The Lion of Judah in the New World: Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and the Shaping of Americans’ Attitudes toward Ethiopia
by Theodore M. Vestal (APCD Ethiopia 1964–66)
Reviewed by Martin Benjamin (Ethiopia, 1962–64)
POLITICAL SCIENTIST THEODORE M. VESTAL tells the story of Haile Selassie, focusing on the Emperor’s relationship with and visits to the United States. It’s a good story, well told.
Haile Selassie emerged on the world stage in 1936 when Italy invaded Ethiopia. The exiled Emperor then made a dramatic presentation before the assembly of the League of Nations, requesting that sanctions be imposed on Italy. Though his appeal was unsuccessful, Haile Selassie became something of a celebrity. He was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year and his speech was later included in many textbooks on international relations.
Needing a morale-boosting success in the early days of World War II, the British attempted to liberate Ethiopia from fascist Italy. In 1941 a small British brigade together with Haile Selassie and Ethiopian troops drove the Italians out. A few years later, the U.S. Army discovered that the site of a former Italian naval air station on the outskirts of Asmara in British-administered Eritrea was ideally situated to serve as a link in its worldwide communications network. Eventually dubbed Kagnew Station, this base played an important role in intercepting coded Nazi radiograms during WWII. It was later to play a similar role in the Korean War and the Cold War.
In 1953 Haile Selassie agreed to lease Kagnew Station to the U.S. in return for military assistance. A strong Ethiopian military, the Emperor believed, would provide security both for the nation and for himself. In later years the Emperor received other types of aid from the U.S., including in 1962 a contingent of 274 Peace Corps Volunteers, mostly secondary school teachers.
Beginning in 1954 Haile Selassie undertook his first formal visit to the U.S. Vestal describes at great length (and often mind-numbing detail) this and subsequent visits. A strong believer in personal diplomacy, the Emperor pressed his hosts for additional aid. But he didn’t have to beg. Until the early 1970s Kagnew Station remained a vital “quid” for the continued “quo” of American assistance.
The Emperor so enjoyed the ceremonial pomp and perks of celebrity of his first state visit that he wanted more. “Being treated as a head of state,” Vestal writes, “with all the indulgences and condescension that it entailed was an exhilarating experience. His international fame and acceptance grew.” Subsequent state visits included not only North America but also Western Europe, South American, and Asia.
His 1954 visit with President Eisenhower was followed by state visits with Kennedy in 1963, Johnson in 1967, and Nixon in 1969, 1970, and 1973. However much the Emperor enjoyed them, his repeated visits and continuing requests for additional aid were toward the end becoming tiresome. News of the 1973 visit, for example, was buried on page 8 of the Christian Science Monitor with a brief three sentence article under the heading “Inside the News — Briefly” and a subheading “Haile Selassie Visits Washington Again.”
Circumstances had changed, but the Emperor had been unable to change with them. The launching of communication satellites to transmit reconnaissance photos and other data eventually rendered land-based communication stations like Kagnew Station obsolete. Moreover trouble was brewing at home. Beginning with an aborted coup attempt in 1960 while the emperor was on yet another series of state visits, this time to West Africa and South America, internal discontent on the part of students, the educated classes, and elements of the military was beginning to loosen the autocratic Emperor’s feudal hold over the very poor country. “[T]he Ethiopian student movement,” Vestal writes, “bolstered by Western education, had become very antiemperor and anti-United States, and the influence of the young radicals was being widely dispersed.” Even the Peace Corps, despite its considerable record of accomplishment, became the target of anti-American demonstrations by students, leading some PCV teachers to leave before they had completed their two-year assignments. By 1970, Vestal writes:
The aging emperor, appearing frail and thought-burdened, was slowing down and his grip on the country was far less firm than it had been only a few years before. He had survived by ignoring problems or suppressing them and as a result Ethiopia was becoming a cauldron prepared to boil. His declining years became a protracted, distended humiliation of celebrity-seeking and gross neglect of domestic matters. Increasingly those who worked closely with . . . [him] . . . noticed coup de vieux, or senior moments, interfering with his daily activities. He had become a relic of a previous age, and his way of life had fallen into the sere, the yellow leaf.
Unconcern with, and then a cover-up of, a terrible famine in the northern provinces finally caused the cauldron to boil over and a revolution in September 1974 led to the regal Emperor’s being “unceremoniously driven in a Volkswagen from his palace to his place of imprisonment. Haile Selassie died in detention 11 months later, probably murdered on August 27, 1975.
The decline and fate of Haile Selassie’s long, autocratic, highly personalized rule foreshadowed in some respects the current decline and fate of Egypt’s Hosnei Mubarek, Tunisia’s Zine El Ben Ali, and perhaps other longstanding, autocratic rulers in the Middle East. I am reminded of the dismay of my Ethiopian students in Gondar when they learned of the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. They were sad not only for the loss of Kennedy but also because they assumed our group of twelve PCV teachers would be packing up to return to the U.S. to participate in an armed struggle to select a new President. The idea of constitutionally-mandated, limited terms of office and an orderly succession was entirely foreign to them. As one of my Ethiopian colleagues observed in comparison, “It took us two years to learn that Menelik [Haile Selassie’s predecessor as emperor] was dead!”
Vestal concludes with an eleven-page Epilogue in which he develops a judicious overall assessment of Haile Selassie’s rule and it’s relation to the United States. The book as a whole is very good and should be of special interest to all Ethiopia RPCVs.
Martin Benjamin is professor emeritus of philosophy at Michigan State University. Currently a visiting professor at Mills College in Oakland, CA, he is author of Splitting the Difference: Compromise and Integrity in Ethics and Politics (University Press of Kansas, 1990), Philosophy & This Actual World (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), and (with Joy Curtis) Ethics in Nursing: Cases, Principles, and Reasoning, 4th ed. (Oxford University Press, 2010).
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