Nelson Mandela, The Cold War, And The Uses Of History In American Politics

Nelson Mandela, the Cold War, and the uses of history in American politics

 Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 2008. Attribution: South Africa The Good News / | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Source:
Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg, Gauteng, on 13 May 2008. Attribution: South Africa The Good News / | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Source:

After former South African President Nelson Mandela‘s death on December 5, 2013, political leaders and dignitaries from all over the world flew to South Africa to pay tribute to Mandela’s legacy as a fighter against Apartheid. Among them was Barack Obama, who praised Mandela as a great inspiration.

In 1962, the CIA betrayed Nelson Mandela to the South African Apartheid regime

But here is an interesting footnote about U.S. foreign policy in the twentieth century: When  Mandela was arrested by the Apartheid regime and thrown in jail in 1962, where he spent the next twenty-seven years of his life, that was enabled by the location of Mandela being passed on to the South African secret police by none other than the CIA.

On Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman interviewed former anti-Apartheid activist and later South African intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils on Mandela’s activism in the 1950s and early 1960s.

“The Anti-Apartheid Underground: Ronnie Kasrils on Meeting Mandela in an ANC Safehouse in 1962 (2/2)”

And here is an interview on Democracy Now! wherein Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez interview Andrew Cockburn of Harper’s magazine on the CIA and Mandela:

“One of Our Greatest Coups”: The CIA & the Capture of Nelson Mandela”

One person’s freedom fighter is another person’s terrorist

Since the 1950s, Mandela had been embracing Marxist thought and been involved with the African Communist Party. With the latter, he co-founded the African National Congress’s militant wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), which was active in sabotage campaigns against the Apartheid regime.

In the 1980s, when an international movement for the release of Mandela took shape, political figures like American President Ronald Reagan, future Vice President DIck Cheney, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher supported the Apartheid regime against the imprisoned Mandela, whom they considered to be a communist terrorist.

In hindsight, the support of the racist white supremacist government of South Africa at the time by the U.S. and other governments was obviously morally repulsive. Those supporting it were clearly on the wrong side of history. But during the Cold War, the communist leanings of Mandela probably drew more negative attention than his involvement in the righteous struggle against Apartheid.

[Update, 2014/07/10] As the Guardian now reports, previously classified documents show that the FBI continued to spy on Mandela and the ANC after his release from prison in 1990. They were interested in Mandela’s links to U.S.-based left-wing groups and anti-Apartheid activities of the American Communist Party.

A communist no more – Mandela as president

One interesting aspect of Mandela’s presidency is that despite his communist past, he quickly embraced neoliberal capitalism once in office. On Democracy Now!, Amy Goodman interviewed former anti-Apartheid activist and later South African intelligence minister Ronnie Kasrils on Mandela’s turnaround considering economic policies.

“From Marxism to Neoliberalism: Ronnie Kasrils on How Mandela & ANC Shifted Economic Views (1/2)”

A posthumous nontroversy (I): Conservative politicians saying nice things about a former communist

In the American news media, especially in the conservative blogosphere, a dubious controversy (or nontroversy) over Mandela’s political past has been stirred up in the days following his death.

Newt Gingrich, of all people, a politician not generally suspected of being a lefty, said some reasonable things about Mandela and was promptly criticized on his Facebook page. Yes, the obvious commie bashing and racism is in those comments. Other conservative politicians who praised Mandela posthumously received similar reactions. Gingrich, in his response to those commenters, asked a poignant question:

Where were the masses of conservatives opposing Apartheid?

Watch a summary of the whole thing on the progressive talk show The Young Turks here:

A posthumous nontroversy (II):  Obama shakes hands with Raúl Castro

As one would expect with a historic figure as important as Mandela, there were many political leaders present at his funeral. President Obama ran into Cuban President Raúl Castro, brother of Fidel Castro, and shook hands with him. Some conservative politicians criticized Obama for a friendly gesture towards an authoritarian communist regime with a dubious human rights record.

On the one hand, this is true. There are many things worthy of criticism about the Cuban government, especially its abysmal human rights record. On the other hand, the U.S. has upheld the embargo against Cuba since Fidel Castro came to power, making this gesture in the context of a funeral look minuscule.

Conservative politicians in good/bad company

Furthermore, many American politicians, including conservative Republicans, have been shaking hands—and continue to do so—with dictators and other unruly figures, whenever it suited ‘the national interest.’ Some examples: Nixon meets Mao Zedong in 1972, Donald Rumsfeld meets Saddam Hussein in 1983, Condoleezza Rice meets Moamar Gadhafi in 2008.

Only in the 80s: John Rambo the jihadist

The ambiguous and rather flexible morality of realpolitik is also reflected in pop culture. Consider this: In the 1980s action movie Rambo III (1988), Sylvester Stallone as John Rambo fights along the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviet Union. They are presented as benign freedom fighters against foreign communist occupation. Who else was among the Afghan Mujahideen, in reality? Osama bin Laden.

While there is no evidence of direct financial support for Bin Laden from the U.S., according to the Congressional Research Service, the U.S. government did fund militant jihadists in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Who was the American president at the time? Conservative icon Ronald Reagan.

Much ado about nothing

All things considered, the outrage over Obama shaking hands with Raúl Castro is nothing but a tempest in a teapot. In a perfect world, there would be no dictators, no authoritarian regimes, and certainly no superpowers backing any of them while hypocritically pretending to make the world safe for democracy. And to be clear, I extend that criticism to other states such as my native Germany, which allows the export of weapons and surveillance technology into non-democratic regimes.

That being said, in the world as it is, leading politicians will from time to time brush into unruly characters. It cannot be avoided.

Here is another entertaining clip from The Young Turks:

Read more:

Here Are 6 Moments From Mandela’s Marxist Past That You Won’t Hear On CNN.” (Zach Carter and Shadee Ashtari, Huffington Post, 2013/12/06)

The Day Mandela Was Arrested, With A Little Help From the CIA.” (Jeff Stein, Newsweek, 2013/12/05)

When Conservatives Branded Nelson Mandela A Terrorist.” (Rick Ungar, Forbes, 2013/12/06)


Margaret Thatcher’s Death and Legacy

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Death and Legacy

On April 8, 2013, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died at the age of 87.

The death of the ‘Iron Lady,’ former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher might seem a little off-topic for a blog on American politics and culture. But on second look, it might not be that far-off at all.

During the 1980s, conservative politics ruled the transatlantic relationship. The Cold War was still very real, the Iron Curtain was standing firmly, and both the White House (since 1980) and Downing Street 10 (since 1979) were inhabited by anticommunist leaders bent on pursuing neoliberal economic policies while defying the Soviet Union and defeating its real or imagined proxies abroad.

Thatcher was the first female prime minister of Britain and the first woman to be head of state of a major European country (see the New York TImes obituary linked below).

In recent times, there had been some renewed interest in Thatcher in the wake of the 2011 biopic The Iron Lady starring Meryl Streep.

President Obama had but nice things to say about Thatcher in his statement, as it is customary with such public condolences. Obama called Thatcher a “true friend” of America, “an unapologetic supporter of our transatlantic alliance,” and noted her extraordinary accomplishment as a woman leader in global politics. So far, so good. But once one puts aside the expected reverence for the deceased and takes a hard look at Thatcher’s political record and the actions she was ‘unapologetic’ about, things start to get ugly.

Some Of My Best Friends Are Military Dictators

Some of Thatcher’s foreign policy low points from the vantage point of general human decency include befriending military dictators such as Chilean General Augusto Pinochet, who provided military support to Britain during the Falklands War, and whom she defended until the end as the man who “brought democracy to Chile,” never mind that he accepted the pro-democracy referendum only after being granted lifelong immunity from prosecution for his human rights abuses during his reign from the 1973 coup d’etat onwards.

Thatcher also did not consider it necessary to push for sanctions against the South African Apartheid regime. Instead, she called the African National Congress of Nelson Mandela, then still incarcerated, a “typical terrorist organization.” The organization did have a military wing, but Thatcher’s relative benevolence towards the white supremacist Afrikaner government clearly puts her on the wrong side of history on this issue.

Judge for yourself where the Iron Lady’s priorities and sympathies lie.

Here is assorted  coverage on Margaret Thatcher’s death and her political legacy, part of which includes Thatcher’s political relationship with Ronald Reagan:

Inequality before and after Thatcher: what really happened.” (George Eaton, New Statesman, 2013/04/09) – Eaton shows that critics who say economic inequality rose more under Blair than under Thatcher are wrong. He also backs it up with a graph from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, an independent think tank.

Margaret Thatcher and misapplied death etiquette.” (Glenn Greenwald, Guardian, 2013/04/08) – Greenwald does not buy the notion that opponents of Thatcher’s should not speak ill of her in the wake of her dead, especially because her admirers exploit her death excessively.

Margaret Thatcher, former British prime minister, dead at 87.” (Fred Barbash, Washington Post, 2013/04/08) – Obituary that talks about transatlantic cooperation with the Reagan White House in deploying nuclear missiles in Europe and other foreign policy activities, such as the Falklands War. It also talks about her domestic policy approach characterized by antiunionism, privatization, and cuts to the British welfare state.

‘Iron Lady’ Who Set Britain on a New Course.” (Joseph R. Gregory, New York Times, 2013/04/08)

Thatcher, Reagan and Their Special Relationship.” (Nicolas Wapshott, New York Times, 2013/04/08) – Article from the NY Times that highlights Reagan and Thatcher’s political relationship. Wapshott characterizes their act on the world stage as sometimes being a game of “good cop, bad cop,” whereas Reagan played the bad cop and Thatcher portrayed the more upbeat saleswoman of the same policies.

Margaret Thatcher: The lady who changed the world.” (Economist, 2013/04/08)

The Iron Lady vs. The Iron Curtain: Photos of Margaret Thatcher from her days as one of the world’s foremost cold warriors.” (Foreign Policy, 2013/04/08)


Tributes Pour In for Margaret Thatcher.” (By and , New York Times, 2013/04/08)

Thrills of History: 1969’s Worst Case Scenario: If The Moon Landing Had Failed

 If The Moon Landing Had Failed

The Apollo 11 lunar module, the Moon, and the Earth.
A view of the Apollo 11 lunar module “Eagle” as it returned from the surface of the moon to dock with the command module “Columbia”. A smooth mare area is visible on the Moon below and a half-illuminated Earth hangs over the horizon. The lunar module ascent stage was about 4 meters across. Command module pilot Michael Collins took this picture just before docking at 21:34:00 UT (5:34 p.m. EDT) 21 July 1969. (Apollo 11, AS11-44-6642)
This image by NASA is in the public domain

On July 18 of 1969, the world held its breath. The Apollo 11 space mission was reaching the moon, preparing for the first human descent onto its surface. As Neil Armstrong, astronaut and first man on the moon, who recently passed away, famously said, the moon landing was “one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind!”

But what if the endeavor had gone awry? If the Apollo 11 crew could not have returned to Earth? How would the public have reacted to such a disaster, especially at the height of the Cold War? The Nixon White House certainly did not want to leave anything to chance, and so it prepared for the worst case scenario, which fortunately never materialized.

At Letters of Note, a very recommendable blog presenting historical documents in context, you can read the prepared statement that would have been disseminated through the mass media in case of a catastrophe. It is a fascinating read, in my opinion. It ends with these words:

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

Read more:

IN EVENT OF MOON DISASTER.” (Letters of Note, 2012/11/05)

The Moon Disaster That Wasn’t: Nixon’s Speech In Case Apollo 11 Failed to Return.” (Josh Jones, Open Culture, 2012/11/23)

Listen more:

[Podcast] “A Tribute to Neil Armstrong.” (StarTalk Radio Cosmic Queries, 2012/09/09) – Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson‘s podcast on Neil Armstrong and the Apollo 11 mission.


Historian Ulrich Adelt on the Blues in Cold War Germany

On April 26, Dr. Ulrich Adelt, Junior Professor of American Studies from the University of Wyoming, gave a talk at American Studies Leipzig as part of the Fulbright lecture series. His presentation was titled “Just Play the Blues: African Americans, Afro-Germans, white Germans and the Politics of Primitivism.”

Professor Adelt’s research interests include pop music, transnationalism, and racial politics.

In the 1960s, blues music underwent a shift from black artists and audiences to white artists and audiences. With the appropriation of the blues by white artists and audiences, the genre shifted away from its former black working class base. The white middle-class embrace of certain notions of blackness stood in contrast to black audiences’ increasing attraction to new music genres emphasizing civil rights and black power, such as Soul and Funk. For white audiences, black masculinity was perceived as a marker of authenticity. Nevertheless, African American performers often resisted such forced constructions of blackness.

Adelt used the American Folk Blues Festival, a music festival organized by German promoters starting in the early 1960s to illustrate the complex relationships between transnational popular culture and race during the Cold War.

The Transatlantic Dimension of the Blues

In the 1960s, blues music became a transatlantic phenomenon in its own way. Black American blues musicians, some of whom became expatriates, brought their music to eager European audiences. After a while, blues in an updated form was re-imported to the US, mostly through British rock bands.

As an example of an expatriate blues musician, Adelt mentioned Memphis Slim (1915 – 1988), who was portrayed in the June 1966 issue of Ebony magazine while living in Paris (You can read the issue in the Ebony archives). But this was not the norm. Most African American blues performers did not become expatriates.

Memphis Slim, American Folk Blues Festival, Hamburg 1972. Picture by Heinrich Klaffs. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license. From Wikipedia.
Memphis Slim, American Folk Blues Festival, Hamburg 1972. Picture by Heinrich Klaffs. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license. From Wikipedia.



Germany Gets the Blues (Sort of)

In Germany, promoters Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau organized the American Folk Blues Festival, beginning in 1962. Their construction of the blues was highly romantic. It used the genre’s blackness to highlight blues as the primitive root of Rock’n’Roll. Lippmann and Rau saw the blues as a vehicle of Denazificiation and Anti-racism. In retrospect, however, they continued to deploy racial constructions that are uncomfortably close to that of the Third Reich.

Adelt argued that pop culture is not always a liberating force, but can also work to uphold racial hierarchies and oppression.

Primitivism in Germany

In Germany, positive racism in the form of appropriating the art of ‘savages’ has a long history. African bodies used in art were seen as modern, fresh, or lively. Examples of works of art in this vein include Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), Emil Nolde‘s Dance Around the Golden Calf (1910), or the enthusiasm for American-born French dancer/singer/actress Josephine Baker (1906 – 1975).

Josephine Baker in Banana Skirt from the Folies Bergère production "Un Vent de Folie," 1927. Picture by Walery, French, (1863-1935). PD by age (Walery died more than 70 years ago). From Wikipedia.
Josephine Baker in Banana Skirt from the Folies Bergère production “Un Vent de Folie,” 1927. Picture by Walery, French, (1863-1935). PD by age (Walery died more than 70 years ago). From Wikipedia.



During the Third Reich, this former positive racism was replaced by negative racism, exemplified by terms such as Entartete Musik (‘Degenerate music’) (see also here) for jazz, and a fear of Vernegerung (‘Negroidization’) or Verjudung (‘Jewification’) of German culture through ‘foreign’ popular culture.






After World War II, certain Nazi imagery survived in popular children’s television series such as Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver (Jim Knopf und Lukas der Lokomotivführer) (1960). [There is a debate in Germany about whether Jim Button has to be read as racist or anti-racist.]

Racism was also present among parts of the white German left. Here, a “fascination with the real” drove the interest in the black embodiment of suffering.

Race in Germany Before and After World War Two

Transplanting the blues to Germany brought with it certain traveling problematic racial conceptions. While the US certainly had its own historic issues with race, the blues was entering a German culture that was no stranger to racist ideas, even before National Socialism. Among these were the ‘Black Horror on the Rhine’ (“Die Schwarze Schmach“)—fear of the presence of black French troops during the Occupation of the Rhineland following World War I, the vilification of interracial fraternization in the phenomenon of  ‘Occupation Babies’ (“Besatzungskinder”) after World War II, caused by sexual relationships between black American GIs and white German women.

Such negative racial constructs were later challenged by Afro-German activists, for instance in the book Farbe Bekennen (‘Showing our Colors’) in 1986.

After the reunification of Germany, a wave of Neo-Nazi attacks on immigrants and non-white persons conveyed an urgency among ethnic minorities and sympathetic parts of the mainstream German population to organize against racial stereotypes. Within German popular culture, Hip Hop artists, especially multi-ethnic or Afro-German Hip Hop artists, such as Advanced Chemistry (early 1990s), Samy Deluxe (starting in the late 1990s), or Brothers Keepers (early 2000s) were involved in anti-racist activism.

Blues as Cold War Propaganda in East and West

The blues was used as a propaganda tool on both sides of the Cold War divide. The capitalist West promoted blues and Jazz as symbols of openness in  contrast to the Soviet system. Nonetheless, during the early Cold War, the Jim Crow system was still very much intact in the US, and the Civil Rights Movement had not yet gained that strong a foothold.

The communist East was eager to point out these contradictions, presenting blues and jazz as a signs of resistance against the inherent racism of the capitalist system. In the German Democratic Republic, blues was promoted as music of the oppressed masses, embedded into a critique of US capitalism. On the other hand, there were crackdowns on long-haired blues fans nonetheless, and racial stereotypes were not absent.

Lippmann and Rau Bring American Popular Music to Germany

The organizers of the American Folk Blues Festival were coming from very different backgrounds. Lippmann was Jewish and his family had been persecuted by the Nazis. He saw similarities between black suffering in the US and the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany. Rau, on the other hand, came from a family that had profited from the Nazis’ war buildup. He discovered Jazz in the 1950s and imagined the possibility of Dennazification and “rebirth through Jazz.”

When Lippmann and Rau began to organize jazz concerts featuring African American artists, for instance the Modern Jazz Quartet, they sought to give Jazz an aura of “respectability” by having artists wear tuxedos, advertising events with abstract art, and setting up concerts in symphony halls instead of small, smoke-filled clubs. As Adelt argued, this idea of having to make jazz and its performers respectable can be traced back to racial ideas of the Nazi era.

While organizing blues concerts, Lippmann and Rau gave up on the concept of creating respectability and appealed to primitivist ideas instead. The American Folk Blues Festival, staged between 1962 and 1972, and 1980 to 1985, usually went for three to four hours and featured eight to ten headliners.

What was presented in these concerts can be described as nostalgic blues for white audiences. Both folk music from the 1930s and 1950s blues were at this point somewhat outdated. Older blues artists, such as Willie Dixon (1915 – 1992), were rediscovered during the 1960s. In this context, there was also a conflict between older black and younger white blues performers.

Big Joe Williams, American Folk Blues Festival, Hamburg 1972. Photo by Heinrich Klaffs. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license. From Wikipedia.
Big Joe Williams, American Folk Blues Festival, Hamburg 1972. Photo by Heinrich Klaffs. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 1.0 Generic license. From Wikipedia.

Lippmann and Rau’s posters advertising their events made extensive use of romantic primitivist imagery. The artwork often featured guitars and earthy colors, reminiscent of nameless black bodies. Overall, their design conveyed a “non-threatening” nostalgia.

The events themselves even surpassed the posters in their stagecraft. To enhance the atmosphere of the spectacle, concerts sometimes featured recreated juke joints and other scenery, and African American GIs were bused in as studio audience in Germany.

Here, here, and here are some videos of typical performances (you can find much more material on youtube).

In 1967, Lippmann and Rau started booking Soul and Funk artists such as James Brown. With a turn towards these more contemporary forms of black popular music, the audience also shifted notably from white Germans to black American GIs.

Blues, Civil Rights, and Well-Meaning Racism

In 1965, Lippmann and Rau linked their American Folk Blues Festival to the US Civil Rights Movement. While well-meaning, in retrospect they upheld problematic racial constructions. In concert booklets, for example, blacks were presented as victims without an agency of their own. In a sense, Lippmann and Rau catered to their audience’s expectations of blues as a primitive, raw, emotional, but certainly not intellectual form of art.

Some African American blues artists developed what Adelt sees as strategies to counter such forced constructions of identity. At times, they spontaneously changed playlists at their shows. Some defied stereotyping by showing off their extraordinary skills and gimmicks in musicianship, for instance on the guitar. Stage antics, appearance in decidedly flashy clothes, or the performance of novelty songs were forms of resistance against expectations. White audiences did not always take this too well. In 1965, Buddy Guy (born in 1936) was booed for playing a medley of James Brown songs. To some degree, the blues resisted against expectations of white middle class respectability.

In conclusion, Adelt remarked that the appropriation of the blues by white German audiences was characterized by ambiguity. While there was great optimism about the prospects of Denazification through American popular culture, the project of transplanting the blues to Europe had a blind spot in its continuation of racial stereotypes.

Here is American Studies Leipzig’s video interview with Ulrich Adelt:

Further Reading:

Adelt, Ulrich. Blues Music in the Sixties: A Story in Black and White. First Paperback ed. Rutgers UP, 2011.
Balitzki, Jürgen et al. Bye Bye, Lübben City. Bluesfreaks, Tramps Und Hippies in Der DDR. 1st ed. Schwarzkopf + Schwarzkopf, 2004.
Carby, Hazel V. Race Men. Harvard UP, 2000.
Filene, Benjamin. Romancing the Folk: Public Memory and American Roots Music. U of North Carolina P, 2000.
Hamilton, Marybeth. In Search of the Blues. Reprint. Basic Books, 2009.
Hohn, Maria. GIs and Fräuleins: The German-American Encounter in 1950s West Germany. U of North Carolina P, 2002.
Oguntoye, Katharina, May Ayim, and Dagmar Schultz. Farbe Bekennen: Afro-deutsche Frauen Auf Den Spuren Ihrer Geschichte. 3., veränd. Aufl. (REV). Orlanda Frauenverlag, 2007.
Von Eschen, Penny M. Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War. Harvard UP, 2006.