Taking Flight

Sunday, September 13, 2009


How Barack Obama, Sr. , John F. Kennedy, Tom Mboya, and 800 East African Students Changed Their World and Ours

By Tom Shachtman. St. Martin's. 273 pp. $24.99

This book fills in a piece of Barack Obama's background. Quite an important piece, in that the subject is the so-called airlift, between 1959 and '63, of hundreds of young Africans to the United States, where they studied at colleges and universities. One such student, a Kenyan, went to Hawaii, where he met and married a young American woman. In 1961, they had a son, who is now president of the United States.

As Tom Shachtman explains, the private group that brought Obama senior to the States, the African American Students Foundation, was a creature of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union were rival superpowers and the future of Africa was thought to hang in the balance. The idea was to let promising young Africans experience firsthand the freedom and promise of American life. No less an analyst than the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. thought the program would advance the cause of civil rights on both continents.

In Shachtman's telling, the airlift may have made the difference in the very close 1960 election. The Kennedy family foundation was giving money to AASF, and Richard Nixon tried, unsuccessfully, to get the State Department to help finance the program as a way to dampen the favorable publicity for his Democratic rival. The author argues that the standard explanation for Kennedy's success among black voters -- that they were impressed by his phone calls on behalf of the often arrested King -- should be "revised to include the understanding that his support for the 1960 East African airlift was equally if not more crucial to his election as president."

-- Dennis Drabelle

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