In fact, as far as a lot of conservatives are concerned, Nelson Mandela was a terrorist—indeed some are still saying so today—so they might be understandably tongue-tied when he ascended to the pantheon of great men. Salon writes that yesterday pundits compared him to, among others, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington (from Charles Krauthammer!), Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
An article by Peter Beinart, writing for the Daily Beast, puts it all in perspective:
But not long ago, in Washington’s highest circles, he was considered an enemy of the United States. Unless we remember why, we won’t truly honor his legacy.
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan placed Mandela’s African National Congress on America’s official list of “terrorist” groups. In 1985, then-Congressman Dick Cheney voted against a resolution urging that he be released from jail. In 2004, after Mandela criticized the Iraq War, an article in National Review said his “vicious anti-Americanism and support for Saddam Hussein should come as no surprise, given his longstanding dedication to communism and praise for terrorists.” As late as 2008, the ANC remained on America’s terrorism watch list, thus requiring the 89-year-old Mandela to receive a special waiver from the secretary of State to visit the U.S.
From their perspective, Mandela’s critics were right to distrust him. They called him a “terrorist” because he had waged armed resistance to apartheid. They called him a “communist” because the Soviet Union was the ANC’s chief external benefactor and the South African Communist Party was among its closest domestic allies. More fundamentally, what Mandela’s American detractors understood is that he considered himself an opponent, not an ally, of American power. And that’s exactly what Mandela’s American admirers must remember now.
Mandela’s message to America’s leaders, born from firsthand experience, was clear: Don’t pretend you are pure.
We must remember it because in Washington today, politicians and pundits breezily describe the Cold War as a struggle between the forces of freedom, backed by the U.S., and the forces of tyranny, backed by the USSR. In some places—Germany, Eastern Europe, eventually Korea—that was largely true. But in South Africa, the Cold War was something utterly different. In South Africa, for decades, American presidents backed apartheid in the name of anti-communism. Indeed, the language of the Cold War proved so morally corrupting that in 1981, Reagan, without irony, called South Africa’s monstrous regime “essential to the free world.”
Get the rest of this article at the Daily Beast.