Honoring Mandela, Not Reagan

Exclusive: The U.S. government’s relationship with Nelson Mandela was often strained, from the CIA’s hand in his imprisonment to Ronald Reagan’s veto of a sanctions bill aimed at getting him freed, lost history that must now be reconciled, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

As Americans honor the memory of Nelson Mandela, they must grapple with the inconvenient truth that one of their most honored recent presidents, Ronald Reagan, fiercely opposed punishing white-ruled South Africa for keeping Mandela locked up and for continuing the racist apartheid system that he challenged.

Rhetorically, Reagan did object to apartheid and did call for Mandela’s release, but Reagan viewed the struggle for racial justice in South Africa through a Cold War lens, leading him to veto a 1986 bill imposing economic sanctions on the Pretoria regime aimed at forcing Mandela’s freedom and compelling the dismantling of apartheid.

South Africa's former President Nelson Mandela.

South Africa’s former President Nelson Mandela.

In explaining his veto on July 22, 1986, Reagan reserved his harshest criticism for “the Soviet-armed guerrillas of the African National Congress,” a movement that Mandela led. Reagan accused the ANC of having “embarked on new acts of terrorism within South Africa.” He also claimed that “the Soviet Union would be the main beneficiary” of a revolutionary overthrow of the Pretoria regime.

Beyond opposing sanctions that might destabilize the white-supremacist regime, Reagan argued that “the key to the future lies with the South African government.” He called for “not a Western withdrawal but deeper involvement by the Western business community as agents of change and progress and growth.”

Yet, despite Reagan’s speech, Congress enacted the sanctions bill over his veto as “moderate” Republicans, including the likes of Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, rejected Reagan’s go-slow “constructive engagement” with South Africa’s white supremacists. The Senate vote was 78-21, exceeding the necessary two-thirds by a dozen votes.

McConnell’s remarks about the bill reflected the concerns of many Republicans that they would find themselves with Reagan on the wrong side of history. “In the 1960s, when I was in college, civil rights issues were clear,” McConnell said. “After that, it became complicated with questions of quotas and other matters that split people of good will. When the apartheid issue came along, it made civil rights black and white again. It was not complicated.”

To Reagan, however, the issue was extremely complicated. White-ruled South Africa provided military support to right-wing revolutionary movements challenging leftist governments in Africa, such as in Angola where Jonas Savimbi of the CIA-backed UNITA led a brutal insurgency which involved him reportedly burning his opponents at the stake.

Indeed, Reagan supported a number of right-wing insurrectionary movements despite widespread reports of their human rights abuses, including the Contra rebels fighting to overthrow Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government. The Contras not only engaged in rapes, murders and acts of terror but were implicated in cocaine smuggling into the United States.[See Consortiumnews.com’s “Contra-Cocaine Was a Real Conspiracy.”]

Reagan also backed brutal right-wing regimes in Latin America and elsewhere as they engaged in extermination campaigns against leftists, including in Guatemala where Reagan hailed Gen. Efrain Rios Montt as his regime waged genocide against Mayan Indians considered supportive of leftist guerrillas. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Ronald Reagan: Accessory to Genocide.”]

Given Reagan’s support for these anti-leftist pogroms – a policy sometimes dubbed the Reagan Doctrine – he naturally disdained Mandela and the African National Congress, which included communists and drew support from the Soviet Union.

The CIA and Mandela

Mandela had long been a target of Cold Warriors inside the U.S. government, since he was viewed as one of the young militants resisting European colonialism and sympathetic to radical change. The CIA often acted to neutralize these leaders who were considered sympathetic to socialism and potential allies of the Soviet Union.

In the case of Mandela, I’m told that his arrest in 1962, which led to his 27-year imprisonment, resulted from a CIA officer tipping off South African security officials about Mandela’s whereabouts. But there remains a difference of opinion inside the CIA whether its role in Mandela’s capture was intentional or accidental, possibly a careless remark by an intoxicated field agent to his South African counterparts.

At the time of Mandela’s capture, President John F. Kennedy was trying to break out of the Cold War framework of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, especially regarding CIA hostility toward African nationalists. Kennedy feared that U.S. support for white rule in Africa would play into Soviet hands by alienating the continent’s emerging leaders. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “JFK Embrace of Third World Nationalists.”]

U.S. policy toward South Africa’s white supremacist government grew more contentious as American attitudes toward race evolved during the civil rights movement of the 1960s and after the 1968 assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, who both strongly sympathized with the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

President Jimmy Carter further broke from the Cold War mold in the late 1970s when he elevated human rights as a factor in U.S. foreign policy. But those human rights concerns were rolled back after Ronald Reagan ousted Carter in the 1980 election.

Reagan initiated a policy of “constructive engagement” toward South Africa’s white supremacists, meaning that he opposed overt pressure such as economic sanctions in favor of quiet diplomacy that sought gradual reform of the apartheid system.

In reality, Reagan’s approach allowed white South African leader P.W. Botha to crack down on the ANC and other revolutionary movements which Reagan viewed as pro-communist. Instead of substantive moves toward full citizenship for blacks, the Pretoria regime instituted largely cosmetic reforms to its apartheid system.

It was not until the U.S. and global economic sanctions took hold – combined with the world’s ostracism of the white racist regime – that Botha gave way to F.W. de Klerk, who, in turn, cleared the path for Mandela’s release in 1990. De Klerk then negotiated with Mandela to transform South Africa into a multiracial democracy, with Mandela becoming its first president in 1994.

Now, as the world honors the life of Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95, the American people must reconcile his inspirational story with how their much-honored Ronald Reagan opposed the sanctions that finally brought freedom to Mandela and to his nation.

Given Reagan’s support for the ghastly slaughters in Central America and elsewhere, some Americans might reasonably wonder why his name is attached to so many public facilities, including Washington’s National Airport.

While it may be unrealistic to expect this Congress to reconsider the many honors heaped on Ronald Reagan, individual Americans may want to – at least unofficially – delete his name from the airport that serves the nation’s capital by referring to it again as Washington National.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). For a limited time, you also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

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15 comments on “Honoring Mandela, Not Reagan

  1. Quote: “As Americans honor the memory of Nelson Mandela, they must grapple with the inconvenient truth that one of their most honored recent presidents, Ronald Reagan,”

    Most honored by some Americans who worship at the FoxNews alter; Reagan, detested by many Americans.

    In other words: Only honored by some, and hated by others.

  2. lastcamp2 on said:

    As though in anticipation of your suggestion, I have long refrained from referring to Washington National by the name of That Ex-President. That, in particular, although I also choke when having to drive on a freeway (in Indianapolis) named for him, or otherwise be subjected to the ill-placed honors bestowed on him. But, in fairness, he is not the only one given honors for political reasons, rather than for genuine statesmanship.

  3. steve jaros on said:

    Poor history lesson: It wasn’t the sanctions that prompted DeKlerk and the whites to free Mandela and end Apartheid, it was the fall of the USSR, which ended the spectre of a red South Africa.

    And of course it was Reagan’s cold-war policies that helped bring down the USSR. So while Reagan was wrong about the effect of sanctions (they did not lead to a soviet takeover of SA), he was correct about the big picture far more than the sanctions-advocates who dismissed Reagan’s linkage of events in South Africa to the broader cold-war struggle. Bottom line: Mandela walked free and apartheid ended far sooner than it would have – sanctions or no sanctions – thanks to Reagan’s defeat of the USSR.

    • Colin Smith on said:

      You’re dreaming. Reagan was a moron. He understood nothing, certainly nothing as subtle as you suggest. He needed cue cards. He dropped off to sleep. He had incipient Alzheimer’s. To compare him to Gorbachev is insulting to the latter. Gorbachev brought the world peace. Reagan would have kept the Cold War, an American construction, alive forever. Reagan was incapable of conceptualising anything more subtle than the “Evil Empire”, a child’s notion expressed by a man-child. He was gaga when he came o power. Only the Americans would elect such a moron.

    • So, Nelson Mandela should what, thank Reagan for calling him a communist, over and over and over and over again – when it wasn’t true?

  4. elmerfudzie on said:

    Let’s set “Ronald Ray guns” aside for the moment; we all had to contend with our current president’s speech and I cannot conjure up a political figure more antithetic to Obama and his leadership then those moral principles Mandela lived by. I almost spat on the ground when he, Obama, postured himself as a follower of this great man. Let’s pause a moment and review the differences; Would Mandela have signed the NDA and Patriot Act(s) into existence? Would Mandela quash the Posse Comitatus Act, that now authorizes the army to arrest, detain and hold indefinitely, non combatant citizens within domestic borders? Would Mandela have government Intel agencies spy within our borders? permit on-going tortures at GITMO? or cause aerial bombardment, by proxy or ally, against another African people? (Libya). Would Mandela have permitted the banksters from the IMF to run economic rough-shot over, for example, the black Zimbabweans? and since that time, where are the promised land reforms?? even the Chinese are cutting better economic incentive deals with African nations than Britain or the US. The list of differences between these men continues to grow.

  5. Psylocyber on said:

    I think U are giving Reagan far too much credit/blame in any case. Except for his veto power he had no real control of events. By the end of his second term He was barely there at all. I remember being shocked watching one of his speeches during that time. He could barely read thru his teleprompted lines, often pausing with that blank stare I recognized later, as I watched my Dad die from Alzheimers.
    As far as being in charge while we covertly slaughtered innocents to install draconian regimes for profit? Please tell me one President since WW II that was NOT. (Not counting Kennedy. Based on Great article here on Consortium I think he inherited some but was trying to get away from it.) I believe even Carter was still in office during E. Timor when we let Indonisia (and sold them weapons) kill 200,000 people to insure our portion of the spoils.
    Thats a real question by the way. I’m no expert. Has there been anyone in office when we didn’t subvert someone else’s country for money?
    In closing, I would just state that in some ways Reagan was the most qualified of all post WW II Presidents. He was an ACTOR.

    • Are you suggesting there was ever a 50-50 chance Reagan might not have consistently demonized, attacked, slandered, and called the ANC communists?

  6. Psylocyber on said:

    Elmerfudzie?
    What’s this about the Posse Comitatus Act? I have heard nothing about this. (I apologize for my ignorance).

  7. Brian M Magwood on said:

    Robert Parry would do well to study 20th century world history with a view of developing an historically honest political view point, as would many of the commenters of this article. President Reagan, who allowed historical facts and a reasonably considered sense of morality to govern his political choices, courageously guided the United States, and indeed the world, through dangerous times against Communism and terrorism in his day. Along the way, he made some mistakes, as does every great leader. Nelson Mandela did the same. Like Ronald Reagan, Mandela’s views underwent change over his life, which were greatly criticized by his own party, and by the Black community which he served well. He was, after all, though a great man, only a man. What President Reagan did not know at the time was that President Mandela would be as skilled a negotiator and political compromiser as he was. It is right to honor them both for the great men they were, faulty as they both were in their own ways. Our world was well served by them both.

    • Capt Merka on said:

      I believe that Robt Parry has forgotten more history than Brian M ever read, let alone comprehended. Key in his adulation /glorification of our “Being There” president/actor…is the fact that had Mikael Gorbachev not encouraged Reagan to rid the USA of its nuclear weapons arsenal, taking the risk to build a bridge from the “evil empire” to (perestroika) and Peace with Reagan who would never have had any idea to push for denuclearization. Gorbachev read the cards right and well and used his enormous intellect to bring reason to global politics. Gorbachev remains the unsung unrecognized hero behind the now glorified St.Ronnie.

    • Reagan demonized the ANC, called them communists, period.

  8. Red Revo on said:

    To the best of my living memory–even from history–I don’t remember if even one of these left the world without their hands being soaked in the blood of humanity.

  9. Winston Churchill also was supported by the USSR during World War 2. Since the USSR took most of the casualties from World War 2, it could be said that the United States and Britain would both be speaking German if it had not been for that support.

    When asked why the ANC accepted support from South African communist groups, Nelson Mandela said “you Americans took the USSR as allies didn’t you”?