The Hollywood Slander of Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan may have been the only American president to emerge from Tinseltown (excepting the fact that Barack Obama is clearly a character created by Aaron Sorkin), but that hasn’t inspired any loyalty. The new movie, The Butler, is rife with mischaracterizations of racial progress in America (as ably pointed out by Richard Epstein for the Hoover Institution) — and it’s especially unkind to the Gipper. As Steve Hayward, Paul Kengor, Craig Shirley, and Kiron Skinner — Reagan biographers all — note in today’s Washington Post, Reagan demonstrated a lifetime’s worth of tolerance and enlightenment on racial issues.
One of the film’s larger errors is an implicit assertion that Reagan opposed economic sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa out of simple indifference to black suffering. But as his chroniclers note, the reality is much more complicated:
The unfairness of this scene can be demonstrated by any number of historical facts. In June 1981, still recovering from an assassination attempt, Reagan sent his closest foreign policy aide, William Clark, on his first official trip; it was to South Africa to express America’s disapproval. An unsmiling Clark told Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha to his face that the new president and administration “abhorred apartheid.” Clark walked out on Botha.
While accurate in depicting Reagan’s opposition to sanctions against South Africa, “The Butler” does not explain why he opposed them. Reagan saw sanctions as harmful to the poorest South Africans: millions of blacks living in dire poverty. He also feared that the apartheid regime could be replaced by a Marxist/totalitarian one allied with the Soviet Union and Cuba and that communism would spread throughout the continent. South Africa’s blacks were denied rights under apartheid, but communism would mean no freedom of speech, press, assembly, religion, conscience, emigration, travel or even property for anyone. Moreover, in communist nations such as Cambodia and Ethiopia, people had been slaughtered and starved on mass scales. Nearly a dozen nations had become part of the Soviet orbit in the immediate years before Reagan became president. He didn’t want South Africa to undergo the same catastrophe.
Reagan adopted a policy of “constructive engagement,” seeking to keep South Africa in the anti-Soviet faction while encouraging the country toward black-majority rule — no easy feat. In one of his finest speeches, he told the United Nations on Sept. 24, 1984, that it was “a moral imperative that South Africa’s racial policies evolve peacefully but decisively toward . . . justice, liberty and human dignity.” Among his administration’s successes was the Angola-Namibia agreement, which led to the withdrawal of the white South African regime from Namibia and paved the way for that nation’s independence.
Moral preening is always easiest when one bears no responsibility for the consequences. Statesmen weigh trade-offs. Ronald Reagan knew that. Thanks to the current situation in Syria, Barack Obama is about to get a master’s class on the topic.