Throughout American history, citizens have been duped. It’s a word as old as the republic itself. George Washington, in his “Farewell Address,” warned about “dupes”—that is, those who, unwittingly, allow themselves to be deceived or misled by active adversaries of the United States.
That process accelerated after the Bolshevik Revolution and into the Cold War, when duping was done on a remarkable scale by crass propagandists in the Communist movement, with America’s liberals/progressives the prime target. Yet, the story does not stop there: Many of the same Americans manipulated during the Cold War have resurfaced in the battle against radical Islam, although the periods, and processes, are quite different.
Indeed, there are many ways to be duped. Sometimes, it isn’t a matter of manipulation as much as severe gullibility. As to that, few figures seem as illustrative as Jimmy Carter.
In Carter, we see an unrelenting, longtime misplaced faith in some nasty dictators. He is trusting to a fault. More so, for Carter, this applies not only to Communist despots but to Islamist despots. Most disturbing about Carter is how, historically, he serves as a bridge from our battle against Soviet Communism to radical Islam, from the Cold War to the War on Terror.
For such reasons, we couldn’t resist putting Carter on the cover of my book on Dupes. He is a poster boy not only for what we wanted to describe, but, most soberly, what we want Americans to avoid electing.
It is difficult here to summarize the Carter record, but there are a half-dozen core incidents that typify Carter’s fatal naïveté during his presidency, specifically involving the USSR and Iran. The fall of the latter—the same year the Soviets invaded Afghanistan—birthed the modern Islamic terror state. While some of these incidents are remembered, most are forgotten, or were barely noticed to begin with. More telling, I went to Carter’s newly released diary to see if he regretted or attempted to explain them. Here they are, beginning with the Soviet Union and finishing with Iran:
On July 15, 1978, President Carter provided an enduring illustration of what was wrong with his leadership during the Cold War, and what his successor, Ronald Reagan, would dramatically change. You can find it in the official Presidential Papers, but it has eluded historical accounts.
Carter was in West Berlin. When asked by a West Berlin woman, “For how long, Mr. President, do you think we’ve got to live with the Wall?” a helpless Carter responded. “I don’t know. I hope that it will be removed in the future, but I have no idea when it might be. I’m sorry I can’t give you a better answer, but that’s the truth.”
In response, on-lookers didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. The matter-of-fact Presidential Papers gently inserted the word: “[laughter].”
As a stark contrast, consider another incident unseen by Americans at the time. It occurred four months later, in November 1978, when Ronald Reagan, a decade before he issued his decidedly un-Carter exhortation to tear down that wall, went to West Berlin as a private citizen. In a moment witnessed only by a handful of observers, Reagan stood before the Berlin Wall and firmly told his two colleagues, Richard V. Allen and Peter Hannaford, “We have got to find a way to knock this thing down.”
As president, Reagan would seek that goal, not to mention a wider objective to, as he recorded in his own presidential diary, “bring it [the USSR] to its knees.”
There, too, Jimmy Carter posed a grim contrast. This one came on February 15, 1980, and likewise has escaped our memory. Carter magnanimously made an explicit promise to the world: “We are not trying to bring the Soviets to their knees.”
In his diary, Carter makes no reference to this reassuring promise. It isn’t there. He does, however, mention his trip to the Berlin Wall in July 1978, and the Q&A with townspeople. Did Carter feel he made a faux pas? Not at all: “I had the town hall meeting,” Carter recorded, “answering questions for an hour…. It went off without a hitch, and I did not make a mistake.”
This would have been the perfect spot for Carter to correct any historical outrages made merely 11 years before the Berlin Wall collapsed. Alas, no comments are offered.
Rather than crumble their wall or drop the Soviets to their knees, Carter had another physical gesture in store.
It was June 18, 1979, at the signing of the SALT II Treaty in Vienna. Carter leaned over and planted a kiss on the cheek of Soviet dictator Leonid Brezhnev. That visual is a most instructive metaphor. In the Cold War, it was the difference between winning and losing.
As this photo graces the cover of my book, you can imagine I wasted little time seeing how Carter recalled it in his diary. Here again, there were no regrets—quite the contrary. On page 331, Carter writes: “The signing ceremony was very impressive and well conducted. When we finished signing the documents and handed them to one another, I shook hands with Brezhnev warmly, and, to my surprise, he leaned forward and put his cheek against mine for an intimate embrace. We were both somewhat emotional.”
It was a moment of intimacy Carter still seems to embrace.
Here is one more example from the Soviet side, which concerns Afghanistan, and shifts the battle toward the contemporary Middle East. It was late December 1979, and the Red Army had just stormed into Afghanistan, the first Soviet invasion of a nation outside the Warsaw Pact since World War II. “My opinion of the Russians has changed most dramatically in the last week,” Carter told ABC’s Frank Reynolds. “[T]his action of the Soviets has made a more dramatic change in my own opinion of what the Soviets’ ultimate goals are than anything they’ve done in the previous time I’ve been in office.”
Those shocking words were streamed across front pages worldwide. Among those reading them was Ronald Reagan, who did his best to keep his disbelief and disappointment to himself, saying privately (in a letter) that Carter’s assessment “would be laughable, I think, if it were not so tragic.” Said Reagan: “It is frightening to hear a man in the office of the presidency who has just discovered that the Soviets can’t be trusted, that they’ve lied to him.”
Indeed it was. So, here was another example I checked in the diary. Surely, Carter lamented this one?
“I had a one-hour interview with Frank Reynolds of ABC,” recorded Carter, adding his reaction and that of Press Secretary Jody Powell: “Jody thought the interview was great, and I think it was a very good one.”
Of course, the rest is history. As Carter was resoundingly defeated for re-election 11 months later, losing 44 states to Reagan, the Soviets commenced a systematic destruction of Afghanistan. In the process, Brezhnev and pals drew to Afghanistan the likes of Osama bin Laden, and sowed the bitter seeds that made possible the emergence of the Taliban. It paved the way for September 11, 2001, and the modern War on Terror.
The headquarters of radical Islamic terror is Iran. Under President Carter, Iran dramatically shifted from being America’s most reliable Middle East ally (along with Israel) under the Shah, to, instead, a repressive theocratic sponsor of Islamic terror. It began in February 1979, the third year of the Carter presidency, with the takeover by the Ayatollah.
That, too, hadn’t started that way: On December 31, 1977, President Carter stood aside the Shah, raised his glass and gave a toast: “Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.”
Given what soon transpired, that quote became infamous.
Well, I’m pleased to report that, here at least, the former president has issued a mea culpa. Listing the exact quote in his diary, Carter noted: “Understandably, this was derided when the shah was overthrown thirteen months later.”
Yes, understandably. That “island of stability” erupted into a volcano, prompting an even more infamous response from President Carter. On December 7, 1978, a reporter asked the president if he thought the Shah “could survive” the present crisis. Carter waffled:
I don’t know. I hope so. This is something that is in the hands of the people of Iran. We have never had any intention and don’t have any intention of trying to intercede in the internal political affairs of Iran…. We personally prefer that the Shah maintain a major role in the government, but that’s a decision for the Iranian people to make.
To say this was a sea change in American policy is insufficient. Carter casually delivered a jaw-dropper. And no one was as surprised as the Iranian extremists, who properly read Carter’s words as a sign that Uncle Sam would not, this time around, save the Shah. It was a fatal vote of no confidence. The situation was an Iranian internal affair. America should not meddle. It was party time for the Shiite revolution.
Did Carter regret this remark? If he did, we don’t know from the diary. There’s no mention of it.
For the record, this statement by Carter bears an uncanny resemblance to President Obama’s initial assessment of the counter-revolution in Iran in June 2009. “[W]e respect Iranian sovereignty,” said a Carter-esque Obama on June 15, 2009, “and want to avoid the United States being the issue inside of Iran.”
Within only weeks of that Carter statement, the Shah was gone, the Ayatollah was in. A full decade before the Berlin Wall fell, radical Islam, ultimately the international successor to the Communist menace, established its most tenacious outpost—in Tehran.
President Jimmy Carter is a bridge of sorts between America’s two chief foes of the last 100 years. It is a dubious record and legacy, marred by weak statements and actions, and by a fatal naïveté. It is a record and legacy that America still struggles with today. His long-awaited diary reinforces that reality.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism and the newly released Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.