Jimmy Carter, 39th US President

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | February 27, 2023

February 27, 2023
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“There was no fighting; there was no combat. But to my deep regret, eight of the crewmen of the two aircraft which collided were killed.” - President Jimmy Carter, April 25, 1980.

Carter’s Letter of Condolence to Widow of a Marine Killed in the Failed Iranian Hostage Rescue

Nothing, it’s said, so became Jimmy Carter’s presidency as his leaving it. Crushed, after a single term in office by Ronald Reagan in 1980, Carter spent the next 42 years in a political diaspora infinitely more productive, and generally more popular, than his presidency. Having beaten out the equally ill-regarded one-term President Herbert Hoover in the length of his long exile from office – Carter’s 42 years to Hoover’s 31 – he also owns the record for the longest lived president, at 98 years old; the longest married, at 76 years; and, despite having won the Nobel Prize for, among other things, brokering the Camp David peace accords between Egypt and Israel, signing the SALT II arms control agreement, and normalizing diplomatic and trade relations with China, his presidency is yet seen as an abject failure. Why, mostly, comes down to grains of sand and a helicopter rotor…

The Pentagon yesterday identified the eight Air Force and Marine officers and noncommissioned officers killed in the attempted mission to rescue American hostages in Iran. It also listed three men who were injured. Those listed as presumed dead are: Marine Corps: SSgt. Dewey L. Johnson, Jacksonville, N.C., born May 26, 1948…     – Associated Press, Boston Globe, April 26, 1980              

The worst moment of Carter’s handling of the Iranian hostage crisis – which looked alternately incompetent, devious and incoherent – came when the military operation attempting to rescue the 53 captured Americans, after six months of captivity in the heart of Tehran, failed ignominiously in the Iranian desert. Most things that could go wrong, did, but the pièce de resistance came only after the ill-starred mission had already been aborted following the failure of three of the eight operation helicopters. A blast of desert sand, churned up a helicopter rotor, created an illusion of movement which caused one of the rescue helicopters to crash into a parked rescue aircraft: both were engulfed in a fireball. Lost in the April 24, 1980 mission were eight American servicemen, among whom was 32 year-old Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Dewey L. Johnson.

In this letter to Johnson’s widow, Carter expresses his, Rosalynn’s, and the nation’s condolences:

On behalf of all Americans, I extend deepest sympathy to you and your family in the loss of your husband, Dewey, who bravely undertook a humanitarian mission for our country. I know that words cannot assuage your grief, but I hope it will be of some comfort for you to know that I mourn with you and share your sorrowful burden. The noble sacrifice made by your husband, his courage and dedication, command the highest respect and gratitude of us all. Rosalynn joins me in assuring you of our prayers for your strength at this difficult time.

The hapless and bungled mission which cost Johnson his life also cost Carter: his presidency was lost, right then and there. 

Ronald Reagan defeated Carter six months later, and the hostages were released – just minutes, in fact, before Reagan took of Oath of Office on January 20, 1981.

Carter had, however, yet another reason to lose office after one term – and it was huge. Inflation, under his administration, grew out of control. Interest rates rose to alpine levels: in the summer of 1981, the commercial prime rate reached over 20%. Unemployment likewise grew apace, to over 10%. If, as common wisdom has it, people vote their pocketbooks, Reagan’s 1980 campaign message was clarion clear. “Recession” he said, “is when your neighbor loses his job. Depression is when you lose yours. And recovery is when Jimmy Carter loses his.” Reagan was right. During his two terms, Reagan led an economic turnaround so successful they are remembered as the “go-go years.” His accomplishments, unlike Carter’s, are revered.

Typed Letter Signed, as President, 1 page, quarto, The White House, Washington, April 26, 1980. To Mrs. Dewey L. Johnson in Jacksonville, North Carolina. With a typewritten transmittal envelope. 

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