At Least Read the Whole Thing: Jimmy Carter's Notorious Notre Dame Speech and the "Inordinate Fear of Communism"

Sunday, January 10, 2010: 9:10 AM
Edward A (Hyatt)
Leo P. Ribuffo , George Washington University, Washington, DC
For almost three decades the Carter presidency  has been cited as the recent example of a weak American foreign policy.  Almost all conservatives, most mainstream commentators, and many academics contrast Carter's naive "idealism" with Ronald Reagan's tough "realism," much as earlier generations paired Wilson and TR.  Citing his 1977 commencement speech at Notre Dame, they emphasize one line in particular:  "Being confident of our own future, we are now free of that inordinate fear of Communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear."  My paper will use this speech as an entree into a re-evaluation of Carter's diplomatic record and, more generally, American foreign policy in the "seventies."

The confidence Carter claimed derived partly from his belief that the Soviet Union was, in George Kennan's classic formulation, finally "mellowing" due to decades of containment.  Thus the United States could pay increased attention to such issues as international economics and human rights.  As Carter also said, however, the U. S. must continue to contain Soviet expansion and escalate an ideological critique of "totalitarian" adversaries.  Although different from Richard Nixon's gratuitous callousness, Carter's position as a moderate cold warrior was essentially continuous with Gerald Ford's.  Nor did Carter at Notre Dame preclude a shift in policy if Soviet mellowing ceased.  Pressed by grassroots nationalism, effective lobbying by avid cold warriors, and his National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter ultimately yielded to his own inordinate fear of Communism when the Soviets aided African revolutionaries and then invaded Afghanistan.  Human rights ebbed as a priority and a major military build-up began.  My description of this response as an inordinate fear is a judgment call.  Whatever the value judgment, by 1980 Carter's foreign policy prefigured Reagan's in many ways.

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