“No Ideological Division In Our Minds…:” President Reagan, Congress, and the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986

During my semester abroad last fall at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, I took a course that focused on 20th century South African history, with emphasis on the development of white minority rule.  That course demonstrated some of the ways that the people and government of the United States were able to contribute to apartheid’s demise,  beginning with grassroots activism and concluding with Congressional action in the mid 1980s.  Specifically, I will be researching and writing on the relationship between the Executive and Congress in the development and implementation of foreign policy toward South Africa, culminating with Congress’s passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAAA) of 1986 over President Reagan’s veto.

President Reagan and many top administration officials came into office in 1981 against white minority rule and the policies of racial separation and disenfranchisement, but were also determined to work with the government in Pretoria to further a transition to democratic government.  Their policy, developed largely by Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Chester A. Crocker, labeled “constructive engagement,” was initially met with little Congressional disapproval, especially as few Americans at the time had taken an interest in apartheid.  However, as racial violence and oppression by the white minority government escalated dramatically in the 1980s, members of Congress, especially liberals and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, began to push the Reagan Administration to denounce apartheid and enact widespread sanctions.  President Reagan’s landslide re-election coincided with the widespread exposure of American audiences to the violence in South Africa, and anti-apartheid forces in Congress began to exercise their Constitutional oversight of foreign policy and push for dramatic economic and political sanctions designed to hasten apartheid’s demise.

Notably, many conservative Republican House members of the Conservative Opportunity Society (COS) also began to push the Reagan Administration to dramatically alter its foreign policy toward South Africa or face a loss of their support.  The quote on this post’s title comes from Congressman Vin Weber (R-MN), a COS member and prominent supporter of economic sanctions.  This alliance of both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans mainly in the House, but also in the Senate under Senators Richard Lugar (R-IN), Nancy Kassebaum (R-KS), and Ted Kennedy (D-MA), led to the passage of the CAAA in 1986 over President Reagan’s veto.  Aside from the War Powers Act of 1973, this was the only time that Congress enacted a major foreign policy change over a Presidential veto in the 20th century.  The CAAA contained far-reaching provisions ranging from revoking U.S. landing rights for South African Airways to the prohibition of imports of South African-mined minerals and other natural resources, which collectively placed an enormous strain on the white minority government in South Africa.  How these disparate factions of Congress came together to deliver a dramatic and almost unprecedented foreign policy rebuke to President Reagan, and how Congress can apply this leadership model to its foreign policy oversight in the future, are the main themes of this project.

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About Alex P. Ferraro

My name is Alex Ferraro and I am currently a Senior at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A History and Political Science double major with an Anthropology minor from Brookville, Pennsylvania, I will be writing on the relationship between the Reagan Administration and Congress on apartheid-era South Africa in the 1980s. In the Fall 2010 semester, I spent a semseter abroad at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, and chose this topic because of a class on 20th Century South African history. At Gettysburg, I have served as Senator and Treasurer of the Student Senate, a Resident Assistant in the first year residence halls, and play trombone in the College Symphony Band. Last summer, I interned for U.S. Congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper and this past summer at the NBC News Washington Bureau on The Chris Matthews Show. I am looking forward to this year's experiences and plan on attending law school after graduation.
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One Response to “No Ideological Division In Our Minds…:” President Reagan, Congress, and the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986

  1. Alex P. Ferraro says:

    From my research on President Reagan and the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAAA) of 1986, I have been struck by the skilled and successful posturing of Congressional Republicans during that debate. Between 1984 and 1986, apartheid in South Africa was transformed from an issue that was almost entirely the preserve of African-American and liberal Democrats to an issue that captivated the attention and agenda of both Houses of Congress. Many young conservatives within the Republican Party, particularly those in the House of Representatives such as Newt Gingrich (R-GA), Vin Weber (R-MN), and Robert Walker (R-PA) recognized that by coming out strongly against apartheid, they could come out on the winning side of a controversial debate. These young conservatives believed in the possibility that they could build a total and long-lasting majority in both the Senate and the House, and were prepared to take a principled stand against the Reagan Administration to prove it.
    These young conservatives worked closely with liberals on the other side of the aisle to craft and pass the CAAA. Without the votes of many House and Senate conservatives, President Reagan’s veto of the CAAA would likely have stood. In the end, 81 House Republicans voted with 232 House Democrats to override Reagan’s veto, while 31 Senate Republicans did the same. These Republicans dealt President Reagan an enormous foreign policy defeat led by members of his own party, and were strongly criticized by others within the Republican Party for abandoning the president on a globally prominent issue. Many House Republicans who criticized apartheid and the Reagan Administration’s position on it rose to prominence within their party during the 1994 elections, popularly known as the “Republican Revolution.” Those voted with Democrats to override Reagan’s veto included: future Senators John McCain (AZ), Dan Coats (IN) and Olympia Snowe (ME), future Governors John Rowland (CT), Tom Ridge (PA) and John Kasich (OH), and future Speaker of the House Gingrich. Judging by nothing more than the lasting prominence of many House Republicans who bucked their party and their president on apartheid, it is likely that the debate over the CAAA provided an interesting crossroads in the future of the Republican Party in the United States.

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