The following is excerpted from the 2015 National History Day (NHD) Theme Book article “From Camp David to the Carter Center: Leadership and Legacy in the Life of America’s 39th President,” by Kahlil Chism, education specialist at the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum. The full article, primary sources, and suggested teaching activities can be downloaded from the NHD website.
In September 1978, President Jimmy Carter accomplished one of the most momentous feats of U.S. foreign policy ever attempted—brokering peace between two Middle Eastern countries that had been at war for nearly 30 years. While American presidents from Harry Truman through Richard Nixon had faced Mid-East region crises while in office, President Carter was the first to make an effort at establishing a preemptive peace between two of that region’s major powers.
Menahem Begin, Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat meet during the Camp David Summit., 9/7/1978, From the Carter White House Photographs Collection, Jimmy Carter Library, National Archives Identifier 181106.
Carter put his political reputation on the line by inviting Mohammed Anwar al Sadat, president of the Arab Republic of Egypt, and Prime Minister of the State of Israel Menachem Begin to come to Camp David for a face-to-face summit. The result of that summit was the Camp David Accords, which were signed on September 17, 1978.
[In 1978], the Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded—a first in the 80-year history of the prize—to Sadat and Begin. And in 2002 Jimmy Carter also received the Nobel Peace Prize “for his decades of untiring effort to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development.”1 The Nobel Committee noted that “Carter’s mediation was a vital contribution to the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, in itself a great enough achievement to qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize.”2
It stands to reason then that in 1981, as former President Carter was preparing to chart a course for his future, the success of the Camp David summit would serve as the direct inspiration for the organization that will become his legacy, The Carter Center.
By January 1981, two decades before he was honored by the Nobel Committee, 56-year-old Carter found himself among the pantheon of America’s youngest former presidents. He spent most of that year writing his memoir, Keeping Faith, planning his presidential library, and pursuing his hobbies of woodworking and watercolors.
But it wasn’t enough. “I had the same kind of thoughts about alleviating tensions in the troubled areas of the world,” he noted in his book, “promoting human rights, enhancing environmental quality, and pursuing other goals that were important to me. These were hazy ideas at best, but they gave us something to anticipate which could be exciting and challenging during the years ahead.”3
In January 1982, the former president had an epiphany. “One night I woke up and Jimmy was sitting straight up in bed,” Mrs. Carter recalled….‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. ‘I know what we can do at the library,’ he said. ‘We can develop a place to help people who want to resolve disputes….If there had been such a place, I wouldn’t have had to take Begin and Sadat to Camp David.’”4
Carter was the first former president to start a nonprofit organization upon leaving office. The Carter Center was founded in 1982, in partnership with Emory University, to advance peace and health worldwide. A nongovernmental organization, the Center has helped to improve life for people in more than 70 countries by advancing democracy, human rights, and economic opportunity; preventing diseases; improving mental health care; teaching farmers to increase crop production; and resolving conflicts.5
Read Kahlil Chism’s full article in the 2015 NHD Theme Book. Find more NHD resources from the National Archives and the Presidential Libraries on our NHD Resources page.
1 “The Nobel Peace Prize 2002,” Nobel Prize. 2013. Accessed March 25, 2014 – http:// www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2002/
2 “The Nobel Peace Prize 2002.” – http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/ laureates/2002/press.html
3 Jimmy Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President. (New York: Bantam, 1982), 575
4 Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life. (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas, 1995).
5 “Carter Center Accomplishments,” Carter Center. 2014. Accessed March 25, 2014: http://www.cartercenter.org/about/accomplishments/index.html