by D.J. McGuire
The day after the United Nations General Assembly voted to declare the Chinese Communist regime to be the rightful holder of the Chinese seat at the United Nations (removing the Chiang Kai-shek regime of Taiwan), President Richard Nixon took a call from Ronald Reagan, then Governor of California. Tim Naftali reported on a particularly odious piece of the call in The Atlantic.
The day after the United Nations voted to recognize the People’s Republic of China, then–California Governor Ronald Reagan phoned President Richard Nixon at the White House and vented his frustration at the delegates who had sided against the United States. “Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did,” Reagan said. “Yeah,” Nixon interjected. Reagan forged ahead with his complaint: “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Nixon gave a huge laugh.
The particular reference was aimed at a delegation from Tanzania which, according to Naftali, “started dancing in the General Assembly” when the body voted as it did.
When an icon is revealed to be flawed – and, being human, we’re all flawed – the first instinct is to ignore it, then to minimize it. For those of us who see Ronald Reagan as a successful president – and I still do – these are mistakes which would compound on Reagan’s 1971 error. There are three reasons in particular.
First, minimization makes no sense. Unless there is another recording somewhere in which Reagan called Pierre Trudeau a “frog” or aimed ethnic epithets at the European nations that also enabled the CCP to seize the seat (Naftali notes that Nixon’s own State Department pointed the finger at Britain and France), then this particular criticism was not only racist, but particularly racist toward Africans. It is an odious statement and should be called as such. It is a stain on Reagan’s legacy and a sign of his flaws.
Secondly, it can inform on Reagan’s foreign policy – and not in a good way. Reagan’s anti-Communism galvanized the democratic world and enabled the Cold War to be won with minimal actual conflict. That doesn’t mean it was mistake-free. The Reagan Administration badly underestimated Nelson Mandela – who, contrary to the panicked assertions of the apartheid regime in South Africa, marginalized and effectively froze out the South African Communists. Historians need to examine – if they haven’t already – how much of our Angola policy could have been different had we paid more attention on the ground, rather than look to the first anti-Communist with South African backing. Is it possible a different anti-Communist leader could have been more effective in transitioning to a political battle in the 1990s, rather than maintaining the civil war?
Such lack of attention is obvious in other Cold War flashpoints outside of Europe. In Afghanistan, the reliance on Pakistan and Saudi Arabia propped up unreliable faction leaders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar rather than Ahmed Shah Massoud. The former enabled the Taliban to take power and al-Qaeda to establish a presence there in the 1990s. The latter fought the Taliban-al Qaeda alliance until the day they killed him – September 9, 2001. Reagan was out of office when Nicaragua was able to vote out Manuel Ortega, but his successor largely abandoned Central America to its own devices, allowing Ortega to retake power in 2006. He is still there as Nicaragua slides into tyranny and destabilizes its neighbors again.
We now know that democracy and freedom were just as important to anti-Communists in Africa, in Asia, and in Latin America as in Europe. Many knew then, too – including folks in the Reagan Administration like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Elliot Abrams. This 1971 conversation should force us to ask how much that was reflected at the top.
Finally, it has vital importance to the arguments we have today. For nearly all Never Trump conservatives (including myself), Reagan is the political model of what Trump is not: optimistic rather than cynical, opposed to tyranny rather than admiring it, welcoming to immigrants rather than fearful of them. This incident, even from 48 years away, gives supporters of Trump the chance to claim a piece of Reagan’s mantle. The more conservatives outside of Trump’s orbit refuse to condemn the racist statement, the easier that claim will be.
For all of Ronald Reagan’s successes, whitewashing his mistakes is never worth it. That Trump backers could use his predecessor’s private racist statement to validate his own public racist statements and policies simply makes the price of ignoring the past all the more unacceptable.