Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and the Shaping of Americans’ Attitudes toward Africa
by Theodore M. Vestal (Staff 1964–66)
Reviewed by Joe Tenn (Addis Ababa 1962–64)
IT IS NOW HALF A CENTURY since the first PCVs arrived in Addis. I vividly recall the welcome at the Jubilee Palace, and I treasure a photo of me shaking hands with HIM. For those who came much later, HIM refers to His Imperial Majesty, and this acronym was widely used in the press during his reign, as it is used in this book. Both Volunteers who served before the revolution of 1974 and those who came afterward will find much of interest in Professor Vestal’s scholarly, but highly readable, account of the personal diplomacy practiced by Haile Selassie.
The author describes in minute detail the emperor’s then-unprecedented six state visits to the United States, as well as other visits in between. The state visits were hosted by Presidents Eisenhower (1954), Kennedy (1963), Johnson (1967), and Nixon (1969, 1970, 1973), while the other visits included Kennedy’s funeral, where Haile Selassie was highly visible among the many heads of state in the procession, and several “private” trips. We learn everything from the detailed schedules of the visits, which must have been exhausting to the aging monarch, to the exchanges of gifts, with the emperor particularly lavish with gold jewelry to first ladies and their children. The emperor delighted in being honored with ticker tape parades in New York City and with honorary degrees and keys to cities. He was miffed when President Eisenhower did not meet him at the airport on his first visit but only sent the Vice President to escort him to the White House.
Like Menelik before him, Haile Selassie was obsessed with obtaining modern armaments, both to defend his country from external foes and to protect his rule from domestic ones. On every visit he did his utmost to get more military assistance, sometimes violating protocol by springing requests on presidents without prearrangements. He found it hard to understand that a president could not just accede to his requests, but had to consider those of many other nations and different priorities in Congress. He played many cards: his contributions of soldiers to UN missions in Korea and the Congo, his hosting of the Kagnew Station, an important U.S. radio communications facility until satellites replaced it in the 1970s, and even flirtations with moving Ethiopia from the American side in the cold war to nonaligned or pro-soviet. The result was remarkable success: at times Ethiopia was receiving 60% of U.S. military funds going to Africa.
In the book there is a good account of how the emperor came to represent Africa to many Americans, who could not keep track of the comings and goings of other rulers, but who found it easy to recall and admire the ruler who had addressed the League of Nations in 1936 and the United Nations in 1954, 1963, and 1970. I am not convinced of the author’s conclusion that positive remembrances of Haile Selassie contributed to the election of President Barack Obama, but there is little doubt that the emperor raised the profile of Africa among Americans, and that the impression he gave was mostly positive.
The book contains a handful of errors, but far more annoying to me was the author’s near-obsession with Haile Selassie’s height. There are at least eighteeen references to “the little king” as well as others to “little monarch,” “diminutive sovereign,” “diminutive emperor,” “petite ruler,” etc. The book begins with “The petite, sepia man . . ..”
Theodore Vestal, who served on the Peace Corps staff in 1964–66, has written a book that should interest all who care about Ethiopia and its relations with the United States.
African Victory in the Age of Empire
By Raymond Jonas
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011
Reviewed by Danielle Hoekwater (Mekelle 2009–11)
It’s hard to image serving as a Volunteer in Ethiopia or Eritrea and not hearing about the famous moment when Africans defeated Europeans. I served as a PCV in Tigray and had the opportunity to hear about the epic battle between Ethiopia and Italy from coworkers while visiting the city of Adwa. In this book University of Washington history professor Raymond Jonas focuses on the Battle of Adwa, an event that is of great pride for Ethiopia and other Africans as it showed the unexpected power of an African nation.
I felt that the book was slow paced in the beginning and it took a few chapters to get into the story. Once the book grabbed my attention, I found it to be very interesting and quite an easy read. I appreciated that Jonas allows the reader to experience this historical event through the eyes of both sides. He takes you through Menelik’s rise to power. You then travel to Massawa with the Italian soldiers as they attempt to conquer Ethiopia and you become immersed in the battle as Ethiopia fights to protect its land and Italy seeks to expand its empire. Jonas also recounts the stories of familiar characters in Ethiopian history who had an impact on this significant event.
This book is well written and gives an interesting and well-researched account of the events leading up to the Battle of Adwa and its lasting impacts. However, at 335 pages it takes some dedicated time to finish. If you are interested in learning more about Ethiopian history and this important battle, this may be a good read for you.
Written and directed by Leslie Woodhead
83 minutes running time
Reviewed by Janet Lee (Emdeber, 1974-76)
Endurance, the story of long distance runner, Haile Gebrsellasie, is a moving tale of the famous athlete who persevered despite the many hardships typical of those from this incredible yet underdeveloped country. Part drama, part documentary, the story intersperses actual film clips from the XXVI Olympic games in Atlanta, where Haile won gold in the 10,000 meter event, with reenactments of his life as a child and as a young man.
The beautiful scenery and outstanding cinematography will bring back memories to RPCVs of their stays in rural Ethiopia. Haile, who plays himself as an adult, is filmed running across the countryside. One wonders how the videographer was able to keep such a steady hand on those bumpy roads. The music throughout enhances the action of the movie, with an upbeat piece that accompanies Haile as he trains. We can hear his feet pounding on the ground and his deep breathing while cows moo in the background.
We meet the young Haile, who runs six miles to and from school each day in tattered pants and shirt, helps plow the fields, fetches water, thrashes wheat, and surreptitiously listens to the radio to follow Abebe Bekele race in Moscow.
His relationship with his mother is beautifully portrayed. They were obviously devoted to each other. She worked from sunrise to sunset, baking injera (beautifully filmed), hauling manure from their makeshift corral by hand, transporting jugs of water on her back, and bearing a child a year until her death. Haile was one of ten siblings. His relationship with his father was much more aloof, his father not understanding nor approving his passion for running.
Granted the acting throughout is rather uneven, but this is more than compensated for by the scenery, the music, and the actual video clips from the Atlanta Olympics. Well worth the price of the video.
Point Four, Part 2
Produced and directed by Mel Tewahade
Zealand Productions 2012
1 hr. 59 min. (price not set)
Reviewed by Janet Lee (Emdeber 1974–76)
Documentaries based on personal narratives play an important role in capturing oral histories. First person accounts record both the historical and the personal memories of events and depending on the topic may be of great value to the general public, to researchers, and perhaps even to policy makers. These narratives can be powerful as each person describes the day-to-day activities and decisions surrounding the event, including the trials, frustrations, and successes. Granted, these are personal memories and memories do fade in time, but they can be invaluable when coupled with letters, journals, and photographs.
Mel Tewahade, director and producer of Point Four, Part 2, has produced a documentary concerning a significant piece of history in U.S.-Ethiopian relations. Using personal narratives and an extensive array of personal and archival photographs, he has succeeded in chronicling the events that led to the formation of Alemaya College, the premiere agricultural college in Ethiopia, located just outside of Harer.
Point Four is named after the fourth point in President Harry Truman’s 1949 inaugural address, “Point Four Agreement for Technical Cooperation.” The program served to foster the provision of scientific, technological and economic advances to underdeveloped countries. This extensively researched documentary calls upon leading experts on Ethiopia such as Dr. Theodore M. Vestal, Professor Emeritus in Political Science at Oklahoma State University and Associate Director of Peace Corps in Ethiopia from 1964 to 1966. His book The Lion of Judah in the New World is reviewed earlier in this column.
The documentary gives great credit to the vision and diplomacy of Emperor Haile Selassie in fostering a crucial relationship between the U.S. and Ethiopia that lead to and strengthened the program at Alemaya. In 1951, representatives of the U.S. and Ethiopia signed an agreement of technical knowledge and skills transfer. The Ethiopian government, under the Emperor’s direction, funded the projects and the U.S. provided expert advice and training. Oklahoma State University President, Dr. Henry Bennett, would head up the plan to work with Ethiopia in establishing the college until his untimely death in a plane accident in Teheran in 1951, prior to the opening of the college in 1952.
Over 300 staff members, faculty and administrators from OSU and elsewhere served in different capacities at Alemaya College from the initial formation in 1952 to 1968, when the governance of the college was turned over to Ethiopia as planned.
In the film Mel Tewahade interviews American administrators, faculty members, and their children, as well as Ethiopian students who attended the college during those early years. Early administrators describe the hardships faced as they set up the physical presence of the campus: lack of water, no electricity, and unsuitable housing for the students. The faculty speak highly of the grit and determination of their Ethiopian students, many who ultimately have won significant international awards. These same students describe the opportunities that they received against great odds. A touching story is told by Girma Bekelle who had never owned a pair of shoes prior to his acceptance into the program. When presented a pair by an uncle, Girma slung them over his shoulders since he did not know how to wear shoes. The children of the American faculty and staff recount with delight an adventure of a lifetime. All speak highly of the bond of friendship that resulted from this extensive partnership.
The producer alternates the interviewees frequently as the topic dictates, while scanning over a vast array of related photos, both historical and personal. He obviously dug deep into a number of archives to find and pair up with the narration photos of Emperor Haile Selassie; Presidents Truman, Kennedy, Johnson; and the early site construction of the college.
To see more about the film, plus a 4-minute clip CLICK HERE.
Mel Tewahade has also produced a film about Peace Corps Volunteers in Ethiopia, which was screened for PCVs and RPCVs in Addis Ababa during the Return to Ethiopia in September. Although neither film is commercially available, please contact 800/770-4156 for more information.