“A tree is best measured when it is down,” the poet Carl Sandburg once observed, “and so it is with people.” The recent death of Harry Belafonte at the age of 96 has prompted many assessments of what this pioneering singer-actor-activist accomplished in a long and fruitful life.
Belafonte’s career as a ground-breaking entertainer brought him substantial wealth and fame; according to Playbill magazine, “By 1959, he was the highest paid Black entertainer in the industry, appearing in raucously successful engagements in Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles.” He scored on Broadway, winning a 1954 Tony for Best Featured Actor in a Musical – John Murray Anderson's Almanac. Belafonte was the first Black person to win the prestigious award. A 1960 television special, “Tonight with Belafonte,” brought him an Emmy for Outstanding Performance in a Variety or Musical Program or Series, making him the first Black person to win that award. He found equal success in the recording studio, bringing Calypso music to the masses via such hits as “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” and “Jamaica Farewell.”
Harry Belafonte - Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) (Live)www.youtube.com
Belafonte’s blockbuster stardom is all the more remarkable for happening in a world plagued by virulent systemic racism. Though he never stopped performing, by the early 1960s he’d shifted his energies to the nascent Civil Right movement. He was a friend and adviser to the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and, as the New York Times stated, Belafonte “put up much of the seed money to help start the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was one of the principal fund-raisers for that organization and Dr. King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center notes that “he helped launch one of Mississippi’s first voter registration drives and provided funding for the Freedom Riders. His activism extended beyond the U.S. as he fought against apartheid alongside Nelson Mandela and Miriam Makeba, campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison, and advocated for famine relief in Africa.” And in 1987, he received an appointment to UNICEF as a goodwill ambassador.
Over a career spanning more than seventy years, Belafonte brought joy to millions of people. He also did something that is, perhaps, even greater: he fostered the hope that a better world for all could be created. And, by his example, demonstrated how we might go about bringing that world into existence.
Global Alliances and America's Rise to Prominence
America didn't come to rule the world over night.
Henry Kissinger is often thought of as the originator of realpolitik–political action dictated by circumstance and pragmatism rather than ideologies or ethics–but this couldn't be further from the truth. From Sun Tzu to Machiavelli to Thomas Hobbes, philosophers and political theorists alike have been advocating for a more practical politics for thousands of years, and their edicts have had profound effects on the way in which global alliances have shifted throughout history. Inasmuch as it takes a powerful nation to create powerful enemies, it's worth examining America's rise to alliance breaker/maker, a rise that's rooted in the 19th and early 20th centuries. A story:
Just after the American civil war, one of the best known practitioners of realpolitik, Otto Von Bismarck was consolidating power in Prussia and slowly, through a series of small wars, unifying Germany. Later, in 1873, Von Bismarck helped create the Three Emperors League between Russia, Austria-Hungary, and newly-unified Germany (formed following the Franco-Prussian war). Eventually, revolts and civil disorder in the Balkans eroded Russian involvement with the League, and upon its dissolution, Germany and Austria-Hungary formed the Dual Alliance, which was later expanded to include the newly formed Kingdom of Italy. It was then appropriately renamed The Triple Alliance.
Otto Von Bismarck
As the power vacuum in Europe was being filled by Germany, late 19th century America was still smarting from the Civil War, and it can be assumed, because of French and British involvement, the U.S. was a bit weary of the Western European powers. During this time, the largely amiable relations between Germany and the United States also started to decline. Imperial ambitions and Germany's decision to to build a large fleet of battleships in the 1890s ruined much of the cordiality the two nations shared throughout the previous decades. Coincidentally, this is when the United States and the United Kingdom started becoming chummy, partly due to the fact that Britain sided with the U.S. towards the latter half of the Spanish-American War– once it was clear the Americans were going to win.
A decade later, in 1907, the UK, France, and Russia signed The Triple Entente. This served a few purposes. It rebuilt Anglo-Russian and Franco-Russian relations following the Crimean war, but it also created an alliance by proxy, as the Russian Empire and the United States were on very good standing following the Alaska purchase and the Alliance they formed when suppressing the Boxer Rebellion in China. Seven years later, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia after Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Russia then mobilized to aid Serbia, and slowly but surely the rest of the European powers were drawn in. The Triple Entente and The Triple Alliance were at war. WWI had begun. Unlike their more pugnacious allies, the United States was not interested in getting involved, and avoided joining the war until 1917, when the British intercepted a German message to Mexico, called the Zimmerman Telegram, calling for a German-Mexican military alliance.
Woodrow Wilson and King George V
After the war ended, the victors signed the Treaty of Versailles, and Germany was turned into the Weimar Republic. Around the same time, Benito Mussolini's fascist party took control of Italy. The Treaty of Versailles' harsh conditions combined with the Great Depression, plunged Germany into a period of hyperinflation and civil unrest that eventually gave birth to National Socialism. Italy and Germany, being the two major European fascist states, were natural allies, and together began rapidly developing their militaries to spur economic growth. On the other side of the world, Japan was preparing to invade China, and by the mid-1930s, war looked inevitable to anyone who was paying attention. The U.S. leveled sanctions against their once-ally Japan once Japan's invasion of China began, and within two years the world was in the midst of another World War, this one even more disastrous than the first. With over 80 million war-related deaths, and the devastation of most European nations due to bombing and mass extermination, America was the only country left with enough infrastructure necessary to run the world economy. The economy that was left to America however, wasn't one based on trade or the manufacturing of luxury goods, but war. The old alliances between the U.S., France, and the United Kingdom, stayed in place, but new alliances were only created with countries that could help the U.S. in their chess match with the Soviet Union over control over the new, non-eurocentric world.
Hitler and Mussolini
The Cold War, between the United States and its NATO allies and the Soviet Union, was marketed as a battle of ideas–capitalism vs communism–but was really just a new type of economy, one in which Soviets and Americans sold mass amounts of weapons to opposing armies throughout the 20th century. Some examples include the Soviet Union arming North Korea during the Korean War and the United States arming the Mujahideen during the Soviet-Afghan war. More interesting than the boilerplate on-the-record facts about the Cold War however, is what happened immediately following WWII.
The Nazis, for all the atrocities they committed, were nothing if not efficient. Germany under Hitler was a cult-like, militaristic machine and had the most technologically advanced and well-trained army during WWII. The Germans had rockets capable of reaching space and jet aircraft, technologies that were incredibly valuable to both the Soviet Union and the United States. During Operation: Paperclip, hundreds of Nazi scientists were brought to the United States by the CIA, most famously rocket scientist Wernher Von Braun. But, there was another section of the CIA more interested in Nazi commanders, namely ones in charge of intelligence. Reinhard Gehlen, Nazi Germany's head of intel ligence on the Eastern Front was recruited, along with hundreds of other Nazi officers, to set up a spy network in Germany to keep an eye on the Soviet Union. It was called the Gehlen organization.
Stranger however, is the case of Otto Skorzeny, an SS lieutenant colonel, who escaped an allied prison camp and hid in Bavaria, all the while in contact with Gehlen. At Gehlen's and by extension the CIA's behest, Skorzeny was sent to Egypt in 1952 to train the Egyptian army under General Mohamed Naguib. Skorzeny, specializing in commando tactics, also trained Arab and Palestinian volunteers and helped them plan raids into Israel and Gaza. One of the people he trained was none other than Yasser Arafat, the future leader of the PLO. The question that remains is: why would a United States' intelligence organization would be interested in training soldiers in an army that recently declared war on Israel, one of their allies?
Matt Clibanoff is a writer and editor based in New York City who covers music, politics, sports and pop culture. His editorial work can be found in Inked Magazine, Pop Dust, The Liberty Project, and All Things Go. His fiction has been published in Forth Magazine. -- Find Matt at his website and on Twitter: @mattclibanoff