The White Lobby: When The U.S. Was Sanctions-Buster Extraordinaire

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Above photo: A Rhodesian Armored Car Regiment. World Armies / Flickr.

The bullet holes were what stuck with me.  I visited the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina during the summer of 2016, at the head of the West Point civil rights history staff ride – a two week trip across the American South for select cadets in my classes.  It had only been a year since the young white supremacist Dylan Roof had murdered nine people at the famed historically black church.  So it was eery to attend the very same evening prayer session that he’d shot up and glimpse the persistent pocked marked evidence on the walls.  Much was later made of Roof’s web posts, particularly his ubiquitous photos with Confederate iconography.  These set off a welcome national debate on the display of the secessionist battle flag and other southern civil war symbols.  Few, however, took note of another theme in Roof’s pictures and scrawling: Rhodesia.

Indeed, he had posed with the green and white flag of that now defunct minority white-settler  Southern African regime which had once defied Great Britain and fought for maintenance of its own petit apartheid between 1965-1980.  The country, eventually forced to accept black majority (more than 95% of the population) rule, is now known as Zimbabwe.  Rhodesia has, in fact, taken on a sort of legendary nostalgic status for white supremacists in America today.  Roof’s website was even called “The Last Rhodesian.”  However, what no one seems to talk about was the degree to which the United States indirectly protected that white secessionist state and openly busted the United Nations’ mandatory sanctions against Rhodesia.

This should seem odd in the present context, given that Washington currently imposes one of the more extensive and widest sanctions regimes in history, wielded against no less than 21 countries and subnational entitiesincluding elements of the black majority government in Zimbabwe.  Furthermore, one macabre exposure gift of COVID-19 has been to shine light upon America’s cruel “economic warfare” on the peoples of Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and others amidst a time of pandemic.  In response to the Trump administration’s callous refusal to ease what it calls the “strongest sanctions in history” on Iran, a broad coalition of international organizations, charities, and religious groups have pleaded with Washington to freeze the practice.  All to no avail, naturally, and as a result, it is expected that many thousands of additional innocents will die of the coronavirus.  So, whilst taking no pleasure in the grim analogy: I think it worth remembering that U.S. sanctions have always been selective, and there was a time, not so long ago, when it was America that willfully busted the global blockade of a pariah state.

The “Luster of Chrome”

It was known as the Rhodesia Lobby – an extensive American alliance of seemingly strange bedfellows sympathetic to the white supremacist state.  This combination of various political, racial, and business interests, acted both independently and at the behest of the rogue state’s propaganda arm, the Rhodesian Information Office (RIO) in Washington D.C.  So nefarious were some of the RIO’s and the American Rhodesia Lobby’s suspected practices, that the FBI and Justice Department scrutinized their compliance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

While the U.S. government – and every other country – never officially recognized white Rhodesian sovereignty, the loosely affiliated lobby met with significant success.  Specifically, when in 1971, the so-called Byrd Amendment – which allowed U.S. companies to mine and purchase Rhodesian chrome – passed the Congress and was signed by President Richard Nixon.  At that moment – though apartheid South Africa and remnant colonial Portugal not so secretly colluded with Rhodesia – America became the only nation officially in violation of international sanctions laws.

In the 1970s especially, chrome was seen as a vital mineral.  That the U.S. had no known deposits, and given chrome’s importance to the steel industry and space program (at the height of the race with the Soviets), only added to this sense.  The Rhodesian variety was considered the purest of all, and some 40 percent of U.S. imports had previously come via the Salisbury regime.  Furthermore, most of the Rhodesian mines were owned by American companies, the largest and most politically influential of which was Union Carbide, though Vanadium and Foot Chemical ran smaller sites.  Indeed, leaders from Union Carbide – a key element of the Rhodesia Lobby – ultimately testified before Congress, and the corporation’s representatives pushed hard for a chrome exception to the sanctions.  Unsurprisingly, they won out.

The Byrd Amendment passed as an add-on to a military procurement bill, and under the guise of Cold War national security necessity.  That it passed the senate by an 82-4 margin – though key figures like J. William Fulbright and Mike Mansfield voted nay – demonstrated that sympathy for the Rhodesia Lobby’s arguments was bipartisan, and that enthusiasm for sanctions hadn’t been all that high in the first place.  After all, there were significant American corporate interests at stake, with diverse companies including Corning Glass, Goodyear Tires, and Coca Cola augmenting the white regime’s Washington lobby.

Taking matters a step further, Western oil companies – including British Petroleum, Shell, and Mobil – regularly defied the embargo by not-so-secretly routing supplies through South Africa and/or Portuguese Mozambique.  Their parent countries mostly looked the other way.  What’s more, America’s first and fourth ever United Nations Security Council (UNSC) vetoes were wielded to protect the white Rhodesian regime from the full enforcement of internationally mandated sanctions.

Rhodesia had always seen Washington as the key to its salvation.  As one high-ranking white official told the Washington Post, “Let’s face it, Britain [the former colonial power] is a spent force and what really counts for us now is Capitol Hill.”  Nevertheless, the administration never actually bought the insincere arguments of the Rhodesia Lobby – and its American sympathizers – that Salisbury was an embattled barrier to a communist tide in Africa.  Nixon’s signature of the Byrd Amendment was hardly justified by any real communist threat in Southern Africa.

The ever savvy (albeit cynical) Nixon and Kissinger knew better.  As a contemporary CIA estimate made clear, the “decline of prospects” for the Soviets (and Chinese) in Southern Africa was significant.  A communist takeover of the region was hardly on the horizon.  In fact, as one recent historian credibly argued “Operating under the premise that most of Africa was safely in the Western camp, Nixon and Kissinger felt free to ignore the continent’s problems.”  Rather, the president was persuaded to the sign the Byrd Amendment into law because of the economic benefits to friendly corporations and the related political advantages for himself.  As he privately told Kissinger with typically Nixonian flair, “I am for the Byrd Amendment…Don’t let State pucker out of this and sink the goddam – we want to continue to buy that chrome.”

What can be measured, however, is the outcome: between 1972 and 1977 the U.S. imported $212 million worth of Rhodesian chrome, nickel, copper, and other minerals.  With Salisbury spending up to 28 percent of its total budget on defense – in order to combat a growing guerrilla war of independence – this export income was an economic (and emotional) boon.  A prominent Salisbury newspaper called Nixon’s signing of the Byrd Amendment “a wonderful boost for Rhodesian morale.”  In a real sense, Washington was, by 1972, directly funding white supremacy and regional violence in Southern Africa.  The American coalition that made this so included some strange and distinctly dubious bedfellows.

Jim Crow Africa

The chrome-exemption amendment got its name from the bill’s key senatorial sponsor, Harry F. Byrd of Virginia.  Having left the Democratic Party in response to its gradual civil rights agenda, the independent senator built his career defending the mantle of segregation.  An early opponent of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education school integration decision – who defended that position as late as 1982 – Byrd saw Rhodesia as a pet project.  Rhodesia was an imagined Jim Crow paradise viewed from afar, long after the domestic system Byrd had long protected was in the dustbin of history.  In his nostalgic, sympathetic vision, Byrd was joined by a veritable who’s who of lingering – but still substantial – segregationist congressmen.

The big three were Senators Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, James Eastland of Mississippi, and Jesse Helms of North Carolina.  Thurmond had urged the president to nix sanctions since at least 1970.  Eastland, considered a vital ally by Nixon, visited Rhodesia and upon seeing interracial mixing, out-bigoted even his racist hosts, admonishing that “You’ve inserted the thin end of the wedge by allowing stinking niggers into such a fine hotel.”  Yet Helms was the ringleader and – due to his prominent foreign relations portfolio – the most influential.  It was the North Carolina senator who introduced amendments to completely drop the sanctions up until the very moment Rhodesian white rule collapsed in 1979-80.  The Helms Amendment came uncomfortably close to passing in 1978, falling only four votes short.

Some otherwise ardent segregationist politicians sought, however transparently, to couch their support for Salisbury in ostensibly nonracial language.  For example, Louisiana Congressman John Rarick described Rhodesia as “a protectorate of western civilization in Africa.”  Still, the racial component of the positions for and against Rhodesian sanctions was again on start display, in 1977, when – after President Jimmy Carter took office – the Byrd Amendment was finally repealed.  This time only 26 senators stood by Rhodesia.  All nine Democrats who did so hailed from the old Confederacy or West Virginia.  The 17 Republicans were more dispersed, but 12 represented the Deep South, or the highly white Mountain West and Great Plains states.

Outside of the Hill, Salisbury sympathizers in general often had southern ties.  The massive organization, Friends of Rhodesian Independence, counted 25,000 members in 122 local chapters – a significant proportion in the south – and collaborated with the once prominent anti-civil rights Citizens’ Councils of America to pressure their congressmen to support the Byrd Amendment.  The Friends of Rhodesia even actively recruited white American immigrants to bolster Salisbury’s minority population.  As for the president, the influence of race in Nixon’s calculus cannot be known for sure, but given his and his advisers’ own well-established bigotry, one can expect it played some role.  Tricky Dick’s regular quips about “niggers,” “jigaboos,” and “jungle bunnies,” were caught on tape, and, as President Eisenhower’s vice president he’d laid bare his position on the continent when he told a national security council meeting that some Africans had “been out of the trees for only about fifty years.”

George Washington in Rhodesia

It would be a mistake, however, to simplify the wide-ranging pro-Rhodesia movement as purely racial or just a new southern “lost cause.”  Salisbury’s strange bedfellows also included obsessive cold warriors, a variety of recently resurgent conservative activists, and a slew of well-paid lobbyists.  The former group was spearheaded by the former secretary of state Dean Acheson, a vocal proponent of the cause, who shamelessly compared white Rhodesians to his own colonial forebears.  He once opined “How fortunate were the American colonies in 1776 that there was no United Nations confronting them.”  He was joined – though less obtusely so – by the prominent then serving senator (and future 1996 Republican presidential candidate) from Kansas, Bob Dole, who wrote President Carter in 1977, urging him to support Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith’s attempts to maintain white minority rule.

The new conservative – soon to coalesce as neo-conservative – media and movement also rallied behind Salisbury.  William A. Rusher, publisher of the National Review, was instrumental in founding two major pro-Rhodesian organizations.  Additionally, the magazine had run a special edition in 1967 with the cover title “A Case History: How the US is Helping Bring Down Rhodesia’s George Washington.”  It wasn’t satirical.

William F. Buckley, a founder of National Review, was another passionate backer.  He actually hosted Ian Smith as a guest on his own program, Firing Line – only the second time the pariah prime minister had appeared on television.  Another prominent related figure, James J. Kilpatrick – the former segregationist editor of the Richmond News and a syndicated columnist for some 30 years – wrote shortly after Ian Smith had declared independence that “out of a savage jungle, [white Rhodesians] have carved a Western Civilization…and [the blacks] will benefit still more if liberal ideologues will stop beating their ritual tom toms.”

There was always a fine line between the Salisbury government itself and American corporate, unreformed segregationist, and neoconservative cheerleaders.  Just before it unilaterally declared independence under minority rule, the Rhodesian government took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, and, notably, both Salisbury itself and the National Review-founded AAAA (American African Affairs Association) organization employed the same public relations firm, Marvin Liebman Associates.  A personal friend of Buckley, Liebman had previously supported or lobbied for the Israeli terrorist group Irgun, China’s Chiang Kai-shek, and the Belgian-mercenary-backed Congo secessionist state of Katanga.

Other chief strategists for the Rhodesia lobby included John Carbaugh – a top longtime aide to Senator Jesse Helms – and Donald De Kieffer.  Carbaugh had begun his legislative career working for Strom Thurmond, vocally backed the Contra death squads and murderous right-wing Salvadoran government in Central America, and later served on several Reagan-era presidential task forces.  Helms’ aide caused quite a stir and earned a public rebuke from the British government when he traveled to London in 1979 to allegedly “pass word” to Ian Smith to “hold on” and “not surrender” – because sanctions relief was supposedly on the way from the Congress.

De Kieffer was a lawyer who had worked for the FBI in the 1970s, served as general counsel for the office of the U.S. Trade Representative (1981-83) under Reagan, and counted the South African apartheid government and the Tool and Stainless Steel Industry Committee among his other clients.  The latter, naturally, had a distinct desire for Rhodesian chrome, and sent De Kieffer to write and persuade Congress in 1975 to support the Byrd Amendment.

In the lobby, and among others broadly sympathetic to the Rhodesian cause, one can see the nascent coalescence of the future Reagan and – later more coarsely – Trump coalition’s corporate-racialized nexus components.  Support for Salisbury brought together the then seemingly odd collaborators of corporate (chrome) interests, unrepentant southern racists, and burgeoning neocons.  All fought Rhodesian sanctions for one reason or another.  It wouldn’t be their last joint venture.

Unspoken (Apartheid) Alliance

White-ruled Rhodesia ceased to exist in 1980 and was reborn as Zimbabwe.  Nevertheless, the old anti-sanctions, pro-Salisbury lobby seamlessly shifted to new battles between similarly imagined protagonists and liberal or UN villains: first, apartheid South Africa, and then (up until now) neo-apartheid Israel.  The very same players and coalitions were mobilized to protect Pretoria from sanction, and today shield Tel Aviv from any consequences for its nearly 50-year illegal occupation of Palestinian territory.

South Africa had been the most important and flagrant Rhodesian sanctions-buster, at least until it no longer served Pretoria’s interests to back their white-settler little brother.  The apartheid regime may have sympathized with Salisbury, but feared its own potential economic and diplomatic isolation.  Indeed, in 1976, Secretary of State Kissinger had explicitly warned Prime Minister John Vorster that South Africa was “the next candidate” for sanctions unless it cut Rhodesia loose.  Nonetheless, U.S. administrations both before and long after that of then President Ford, blocked at least a dozen Security Council resolutions which censured or sanctioned the apartheid state.  Indeed, it wasn’t until 1986, and after his own party turned on him to override President Reagan’s veto, that the U.S. acceded to sanctions on Pretoria.

Washington’s long-standing condemnation-reticence pervaded despite widespread discussion – since at least 1977 – in the intelligence and diplomatic community about South Africa’s capacity and intent to develop nuclear weapons.  In 1993, then President F.W. DeKlerk eventually admitted that Pretoria had, in fact, built six nuclear bombs.  South Africa’s partner in crime in sharing secrets and developing the weapons of mass destruction was none other than Israel.

The Israelis, too, had secretly constructed an even more substantial nuclear weapons arsenal – which the CIA knew about as early as the mid-1960s.  Tel Aviv also had some previous ties with Rhodesia, but it was in providing arms, sharing expertise, and flouting sanctions to support Pretoria – whose ruling party had been led by Nazi sympathizers during World War II – that Israel truly came into its own as a rogue state.  Just as South African whites saw themselves – and feared they’d next be targeted – in the Rhodesians, so Israeli Jews felt an (admittedly paradoxical) kinship with the apartheid regime.  And why not?  Tel Aviv did, and does, maintain a remarkably similar system – Palestinian Bantustans, house demolitions, segregated roads, et. al. – in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Furthermore, just as the strength of the American Rhodesia Lobby paled in comparison to the simultaneous, and later, pro-apartheid lobby, the current American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)-led “Israel Lobby” blows both out of the water.  Not only has Washington vetoed no less than 43 UNSC resolutions critical of Israel since the early 1970s, but of late the U.S. Congress has gone so far as to officially oppose even sub-governmental boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) activities against Israel.  Such a rare, and profoundly bipartisan, enterprise was this, that in 2019, the House passed the resolution by a staggering 398-17 margin.

This was truly unprecedented.  Even at the height of South Africa’s racial violence and regional aggression, Washington hadn’t explicitly censured the anti-apartheid activism of private citizens and organizations.  Which is why such famed figures as Bill Cosby, Rosa Parks (who repeatedly picketed the South African embassy), and thousands of lesser-known citizens were able to eventually pressure the legislature to abandon Reagan and impose sanctions.  U.S. support for the Rhodesian-South African-Israeli apartheid trio, demonstrates that for Washington – no matter its claims in the Trump era – economic sanctions are (usually) only fit for certain (usually brown, black, and impoverished) peoples.

None of which is to say that sanctions, in and of themselves, are a good thing, or even that they work as designed.  According to several credible studies they don’t.  The question here, rather, is one of consistency, or, more accurately, to provide backstory for the current context of American sanctions hypocrisy – particularly in the Age of Corona.  Nevertheless, it’s worth the time to complicate even the often plausible narrative – used by defenders of Rhodesia, South Africa, and Israel – that sanctions “hurt those they were intended to help.”  After all, there are distinct – if rarely noted – differences between, for example, the Rhodesian/South African and Iranian/Cuban cases.

The internal opponents of the former regimes constituted a massive majority, and they asked for sanctions imposition.  As the Zimbabwean Minister of Foreign Affairs, Witness Mangwende, noted in 1986, “at no stage did the blacks [in then Rhodesia] or the suffering neighboring [African] states ever ask for the lifting of sanctions.”  Furthermore, the British government’s 1972 Pearce Commission study – which interviewed numerous blacks across Rhodesia – found that despite the very real economic costs to them, most Africans strongly supported sanctions.

Still, this author, at least, remains skeptical of nearly all “economic warfare” wielded against supposedly antagonist governments – especially without the (almost impossible) input of their ostensibly oppressed populace.  Nevertheless, the American people deserve some degree of constancy, or at least explanation, for Mr. Trump’s – or any other president’s – sanctions imposition and justifications.  Which is it: sanctions work and constitute a necessary tool of statecraft short of war?  Or, they don’t work and/or would hurt the folks they’re meant to help?  Even a cursory look at recent history ought to illustrate that Washington’s positions have been nothing short of schizophrenic.

Might it be that behind all of Washington’s rhetoric about “axes of evil,” and using sanctions to topple “enemy” regimes that oppress their people – combined with the inverse argument that blockading Rhodesia or Israel would be counterproductive – is really an emotive matter of political and racial kinship?

What we do know is that hundreds of white American expatriates – many of them Vietnam veterans – fought for Rhodesia against African guerrillas who sought majority-rule and “one-man-one-vote.”  The volunteers were motivated by a range of factors, no doubt, but one was race.  These Vietnam War alumni even lent their slang to the Rhodesians, so that by war’s end even white local troops typically referred to killing Africans as “wasting gooks.”  These American “crippled eagles,” as they came to be known – as well as the Rhodesian “Bush War,” in general – also inspired a good deal of popular fiction.

In the novel, White Tribe, by Robin Moore, – once a sort of official chronicler of the U.S. Green Berets – a fictional expatriate volunteer explains away his accent to his new comrades.  No matter how he sounded, the volunteer emphasized, “I feel more like a Rhodesian than an American.”

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer and contributing editor at antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, Huff Post, The Hill, Salon, Popular Resistance, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. His forthcoming book, Patriotic Dissent: America in the Age of Endless War is now available for pre-order.  Sjursen was recently selected as a 2019-20 Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Fellow.  Follow him on Twitter @SkepticalVet.  Visit his professional website for contact info, to schedule speeches or media appearances, and access to his past work.

Copyright 2020 Danny Sjursen