Saturday, December 7, 2013

Racism and the Cold War

BooMan has written a fascinating article about how Nelson Mandela responded to the conservative's claim that he was a communist. Here is what he said in his own defense at his trial in 1964:
It is perhaps difficult for white South Africans, with an ingrained prejudice against communism, to understand why experienced African politicians so readily accept communists as their friends. But to us the reason is obvious. Theoretical differences, amongst those fighting against oppression, is a luxury which cannot be afforded. What is more, for many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and as their equals; who were prepared to eat with us; talk with us, live with us, and work with us. They were the only political group which was prepared to work with the Africans for the attainment of political rights and a stake in society.
And here's BooMan's response:
Another way of putting this is that white South Africans, as well as many white Brits and white Americans, did not fully appreciate how much the Soviets gained from the West's institutional racism.
That got me thinking about how this scenario played out all over the globe in the 1950's - 1980's. White colonialism had taken control of much of the Southern hemisphere from Africa to South America and Asia. As people of color in those countries rose up to fight against their oppression, rather than hear their cries for liberation, the United States and Western Europe simply cast the struggle under the rubric of the Cold War and joined in on the side of the oppressors.

We recently saw an example of how that has played out in our national consciousness when Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang visited President Obama at the White House and presented him with a copy of the 1946 letter from Ho Chi Minh to President Truman asking for assistance in their struggle against the French. Here are the President's remarks:
At the conclusion of the meeting, President Sang shared with me a copy of a letter sent by Ho Chi Minh to Harry Truman. And we discussed the fact that Ho Chi Minh was actually inspired by the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and the words of Thomas Jefferson. Ho Chi Minh talks about his interest in cooperation with the United States. And President Sang indicated that even if it's 67 years later, it's good that we're still making progress.
Of course that set off a firestorm of reaction from conservatives who are ignorant of the fact that Ho Chi Minh came to the U.S. for help BEFORE aligning himself with the communists. Liberation leaders all over the globe joined Ho Chi Minh in revering the United States - only to be cast as "communists" for doing so. For example, Guatemalan President Juan Jose Arevalo modeled his reforms in the 1950's after Roosevelt's New Deal - only to be called a communist by Eisenhower and removed from power by a CIA-backed coup.

It is important to acknowledge that corporate colonial interests were always a driving factor in how the U.S. chose sides in these struggles. But its also important to heed the words of Mandela up above when he suggests that - at its roots - it was racism that allowed us to dismiss the struggles of people experiencing the kind of oppression we as a country paid lip service to fighting against (much as we were busy dismissing the rights of African Americans right here at home).

Now, with the Cold War over, our attention over the last decade has been focused almost exclusively on the Middle East, where initially our alliances were again with the dictatorial powers who were the beneficiaries of colonialism. Within six months of taking office, President Obama gave one of the most important speeches of his career at Cairo University where he said:
I know -- I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.

That does not lessen my commitment, however, to governments that reflect the will of the people. Each nation gives life to this principle in its own way, grounded in the traditions of its own people. America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.

Now, there is no straight line to realize this promise. But this much is clear: Governments that protect these rights are ultimately more stable, successful and secure. Suppressing ideas never succeeds in making them go away. America respects the right of all peaceful and law-abiding voices to be heard around the world, even if we disagree with them. And we will welcome all elected, peaceful governments -- provided they govern with respect for all their people.
Those words were backed up with deeds when the Arab Spring exploded on the scene. In every instance, President Obama has promoted the rights of the people to rise up on their own behalf. Other than to stop a massacre in Libya, the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and nuclear weapons in Iran, he has refused to insert the U.S. into an attempt to control or dictate the outcome...maddening the neocons in the Republican Party and even his own administration.

As we all know, President Obama is no pacifist. As he said years ago, he's not against all wars, just stupid wars...the kind where the U.S. has sided with white corporate interests against people of color around the globe.


  1. Very enlightening, thanks, Smartypants. We have finally gotten an opportunity to see what it is like for America to be a global citizen only flexing its muscle when absolutely necessary. And see, the world did not end. I would love it if Obama's 'third' term were held by someone who gets this and isn't a colonialist sympathizer. 12 good years of global citizenry might just be enough to show the American people it can be done. We don't have to meddle in the affairs of other nations.

  2. Brilliant analysis.

  3. Great connecting of historical dots. Good leaders tend to propagate more good leadership down the generations. Some day we'll have another great leader who will list among her/his influences "the great President Barack Obama of the early 21st Century." (Among the contemporary analyses and chronicles will feature some Smartypants treatments, I'll wager.)

  4. I was a young teen in the early sixties and lived with the Viet Nam war on my TV night after night. All across the globe we supported heinous dictators as freedom fighters turned to the Communists, who were the only people willing to support them. It seemed to me they did not do this out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they saw a way to further their own interests by supporting forces of revolution. I never could see why we didn't do the same - take people fighting for the same things we valued and lift them up to make them allies. It never made sense.