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?


Tales from the Beltway: Adventures with Carter, Part I

The graduate program I attended often receives current and former government officials as guest speakers. Nearly all of them had some very amusing off-the-record stories to tell. This post is the first of a short series that will recount some of the memorable ones. For obvious reasons I will not be mentioning any names.

Our first story deals with the 39th President of the United States, Jimmy Carter, a man who is regarded in defense and national security circles to be the actual physical embodiment of naive stupidity itself. It was shared by a retired Foreign Service Officer who is often consulted by the media as an expert in diplomacy and international relations.

In 1994 the U.S. almost went to war with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program. But lo, just as the curtain was about to fall and the world Fade to Black, stepped forth Jimmy Carter, Savior of Humanity, who valiantly offered to go to Pyongyang and negotiate personally with the Great Leader. The Clinton administration assigned a State Department official to accompany him. When Carter learned of this he was infuriated, and upon meeting his companion angrily demanded something to the effect of “Who do you work for? Me or the State Department?” The official very carefully replied that he was a serving FSO and was thus oath-bound to obey orders, etc. etc. In other words, he still worked for the State Department. Carter’s reply? “Wrong answer. This is my mission. You work for me.

The result of Carter’s visit was the Agreed Framework, a policy which – from the very beginning – failed to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear program. But the real story occurred at Carter’s debriefing in Japan. As soon as the meeting began, the former President began complaining about the CIA. “The CIA told me that North Korea is desperately poor; they’re not poor at all. In fact, they took me to a store that was full of fine goods and there were all sorts of people shopping there. [so-and-so, his handler] thought it was a set-up, but I don’t think so.”

He also emphasized that, during the course of their negotiations, Kim Il-sung mentioned that he intended to remain alive – and in power – for another ten years or so. Carter considered this to be a very significant revelation, and he demanded that his debriefers make note of this. In fact, Kim Il-sung was being embalmed at that very moment.

And so originated the policy that governed U.S. relations with North Korea for eight years.