American Classics

Jimmy Carter, Commencement Address at Notre Dame University (May 1977)

In May 1977, the still comparably new-to-the-Presidency Jimmy Carter made his way to Notre Dame to give that spring’s commencement address.  He used the opportunity presented to him to chart before the new graduates and the American people as a whole his plan for the foreign policy of the United States during his presidency and well beyond.  The speech is best remembered for Carter’s assertion that his administration would be free of the “inordinate fear of communism” that had too long distorted American foreign policy. Carter’s critics soon seized on this remark as a prime example of his naivety when it came to the realities of power politics and the dangers posed by the Soviet Union. Within four years, another President would be elected with a very different view of the world. At the time, however, many commentators regarded this as a refreshing statement of strategic maturity and an expression of the fundamental values that inspire Americans.

The “inordinate fear of communism” observation, however, only represented a minor part of the speech, which focused on the promotion of human rights. In order to make his goals of improving the condition of human rights around the world more concrete, Carter provided a five-part plan that would guide his foreign policy. Most of these steps required a renewed commitment to fostering congenial relationships with all of the other nations on Earth—not just America’s allies.  Others were more theoretical—less concrete, but still goals worth striving towards.  Additionally, there are several themes in Carter’s speech that we can identify and track throughout its length; these include a focus on democracy, the preeminence of fear in America’s previous foreign policy, the idea of America as the center of world affairs (and what it can do to restore that position), and the importance of domestic and international cooperation to the success of any foreign policy program.  Ultimately, Carter’s speech comes across as something of an apology for (or, depending how one looks at it, a refutation of) the actions of recent presidents, and an explanation of how he will differ from them (although he never makes this point explicitly).


Jimmy Carter was elected to office at the end of a contentious 1976 campaign.  The United States had been rocked by the scandal of Watergate and was just beginning to recover from the failure that was the Vietnam War.  The economy was struggling.  Carter, the former governor of Georgia, was the epitome of an “outsider” candidate.  A peanut farmer by trade, Carter came to the White House seemingly out of nowhere.  The election of a Democrat to the White House seemed inevitable given the political climate of the times – Carter’s party had made huge electoral gains in 1974. Remarkably, however, despite the apparent desire of the country for a change in leadership, Carter only narrowly defeated the incumbent President, Gerald Ford, who is often remembered anecdotally as the only president to have never been elected to that office or the vice-presidency.

That did not deter Carter from advocating major changes in the tenor and direction of American foreign policy, a fact that he made clear in his Inaugural Address. With a deep belief that the United States was ultimately founded on morality and human rights, Carter told the American people that the focus of his administration’s foreign policy would be on human rights—in his opinion, a marked departure from the foreign policies of his predecessors, and especially different from the polices of Henry Kissinger, the National Security Advisor-turned-Secretary of State largely responsible for the foreign policy of the Nixon and Ford Administrations.  Carter’s belief in the specific foundation of the United States in human liberty led him to argue that the American people had a special obligation to follow a human rights-oriented foreign policy.

Additionally, Carter was deeply interested in the Middle East, and as a particularly devout Southern Baptist had always held an interest in Jerusalem, Israel, and Palestine.  To that end, Carter used his presidency as a platform from which to advocate for the cause of Middle Eastern peace.  While he did not bring about a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, Carter did help to facilitate a breakthrough agreement between Egypt and Israel in the Camp David Accords, the first time that an Arab State recognized the legitimacy of the Jewish state of Israel.  Unfortunately for him, the Iran Hostage Crisis that lasted from 1979 to 1981 tarnished the accomplishments that he made in the Middle East during his presidency.

The Soviet Union continued to be a particular problem during Carter’s Administration.  Nevertheless, Carter and his diplomatic team made serious efforts to agree to and pass SALT II (the second Strategic Arms Limitation Talks agreement).  This was particularly problematic because Carter’s human rights policy was seen by Soviet Leadership as an attempt to undermine their rule, and thus they were hesitant to treat with Carter’s team.  Eventually, Carter and Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev signed an agreement in 1979, although the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, derided by Carter, put a damper on the implementation of the treaty in the United States.  Additionally, the Carter Administration had to deal with the Soviet Union and Cuba acting in Angola and other communist nations in Africa, the newest battlefield of the Cold War.

This only touches on the sorts of foreign policy issues that the Carter Administration was forced to face during its brief time in office.  We can see from the speech described below how Carter initially attempted to solve some of the issues at play in the world of his day.  One thing must be added, however.  Carter is often derided as focusing too much of his time as president on human rights issues.  Yet, as we may be able to see from this brief background, Carter was not above putting human rights issues aside when security issues or other problems reared their heads.  As the Presidential Review Memo/National Security Council-28 (Human Rights) from July of 1977 points out, Carter and his administration were well aware of the fact that sometimes human rights would need to be put aside.  Carter’s emphasis on human rights was not to tell the world that he would act in accordance with them no matter what, but to tell the world that the United States recognized the validity of human rights and would, when and where possible, shame their abuse.

The Plan

The plan itself was fairly straightforward.  America was to switch its focus in the realm of foreign policy to a commitment to human rights, and it would do so in five steps: by vocally recommitting the United States to a foreign policy of human rights, by reinforcing the bonds among democracies, by engaging with the Soviet Union to end the arms race, by taking steps towards a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, and by reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation and conventional weapons sales.  While not all of these steps dealt with human rights in particular, it seems that Carter’s idea was that a more peaceful world would be one in which the rights of every human of every nationality would be better protected.  It is worth pointing out however that Carter never defines in his speech what, exactly, human rights are—besides the idea that democracies protect them, and non-democracies do not: “Because we know that democracy works, we can reject the arguments of those rulers who deny human rights to their people.”

Carter’s first step is simply to reaffirm America’s “commitment to human rights as a fundamental tenet of our foreign policy.”  Carter seems to think that the United States had always been committed to those rights, and through the Vietnam War had simply lost its way.  In failure, however, and with the accession of Carter to the White House, America has found its way back to its roots: “Through failure we have now found our way back to our principles and values, and we have regained our lost confidence.”  Even more important, the diverse backgrounds of all Americans means that something has to hold them together as one nation, and Carter affirms that it is, “more than anything else, … a belief in human freedom.”

Following the reorientation of America towards its roots, the second part of Carter’s plan involved reinforcing the bonds between democracies.  This would require widening “economic cooperation,” promoting free trade, “strengthening the world’s monetary system,” and seeking “ways of avoiding nuclear proliferation.”  Strengthening bonds between democracies is not only a way to make the strong stronger, but to show to nations that have not yet adopted a democratic system the many advantages that come with having one.

The third part of Carter’s plan was “to engage the Soviet Union in a joint effort to halt the strategic arms race.”  This was not only because nuclear weapons are dangerous, but because arms races are “morally deplorable” as well.  Carter understood that any agreement between the two countries had to treat both sides fairly in order for it to be accepted.  The “arms race” issue was not new in Carter’s plan, either—SALT I agreements, including the ABM Treaty, had already been agreed to during the Nixon administration; but at this point the SALT II talks, then under way, had been mired in several years of slow-down and back and forth.

Moreover, Carter wanted more than just arms reductions by both superpowers, but also “a comprehensive ban on all nuclear testing, a prohibition against all chemical warfare, no attack capability against space satellites, and arms limitations in the Indian Ocean.”  Carter sets his sights even higher in this speech, telling his audience that the United States would persist in its efforts to create a joint effort between all nations aimed towards “a final agreement eliminating nuclear weapons from our arsenals of death.”

In the fourth part of his plan, Carter aimed to make lasting peace in the Middle East, and he recognized that there were three key challenges that must be addressed.  First of all, the states in the region had to be able to define what peace to them would mean—peace, of course, being between Israel and its neighbors.  The second issue had to do with the relationship between security and borders: “how can the dispute over border delineations be established and settled with a feeling of security on both sides.”  The final issue in getting peace in the Middle East was perhaps the hardest of all—the “issue of the Palestinian homeland.”  This is an auspicious time for major progress, and Carter suggests that it is perhaps the best chance the world has ever had for peace in the modern Middle East.  To that end, Carter advises staying the course, no matter who is in charge: “Our own policy will not be affected by changes in leadership in any of the countries in the Middle East.”

Finally, the fifth part of Carter’s plan was very similar to the third part, although here it encompassed the entire world, enemies and allies alike: “We are attempting, even at the risk of some friction with our friends, to reduce the danger of nuclear proliferation and the worldwide spread of conventional weapons.”  Nuclear weapons are a danger to the health of the world; and it is better that they stay limited and solely in the hands of the nations that already possess them.  Although there is not much that the United States could do to stop nuclear proliferation or the sale of conventional weapons among its enemies (other than sanctions and the like), Carter did recognize that two steps could be taken.  First, there was a need for the scientists of the world to determine the “best ways of harnessing nuclear energy for peaceful use while reducing the risks that its products will be diverted to the making of explosives.”  This is obviously a long term project, but a worthwhile one since a clear danger in nuclear power plants is possessing the material and know-how to develop nuclear weapons.  The second, more immediate, step that Carter advocates taking is reducing arms sales.  “Competition in arms sales is inimical to peace and destructive of the economic development of the poorer countries,” Carter says.  “We will, as a matter of national policy now in our country, seek to reduce the annual dollar volume of arms sales, to restrict the transfer of advanced weapons, and to reduce the extent of our coproduction arrangements about weapons with foreign states.”  Technological developments could allow the more peaceful harnessing of nuclear power, while Carter’s limits on arms sales would help to stop or slow the spread of everyday, conventional weapons throughout the world.


There are several major themes present throughout Carter’s speech.  Among those themes were the importance of democracy, the idea of fear and failure in the foreign policy of the United States, the idea that the United States is at the center of world affairs, and an emphasis on cooperation between the United States and the other nations of the world.  As one might expect, these themes are woven into the five plans that Carter spends the majority of his speech discussing.

The first theme, democracy, is the one most clearly present in his speech.  Carter puts forth an overwhelming confidence in the idea of democracy—a confidence that democratic methods are the best methods.  He claims, for instance, that democracy works, and that we know that it works, and so we can reject the arguments of those rulers (who are likely authoritarian in some fashion), rulers who systematically abuse the human rights of their citizens, that they need to maintain their power in order for their nation to be safe.  In the same vein, for those who might criticize Carter for looking solely at the United States as successfully democratic, he points out that democracy has been successful in other nations, so confidence in it is not wholly misplaced.  Carter also tells his audience that “the great democracies are not free because we are strong and prosperous.  I believe we are strong and influential and prosperous because we are free,” and thus, by extension, those nations within this generation that have been freed from colonialism and have adopted their own national identities could adopt democracy and be just as successful as the United States and its most powerful allies.  Finally, Carter argues for a foreign policy process at home that is more democratic than it has been: “And we are confident of the good sense of the American people, and so we let them share in the process of making foreign policy decisions.  We can thus speak with the voices of 215 million, and not just an isolated handful.”  While Carter certainly did not mean that the American public should have the opportunity to vote on foreign policies, he did mean that the Administration take fully into account the attitudes of Americans, and adopt a foreign policy that was best reflective of that attitude.  In Carter’s opinion, the Nixon, Ford, and Kissinger years did not do that, and part of Carter’s goal was to rectify that wrong and bring the inherent morality and ideals of the American people back into the world of foreign policy.

The second, albeit brief, theme in Carter’s speech is the idea that for too long, the United States’ actions have been predicated by an irrational (“inordinate”) fear of communism.  A fear of communist expansion has led the United States to embrace dictators and regimes repugnant to the fundamental values of all Americans—and Carter promises that this is a tactic that will no longer be followed.  Furthermore, Carter argues that the United States has spent too many years fighting its opposition by adopting the tactics of its non-democratic enemies, and that in particular is a strategy that will no longer work for the United States: “For too many years, we’ve been willing to adopt the flawed and erroneous principles and tactics of our adversaries, sometimes abandoning our own values for theirs.  We’ve fought fire with fire, never thinking that fire is best quenched with water.  This approach failed …”  This line of thinking leads into Carter’s argument that the United States needs to adopt a foreign policy of human rights in order to stay true to its moral roots.

Carter’s third theme is an overarching belief that the United States is and ought to be at the center of world affairs, and that it has, in recent years, begun to fall away from that position.  Our nation is not old, he says, and existed largely on the periphery of world affairs before World War II.  But since then, “we have inescapably been at the center of world affairs.”  Unfortunately, recent events, in particular the Vietnam War, had served to produce “a profound moral crisis, sapping worldwide faith in our own policy and our system of life, a crisis of confidence made even more grave by the covert pessimism of some of our leaders.”  It was up to the American people to reorient the United States so that it could yet again be at the center of world affairs.

However, Carter tells his audience that the world looks much different than it did following World War II—the awakening of nationalism in the former colonial states, the spread of both communism and democracy, and the dynamics of world power made the world look a lot different than it had in the past.  The new look of the world presents the United States with an opportunity that it should not pass up: “we can already see dramatic worldwide advances in the protection of the individual from the arbitrary power of the state.  For us to ignore this trend would be to lose influence and moral authority in the world.  To lead it will be to regain the moral stature we once had.”  And while the make-up of the world may be new, the moral responsibilities of Americans remain as strong and constant as ever: “It is a new world, but America should not fear it.  It is a new world, and we should help to shape it.  It is a new world that calls for a new American foreign policy—a policy based on constant decency in its values and on optimism in our historical vision.”  The United States has the moral foundation, the position of world leadership, and the strength necessary to reassert itself not only as the center of world affairs, but also as a beacon of freedom for the disenfranchised persons of the world.

Coming at the end of his speech, the final theme is that of cooperation among the nations of the world.  He tells his audience that the five step plan previously announced was only the means to an even broader end: “It’s a beginning aimed towards a clear goal: to create a wider framework of international cooperation suited to the new and rapidly changing historical circumstances.”  His plan is necessary insofar as it will lead to a greater degree of cooperation between all the nations of the world, and especially with “the newly influential countries in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.”  In addition, Carter emphasizes forming better relationships with China and the Soviet Union, as well as working “together with our European allies and with the concerned African States to shape a congenial international framework for the rapid and progressive transformation of southern African society and to help protect it from unwarranted outside influence.”  Despite his insistence on the position of the United States as the center of world affairs, Carter argues that in a world of independent nations the United States cannot go it alone—and that cooperation, not outright force, is the best way to ensure a peaceful resolution to international problems.


President Jimmy Carter’s speech at the Notre Dame commencement in May 1977 is notable for attempting to define a new departure in American foreign policy (or, to recover an old and better path).  As a relatively new president, and as one who had run on a sort of “ending business as usual” platform, Carter’s foreign policy was significant in that it attempted to differentiate itself from the foreign policies of his immediate predecessors.  Out of a belief that the United States was founded on an idea of human rights, Carter sought to reorient its focus from merely containing the Soviet Union to the promotion of human rights and democracy, guided by renewed sense of morality.  Whether or not Carter was ultimately successful in the larger sense is in the eye of the beholder – he generally receives poor marks as a foreign policy president, and eventually found himself taking a much tougher line towards the Soviet Union, especially after the invasion of Afghanistan.  But at the very least we can say that Carter’s was a classic expression of American idealism, and presidents since Carter ignore the issue of human rights at their peril.


To read the text of Carter’s speech, see

For further reading on Carter himself, his administration, his foreign policy, and human rights see:

Bourne, Peter G.  Jimmy Carter. New York: Scribner, 1997.

Brzezinski, Zbigniew.  Power and Principle.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.

Carter, Jimmy.  A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015.

Carter, Jimmy.  Keeping Faith.  Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1995.

Carter, Jimmy.  White House Diary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.

Hargrove, Erwin C.  Jimmy Carter as President: Leadership and Politics of the Public Good.  Baton Rouge:

Louisiana State University Press, 1988.

Maga, Timothy P.  The World of Jimmy Carter: U.S. Foreign Policy, 1977-1981. West Haven: University of

New Haven Press, 1994.

Muravchik, Joshua.  The Uncertain Crusade. Lanham: Hamilton Press, 1986.

Stuckey, Mary E.  Jimmy Carter, Human Rights, and the National Agenda.  College Station: Texas A&M

University Press, 2008.

Vance, Cyrus.  Hard Choices. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.