From Charleston to Rhodesia

Fights over both the Confederate and Rhodesian flags give us a glimpse into the reactionary mind.

A Rhodesian Armored Car Regiment. World Armies / Flickr

Last week, after the horrific murder of nine black people — Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel Simmons Sr, and DePayne Doctor — in Charleston, SC, photos surfaced of their suspected killer wearing flag patches of Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa. The twenty-one-year-old even apparently named his website How on earth, one might ask, does a young kid in 2015 know or care about these receding historical moments?

The answer is that for white supremacists, these sites of antiracist struggle register as profound losses. Although the South African case is better known, the 1965–1979 flag of Rhodesia is a symbol of a similar defeat, resonating with those like the suspected Charleston killer who subscribe to a paranoid, self-pitying ideology of white victimhood — an ideology that has more traditionally been symbolized by the Confederate battle flag, the ultimate emblem of white loss.

The Rhodesian flag also ties the alleged killer to US conservatism, both in its mainstream and extremist varieties. Support for Rhodesia wasn’t confined to John Birchers and white nationalists — respected conservatives in the US, and not only Southerners, backed its white power structure. Central to this convergence between the far right and garden-variety conservatives was the international struggle against communism, which also often ended up abetting white supremacy.

After public pressure following last week’s massacre, many officials have advocated removing the Confederate flag from public display, such as at the South Carolina State House. These symbols matter, and we should support such moves.

Yet we should also be aware of the coalition of reactionary forces that has long resisted demands to banish these racist accoutrements from the public sphere.

Today, for the Charleston killer and for many conservatives, the Confederate flag is still worth defending. Several decades ago, the same sort of coalition rallied around the Rhodesian flag. Through these symbols, we can grasp the ebbs and flows of the Right — and the distinct and varied forces actively mobilizing against racial justice.

1. Rhodesia was established to exclude the black population — the majority — from political and economic power.

In 1965, soon after neighboring Northern Rhodesia became Zambia and Nyasaland Malawi, the conservative Rhodesian Front party — elected by white voters in 1962 and led by Ian Smith — unilaterally declared Rhodesia independent from Britain, which had controlled it at arm’s length since 1923. Their goal was to circumvent Britain’s roadmap for decolonization, which mandated that independence be approved by the entire population.

Though the white population of Rhodesia never amounted to more than 5 percent, it held all of the political and economic power and administered a strictly segregated and violent society. The governing minority considered itself a bastion of Western civilization amid a range of threats, chiefly communism.

After Smith’s Rhodesian Front illegally declared independence, international sanctions were swiftly imposed. (Despite the embargo, corporations like Ford, Standard Oil, and General Motors all conducted surreptitious but profitable business in Rhodesia via South Africa.)

But despite the sanctions, black leaders of opposition parties were imprisoned or exiled, and a guerrilla war began in the late 1960s and persisted through the 1970s. At the end of the decade, aided by international pressure and antiracist activism — and after a series of negotiated settlements and efforts to draft new legal and political frameworks — an independent country with political rights for the black majority was formed: Zimbabwe.

Rhodesia was no more, except in the memory of those who believed in its white minority’s “civilizing” mission.

2. Respectable conservatives supported policies that aided Rhodesia.

Mainstream conservative think tanks and lobbying outfits pushed for favorable US policies toward Rhodesia, while also offering advice and indirect support to white landowners and other business interests. They framed their aim less as bolstering white rule than as stymieing communist influence.

A key goal was to lift international sanctions and open Rhodesia to foreign investment, which sanctions on the white regime were preventing. Over the course of the 1970s, many US leaders favored scrapping the embargo. Smith even traveled to the United States during the Carter administration to meet with and gather support from former President Gerald Ford, Henry Kissinger, former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, and North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms.

Many members of Congress also supported Smith’s white-minority government, most clearly with the 1971 Byrd amendment, which allowed the US to purchase Rhodesian chrome ore, a product otherwise obtainable only from the Soviet Union. The measure violated international law, but many US conservatives were undeterred.

And it wasn’t just inveterate segregationists from the South. In 1969, Thomas M. Pelly, a Republican congressman from Washington State, introduced a resolution urging the United States to immediately cease purchasing chromite from the Soviets. The reds were supplying guns to North Vietnam, but Rhodesia, in comparison, was a “nation that never has been responsible for the death of even one US citizen,” in the words of a Seattle newspaper that supported Pelly’s efforts.

These transactions shored up the flagging Rhodesian economy. Anticommunism had greased the economics wheel, and the result was a perpetuation of racial injustice.

3. The fight to retain white rule in Rhodesia attracted far-right US veterans, who saw in it a noble battle against communism.

The historian Christian J. Appy has argued that after the US defeat in Vietnam, the story of the war underwent a retelling that transformed it into a tragedy that befell the United States. The total erasure of Vietnamese deaths and agonies at US hands was imperative. In this new rendering, US veterans were the victims of antiwar activists — who had undermined the war effort — and cowardly elected officials, who had pulled the plug just when success was within reach.

The fight to save white rule in Rhodesia aided this already cohering “stabbed-in-the-back” narrative. Now, some US veterans hoped, they could regain their valor and carry on the struggle against international communism.

But when the United States declined to formally get involved in Africa on behalf of the declining Portuguese empire or white Rhodesia, it further confirmed to them that the US public and national politicians would continue to fall short in the global struggle against the “red menace.”

Some incensed veterans, or wannabes, responded by leaving for Rhodesia and becoming mercenaries. Legal wrangling around whether these mercenaries were violating US law left many feeling that Washington was either actively persecuting them or tacitly turning on them. To avoid possible legal strictures against fighting in another country’s armed forces, many mercenaries became private soldiers for wealthy white Rhodesians, working “security” on ranches.

The lure of brute violence — particularly against black people, as depicted in dozens of photos in the mercenary magazine Soldier of Fortune — merged with a hatred of communism. Thousands of mercenaries traveled to Africa to fight the last battles of the Cold War on that continent, white on black.

One representative US mercenary and Vietnam veteran wrote: “When I started for Rhodesia on September 19, 1977, I really had no idea what I was going to do once there. I did know that I wanted to get involved in something to help out against the Commies.” Detailed to prevent livestock theft, an article in Soldier of Fortune includes accounts of him and his buddies hiding out in the “bush” and shooting black people. Although he claimed the land was “terr-infested” (terrorist-infested), a starving cattle thief was as good a target as an elusive communist guerrilla.

The mainstream right generally supported Rhodesia, but after Vietnam, the chastened US military, besieged Nixon and Ford administrations, and even many congressional conservatives were not eager to engage in new war efforts overseas. This separated them from the far right. Yet the narrative of rebirth that became Ronald Reagan’s mantra in the 1980s — which entailed confrontation with the “communist menace” — depended on the storyline of timidity-induced decline, embraced by mainstream conservatives and the far right alike.

Many years later, such ideas about decline festered in the Charleston killer’s head. The self-proclaimed last Rhodesian briefly mentions the US war in Vietnam in his manifesto. He says that he is not a patriot because he is not proud of the present-day United States. But US fighters in Vietnam and earlier, he declares, were protecting a country “to be proud of and fight for.”

4. Paramilitary networks dovetailed with new conservative activism around guns.

The paramilitary culture within the disaffected veteran/white macho sectors of the United States developed deep affinities with emerging political advocacy and institutional networks related to gun rights. In the Soldier of Fortune issues of the 1970s, alongside articles about mercenaries in Africa and their novel weapons of war were fine-grained analyses of what was happening within the National Rifle Association (NRA), as well as of how the winds were blowing in Congress on gun issues.

It was during the 1970s that the NRA went through a complete transformation to become the highly motivated organization of zealotry it is today. Whereas law-and-order efforts of the 1960s constrained gun rights, the new activists of the NRA urged both harsh penalties for crime and the loosening of gun laws (ever-increasing laxity that enabled the Charleston killer to acquire his handgun).

The people who led this transformation, and in some cases still direct the NRA, worked with — or were themselves — the reactionaries who supported the status quo in Rhodesia, the lifting of sanctions, and the waging of counterinsurgency.

The end of apartheid in South Africa and the end of white rule in Rhodesia were momentous victories that the Right resisted and would have been impossible without left internationalism.

But although we might wish to answer the terrible shooting in Charleston with words bequeathed by other racist horrors of the past century — Never Again! — we should remember that any victory for the Left will go down in the annals of the Right as a defeat. And it will therefore become a central organizing point, especially among those who craft their appeals around a sense of profound loss.

That loss is what we call racial justice.