WASHINGTON (AP) – The Nelson Mandela eulogized to the world by President Barack Obama as “a giant of history” and the “last great liberator of the 20th century” seemed a different person from the one the United States held at arm’s length, to put it diplomatically, for much of his life and career.
Even as presidents from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton denounced apartheid as a racist, untenable system, successive American administrations from the 1960s had friendly ties with South African governments and viewed Mandela with suspicion, if not outright hostility, through the prism of the Cold War.
And Mandela remained on a U.S. terrorism watchlist from the 1970s until the late 2000s. That period covers the living presidents of that period – Jimmy Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush – all of whom joined Obama at Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesburg’s Soweto township on Tuesday, as well as Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Even after his 1990 release from prison, his election as South Africa’s first black president and the dismantling of apartheid, the U.S. relationship with Mandela was an uneasy one, notably because of his harsh criticism of Israel, the Iraq war and the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Still, if the U.S. presidents present at Tuesday’s ceremony harbored anything other than good will toward Mandela, it was not apparent and has been absent since his death last week at the age of 95.
Comparing him to Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and America’s founding fathers, Obama lauded Mandela for his leadership of a resistance movement, giving voice to the oppressed, holding a splintering nation together in a time of great peril and creating a constitutional order to preserve the freedoms he struggled to realize.
Mandela, Obama said, was “a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice and in the process moved billions around the world.”
Yet Washington officialdom did not share such a sympathetic or charitable view over much of the past 50 years.
On Aug. 5, 1962, on Obama’s second birthday, South African authorities arrested Mandela at a hideout, reportedly with the help of a CIA informant.
Though the connection has never been proved, some former American intelligence officials say they understand it to be true. And it is clear that the Kennedy-era CIA saw Mandela, then the leader of the National Action Coalition that organized demonstrations and strikes to protest White rule, as a troublemaker and communist sympathizer at the very least.
“Mandela, a probable communist … is believed to have been responsible for much of the NAC’s success in seizing the initiative from anti-communist groups,” the CIA said in its May 21, 1961, Current Intelligence Weekly Summary. Calling Mandela “an able organizer,” the report cast doubt on his commitment to nonviolence and implied he might only be interested in a veneer of peaceful intent. “Mandela allegedly hopes violence can be avoided, since peaceful demonstrations would increase the NAC’s aura of respectability,” said the report, which was declassified in 2006.
(A heavily redacted 1986 U.S. intelligence assessment, declassified in 2001, would later conclude that evidence of Mandela’s communism was inconclusive but referred to him as an “African nationalist” and a “socialist” whose “fundamental political philosophy has not changed” despite his years in prison.)
But while Mandela may have been on the U.S. intelligence radar as early as 1961, policymakers in Washington don’t seem to have paid any particular attention to him until his trial in 1964 and then only lightly. The State Department’s authoritative “Foreign Relations of the United States” volume dealing with Africa from 1961 to 1963 makes no mention of him. There are two brief references to Mandela’s trial in the volume documenting Africa policy from 1964 to 1968. And Mandela makes no appearances in the volume covering U.S. relations with southern Africa from 1969 to 1976. (Subsequent editions covering later years have yet to be published.)
Perhaps this is because Mandela was serving a life sentence while African liberation movements gained steam and gradually succeeded in winning independence from European colonial rule.
Whatever the reason, while Mandela languished in prison, the United States maintained a cordial relationship with Mandela’s jailers, relying on the staunch anti-communism of South Africa’s white leaders to try to blunt Soviet expansion on the continent – particularly in Angola, where large numbers of Cuban troops were deployed to fight in that country’s civil war, and deteriorating situations in white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South African-occupied Namibia.
In April 1976, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger outlined U.S. strategy to Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, telling him: “We see it as a practical matter. The first problem to tackle is Rhodesia, then Namibia and lastly South Africa. We need South Africa’s help in solving the other two problems, although I have stated … that apartheid must end,” according to the relevant volume of the “Foreign Relations of the United States.” In other words, South Africa had to change, but it could wait.
Thus, despite a 1964 arms embargo imposed on Pretoria, the two countries had solid military ties, significant intelligence-sharing and formal diplomatic relations all cemented by major private American investment in South Africa that made the United States its second-largest trading partner.
Indeed, not even the Soweto uprising of June 1976 – during which nearly 200 people, many of them students, were killed while protesting the required use of Afrikaans language in Black schools – was enough to prompt anything more than slow and halting policy shifts from Washington.
Just two months later, Kissinger argued against expelling South Africa from the International Atomic Energy Agency as a punishment for the internationally condemned violence and did not see fit to mention the uprising at all in a meeting in Germany with South African Prime Minister John Vorster, according to State Department documents.
Carter’s election in 1976, partly on a platform of protecting human rights, saw the introduction of the “constructive engagement” policy, which relied on limited sanctions aimed at quietly promoting reform in South Africa. Its impact is still debated, but Reagan’s election in 1980 with a foreign policy focused on defeating communism initially saw South Africa reform drop off the White House priority list. As international calls for Mandela’s release and apartheid’s end skyrocketed and gained major popular momentum, Reagan resisted.
In 1983 and 1985, Congress passed targeted sanctions opposing International Monetary Fund assistance to South Africa and banning sales of all but humanitarian and medical supplies to its security forces.
In 1986, fueled by the fiercely anti-apartheid Congressional Black Caucus and a spirited public relations campaign, Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, overturning for the first time in 100 years a presidential veto on foreign policy legislation and barring future investment and loans. A year later, intelligence sharing with South Africa was banned and a growing divestment movement in individual states picked up steam.
By the time actors Mel Gibson and Danny Glover took on evil South African diplomats in the 1989 film “Lethal Weapon 2,” the end of apartheid was approaching and Mandela would walk out of prison in less than seven months.
U.S. sanctions began to be eased in 1991 but were not entirely lifted until after Mandela’s election in 1994.
Yet in Washington, Mandela’s past as a suspected communist and leader of what had been designated a terrorist organization was not entirely forgotten.
In 2008, for instance, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Congress that Mandela’s continued presence on a U.S. terror watchlist was “embarrassing” and should be changed.