Fifty years ago this week: JFK and Selassie in Washington

Kennedy, Selassie and the Vietnam question.

In the first week of October, 50 years ago, Haile Selassie made his second public visit to the United States, where he first visited Washington D.C. and then New York. Selassie had visited the United States in the mid-1950s, visiting agricultural colleges to help establish similar programmes in Ethiopia, and meeting with then President Dwight Eisenhower, who later told a press conference in somewhat mysterious terms that he had received some “elementary education” from the Ethiopian leader.

Selassie admired the technological progress of the United States, and had visions of a united Africa that could be developed along the line of the American states. European nations were being forced to relinquish their African colonies and Selassie had established the Organisation of African Unity in Addis Ababa. It was a crucial point in the development of an independent Africa.
Selassie’s visit to the USA in 1963 was important for himself and for Kennedy, and while Selassie had something in common with the old war veteran Eisenhower, this time he was meeting a young war veteran, a President whose youthful demeanour seemed in tune with the possibilities of a new era – and was a potential ally in the Emperor’s broader mission.

We know that the Kennedy brothers were in awe of Selassie, then already one of the longest-serving heads of state in the world and when Selassie arrived to meet John F Kennedy and the White House on 1 October 1963, he was greeted as a man who fascinated not just the descendants of Africans but ordinary Americans.

While Selassie was striving to deal with questions of racial discrimination in Africa, and South African in particular, racial equality in the United States itself was far from reality. Kennedy himself had shown no particular devotion to civil rights as a senator but had spoken up for civil rights in his presidential campaign against Richard Nixon. During the early years of his presidency, the issue of civil rights remained in the background, with Kennedy’s team convinced that the was little support for the issue in Congress.

Bull Cotton’s Birmingham, Alabama police attack civil rights marchers in May 1963

African Americans and figures such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X weren’t just prepared to wait. When George Wallace was inaugurated as Governor of Alabama in January 1963, he promised “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. Martin Luther King threw down the gauntlet to Wallace in April 1963 by organising civil rights marches in Birmingham, Alabama, a move which promptly landed King in jail. A photograph of a protester being attacked by police dogs went around the world. On June 11, the US National Guard accompanied two African American students to the University of Alabama, to ensure that they were allowed to register – a move forced by a district court decision. Governor Wallace had vowed to personally stand in the door of the university to prevent the students from being admitted. Kennedy, according to White House historians, had debated with his team whether to mark the day with a speech about civil rights, but his team felt that civil rights was an issue that would not attract enough support in Congress, and that he was wasting his time.

When Wallace relented, according to White House historians, Kennedy decided to seize the moment, and deliver a speech proposing a Civil Rights Act for 1964 that would officially abolish discrimination in education and public services. The speech became one of his most famous, and the implications for American politics arguably continue to be felt to this day. Many historians regard his speech as the moment when the Democratic party “lost the south” for a generation – but it won Kennedy a place in the hearts of African Americans that Democratic presidents could never forget.

(Read Gary Young’s summary of the days events from the Guardian newspaper here.)

Yet, there was something greater afoot when Haile Selassie arrived at the White House at the start of October 1963, a choreography of events and speeches that pointed to the possibility of a new beginning in world affairs. Kennedy may have succeeded in pushing forward with America’s own human rights and civil rights agenda, but there were questions of global importance too. The Cold War was still in full swing – a war from which Selassie resiled, while trying to stay on terms with both sides – and the American presence in Vietnam was growing, although still at the level of sending military advisors rather than full-scale troop movements. That would come less than a year later, following the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Kennedy, who was no pacifist, appeared to be committed to Cold War policy, and indeed had brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in his confrontation with the Russians over their attempts to situate nuclear weapons in Cuba. Yet it’s a mistake to think the US command was unified, for Kennedy was already at loggerheads with the CIA and the military chiefs over the Bay of Pigs debacle, and the military’s push to deepen their engagement in Vietnam.

According to James Gilbraith of the University of Texas at Austin, on the morning of October 2, Kennedy received a report from his Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara and Maxwell Taylor, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recommending that a phased withdrawal from Vietnam by 1965 was possible. Kennedy instructed his spokesman Pierre Salinger to announce McNamara’s recommended table for withdrawal that evening.

Is there any reason to think that Kennedy’s policy was being influenced by Selassie? It’s widely believed among deep political researchers that Kennedy was coming under the influence of the nascent peace movement. For after the formalities of those early days in October, Selassie headed towards Washington to make one of his most famous speeches.


We know that the Kennedy brothers were in awe of Selassie, then already one of the longest-serving heads of state in the world and when Selassie arrived to meet John F Kennedy and the White House on 1 October 1963, he was greeted as a man who fascinated not just the descendants of Africans but ordinary Americans.

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