As the world remembers Nelson Mandela, the South African peacemaker who died December 5, it's also important to remember a moment in the 1980s when the American spirit of civil rights was rekindled.
Responding to renewed apartheid violence in South Africa, a nonviolent civil action group known as TransAfrica organized protests at the South African embassy in Washington, D.C. High profile celebrities and politicians were arrested in the protests, bringing new interest in abolishing the racist political system.
The protests convinced Congress to pass stiff sanctions against South Africa, and Americans took a new look at Nelson Mandela. Read more about it here.
At right, two former presidents, Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela, share a relaxed meeting at a conference in 2009. That's been common place for the last 23 years -- U.S. politicians finding common ground with Mandela. But believe it or not, there was a time when American leaders did not look so favorably on Mandela. Read more here.
A few weeks ago, just before I was starting my afternoon American history class, some students came running in, out of breath. A big, dark-colored plane -- belching smoke -- had just flown over campus. Really low, they said. Surely it was about to crash.
Thinking they were a bit over-excited, I quizzed them.
"Did it have props?" I asked, thinking it was a C-130 from the naval air station up the road. They frequently fly over.
"We don't know!"
I asked if any of the digital natives had taken a pic on their ubiquitous smart-phones.
"Nooooo." They were dismayed I even asked.
But one did produce a pic, heavily pixelated once I blew it up. And there it was -- a B-52 flying off, its eight Pratt & Whitneys pumping out a normal amount of exhaust, flying at a normal height and certainly not about to crash.
I was chagrined. I've never seen one in flight, just static on the ground. I gave the kids a quick discourse on the venerable workhorse of the U.S. Air Force.
Mostly, they didn't care.
I thought about my near miss with the BUFF (you can look that up) today when I learned the U.S. had sent two of them on a mission through the disputed airspace above the Senkaku Islands north of Taiwan. Both China and Japan claim the islands, and this weekend China declared the zone off-limits.
Siding with Japan, the U.S. voiced its opposition to China's mandate with the Stratofortress. For more, check out my post here. After nearly 60 years in service, the B-52 is still on the front-line of U.S. foreign policy.
B-52 Photo Courtesy U.S. Department Of Defense
Six months ago it seemed like Barack Obama and Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu were getting along better. Sure, there will always be disagreements over borders, a Palestinian state, Syria, and of course, Iran.
But that last one -- specifically Iran's nuclear program -- seems destined to drive a wedge between the two leaders again.
Netanyahu doesn't like the deal that Obama announced this weekend which pauses Iran's nuclear program in preparation for downsizing it. In return, the U.S. and the West will ease Iranian sanctions - somewhat.
Obama praises the deal as a step forward; Bibi sees it as a "historic mistake."
This is just a "first step" deal, with assessments coming in six months. Don't expect any casual Barack/Bibi get-togethers anytime soon.
President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry announced a deal this weekend that would halt Iran's nuclear program in place and force it to dilute any uranium enriched to more than 5%. Check it out here.
It's a deal, alright. But good or not depends of course on your point of view. Nevertheless, it marks the first time since 1979 that the U.S. and Iran did anything close to cooperative.
John Kennedy was optimistic at his inauguration (right) in January 1961, but over the next two years he learned how difficult it was to manage U.S. foreign policy.
By 1963, Kennedy was trying to unravel a complex situation in Vietnam. But he moved cautiously with half-measures, and succeeded only in setting the stage for deeper U.S. involvement in the Southeast Asian country. Read here.
We lived through it, Boomers -- the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.
Convinced of John Kennedy's callow inexperience, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev began installing ICBMs in Cuba.
Having just endured a horrible foreign policy year and determined to prove his strength, Kennedy pushed back. The result was the closest the world has come to nuclear war.
In this third story of my Kennedy foreign policy retrospective, the president insists on traveling to Vienna, Austria, for a summit meeting with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev.
Khrushchev, battle-hardened in diplomacy, trounced Kennedy in closed-door sessions. Kennedy left feeling battered, calling the experience the "worst thing" in his life.
The summit gave Khrushchev the confidence to build the Berlin Wall to keep East Germans from defecting to the West. And to start installing ICBMs in Cuba.
The summit ended up being more disastrous for Kennedy than the Bay of Pigs invasion.
Photo: Kennedy and Khrushchev in Vienna, June 1961.
Photo courtesy Kennedy Library and Museum/National Archives and Records Administration
As part of my Kennedy foreign policy retrospective commemorating the 50th Anniversary of his assassination, here is a story about Kennedy and the Bay of Pigs.
Kennedy, young and inexperienced, just took for granted that the CIA and the Joint Chiefs had done a good job of planning the Cuban exiles' invasion of Cuba. But they hadn't, and they couldn't even keep it a secret. The debacle that followed caused Kennedy to distrust his military advisors.
It also convinced Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev that he could push Kennedy around. And that's just what he began doing.
As the world commemorates the 50th anniversary of the death of John F. Kennedy, it's important to remember the larger context of his presidency. It was dominated almost exclusively by the tensions of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.
As such, Kennedy made the Cold War the central theme of his inaugural address. Read my commentary on that speech here.
Having started out with such promise, Kennedy was staggered when 1961 presented him with some of the worst foreign policy obstacles any president had yet encountered.