Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Jimmy Carter in Africa' Profiles a Carter Most Americans Never Knew

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

'Jimmy Carter in Africa' Profiles a Carter Most Americans Never Knew

Article excerpt

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. …

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