the U.S. hostages in Iran. The 53 Americans were freed on January 20, 1981, the day of Reagan's inauguration. Carter agreed to return Iranian assets in U.S. banks, which he had ordered frozen, and pledged U.S. noninterference in Iran's affairs.

Later Life

After leaving office, Carter championed human rights and became a public spokesperson for numerous charitable causes. In 1982 he founded the Carter Center of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. The center serves as a forum for discussing issues related to democracy and human rights. Since the mid-1980s Carter and his wife have helped build low-income housing for the poor as part of the nonprofit organization, Habitat for Humanity. Carter has also traveled extensively throughout various developing countries helping to monitor elections, establish relief efforts, and conduct peace negotiations.

In 1994 he went to North Korea to help that country and the United States negotiate a dispute over the production of nuclear weapons. In February 1993, North Korea had announced that it would not allow inspectors from the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency to enter certain nuclear power facilities to monitor compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968. North Korea had signed the treaty in 1985, promising to restrict the development, deployment, and testing of nuclear weapons. As the crisis intensified through 1993 and into 1994, there were indications that North Korea had diverted plutonium from its power installations to create nuclear weapons and was testing medium-range missiles capable of striking South Korea and Japan. In late June 1994, however, following a visit to North Korea by Carter as an unofficial emissary, North Korea announced that it would freeze its nuclear program in exchange for Western aid to build new nuclear reactors that produced less plutonium as a by-product.

Later that year Carter helped negotiate the return to Haiti of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Carter has also written several books, including Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President (1983); The Blood of Abraham: Insights into the Middle East (1985); Turning Point: A Candidate, a State, and a Nation Come of Age (1993); and Talking Peace (1993).

"Carter, Jimmy," Microsoft® Encarta® 98 Encyclopedia. © 1993-1997 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.