Jimmy Carter Promotes Human Rights | 22 May 1977
Historian Barbara Keys has called Jimmy Carter’s speech at the University of Notre Dame on May 22 1977, both “one of Carter’s major foreign policy addresses, and one of his most controversial.” Just four months into his presidency, Carter used the commencement address in South Bend, Indiana to lay out the major five tenets of his foreign policy. First, and perhaps most remembered, he affirmed his administration’s commitment to human rights, stating that “human rights [is] a fundamental tenet of our foreign policy.” He then proceeded to reassert the U.S.’s ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other democracies, as well as lay out his desire to decrease tensions with the Soviet Union, work for Middle East peace, and reduce the danger of nuclear war. These five priorities highlighted an expansive agenda that sought to invigorate a moral sensibility in foreign policy that was inextricably connected to his long-term strategy of shaping a new, wider international system that involved more countries, a greater degree of collaboration, and less reliance on Cold War bipolarity. Little did he know, this speech would serve to further split Democrats around his agenda of human rights and solidify conservative opposition to his attempts to move beyond a focus on countering Soviet style Communism.
Carter ran for the presidency in a unique, post-Vietnam War and post-Watergate moment where his lofty human rights rhetoric held particular appeal. In part due to an increasing domestic and transnational movement for human rights and in part due to his personal belief about the importance of imbuing a moral sensibility into foreign relations, Carter campaigned on the topic. He crisscrossed the United States explaining how human rights, as the foundation of his foreign policy, would restore the U.S. to a position of global leadership and strength if he was elected. After the American public did elect him in November 1976, Carter used his inaugural address to reaffirm this idea, explaining that “our commitment to human rights must be absolute.” Soon after taking office, Carter began to define what a human rights approach would look like in foreign policy and where these strategies could be most effective. The speech at Notre Dame was one of his first major attempts to outline these ideas.
Carter had received a personal invitation to make this address from Theodore Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s president. Father Hesburgh was an ardent supporter of the Notre Dame Center for Civil Rights and invited Carter to campus multiple times during the campaign, particularly as Carter suffered from weak support among Catholics. Observers saw his decision to speak there and ultimately receive his first honorary doctorate as an olive branch and appeal to the community. Carter later wrote in his diaries that he had not even known about the degree, and would have “not let them had he known ahead of time” since he had planned to only receive one from his beloved Georgia Tech. (Since then, Carter has received several dozen honorary doctorates, including from his beloved Georgia Tech in 1979).
The speech though made quite a splash. In newspapers the next day, reporters tried to interpret the “soaring rhetoric”. For example, Murrey Marder of the Washington Post asked whether the ideas he outlined could even be “workable” in the context of geopolitical concerns of the late 1970s. Politicians took an even more cynical approach. The conservative wing of the Democratic Party thought human rights should primarily be used as a weapon in the Cold War and rejected Carter’s declaration of human rights as a means to regain the U.S.’s moral stature. Republicans also criticized the speech, particularly Carter’s declaration that “we are now free of that inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear.” While Carter had sought to move the U.S. beyond Cold War strictures, many emerged to criticize what they called a dangerous naiveté.
Carter’s speech is demonstrative of his earnest attempts to implement human rights into a U.S. foreign policy framework. To Carter, human rights could be at the core of all decisions. He wanted to connect this underlying tenet to his larger policy goals, and not just narrowly focus on human rights in a separate realm. The Kissinger-Nixon foreign policy framework saw stability as their primary objective within the international system. Carter, however, believed that human rights were the key to international stability. Historian Odd Arne Westad observes that these ideas and the administration’s new policy opened a period of uncertainty in the superpower relations. After eight years of the Nixon-Kissinger approach to foreign relations, both the Soviet Union and many Third World countries did not know what to expect, and they were deeply suspicious of the motives behind Carter’s policies. At Notre Dame, Carter attempted to make clear his commitment to focus on a more moral foreign policy and lay out how he would take human rights into account.
However, the speech, and the reaction to it across the political spectrum, also served as a sign of the troubles to come in his administration. As the high ideal of human rights was brought down into the difficult terrain of policy formation and implementation, Carter faced several problems, including how to define the term, when to most effectively deploy the concept in various bilateral relations, in addition with how to deal with domestic opposition and infighting within his administration. While Carter’s speech at Notre Dame proved to be a moment of promise for an expansive new foreign policy framework, George Herring notes that while Carter “sought to escape the Cold War”, he, by the end of his administration, instead “became its captive.”
Despite these difficulties, Carter did effectively usher in human rights as a central part of U.S. foreign policy. While other presidents have had varying degrees of emphasis and concern about the issue, each subsequent administration has had to grapple with human rights questions as part of their foreign policy calculus. Even as a one term president, it is perhaps Carter’s human rights influence that is the most considerable part of his legacy that carries on today.
Carter, Jimmy. White House Diaries. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.
Keys, Barbara. Reclaiming American Virtue: The Human Rights Revolution of the 1970s. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014.
Schmitz, David F. and Vanessa Walker, “Jimmy Carter and the Foreign Policy of Human Rights: The Development of a Post-Cold War Foreign Policy.” Diplomatic History 28 no. 1 (January 2004): 113-144.
Sharnak, Debbie. “Sovereignty and Human Rights: Re-examining Carter’s Foreign Policy Towards the Third World.” Diplomacy & Statecraft (2014): 303-330.
Carter’s entire speech is available online at the Miller Center.