Mandela and The Arc of History

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:

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.

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  1. Seattle Outcast

    Don’t forget, many people assumed that the disintegration of the Soviet Union was a trick of some kind, expecting a harsh crackdown on those that tested the waters of freedom after enough time had passed for the foolish to expose themselves for the KGB. It wasn’t until they started taking former commie rulers out back for a quick execution that people started to realize that it was for real.

    I know many (most?) people on this site don’t really remember the cold war, and what it was like to grow up on the constant threat of nuclear war – most people assumed that it was going to happen. It spawned entire genres of literature and cinema devoted to either fighting the cold war or surviving in the ruins after it finally went hot. It colored everything people did and thought with a omnipresent fear of the future, that everything you did was going to be meaningless once the Soviets pushed the button.

    It’s been 20+ years since the SU started coming apart at the seams, incapable of actually holding up the facade any longer – I don’t expect anyone under 35 to really appreciate the enormity of what was happening. And we all thought the liberals would finally realize that their idealized utopia of collectivism wasn’t possible. Boy were we ever wrong – they covered themselves in the mantle of environmentalism, situated themselves at colleges as brainwashers of the highest order, called themselves “progressive” and doubled down on their efforts.

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  2. Poosh

    Great post.

    I don’t see many conservatives denying that Mandela engaged in greatness, but that it was not always so and that after his initial greatness he did little, on the international stage, to help ease Africa’s incredible self-inflicted suffering. I don’t think there is any onus on Mandela to have done anything else, but his worshipers – today – are creating a myth which does not match the facts.

    I’d wage he never was a real marxist etc, he merely wanted freedom for his people. I’d even wager he had no innocent blood on his hands, but then I don’t know for sure. Perhaps he did commit atrocities and offer paltry “yeah my bad”‘s in his autobiography.

    His actions after his imprisonment were noble and averted a blood bath ,and he was gracious and a good example. But he failed to live up to anything near the myth that is now being force-fed into us – I think that’s what many people are angry about. As far as I was aware he was also quite stupid in many cases and some of his actions – Libya for example – were unforgivable, as were his comments against Israel. I’m sure there is a long list.

    Come what may South Africa is pretty f*cking bad right now.

    Gandhi does not deserve the reputation he has, but I don’t think Mandela is on the same level as MLK quite frankly, at least IMO MLK was a far better man.

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  3. AlexInCT

    Many opposed sanctions on South Africa during Apartheid, with Reagan vetoing sanctions when they passed Congress.

    I opposed these sanctions for the same reason Reagan did: the brunt of the sanctions would have fallen on the nearly 1 million blacks working in the SA mines and other small businesses and would have only served to cause them far more harm and pain than it would do any good. And yes, also because SA, despite their horrible apartheid policy, was the last remaining bastion of resistance to the march of communism in the south of Africa. But people can pretend that I am just a racist and hate blacks. That fits the lefts stupid narrative a lot better, after all. Besides, most on the left still believe the wrong side won the Cold War, which is why they love to downplay the danger posed by the USSR. I bet you the old Soviet guard is kicking itself for not holding out another decade considering how the rest of the world’s left adopted practically all their policies, including their lust for blood.

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  4. Hal_10000 *

    That’s a reasonable point, Alex. The sanctions on Cuba, for example, have impoverished the Cubans but done nothing to keep Castro from becoming a billionaire.

    Do you support sanctions on Iran, though? What about Iraq when we were in our cold war phase with them? What makes those situations different?

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  5. Mook

    Do you support sanctions on Iran, though? What about Iraq when we were in our cold war phase with them? What makes those situations different?

    Um, because Iran has threatened at least one other country with nuclear annihilation and is listed as the #1 state supporter of terrorism by the US State Dept. Did that really need to be spelled out to you Hal? Is that an answer that you and your prog buddies never heard before or never considered? Please do let me and others reading know how you really feel.

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  6. Hal_10000 *

    Good for missing the point Mook. Here’s what Alex said:

    I opposed these sanctions for the same reason Reagan did: the brunt of the sanctions would have fallen on the nearly 1 million blacks working in the SA mines and other small businesses and would have only served to cause them far more harm and pain than it would do any good.

    What I want to know is how is Iran different? Will sanction affect the mullahs or the people? Will they bring about the end of the nuclear program?

    I support sanctions on Iran, incidentally.

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  7. Poosh

    But using sanctions against the Iranians is very, very different to using sanctions against the South African Africans.

    And surely the sanctions against South Africa were to help the people there, in the first place. With Iran we have more important concerns including annihilation.

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  8. Seattle Outcast

    I’ve always personally seen Mandela’s primary failure as his wife. I really didn’t know what to think of him as a figurehead – too much conflicting information and it was all presented with a huge helping of political opinion. My thoughts on South Africa and apartheid were something along the lines of “sounds bad, but I can’t get unbiased data”, so I just pushed it into a corner for later review. I’ve met people from SA in my life, but none of them were willing to talk about the subject, so I’m still on the fence about many things concerning the country and it’s history.

    Winnie Mandela, on the other hand, was a complete monster – her record as someone that would torture enemies and execute them via gasoline and a car tire was well documented. That he divorced her as soon as he got out of prison was good, but the fact that he married her at all was a serious question mark. The fact that the press has essentially cut her out of his life and acts as if she never existed is quite telling.

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  9. Hal_10000 *

    Yeah, the Left built up a big cult of Winnie Mandela for a while only to see it vanish in smoke when she turned out to be a murderous fraud that Nelson couldn’t divorce fast enough. I mean his own Truth and Reconcilation committee condemned her.

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  10. AlexInCT

    That’s a reasonable point, Alex. The sanctions on Cuba, for example, have impoverished the Cubans but done nothing to keep Castro from becoming a billionaire.

    Excatamundo. The best thing we could do right now is repeal the sanctions on Cuba and then deal with the Castros as separate entities. Maybe we should try to convince the international court the left so loves to drag their asses into court for crimes against humanity. Don’t hold your breath though. They are far more likely to give the guy a fucking Noble Peace prize and a state funeral, like they gave Mandela, as they are enamored with the evil and murdering bastard.

    Do you support sanctions on Iran, though?

    Not only do I not support them, Hal, but I believe they are a waste of fucking time. They have served to hurt the Iranian people while the leaders have continued to amass wealth. Worse yet, I believe that they have not deterred the Iranian leadership’s pursuit of nuclear weapons in the least. I said they were a bad Idea when Boosh let the Euros talk him into that back when, and I still see them as worthless, if not actually counterproductive. After all, the Iranian leadership can blame us for the effects of the sanctions, garnering some support with the people who do the suffering. Even if the people understand why they are suffering, they still are going to resent us too, and that plays into the hands of the Iranian nutjobs.

    The only way Iran gets stopped, especially now that they think we are too fucking cowardly to do anything after nearly a decade of wasted time, is if we resort to the use of force. The days where we could have used the threat of force are long gone. Don’t worry though. Israel will do the right thing for the world, and this WH will punish them, severely, for fucking over their plan to help Iran get a bomb just so they can piss in Israel’s cornflakes.

    What about Iraq when we were in our cold war phase with them?

    Totally worthless. I knew that we had left the job undone and would have to go back in to finish it, sooner than later. The poor Iraqi people where fucked over twice. First by Saddam being a monster, and then by us when we tried to use sanctions to punish Saddam. While the average Iraqi suffered Saddam and those connected to him made out like bandits. Lots of Viagra, bitches and raping bitches, indiscriminate terror and killing, and a whole lot of grandstanding and bluffing, while living in big palaces, high on the hog.

    And let us not forget how so many then worked with Saddam, through the despicable UN, to circumvent the sanctions in the oil-for-food scandal. The only people that lost out were the Iraqis and the American tax payers that were played for over a decade by the scumbags in the UN. Shit, Saddam even had the French and the Russians ready to sell out through the UN and pull those sanctions, so they could go back to the business of making crazy money selling Saddam weapons, exotic and expensive components for his WMD programs, and getting Iraqi oil for cheap. And Saddam would have been right back in business after that.

    What makes those situations different?

    They are not different at all. I don’t, in general, support sanctions when the people that suffer are the very ones you are supposedly trying to help, or when the sanctions do little of any value (like the ones in Iran or Iraq). Sanctions as a tool are of limited value, despite the pretense to the contrary, as the real effects in the examples you show above illustrate.

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  11. Xetrov

    I agree with Poosh

    http://i1.wp.com/allthingsd.com/files/2013/08/inconceivable.jpg

    I take issue with the article in the OP and the analogy of Mandela to the Founding Fathers.

    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?

    There is no other way to describe it – Mandela *was* a terrorist at one point in his life. He signed off on bombings designed to target and kill innocent people in public places including the Johannesburg railway station. Likening those despicable acts to the Founding Father’s war against the military of the British Monarchy is asinine at best.

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  12. Argive

    Great post, Hal. One thing, though: race probably did play more of a role in the US’ initial decision to cooperate with the apartheid government, which happened during the Truman Administration. Truman was a racist, as were many of the policymakers in his cabinet. This is not to say that they actively encouraged or supported the formation of apartheid. For one thing, they were too focused on Europe and East Asia to care that much about Southern Africa. Rather, they did not think that cooperating with D.F. Malan presented any serious problems, and an alliance with South Africa made strategic sense, given its anticommunism, uranium supply, and ties to the British Empire. It was in the early 1950s, when civil rights started to become a Cold War issue (Jim Crow seemed to belie claims that the US was fighting for freedom) that America’s relationship with SA became something of an embarrassment. Even then, the US stopped getting its uranium from SA not because of moral concerns, but rather because American policymakers had grown distrustful of the Brits following repeated security breaches in the British nuclear program.

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  13. West Virginia Rebel

    Mandela was smart enough to recognize that communism wasn’t the way to go (unlike many of his contemporaries in Africa.) He was, in the end, probably the best symbol for post-colonial reconciliation that Africa as a whole ever produced.

    Meanwhile, there’s the fake deaf interpreter who apparently hallucinated on stage-while he was standing next to the President of the United States.

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