Jimmy Carter in Africa
Race and the Cold War
Nancy Mitchell



Race and the Cold War

“A lot of times, I think back about mistakes that I made as president, the things I would have done differently.” Jimmy Carter was sitting in his modest living room in Atlanta, at the Carter Center, in 2002. He mentioned the first mistake with a wry smile. “Frivolously, I would say—one more helicopter for the Iran rescue mission. Which is where I generally stop.”1

But this time the president went further. After a pause, he added, “The other thing that I did that doesn’t cause me to be proud was letting [Secretary of State] Cy Vance force me in effect to fire [US Ambassador to the United Nations] Andy Young after he had met with the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization]. . . . I wish I hadn’t done it. But Cy Vance threw down his gauntlet and said, in effect, it was Andy or him. . . . I wish I had let Cy resign.”2

This study of the Carter administration’s policies in Africa threw me into the cauldron of still-unresolved, deep, and turbulent emotions. Perhaps if the Carter presidency had been deemed a success, if there had been a second term, nerves would be less exposed.

When I told Anthony Lake—the head of the Policy Planning Staff in Vance’s State Department—that Carter wished he had accepted Vance’s resignation instead of firing Young, Lake suddenly jumped up. Throughout the interview, he had been reserved. His answers had been careful and measured. Like almost all the State Department officials I interviewed, he unfailingly referred to the late secretary of state as “Mr. Vance.” Their respect and affection for Vance were palpable. Respect and protectiveness. When I repeated Carter’s comments, Lake muttered fiercely but inaudibly, and began to pace. I asked him what he had said. He paused and looked me straight in the eye: “He didn’t even have the decency to come to the funeral.”3

Cyrus Vance had died after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s several months before I spoke with Lake. Carter may have had a good reason to have missed the funeral, but that was not how the people loyal to Vance saw it. Old, unresolved emotions.

The 1970s

Despite the disco music, the garish polyester, the drugs, and the sexual revolution of the 1970s, the global politics of the decade were, for Americans, somber. They grappled with failure in Vietnam and strategic parity with the Soviet Union; they faced the Arab oil embargo and growing economic competition from the European Community and Japan. They suffered through Watergate, the congressional investigations of the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) covert activities, and stagflation. They were reminded daily that the United States seemed to be losing power and influence.

The war in Vietnam had sucked the oxygen out of talk of US defense and security, triggered inflation, and constrained the president’s ability to use—or threaten to use—force. Given the belief that the Cold War was a zero-sum game, the unfamiliar sense of weakness caused by the US retreat from Vietnam led Americans to assume that the Soviet Union must have grown correspondingly stronger. Moreover, as President Richard Nixon’s policy of détente took shape, the Cold War seemed to shift in confusing ways. If the Cold War was an ideological struggle against communism, why was Washington flirting with Mao Zedong’s China? And if it was instead a great power struggle against the Soviet Union, how would the United States defend itself and its allies in an era of strategic parity?

This was the world that the Carter administration had to navigate: Americans were trying to draw lessons from their loss in Vietnam, and they were uncertain about the threats they faced. Many of Carter’s critics, during his presidency and after, asserted that the hapless president failed to hew a consistent line toward the Kremlin. Carter, however, did not create a contradictory policy toward the Soviet Union: he inherited it.

Détente, bequeathed to Carter by Nixon and his successor Gerald Ford, embodied two contradictory assumptions. On the one hand, it upended one of the fundamental tenets of containment: while the doctrine’s author George Kennan had asserted in 1947 that the Kremlin could never envision “a community of aims” with the capitalist West, by the late 1960s President Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger believed that the Soviet Union had matured into a status quo power.4 This meant that Washington could—and should—negotiate with Moscow about their “community of aims” to slow the nuclear arms race and ratchet down tensions to create, as Nixon remarked, a “stable structure of peace.”5 This was the side of détente that many Americans, weary of war and anxious about nuclear Armageddon, embraced.

It was, however, less than half the story of Nixon’s and Ford’s strategic worldview. Even as both presidents pursued arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union, they continued to wage a Cold War against it. US military forces remained on alert, the defense budget remained high, and US nuclear missiles remained trained on Soviet targets. Containment was still US strategy; détente was just “a high falutin’ word,” as Alabama governor George Wallace said, that tweaked the means—not the goal—of containing the Soviet Union.6

This contradiction would not be remarkable, except that the US public expected détente to create a more peaceful and stable world. When war broke out in the Middle East in 1973, the public’s confidence in détente was shaken. And when tens of thousands of Cuban troops—considered Moscow’s proxies—poured into Angola in 1975 to defend a leftist government, belief in détente was shattered. Americans, the Democratic heavyweight Averell Harriman explained to the Soviets in 1976, were “disillusioned with their own illusions.”7

In 1976, President Ford and Democratic challenger Jimmy Carter campaigned on these ruins of détente. Ford airbrushed the word from his vocabulary, and Carter sidestepped it. Neither man wanted to discuss grand strategy because neither had an alternative to the discredited détente. Former California governor Ronald Reagan, by contrast, slammed détente as he tried to wrest the Republican nomination from the sitting president. Détente was a “one-way street,” Reagan declared. The only thing it had done was “give us the right to sell Pepsi-Cola in Siberia.”8 Both Ford and Carter, however, embraced détente’s contradiction: both valued arms control agreements and both remained ardent but quiet Cold Warriors; neither wanted to rattle the sabers.

The American people, by and large, let both Ford and Carter off the hook in the 1976 campaign. Nursing the wounds of Vietnam and of Nixon’s abuses of power that had culminated in the Watergate debacle, they had little stomach for high falutin’ discussions of US grand strategy in a time of economic and military constraints.

Jimmy Who?

Jimmy Carter’s strength as a candidate, beyond his indefatigable ambition, was that he was an outsider—not someone who claimed disingenuously to be an outsider, but a real outsider—more so than any successful presidential candidate in modern American history. “Jimmy who?” became a punch line because it encapsulated a truth: most Americans had never heard of Jimmy Carter until he started to win primaries in early 1976.

Carter did not carry the stench of Washington, a city still reeking of the sordid Nixon tapes and scandals. He came out of nowhere, and he promised to moor America to its moral foundations once more. Flattering his audiences, he promised a government “as good as the people.”9 His resistance to ideology reflected the mood of the 1970s, when Americans were questioning the efficacy of the Great Society and the wisdom of the Cold War. He did not fit any of the usual ideological stereotypes. He was a southern Democrat who seemed relatively liberal on racial issues, but he was a fiscal conservative and a born-again Southern Baptist. His relations with the Democratic Party machine were weak and strained. He had no ties to the Northeast establishment or to the rising Sunbelt. Jimmy Carter was an enigma, and to a very large extent he has remained one.

Carter himself bears some responsibility for this. He seems to have had very little interest in shedding light on his presidency, releasing only a severely edited diary and a memoir that was overwhelmingly concerned with the Camp David Accords, and granting very few interviews to historians. Moreover, he departed the presidency with almost no supporters who took it upon themselves to burnish, defend, or even explain on his record. This absence was particularly damaging, given the sustained and effective assault on Carter’s record mounted by the Reagan campaign team in 1980 and maintained almost nonstop since then. Historians have been further hobbled by the dearth of documents from his administration. The National Archives began to release significant numbers of Carter-era State Department documents only in 2014, so scholars had to rely on the sporadic declassification of White House documents at the Carter Library. Finally, assessment of Carter’s foreign policy has been befogged by the narrative that has persisted since 1978, when journalists—frustrated by their inability to understand the president—settled on another way to explain his presidency: it was a struggle between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. Jimmy Carter got lost in the shuffle.

Jimmy Carter in Africa returns Carter to center stage. Based on archival materials from the United States, Europe, Africa, and Cuba, plus extensive interviews, it probes this enigmatic president. To find Carter, it was necessary to dig deep into the written record and to immerse myself in his policymaking process. If I skimmed across the surface, I would only repeat the standard narratives. Hence this granular study of two of Carter’s foreign policy crises: the search for Rhodesian independence and the handling of the war in the Horn of Africa. Together, these two crises give a more complete picture of Carter’s goals and leadership than has been available in previous studies. The long-anticipated dilemma in Rhodesia and the unforeseen war in the Horn were the major African challenges faced by the Carter administration, and they form a fascinating counterpoint.

Why Africa?

The Cold War, which had begun in Europe, had frozen into a nuclear stalemate there. Fourteen years before Carter took office, President John F. Kennedy had declared, “Berlin is secure, and Europe as a whole is well protected. What really matters at this point is the rest of the world.”10 The contest between the superpowers moved to shadowboxing in the periphery, because real war in places that really counted—Berlin, Washington, and Moscow—was unwinnable. By the time Carter took office, the struggle seemed over (however unsatisfactorily) in southeast Asia, quiescent in Latin America, and moving in America’s direction tentatively in the Middle East and decisively in China.

In one continent, however, the Cold War was poised to flame into an inferno. The fire had been set almost casually. In 1975, Henry Kissinger had quietly concocted a plot to ensure that the southern African nation of Angola—on the verge of independence after centuries as a Portuguese colony—would fall into the American camp. Kissinger expected this success to provide a sorely needed boost to American morale in the months after the ignominious retreat from Vietnam. As Angolan rebel groups vied for power, Washington sent covert aid to improve the chances of the pro-Western groups, and it encouraged Pretoria to send an army to seal the deal. What neither Washington nor Pretoria anticipated was that, in response, Cuba’s Fidel Castro would send 36,000 soldiers to counter the South African attack. Kissinger’s plan imploded, the South Africans were driven back, and a leftist government supported by the Cuban troops took power in Luanda. Black African governments—including friends of the United States, such as Ghana—condemned Washington’s collusion with Pretoria. US prestige on the continent was at its nadir. Moreover, the complacent assumptions of détente had been jolted: while the Soviet Union might have aged into a status quo power, Castro’s Cuba was as revolutionary as ever. Suddenly, American policymakers feared, Moscow had shock troops eager to put muscle behind the Kremlin’s expansionist rhetoric.11

The continent was also gaining importance in Washington for economic and political reasons. Nigeria shipped the United States one-quarter of all its oil imports; it was America’s second-largest supplier, surpassed only by Saudi Arabia. Following the 1973 oil embargo and the resulting energy crisis in the industrialized world, Nigeria had clout. “If you are thinking about these long gas lines,” Ambassador Andrew Young—an African American who had been a close aide to Martin Luther King Jr.—noted to a journalist, “one out of every eight gallons of gasoline sold in this nation comes from Nigeria. . . . We are talking about the kind of realities that I think white folk can understand.”12 Moreover, African countries constituted almost a third of the United Nations (UN) General Assembly; the support of the “Africa Group” mattered.13

This story, Jimmy Carter in Africa, begins at this juncture when the Cold War landed in Africa. In the waning days of the Ford administration and the first three years of the Carter administration, Africa was the heart of the Cold War. Africa was where the superpowers shadowboxed.

“I spent more effort and worry on Rhodesia than I did on the Middle East,” Carter told me, reiterating what he had said at a public conference several years earlier.14 Given the emphasis that the historiography of the Carter years has placed on the Camp David Accords, this statement might seem counterintuitive or an exaggeration based on the vagaries of memory, but the documentary record supports it. Rhodesia absorbed Carter’s sustained attention for three years, it engaged both the struggle with the Soviets and the complexities of race, and it embroiled the president in a prolonged battle with Congress that at times threatened his executive authority. The war in the Horn, by contrast, flared up and led to the landing of 13,000 Cuban troops and 1,000 Soviets in Ethiopia, a country that had long been one of America’s closest allies in Africa. Until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, it was the major Cold War crisis of the Carter years, and in 1978 it was the hottest war in the world.


The struggles in both Rhodesia and the Horn occurred in the shadow of the Cuban and Soviet intervention in Angola, as anxiety about the expansion of Moscow’s influence in Africa spurred Washington’s interest in the continent. However, there were also important differences between the crises in Rhodesia and the Horn, and this variance broadens the analysis of Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy.

As soon as it came into office in January 1977, the Carter administration mapped out a strategy for Rhodesia, which it pursued with patience and creativity for three years. Its approach to the Horn, on the other hand, was ad hoc and reactive. The contrast between the administration’s sure-footed handling of Rhodesia and its fumbling conduct of the crisis in the Horn can be traced to this root. The foreign policy initiatives that the Carter administration anticipated—the Rhodesian settlement, the Panama Canal treaties, the Camp David Accords—were pursued with vigor and harmony, and they achieved their goals.15 Those that caught the administration off guard—not only the war in the Horn, but also the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—produced confusion and heated argument. Carter’s lack of a predictable ideology was not a liability when the White House had time to prepare—toward Rhodesia, for example, Carter had made his goals clear—but it was crippling when, as in the Horn, unanticipated decisions had to be made quickly. Carter took time to study the issue before he articulated policy. This delay could be perilous: while Carter contemplated, his administration was rudderless. Uncertain which way the president would lean, frustrated administration officials who hoped to narrow Carter’s options would float their proposals (off the record) to the press. The successive leaks helped to generate the image that Carter was overwhelmed and his administration deeply divided.

The Horn and Rhodesia also involved different partners. Whereas policy toward the Horn was discussed in a series of secret quadripartite meetings with British, French, and West German representatives, the Carter administration developed its policy toward Rhodesia in close, sustained cooperation with Great Britain alone. In the first case, the partnership was dysfunctional: Washington’s European allies fretted and carped, while offering no constructive aid or ideas. In the latter case, the partnership—though rocky at times—was a rare example of Washington pursuing a genuinely bilateral policy during the Cold War.

Although the independence of Rhodesia was of only marginal interest to the countries of the Middle East, the war in the Horn of Africa was a Middle Eastern crisis, not just geographically but also because Somalia was a member of the Arab League. Carter’s diplomacy toward the Horn had to adjust to the influence of Saudi Arabia, awash in petrodollars after the 1973 oil embargo, and of Egypt, a new ally of the United States and a crucial partner in the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Another difference concerned domestic politics. The war in the Horn did not become a political football: Congress displayed little interest in it, and journalists were almost never able to report from the front. Carter’s policy toward Rhodesia, however, was the subject of fierce debate in Congress, and the US press covered it extensively. This was an important episode in the battle that Congress waged in the 1970s to wrest power from the executive branch. Rhodesia offered legislators an opportunity to derail presidential plans. From 1977 until late 1979, members of Congress attempted to force the president to lift the UN sanctions on Rhodesia, which had been in place for more than a decade. That the Carter administration defeated these efforts is testament to its willingness to expend vast amounts of sustained political capital on the effort. Carter did not have warm relations with any members of Congress; he disliked deal-making and schmoozing; nevertheless, his administration was more skilled and successful in its dealings with Congress than is generally believed.

Perhaps the most important difference between the two crises concerned race. In the Horn, blacks were fighting blacks; race was not a factor. The conflict in Rhodesia, however, was a struggle of the black majority to wrest power from a white minority regime. The congressional debates about Rhodesia were infused, usually obliquely, with the domestic politics of race. It was much less treacherous for American politicians to discuss the racial politics of a faraway African country than to wade into the explosive domestic topics of busing and affirmative action.

Lifting the Fog

Studying Carter’s response to these African crises in the Horn and in Rhodesia clarifies his core values as well as the strengths and weaknesses of his leadership. This study dispels the notion that Carter was an indecisive man torn between two warring aides. In fact, Vance and Brzezinski agreed more often than not, and it was Carter who determined policy, often without sharing his decision-making process with anyone. It highlights how challenging it was for Carter to be an effective leader without an easily pigeonholed ideology, especially when—as in the Horn—he was unprepared.

An analysis of Carter’s policy toward the Horn and Rhodesia discredits the narrative that he entered the Oval Office a naive and idealistic crusader for human rights and departed a hardened Cold Warrior. He was a Cold Warrior from day one. This fact is glaring in his handling of US relations with Somalia. Two months into his presidency, Carter ordered Vance and Brzezinski “to move in every possible way to get Somalia to be our friend.”16 Why? To compensate for the fact that Ethiopia, America’s erstwhile friend, was moving toward the Soviet camp. This was a classic Cold War, zero-sum swap. It would have been simple, except that the only way to coax Somalia toward the West was to send it weapons that it would use to attack Ethiopia. Carter’s Cold War instincts were so ingrained that he overlooked Somalia’s war footing. Even after Somalia’s invasion of Ethiopia was flagrant, Carter continued to encourage US allies to send weapons to Mogadiscio.

Carter’s Cold War motivations in Rhodesia were somewhat obscured by his pursuit of racial justice there, but they were just as real. A clear indication of this is the continuity of goals (if not means) in Rhodesia among Kissinger, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, and Carter. By repute, the first two were steely-eyed realists while Carter was an inept idealist, but all three agreed that it was essential to resolve the Rhodesian crisis before the Soviets and Cubans moved in and expanded their influence in Africa.

Carter’s deep Cold War instincts have eluded most observers’ grasp for several reasons. His demeanor encouraged people to think that he was motivated solely by moral concerns. He was a profoundly religious man. He did not flaunt this, but neither did he—or could he—hide it. His Christian faith was at the core of his being. This religiosity coalesced with his interest in human rights and created a powerful, distorting filter: Carter would mention a dozen times in a speech that the United States needed to maintain its strength, and, as an aside, that it should also promote human rights, but what people heard and what the press reported was that Carter had mounted a spirited defense of human rights. Whenever Carter referred to morality, values, or human rights, it was heard at full volume, while his comments about strength and national interest were heard as whispers and forgotten.

The president compounded the confusion by his odd (for a politician) indifference to the impact of his words. Thus, for example, in 1979 when he announced his controversial decision to maintain sanctions on Rhodesia, he duly noted the national security argument—that lifting sanctions would prolong the war and open opportunities for Soviet expansion—but he articulated the moral argument with much more passion: it was “a matter of principle to me personally and to our country,” he declared, to do “what’s right and what’s decent and what’s fair and what is principled.”17 This was what the press and members of Congress heard, and it underlined the impression that the president of the United States was driven by morality, not power politics. A more glaring example of Carter’s tin ear came in his inaugural address, when he declared that “our commitment to human rights must be absolute,” implying that his administration would crusade against human rights abuses, no matter the cost in alliances or dollars. Carter, however, never believed this. What he meant was that his commitment to uphold human rights must be unwavering, but his administration’s policy would be adjusted to the circumstances of power in the real world.18

The problem was that a concern for morality, “idealism,” is often construed as incompatible with a concern for the national interest, “realism.” For Carter, however, there was no light between them. During the campaign, he argued in almost every speech and press conference that the corruption of Washington’s values had weakened America’s image, and therefore power, overseas. Carter’s promise to restore America’s goodness was simultaneously moral and practical.

Timing mattered. Carter governed in the wake of the US defeat in Vietnam, and he and his aides strove with varying success to be sensitive to regional factors that gave rise to conflicts; they wanted to avoid a knee-jerk assumption that every crisis was the result of a malevolent plot hatched in the Kremlin. Carter was determined to pay serious attention to festering problems on the periphery, including seeking a negotiated settlement in Rhodesia. He believed the only way to achieve peace there, and close the door on Soviet expansion, was to forge a settlement that included the guerrillas at war against the white regime. That is, Carter wanted guerrillas armed by Moscow and Beijing—fighters that many Americans considered Marxist terrorists—at the table as equal partners. Thus the logic of Carter’s Cold War policy could be counterintuitive: he would fight communism more effectively by not being so obsessed with fighting communism. Instead of turning away from the Cold War, however, Carter was waging a more complex, preemptive, and diffuse Cold War.

Kissinger’s Bequest

It is impossible to assess Carter’s policy toward the two major African crises without first grasping the situation bequeathed to him by his predecessor. Moreover, Carter’s goals and modus operandi become clearer when contrasted with those of Henry Kissinger, who as secretary of state had masterminded Gerald Ford’s policy toward Africa. Toward the Horn, Carter inherited a policy of inertia: despite the increasingly leftist turn of the Ethiopian revolutionaries who had overthrown Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, the Ford administration did not break ties and even increased aid in the hope of moderating the anti-Americanism of the new leaders in Addis Ababa. Toward Rhodesia, however, Carter was heir to Kissinger’s activist, even frenetic policy. Throughout 1976, as Carter and Ford campaigned, Kissinger devoted most of his vast energy to his attempt to resolve the Rhodesian problem.

Kissinger’s motivation was clear: stop the Cubans, whom he saw as proxies of the Soviet Union. After his covert operation in Angola collapsed, Kissinger feared that the Cuban soldiers might land next in Rhodesia. For the next four years—until its rebirth as Zimbabwe in April 1980—Rhodesia would be at the center of the Cold War. This small, landlocked country, a British self-governing colony since the 1920s, was led by Ian Smith, who in 1965 had declared rebellion from the British Crown to preserve white minority rule. Rhodesia was a domino between Angola and Mozambique—two countries that had established leftist governments after gaining independence from Portugal in 1975—and Kissinger feared it was about to topple into the communist camp.

Although much has been written about Kissinger, little attention has been paid to this strenuous and time-consuming effort in Rhodesia. In his memoirs, Kissinger wrote that “of all the negotiations I conducted, by far the most complex was the one over majority rule in Southern Africa.”19 Kissinger’s approach to Rhodesia was similar to his negotiating style in his better-known pursuits: ending the Vietnam War, seeking disengagement in Sinai, and opening the door to China. He relied on his charm and his power to bully and cajole the players, the British as well as the Africans. He demanded secrecy and speed. These tactics kept everyone off balance and allowed Kissinger to narrow the cognoscenti to a very small band of men who were fiercely loyal to him. To get to a deal, Kissinger wove a dazzling web of confusion and half-truths, implying just enough concessions to all participants to keep them in the game. Kissinger described his technique bluntly: “My strategy which is not heroic is to keep the thing sufficiently confused to exhaust them a bit. . . . I am going to keep it confused until somebody’s nerves go.”20 He approached Rhodesia as though he were gluing a shattered piece of crockery back together: he hoped his half-truths and exaggerations would hold long enough for the glue to set. He achieved one significant step forward when Ian Smith publicly agreed to the principle of majority rule, but the negotiations collapsed when the participants realized that Kissinger had been leading them on. Carter had to construct his policy toward Rhodesia on these shards.

Race . . .

Rhodesia was not only landlocked; it was also isolated from the world. Its minority white government was condemned by the UN and not recognized by any country. It was engaged in an escalating war against insurgents backed by the Soviet Union and China and given refuge in Zambia, Mozambique, and Angola. As the Rhodesian forces increased the fury of their attacks on their neighbors, it became more likely that Zambia and Mozambique might call on the Cubans for help. If that happened, it would be very difficult for the United States to respond.

Why? Because the essence of American foreign policy during the Cold War—stopping Soviet expansion—slammed up against the most raw and explosive aspect of American domestic politics: racism. The war in Rhodesia was not just a bitter liberation struggle; it was also a conflict that pitted a white minority regime against the oppressed black majority. Opposing the Cubans in Rhodesia would mean supporting the white racist government. Both the Ford and Carter administrations knew that was a nightmare scenario. If Cuban troops intervened in Rhodesia—if men perceived as Soviet proxies marched across Africa and encircled South Africa—Washington would have two choices, both bad. It could look the other way and lose not only southern Africa but also, even more significantly, international credibility and power. Or it could send US troops to fight, risking an imbroglio of racial strife and antiwar protest at home.

For Jimmy Carter, this dilemma hit close to the bone. His childhood in Archery, Georgia, was suffused with the complexities of race in America. Archery, a mere stop along the railroad, was home to two white families (the Carters and the railroad manager) and twenty-five black families, many of them sharecroppers on Carter land. It was dwarfed by the hamlet of Plains, which in turn was dwarfed by the bustling town of Americus. Atlanta was light-years away, and the rest of the world, places like St. Louis and Pittsburgh, existed only because of baseball. Archery, like Walden Pond, was where Jimmy Carter learned about living. It gave him his roots, his bearing, his leaning into life.21

Slavery was barely gone on the Carter farm. “Mr. Earl,” Jimmy’s father, was a fair master and “Miss Lillian,” his mother, was enlightened, but the black workers lived in a world of penury, ill health, poor schooling, and severely limited prospects. Mr. Earl accepted the Jim Crow system. When Miss Lillian invited the son of a black bishop into the home to discuss his schooling, Mr. Earl left the house. He talked to African Americans only in the yard. During the 1938 Joe Louis–Max Schmeling match—which pitted the black American heavyweight against the white German who had beaten him two years earlier—Mr. Earl placed the radio by the open kitchen window, so the farmhands could stand in the yard and listen while the Carters sat inside.

This was a world that turned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision on its head: it was grossly unequal but not separate. As a young boy, Carter’s closest friends were the sons of black tenant farmers; he played, fished, hunted, ate, got in trouble, and worked in the fields with them. He was most comfortable in the home of Rachel Clark, an African American woman who was in many ways a surrogate mother to him because Carter’s own mother was often absent attending to her nursing duties. He was aware of the Jim Crow rules—for example, when he took the train to Americus to go to the movies “with” his best friend, A.D., the two separated at the train station and again at the movies to sit in their designated sections—but he did not question them. He never asked why his school was segregated, and he was proud of his purchase (with hard-won savings) of five tenant houses that he rented out for $2 to $5 per month. When he was fourteen, he noticed when his two best friends, both black, stepped back so that he could walk first through a gate. That moment of deference gave the young Jimmy both a thrill and a pang: he had, in a profound sense, lost his friends. Carter was keenly aware of the change, and he accepted it.22

Carter went on to observe the civil rights struggle from the wings, and he reaped the benefits. “I would not be here as President,” he declared, “had it not been for the Civil Rights Act and for the courage of some leaders—and I don’t claim to be one of them—who changed those bad aspects of the South to the present greatness of the South.”23

It is not surprising that Carter considered the racism of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia familiar. In this he was strongly supported by Andrew Young, who frequently drew comparisons between southern Africa and the US South of his—and Carter’s—childhood. During the campaign, Young briefed Carter on southern African issues: “I said that basically it boils down to ‘one man, one vote.’ And . . . he [Carter] said, ‘Well, that’s not much different from what we had to go through.’ I said, ‘No—well, it’s the same problem, but there are probably lots of differences but it boils down to the same issue.’24 Not only was the fundamental issue analogous, but the protagonists were, too: “Some people say that people are not the same, but they are,” Young told the Nation of Islam paper, Bilalian News. “I know Ian Smith and [South African prime minister] John Vorster. I learned about such men at my mother’s knee.”25 Vice President Walter Mondale summed it up: “The analogy with the civil rights movement informed everything we did in southern Africa.”26

. . . and the Cold War

This conflation of American and African politics was an oversimplification that drew critics from the left and right, from Americans, Britons, and Africans. “The complexities of African politics, the tangle of tribal rivalries, the disparities of a vast continent,” the London Sunday Times noted, “are hardly comprehended [in the United States]. Issues such as Rhodesia are seen as though they were a question of civil rights in Mississippi.”27

The critics miss the point. While the analogy with the American South was not apt, it served a purpose: it enabled Carter to envision a clear goal for Rhodesia, and it energized his commitment to pursue it. Carter used the parallel to think about how to promote change in southern Africa. He had seen firsthand how the dogged optimism of the civil rights workers, refusing to succumb to despair and cynicism, had worn down white resistance. Young said of Carter, “He knows very clearly the evils and dangers of racism, and he also knows that racists can change.”28 Based on his own experience, Carter believed that the benefits of change were enormous. In the final presidential debate against Gerald Ford in 1976, he declared, “I think the greatest thing that ever happened to the South was the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the opening up of opportunities to black people. . . . It not only liberated black people, but it also liberated the whites.”29 Donald McHenry, an experienced African American diplomat who was Young’s deputy and successor at the UN, explained this mind-set eloquently: “They [Carter and Young] had lived through the unimaginable. And it did not destroy them. And it was good.”30 Carter’s belief that there were similarities between Georgia and Rhodesia gave him confidence that resolute optimism and activism could give birth to a more just society in southern Africa, and that everyone—black and white—would benefit. Despite obstacles at every turn and a dearth of public support, Carter doggedly sought a negotiated peace in Rhodesia. He set a goal—peace, justice, and independence—and he pursued it with a determination that rivaled the vigor with which he had sought the presidency.

When I asked Carter to explain the motivations of his policy toward Rhodesia, he cited both strategic and moral concerns. First, he urged me to read the documents about US-Cuban relations during his administration that he had taken to Fidel Castro when he visited Havana in 2002. (These documents emphasize the administration’s anxiety that the Cubans would intervene in Rhodesia, checkmating US policy and widening the war in southern Africa.) Then he added: “I would say that reading An Hour Before Daylight [his memoir of childhood] pretty well explains where I came from. I felt a sense of responsibility and some degree of guilt that we had spent an entire century after the Civil War still persecuting blacks and to me the situation in Africa was inseparable from the fact of deprivation or persecution or oppression of black people in the South.”31 Viewing the struggle from this perspective enabled Carter to look beyond the communist rhetoric of the black leaders fighting against the racist Rhodesian government and acknowledge that they, like the civil rights activists in the US South, were fighting for basic human rights. Yet achieving peace in southern Africa was not just a moral good for Carter; it was also a strategic necessity. This combination of aims—the national security imperative of stopping a Soviet/Cuban advance and the pursuit of racial justice—meant that Carter’s Rhodesia policy had strong support within his administration. Both Vance and Brzezinski backed it. This united support was essential because it helped inspire the administration to stick with Carter’s Rhodesia policy, even when it seemed hopeless.

Historians wrestle with memory. We revere it, and we mistrust it. We swaddle it with documents and footnotes in an attempt to square it with facts, hoping that documents—masses of documents—have a special call on truth. Ultimately, however, in human stories, the truth is elusive. When analyzing Jimmy Carter’s policy toward Rhodesia, it is impossible to determine whether he was motivated primarily by the Cold War or by the pursuit of racial justice. The dualism of the question distorts reality. Race and the Cold War had always been intertwined.

In the early Cold War, racism in the United States undermined American efforts to “win hearts and minds” in the developing world and provided potent propaganda to the Kremlin. This was one reason President John F. Kennedy grew interested in passing civil rights legislation and President Lyndon B. Johnson was able to persuade a reluctant Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act in 1964 and 1965. But the fusion of race and the Cold War did not end in 1965. In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration was sympathetic to white minority regimes in southern Africa for two reasons: the whites were considered reliable, and they were anticommunist. Race and the Cold War were inseparable.

During the Ford and Carter administrations, however, the relationship between these two fundamental aspects of the American worldview grew more complicated. The expansion of racial justice at home rendered US support for racist regimes abroad increasingly problematic, yet South Africa and Rhodesia remained anticommunist bulwarks. The equation changed, however, with the 1974 Portuguese revolution that led to the decolonization of Mozambique and Angola. The victories of black leftist governments in both countries shattered the security of the neighboring white regimes. The successful intervention of Cuba and the Soviet Union in the Angolan civil war underlined the vulnerability of white rule in Africa. This was what propelled Henry Kissinger to turn his attention to the continent: complacency was no longer in the US national interest; foreclosing more opportunities for the Soviets was. This required fancy footwork of Kissinger: he had to dance through the complexities of race and national security. This was the challenge the Ford administration tossed to Carter. It was a dilemma that went straight to the heart of the Cold War.

In Rhodesia, Carter succeeded in narrowing the gap between US rhetoric about equal justice for all and its actions abroad. In so doing, he won a Cold War victory. His administration’s perseverance in seeking a settlement in Rhodesia, as well as his gutsy decision to defy Congress and refuse to lift sanctions, were essential prerequisites to the Lancaster House Agreement that finally ended Rhodesia’s civil war. When the newly renamed country of Zimbabwe was born in April 1980, its sympathies were with the United States and not the Soviet Union. Despite Robert Mugabe’s leftist and anti-American rhetoric as a guerrilla leader, when he became the first prime minister of Zimbabwe, he invited the United States to be the first country to open an embassy in Harare—while he made the Soviets cool their heels for ten months.32

In the Horn, by contrast, Carter pursued a cynical policy from the beginning, hoping to chalk one up for the Americans despite Somalia’s clear irredentist dreams. Cold War reflexes die hard. Carter himself later admitted his error: “Morally or theoretically, we were on the wrong side, and we were defending [Prime Minister] Siad Barre in Somalia, who had invaded Ethiopia.”33 It led to the spectacle of the Carter administration sitting by while the Cubans and Soviets saved Ethiopia from Somali aggression. Carter looked weak. This was a self-inflicted, unnecessary wound. And yet, in real terms the United States lost little, while the Soviet Union lost its prized base in Somalia. The perception of the stakes was very different from the reality.

Complexity and constraint: these are the watchwords that emerge from a close study of Carter’s response to the crises in Rhodesia and the Horn. The Cold War in the late 1970s was complicated by doubts inspired by the war in Vietnam, as well as by the rising power of the Saudis and the weakness of the US economy. It was no longer a simple, zero-sum game. And just as the doubts, the diffusion of power, and the sluggish economy complicated US strategy, so too did they constrain the president, who also had to wrestle with the resurgent Congress, a divided public, and his own human failings.


1. Author’s interview with Carter.

2. Ibid.

3. Author’s interview with Lake.

4. Kennan, “Sources of Soviet Conduct,” 572.

5. Nixon, Third Annual Report to the Congress, 9 Feb 1972, APP.

6. Wallace, quoted in Times (London), 14 Oct 1975, 1.

7. Memcon (Harriman, Arbatov), 17 Sep 1976, 596/6, Harriman Papers.

8. Drew, American Journal, 48.

9. Carter used this phrase in an early campaign ad (LAT, 16 Feb 1976, B1) and repeated it often on the stump.

10. Schlesinger, Thousand Days, 872.

11. See Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions.

12. Bill Drummond, “Young Pushes for Black Lobby on Africa: Black America’s Stake in Rhodesia,” Pacific News Service, 19 Jun 1979, US Foreign Relations: Rhodesia/253, ANS.

13. In 1977, 49 of the 147 UN member countries were African. Djibouti, which joined in September 1977, brought the total to fifty. This was the largest geographical voting bloc in the UN. It did not, however, always vote as one. See, for example, Herzog, “UN at Work.”

14. Author’s interview with Carter. Carter also said this at a news conference during “The Carter Presidency: Policy Choices in the Post New Deal Era,” 20 Feb 1997, The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum, Atlanta, GA.

15. The negotiation of the SALT II accord was pursued with vigor and a great deal of harmony within the administration, but it ran aground in Congress; the normalization of relations with China was pursued with vigor and apparent harmony, but behind the scenes it deepened the animus between Vance and Brzezinski.

16. Time, 18 Apr 1977, 18.

17. Trade Sanctions against Rhodesia, 7 Jun 1979, APP.

18. Inaugural Address, 20 Jan 1977, APP. For a more nuanced description by Carter of his human rights policy, see Address at Notre Dame, 22 May 1977, APP. See also Clymer, “Cambodia”; Stuckey, Jimmy Carter; Soares, “Strategy”; Dumbrell, Carter, 150–78; Strong, Working, 71–97; and Kaufman, “Bureau.”

19. Kissinger, Renewal, 972.

20. Telcon (HK, Scranton), 14 Oct 1976, KTT.

21. For Carter’s childhood, see Carter, Hour Before Daylight; and Carter, Remarkable Mother. For Carter’s views on race, see Borstelmann, Cold War, 242–59; and Dumbrell, Carter Presidency, 86–109.

22. See “The Pasture Gate,” in Carter, Reckoning, 33–34; and Carter, Hour, 229–30.

23. Dumbrell, Carter Presidency, 86.

24. Author’s interview with Young.

25. Bilalian News, 21 Oct 1977, 19.

26. Author’s interview with Mondale.

27. Sunday Times (London), 8 Oct 1978, 9.

28. WS, 10 Sep 1976, 21.

29. Presidential Campaign Debate, 22 Oct 1976, APP.

30. Author’s interview with McHenry.

31. Author’s interview with Carter.

32. See Solodovnikov, “K istorii,” 137–38.

33. Author’s interview with Carter.