Under Carter, a commitment to promoting human rights became a center-piece of American foreign policy for the first time. He was influenced by the proliferation of information about global denials of human rights spread by nongovernmental agencies like Amnesty International and the International League for Human Rights. The American membership of Amnesty International, a London-based organization, grew from 6,000 to 35,000 between 1970 and 1976. Its reports marked a significant break with dominant ideas about international affairs since World War II, which had viewed the basic division in the world as between communist and noncommunist countries. Such reports, along with congressional hearings, factfinding missions, and academic studies of human rights, exposed misdeeds not only by communist countries, but also by American allies, especially the death squads of Latin American dictatorships. “Information is the core work of the movement,” Amnesty International declared. Its findings aroused widespread indignation and pressured elected officials in the United States to try to do something to promote human rights abroad.

The 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania brought a halt to the industry’s expansion.

In 1978, Carter cut off aid to the brutal military dictatorship governing Argentina, which in the name of anticommunism had launched a “dirty war” against its own citizens, kidnapping off the streets and secretly murdering an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 persons. Carter’s action was a dramatic gesture, as Argentina was one of the most important powers in Latin America and previous American administrations had turned a blind eye to human rights abuses by Cold War allies. By the end of his presidency, the phrase “human rights,” had acquired political potency. Its very vagueness was both a weakness and a strength. It was difficult to define exactly what rights should and should not be considered universally applicable, but various groups could and did unite under the umbrella of global human rights.

Carter believed that in the post-Vietnam era, American foreign policy should de-emphasize Cold War thinking. Combating poverty in the Third World, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, and promoting human rights should take priority over what he called “the inordinate fear of communism that once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear.” In one of his first acts as president, he offered an unconditional pardon to Vietnam-era draft resisters. In a 1977 address, he insisted that foreign policy could not be separated from “questions of justice, equity, and human rights.”

Carter’s emphasis on pursuing peaceful solutions to international problems and his willingness to think outside the Cold War framework yielded important results. In 1979, he brought the leaders of Egypt and Israel to the presidential retreat at Camp David and brokered a historic peace agreement between the two countries. He improved American relations with Latin America by agreeing to a treaty, ratified by the Senate in 1978, that provided for the transfer of the Panama Canal to local control by the year 2000. In 1979, he resisted calls for intervention when a popular revolution led by the left-wing Sandinista movement overthrew Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, a longtime ally of the United States.

Carter attempted to curb the murderous violence of death squads allied to the right-wing government of El Salvador, and in 1980 he suspended military aid after the murder of four American nuns by members of the country’s army. He signed the SALT II agreement with the Soviets, which reduced the number of missiles, bombers, and nuclear wan heads.

President Jimmy Carter (center), Egyptian president Anwar Sadat (left), and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin (right) celebrating the signing of the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt.

Both conservative Cold Warriors and foreign policy “realists” severely criticized Carter’s emphasis on human rights. He himself found it impossible to translate rhetoric into action. He criticized American arms sales to the rest of the world. But with thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in corporate profits at stake, he did nothing to curtail them. The United States continued its support of allies with records of serious human rights violations such as the governments of Guatemala, the Philippines, South Korea, and Iran. Indeed, the American connection with the shah of Iran, whose secret police regularly jailed and tortured political opponents, proved to be Carter’s undoing.

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