President Jimmy Carter, in a speech delivered at Notre Dame University, reaffirms his commitment to human rights as a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy and disparages the “inordinate fear of communism which once led us to embrace any dictator who joined us in that fear.” Carter’s speech marked a new direction for U.S. Cold War policy, one that led to both accolades and controversy.
Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, during a time when America was still reeling from the trauma of the Vietnam War and many were questioning the very basis of U.S. foreign diplomacy. Carter promised change, and during an address at Notre Dame University on May 22, 1977, he sketched out his vision for the future of American diplomacy. He began by noting the “great recent successes” in nations such as India, Greece, and Spain in bringing about democratic governments. These successes had renewed America’s confidence in the strength of democracy and would now “free” the United States from the “inordinate fear of communism” that once led America to ally itself with brutal dictators who agreed to help fight the communist menace. What was needed in the “new world” that America faced was “a policy based on constant decency in its values and on optimism in our historical vision.” Carter then outlined the steps he was taking to strengthen this “commitment to human rights as a fundamental tenet of our foreign policy.” America’s foreign policy, he concluded, should be “rooted in our moral values, which never change.”
Carter’s commitment to the protection and advancement of human rights as the keystone to his foreign policy brought him applause from many Americans and others around the world that believed that the United States, in battling the Soviet Union, had resorted to reprehensible actions. The Vietnam War had shattered the vision of America as a protector of the weak and defender of freedom, and Carter’s accent on moral values struck a resonant chord with many disillusioned Americans. The policy also resulted in some controversy, however. When long-time dictators Anastacio Somoza of Nicaragua and the Shah of Iran fell from power in 1979, critics of Carter’s human rights policy blamed the president for the demise of two governments, which had been strong allies in the war against communism. Ronald Reagan, in his successful 1980 presidential campaign against Carter, constantly reiterated his theme that his opponent’s policies had severely weakened America in its struggle against the Soviet Union.