Decade of Disillusionment: 1972–1980

Jimmy Carter's Presidency

Economic Problems at Home

Jimmy Carter's presidency was plagued by energy crises in the United States.
In 1973 the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) placed an embargo on oil shipments to the United States and the Netherlands to punish these nations for their support of Israel during the Yom Kippur War, a conflict between the nations of Egypt and Syria against Israel that lasted a month near the end of 1973. The chain of events precipitated the United States, a country heavily dependent on foreign oil, into an energy crisis. In 1974 the price of a barrel of oil was four times what it had been the previous year. In response, the government lowered speed limits and rationed gasoline to reduce the dependence on oil. Long lines formed at gas stations, sometimes stretching for miles. Nixon was able to negotiate an end to the embargo in 1974, but the economic effects remained. Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976. President Carter felt the dependence on foreign oil could be reduced by expanding the use of alternative forms of energy, such as nuclear power. However, the Three Mile Island accident in 1979 eroded what little support there was for nuclear energy. On July 15, 1979, three years after he was nominated to run for president, Carter gave what would be known as the "Malaise Speech." In this speech, the president advocated a limit on oil imports into the United States and the development of alternative sources of fuel.
Cars wait at a gas station in 1979. Gas lines were a common occurrence during the energy crisis of the 1970s. It was not unusual for cars to run out of gas before they could reach the pump.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-03433

International Relations

Carter faced international relations challenges in the Middle East and with the Soviet Union.
President Carter was more successful in international relations than in his management of the energy crisis. Israel had been at war with Egypt since its founding in 1948. In 1978 President Carter invited Egyptian President Anwar el-Sādāt and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to attend negotiations at Camp David, the official presidential retreat located in the state of Maryland. After 13 days of negotiation, diplomatic relations between the two countries were established. These meetings became known as the Camp David Accords. The event was significant because it was the first treaty signed between Israel and one of its Arab neighbors. The negotiations had two outcomes: the Framework for Peace in the Middle East, which involved establishing Palestinian self-rule in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and the Framework for the Conclusion of a Peace Treaty between Egypt and Israel, which was successfully implemented after Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula.
In 1978 President Carter hosted President Anwar el-Sādāt of Egypt (left) and Prime Minister Menachem Begin of Israel (right) at Camp David. Their discussions brought peace between the two countries.
Credit: Courtesy National Archives, photo no. 181086 (White House Staff Photographers Collection, 1/20/1977 - 1/20/1981)
The Cold War, a period of escalating tension between the United States and Russia, was in full swing in the mid-1970s. Proliferation of nuclear weapons was a concern across the globe. In 1979 Carter and Russian leader General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev met to establish guidelines and limitations on the development of nuclear weapons. The treaty was a result of the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks that took place in Vienna, Austria. It was referred to as the SALT-II agreement and was signed on June 18, 1979. It was submitted to the U.S. Senate for ratification, but when Russia invaded Afghanistan shortly after, President Carter removed the treaty from consideration early the following year.

President Carter would go on to serve only one term, due in part to the Iran Hostage Crisis, a situation in which American embassy workers were taken hostage in the country of Iran. The shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, was deposed due to his pro-Western foreign policy and his close ties to the United States. The shah fled Iran on January 16, 1979, and was replaced by Ruhollah Khomeini, a religious leader who denounced Western influence and vehemently opposed the United States. Tensions boiled over, and on February 14, 1979, Iranian militants attacked the American embassy in Tehrān, Iran's capital. U.S. relations with the new Iranian government continued to deteriorate, and later that year, on November 4, 300 or more militants broke into the compound and occupied the embassy. Sixty-six American citizens were taken hostage. Thirteen—the women and the African Americans—were released about two weeks later. Carter tried but failed to free the remaining hostages through diplomacy and an economic embargo. After nearly two years of mostly botched rescue attempts and fruitless negotiations—the only exception being the evacuation of six American diplomats in January 1980 thanks to CIA operative Tony Mendez and help from the Canadian government—an agreement was reached between the United States and Iran. The American hostages were finally released on January 20, 1981—just minutes after President Ronald Reagan's inauguration.