Thursday, November 21, 2013

Kennedy's Dreams for Africa


By   A. Cassam
The journey from Cape Town to Dar es Salaam takes about six hours by air, as the crow flies. Air Force One may have taken less time to bring President Obama and family from  South Africa to Tanzania, the third and final country on their African tour of July this year.

The distance between these two capitals is not very great but South Africa and Tanzania inhabit two very different parts of planet Africa, and not only with regard to climatic zones. July is a cruel month in the austral winter  season; on Robben Island, which the Obamas visited on the last day of their itinerary,  the bitterly cold wind that comes off the southern Atlantic ocean and bites into your bones is unexpected and unrelenting.

A visit to Mandela’s cell is equally so; it is a shock to one’s s entire system-body, heart and soul. The tiny cell is very much a museum, strangely impersonal as one walks in but which very quickly fills with one’s own pain and sadness as one looks around and tries to take in, among other things, the cold cement floor and the 18 years he spent here. 

The pain and discomfort were visible on the faces of the Obamas as they returned to the mainland and prepared to leave the country with obvious regret at not having had the chance to meet Mandela himself. For the entire period of the presidential visit, the main news, in the country and the world, concerned Mandela's health as he lay in intensive care in hospital, apparently at death’s door but  « in a stable condition. » Fortunately, the  great warrior survived  as the state visit ended and the Obamas left for Dar es Salaam.

The next morning, when they landed at Mwalimu Julius Nyerere International Airport in sparkling tropical sunshine, the energy in their body language was evident as they ran down the aircraft steps and into the waiting arms of the Tanzanian President and his welcoming party. The entire airport was bursting at the seams with people, kids, flags, soldiers in ceremonial uniform, drumbeats, military bands, gun salutes and troops of dancers performing their ngoma (traditional group dances) with such hip-swaying ardour that the guest-President could not but join in and sway with them on the tarmac for a minute or two.

Tanzania, in this year of grace 2013, has been a favoured destination for several political leaders, past and present. The newly elected Chinese Head of State, Xi Jinping, came in March, delighted, he explained, to be once more in a country he first visited as a young man many years ago. Barack Obama’s stay in July coincided with that of George W. Bush, by now a frequent visitor,  clearly  relieved at not having to mention Iraq. His comrade-in-arms (of mass destruction), Tony Blair, also came to town ten days later in his capacity as a high-level business promoter and promised to do his best for the electrification project announced by President Obama.

The month of August brought Bill Clinton and his foundation to Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar in support of his local NGO partners and their anti- malaria projects.  Former Presidents Clinton and Bush now come regularly to the country and the region, both having re-invented themselves as humanitarians and philanthropists after having ignored Africa’s problems during their respective terms in office.

During the Clinton presidency, this « benign neglect » of Africa was particularly flagrant in the case of Rwanda and its genocide in 1994; he has since apologised to the Rwandese people for his silence and inaction and is a strong supporter of President Kagame. Let us hope he will also apologise one day for the half-a- million Iraqi infants who died (according to UNICEF) as a result of the no-fly zones enforced by the US and UK and the severe economic sanctions imposed on the Iraqi people via the UN from 1991 to 1998, when Clinton and  Blair were kings.  

Tanzania has become a family affair for the Clintons; long before Bill discovered the neighbourhood, his wife Hilary and daughter Chelsea had made several private trips. In 2011, Secretary of State Clinton spoke in Dar es Salaam  about the dangers of « a creeping new colonialism » in Africa which she said came from foreign investors and governments only interested in extracting natural resources and in enriching themselves. At the press conference, no one thought to ask if the creeping «old colonialism » of the past had possessed a very different agenda.

Chelsea, a banker on Wall St., has now given up the financial world in order to work full-time with her Dad’s foundation. Why so? she was asked on the BBC world service; she gave this illuminating reply : « I decided I did not want to denominate my life in dollars but in terms of the changes for the better that I could help to bring to the lives of others. »    
George W’s special area of interest is AIDS programs but on the July trip he came with his wife Laura who had organised a Summit of First Ladies to promote the work of her foundation in the area of education. She was, as always, the more fluent, the more coherent of the couple, at hand to finish her husband’s phrases when he was stuck for words or when his mind went blank mid-stream, which was quite often.

Africa has not always been a source of humanitarian inspiration for American leaders. The first President to come to East Africa was Theodore Roosevelt in 1909. Soon after retiring from the White House, T. R. Roosevelt treated himself and a large group of friends and colleagues from the Smithsonian Institute to a hunting safari in East and Central Africa. The trip lasted 9 months, cost  $1million ($25 million in today’s money) and the group killed 11,400 animals of all types and sizes. (Smithsonian Institute Archives). 

Modern (post World War II) incumbents of the White House have shown even  less interest in  the human factor in Africa, as epitomised by ex-President Richard (« I-am-not-a-crook ») Nixon.  According to him, « American- style democracy is not necessarily the best form of government for people in Asia, Africa and Latin America with entirely different backgrounds. » He told his adviser Kissinger to forget Africa: « Henry, let’s leave the niggers to Bill and we’ll take care of the rest of the world. »  Bill here refers to the then Secretary of State, William P. Rogers, who knew nothing about foreign affairs and was chosen for the post by Nixon precisely for that reason. (The Untold History of the United States: Stone and Kuznick).

During the Reagan and Bush Senior regimes, Tanzania and other African countries (Egypt, Sudan, and Mozambique for example), were left to the mercies of the Washington Concensus (IMF, World Bank and assorted northern donors) to suffer under draconian structural adjustment programmes and debt service demands. The consequences led to mass poverty and serious damage to health and education  services for African populations and for the northern donors, a steady flow (known as negative transfer) of  millions of dollars from the poor. It will be recalled that the period of the 1980s was known in World Bank/IMF circles as the ‘lost decade’.

The one, remarkable exception to this type of thinking  came from John F. Kennedy, President of the USA from 1961-1963. Kennedy came to the White House as the decade of the 1960s began, and as the wave of de-colonisation and independence spread across the African continent. When the UN General Assembly met for its annnual session in September 1960, sixteen new African states took their seats for the first time. The only person in Washington who seemed to have appreciated this historical transformation - and marvelled at it - was  Senator John F. Kennedy.

The rest of the elite, in government or academia, had very little interest in the subject and African issues were relegated to the backwaters of the State Department’s Bureau for African Affairs established in 1957. As for diplomacy, in 1960, there were more foreign service personnel serving at the US mission in Bonn,West Germany than in the whole of Africa.

 Fifty years after his assassination on November 22 1963, it is fascinating to listen to Kennedy expressing his interest and knowledge about Africa and his respect for and commitment to the newly-independent  leaders who came to meet him at the White House during his short presidency.

The Kennedy archives have been digitalised and audio recordings of the President’s remarks when welcoming many world leaders of the time are accessible on-line, as are his speeches, correspondence and press conferences. During the period of his presidency (1961-63), some 29 African heads of state and government were received at the White House.

Kennedy, unlike  many who came after him, was  keenly aware of the changing times and tides of  history. He was not a believer in the myth of an America standing aloof, alone and perfect, in its god-given incarnation as « the greatest nation on earth ». Having served in the US navy in World War II, he was informed enough and curious enough to observe the  profound shifts taking place all over the  post-war globe as the once-mighty European empires reluctantly loosened their grip on countless foreign lands and on millions of their inhabitants.

As a young journalist he was in San Francisco in 1945 to cover the birth of the United Nations Organisation; as a young Congressman, he visited Indochina in 1951; very soon after, he began to identify the same pattern of French obduracy and denial in face of the clash beween settlers and natives in Algeria. In 1957, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he gave this warning about French and American attitudes in relation to the Algerian struggle for independence : « No amount of mutual politeness, wishful thinking, nostalgia or regret should blind either France or the US to the fact that if France and the West are to have a continuing influence in North Africa, the essential first step is the independence of Algeria. »

Two years later in 1959, in his capacity as Chairman of the African Subcomittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he described the force blowing the winds of change across Africa. « Call it nationalism, call it anti-colonialism, call it what you will, Africa is going through a revolution. The word is out and spreading like wildfire in a thousand languages and dialects….that it is no longer necessary to remain forever poor and forever in bondage. »

Once in office, he quickly established  his choice of foreign policy priorities for the new nations. Kennedy was his own man, far too knowledgeable and forward-looking to need so-called « advisers » so necessary to some of his successors. Furthermore, he  explained his ideas very clearly: « The US is neither omnipotent nor omniscient - that we are only 6 per cent of the world’s population - that we can not impose our will on the other 94 per cent of mankind - that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity - and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to very world problem. » (Speech to the University of Washington, November 1961.)

To another unversity audience, in Berkley, California, he spelt out his long view of America in world history: « It is the profound tendencies of history and not the passing excitements that will shape our future. The long view shows us that the revolution of national independence is a fundamental fact of our era. This revolution will not be stopped. As new nations emerge from the oblivion of centuries, their first aspiration is to affirm their national identity. Their deepest hope is for a world where, within a framework of international cooperation, every country can solve its own problems according to its own traditions and ideals. » Such a world, he continued, « far from being opposed to the American conception of world order, contains the very essence of our view of the future, and forms the unifying spirit of our policies. »


When listening to  Kennedy’s short speeches of welcome, one is struck by his unfailing courtesy and modesty, qualities that Presidents of  superpowers are  not obliged to possess - and most of them do not.  As Professor JK Galbraith, who knew Kennedy as a student at Harvard and who was his chosen ambassador to Nehru’s India, explained, « Kennedy was completely content with his own personality. He never felt it necessary to say anything by way of self-enhancement. » (A Life in Our Times). He had no need to prove or promote himself and this gave him confidence and patience and the ability to take the long view.

To the new leaders from Africa, he was never arrogant or patronising but always generous in his acknowedgement of their struggles for freedom. He constantly compared their national ambitions with those of America’s own founding vision and frequently quoted or refered to Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, Lincoln and Washington. Above all, he treated them as equals, taking them into his confidence and extending to them a natural complicity, no matter what their political backgrounds and  their particular paths to power.

Among the first leaders from Africa welcomed in Washington in 1961 were Presidents Nkrumah of Ghana and Bourguiba of Tunisia ;  both were received as  fathers of their nations, leaders who had struggled long and hard to bring  independence to their countries. Nkrumah had earlier spoken at the UN where he had quoted Jefferson’s famous words, « the disease of liberty is catching… » Kennedy quoted the same words back to the  Ghanain leader, acknowledging his fight for liberty in his country and in Africa. Then he added,« Like you, we are anxious for peace in Africa so that her people can develop the resources necessary for their well-being. We are a revolutionary people anxious to see for others what we have gained for ourselves. »
For Bourguiba, he had special words of appreciation, knowing well every stage of the Tunisian leader’s long journey from service within France’s colonial system, through imprisonment and finally to leadership and nation-building in his own proudly independent country.

  He even expressed high regard for Bourguiba’s policy of Non-Alignment ( a concept viewed with deep suspicion in the West) and spelt out in detail his reasons: « we realise that for you non-alignment does not mean neutrality ….you vote with us when you think we are right and you vote against us when you think we are wrong… agree with us when you feel the US stands for progress and freedom and disagree when you feel we take positions which do not do us credit. We welcome this; this is what we want…to be associated with free countries and free societies. You have done us a service by coming here… »
 In his words of welcome to President Senghor of Senegal, Kennedy subtly adapted  his words to suit the beneficiary. Senghor, a faithful servant of France, could hardly be praised for having fought for his country’s independence. So reference was made to his literary distinctions (« you write your nation’s poems and also its laws ») and to Senegal’s historic links with the US via the « millions of people who came to America from Africa. »

Kennedy’s reputation as a friend of Africa struck a chord among the Francophone states in particular, in contrast to the contempt voiced by Gen. De Gaulle for whom they were relics of « pre-history ». The new leaders arrived  in quick succession: Presidents Youlou of the Congo, Ahidjo of Cameroon, Olympio of Togo, Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast, Sekou Toure of Guinea, King Hassan of Morocco.

President Houphouet-Boigny of Ivory Coast was a leader respected by his peers in West Africa. Kennedy recognised this fact and sent his brother, Robert, Attorney-General, to Abidjan to attend the independence celebrations in 1961. When Houphouet-Boigny came to the White House a year later, Kennedy was quick to salute « the bridge-builder between Africa and Europe and America. »  It was extraordinary, he added, that all these new countries « maintain their independence, face staggering problems, speak for their people and still make the effort to keep their ties with us in the free world. »

Kennedy’s references to the « free world » in this context were not assertions of dogma and exclusivity.  In the ideological contest of the time, he was an anti-communist warrior when dealing with Viet Nam or Cuba or the Soviet Union.  And yet regarding Africa, he understood that the prime desire was for national independence, not for allegiance to any bloc. Thus  he had no problem communicating with the left-wing leaders such as those of Guinea and Mali or liberation fighters like Eduardo Mondlane of Mozambique.

 He  also rejected the simple-minded belief inherited from the John Foster Dulles era that foreign aid was the cold war by other means. « The fundamental task of our foreign aid program in the 1960s is not negatively to fight communism but to help make a historical demonstration that in the southern half of the globe as in the north, economic growth and political democracy can develop hand in hand. 

In August 1961, Kennedy talked to the very first group of Peace Corps volunteers as they made ready to leave for  Ghana and Tanganyika. The group for Ghana comprised of teachers and the President pointed out correctly that one of the biggest problems in all of Africa was the lack of qualified teachers. The  leaders of these two countries, he went on, were themselves teachers originally, indicating thus an « intimate relationship between leadership and teaching  as exemplified by President Nkrumah and Prime Minister Nyerere, two of the most vigorous leaders of the new Africa. »

 The Peace Corps group destined for Tanganyika (not yet independent) was to help train badly needed surveyors. He pointed out that the country « was gifted with unusual leadership » and that the impression the young American volunteers gave  «over there of what kind of country we are will depend on their judgment of who you are. »

It is clear  that Kennedy saw the process - and the success - of decolonisation in Africa, north and south of the Sahara, as marking the end of foreign domination and the end of  « poverty and bondage for ever. » He wanted America to support Africans in this ambition, to improve their social, economic  and educational circumstances, not to replace European imperialism with an American version.
In July 1962, the Algerian struggle for independence,  a cause Kennedy had always supported, finally ended with the signing of the Evian Peace Accords and the first Prime Minister of the new Republic of Algeria, Ahmed Ben Bella, arrived in New York in October to take his  country’s seat at the UN.  His Foreign Minister, Mohamed Khemisti, then travelled to Washington to meet Dean Rusk, Secretary of State, to finalise arrangements for Ben Bella’s visit to the White House, after which the Algerian delegation was scheduled to fly to Cuba. The Rusk meeting turned out to be most memorable. (Episode recounted to the author by a member of the Algerian delegation.)

Since there were no links of any kind beween Cuba and the US, the Cubans were ready to send a plane to the US to bring Ben Bella to Havana, if permitted by the American authorities. Dean Rusk made it clear there would be no permission; the Cuban plane would be impounded by the US police if it tried to land for any reason. He then continued in the same hostile vein to discuss other protocol matters. Foreign Minister Khemisti, rather disturbed by this attitude, ended the meeeting and reported back to Ben Bella in New York; the decision was taken not to insist on a meeting with President Kennedy at that time, and to make alternative arrangements to reach Havana.

This State Department meeting took place on October 14 1962, the very day on which Kennedy was given aerial photographs (taken by a US surveillance plane) of Soviet nuclear missile sites in the Pinar del Rio region of Cuba. At midnight, the White House called New York to speak to Ben Bella; it was the President. « I gather the meeting with the Secretary of State did not go well, he said. « Please forget about it and please accept my personal invitation to come to Washington. »  He said he had an important message to give to Ben Bella and that all  protocol  concerns would be resolved, including  that of the Cuban plane which could come to Washington for the trip to Havana.

The next day, October 15 1962, Ben Bella arrived at the White House to be met  by the President with full honours. At the official lunch, he praised the Algerian guests  for their courage and fortitude during the years spent in French prisons. The victory of the Algerians « shows that all those who want to hold back the tide of history are wrong. »

The message he gave Ben Bella was for Fidel Castro;  it contained photographs of those Russian nuclear missile sites which were being installed in Cuba, although this had been publically denied by President Khrushchev himself.  By lucky coincidence, and inspite of Rusk, the Algerian leader, having the trust of both Kennedy and Castro, was able to convey to the latter irrefutable proof of the Soviet arms build-up on the island, a provocation that no American leader could ignore.

This was the beginning of the Cuban Missile Crisis in which Kennedy and Khrushchev were pitted against each other in a contest of nuclear threats which risked wiping out their two countries and others as well. After days of brinkmanship, the two leaders retreated from the nuclear edge, horrified at the mutual destruction they could have unleashed. The Russians agreed to pull their lethal equipment and troops out of Cuba and the Americans agreed not to invade the island. Thus the most serious conflict  of the cold war began slowly to melt  much to the relief of all.

Kennedy came through this ordeal deeply affected and changed.  The missile crisis was an education for him about the mindsets of his own military leaders; he was shocked by their lust for immediate military action against the Russians and the Cubans, even if this meant using nuclear weapons. For their part, the joint chiefs of staff and the security heads were furious at him for not letting them bomb Havana and Moscow and never forgave him for having ignored their advice.

In private conversation with his trusted group of colleagues (like Galbraith, MacNamara, Schlesinger, and others), he made it quite clear that he was going to replace the war-happy generals and their civilian counterparts. He also began to indicate that he would change his policies on the conflicts shaped by the Cold War, on nuclear disarmament, on nuclear test bans, on Viet Nam and even on Cuba and Castro. These changes, however, would have to wait for his re-election in 1964. (Recorded by Schlesinger, Sorensen, et al.)

In 1963, in what was to be the last year of his presidency and the last year of his life, Kennedy turned his attention to Africa once more, but this time to the Africa within,  to the American citizens of African descent.

A full century after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the descendants of the African slaves were still «crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination» as described by Martin Luther King Jr. in his I-Have-A-Dream speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial in August that year. The main body of that speech, it is important to recall, contained a damning chronicle of the abject poverty, misery and humiliation the black minority still suffered at the hands of the white population in the southern states.

As the Kennedy historian, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. noted:  « Historians of the 21st century will no doubt struggle to explain how nine-tenths of the American population priding themselves every day on their kindliness, their generosity, their historic consecration to the rights of  man, could so long have connived in the systematic dehumanisation of the remaining tenth…and could have done so without not just a second but hardly a first thought. » (A Thousand Days). 
This  situation may have seemed inexplicable to progressive Americans like Schlesinger but seen from Africa, it looked all too familiar. There were striking similarities in the segregationist society of the Deep South and the racist one of South Africa. The white-black divide in the land of apartheid was a replica of the one in the land of the free. The fact that the whites of the US were in the majority while those of South Africa were in the minority made no difference.

The same outward signs ruled the public spaces and amenities in both countries: «Whites Only. » «  No Coloureds.» The same contempt and hatred leading to the same desire to separate from, to deprive and denigrate, existed in both places, as did the same violence against those who dared to challenge and resist.

There was, however, one major difference beween the the American and South African situations which should not be overlooked. The apartheid ideology was state-owned and racism under Afrikaner rule was the official line, enforced by state institutions  and the legal system. In the US, segregation was not state-sponsored. The  US Constitution was held to be « colour-blind» and racism could be challenged in the courts. For example, the Supreme Court had ruled in 1954 that segregation in state colleges was illegal, yet the universities of Mississipi and Alabama did not admit non-white students. And nothing could compel them to do so.

The problem lay in the fact that the deeply prejudiced white society of the South cared nothing for the Constitutional rights of their black citizens;  and no superior authority had ever bothered - or dared - to challenge them. The black population’s «systematic de-humanisation» persisted because everyone who could, was connniving in it. The result was a world where justice was arbitrary, the out-law was hero and the Klu Klux Klan roamed undisturbed.

In September 1962, James Meredith, an air force veteran, tried for the third time that year to enroll at the University of Mississipi, his home state; he was barred once more from entering because of the colour of his skin, despite repeated warnings to local officials from the federal authorities. The third time, the Attorney-General, Robert Kennedy, called out 400 federal marshalls to escort Meredith to the campus and when the place exploded in violent riots, the President sent in 3000 troops who stayed there for weeks.
A few months later, when the Police Commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, unleashed his dogs on to the young protestors and arrested Rev. Martin Luther King and other leaders campaigning to end discrimination in public places, the President promised «to use all available means to protect human rights and  promote the law of the land. This will be done through mediation and persuasion and by lawsuits and court action when federal court orders are circumvented or ignored. » (Press Conference  of May 8 1963).

When rioters bombed the home of King’s brother, A.B.King, once again the President assured  the public that « this government is prepared to carry out its statutory and constitutional obligations »(Press Conference of May 8 1963 ).  In  many talks to universities, high schools, and civic organisations, he likened the struggle for civil rights in America to the world-wide struggle for freedom everywhere.

« We said to the world and to each other that we are the land of the free; did all we mean was that it was the land of the free except for the negroes? » In a powerful TV address to the nation (June 11 1963), he said a moral crisis was facing the country. « This nation,…. for all its boasts, will not be fully free unless all its citizens are free….A great change is at  hand and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change peaceful and constructive for all. »

It was to the credit of Kennedy and his brother that they took it upon themselves to drag their narrow- and nasty-minded compatriots, kicking and screaming,  into the egalitarian, law-respecting Union the country claimed to be. The Kennedy brothers, by fully exercising the executive and legal  powers they possessed under the Constitution, were able to prise open some of the manacles of bigotry and prejudice that had gripped the southern states for generations.

The struggle for civil rights as it unfolded in the summer of 1963 in the law-courts and streets of America was followed with great interest, especially in Africa.  Kennedy received many messages of support, including one from the newly-elected President of the Republic of Tanganyika, Julius Nyerere. He wrote to say, « how much I appreciate your efforts in connection with the reinvigorated demands by the Negro citizens of America for full and equal rights throughout the Union. I realise that old prejudices die hard…but I would like to express our confidence that you will find a solution that gives justice to all American citizens. In doing so, you will be making a great contribution to the cause of non-racialism throughout the world, and incidentally helping our own efforts in this regard. » (Letter of June 18 1963).

Nyerere was referring to the  problem of racist rule in Southern Africa and in the Portuguese colonies and the efforts he himself was planning to lead within the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) established in May of that same year in Addis Ababa. He had written to Kennedy to inform him of the founding of the OAU and of its Liberation Committee and Kennedy had replied by inviting him to Washington for further discussions on the subject.

In July 1963, the American President welcomed President Nyerere on the White House Lawn with a short speech which, for the first part, was  the  typical Kennedy-style evocation of the founding fathers of America, Lincoln and Jefferson; for the second part, it was an ardent call for peace and justice that he wanted for all, in a shining new world which he could now begin to envisage.

« You are engaged in a great work, Mr.President, and your visit here in the summer of 1963 is most opportune. So much is changing in your own country and in Africa and so much is changing here. Progress we hope will mark the year 1963 in every field, internationally and nationally, on this continent and this hemisphere, on your continent and your hemisphere….for peace and justice throughout the world. »

The last African leader to visit the White House was the Emperor of Ethiopia, Haille Salassie, on October 1 1963. Kennedy’s words of welcome were, as ever, free of banalities but mindful of the broad sweep of history contained in the life of the aged monarch, representing an ancient kingdom. It was extraordinary, the young President pointed out, that a statesman who had survived the fascist invasion of his own country (by Mussolini) in the 1930s, whose appearance before the League of Nations had so impressed  the international community of the day, should now, in a completely changed world, mark the birth in his own capital  of a new body dedicated to the unity of his continent. 

A continent that John Kennedy had dreamt of,  but never visited.

              « That he was qualified in the art of government there will never be any question. His style called for unremitting good taste and good manners. It also called for a profound commitment to information and reason. He did not think that man had been civilised as an afterthought ; he believed it was for a purpose.»
John K.Galbraith (Washington Post : November 25 1963 ) 


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