“The Lion of Judah in the New World” – Book Review

By Messay Kebede

The latest book of Professor Theodore M. Vestal, The Lion of Judah in the New World: Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and the Shaping of Americans’ Attitudes toward Africa (Praeger, 2011) presents an insightful, focused, and scholarly portrait of HaileSelassie. Revolving around the central issue of knowing how Haile Selassie became the subject of a wide American adulation, this book of a great friend of Ethiopia gives fresh insights into US policy in Africa since World War II and a penetrating analysis of the emperor’s rise and fall.

To begin with, Vestal avoids the too common path of a one-sided portrait of Haile Selassie. He does not describe the emperor as “a demoniac despot administering large doses of cruelty” (xiii). Nor does he follow the path of mystification, of “lofty, lyrical language of praise” (xiii). Instead, Vestal presents a balanced account in which merits and flaws are spelled out. More importantly, the account is such that it forces us to face the enigmatic disjunction of HaileSelassie’s reign, namely, his international fame and importance and his disappointing internal performances and final disgrace. As Vestal aptly puts it: “it is perhaps difficult to understand how a ruler so reviled in his homeland for more than 35 years by successor governments could have been such an international celebrity and be so royally received abroad” (xi).

In his analysis of the rise of Haile Selassie to absolute power, Vestal gives a proper place to his consummate political skills, notably his shrewdness, which helped him “outsmart, outmaneuver, and outwait the xenophobic, isolationist conservatives who stood in his way” (21). Yet to reduce his triumph to shrewdness would be one-sided: the full impact of his personality appears only when shrewdness is coupled with {www:charismatic} traits. HaileSelassie shrouded his political skills with a thick cover of charm that seduced not only many Ethiopians for a long time, but also the international audience, in particular the American public.

Vestal speaks of “a perplexing figure,” of “elusive” character (190) and provides pertinent examples of the complexity of Haile Selassie’s personality. The purpose of this psychological analysis is obvious: the question why this shrewd politician missed the necessity of reforms cannot be answered without some access into his deeper soul. Likewise, Ethiopia became a major beneficiary of US aid thanks to the impressive personality of Haile Selassie over and above its strategic interest, which was essentially confined to the American policy of Soviet {www:containment} and the use of the Kagnew communication facilities in Eritrea. Americans were fascinated with the dignity and august figure of the emperor. For instance, Time magazine named Haile Selassie “Man of the Year” twice.

In light of the limited interest of Ethiopia to the US, Haile Selassie’s offensive of charm, Vestal convincingly argues, was instrumental in the forging of close ties. Ethiopia’s participation in the Korean War and several state visits to the US further strengthened the ties. In addition to appreciable economic and military aids, the combination of diplomacy with charm secured US support for the federation of Eritrea with Ethiopia.

The domestic usage of external policy is another facet of Haile Selassie’s political acumen. His attempt to gain international fame through an offensive of charm was a component part of his strategy to overshadow and defeat his internal opponents. Doubtless, Haile Selassie succeeded in imposing his absolute rule on Ethiopia by means of fame gained abroad. His internal opponents looked mean and petty in the face of his international grandeur.

Among the insightful contributions of Vestal’s book is a realistic analysis of US policy in Ethiopia. Though ties were close enough for Ethiopia to become a major beneficiary of American economic and military aid, they were fraught with ambiguity and constant misunderstandings. In particular, unable to understand how democratic governments work, Haile Selassie was constantly unhappy with the amount of US military and economic aids. From his exchanges with American presidents, he expected immediate and generous assistance, and so overlooked the fact that they are limited by “congressional control of spending” (101) and other domestic factors.

The US government, in its turn, was dealing with an outdated regime and an obstinate monarch whose ambition exceeded by far the status of the country he was representing. To make matters worse, in the face of mounting domestic dissatisfaction, Haile Selassie proved reluctant to effect reforms, convinced as he was that his regime “would continue as it had for almost 40 years under his enlightened rule” (160). At a time when growing Somali threat and insurgency in Eritrea compelled Haile Selassie to ask for more military aid, the prevailing view in the American government was that Ethiopia needed “faster paced change and reform” (173) rather than more arms. To crown it all, the operations at Kagnew Station ceased in 1974, depriving Ethiopia of its strategic interest (183). In other words, “at the advent of the 1970s the relationship between the United States and Ethiopia was in decline” (173).

We all know what happened next and Vestal’s book goes a long way in showing the premises of the little effort of the US government to {www:intervene} and save the imperial regime from the assault of revolutionary forces. Together with the dissatisfaction and rebellious mood of an increasing number of Ethiopians, the international opinion and the American public were liberated from the spell of Haile Selassie’s myth. Thus, Haile Selassie’s obsession with absolute power had finally defeated his uncommon political acumen.

Unfortunately, Ethiopia’s tragedy will not end with Haile Selassie, since the same obsession for absolute power defines his successors to the point of obstructing their political acuity, to which they owe their ascent to power. Blinded by his early victories, his first successor, Mengistu Hailemariam, lost power because he could not reverse the infirmities induced by his dictatorial rule. The second successor, Meles, is stuck with the same fixation, which leads him to pursue the destructive policy of “after me the deluge” characteristic of all dictators.

Prof. Messay Kebede can be reached at Messay.Kebede@notes.udayton.edu
Prof. Theodore Vestal can be reached at vestal65@hotmail.com

9 thoughts on ““The Lion of Judah in the New World” – Book Review

  1. What our own scholars are good at is dymistifying the great as if dymistification and humiliation are permanent graveyards of the immortal. The good, the bad and the ugly are classless and have no distinctions anymore. The dynamics of Ethiopia is beyond the reach of our 21th-century foreign-influnced elite think tanks for their visionlessness and lack of understandings warrants it.

    On this Easter Holiday, it must be remembered that, it was haters, money-grubbers, Gotengoch, hipocrites, cowards, Minamentes (false witnesses), envious nobodies, Kehadiotch, the Judas Iscariots (reptiles), who, for no apparent reason, concocted evil schemes and crucified the Prince God.
    Hile-Sellasie, likewise, was undone by the same wicked generation and same key characters.

    Gog & Magog is being massively unleashed today. Unbelievers China, India and Evil are taking over. Once righteous countries and places: U.S, Ethiopia, Japan, Michigan, Europe… are in decline. Haile-Sellasie was the symbol of righteousnes and represnted the precious GOOD. Use your pen instead to describe those who deserve it more, namely, the ubiquitous bad and ugly.

  2. Megabit The crucifixion of Christ

    And on this day also was crucified our Lord and God and Redeemer, Jesus Christ, to Whom praise in the body is due because of the salvation of the world. The sun became dark when it saw its Creator crucified by His own will, and that which should have been visible covered itself over. And the period of darkness lasted from the sixth to the ninth hour, and in that time our Lord bowed His head by His own free will, and delivered up His understanding and rational soul which He had received from our Lady, the Virgin Mary, and that soul was separated from its body. And it went into Sheol without separation from the Godhead, even as Saint Peter the apostle saith, “He was dead in the body and alive in the spirit.” And at that same time His body was hung upon the wood of the Cross, without separation from the Godhead. Similarly His soul descended into Sheol, like a released prisoner, and it had one nature and was without separation from the Godhead. And He was exalted high above the heavens, sitting with the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Synaxarium

  3. Ye Mizan on

    I would like to appreciate Prof.Ted Vestal with many thanks to this balanced book about the Emperor.What is an understandable disgrace for the country is that most people who knew him at work have either mostly been killed during Ethiopia`s `dark days`,and subsequently now there is a government politically and historically still time-warped in Marxist-lenninst spite & vapour very high up its backside,it was highly unlikely for them to encourage the few Ethiopian intelligentsia that was not tainted with outmoded and half-baked “socialist” views to write; forget kind,even balanced outlook about the Emperor.
    The most notable issue here though is its a sad truth that the young will not know a balanced historical overview of this remarkable King,and losers are seldom the one`s that do not appreciate the past,but the one`s who are still sleep-walking in oblivion into History. Thankyou also Prof.Messai for the review.

  4. CHANGE on

    The Ethiopians

    Are you ready
    Here comes the change
    Are you ready
    For that change?

    Almighty Father
    He’s a powerful Savior
    Almighty Father
    He’s a powerful Savior

    So you must throw away your guns
    And come with your heart, brother
    I said to throw away your guns
    And come with your heart, brother

    My sister, if you live by the sword
    You shall perish by the sword
    If you live by the sword
    You shall perish by the sword, brother

    My sister, you must remember the word is love
    And the name of the game is freedom
    Remember the word is love
    And the name of the game is freedom for all

    So won’t you sing it out, freedom
    I got to tell you now, freedom
    A happy ending, freedom

    So you must throw away your guns
    And come with your heart, brother
    I said to throw away your gun
    And come with your heart, brother

    My sister, you must remember the word is love
    And the name of the game is freedom
    Remember the word is love
    And the name of the game is freedom for all

    Source: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Rrzi42Sm90


    “የፖለቲካ ሰው በምንም ተአምር ከፖለቲካወ ገና ውጭ ሊሆን አይችልም በዚህ መክንያት አንባቢዬ በጽሁፌ አቀራረብ አተናተንና ከደረስኩበት ወደ መደምደሚያዎች ላይ ተመስርቶ የፖለቲካ ወገናዊነቴን ቢያነብ አይደንቀኝ”
    ይድረስ ባለታሪኩ ከተስፋዬ መኰንን


    It has been said time and time again, “Tell the truth and the truth will set you free!”


    “ታማኝና ግልጽ መሆንህ ያስጠቃችሁ ይሆናል ቢሆንም ግልጽና ታማኝ ሁኑ”


  5. Agonafer on

    Emperror Haile Selassie became the subject of a wide American adulation due to his personal ancestoral background among other things . Most Ethiopian leaders before him or after him did not embrace the Jewish heritage the way Emperror Haile Selassie did . The fact that he was jewish mattered a great deal on his diplomatic approaches among the world leaders of his time .
    Meles Zenawi got close ties to the USA government but not as close as Emperror Haile Selassie . Many agree it is because he didnot embrace the Lion Of judah .

  6. Beghenna on

    I would firstly would like to appreciate Prof.Vestal`s well balanced portrait of HIM. What i would like to comment though is the sad state of affairs amongst the Ethiopan `intelligenstia`,particularly in the Hitorical department,a sense of a wanton amnesia about possibly the greatest figure that country has produced in the last 100yrs.
    Yes,I do believe that there is no question amongst the educated classes,who are now in their sixties and seventies, and to a lesser extent now,interpreting our History from a marxist spectrum,and hitherto in light of having this warped and outdated version of our modern-day history has done a great deal of damage to the psyche,pride,and confidence on the upcoming generation-where it will not be an exageration to state given the opportunity, the majority of this grouping would leave the country.
    Then their are the two respective governments,the previous enough has been said about the all encompassing tragedy they visited on that land,not just the Emperor. The current regime however,(the Tigrayn elite),unlike very much since its inception as a secessionist movement,coupled with a spitefuly twisted Maoist vapour very high up in its backside,it was and will be unlikely for them to encourage the rehabilitation of HaileSelassie,a legacy that still can sideswipe and haunt their desire to see a `sanitized`history to justify their creation,and therefore existence.
    The loser`s in the long run will be the young,walking obliviously about the current past and HIM`s abundant contributions to modernday Ethiopia. It does not necesarily has to remind a `glorious` imperial era,but a damnsight better legacy than the miserable luck history is dealing us and will continue to do as long as we do not appreciate our past.

  7. Korma! on

    A rational discussion of history requires a refined intelect and a mature wisdom. Recasting in an apparently new prejudicial frame what is known or guessed hardly qualifies as worthy analysis. Like all Emperial regimes, HIM’s reign was characterized by its own shortcomings and successes. We all know how HIM was responsible for bringing ancient Ethiopia into the contemporary modern setting of the world during his reign. We must also admit that there were typical ills of an Emperial and Feudal regime which plagued the country in a devastating way in some aspects. However, while critical analysis may be apropriate, I fail to see the ill in using one’s charm and political skills to secure advantage for one’s nation. My counsel for historians is that they would be more helpful if they encourage us to learn from our failures and treasure our successes in looking forward to the future rather than keeping us stuck in their prejudicial comments regarding the dead facts and/or trivialities of the past. The best we have done so far is run away from challenges like unworthy cowards and wax eloquent on cyber platforms where our bluffs cannot be confronted. Sad! While we exchange incredible and sometimes unhealthy mouth-offs, many die and end their lives and dreams before they begin. something to be “proud of” HUH!

  8. Wrong Analogy on

    Haile Selassie had many shortcomings but I totally disagree with mesay kebe analogy of Haile Selassie with melese. Despite his short comings Haile selassie never entertained anti Ethiopian Agenda. He worked hard to give us the Ethiopia today.

    The Eritrean elites who promote extreme hate for Haile Selassie owe him a lot. For one thing, if it wasn’t for Haile Selassie they would have remained a 4th grade graduate.

  9. Korma! on

    True! Show me a perfect regime and I will condemn all nations in the world. I totally agree HIM neither had nor promoted an anti-Ethiopia agenda. Also, in spite of his humanly understandable flaws, he fought for Ethiopia in a very prejudiced international platform and represented Ethiopia quite well worldwide. Yes, his regime gave self-serving greedy cowards an opportunity to take advantage of the masses. Show me a system in the world which does not take advantage of someone. Under HIM, more people went to bed with something in their bellies than what we are witnessing at other times. HIM was never a disgrace to Ethiopia. He was only the victim of the times during which rebellion was the political style as we are observing now in the middle east. If anything, HIM put Ethiopia on the world platform in a position where its voice mattered. HIM gave Africa one voice. But look now! Africa stood still on the side while other nations took action “to fix” African problem. I wonder if the world would have reacted if HIM was still the strong African voice! I am not denying the problems Ethiopia had throughout its existence including HIM’s years. But let us not deny HIM the good he had attained for Ethiopia and or Africa and the rest of the world. We don’t have to like HIM at all. But it is only responsible to be honest to facts and be responsible stewards of histry.

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