American foreign policy after the Second World War concerned, above all else, the Cold War. And, with the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of Al Qaeda, Americans tend to look back on the Cold War-era with something approximating nostalgia. But the sad news last week from South Africa begged a question: How on Earth did America find itself on the opposite side of Nelson Mandela during this great struggle? It wasn't the result of some mere misunderstanding, and it didn't derive from a lack of evidence about conditions in South Africa. Rather, Americans elected leaders who allied the country with one of the worst regimes in the world—a regime that had also decided, not incidentally, that Nelson Mandela belonged in jail. What went wrong?
A good chunk of the commentary over the past several days has dealt with what American and British conservatives said about Mandela during the long years of his confinement. The comments from the 1980s are not pretty; nor are the actual comments below the stories marking Mandela's death on various conservative websites. Meanwhile, in an excellent piece for New York magazine, Jonathan Chait brings together conservative reactions from the 1980s and makes some persuasive points about conservatism today. Without question, a good deal of the reaction to both Mandela then and Mandela today has to do with his race. But one of the things that inhibited a complex appraisal of Mandela's legacy in the 1980s was the fact that the Cold War was being fought. That war is over, but its shadow still obscures a complex understanding of Mandela's legacy. If you don't understand why someone like Mandela would have communist sympathies during the Cold War, you aren't thinking hard enough.
In a Sunday column for The New York Times, Bill Keller addresses this issue directly. Mandela was a communist, Keller argues, largely because he (Mandela) saw membership in the Party as an aid to the struggle against apartheid. (Keller uses the word "pragmatism.") And, if you look back at all the nasty things said about Mandela, many of them have to do with the Cold War. Here is an excerpt from Jordan Michael Smith's New Republic piece:
The Reaganites feared that the Soviet Union would gain from the Afrikaner regime if they alienated it. As Conservative Caucus Foundation Chair Howard Phillips put it, “It’s not just a black-white issue. It’s red versus red, white, and blue.” The man who, outside of Reagan, did more than any other to shape the administration’s pro-apartheid policy was Assistant Secretary of State Chester Crocker, who fashioned the Constructive Engagement policy. Wrote Crocker: “The real choice we will face in southern Africa in the 1980s concerns our readiness to compete with our global adversary in the politics of a changing region who future depends on those who participate in shaping it.” The State Department now says frankly that “Defenders of the Apartheid regime” in the West “had promoted it as a bulwark against communism.”
This is, no doubt, what Ronald Reagan had in mind when he said that the South African government's survival was "essential to the free world." Conservatives today—or at least those writing pieces, rather than commenting on them—don't speak up for the apartheid regime, but they also don't show much of a desire to think about the Cold War, and the moral costs of having fought it. Newt Gingrich lashed out at Facebook commenters who trashed Mandela, but even Gingrich makes a quasi-defense of Reagan's early anti-sanctions stance on Cold War grounds. Meanwhile Colin Powell, who is not much of a conservative but was still a staunch Cold Warrior, essentially endorsed the placing of Mandela on the United States's terrorist watch list. Violence sparked by those with Communist sympathies required action by the United States; violence by the apartheid government did not.
There are several reasons for this Cold War blindness, and some of them are not at all dishonorable. Our system of government is vastly better than the Soviet Union's was. The collapse of Soviet Communism was a great thing for the world. And the ideals that America proclaimed throughout the struggle—free speech, democracy, open society—deserved to be defended and fought for. Moreover, the opening of Soviet archives over the past 20 years has made Stalin (and the Soviet Union more broadly) appear, if anything, even more aggressive and disgusting than was generally assumed. In short, since this was a war in which the better side won, there has never been a large-scale reckoning with the costs of the war, especially on the right. (The fact that the Soviet Union collapsed during the term of one Republican president, and that many on the right give major credit to his predecessor for winning the war, has done even more to assure triumphalism.) But the case of South Africa brings the costs into sharp relief.
It is not simply that the United States waged nasty military campaigns like the one in Vietnam, or supported death squads throughout Latin America. Nor is it simply that the United States backed undemocratic regimes everywhere from Pakistan to South Africa to Greece. It's also that the war prevented many of the people fighting it from viewing Mandela in anything but Cold War terms. Think about it this way: Isn't there something tremendously wrong with a war which requires your side to miss the importance of a figure like Mandela? Isn't there something tremendously wrong with a war that requires you to view apartheid-era South Africa as part of the "free world?" (It should also be said that the position being defended here is strategically inept too. The Soviet Union did not fall because America supported the South African government and various other unsavory regimes.)
One answer to the above questions is that the war didn't require anyone to wear these blinders. Indeed, plenty of people opposed Soviet Communism and apartheid. But all too often, the contingencies of the Cold War led to these sorts of moral and humanitarian failures. And they were not just policy failures, but failures of the imagination. You don't see many conservatives screaming about Churchill's warmth towards Stalin during World War II, largely because America was fighting for survival. But when other people are doing the same, it is harder accept their compromises than it is our own. Most conservative politicians and writers today call Mandela a hero, which is good. The next step is to wrestle with why Mandela and the United States were not allies during his long jail sentence.