During his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Biden offered reassurances about the global economic impact stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, outlining a plan to release 60 million barrels of oil from strategic reserves to counter the loss of Russian petroleum. On this week’s Now & Then episode, “Defining the State of the Union,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed how the State of the Union can redefine American foreign policy, zooming in on the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, FDR’s 1941 Four Freedoms, and President George W. Bush’s 2002 “Axis of Evil.” In his final State of the Union address in January 1980, President Jimmy Carter offered another decidedly resonant doctrine: a plan to combat energy concerns in the wake of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
On June 3rd, 1979, Washington Post political commentator Jim Hoagland published an op-ed entitled “A Carter Doctrine for Mideast Oil?” Hoagland focused on conversations among Carter’s State Department higher-ups over how to address crumbling diplomatic relationships in the Persian Gulf.
Two events had pushed the Carter administration toward a new policy in the region. The long-standing oil alliance between Egypt and Saudi Arabia broke down earlier in the year over Egypt’s Camp David peace agreement with Israel. Simultaneously, anti-American Islamic fundamentalists led by the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Western-friendly Shah of Iran. Suddenly, the Egyptians, the Saudis, and the Iranians—three crucial oil producers and erstwhile allies—were all in political turmoil.
Hoagland argued that the crises marked the end of the “Nixon Doctrine,” the 1969 statement of geopolitical purpose that the U.S. government would send military aid to anti-Communists rather than becoming directly embroiled in foreign wars.
Carter was already flexing more power in the Gulf. In March 1979, Carter agreed to move the U.S.S. Constellation into the Arabian Sea in response to a brief but bloody border war between North and South Yemen. Hoagland called the show of force a “watershed that separates the old, more passive Carter policy from the still embryonic but more active Carter Doctrine for the Middle East.”
The article included an Uncle Sam caricature. The patriotic figure wore a combat helmet adorned with a map of the Persian Gulf region with the caption, “I Want Oil.”
As 1979 progressed, Hoagland’s calls for a new Middle East strategy—and a way to fight growing Russian dominance in the region—became much more pressing.
Crippling gas shortages and resultant price hikes led to nationwide strife, leading to Carter’s much-maligned July 1979 “Crisis of Confidence” speech, in which he suggested that America’s collective psychology was at blame for the strife as much as the turbulence in the Middle East.
In late August, the Carter administration revealed that Soviet troops were massing in Cuba, a sign of a resurgent U.S.S.R. more willing to directly threaten the United States.
Then, on November 4th, 1979, Iranian student militants took 53 Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, sparking a crisis that would end only with President Reagan’s inauguration.
Finally, on December 29th, 1979, 50,000 Soviet troops rolled into Kabul, Afghanistan to take control of the nation’s government in a brutal coup d’état that would ultimately stretch into a decade-long war and occupation.
In addition to the humanitarian atrocities and violations of international law that accompanied the invasion, the move also brought the Russian military to the doorstep of the Straits of Hormuz, through which flowed most of the world’s oil supplies.
Two days after the invasion—on December 31st, 1979, the final day of a tumultuous decade—Carter beamed in from the Oval Office for a multi-part nationally televised interview with ABC News’ Frank Reynolds.
“Have you changed your perceptions of the Russians in the time that you’ve been here?” Reynolds asked the President. “You started out it seemed to a great many people believing that if you expressed your good will and demonstrated it that they would reciprocate it.”
Carter pulled no punches: “My opinion of the Russians has changed more drastically in the last week than even the previous two and a half years before that. It’s only now dawning on the world the magnitude of the actions that the Soviets undertook in invading Afghanistan.”
In the succeeding days, Carter recalled the Ambassador to Russia, former IBM CEO Thomas Watson, and withdrew the long-gestating SALT II nuclear treaty, which would have limited the creation of new nuclear weapons.
Despite Carter’s tough talk and moves, however, many pundits still viewed his condemnations of the Soviets as hot air. In a scathing Washington Post op-ed on January 14th, 1980, conservative firebrand and American Spectator founder R. Emmett Tyrell Jr. wrote sarcastically about Carter’s sudden recognition of Russian intransigence: “Jimmy Carter just woke up!” Tyrell began. “The lovely arias Carter now sings obbligato to the ham-fisted Soviet burglary in Afghanistan is not unprecedented.”
Tyrell wrapped up with a call for what he saw as more forthright Democratic eminences, Washington Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson and New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Our incredible president stumbles forward—Carter, the most stupefyingly right-thinking gym instructor of all time. Whatever happened to Henry Jackson? Where the hell is Pat Moynihan?”
On the same day, William Safire, the ex-Nixon speechwriter and an architect of the Nixon Doctrine, offered an equally incredulous preemptive takedown in the New York Times of what he saw as the strategic emptiness of the emergent Carter Doctrine: “Preserve us, then, from tough-sounding ‘doctrines’ from disillusioned doves whose empty threats are not believed. What we need is a substantive position on defense and foreign policy laid out by a candidate whose views will carry weight—and whose judgment of Soviet intentions is not subject to instant change.”
Yet—as with today—direct military intervention was seemingly out of the question. Even beyond the obvious nuclear implications, a January 15th, 1980 Gallup poll found that Americans were against committing troops to Afghanistan by a 12-to-1 margin. Carter, then, was under pressure to both proclaim a tough new posture while avoiding direct escalation.
This press sniping played out as Carter hands prepared for the State of the Union address, scheduled for January 23rd, 1980. “The world is frightened and I need to send a message to them,” speechwriter Stuart Eizenstat recalled Carter telling him in the weeks leading up to the address. “I need a strong speech and to preach a sermon, so we let the Persian Gulf countries know we’ll be there if the Soviets invade, and let the devil take the hindmost.”
As late as January 19th, however, the speech was still too weak. Eizenstat wrote a memo to Carter suggesting that the prose was “mushy” and that it was “difficult to discern what the Carter doctrine or central message is in the draft.”
By the time Carter ascended the speaker’s rostrum, however, his rhetoric had become more aggressive. Carter began with an acknowledgment of the difficulties of the new decade: “The 1980’s have been born in turmoil, strife, and change.”
Before long, Carter directly addressed the Russian invasion. “Now the Soviet Union has taken a radical and an aggressive new step. It’s using its great military power against a relatively defenseless nation,” he proclaimed. Carter openly acknowledged the “grave threat” the invasion posed to the “free movement of Middle East oil”—an utterance taken without much of the stigma that would now accompany such an admission of oil-centric foreign policy.
Carter announced a flurry of new sanctions: the prohibition of Soviet fishing in U.S. coastal waters, a potential boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, and limits to imports of Soviet high-tech and agricultural goods.
The listing out of new punishments was a wind-up for the formal declaration of the Doctrine: “Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States. It will be repelled by use of any means necessary, including the use of force.”
Carter was not just speaking conceptually about military response. He had already set into motion a plan for a 100,000-soldier Rapid Deployment Force to patrol the Gulf region and to intervene in the event of a foreign oil takeover. The RDF would in 1983 morph into the U.S. Central Command and would play a large role in the Middle East-centric wars of the coming decades.
In later years, Carter would remember the stern address as his most popular. “The speech was better received than any I’ve ever made,” he wrote in the annotations of his White House Diary.
In the immediate aftermath of the speech, however, critics came out of the woodwork on Carter’s Left and Right flanks.
Republican Alaska Senator Ted Stevens gave the opposition response to Carter’s address and appeared on network news shows to suggest that the Doctrine teed up a conflict with Russia. “If the Carter Doctrine had been in effect before Afghanistan, we’d be at war with the Soviet Union right now…the Persian Gulf is the worst place in the world to meet the Russians,” he told ABC News Tonight on January 28th, five days after the address.
The same day, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, who was challenging Carter from the progressive wing in the forthcoming 1980 Democratic Party presidential primary, questioned Carter’s doom-and-gloom assessment of the Soviet invasion during a campaign speech at Georgetown University: “Is this really a graver threat than the Berlin blockade, the Korean War, the Soviet marches into Hungary and Czechoslovakia, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis or Vietnam? Exaggeration and hyperbole are the enemies of sensible foreign policy.”
Kennedy also reminded supporters that Russia had helped install a Marxist government in Afghanistan two years before the tanks rolled in. “[Afghanistan] passed behind the Iron Curtain not in 1980, but in 1978, with hardly a word of regret from the Carter administration.”
Rancor over the Doctrine would continue through the rest of Carter’s presidency, punctuated by a difficult Spring 1980. In March, Carter announced officially that there would not be an American Olympic delegation sent to Moscow, and Pakistan rejected a $400 million American military aid package that would have wedded the nation closer to the U.S. camp. In April, special forces fatally botched an attempt to rescue the hostages in Tehran.
The Doctrine, however, would continue to crop up for decades as American forces became more entrenched in the Middle East. In September 1990, for example, as tensions rose over Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s takeover of Kuwait, then-Delaware Senator Joe Biden argued on the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour that President George H.W. Bush’s moves toward direct conflict offered “a corollary to the Carter Doctrine” in which American troops would intervene not only if oil or other resources were in danger, but if any “nation within the Persian Gulf region attempted to change the equilibrium.”
Now, as President Biden continues to articulate a response to Russia’s new violation of another nation’s sovereignty, the same grandstanding and arguments over the severity of the geopolitical and economic crisis—complete with the oil element—once again engulfs our national politics.
For a sweeping look at U.S. policy in the Gulf region before and after Carter, check out military historian Michael A. Palmer’s 1999 Guardians of the Gulf A History of America’s Expanding Role in the Persian Gulf, 1883-1992. For a deeper dive into the Soviet-Afghan War, read the March 2021 Time Machine article ‘The Longer the Better’: The Elusive Search for Peace in Afghanistan.” And head to the Twitter account of author and Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.
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