Outspoken iconoclast, Andrew Young, brought a new worldview to the Carter presidency.
“A lot of times I think back about mistakes that I made as president, the things I would have done differently,” Jimmy Carter said, sitting opposite me in his modest living room in Atlanta, at the Carter Center. He mentioned the first mistake with a wry smile. “Frivolously, I would say—one more helicopter for the Iran rescue mission. Which is where I generally stop.”
But this time the president went further. After a pause, he added, “The other thing that I did that doesn't cause me to be proud was letting Cy Vance force me in effect to fire Andy Young after he had met with the PLO.... I wish I hadn't done it. But Cy Vance threw down his gauntlet and said, in effect, it was Andy or him.... I wish I had let Cy resign.”
Why was firing Andrew Young one of Jimmy Carter's main regrets?
A leader in the Civil Rights Movement, Young had been appointed by Carter as the US ambassador to the United Nations in 1977. But Young was much more than a diplomat and Carter's point man in Africa. He was the outlier, the iconoclast. In an administration that embodied the traditional view of the Cold War, Young expressed, again and again, an alternate view of reality.
In an administration that embodied the traditional view of the Cold War, Young expressed, again and again, an alternate view of reality.
Young got into hot water almost immediately. In an interview with Dan Rather on January 31, 1977, he said: “There's a sense in which the Cubans bring a certain stability and order—to Angola, for instance.” He went on to explain that, for him, communism was not the worst enemy. Young had been at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s side when the FBI had tried to discredit him as a communist. Young told Rather, “Most colored peoples of the world are not afraid of communism. Maybe that's wrong but communism has never been a threat to me. I have no love for communism. I could never be a communist. I could never support that system of government. But—it's never been a threat. Racism has always been a threat—and that has been the enemy of all of my life.”
Young made, as Newsweek acknowledged, “good copy.” He followed up on his comment that the Cubans were a stabilizing force in Angola with a torrent of headline grabbers that sold newspapers, led to hasty clarifications, and gave fodder to his critics in Congress. His indiscretions appeared to be haphazard, but in fact they returned again and again to two interrelated themes: the centrality of racism in world affairs and the dangers of interpreting all events through an anti-communist lens. By talking openly about the continuing salience of racism in the United States and abroad and by downplaying the communist threat, Young challenged the underlying principles of US cold war strategy. He drew fire.
On race, Young mused to the Washington Post that if the United States ever backed the South African government militarily, “You'd have civil war at home. Maybe I ought not to say that but I really believe it. An armed forces that is 30 percent black isn't going to fight on the side of the South Africans.” He opined in an interview on BBC television that the British “had been a little chicken” about racial questions at home and that he sometimes thought they “had invented racism.” Talking to the press corps traveling with him on a tour of southern Africa, he observed, “It's impossible not to be a racist if you talk of racism as ethnocentricity. ... Nobody is immune,” he mused. “The worst racists in the world are the Russians.” Then he added: “The Swedes are terrible racists.... They have an ideology which makes them very humanitarian and liberal, but when the crunch comes, the black in Sweden is treated just like the black in Queens.” In an interview in Playboy, Young said, baldly, “Nixon and Ford ... were, in fact, racists.”
By talking openly about the continuing salience of racism in the United States and abroad and by downplaying the communist threat, Young challenged the underlying principles of US Cold War strategy.
On communism, Young declared to the Los Angeles Times—in the midst of the first Shaba crisis, when rebels based in Angola (where the Cuban troops were located) invaded Zaire, threatening the regime of America's ally, Mobutu Sese Seko—“Don't get paranoid about a few communists, even a few thousand communists. Americans shouldn't be afraid of communists.” He explained his reasoning: “We do almost everything so much better than they [the communists] do that the sooner the fighting stops and the trading starts, the quicker we win.” He added, “I think we pandered to a certain paranoia, and it offends me, really.... One of the things that I'm concerned about is that we get past the Cold War. I want us to assess the situation and act on that and not with some knee-jerk reaction.” Summing up, he declared: “We ought to have a rational, analytical response to the Russians and the Cubans in Africa, and not respond emotionally.” In an interview in US News & World Report he put his finger on the great divide: “If one tends to see all this as a great Soviet design, and lapses back into the domino theory, then there may be some cause for concern. But we should have learned the weakness of the domino theory in Southeast Asia.”
Time magazine took to calling Young “motor mouth.” The House minority whip, Illinois Republican, Robert Michel, exclaimed, “This is the kind of blundering that can lead to war.” Others questioned the repercussions of Young's own blackness: “Presumably he [Carter] understood that when you start admitting blacks as blacks to the councils of foreign policy,” Washington Post columnist Stephen Rosenfeld wrote, “you introduce a set of foreign policy priorities that have not been in the white mainstream, even the liberal white mainstream.... There is an evident gap between the priorities of many American blacks and Africanists on the one hand, and the premises of many American whites and foreign policy planners on the other.”
Carter admitted that, “Andy would make statements that caused me a lot of concern.” But for three years, the president stood by his man. There were four reasons.
First, talent. Young was an effective ambassador at the United Nations and in the developing world.
Second, religion. Faith bridged Carter's and Young's worlds; it was the glue that tied them to each other. Young explained to me, “He and I always related to each other as Christians.... Undergirding and wrapping all these things up was the one thing that Jimmy Carter and I shared is that we are both religiously motivated.”
Third, race. Carter had observed the civil rights struggle from the wings, and he had reaped the benefits. After he won the election, he announced: “I would not be here as President had it not been for the Civil Rights Act and for the courage of some leaders—and I don’t claim to be one of them—who changed those bad aspects of the South to the present greatness of the South.” Nevertheless, as president, Carter's fiscal conservatism disappointed African Americans. Young, therefore, was important politically—and in terms of Carter's own sense of himself.
Finally, Young's perspective on the Cold War—which was, in American political terms, a radical perspective—stretched Carter. Young expressed an aspect of the president—his rebellious side—that Carter himself rarely allowed to show.
Carter is a complex, enigmatic man, and as president his view of the Cold War was hard to categorize—this was one of his significant failures as a politician. Fundamentally, Carter was a committed Cold Warrior: he wanted—and expected—the United States to triumph over the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, Carter governed in the shadow of Vietnam; he, and all his foreign policy advisers, sought to draw lessons from that failure. One lesson was to pay serious attention to festering problems on the periphery. This gave many the impression that Carter was not sufficiently focused on the Soviet threat. The logic of Carter's policy was counterintuitive: he would fight communism more effectively by not being so obsessed with fighting communism. Jimmy Carter was not transcending the Cold War; he was not a post-Cold War president. He was instead waging a more complex, preemptive, and diffuse cold war.
This was extraordinarily difficult. The gravitational force of a simplistic Manichaean cold war was almost irresistible by the late 1970s. It was not only rising right that cast Carter as naïve, weak, and incompetent, it was also America's most important allies—French president Giscard d'Estaing, German chancellor Schmidt, and the Saudi royal family. The Cold War had come full circle: blowback had arrived in Washington. These foreigners feared nuance in the White House.
Andy Young helped Carter resist this ferocious gravitational pull. He tugged Carter in the opposite direction. More than anyone in the administration, Young articulated a new vision of the Cold War in the mid-1970s: for Young, the Soviet threat had not disappeared, but the United States needed to grapple seriously with other threats as well, particularly those emanating from disorder and racism in the developing world. In fact, dealing with these issues was the best way to contain the Soviet Union.
Young's view of the Cold War and Carter's overlapped in important ways. Young explained that when he worked at the National Council of Churches in the late 1950s, “I learned to transcend my Southern roots and prejudices and see religion as a global force. This would get me into trouble later, because my view of the world was from the perspective of the Christian mission, putting me into conflict with the Cold War analysis being advocated by our government.” Like Young, Carter's emphasis on human rights sometimes put him at odds with the traditional “realist” view of the Cold War. Above all, Carter and Young shared similar dreams of a just and peaceful world. “Andy Young ... speaks with my full authority and my complete support,” Carter told the press. “We are completely compatible in our hopes.”