Carter served in the navy, where he worked with Admiral Hyman G. Rickover in developing the nuclear submarine program. Resigning his commission (1953) after his father's death, he ran his family's peanut farm, which he built into a prosperous business. In 1962 he was elected as a Democrat to the first of two terms in the Georgia Senate. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1966, then succeeded in 1970, replacing Lester Maddox. As governor (1971–75), Carter proclaimed that the time had come to end racial discrimination and formed alliances with such civil-rights leaders as Andrew Young. This focus on social justice, informed in part by his religious beliefs, remained a significant part of his subsequent political and postpolitical career.
Although little known outside Georgia, Carter announced that he would run for president at the end of his gubernatorial term, and through sustained and diligent campaigning won the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination. With Minnesota Senator Walter F. Mondale as his running mate, Carter defeated incumbent President Gerald R. Ford. Carter substantially increased the responsibilities of the vice president during his administration, helping to establish modern vice presidency, which historically had been an often marginal office. But Carter never established good relations with Congress and, with Republican successes in the 1978 midterm elections, his difficulties increased.
In foreign policy, Carter had some initial success. He secured congressional ratification—by a single vote after extended and rancorous debate—of his two Panama Canal treaties (1977), establishing a timetable for passing control of the canal to Panama. Then, in 1979, at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, Carter personally persuaded Anwar al-Sadat of Egypt and Menachem Begin of Israel to sign the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state (see Camp David accords).
Although he and Leonid Brezhnev signed the Salt II treaty (see disarmament, nuclear), it had uncertain chances for Senate ratification, and Carter shelved the treaty in Jan., 1980, as a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (see Afghanistan War). When the USSR refused to withdraw, Carter also initiated a trade embargo and a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympic Games. In the last year of his administration, Carter's foreign policy was overshadowed by the Iran hostage crisis, in which Iranian students invaded the U.S. embassy in Tehran, taking 55 hostages. When attempts to negotiate their release failed, Carter authorized a military rescue mission in Apr., 1980, that failed ignominiously.
Domestically, Carter had difficulties controlling inflation, which rose in each year of his administration—in part because of oil price increases after the Iranian revolution. The Federal Reserve Board's drastic remedies for curtailing inflation, undertaken under the leadership of Paul Volcker, who was appointed by Carter, led to interest rates of more than 20% by 1980. During Carter's tenure the cabinet departments of Education and Energy were established, and a general policy of government deregulation in energy and interstate transportation was pursued. Inflation and the unresolved hostage crisis put Carter in a weak position as the 1980 presidential election campaign began. He won the Democratic nomination only after a bitter challenge from Sen. Edward Kennedy. In the general election he was decisively defeated by Ronald Reagan.
Since leaving office, Carter has been active in international human-rights efforts, often as an observer of first-time free elections. He has served as an international mediator in North Korea, Haiti, Bosnia, Venezuela, and elsewhere, and has worked to focus world attention on epidemics in Africa, focusing special attention on eradicating guinea worm disease and river blindness. He made a highly publicized trip to Cuba in May, 2002, becoming the most prominent American to visit the nation since Castro came to power. The Carter Center in Atlanta, founded in 1986, became an important arena for the discussion of international affairs. Carter also has been deeply involved with Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that helps working-class people in North America and abroad build and finance new homes. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his efforts to advance peace, democracy, human rights, and economic and social development.
Jimmy Carter married Rosalynn Smith in 1946; they have four children. During his term of office Carter published Why Not the Best? (1975) and A Government as Good as Its People (1977). After it, he wrote more than 25 works of poetry and nonfiction, including The Blood of Abraham (1985); Everything to Gain (1987, written with his wife Rosalynn); Turning Point (1992); The Hornet's Nest (2003), a novel set in the South during the Revolutionary War; Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid (2006), which some criticized as one-sided and anti-Israeli; and A Call to Action (2014), a plea for women's rights.
See his memoirs, Keeping Faith (1982) and An Hour before Daylight (2001) and his White House Diary (2010); biographies by J. E. Zelizer (2010) and R. Ballmer (2014); J. Wooten, Dasher: The Roots and the Rising of Jimmy Carter (1978); E. C. Hargrove, Jimmy Carter as President (1988); P. G. Bourne, Jimmy Carter (1997); D. Brinkley, The Unfinished Presidency (1998); B. Glad, An Outsider in the White House (2009); E. S. Godbold, Jr., Jimmy & Rosalynn Carter: The Georgia Years, 1924–1974 (2010); J. B. Flippen, Jimmy Carter, the Politics of Family, and the Rise of the Religious Right (2011).
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