'Jimmy Carter in Africa' profiles a Carter most Americans never knew

North Carolina State University history professor Nancy Mitchell rewrites the narrative on the Carter years, insisting that the president was 'a Cold Warrior from day one.'

Jimmy Carter in Africa: Race and the Cold War By Nancy Mitchell Stanford University Press 880

The single term of Jimmy Carter's presidency, from 1977 to 1981, has typically been summarized by its failures: so-called “stagflation,” national malaise, the Iran hostage crisis, the 1979 energy crisis. Carter himself usually fares no better as a leader, usually characterized as something of a political naif caught between the conciliatory viewpoint of his secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, and the “hawkish” tendencies of his national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski. Even the sharpest historians are often content with this kind of reduction; it's retailed, for instance, by Nigel Hamilton in his excellent book "American Caesars," in which he goes on to describe Carter as “constitutionally unable ever to admit error, then or later.”

North Carolina State University history professor Nancy Mitchell, in her magisterial new book Jimmy Carter in Africa: Race and the Cold War, aims to overturn such easy verdicts. This is the latest entry in  Stanford's Cold War International History Project series from the Wilson Center, a series that's included such standout books as Ilya Gaiduk's "Divided Together" and Sergo Mikoyan's "The Soviet Cuban Missile Crisis." The series aims to add lots of detail and much-needed revisionist zeal to seemingly settled aspects of the 50-year Cold War that did so much to shape the present world.

It's not a conflict most readers might reflexively associate with President Carter, whose term often feels like a lull between the realpolitik crimes of President Nixon and Henry Kissinger and the High Noon showdown atmosphere of the era of President Reagan. And yet, as Mitchell insists right from the beginning of her book, the narrative that Carter “entered the Oval Office a naive and idealistic crusader for human rights and departed a hardened Cold Warrior” requires discrediting. On the contrary, she maintains, “He was a Cold Warrior from day one.”

In 1977 war and unrest were broiling in Africa, and these hot-spots – war between Ethiopia and the Somali Democratic Republic in the Horn of Africa, and civil war in the country that was then known as Rhodesia – form the concentration of Mitchell's book, and she firmly positions them as part of the larger conflict: “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,” she writes. “Africa was where the superpowers shadow-boxed.” Thousands of Cuban troops had been shipped to Ethiopia to join the Soviet troops already there, and Carter entered his office knowing perfectly well he was inheriting a tangle of confusion in Africa from the detente fumbling of Nixon and Kissinger.

Mitchell takes her readers into an intensely detailed (she calls it “granular”) study of Carter's involvement in both those African crises, and an equally nuanced look at the growing resistance Carter faced from such powerful figures as Senators Jesse Helms and Orrin Hatch, who spearheaded a Congressional effort “restore the balance that members of Congress believed had existed before the rise of the 'imperial presidency.'”

“Imperial” is a word that will occur to Mitchell's readers more than once in the course of this fantastic book. Perhaps inadvertently (she's interviewed Carter and is clearly sympathetic to him), she very much succeeds in underscoring the oddly distant and mandarin managerial style Carter brought to his presidency. “One would have to go back to FDR to find a president who took on himself so much of the decision-making,” Henry Kissinger wrote about Carter, and that impression is everywhere in "Jimmy Carter in Africa." Foreign Secretary David Owen is quoted as saying he'd “rarely seen a politician so tough as President Carter,” and he's certainly not alone in that estimate.

Far from being a hapless newcomer caught between the clashing rocks of Vance and Brzezinski, the President Carter we mostly get in these pages is an opaque and controlling martinet, prone to an unguessable combination of bloodless theorizing and impulsive moralizing. Mitchell adds enormous amounts of intelligently-chosen details, but she can't do much to budge these impressions. Indeed, as Mitchell writes, “He believed in forgiveness but was unforgiving.… He embraced the cause of human rights but exuded little human warmth.… He sought the acclaim of the crowd but was above all a solitary man.”

Contemporary onlookers usually didn't quite know what to make of that solitary man; they tended either to denigrate or to underestimate him. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979, for instance, an editorial in the Rhodesian Herald wrote “Let us hope that the Iron Lady will be able to put some steel into the souls of Western politicians in general and President Carter in particular.” And yet Mitchell's Carter has no shortage of steel in his makeup – it's a sign of the book's subtle artistry that there's so much more to this portrait of the man. "Jimmy Carter in Africa" may not be a summary vindication of a presidency that's rightly criticized as something of a muddle, but it's by a wide margin the best book about that presidency that's yet appeared.

It doesn't have many unequivocal triumphs to report; Jimmy Carter furthered detente in southern Africa and did his best to tamp down the chaos erupting there on his watch, but his real achievements on the continent would wait until he was out of office.

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