One point that keeps coming up in the aftermath of Mandela’s death is that many conservatives were opposed to him for decades and fearful of his release from prison. Many opposed sanctions on South Africa during Apartheid, with Reagan vetoing sanctions when they passed Congress.
As it turned out, we were wrong about Mandela. South Africa did not go communist or descend into a bloody race war. Newt Gingrich, who was one of the few conservatives who favored sanctions and supported Mandela early had this to say about it:
Some of the people who are most opposed to oppression from Washington attack Mandela when he was opposed to oppression in his own country.
After years of preaching non-violence, using the political system, making his case as a defendant in court, Mandela resorted to violence against a government that was ruthless and violent in its suppression of free speech.
As Americans we celebrate the farmers at Lexington and Concord who used force to oppose British tyranny. We praise George Washington for spending eight years in the field fighting the British Army’s dictatorial assault on our freedom.
Patrick Henry said, “Give me liberty or give me death.”
Thomas Jefferson wrote and the Continental Congress adopted that “all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Doesn’t this apply to Nelson Mandela and his people?
Some conservatives say, ah, but he was a communist.
Actually Mandela was raised in a Methodist school, was a devout Christian, turned to communism in desperation only after South Africa was taken over by an extraordinarily racist government determined to eliminate all rights for blacks.
I would ask of his critics: where were some of these conservatives as allies against tyranny? Where were the masses of conservatives opposing Apartheid? In a desperate struggle against an overpowering government, you accept the allies you have just as Washington was grateful for a French monarchy helping him defeat the British.
We like to believe that epic change can always be affected by non-violent means. We hold up men like Gandhi and MLK as our paragons of this (although both men were seen as troublemakers by their opponents and both knew that their actions would be responded to with violence). However, that’s not always the case. In fact, it is an unfortunate aspect of history that movements that use or provoke violence are sometimes more successful than those that don’t. Our own history attests to this.
But I want to address a different question. Most of the Left are interpreting the past conservative opposition to Mandela as a manifestation of the crypto-racism that they think defines conservatism. A smarter critique can be found here. The conservative opposition to Mandela and the ANC did not arise because conservatives “supported” Apartheid. It arose because they saw the ANC as pro-Communist and the white government of South Africa as anti-communist. Our South Africa policy was deeply rooted in Cold War anti-communism, communism being a far greater threat to us at the time. Here was my response to one of the Media Myrmidons idiots:
A reason for highlighting previous conservative opposition to Mandela is to remind pple how often they're on wrong side of history; #ACA
— Eric Boehlert (@EricBoehlert) December 7, 2013
.@EricBoehlert Or that the narrative of history is not linear. Opposition to communism, while right, caused us to make some bad decisions.
— Hal 10000 (@Hal_RTFLC) December 8, 2013
History and foreign policy, as anyone who has gotten outside a think tank knows, consists of a series of compromises. We often do moderate evils to avert great ones or ally with awful regimes to oppose worse ones. This is what nations do; this is how history is made. It’s awful to the people caught in the middle. And it sometimes results in us making mistakes.
I often say that politics is defined by compromise. If you wait to find a politician that you agree with 100%, you will never vote for anyone. You will find yourself in a party of one. By the same token, international politics is defined by compromise. If we required our allies to all behave the way we want them to, we would be in an alliance of one.
Compromising with oppressive or even evil regimes is not unique to our cooperation with South Africa. At one point in our history, we allied ourselves with one of the most murderous tyrannical regimes in history. This regime murdered millions of their own people, imprisoned millions, established one of the most vicious police states in history, fomented violent rebellions in dozens of countries and enabled violent suppression by despots around the globe. They were known fascist allies and after they won the war which we fought alongside them, they treated the countries they liberated as conquests, installed puppet regimes and brutally put down any efforts at independence. We would then spend decades fighting against this evil empire.
I’m, of course, talking about the Soviet Union. The Left has always had a problem accepting the evil that was communism and that informs a lot of their ignorance about history. It informs their inability to see that we must sometimes make allies with the lesser evil because they don’t see the Soviet Union as the monstrous evil that it was. And it informs their criticism of our Cold War decisions because the don’t see the Soviet Union as the greater of two evils that it was (even Chortner’s article will only say it was “even more aggressive and disgusting than was generally assumed”).
When it came to being “on the wrong side of history”, the Left’s refusal to countenance the evil that was the Soviet Union; their mockery of Reagan for describing a nation that murdered tens of millions of innocents as an evil empire; their embrace of murderous barbarians like Stalin and Mao leaves them just as much if not more to answer for. I never knew a conservative who had a South African flag or a picture of P. W. Botha on his wall. I knew at least a few liberals who had Soviet flags and pictures of Mao on theirs.
Make no mistake: our tolerance of Apartheid was shameful. This was not some Jim Crowe Lite that existed in South Africa. This was the brutal systematic repression of the majority of the population. This was a violent, oppressive police state that carried out a decades-long reign of terror and forcibly relocated millions of people. In the end, I think our unwillingness to confront the South African regime was a mistake.
But I also understand why people saw it the other way. When the CIA helped the South African government catch Mandela, the Soviet Union was ruled by an evil butcher whose hands were soaked in the blood of the Ukraine. He had just precipitated the Berlin crisis and would go on to precipitate the Cuban Missile Crisis and crush the Prague Spring. With China on their side, the Communist block outnumbered us massively and had openly declared their intention to conquer the world. They had a massive arsenal of nuclear weapons and a massive spy network. They were fomenting civil wars around the globe to topple pro-West regimes. At the same time that Mandela was arrested, Marxist guerrillas, aided by Cuban and East German soldiers, were sending Angola into a 14-year hell of rebellion and atrocities.
To the intelligence and military forces of the United States, everything else was background noise to that singular reality. Even the brutal vicious oppression going on in South Africa. If they had to sacrifice Mandela to keep South Africa on our side, they would do it.
Hindsight is 20/20. It was possible to oppose Apartheid and keep South Africa on our side at the same time. Hell, turning over Apartheid might have made South Africa an even stronger ally. I’m not forgiving our behavior. But I’m saying it has an explanation besides “being on the wrong side of history”. Because history is not linear like that.
The opposition of the 80’s and 90’s was less forgivable, since the Soviet threat had diminished and would disappear by the early 90’s. But seven decades of murder, oppression and bloodshed by an opposing superpower are difficult to forget. The label of “communist” was (and should have been and should still be) a mark against someone.
The arc of history is difficult to see. Had we not sided with the Apartheid government in the 1960’s, the oppression might have ended thirty years earlier. Or there might have been a civil war. Or Mandela might have been assassinated. Or a hundred other things. What we do know is that thirty years later, without the Cold War looming over everything, he emerged from prison to do what seemed impossible: end apartheid peacefully and maintain South Africa as a democracy and an economically functional country (something his successors have been less successful at). And he gave up power. People have said this is unusual for Africa; it’s unusual for anywhere. Just last week, a respectable NYU prof wrote a startlingly bad article arguing we should end term limits so Obama can stay President.
History is a mess, politics is complicated and foreign relations tangle the two. We navigate the world as best we can but we constantly make mistakes. Siding with the Apartheid government was a mistake in the 60’s, a bigger mistake in the 80’s and an unpardonable mistake in the 90’s. But it’s not the only one we ever made. And you don’t have to dig very deep to find out why it was made.