President Jimmy Carter and the Olympics Boycott of 1980

By Molly Bloom

As another set of Olympic Games comes to a close, the world is left with the usual rivalries, upsets, records, and inspiring stories that go down in history. In particular, much press before and during the 2018 Winter Olympics has focused on the Russian doping scandal and Vladimir Putin’s claims that the United States is behind the bans on Russian athletes, renewing tensions between Russia and the United States.

Many presidents and world leaders have used the athletic competition as a platform to discuss politics. Citizens rally around their athletes, resulting in a heightened sense of pride and patriotism, and the Olympics offer an international forum to discuss global relations.

newsweek1980One of the most well-known examples is President Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union’s politics. After a relatively quiet period of the Cold War, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in late 1979, and several countries condemned the action. Threats by Carter included trade embargoes and a boycott of the Summer Games if the Soviets did not remove their forces from Afghanistan. Carter was not generally considered to be skilled at international politics, and his action was seen by many as a weak attempt at asserting himself. It is worth noting that his term was ending in 1980, and he would soon be running for reelection.

In a statement on January 4th, 1980, Carter said, “Although the United States would prefer not to withdraw from the Olympic games scheduled in Moscow this summer, the Soviet Union must realize that its continued aggressive actions will endanger both the participation of athletes and the travel to Moscow by spectators who would normally wish to attend the Olympic games.” He set a deadline of one month for troops to pull out of Afghanistan, which critics interpreted as a strangely specific ultimatum.

Ronald Reagan, running for the Republican nomination, was mixed in his response to Carter’s boycott. Reagan first said that the athletes should be allowed to decide whether or not they wanted to go, that it wasn’t the government’s place to direct them one way or the other. He later agreed with Carter that the United States “should boycott the Olympic games,” drawing criticism from right wing media and his Republican rivals, notably his future Vice President George H.W. Bush, of being “wishy-washy” on the issue. Reagan later stated that “if [Carter] cannot persuade the athletes to stay away from Moscow he has only himself to blame.” Reagan, playing politics, knew how to strike Carter where it hurt—his weakness at home and abroad. 

Senator Ted Kennedy, who was running against Carter in the 1980 Democratic Primary, criticized Carter for the decision as well. Kennedy said, “I will support a boycott of the Olympics, but I want to make clear that the embargo and the boycott are basically symbols and they are not an effective substitute for foreign policy.” Carter’s competition on both sides of the aisle made the Olympic boycott a topic of debate. Both Republicans and Democrats used it as an indication of weakness in his presidency.

The tension eventually led to the largest boycott of the modern Olympic Games when the Soviets did not remove military forces from Afghanistan; sixty-five additional countries did not attend for political or economic reasons. Many U.S. allies joined the boycott, and for others, it was an indication of support for anti-Soviet sentiments.

Notably, the Winter Olympics were also held in 1980- in Lake Placid, New York. The Winter Games began in mid-February, shortly after Carter’s January speech. Athletes from the USSR participated in the Lake Placid Olympics, earning a total of 22 medals, ten of which were gold, compared to a total of twelve from the United States. The rivalry between the two countries was amplified during these Games, and the USSR came out on top in the medal count.

However, one of the most famous moments from the games was the “Miracle on Ice” miracle on icehockey match between the United States and the defending Olympic champions, the Soviet Union. The team from the United States, primarily consisting of amateur players, scored two goals in the final period to upset the Soviet team 4-3. President Carter called the locker room following the game to congratulate the team; reportedly, they even briefly discussed the differing beliefs between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The Miracle on Ice game is not only a highlight from the Lake Placid Games, but also one of the most iconic sports moments in history. It was especially significant considering the renewal of Cold War tensions and Carter’s boycott proposition, representing the conflict between the two nations and the ultimate victory of the United States.

Carter followed through with the boycott, and he additionally threatened to suspend the passports of any U.S. athletes who chose to attend the Moscow games. In turn, the U.S.S.R. initiated a boycott of the 1984 summer Olympics held in Los Angeles, as did more than a dozen additional countries.

Carter’s stance received mixed reviews. Many saw it as a commitment to overcoming the Soviet Union and the threat they posed to democracy. Much of the media and many prospective Olympians were unhappy that athletes lost the opportunity to compete. Several expressed that the best way to defeat the Soviets was to go to the Olympics and beat them in competition, similar to the victories of athletes like Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in the 1936 Nazi Olympics in Berlin.

The ancient Olympic Games in Greece saw city-states suspend fighting and come together once every four years for the Olympics. The modern Olympic Games, although intended to bring countries together through a multi-national athletic competition, have had seven boycotts and even more instances of controversy. The Olympic Truce was reestablished in the early 90s, which encourages countries to allow safe travel for athletes and spectators and promotes global cooperation. The Truce hasn’t ceased wars or eliminated international tension, but it ended the period of boycotts in four successive Summer Olympics. As the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang demonstrate, external tensions among countries persist during the Olympics, and the U.S. and Russia are still no exception.

Washington and the Myth of Wooden Teeth

By Kaleena Fraga

Today is George Washington’s 286th birthday. Name a fact–any fact about him. First president? Revolutionary War general? Something about a cherry tree? Wooden teeth?

Of the many myths surrounding Washington, the one about his teeth is among the most popular. In reality, Washington never had wooden teeth. But he did have dental problems, lots of them, requiring the use of dentures for a good chunk of his adult life. Rather than wooden teeth, however, as Ron Chernow writes in his Washington biography, Washington: A Life, most of the teeth in his dentures were likely made from walrus or elephant ivory. Chernow postulates that the myth arose from the “gradual staining of hairline fractures in the ivory that made it resemble a wood grain.” Washington also used several of his own pulled teeth in his dentures, and there’s documentation of his purchase of teeth from slaves (a grotesque, but common practice in the 18th century).

1789_GeorgeWashington_byChristianGullagerWashington found his dental problems highly embarrassing. They made his lips stick out, and made it hard for him to speak. The fake teeth often became discolored, once so much that Washington sent them to his dentist, John Greenwood for repair. Greenwood noted that they had turned black–possibly because the president drank so much port wine. That Washington felt so self-conscious about his teeth may explain his solemn look in most of his portraits.

Washington’s dental ordeals sound terrible–both painful and embarrassing, especially for someone who, as president and as a beloved public figure, was expected to entertain guests and speak publicly. His wife, Martha, also suffered from dental problems and both of them eventually wore dentures. Martha encouraged her grandchildren to invest in toothbrushes and cleansing powders to avoid the turmoil that she and her husband endured over their teeth.

By the time he became president, Washington had only one natural tooth remaining. When this tooth had to be pulled, Washington gifted it to his dentist, Greenwood. Greenwood originally drilled a hole through the tooth and tied it to his watch chain. He became worried it would break, and transferred it to a locket. On the locket is inscribed: “In New York 1790, Jn Greenwood made Pres Geo Washington a whole sett of teeth. The enclosed tooth is the last one which grew in his head.”

For those curious to see Washington’s smile in person, Mount Vernon has his dentures–the only full set in existence.

Political Second Acts: Mitt Romney, John Quincy Adams, Hubert Humphrey, and Life after Defeat

By Kaleena Fraga

Hello History First readers! In lieu of a post this Tuesday I’m delighted to direct you all to Washington Post’s Made by History section, where I had a piece published on Friday.

Check it out here here here


Theodore Roosevelt and Valentine’s Day 1884

By Kaleena Fraga

On the day after Valentine’s Day, there’s plenty of presidential material to sort through. There are the longest presidential marriages (George and Barbara Bush are the winners here, with a logged 73 years of marital life), Richard Nixon’s surprisingly poetic love letters to his wife, Pat, and Harry Truman, who says that he first fell for his wife, Bess, when he was six years old.

Among the most poignant, and certainly the most tragic, is the story of Theodore Roosevelt’s Valentine’s Day in 1884. Just twenty-five, he lost both his wife and mother on the same day, to unrelated causes. Both died young–his wife, Alice, was only twenty-two, and had just given birth to their daughter. His mother was forty-nine. Roosevelt marked the day with a simple, wrenching entry in his diary. X The light has gone out of my life.


It was unmistakably the lowest point of Roosevelt’s life. But, as Doris Kearns Goodwin remarked in her Roosevelt biography Bully Pulpit, Roosevelt believed that “frantic activity was the only way to keep sorrow at bay.”

To anyone who has studied Roosevelt’s life, this philosophy is abundantly clear. For those who haven’t, Goodwin describes Roosevelt as someone who simply couldn’t stand still–ever. Journalist Louis Brownlow wrote how Roosevelt, as president, couldn’t stop even for his midday shave. (Journalists were invited to attend, so that Roosevelt could answer questions or give more detail on his ideas). “The President would wave both arms, jump up, speak excitedly, and then drop again into the chair and grin at the barber, who would begin all over.”

When the French ambassador Jules Jusserand visited Roosevelt, dressed for a formal occasion, he was whisked away to the woods with the exuberant president. Describing the event later, Jusserand recalled that they moved at a “breakneck pace” and that when they reached a river, rather than resting, Roosevelt declared that they had better strip “as to not wet our things in the creek.”

After his tragic Valentine’s Day in 1884, Roosevelt would go on to marry his childhood sweetheart, Edith Carow, and have five more children. Roosevelt’s “frantic activity” would propel him to the vice presidency, and then the presidency. If anything, the story of his tragedy is a reminder that someone can go from the lowest of lows to the highest of highs.

Please Pose, Mr. President: A Brief History of Presidential Portraits

By Kaleena Fraga

Yesterday, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama’s portraits were unveiled for the first time. Suffice to say, they’ll stand out. Barack Obama was painted sitting with an intense look in his eyes, against a backdrop of bright green leaves and flowers. Among other presidential portraits, which have been more traditionally done, it will certainly draw the eye. Both portraits were painted by black artists, Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald–the first to do so.

The Obama portraits themselves are not the only thing that stood out about the unveiling. They were presented at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, where many presidents’ portraits are hung. This in itself isn’t unusual. But over the last couple of decades, the unveiling seems to have traditionally taken place at the White House.

In 2012, George W. Bush and Laura Bush were invited back to the White House for the bush portraitunveiling of their official portraits. Bush’s father and fellow president George H.W. Bush tagged along too. It was a light hearted occasion, with friendly barbs on both sides.

Likewise, Bill and Hillary Clinton returned to the White House for the first time in 2004 to participate in the unveiling of their official portraits, which would hang in the White House. (Clinton also attended an unveiling at the Smithsonian in 2006, for a portrait that would hang in the museum). It was during this unveiling that President Bush remarked that the portrait of Hillary Clinton, then in the U.S. Senate, would be the only portrait of a sitting senator hanging in the White House.

reagan portraitIn 1989, Ronald and Nancy Reagan were invited to the White House for the unveiling of their official portraits. Reagan remarked in his diary that there was “a feeling that [my portrait] could be better. Even the artist, Shikler feels that way & is going to make some changes.” Indeed, Reagan’s portrait was later replaced.

Controversy around a presidential portrait then, is nothing new, including from the subject himself.

Teddy Roosevelt reportedly destroyed the first version of his official portrait, tr portraitbecause he thought it made him look like a “mewing cat.” The second painter he hired, John Singer Sargent, found him to be a difficult subject. After the two had tried several different rooms on the first floor, Roosevelt accused Sargent of not knowing what he wanted as they walked up the stairs to the second. Sargent responded that Roosevelt didn’t know how to pose for a portrait. Roosevelt swung around, gripping the bannister, and said, “Don’t I?” The rest is history.

Lyndon Johnson–surprising no one–also had difficulty getting along with his portrait artist, Peter Hurd. He called Hurd’s first attempt “the ugliest thing I ever saw.” When Hurd felt he needed more time, Johnson informed him that Norman Rockwell had been able to complete a portrait of him in 20 minutes. Hurd got his revenge. He gave the first portrait, the one Johnson had hated, to the National Portrait Gallery. It was later replaced.

There has also been a fair amount of symbolism in presidential portraits. The flowers in the bush behind Obama in his portrait represent his life path–they are from cities and countries from around the world where he has lived. Artist Elaine de Kooning depicted John F. Kennedy sitting awkwardly in a chair–a quiet nod to the back problems he suffered from for most of his life. In 2015, Bill Clinton’s portrait artist Nelson Shanks admitted he’d included symbolism of Monica Lewinsky’s infamous blue dress in his painting of the former president. This portrait, according to the Smithsonian, has been “rotated out of view,” and replaced with a portrait of Clinton by artist Chuck Close.

The Obamas’ portraits are colorful, playful, and stand apart from the serious presidential portraits that most Americans are used to seeing. That the unveiling took place away from the White House seems to be a subtle nod to the rocky history between Obama and the current president, Donald Trump. Still, in other ways the portraits follow the unveiling tradition–they caused some controversy, and Barack Obama’s includes symbols of his path to the presidency. At the end of the day, both will be hung in the National Portrait Gallery, among the presidents and first ladies of days past.

American Military Parades, A History

By Kaleena Fraga

Last week, Donald Trump made some waves by professing his wish to have a military parade. While many balked at the suggestion, it’s not all together an un-American tradition. Still, past military parades have been held largely for one of two reasons: they were during/directly following a war, or they were held for the inauguration of a president.

There were several military parades in the 1940s to either support troops fighting in WWII, or to celebrate the victory. These parades could last hours–one lasted eleven hours–and would attract thousands and thousands of people. One parade in 1942 even featured an enormous bust of the current president, Franklin Roosevelt (pictured above).

1991.jpgSimilarly, two military parades were held following the United States’ victory in the Gulf War, one in Washington D.C. and one in New York City. The D.C. parade attracted 800,000 people and cost a cool twelve million dollars. Aside from the soldiers, wrote the Washington Post, the parade’s real stars were the “seven-block-long array of weaponry that helped defeat Iraq.” The subsequent New York parade, noted The Post, would make D.C.’s look like a dress rehearsal.

Other military parades have coincided with the inauguration of a new president. Both Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy made military parades a part of their inauguration festivities.

Eisenhower had military style parades at both his inaugurations. These parades presented IKE_paradeall the latest military technology as well as soldiers, bands, and floats. In 1953 they featured an 85 ton atomic cannon; in 1957 the belle of the ball was the first successful ballistic missile. For Eisenhower, who came to office not as a politician but as a war hero, this sort of display reflected both his background and the country’s stance as a new military power during the early days of the Cold War. Eisenhower’s parade was over the top in other ways as well–in addition to missiles, it reportedly featured hundreds of horses, three elephants, and an Alaskan dog team.

Eisenhower had several advisors who wanted him to throw military parades more often, like those seen in Soviet Russia. But Ike refused. According to historian Michael Beschloss , Eisenhower believed imitating the Soviets would make the United States look weak–there was no need to flaunt the fact that the country was the most powerful on earth.

John F. Kennedy, another Cold War president, likewise had a military style inauguration kennedyparadeparade, which, like Ike’s, showed off American military technology. Alongside the dozens of missiles on display, the parade also included soldiers and sailors sitting atop Navy boats, which were towed along the parade route.

In between Kennedy’s inauguration and the Gulf War Victory parades thirty years later, military type parades seem to have fallen out of fashion, including for presidential inaugurations. This may be because of the unpopularity of the Vietnam war–presidents likely did not want to draw too much attention to the military on the days they were inaugurated. Many vets returning from Vietnam found little celebration–rather, they were met with anger. When New York threw a parade for Vietnam veterans in 1985, one vet remarked that the parade was “ten years too late,” and that when he came home originally, “people booed.”

Whether or not Trump’s military parade will happen has yet to be seen. If it does, it will be somewhat of an outlier, as the United States is not celebrating a military victory, attempting to strum up support for its current wars, or marking the inauguration of a new president.

Happy Birthday Mr. President: The Ronald Reagan Edition

By Kaleena Fraga

Today, February 6th, 2018, would have been the Gipper’s 107th birthday. In celebration, here are ten of History First’s favorite Reagan facts:

  1. Reagan earned his nickname “the Gipper” from his time as an actor in Hollywood. In the film Knute Rockne: All American, Reagan played a football player named George Gipp who, upon becoming ill, urges his teammates to “win one for the Gipper.” Somewhat ironically given recent events, the film is about a Norwegian immigrant who reinvents football at Notre Dame, and later returns to the school to coach.

2. Reagan won a landslide victory in 1984; his opponent, Walter Mondale, carried only Washington D.C. and his home state of Minnesota.

3. Disunity in the Democratic party in 1980–incumbent Jimmy Carter faced an intraparty challenger in Ted Kennedy-prompted one party operative to declare that the Dems had to take their “unity medicine”: turn around three times and say President Ronald Reagan.

MAGA reagan style4. Reagan-Bush ran a slogan in 1980 that will sound familiar to many Americans today: “Let’s Make America Great Again.”

5. Reagan was known for his quips. After he survived an assassination attempt in 1981, he famously said to his wife, Nancy, “Honey, I forgot to duck.” When Reagan met his team of surgeons he’s reported to have remarked, “I hope you’re all Republicans.” Facing accusations of growing too old for the office during his reelection campaign in 1984, Reagan averred during a debate: “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

6. At the time of his second inauguration, Reagan was 74–making him the oldest president at the beginning of his term.

7. Some found Reagan’s endorsement of his successor, George H.W. Bush, less than sdoenthusiastic. The New York Times called the run up to the endorsement “one of Washington’s longest-running and least suspenseful political dramas,” after Reagan insisted on waiting for the end of the Republican primary to announce his pick. Despite his nickname as the “Great Communicator” and Bush’s eight years of service as VP, Reagan flubbed Bush’s name during the endorsement, pronouncing it George Bosh.

8. Reagan appointed the first female Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor. Her nomination fulfilled one of Reagan’s 1980 campaign promises. O’Connor was confirmed by a Senate vote of 99-0.

9. Famous for loving Jelly Beans, Reagan hated brussel sprouts (maybe never tried roasting them!)

10. Reagan shares a birthday with Aaron Burr, infamous for his role in the death of the first Secretary of the Treasury (and current Broadway star) Alexander Hamilton.