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The Lion of Judah in the New World: Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and the Shaping of Americans’ Attitudes toward Africa

The Lion of Judah  _ book

Theodore M. Vestal (Ph.D)

Summary-cum-Review by Mezemir G.

“…the U.S. policy should be to keep the nation (Ethiopia and by extension Africa) in perennial internal conflict, using such vulnerabilities as ethnic, religious, and other divisions to destabilize the country.”

It is ten years since this book was published, however, I just finished the book after interrupting my reading and leaving it aside. I got motivated to read the book after Dej. Wolde Semayat gave it a mention in an interview he gave Nahoo Television recently. His interview concentrated on the Soviet economic aid and ensuing US response to avert that.

My review is full of short notes I took form the book that the reader should tolerate the flow.
His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I (HIM) is the first head of state to be honored with a tickertape parade in New York City, the first African head of state to spend a night at the White House. He made six state visits to Washington starting in 1954, the most of any reigning head of state. In the present-day Ethiopia, few know just how popular their monarch was in the New World.

The book is aimed at answering the following research questions:  

A. Why Haile Selassie enjoyed such celebrity in the United States
B. How the emperor became the single-most important figure in influencing U.S. attitudes toward Africa
C. How the emperor’s state visits reflected U.S. foreign policy toward Ethiopia and Africa over a period of two decades.

The book begins with introducing Ethiopia’s geography, history and culture in brief. The story of Ras Teferi (HIM), son of Ras Mekonnen, follows that. He was born in Ejersa Goro, Hararghe. In Harar, Orthodox priests and a French Capuchin trained the child Teferi, son of a Europe-travelled nobleman. At the Addis Ababa Minelik II School, Teferi got Western education. He lost his father at a tender age and growing up was really miserable for him. In an effort to prevent him from assuming the kingship, he was assigned at various posts across the nation and practiced leadership. During his regency, Teferi developed a policy of cautious modernization. This was a tough time for power struggle and ascent to power.

Teferi was the first Ethiopian emperor to leave his country for abroad for a four and a half month tour. On November 2, 1930 he was anointed as emperor. He was named Time Magazine’s man of the year twice – once during his coronation and next during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia forced the emperor to be exiled to the Great Britain. His determination to broadcast a Christmas day 1936 radio message to the American people demonstrated the seriousness of his ambition. He passed a number of challenges with dignity until the liberation of his empire under the shadow of Britain.

The allied offensive swept the Italians out of Ethiopia and the horn within a matter of months – the first victory of the allies during WW II.

Ethiopia placed under British military administration that sought to partition the country. American assistance was highly sought to stop that. Haile Selassie met Roosevelt in Cairo and got promising results. It was Churchill that was a bit unfriendly with HIM in a sudden meeting at Cairo.

 “Why was this man, 7000 miles from home, the subject of such adulation?” asks the author and gives various reasons of timing and seizing opportunities.  

“With the cold war heating up, the emperor was a proven ally against communist aggression.” This is seen in HIM’s giving the Kagnew Battalion in Eritrea to the USA. Kagnew was an extraordinary site for a communications base. In May 1943 it was refurbished and came to serve American military. In 1970 3000 Americans were serving at Kagnew.

Point Four Program was President Truman’s program to assist the development of third world nations. Ethiopia benefited in this program out of many that were aimed at strengthening relationship between the two nations and paying the rent of Kagnew. The treasure of Kagnew is of immense importance in the relationship of the two administrations – the U.S and IEG. US Ethiopian relations grew stronger at the outbreak of the Korean War. 1,200 troops were dispatched to Korea and overall a total of 5000 troops served in three rounds. America also assisted in the Ethio-Eritrean union. Eritrea was federated with Ethiopia.

The author used the state visits of the emperor to reach at the conclusion he is making. Kebede Michael’s book on the travel of the monarch to the U.S. was consulted. At least we know that this was a book that gave Amharic readers insight into what the emperor did during his visits. In 1954 HIM made a very royal state visit to the U.S. On May 26, 1954 he made a landing at Washington National Airport with President Eisenhower’s plane.  As it was not the custom in the U.S., HIM was not welcomed at the airport by the President. Western educated members of the royal family Prince Sahle and Princess Seble were among the royal party. At a White House dinner, President Eisenhower spoke of Haile Selassie as a man “who has established a reputation as a defender of freedom and a supporter of progress.” Educated officials including Aklilu and Endalkachew were present. In a response to the emperor’s four pleas for assistance, Eisenhower said, ‘’the U.S. government may not be able to do all that it would like because what the United States does has to be considered in terms of our many other global commitments.”

HIM watched a baseball game and he didn’t find it hard to watch because the game looked like Gena, “a sort of combination of field hockey and baseball.” HIM spends much of his travel time conversing with officials, giving awards, honours, crosses, bibles in Geez and Amharic, shields and spears. He spoke English with heavy accent, but most of the times he used Amharic or French. A visit to the TWA constellation was one of the numerous visits and it was the inception of Ethiopian Airlines.

The book seems fiction as the dramatic life of the emperor was so. In his visit to Canada, HIM was pleased with the use of French everywhere among others. He also visited Mexico. The Mexicans set a plaza (traffic Circle) in Ethiopia’s name. Afterwards HIM did the same in Addis. Mexico was one of the five countries that supported Ethiopian freedom in the 1930s. HIM donated blankets manufactured in Ethiopia to the war-ravaged German people. His was really in touch with almost everyone across the globe.

In 1956, 5 million USD aid was given to Ethiopia for the army. Another 5 million was given to other mutually agreed projects. The Ethiopian government was dissatisfied, however, with the amount of U.S. aid and shifted toward a neutralist policy and the consideration of Soviet Bloc offers of economic aid. In 1956 Soviet Bloc activity increased in the country. 1951 Britain left Ethiopia. Dissatisfied with U.S. support HIM visited Moscow in 1959 and amassed 100 million USD Soviet Bloc aid from the USSR (higher than the sum of what the US provided since WWII). The CIA worried that USSR penetrates to Africa. It is also said that HIM ordered the abrogation of the agreement that established Kagnew Station.

The African, Horn and Somali independence brought America’s fear of the expansion of the Soviet Bloc. Somalia’s independence and Ethiopia’s continued plea for training and equipment form the US. This was not adequately satisfied. Greater Somalia was a British initiative. Then comes 1960, “Annus Horribilis of Haile Selassie.” Remember the aborted coup. The foundation of Haile Selassie’s power was shaken. America itself was active during the plot. As America was upset with the Soviet support and involvement, it was behind the drama. The Ambassador of the US was with the coup plotters and he left the palace during the green carpet killing of Ethiopia’s strong countrymen including General Mulugeta Buli and Ras Abebe Aregay. General Mulugeta Bulu was leading the agricultural mechanization ministry funded by the Soviet money. Ras Abebe Aregay also was a man who gave white prople, Italians a dagger blow. The Americans and their Western allied hit the nail in the head.

The second state visit of 1963 was when the emperor met JF Kennedy. Kennedy referred the independence of 29 countries worldwide. He boldly told HIM America’s stand. He did not promise HIM things he couldn’t deliver. Kennedy said to HIM that the USA will support Somalia in arms to prevent it from joining the Soviet Bloc.

Kennedy supported the African countries by doubling the aid and sending Peace Corps Volunteers. This was more or less like the Point Four Program.

In the early 1960s OAU was created with the wise leadership of HIM. Haile Selassie, a Cold War ally of the US and supporter of the UN collective security, sent troops to the Congo. Just before the 1963 trip, HIM told the US ambassador that Ethiopia and its people didn’t deserve such a betrayal and a low amount of aid. In this private meeting where the leader met the ambassador, many issues of discontent seem to have been raised. I suspect the issue of the plot against his country was the backbone.
In the second visit too HIM won the hearts of Americans. US strengthened its stronghold at Kagnew and the Horn. HIM seem to have a bad luck as two American leaders died weeks after he met them – Roosevelt and Kennedy. As to HIM Kennedy shall have a noble memory. There was national mourning for Kennedy all over Ethiopia. ‘’Haile Selassie was the only African leader to make the gracious and expensive gesture of flying to Washington for Kennedy’s funeral.

The third state visit of 1967 was described by the author as “the winter of discontent.” President Johnson said how pleased he was to ‘’exchange views on international affairs with one whom I consider to be one of the world’s elder statesmen.”

This time around, the American embassy in Addis was busy sending cables stating that it was a fortune for America to have a stronghold in Ethiopia. Ethiopia was one of the few US special interest countries in Africa. It was called the fulcrum of Africa by 1964. During the early days of the relationship of the two countries, Ethiopia was considered Middle East and sometimes Near East by the US. Americans knew that as technology grew, Kagnew’s importance may go down. Royal succession was an issue the embassy worried about, should, the emperor die. In the proxy war Ethiopia was inadequately supported by the US, while Somalia enjoyed Soviet assistance. Large scale military aid that the emperor sought was denied. This made the emperor really sad. In 1966 HIM made a historic visit to Jamaica. The Rastas met the man they considered to be God.

In 1971, 14 Ethiopian students demonstrated at the UN opposing students handling in Ethiopia. There was also a Somali demonstration against HIM. Lulu, the pet dog of Haile Selassie, earned a number of newspaper reports. The Ethiopia government focused on improving the military to win the internal guerilla warfare and possible aggression from neighboring countries. It was using a quarter of the budget. The IEG was criticized of having little interest in national development. Anti-emperor radicalism of the silenced western educated students was growing and the US was unaware of it.

The Nixon state visits, 1969,70 and 73 were times when the emperor went to the US repeatedly seeking aid in military equipment and training. In one of the visits, Ethiopian students broke into the embassy in Washington assuming that the emperor was in.

There was internal rebellion, whereas HIM was mediating African conflicts. HIM had seen ten US presidents pass in and out of power. Communist Muslim threat (thrust) in the horn was one of his fears. During Nixon Ethiopia received 60 percent of US military aid to Africa. At 70 years of age and during the 1970s Nixon visits HIM almost lost control of his country.

During these last days when student radicalism grew, PCVs were beaten, disliked and considered means of cultural imperialism. The Nixon administration was its own internal problems and scandals when the emperor was left with a short time to be overthrown.

The feudal state of Ethiopia headed by its long-lived monarch came to an end and the emperor was killed. “The decline in the fortunes of the Horn nations might have been foreseen by Henry Kissinger, who in 1972, as head of the National Security Council, known under his direction as the “committee in charge of the world,” wrote a confidential report on the future of Ethiopia. He purportedly recommended that the U.S. policy should be to keep the nation in perennial internal conflict, using such vulnerabilities as ethnic, religious, and other divisions to destabilize the country. Kissinger’s recommendation appears to have been followed successfully, for not only Ethiopia but the Horn of Africa have been in turmoil ever since.”

Kissinger, a Jew Holocaust survivor, is still alive at 96 years of age.

The author concludes with his thesis:

The positive subconscious images or metaphors that are stored in American memory were relevant in this precedent-shattering election of an American who has an African father – Obama.
I invite you to read the book and analyze it in your fields of study. The author also encourages Ethiopians to do so.


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