AP Diplomatic Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Nelson Mandela eulogized to the world by President Barack Obama as "a giant of history" and the "last great liberator of the 20th century" seemed a different person from the one the United States held at arm's length, to put it diplomatically, for much of his life and career.
Even as presidents from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton denounced apartheid as a racist, untenable system, successive American administrations from the 1960s had friendly ties with South African governments and viewed Mandela with suspicion, if not outright hostility, through the prism of the Cold War.
And Mandela remained on a U.S. terrorism watchlist from the 1970s until the late 2000s. That period covers the living presidents of that period -- Jimmy Carter, Clinton and George W. Bush -- all of whom joined Obama at Mandela's memorial service in Johannesburg's Soweto township on Tuesday, as well as Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Even after his 1990 release from prison, his election as South Africa's first black president and the dismantling of apartheid, the U.S. relationship with Mandela was an uneasy one, notably because of his harsh criticism of Israel, the Iraq war and the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Still, if the U.S. presidents present at Tuesday's ceremony harbored anything other than good will toward Mandela, it was not apparent and has been absent since his death last week at the age of 95.
Comparing him to Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln and America's founding fathers, Obama lauded Mandela for his leadership of a resistance movement, giving voice to the oppressed, holding a splintering nation together in a time of great peril and creating a constitutional order to preserve the freedoms he struggled to realize.
Mandela, Obama said, was "a giant of history, who moved a nation toward justice and in the process moved billions around the world."
Yet Washington officialdom did not share such a sympathetic or charitable view over much of the past 50 years.
On Aug. 5, 1962, on Obama's second birthday, South African authorities arrested Mandela at a hideout, reportedly with the help of a CIA informant.
Though the connection has never been proved, some former American intelligence officials say they understand it to be true. And it is clear that the Kennedy-era CIA saw Mandela, then the leader of the National Action Coalition that organized demonstrations and strikes to protest white rule, as a troublemaker and communist sympathizer at the very least.
"Mandela, a probable communist ... is believed to have been responsible for much of the NAC's success in seizing the initiative from anti-communist groups," the CIA said in its May 21, 1961, Current Intelligence Weekly Summary. Calling Mandela "an able organizer," the report cast doubt on his commitment to nonviolence and implied he might only be interested in a veneer of peaceful intent. "Mandela allegedly hopes violence can be avoided, since peaceful demonstrations would increase the NAC's aura of respectability," said the report, which was declassified in 2006.
(A heavily redacted 1986 U.S. intelligence assessment, declassified in 2001, would later conclude that evidence of Mandela's communism was inconclusive but referred to him as an "African nationalist" and a "socialist" whose "fundamental political philosophy has not changed" despite his years in prison.)
But while Mandela may have been on the U.S. intelligence radar as early as 1961, policymakers in Washington don't seem to have paid any particular attention to him until his trial in 1964 and then only lightly. The State Department's authoritative "Foreign Relations of the United States" volume dealing with Africa from 1961 to 1963 makes no mention of him. There are two brief references to Mandela's trial in the volume documenting Africa policy from 1964 to 1968. And Mandela makes no appearances in the volume covering U.S. relations with southern Africa from 1969 to 1976. (Subsequent editions covering later years have yet to be published.)
Perhaps this is because Mandela was serving a life sentence while African liberation movements gained steam and gradually succeeded in winning independence from European colonial rule.
Whatever the reason, while Mandela languished in prison, the United States maintained a cordial relationship with Mandela's jailers, relying on the staunch anti-communism of South Africa's white leaders to try to blunt Soviet expansion on the continent -- particularly in Angola, where large numbers of Cuban troops were deployed to fight in that country's civil war, and deteriorating situations in white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South African-occupied Namibia.