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.
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.