‘Reagan’s Racism’ Charge Collides With The Heroes of the Lomba River

Printed from: https://newbostonpost.com/2019/08/05/reagans-racism-charge-collides-with-the-heroes-of-the-lomba-river/

Ronald Reagan phoned President Richard Nixon in 1971 and described African ambassadors at the United Nations as “monkeys” who were “still uncomfortable wearing shoes,” The Atlantic magazine reported recently, calling it evidence of  “Reagan’s racism.”

Anyone who refers to humans as animals is a turkey. But so long as the topic of racism by a Republican president is in the news, let’s give this one a closer look.

What was Reagan so upset about? It was a United Nations vote to recognize Communist China instead of the nationalist Chinese government on Taiwan. The consequence was to consolidate Communist rule over hundreds of millions of Asian people. That Reagan was so furious about how the Africans had voted on the issue suggests something that is confirmed by lots of other evidence — that Reagan cared passionately about freedom and prosperity and the rule of law not only for white people in the United States or Europe, but also for people of color in China and elsewhere.

It’s certainly possible to be racist against blacks or Africans and be passionate about freedom for Asians. But neither does it quite fit the stereotypical white supremacist image.

Also complicating the caricature of a racist Reagan is the story of Jonas Savimbi. Reagan spoke about him in 1986 to a dinner of the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“Last September, at the Lomba River in southern Angola, when a force of … rebels met an overwhelmingly superior force of government troops directly supported by the Soviet bloc, the UNITA forces defeated the government troops and drove them and their Communist allies from the field,” Reagan said. “In the history of revolutionary struggles or movements for true national liberation, there is often a victory like this that electrifies the world and brings great sympathy and assistance from other nations to those struggling for freedom. Past American Presidents, past American Congresses, and always, of course, the American people have offered help to others fighting in the freedom cause that we began. So, tonight, each of us joins in saluting the heroes of the Lomba River and their leader, the hope of Angola, Jonas Savimbi.”

Reagan spoke about Savimbi again to a Heritage Foundation lunch in 1987. “In Angola in the past few weeks, Jonas Savimbi’s freedom fighters inflicted another crushing defeat on the Soviet-backed MPLA forces,” Reagan said. “This fall’s Communist offensive, the biggest ever in Angola, ended in a rout for the Soviets and their protégés. The heroes of the Lomba River did it again, pushing back the massive Soviet assault, capturing hundreds of operational trucks and tanks, and shooting down a substantial number of helicopters and Cuban-piloted planes. The Soviets truly are beginning to feel the sting of free people fighting back.”

In 1988, in Rose Garden remarks signing the Captive Nations Week declaration, Reagan said, “I recently met in the White House with Jonas Savimbi, the leader of the UNITA forces that control much of Angola against a Communist regime propped up by over 40,000 Cuban troops. I am proud to say that the brave UNITA fighters have our support.”

The contempt Reagan felt for the African U.N. ambassadors in 1971, and the respect he had for Savimbi, seems to me to have had less to do with the color of their skin or the continent they came from, and more to do with where they stood on what Reagan, in those 1988 remarks, called “the fundamental moral difference between freedom and communism.”

In that same Rose Garden speech, Reagan went on to speak of the struggle against communism in Nicaragua. Reagan invested huge amounts of political capital in aiding the Contras fighting against the Communist Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. He did so over opposition from then-Senator Joseph Biden, Bill de Blasio, and Bernie Sanders. Reagan pursued this so ardently because communism in Nicaragua would serve as a forward base for the Soviet Union and would, he argued, threaten the American mainland. But he also spoke of how the Nicaraguan communists oppressed “an entire culture, the Miskito Indians, thousands of whom have been slaughtered or herded into detention camps, where they have been starved and abused.”

What does this Reagan episode tell us about our current Republican president and the racism allegations against him? It is a reminder that the racism charge is easily and often flung in politics, and that the reality is often more complicated. That’s not a blanket defense of or excuse for either Reagan or for our current president. It is, though, a reminder is that racism isn’t always so black-and-white.


Ira Stoll is editor of FutureOfCapitalism.com and author of JFK, Conservative.