lion-judah-new-world-140The Lion of Judah in the New World
by Ted Vestal (Peace Corps/Ethiopia staff, 1964–66)
Praeger
231 pages
2010

Reviewed by Shlomo Bachrach (Peace Corps/Ethiopia staff 1966–68)

TED VESTAL IS EMERITUS PROFESSOR of Political Science at Oklahoma State University, a campus that has had a long, mutually enriching experience with Ethiopia. In 1952, with US support, OSU helped establish the Imperial College of Agriculture and Mechanical Arts at Alemaya, near Harar. It has become a highly respected university and still turns out agronomists, agricultural economists and other experts at a very high standard. Like PCVs, OSU faculty came home with professional and personal experiences of lasting value.

Ted remains engaged with Ethiopia, as his recent book The Lion of Judah in the New World demonstrates. Since most of the events covered here take place in the United States during the six state visits by Emperor Haile Selassie (including JFK’s funeral), non-specialist readers will recognize more personalities than in the usual book on Ethiopian history. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the first president whom Haile Selassie met, but that took place aboard a US Navy warship in Egypt as FDR was returning from Yalta during WW II, a few months before his death. President Eisenhower was the first to receive the Emperor in the US, followed by meetings with Presidents Kennedy and Nixon.

Before getting down to business, however, the author lays out the best capsule history of Ethiopia I have ever read, pages 9–27. This summary is worth the cost of the book. The well reproduced photographs are a fresh selection, nicely chosen for this book, avoiding the tired image of the exotic “little king,” an accurate enough phrase since he stood 5 feet 4 inches, it says here, but was a bit overused. More photos would have been welcome.

Haile Selassie was a more popular and sympathetic figure in the eyes of Europe and America than he was at home. He was the sentimental underdog who delivered a prophetic speech at the League of Nations in Geneva on his way into exile after Mussolini drove him out of Ethiopia. The Emperor’s mantra: “collective security,” was the only safeguard for small nations, and remained at the center of his foreign policy to the end.

The meat of the book is a detailed presentation of what happened during his state visits, where political objectives that were of primary importance to both sides took place out of sight while the rituals and ceremonial events are covered to exhaustion by the media. Yet the public events, so formal in appearance, were important to both sides in shaping the image they each wanted the world to see. I don’t doubt that we have been shown a template for state visits as a standard diplomatic exercise.

These were momentous years that included the Cold War, Ethiopia’s role in Korea, the importance  of the American listening station, Kagnew Station, on the edge of Asmara in the strategic Horn of Africa, the emancipation of African colonies, and Ethiopia’s declining importance as satellites diminished the importance of Kagnew, and Watergate distracted Washington.  Suddenly, Haile Selassie was gone, but the US hardly noticed.  When the Derg that overthrew and murdered him faced an invasion from the newly armed and Soviet-supported Somalia, it turned to the US.

An angry President Carter declined to help Ethiopia defend itself because the post-Emperor Derg had engaged in extensive human rights abuse. In effect, however, Carter paved the way for Ethiopia’s becoming an East bloc military dependent, with human rights abuses at least the equal of what came before.

The documentation in  footnotes and bibliography attest to the work of a serious scholar, yet the book is heavy on the minutia of state visits, which I often found more interesting than expected. For example, visits included an exchange of gifts between heads of state, and often spouses also, which were both mundane and revealing of the flatness of life at the top of that food chain. Other details were amusing. The Emperor visited the campus of OSU in Stillwater, Oklahoma, unquestionably the only Imperial visit that small city will ever enjoy. The demand for tuxedos so far exceeded the resources of local closets and rental shops more accustomed to fraternity and sorority events that emergency calls went out to Tulsa and elsewhere. As Ted remarks, the official dinner took place in an ambiance laced with the fragrance of moth balls.

For RPCVs who served in the 1960s and 1970s, this is a better than average read about Ethiopia.  For those who served in the 1990s and in the past few years, it is a window into a not very distant past in time, but nevertheless a very long time ago.

(Full disclosure: Ted has some nice words in his introduction about my email news service.)

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