Death is rarely well timed and often inconvenient. In the case of North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, the timing was immaculate. He would surely not have picked a better day. For liberals, no departure could have been convenient enough. At 86, on July 4, Helms exited the scene of American politics.
His childhood background might have been written by John Steinbeck. But instead of going the way of the Joads, the boy from Monroe, North Carolina went into war and journalism.
Bigotry was something he openly entertained as an emerging public figure. Campaigns against the impediments of segregation made him queasy. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was labelled accordingly as ‘the single most dangerous piece of legislation ever introduced in the Congress.’ When he wasn’t venting his spleen on the march of the civil rights movement on local television, he was scribbling homophobic commentaries and dabbling in some good old hippie-bashing.
His views were given considerable currency through the National Congressional Club, organised ostensibly to pay off the debts of his Senate campaign in 1972. The suitably vicious campaign propelled him further into a state of reactionary splendour.
Through a direct-mail system that revolutionised campaigning, Helms hectored constituents with attacks on liberal ‘agendas’ that would undermine a frail Republic – funding for the arts, schools, a dangerous indifference to the march of world communism. With that came questionable donations, demonstrating Gore Vidal’s maxim that bright, enterprising Americans would rather buy a Congressional office than run for one.
But it is his indignant, obstructionist role on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that he will perhaps most be remembered for. It’s not always the best recipe for a country to have arch-conservatives and reactionaries on the benches of foreign affairs committees. An individual literate in world affairs might be deemed more suitable.
This, however, is not a prerequisite. It has not prevented the Committee, established in 1816, from having the stewardship of individuals such as Senator William Borah of Idaho, an ‘irreconcilable’ on the issue of U.S. participation in the League of Nations after the First World War.
For Borah opposition against Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations was automatic. He accused it of being the vile offspring of the Versailles Treaty, a product of ‘militarism and imperialism, oppression, and exploitation.’ An international facility to secure world peace and deter the recurrence of conflict such as the league was lethal to American independence, a poison for the ‘first principles of the Republic’.
A refusal to engage in international institutions is not a commitment that should be dismissed out of hand. George Washington may have been a markedly inept military commander, successful only because his enemies were more spectacularly inept, but he did come up with the occasional morsel of wisdom. On foreign policy, America would resist the temptation of entangling, thorny engagements that might stifle the new republic’s vitality.
Resisting a signature that might involve a country in onerous obligations is one thing. But a cultivated sense of xenophobia, notably from the officials of a superpower, is quite something else. Helms adopted the most noxious element of that policy. Entanglements with foreign institutions were venal undertakings; support for murderous authoritarian juntas in South America were, of course, quite something else.
The UN was always an organisation Helms loved to hate. ‘As it currently operates,’ wrote Helms in a 1996 issue of Foreign Affairs, ‘the United Nations does not deserve continued American support.’ On the one hand, the UN did too much – in his wisdom, it was ‘expanding beyond its mandate’ hungering for a standing army and the collection of ‘direct’ taxes. On the other hand, it did too little, paralysed in a web of bureaucracy and ‘spiralling’ costs.
But his warbling on matters of UN reform was merely an excuse for evasion (the payment of dues owed by the US, the observance of international obligations). It is fine to blame the demise of an institution for internal problems. But the UN is only as good as its members, a fact often forgotten by truculent unilateralists and worshippers of ‘hegemony’. Besides, the UN was never designed to attain heaven but prevent one from, as one of its Secretary Generals once said, going to hell.
The world according to Helms was not a pleasant place, one of racial and political divisions, bloated corporate interests, and well-fed malice. But his views had that stamp of ideological, if hypocritical certitude. Liberals will be pondering what to do with this sudden, expansive vacancy in America’s political landscape.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org