Close Ranks, Again: Robert Gates, Political Expediency and the Subversion of Memory and Resistance


 Sunday May 21, 2013, President Barack Hussein Obama made history at Morehouse College in Atlanta delivering a memorable if contentious commencement address. He was the second person from his administration to speak to the graduates of the all-male Historically Black College. Three years earlier, Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates addressed the college’s graduates. Below is a brief reflection on the meaning of Gates’ address relative to the progressive tradition at HBCUs and among African Americans.


“A rebel in your thoughts, ain’t gon make it halt

If you don’t become an actor you’ll never be a factor”

                                                                        –Lupe Fiasco, “Words I Never Said”[1]


Graduation is always a time of reflection and for people of conscience, people of memory, we have much to consider at the end of an academic year: achievements, setbacks, and possible corrections in our collective and personal courses. I participated in the graduation rites of Morehouse College at the end of Spring 2010 and was most struck by the contrast in speakers for the Baccalaureate and the Commencement ceremonies. At Baccalaureate, Rev. Charles E. Booth, Pastor of Mt. Olivet Baptist, Columbus Ohio spoke of the need of our students to return to our home communities, our “Jerusalem,” to redeem the Hood. The Good Reverend even declared that “the hood shall rise again.” On the other hand, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, like many other conservative politicians past, used Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a trope for overcoming mediocrity. Gates, in an unadvised obfuscating turn, compared himself with King, that other “mediocre” student. As mediocre beings like him could rise to serve, then every Morehouse Man should recommit himself to serving the wider world. The honored presence of Mr. Gates at Morehouse’s graduation forces the person of conscience and the student of history to pause and reflect on the ethics of honoring a man who has been central to the development of what Dr. Noam Chomsky MIT Institute Professor of Linguistics (Emeritus)  deems the American Rogue State and undermining Black and other oppressed communities. The historical record is not kind to Mr. Gates, yet Morehouse’s administration and faculty consented to honoring him.

The 2010 Baccalaureate and Commencement indicated the askew relationship between principled Black leadership and political expedience. Rev. Booth spoke out of a commitment born of decades of service to the African American community, while Robert Gates’ record deserves some review. Given the CIA’s history of deception, anti-democratic efforts toward Africa and aggressively serving as a drum-major for injustice, the student of history will question the choice to confer an honorary doctorate on Secretary of Defense Gates.

Like a true spook, Gates’ history is hidden in plain daylight. He served as Head of the Directorate of Intelligence from 1982 to 1986 and Acting Directorate of Central Intelligence during William Casey’s failing health and hospitalization, late 1986 to early 1987.[2]  Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, relate a history of deception, misdirection and outright lies by the CIA to further America’s conservative imperial interests. Gates figures prominently:

Bush’s choice to head the Agency was Casey’s deputy Robert Gates, who barely survived a contentious confirmation hearing after senators were told by Iran/Contra prosecutor Lawrence Walsh’s investigators that Gates probably lied to Congress about his knowledge of the Iran/Contra arms deals. Gates stood by as CIA-trained thugs overthrew the government of Haitian president Jean Baptiste Aristide and replaced him with a gang of military officers headed by Gen. Raoul Cedras. Gates’ CIA called Cedras one of the most promising “Haitian leaders to emerge since the Duvalier family dictatorship was overthrown in 1986.” Cedras and his colleagues proceeded to slaughter their political enemies and make millions from the drug trade.”[3] Surely, this was not just a failure of judgment. Gates knew Cedras was a thug yet helped his advance, and when he had to leave Haiti, hid the General in American northeastern cities where he enjoyed nightclubbing and the good life.

Concerning his reaction to the revelation that Oliver North facilitated, aided and abetted the sale of drugs in African American communities including Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego to raise funds for the blood-soaked Nicaraguan Contras Gates’ response was dubious.  He said, “North should have turned over his information to the DEA.”[4] and that

he would have expected that North, on coming across evidence of drug running by the Contras, would immediately go ballistic and pass on the evidence to Von Robb or the DEA.[5]

Cockburn and St. Claire continue,

But as a senior CIA officer, Gates had headed a 1988 investigation into charges of Contra drug running in the wake of the Kerry hearings. Back then he had as much information on the Contras and their contractors as North did. So did Von Robb. But neither said anything at the time.[6]

Most likely, our honored SecDef secretly agreed with perjury-indicted Elliot Abrams, who owned up to the position that “legally speaking that [drug running by Contras and their suppliers] was none of [the US Government’s] business.”[7]

More concerning is Gates’ stint as deputy to CIA Director, William Casey, who countermanded President Reagan’s 1981 Executive Order banning any “person employed by or acting on behalf of the U.S. government (from engaging in or conspiring) to engage in, assassinations.”[8] Gates assisted in preparations to eliminate a number of America’s enemies,

Likewise, Casey and his underlings were superintending the production of an assassination manual for the Nicaraguan Contras called Psychological Operations in Guerilla Warfare…, which reads like an update of the (Vietnam era) Phoenix Program, (and) called for the use of violence “to neutralize carefully selected and planned targets such as court judges, police and state security officials, etc.[9]

The CIA manual was not theoretical. The Casey-Gates CIA set their sights on “eliminating” democratically elected left-leaning leaders of Suriname, Nicaragua, Lebanon, and Libya. Disfavoring military action, in 1986, Gates developed a military overthrow option for Libya’s Muammar Qadaffi, but his mentor, Casey had the last word and dropped 72,000 pounds of laser-guided “smart-bombs” missing the dictator, but killing 80 civilians including the dictator’s daughter.

Casey’s health related departure created an opening for Reagan’s nomination of  Gates to the CIA chief position. However, Gates was sullied by his implication in the Iran-Contra Affair, which scuttled his nomination, sullied Reagan’s admini-stration and nearly led to the addled president’s impeachment.[10] Gates’ record was blemished by implications of his proximity to too much dirt and his reticence to be a drum major for justice. Reflecting on his failed leadership he said,

I would go over those points in my mind a thousand times in the months and years to come, but the criticisms still hit home. A thousand times I would go over the “might-have-beens” if I had raised more hell than I did with Casey about  non-notification of Congress, if I had demanded the NSC get out of covert action, if I had insisted that CIA not play by NSC rules, if I had been more aggressive with the DO in my first months as DDCI, if I had gone to the Attorney General…[11]

Ultimately, these ruminations about right action went unvoiced. Unlike King, Gates failed to listen to his Socratic semeion, his own voice of moral direction. In this episode and his professional life, he parts ways with the drum major for justice who paid the ultimate cost for his integrity.

The Morehouse – Gates situation speaks to the array of choices confronting Black scholars and is not unlike the buildup to America’s entry into the First World War. President Woodrow Wilson’s declaration of war on Germany in April of 1917 shattered America’s isolationism. In order to manufacture popular consent for this war, Wilson undertook a propaganda campaign through the newly formed Committee on Public Information (CPI) to bring about “the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses.”[12] Wilson tapped Edward Bernays to head the CPI to ‘engineer the consent’ of the masses toward support of the war. Bernays, viewed a rising tide of opposition to American involvement in Europe. A nativist and isolationist mob, a progressive education movement, the Women’s Club movements, the Universal Negro Improvement Association and the New Negro movement, along with the rising historical agency of working people evident in the International Workers of the World all were troublesome to elite rule. Bernays gave voice to patrician values, framing Blacks as a part of a wider problem of class struggle,

with universal suffrage and universal schooling…at last even the bourgeoisie stood in fear of the commonpeople. For the masses promised to become king.[13]

Like the Bush – Obama administration’s War on Terror, the first World War polarized progressive Blacks.  W.E.B. Du Bois, the pragmatist, seeking a military intelligence position that could propel his leadership of Africans in America, consented to raise his pen in support of Wilson’s manufacture of consent among Blacks, many of whom on anti-racist principles opposed the president. In July of 1918, he wrote his infamous “Close Ranks” editorial in The Crisis, calling on Black people to put aside the racial cause while the war effort was underway. His position was that,

We of the colored race have no ordinary interest in the outcome. That which German power represents today spells death to the aspirations of Negroes and all darker races for equality, freedom and democracy… Let us, while this war lasts, forget our special grievances and close our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens and the allied nations fighting for democracy.[14]

Du Bois’ position was ostensibly principled yet, historically hypocritical. A decade earlier, he sought German colonies for a settlement of African American elites in German-held West Africa suggesting that he, at that time, placed narrow nationalist and Black elitist priorities ahead of speaking against the Germans in their slaughter of Africans. He had advocated working with Germany in 1907 seeking colonies for Black upper middle class people in their African colonial territories. All of this while remaining virtually silent on General von Trotha’s vernichtungsbefehl order to massacre the Herero, Nama and Maji Maji people from 1904-06, part of a “Final Solution” to the problem of African resistance.[15]

Just as Black leaders William Monroe Trotter, A. Philip Randolph, Hubert Henry Harrison and Marcus Garvey criticized Du Bois for the Close Ranks appeal, we must rise in opposition on the modern-day Close Ranks drive. The trouble is that there is no one voice calling for Closing Ranks, but instead pressure is being applied from the office of the White House as it courts the favor of Black leadership. Black leadership, and the Morehouse community have moved to the cross-hairs of the modern attempt to manufacture the consent of African and other people of color against stereotypical Muslim terrorists. This is a call that we cannot heed.

We cannot honor Gates and accept his life as an example of the rise from mediocrity ‘just like King’. Nor should Gates retain the honor given him on that mid-May morning. Too many other drum majors offer examples of the willingness to struggle for a better society without being deterred by the possibility of personal loss. While most aspects of the past cannot be relived, the misstep made by Morehouse College in granting an imperial bureaucrat an honorary doctorate can be undone. While this step, which would dissent against empire, will not likely be taken, we owe the memory of past drum majors for justice that we at least reconsider that award.


East Point, Georgia



Noam Chomsky, Chomsky on Miseducation. Lanham: Rowman Littlefield, 2000.

Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Whiteout: The C.I.A., Drugs and the Press.

London: Verso, 1998.

David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: A Reader. Henry Holt, 1993.

Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa. New York: Harper Collins, 1991.

John Prados, Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee,



[1] Lupe Fiasco, “Words I Never Said” Lasers. (2011).

[2] J. Prados, Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2006, 479.

[3] Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, 109.

[4] Cockburn and St. Claire, 280.

[5] Cockburn and St. Claire, 280.

[6] ibid, 280.

[7] ibid., 280.

[8] Ibid., 107.

[9] Cockburn and St. Claire, 107.

[10] Prados, 574.

[11] ibid., 573.

[12] Noam Chomsky, Chomsky on Miseducation.

[13] Noam Chomsky, Chomsky on Miseducation, 137.

[14] Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: A Reader, 697.

[15] Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa, 607.

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