The Greatest 20th Century President: Jimmy Carter’s Accomplishments

James Earl Carter. A political figure that is often overlooked in history. Many have often called him a “do-nothing” President, or the worst President to come along until Obama stepped into office. If you bring him up at the dinner table your parents may relatives those interest rates.

If I told you that Jimmy Carter is my favorite President of the 20th century would you be surprised? I spent many years looking into why he is often disregarded. Was he really that bad as a President? What I found out was rather surprising, and the more I learned about him and what he was able to accomplish, the more he would become my favorite President.

None of this I was ever taught in school growing up. I had to really stretch far and wide to take into consideration his accomplishments. I decided to challenge myself and look for dirt on Jimmy, and the more layers I peeled away the more I was surprised that I could find almost nothing.

Was he perhaps better at hiding it than other Presidents, or was he really that good of a man? I have come to the conclusion that Jimmy really was that good of a man, and here I have outlined what that is to prove my point. We perhaps may never have as transformational of a President again.


This would mark Carter’s first year. Inaugurated on January 20th, 1977. He ran on a campaign promise to reform Washington corruption, and stand up for the American worker and environment. This would be a giant year for the President, filled with accomplishments that would mark his legacy.

President Carter and First Lady walking entire 1977 inaugural parade with crowd. (US Archives)

Jimmy was known during the campaign trail for being accessible to his followers, even going so far as sleeping over voters homes during the Iowa Caucus and inviting himself to neighborhood barbecues. However no one understood how that would translate to the presidency.

“Within us, the people of the United States, there is evident a serious and purposeful rekindling of confidence. And I join in the hope that when my time as your President has ended, people might say that we had enabled our people to be proud of their own Government once again.” — Jimmy Carter Inaugural Address Speech (1977)

You have to remember that this was just 14 years since the Kennedy assassination, and just 8 years since Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy assassinations. America was still very much on edge, and the nation was still very much divided after having come out of Watergate and Vietnam. Perhaps no President could have ever done something as bold, as gracious, as powerful at that moment in history. He told Secret Service he did not want his motorcade and walked the entire inauguration route on foot, inviting the crowd to follow behind him for the rest of the mile long parade.

Nothing like that had ever been done in history before and would never happen again. Secret Service was not expecting it to occur as the story goes, and Carter would officially invent the new tradition that every President were to follow since. That is getting out of the motorcade. It would go on to set a tone on his first day in office that he was prepared to unify a broken country. Not only in America but the image of a President walking with his people was being viewed around the world including in Soviet Russia. Most importantly, it brought honor and dignity and respect back to the oval office, which many had doubted could be ever brought back.

Front page of New York Times issued January 22nd, 1977. (New York Times/Archive)

Day one in office despite warnings of potential impeachment inquires, Jimmy Carter went against the recommendations of his cabinet and offered full pardons to all draft dodgers coming back from Canada. This single act brought the divided the country together, and ended the protests.

“We deeply regret and strongly protest the President’s actions.” said William J Rogers, the national commander of the 2.5 million-member American Legion. “It’s a sad day in the history of our nation.” said Cooper Holt, the executive director of the Washington office of the Veterans of Foreign Wars which has 1.5 million members.”

This would set the precedent that formed our modern all volunteer army. Not even Richard Nixon was willing to pardon draft evaders.

Front page of New York Times issued August 3rd, 1977. (New York Times/Archive)

Later that summer, President Carter introduced legislation into Congress by endorsing pro marijuana reform bill on August 3rd. Jimmy Said.

“Penalties against a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the drug itself. Nowhere is this more clear than in the laws against possession of marijuana in private for personal use.” — Jimmy Carter (1977)

This period would mark a brief pause to the Nixon vision of cracking down on pot smoking hippies. The Carter team set a precedent by inviting John Lennon and Yoko Ono to their ball, who just a few years prior had faced deportation orders by Richard Nixon on suspected drug charges. It was the mark of a new era of an honest attempt at changing public perception.

This was after marijuana reform had been sweeping the nation. By 1977, 11 states had decriminalized cannabis. Unfortunately his marijuana reform bill failed to pass after a drug scandal within the Carter administration. What followed would be the Reagan era of “just say no.”, followed by Democrats getting tough on crime in the 90’s. However, Carter would help pioneer the movement that would eventually lead to 42 states and growing either decriminalizing or legalizing marijuana in the 21st century.

It only took nearly half a century and five Presidents later to change public opinion again. Unfortunately it is still a schedule 1 narcotic on the federal level in modern times, and no elected President since Jimmy Carter has advocated for lifting the prohibition of marijuana medical or recreational.

President Carter unveiling new solar panels to press pool June 20, 1979. (US Archives)

We were in the middle of a hot ’77 summer. New York City had just recovered from a violent two day blackout. America was in the middle of an energy and oil crisis, and the country was turning to Jimmy Carter to do something about it and so he did what was unheard of at the time.

He went on to push legislation in Congress to create the Department Of Energy, which would be signed into law on August 4th and thus consolidating our energy needs for the first time in history. The department was tasked with pushing energy conservation. He would use the department in attempt to make us independent from foreign oil.

Carter created the first renewable energy program in the country, stating that it was a vital importance to national security. He tasked chemical engineer George Charles Szego with developing the country’s first solar panels completed in 1979 for the White House roof.

“I will soon submit legislation to Congress calling for the creation of this nation’s first solar bank which will help us achieve the crucial goal of twenty percent of our energy coming from solar power by the year 2000.” — President Jimmy Carter ( 1979 Crisis Of Confidence Speech)

This also included a two thousand dollar (1979 dollars) tax credit gifted by the department for new homes sold with solar panels. He envisioned every residential home in America being fitted with panels by the turn of the century, and new funding for photovoltaic cells and wind energy.

Unfortunately when Ronald Reagan took office he cut the Department Of Energy’s renewable energy budget by 85%, and eliminated subsidies for wind turbines in 1986. Followed by Reagan removing the solar panels and never putting them back up, so we never reached Carter’s goal.

“We had special programs that I got through Congress to give bonuses for finding new kinds of energy. We were well on the way to meeting that 20 percent target when I left office. We would have made it.” — Jimmy Carter

Solar panels would not be put back up until 2002, and again in 2014. If we had listened to Jimmy Carter in 1979, it’s safe to say we would be the leaders of green energy instead of last place among developed nations.

The first cargo ship to travel though independent Panama Canal in summer of 2001. (US Archives)

The end of his first year in office would mark an historic treaty with the country of Panama. It was called the Neutrality Treaty with Torrijos that took place on September 7th, 1977 that Richard Nixon tried to complete but was unsuccessful. It prevented war with Panama and the Soviets.

The non violence would go onto last another ten years, until President Reagan invaded Panama in 1988, where he oversaw the overthrow of Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega on marijuana drug charges.

However in 1999 because of Jimmy Carter’s peace treaty, the Panama Canal was given up by the United States that took effect in the year 2000. The trade routes were now given back to the locals we stole the land from to begin with. Giving it back to Panama also helped deescalate the Cold War.

Some critics proclaim today that China has invested interest in “taking over” the canal, because the Panamanian government signed a ten year contract with a Chinese company. Here is the thing. The treaty specifically prevents anyone from owning the canal except Panama. It is managed and run by the ACP, an authority appointed by the President of Panama and approved by the Assembly. All of the board are Panamanian. China actually invested 50 billion US dollars in attempt to build a canal that ran through Nicaragua in 2013, in attempt to bypass the Panama Canal. The project failed miserably.


President Carter tours slums In 1977 visit to Bronx. (Eresa Zabala/The New York Times)

This was a long fought out battle with the lead industry, but in 1978 Jimmy Carter got lead paint banned on a nationwide scale in household paints.

“The problem with lead paint is not so much the price of a doctor to detoxify, but life within the poison tainted tenement. The health problem among urban slums and rural shacks is not just a lack of nearby doctors to treat the preventable diseases which fester there, but the environment in which people live in.” — Jimmy Carter (‘78)

He started the first EPA programs to remove lead paint from old housing stock before it could be resold on the market. The bill also banned the domestic production of leaded paint on children’s toys and crib. We would very likely be still breathing in lead paint dust if Carter had not done this.

President Carter signing the Inspector General Act on October 1st, 1978. (US Archives)

When Jimmy Carter stepped into office, faith in government and public institutions in America was at an all time low. We had just Saturday Night Massacre, where Nixon punished and fired staff members that agreed to testify against him during the Watergate investigation, and who leaked the Pentagon Papers to the press after facing serious imprisonment time.

“If someone comes from within the agency, meets with the Inspector General, reports something that’s a violation of the law or an example of gross mismanagement or waste, the Inspector General has the authority to protect the identity of that person.” — Jimmy Carter (‘78)

In order to restore faith in the White House, Jimmy Carter passed landmark legislation known as the Inspector General Act in October of 1978. This for the first time in our nation’s history setup an office in the White House, who’s sole job was to audit all of the President’s activities, and to allow and protect the identities of whistle blowers who want to report illegal activity. At that time Carter enlisted 12 within his own administration to watch over him. In the year 2020 we have a total of 73 inspector generals.

Open transparency fed to news organizations we now taken for granted today, was once seriously controversial and illegal before Carter passed this law. He setup for the first time a channel for whistleblowers to leak information to the press without fearing prosectuion. He argued that this was essential to the future of democracy and right he was about that. The Inspector Generals helped uncover Iran-Contra Affair, Lewinsky Scandal, Baghdad Apaches, and IRS abuses under the Obama administration. Carter essentially created Wikileaks four decades before it was even a thing.

Carter wearing a feathered headdress presented to him by ‘Iron Eyes’ April 21st, 1978. (Everett/Alamy)

There was another movement happening at the same time as the black civil rights movement, and that was the American Indian Movement. Jimmy Carter became the first President to acknowledge that indigenous tribes could practice religion other than christianity, and that children on reservations were being abused. He met with Iron Eyes Cody (Sicilian-American) who became a spokesperson for ingenious rights, after having parodied them in Hollywood movies for decades.

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In late fall of 1978 President Jimmy Carter got the Indian Child Welfare Act, American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and the Tribally Controlled Community College Assistance Act passed through Congress. These would represent the last piece of serious Indian civil rights bills passed. For the first time in history indigenous tribes would have control over their own destiny by having rights over the adoption and foster care process, and greater control over how funds were designated on native reservations. It also brought an an end to the forced sterilization of the tribal wives.

“In December, the National Congress of American Indians called a meeting in Phoenix to address these “backlash bills.” Between February and July 1978, Indians from more than 100 tribes marched 3,000 miles from Alcatraz Island to Washington, D.C., in a peaceful protest of the bills — none of which passed.” -Indian Country Today

Unfortunately many backlash lawsuits were brought fourth after Carter passed these series of legislations, and a group of Supreme Court rulings by the end of the 70’s in response greatly reduced the new powers and freedoms given to tribes. Including Olpiphant v. Suquarnish (1978), Montana v. United States (1981), and Nevada v. United States (1983). Reported in the book Native American Voices by Susan Lobo and Steve Talbot, this took away the freedom for natives to maintain their own law enforcement and the ability for tribes to be given water rights. This followed a serious defunding of reservations under Reagan.

Candidate Carter thanks cooks at a fish fry and Carter rally in Tampa, Fla. , March 7, 1976. (AP/Photos)

In 1978 America was in the middle of a longterm recession and energy crisis. Workforce participation was at an all time low. The American economy was in a dire shape that was getting close being worse than the Great Depression. This time not only unemployment, but inflation of the dollar from leaving gold to the point where we need wage and price freezes.

This would be a bill that the Carter administration promised they would get passed. It was intended to be a labor reform bill that would strengthen workers rights and standards. It was forced to be watered down to receive bipartisan support, and contained little language for labor unions.

However it was one of the most important bills he would sign into law. It would represent the last piece of legislation a President used in attempt at forcing a balanced budget and trade deficit. It included strong language in attempt to reduce government spending and raise the value of the dollar for middle class Americans during an energy crisis and four year recession. It also used the authorities of the office to push for public sector jobs.

This bill would represent the last time a President used his office to push a public jobs program, that was equivalent to Roosevelt’s during the Great Depression. It’s called Keynesian economics and it was successful.

By the end of his first term in the White House, Carter had a record of overseeing 9.8 million new jobs. The fourth largest period of job growth in American history that none have been able to match since Bill Clinton. More job growth than Reagan’s fist term. He managed to cut the trade deficit in half in less than three years. Union membership was still relatively high in the 1970’s, and Carter while in office raised the minimum wage every year from $2.30 to $3.35. It should be noted the minimum wage would not be raised again for another ten years until Bush.

In Carter’s first year American wages increased by 11% and 10% the following year to his record high in 1980, and he did this all without lowering taxes during a time when top tier income earners were taxed at 70% and corporations were taxed at 46%. After the Reagan tax cuts between 1981–1985, American wages had decreased 13%. By the time Bush left office in 1993 wages were 20% lower then when Carter left office, and the minimum wage was worth 35% less. So that means the average American family is making a few dollar more today than what they would have made under Carter, but the cost of living has tripled in some areas and quadrupled in other areas. In reality American wages have not increased since 1973. The 1979 minimum wage would be worth $11 today.

As far as those pesky interest rates, if you look at the index history interest rates were steadily rising since 1965. That was even before Carter ran for Governor. Reagan did briefly lower them and then raised them back again. High interest rates would not go down again until the very end of Reagan’s second term. It had everything to do with federal reserve policy as a way to slow down inflation of the dollar when we left the gold standard. It was tried as an alternative to price and wage freezes used by Nixon in 1970 and 1971. The idea itself was labeled “controlled disintegration of the economy”.

It also represented a time period in America where long term loans were discouraged, over payment in physical cash. In other words it was a lot more difficult to obtain a loan in the 70’s. It was a time when everyone paid for cars and college in direct cash. In two decades later we would turn into the opposite at record low interest rates. This would ultimately lead to the housing bubble and crash, where Americans were handed gigantic low interest loans like golden nuggets in a candy store.

Expect home prices to increase as mortgage rates drop

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Perhaps low interest rates and “supply side economics” gave the illusion of economic prosperity for awhile. The modern American economy now runs on massive amounts of debt, with the highest cost of living we have ever seen in American history paired with stagnant wages for the working class. From 9 year car loans, unlimited student loans with low interest, and 50 year mortgages, perhaps it wouldn’t be too bad going back to those rates.

1977 Billy Carter advertising pamplet for his new Billy Beer product line. (Falls City Brewing Company)

Leftover from outdated laws from the prohibition era, it was still considered illegal to brew your own beer for consumption. When the President’s brother Billy Carter wanted to market his own home beer on the market he realized how difficult it was to get started. By the way Billy Beer was made by four breweries for those who didn’t know. Falls City, Cold Spring, West End (now F.X. Matt) and Pearl. It was an American Adjunct Lager.

In October ’78, President Carter working with Senator Alan Cranston of California pushed a bill in Congress that would remove the federal restriction on up to 100 gallons of beer for one family. Brother Billy was a huge advocate for beer tasting contests and gathered public support.

Jimmy Carter: Not the King of Beers? (Updated)

“In the pre-Carter days there was little or no access to home brewing supplies, very little knowledge base for do-it-yourselfers to draw from, and far less experimentation with home brewing, making it effectively impossible to gain entry to the beer market for non-corporate brewers.”

It led to the legalization of brew pubs nationwide, so if you enjoy craft beer and home brewing today, you have Jimmy to thank for. After all, Georgia is known for its great moonshine and beer community.


Nwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Menachem Begin at Camp David negotiations. (US Archives)

Jimmy Carter started off this year with a victory for peace and preventing more war. Instead of putting his thumb on the scale of who would win, he accomplished a task that no one thought possible. Not even Nixon.

In 1979 he would be the first President to utilize Camp David to invite world leaders for treaty talks, rather than by military force. After all Carter’s goal was to never drop a bomb and never fire a bullet. He accomplished this on March 26th, by bringing a decades long conflict to end.

If not for Carter pushing negotiation rather than military action, today Egypt and Israel may very well still be at war. Today they are still at peace.

President Carter visiting residents outside Three Mile Island plant April 1st, 1979. (AP/Photo)

This can be regarded as one of Carter’s highest achievements in the struggle for world peace. Carter was a nuclear physicist himself. As a Lieutenant in the Navy during WWII aboard the USS Pomfret he specialized in communications, sonar, electronics, weapons, and supply on nuclear powered submarines. He knew first hand the dangers of nuclear proliferation and what that meant for future generations.

On a Wednesday March 28th for the first time in almost 15 years in America, there was a partial nuclear meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania. Carter was under pressure to do something. After all he campaigned on tightening grips on the nuclear industry.

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter touring reactor 2 following partial meltdown April 1st, 1979. (AP/Photo)

“But outside experts dispute that assessment. Gloria Beers, 29 years old, keeps her children out of school and makes them spend the day inside their Middletown house. “I’m really getting scared about this,” — New York Times

On April Fools Day that Sunday, Jimmy much to the surprise of the nation would make an unannounced trip with Rosalynn Carter to the community facing the crisis and walked directly inside of the nuclear power plant in his normal clothes that had just had a partial meltdown four days earlier.

He invited press and photographers inside to tour the damaged section, despite being warned of potential radiation exposure. He personally spoke to every family that showed up reassuring he would support them. He showed no fear and calmed the nation. Four years earlier Ford already set a precedent by shutting down and banning plutonium reprocessing plants which could only be used to make atomic bombs. This was only the start.

This was Carter’s opportunity to fulfill his campaign promise. We were just leaving a decades long conflict in Indo-China Vietnam, and during the campaign season it was preached he was going to shrink the military stockpile. America didn’t want more war, America wanted less war and Three Mile Island garnered public support for nuclear disarmament.

You also have to remember this was 1979 and the Cold War was still a very real thing. The Soviet Union was still stockpiling weapons and so was the United States. The year 1972 would mark the first attempt at preventing nuclear war by Richard Nixon with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which banned the use of a “first-strike” strategic defensive system.

Jimmy Carter pledged to go even further. It marked a big move in his first year when he banned uranium reprocessing power plants. After TMI he began pushing for SALT II negotiations with the Soviets which was the first real attempt from a President at reducing our offensive stockpile. The idea was for both nations to reduce our strategic stockpile to 2,250 by banning the production of new bombs. The agreement also limited long range missiles to 1,320.

On June 18th 1979 the treaty was successfully signed by both nations, however it would never go on to be ratified due to a new Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 that withdrew popular support from the Senate. However Carter’s treaty was followed for 7 years by both countries, followed by continued nuclear strategic treaties ever since.

Jimmy Carter can be remembered as the first President who took action to reduce nuclear proliferation, which was the second real action taken to wind down the Cold War between the two nations. Along with Richard Nixon, Carter prevented nuclear war. In the year 2020 the United States currently has 1,750 nuclear missiles ready to fire at will. At the height of the Cold War in 1966 the United States stockpiled 31,175 warheads.

However when it comes to anti-ballistic missiles, in 2001 President Bush removed the Unite States from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty after the 9/11 attacks which was the only treaty ratified by Congress. It was successfully followed for 30 years but was given up upon entering the Iraq War. No President since has tried negotiating us back into one. Today we now have a strategic defensive system again showcased in the 1984 film War Games. Fortunately will still continue to place a limit on our strategic stockpile thanks in no small part to Jimmy Carter.

President Jimmy Carter speaking with attenders of Atlanta Civil Rights Conference in 1977. (AP/Photos)

In the fall of ’79 perhaps one of the largest piece of legislation ever passed would be landmark legacy for the Carter Presidency

To put these times into perspective. This was the 1970’s. As a state Senator in 1961 Carter had fought to push the desegregation of public schools. Although Supreme Court ruled against it in 1954, the south continued to keep schools separated and difficult for black students.

“The time for racial discrimination is over.“ — Governor Jimmy Carter (1971 Inauguration)

At a time of huge division he lead the fight to intergrade Georgia’s public school system as Governor despite massive unpopular support. So when he took the fight to the federal government as President, one of his goals was to desegregate America’s schools. That is exactly what he got accomplished.

On October 17th the Department Of Education opened their doors with a new federal building and larger powers than ever before. During these times we still had black school and white schools across the country.

Even in the most progressive leaning states, schools were basically separated in terms of local resources. They were known as “black schools” and “black colleges” and many movies have been made about those times. Designated historically black schools received outdated textbooks, lower paid teachers, and almost no funding for extra curriculum courses such as music and art.

The Department single handedly played a gigantic role in desegregating America’s public schools by working around the counties and states that refused to support black and lower income communities. EO #12232 ordered the department to overcome the effects of discriminatory treatment and to strengthen and expand the capacity of historically black colleges to provide quality education regardless of skin color.

This lifted lower income communities that lacked funding for education in the south out of poverty through grants and improved testing scores. Today we are still witnessing the legacy of Jimmy Carter’s role in civil rights. When President Reagan stepped into office he tried to eliminate the Department Of Education twice, and when he couldn’t get it done he changed the nutritional education guidelines to include ketchup as a vegetable and staffed the Department with employees opposed to Carter’s vision. This would be followed by President W. Bush pushing standardized testing that received some backlash in communities where it made test scores worse.

Since then we have had many reforms under the Obama administration that cut back on discriminatory standards of testing, so it’s a department that goes back and fourth on it’s main objective. Contradictory at times. We cannot forget the impact this department had on vital funding of education and ending America’s segregated school systems to where it is today.


A group holds EPA officials Frank Napal and Dr. James Lucas hostage May 23, 1980. (Joe Traver/Getty)

This was the day in his administration that the country stood still. In May of 1980, a history shaping event occurred in upstate New York.

Residents at Love Canal near the Toronto border would take two EPA officials under hostage and refused to release them until Jimmy Carter responded over the phone. This hostage situation lasted for five hours until the Presidnet finally responded. The demand was they build new homes.

After it was found that an entire town was built on top of a concealed dioxin waste dump, seeping in the drinking water of a New York Community, the Hooker Company was finally brought to justice after it was found that 75 percent of Love Canal residents face increased cancer and birth defects.

This event has been documented in many books and newspapers, but I want to put this into perspective for a minute. Imagine if any other President was in office. Imagine if a group of people decided to take government officials hostage today and demanded to speak with the President over the phone. Do you believe a President today would not meet this situation with violence?

Remembering the ‘slow-motion disaster’ that was Love Canal

Instead of viewing this as a terrorist attack, Jimmy answered the phone and personally spoke to each family. Promising to rebuild new homes for the entire community, inviting the mothers who held the EPA employees hostage to the White House, and pushed Congress to act in that same week.

Helicopter shot overlooking Love Canal declared Superfund Site in 1979. (Getty/Images)

It wasn't just talk either. President Carter would become the first President to admit that corporations across the country have been allowed to dump dioxin waste in cities across America. On December 11th 1980, despite pressure from the industry Jimmy Carter would declare the first Superfund sites toxic wastelands, and began rebuilding the homes and cities for millions of Americans affected by a new list of deemed toxic chemicals. This would be the foundations for his later Habitat For Humanity projects.

If you notice a giant grassy hill in the middle of your city, it’s very likely one of over 1500 Jimmy Carter superfund sites that used to be dumps. We very much have his presidency to thank for not living next to a pile of cancer. Don’t get me wrong waste disposal is still a huge issue that needs to be addressed, but we manage it much better and keep the toxins away from communities. Jimmy Carter in every sense of the way pioneered the way way we manage waste in the 21st century, and saved thousands of American families by legitimizing their health problems.

Shot of Afghanistan “freedom fighters” in May 1987. (Richard Mackenzie/Getty)

This is often misunderstood aspect of Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy strategy. He walked into office on a campaign of advocating for human rights around the world. This began with pressuring the Shah to end torture in his prisons, but it also was the first attempt at bring down the Soviets.

Going into the New Years of 1980 Jimmy Carter campaigned on a secret government mission to weaken the Soviet Union without using military force or violence. We did not want another Vietnam War.

It was called Operation Cyclone fronted by then CIA head Stansfield Turner who was a notorious pacifist when it came to refusing to use military force. The Carter administration would end up aiding the “mujahideen rebels” after the Soviets invaded the country with food and money to buy weapons, however this is where the confusion starts in a long heated debate.

They were freedom fighters, but a big misconception is that this group would later morph into the Taliban that would later attack America. That the Carter administration radicalized the region and brought new terrorism that would haunt us decades later. This is a large myth and it’s not true. Everyone should research General Ahmed Massoud “The Lion of Panjshir.” and see what he did for freedom and civil liberties. During the rise of Bin Ladin he fought alongside US soldiers against the Taliban in the Northern Alliance.

In Afghanistan, A Rebel Leader’s Legacy

“Jan says tens of thousands of people turned out for the funeral a week after his death. They were afraid of facing the Taliban without Massoud to lead them, but news had begun to reach Afghanistan of the Sept. 11 attacks, and that allowed some to hope that the Taliban’s days were numbered.” — NPR

He was not without his criticism, but the bottom line would be that the Carter administration did not enable the future Taliban attacks. Carter in fact successfully supported an independent Afghanistan that brought new freedom to the region until United States went to war with Afghanistan.

One of the last moves during the 1980 year would be for Carter to be the first President in history of America to call for a boycott on the olympics, and told all American athletes to stop training for the event. This upset a lot of people but would become one of his more popular ideas later on.

Choreographed performers form a hammer and sickle at 1980 summer olympics. (Tony Duffy/Getty)

In 1980 the summer olympics were set to be hosted in Moscow, and Jimmy Carter had a plan. He wanted to set a bold precedent on civil liberties and civil rights, as a beacon example for the world to see against communism.

“Jimmy Carter turned the olympic arena into a battleground. The White House attitude was arrogant, ignorant, and high handed.” — Lord Killanin

He convinced China, Germany Canada, and Japan to join in and banned NBC from broadcasting the olympics after setting up a studio. A total of 55 countries would boycott the opening ceremony. Carter wanted to show the world he wasn’t weak when it came to human and civil rights. This would continue on in the next year when he would try the same in Iran.

This was not a very popular decision . It received huge backlash from the international community, but would ultimately discredit the USSR.

“I have notified the olympic committee that as long as there are Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an olympic team to Moscow.” — Jimmy Carter (‘80)

You can really understand how significant this was when you put it into the context of history. Even FDR sent Americans to the 1936 olympics in Berlin Germany. Russia would not return to the olympics until 1988. It was said that it caused a stunning blow to how the world viewed the Soviet Union. They lost a ton of legitimacy and brought them to the bargaining table.

Again you have to point out that this was the epitome of “peace through strength” strategy that Reagan would later pursue in office. Carter started it first, and it required no bombs or bullets to accomplish. Reagan would later praise Carter for setting a huge precedent for human rights. Less than ten years later the communist block would collapse in defeat.


Page 9 of New York Times issued June 24, 1977. (New York Times/Archive)

This is a rather unknown effort to save children of America. In 1971 the Nixon administration mandated that all children’s clothing including pajamas be treated with flame retardant. You have to remember that this was a time when everyone smoked a cigar while reading bedtime stories to their young ones.

The industry found the perfect chemical. Tris, only it wasn’t so perfect. It was shown to cause liver cancer in factory workers, and in 1977 it was banned by Carter after some clothing companies refused to stop using it. Corporate America fought back. In 1977 a federal judge ruled against the ban sighting that corporations did not have enough time to prepare.

It was never challenged by the Supreme Court so it was never banned. The Carter administration continued to go on a campaign against the use of this chemical, until it received enough public backlash that the industry voluntarily stopped using it in their products sold in America. The industry then sued the Carter administration for compensation from lost sales.

“While it is most regrettable that losses have resulted from the regulatory actions taken to protect the safety and health of the nation’s children, no basis exists to require a potential Federal expenditure of millions of dollars when the actions of the Government were fully justified.” — Jimmy Carter (Response To Court Ruling)

However there was a loophole. Although it was phased out of domestic production in 1977 that would be sold to Americans, American clothing companies were still widely producing clothing with Tris that would be exported to third world nations like India and Vietnam. In some cases reimported back into the United States. After Carter refused to reimburse companies for loss of sales from the ban, many companies used this loophole to continue to sell unsold stock. When Carter found this out he was furious, and signed EO #12264 to combat what he called the “circle of poison”.

This executive order banned the export of all banned chemicals in the United States, which was a huge blow to many corporations including pesticide companies like Monsanto and Dow and lead paint manufactures.

Page 6 of New York Times issued January 1st, 1983.(New York Times/Archive)

Unfortunately within Reagan’s first 30 days in office, he revoked the executive order which allowed banned substances to be exported again citing “excessive regulation”. Then in December 31st of 1983, President Reagan gave $50 million dollars in direct federal reimbursements to the manufactures of five corporations who were effected by Carter’s temporary ban on Tris.

Pesticide Dumping Continues; Leahy to Reintroduce Circle of Poison Bill

No President has since tried to ban the export of banned chemicals. In 1998 Senator Patrick Leahey from Vermont tried but failed again. In the year 2020, the United States still exports leaded household paints. It took China banning lead paint in children's toys in 2007 to stop the practice. Tris has also found it’s way back into household furniture in the 21st century.


Jimmy Carter is not without his faults. I thought it would only be honest and fair to provide a criticism of what he did while in office. You may agree or disagree with what he did here, but it happened either way

General Motors workers picketing outside a Detroit G.M. plant in 1970. (Bettmann/Getty)

Jimmy Carter forgot about the working man, and by that I mean unions. The UAW and the Teamsters truckers union endorsed him at the Iowa convention in 1976. They were a big reason why he won the primary.

It’s because he campaigned on two pieces of legislation in the form of labor reform. He said he was going to do two things. One he promised to repeal the Taft–Hartley Act that weakened unions if a repeal reached his desk. He then said he would push for a guaranteed jobs bill that would give Americans the right to sue their government if they were not given a job.

Jimmy Carter had other priorities. He would focus on what he knew best which was peace relations such as the crisis in Panama and the environement. By the time Humphrey–Hawkins Act reached the President’s desk, it contained no language to strengthen unions or would include any job rights initiatives for working class Americans. Carter chose not to fight for this language that was pushed by UAW and Teamsters.

During his presidency he reigned over deregulation only Reagan could dream of. First in 1978 when Jimmy Carter pledged to deregulate the airline industry with the Airlines Deregulation Act, because many believed it would increase competition. In the year 2020, three airlines control 80% of the flight routes.

Did deregulating the airlines work?

“Yes, airline fares were low for many years, and the airline companies became more efficient. However, thousands of employees lost their jobs or were forced into lower wages by two-tier wage systems. Some of the employees’ pensions were eliminated by bankruptcy and were put into the Pension Benefit and Guarantee Corporation, a government-run insurance program that takes over pension plans of bankrupt companies.” — Industry Week

It would setup the environment that would make it possible for Ronald Reagan to fire 11,345 union workers at our airports. Reagan was the leader of union busting, but Jimmy Carter did it first and not in a small way.

In 1981 thought it was perhaps the nail in the coffin. Carter pushed to deregulate the trucking industry to save on gas mileage and costs for the consumer during an energy crisis and recession. Motor Carrier Act of 1980 removed the authority of trucking routes from Department Of Transportation that previously stated that truckers had to pass through cities and small towns on Route 66, and loosened laws for carriers that said they had to hire truckers supplied by the Teamsters. 1981 was a huge shock.

Truckers Feel the Burn of Deregulation : Unfettered competition helps some firms, but workers pay the price in lost wages, benefits.

Although the new deregulation was set to increase competition it did the exact opposite. Between 1981–1990, over 2,000 carrier companies went out of business. Between 1981–1990, truck drivers saw a 27% decrease in wages and union membership dropped from 50% to 20%. Since 1990 to present day, 43, 863 trucking companies have gone bankrupt as they struggled to survive with the lowest bidder in a desperate economy with high interest rates.

Sen. Edward “Ted” Kennedy, left, greets President Jimmy Carter on Aug. 28, 1980, at a Boston airport.

Carter showed strong job growth and growing wages towards the end of his presidency, but his deregulation allowed an era of Reaganomics to usher in a new time period of record high union busting operations across the country. In fact Carter had a history of busting unions himself which you can read about in an article below. This compounded with record high interest rates that did not fair well for small businesses. Between 1979 and 1985 one-third of America’s high-technology union machine-tool factories were permanently shut down, and there was a close-down of a similar percentage of other capital-intensive industries throughout America’s industrial heartland.

The Decline of Unions: President Jimmy Carter, The Union Buster

So it would be of no surprise that UAW and Teamsters would endorse farther left Teddy Kennedy in the 1980 Democratic primaries, who also promised to fight for a national healthcare bill over Carter’s more conservative approach. This ultimately led to many union leaders switching sides to Reagan as a voice for working class America when Carter was renominated at a bitter convention. Reagan attracted the “silent majority” that Jimmy gave away.

Hostage in the American Embassy in Tehran was walked around the compounds on November 9, 1979.

On January 21st 1977, Jimmy Carter stepped into office on a campaign of human rights and government transparency. He promised to get tough on the Soviet Union when Americans lacked confidence that President Ford could lead us into a brave new world of Soviet escalation in the 70’s.

This is perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of Carter’s presidency. Everyone knows what happened, but not really why it happened and why it represents. Why I feel Jimmy made a grave mistake.

Here is the truth from recently declassified documents reported by the BBC. Jimmy Carter was too faithful in the Khamenei to do what was right. Perhaps Jimmy Carter’s greatest mistake looking back was putting his trust Khomeini instead of keeping Shah in power.

During these years, Jimmy Carter put tough sanctions on Iran to pressure the Shah to stop holding political and religious prisoners and stop torturing captives from years past. The Shah allowed these prisoners to be freed in these countries and stopped torture in his prisons, and these are the prisoners that would ultimately seek revenge against the royal family. One of those prisoners released was named Ruhollah Khomeini.

During the late 1970’s there was a new independence movement happening across the globe, and Carter saw this as his chance to work around fascist dictators so we wouldn’t have to use military force from our army. He was hoping that the success of Afghanistan would repeat in Iran.

America’s secret engagement with Khomeini

Following the United States abandonment of the Shah, Carter decided to allow him into the United States but then changed his mind. Khomeini ended up going back on his word by taking 79 Americans hostage. Although Carter spent countless months over the phone negotiating, the damage had been done and the successes of Afghanistan was not repeated.

Former Presidents were so shocked that the Carter administration had abaonded the Shah, this is what Richard Nixon had to say when asked.

“I think the treatment of the Shah by this administration after he left was shameful. It is one of the black pages in American foreign policy history. I think that President Sadat’s guts in providing a home for the Shah in his last days at a time when the United States turned it’s back on one of it’s friends, should be viewed as an inspiration to us all.” — Richard Nixon (1980 @ Shah’s Funeral)

Following the Iranian Revolution political executions jumped. From 1981–1985 there were more than 8000 executions in a four year period. Woman were told they could no longer receive a higher education and their hair could not be shown when walking alone in public.

Woman who had had their drivers license under the Shah were told to give up their cars. That they could not seek employment without their husband’s permission, and woman had to sit in the back of the bus.

Ruhollah Khomeini leading a prayer service in 1979 following hostage abductions. (AP/Photos)

What was an ever growing progressive country just years before with some of the best gender integrated universities in the world, and beaches where woman were allowed to wear string bikinis had quickly vanished.

Today if you ask many Iranians if they prefer their current government or what it was like under the Shah, you would be surprised to hear that many prefer the Shah’s leadership looking back at how life was.

For the many successes of the Carter administration, unfortunately your legacy is often remembered by what you accomplished last. The Iranian Revolution will forever be a legacy of Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy strategy. Although it was an honest attempt at refusing to use military force in a time of crisis, it would ultimately lead to greater violence by refusing to do nothing an abandoning our secular allies in the Middle East.

Today we are left with a region that is war torn and plagued with religious extremism and human rights abuses against women. Although it may not be fair to put all the blame on Jimmy Carter, his legacy certainly played a part. Perhaps this was the greatest mistake of the Carter years, although he did so great restraint in not waging war against another nation.

My Take / Opinion:

Jimmy Carter was one of those Presidents you either loved to hate or hated to love. He often angered both sides and contradicted himself, but when it came to putting country before himself he was the prime example.

When something needed to be done, he never hestiated. He got legislation he wanted passed by meeting with both Democrats and Republicans. I think that is what he will be best known for, and that is bringing a wounded country together when it was overtaken by violent protests and a higher distrust in public institutions than at any point in history.

Carter announces campaign with mother, his wife, and his daughter December 12th, 1974. (US Archives)

His strengths were peace time negotiation. His weakness that cost him a second term in the White House was public relations, and Reagan a professional actor could make words sound more important than actions.

In Jimmy’s case his actions spoke louder than his words. The Carter years are often swept under the rug as an insignificant period of history that did not last more than one term. Many argue that his failures moved the country farther to the right and into the era of “reaganomics”. However if you brush away the stigmatism of high interest rates and an energy crisis, you will see that Carter’s accomplishments made no small impact.

He would rise up from a peanut farm and low income housing, to becoming the next President of the United States. Defeating the Nixon establishment that was so powerful just years before. He would go onto to push vital environmental standards we take for granted today. He would put an emphasis on keeping America out of more war and kept his promise, and was the first President to challenge the Soviet Union in front of the podium. He is perhaps the most under appreciated President of our time, and his work outside of the White House through the Carter Center and Habitat For Humanity has been a shining example for future Presidents to follow.

He may not have been the next “new deal” Roosevelt that everyone was hoping for, but his presidency was unlike anything that we have seen since. Both in terms of transparency and honesty. He would become the only President in history not to drop a single bomb or fire a single bullet.

Independent writer outside of Boston.