Jimmy Carter: Stirring up a hornet's nest, the president turned peacemaker: 'There was no need for that war'

The Monday Interview: Former President of the United States

By Andrew Buncombe in Atlanta

22 March 2004


Jimmy Carter seems destined to be known as America's most successful former president.

Mocked for his haplessness while in office and panned by his critics as he fought and failed to be re-elected, he transformed himself into one of the world's most effective statesmen: a mediator in conflicts and a spreader of democratic ideals around the globe. His work after departing office has even earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.

Now, almost a quarter century after leaving the White House, he has become the first US president to write a novel.

The Hornet's Nest is a thick tome into which is packed - sometimes too densely - seven years of research about the War of Independence. It was this war, concluding with the surrender of the British forces under General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, on 19 October 1781, that severed America's colonial ties. Carter believes the war is widely misunderstood and yet is perhaps America's most important conflict.

"I had wanted to write a book of fiction for a long time. I had written other books before" he said. "Just as a matter of challenge I went back to college. I got professors to give me detailed reading assignments on creative writing. My ancestors had been involved in the Revolution and because there are few books like mine, I wanted to do that. As I started studying about the revolution I discovered that almost all the reading assignments and textbooks distort what happened. It is almost all from a north east point of view but nothing about the basic thrust of the war which was in the South."

Carter, a Southerner, believes this brutal war against the British, forged America's character. "It shaped our nation, shaped the concept of our republic" he said. "It exposed the brilliant ideas - at least from an American point of view - of people like George Washington, [Benjamin] Franklin and [Thomas] Jefferson and others, who conceived what this country is. This is a war that shaped the basic consciousness and character of our nation."

Much of the consciousness and character of James Earl Carter was shaped in the working traditions of the American South where his father was a peanut farmer in Plains, Georgia, and his mother, Lillian Gordy, a nurse and activist who joined the Peace Corps at the age of 68 and spent two years tending the sick in India.

After the death of his father, Carter left the navy, where he was a submariner, to take over the family farm. The other overwhelming influence in Carter's life has been his faith. A born-again Southern Baptist, he would preach in church even while in the White House and he still takes time to teach at the Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains. This, aligned with his seemingly genuine belief that his life's task is to do good, has been the cornerstone of the Carter Centre, a charitable trust he established after he left office with the aim of "Waging Peace, Fighting Disease and Building Hope".

It is with this sense of mission in mind that Carter, now 79 and with the perspective of someone in his later years, believes the topic of The Hornet's Nest - that brutal, bloody war in which it was rare for either side to take prisoners - can have important lessons for America more than 200 years later.

"I didn't think about it much when I was doing the writing but in retrospect I can see it," he said. "It shows us that the US should not act unilaterally. Had we acted unilaterally and not gone out recruiting - through the efforts of Benjamin Franklin and others - a relationship with the French, we would not have prevailed. The British would have defeated us." Is that a lesson for today? "I think so. Most wars, [though] certainly not all, could have been avoided.

"There was no reason for us to become involved in Iraq last year. That was a war based on lies and misinterpretations from London and Washington, claiming falsely that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11, claiming falsely that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

"President Bush and Prime Minister Blair probably knew that many of the allegations were based on uncertain intelligence and a decision was made to go to war [and then people said] 'lets find a reason to do so'.

"Bush Jnr was inclined to finish a war ... that his father had precipitated against Iraq. And his coterie of influential advisers, including [Vice-President Dick] Cheney and [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld and [National Security Adviser] Condoleezza Rice and [Pentagon Adviser] Richard Perle and [Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz and others had long ago expressed publicly through their writings and statements a belief that we should overthrow Saddam's regime.

"That commitment of Bush prevailed over the better judgement of Tony Blair, [who] became an enthusiastic supporter of the Bush policy."

Carter is the only modern US President not to have officially sent forces into combat, with the exception of the failed mission in 1980 to try to rescue American hostages in Iran. Yet another lesson from The Hornet's War, he suggested, was for those who ordered troops into battle to remember the horrors of warfare.

"One premise of my life in public service is that we should use the tremendous power and prestige and military status and economic influence to pursue the interests of our country but pursuing them wherever possible through peaceful means, and not to resort to wars.

"Another lesson learnt in this war is about the horror and brutality of war and that people tend to degenerate [from] their natural inclination towards benevolence and kindness and understanding and flexibility, away from all of that into an intense hatred. We dehumanise our adversaries so there is no compunction against death or even sometimes murder."

Some critics of Carter have pointed to a certain saintliness that he projects, particularly in public. He is a little too earnest perhaps, a little too worthy. The leaflets in the foyer of the Carter Centre, situated in a 35 acre oasis of flowering shrubs and trees, just a mile from the centre of Atlanta, detail projects such as fighting guinea worm in Africa to preventing river blindness in Guatemala.

But in person, it is hard not to like him. He is courteous, charming and impeccably dressed. His eyes sparkle when he talks of a topic in which he is interested. He emanates decency, friendliness and a sense of old-fashioned liberalism.

It was this sense of decency that served the former Governor of Georgia so well when he ran for the presidency in 1976, surging to victory over the incumbent, former Vice-President Gerald Ford, who was unable to shift the stench of the Watergate scandal created by his former boss, Richard Nixon. From his inauguration in January 1977, Carter promised to herald a new era. But in office, his decency was not enough to overcome a lack of political skill and experience. Though he brokered the 1978 Camp David Agreement which led to the peace between Israel and Egypt, his desire to micro-manage issues and a failure to delegate led him into many problems. By 1980, his presidency had long been foundering.

Leaving office appeared to give Carter an unprecedented freedom. The Carter Centre has been involved in projects in 65 countries, among them Haiti, where Carter intervened in 1994 to encourage the US to restore the ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. "We were euphoric when he was elected [in 1990]. He was an ideological 36-year-old Catholic priest, deeply committed to the poor. He turned out to be an absolute disaster in office".

Carter's organisation would like to go back to Haiti, if possible, to oversee new elections. Of Aristide's second ouster, last month, he said: "The US gave Aristide an offer he could not refuse.He would have preferred to stay in Haiti but, as you probably know, the US ambassador announced in advance that Aristide would either leave in a Gulfstream aeroplane or a body bag."

Prospects such as a return to Haiti appear to excite and energise Carter and there is little sense of him slowing down. In addition to writing the novel, he painted a scene in oils that was used for its cover.

He is also more than aware that this is a presidential election year and he conceded, though politely, that he was keen to see the incumbent replaced. "If the Democrats feel that I will be helpful then I will go to the party's convention in Boston," he said. "I am eager to see the Democrats prevail in November and I will do whatever I can to help, though one of the characteristics of the Carter Centre, which is my life's investment, is to remain bipartisan in nature".

He is also keen to write another novel.The Hornet's Nest is at times rather turgid, a problem created by the amount of historical detail overwhelming the plot. And critics have been rather mixed in their views: all expressing admiration and enthusiasm that Carter wrote it, but not exactly enthusiastic about what he produced.

But for the former president, the opinions of critics are unlikely to matter much. "I have already been thinking about a sequel," he smiled. "A lot of interesting things happened in the region where I live that need to be reported."

The CV

Born: 1 October 1924

Marital status: Married to Eleanor Rosalynn Smith, four children

Education: Georgia Southwestern College, the Georgia Institute of Technology, United States Naval Academy

1946:Naval officer

1953: Takes over family business

1962: Elected to the Georgia Senate

1971: Becomes Georgia's 76th governor

1976: Elected 39th US President

2002: Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize