The Carter Doctrine | January 23, 1980
In his annual State of the Union address to Congress on January 23, 1980, an unsmiling Jimmy Carter outlined his administration’s response to the collapse of the US position in the Persian Gulf region resulting from the twin shocks of the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Most significantly, he enunciated a new strategic doctrine that became known as the “Carter Doctrine,” which declared the Persian Gulf an area of vital interest and committed the United States to its security. Carter stated that any attempt by an outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf would be considered an assault on the vital interests of the US and repelled by “any means necessary, including military force.” The purpose of the Carter Doctrine was to make the US position “absolutely clear” and make public the commitment to deter the Soviet Union from seeking hegemony in the vulnerable Persian Gulf, which contained “more than two-thirds of the world’s exportable oil.” The speech served both as a warning to Moscow as well as a reassurance to allies of the American resolve. It also prepared the American public for the commitment necessary for the implementation of the new policy through 1980.
1979 proved a difficult year for the Carter administration. In mid-January, the longtime US ally the shah of Iran departed Tehran amid violent protests and revolution. Two weeks later the Ayatollah Khomeini returned from exile to head a new Islamic Republic. Along with the loss of important military and intelligence facilities, the Iranian Revolution resulted in the collapse of the longstanding US strategy that had tasked Iran and Saudi Arabia with upholding regional stability. Furthermore, American policymakers feared the ensuing political chaos opened the country up to potential Soviet infiltration. The situation deteriorated further in November when Islamic militants stormed the US embassy in Tehran and seized more than fifty Americans, who were held hostage for the next 444 days. Just over a month later Moscow began airlifting troops into neighboring Afghanistan to bolster a faltering communist regime. On December 27, Soviet special forces assassinated Afghan President Hafizullah Amin and installed a puppet government under Babrak Karmal. The twin shocks of Iran and Afghanistan, along with the growing Soviet influence in Ethiopia and Yemen, seemed to demonstrate the inexorable decline of American power in Southwest Asia. It also underlined the ineffectiveness of the Carter administration in countering Soviet advances, which resulted in aggressive criticism of Carter’s apparent weakness in dealing with Moscow.
Carter’s 32-minute speech heralded a dramatic shift in foreign policy direction, away from the idealistic promotion of human rights and cooperation with Moscow towards a more traditional policy of containment. Alarmist in tone, Carter outlined the implications of the Soviet invasion as posing “a more serious threat to the peace since the Second World War” as it potentially affected “the free movement of Middle East oil” on which the West relied. Carter adopted a more hawkish position by embracing the viewpoint that to fail to stand up sufficiently to Moscow’s aggressive expansionism would only invite future problems. He chose his annual address to publicly and clearly “draw the line,” modeling the speech on the Truman Doctrine. The policy shift represented a victory for hardliners (particularly National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski) over others that favored cooperation over confrontation (such as Secretary of State Cyrus Vance). The choice of the nationally televised speech as a means of delivery underscored the importance Carter attached to the issue, while also serving as an unambiguous public warning to Moscow.
Carter’s speech was generally well received and was punctuated by applause from both sides of the aisle in Congress. Carter scored points for taking a strong stand and setting forth a clear coherent strategy. In his diary he noted the speech was “better received than any I’ve ever made,” and singled out the commitment to the security of the Persian Gulf as “the most significant single thing in the speech.” Indeed, it is significant as this was the first public expression of Washington’s unequivocal commitment to the security of the Persian Gulf region and the containment of the spread of Soviet influence there. It also represented the first time a US president had identified the region as a distinct theater of the Cold War (along with Europe and East Asia) and central to US foreign policy.
Despite the general support, there were criticisms that the policy was “hastily improvised” and “devoid of content,” with Carter simply posturing for political purposes as the 1980 election approached. Carter, however, utilized the support garnered to implement a radical transformation of US defense posture in Southwest Asia over the following months. The largest increases in defense spending since the 1950s and the signing of bilateral agreements allowing for US military bases in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Somalia, and Kenya, augmented Washington’s ability to project its military power. The reintroduction of draft registration, and the creation of the Rapid Deployment Force bolstered combat readiness. By the end of 1980 the RDF consisted of 100,000 mobile troops ready for deployment, and over the following decade would expand into US Central Command (CENTCOM) and become the basis of operations during the Gulf War and the post-9/11 invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The development of a “cooperative security framework” for South Asia resulted in better relations with regional powers in the containment of Soviet influence. Until 1980, the US was completely unprepared to undertake major military operations in Southwest Asia, but Carter reversed the trend of receding American military power, provided a credible deterrent to Moscow, and laid the groundwork for his two Republican successors.
In the end, Carter’s harder stance could not overcome public dissatisfaction with his administration—especially the inability to secure the release of the hostages. Ronald Reagan capitalized on these frustrations to defeat Carter in November’s election. While the Carter Doctrine had few tangible gains in 1980—the hostages remained in captivity, and Soviet troops continued to occupy Afghanistan—it had a transformative effect that continued to shape US national security policy for the remainder of the Cold War and into the present day.
A transcript of Carter’s entire speech is available online at the American Presidency Project.
Brzezinski, Zbigniew. Power and Principle: Memoirs of the National Security Adviser, 1977-1981. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983.
Carter, Jimmy. White House Diary. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.
Kaufman, Scott. Plans Unraveled: The Foreign Policy of the Carter Administration. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2008.
Njølstad, Olav. “Shifting Priorities: The Persian Gulf in US Strategic Planning in the Carter Years.” Cold War History 4, no. 3 (April 2004): 21-55.