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In the mid-1970s, the Cold War had frozen into a nuclear stalemate in Europe and retreated from the headlines in Asia. As Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter fought for the presidency in late 1976, the superpower struggle overseas seemed to take a backseat to more contentious domestic issues of race relations and rising unemployment. There was one continent, however, where the Cold War was on the point of flaring hot: Africa.

Jimmy Carter in Africa opens just after Henry Kissinger’s failed 1975 plot in Angola, and as Carter launches his presidential campaign. The Civil Rights Act was only a decade old, and issues of racial justice remained hotly debated. Racism at home undermined Americans’ efforts to “win hearts and minds” abroad and provided potent propaganda to the Kremlin. As President Carter confronted Africa, the essence of American foreign policy—stopping Soviet expansion—slammed up against the most explosive and raw aspect of American domestic politics—racism.

Drawing on candid interviews with Carter, as well as key US and foreign diplomats, and on a dazzling array of international archival sources, Nancy Mitchell offers a timely reevaluation of the Carter administration and of the man himself in the face of two major tests, in Rhodesia and the Horn. In both he grappled with questions of Cold War competition, domestic politics, personal loyalty, and decision-making style. Mitchell reveals an administration not beset by weakness and indecision, as is too commonly assumed, but rather constrained by Cold War dynamics and by the president’s own temperament as he wrestled with a divided public and his own human failings. Jimmy Carter in Africa presents a stark portrait of how deeply Cold War politics and racial justice were intertwined.

Nancy Mitchell is professor of history at North Carolina State University. She is the author of The Danger of Dreams: German and American Imperialism in Latin America (University of North Carolina Press, 1999) and the chapter on Jimmy Carter in the Cambridge History of the Cold War (Cambridge University Press, 2012). She is currently working on an analysis of the meaning of détente in the 1970s.