Tales from the Beltway: Adventures with Carter, Part II

A “prequel” to the last post. This anecdote was relayed to me during a personal conversation I had with someone who worked at the Department of Commerce during the 1970s and 80s.

In 1979 the United States concluded a grain agreement with the Soviet Union; the US was contractually obligated to supply the USSR with eight million tons of grain (or bushels…I can’t remember which) and another 20 million tons were to be sold on a discretionary basis. Not long after the agreement, however, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. President Carter was understandably incensed by this so he summoned his cabinet and relevant officials of the Department of Commerce – which was responsible for supervising the transaction – to the White House. There was nothing Carter could do about the eight million tons that were under contract, so he canceled the sale of the discretionary grain. But at that point in the process it was seemingly impossible to interrupt the transaction; the grain was already scattered across the country, preparing to ship from dozens of different ports. There was simply no way that the sale could be called off in the time that was available. Carter was told as much at the meeting; he replied that he was aware of that fact, but he didn’t care. He expected the Department of Commerce to try and fail, whereupon he would terminate the relevant persons.

One of the Commerce people asked to speak: “Excuse me, sir, but do I understand you correctly? You are deliberately setting us up to fail?”
“Not only that, but I’m going to assign someone to each of your offices, so I’ll know the exact moment when to fire you.”

This story was told to me as an example of how, despite the mild-mannered public persona that he cultivated, Carter ruled the Executive as a domineering egomaniac. But I do not think this incident in particular can be held against him; my conversation partner proudly recalled that they managed to account for all the discretionary grain save for a single bushel, and, as far as I know, none of them were fired. President Carter managed to effectively motivate his subordinates to accomplish a very difficult task within a short time frame.

But who would have thought that President Carter, of all people, was so willing to use food as a foreign policy weapon?