Jesse Helms’ Foreign Policy Legacy

Christopher Hitchens joins the legions dancing on Jesse Helms’ grave.   Rather than piling on about the racism of a Southern politician whose career began sixty-odd years ago, he instead focuses on Helms’ foreign policy:

Jesse Helms' stranglehold on U.S. foreign policy was a national embarrassment.His chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was a period of national embarrassment and, sometimes, disgrace. The Helms-Burton Act of 1996, imposing additional economic sanctions on Cuba, multiplied the misery and beggary of Cuba’s luckless inhabitants while doing nothing whatever to weaken its military dictatorship. Helms’ amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act in 1973, forbidding American aid to any family-planning groups that even mentioned the option of abortion, also greatly added to the woes and miseries of millions of Africans. (Fairness obliges me to say that in his last year in the Senate he did somewhat relax his equally stubborn and reactionary opposition to measures designed to combat AIDS in Africa. But this was only because it had by then become obvious that the disease was heterosexually transmitted. In general, his attitude to the AIDS plague was determined by a Bible-based bigotry that saw it as divine retribution for perversion.)

I make no apology for calling him a provincial redneck, because that, to be fair to him once more, was how he thought of himself and even described himself. It was a scandal that a man with so little knowledge of the outside world should have had such a stranglehold on American foreign policy for so long. He once introduced Benazir Bhutto as the prime minister of India. All right, that could have happened to anybody. But what about the hearings on North Korea in which he made repeated references to “Kim Jong the Second”? In order to prevent any repetition of this idiotic gaffe, Helms’ staff propped up a piece of card on which was clearly written the pronunciation “Kim Jong ILL.” The senator from North Carolina duly made the adjustment, referring thenceforth to the North Korean despot as “Kim Jong the Third.”

That’s pretty funny right there. (And shouldn’t it have been “Kim Jong the 99th”?)

UPDATE: Marc Theissen, the chief White House speechwriter and spokesman for Helms from 1995 to 2001, presents the opposing view:

As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Helms led the successful effort to bring Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic into the NATO alliance. He secured passage of bipartisan legislation to protect our men and women in uniform from the International Criminal Court. He won overwhelming approval for his legislation to support the Cuban people in their struggle against a tyrant. He won majority support in the Senate for his opposition to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. He helped secure passage of the National Missile Defense Act and stopped the Clinton administration from concluding a new anti-ballistic missile agreement in its final months in office — paving the way for today’s deployment of America’s first defenses against ballistic missile attack. He helped secure passage of the Iraq Liberation Act, which expressed strong bipartisan support for regime change in Baghdad. He secured broad, bipartisan support to reorganize the State Department and bring much-needed reform to the United Nations, and he became the first legislator from any nation to address the U.N. Security Council — a speech few in that chamber will forget.

Not all of those policy outcomes were good ones and most of  represent the provincialism Hitchens accuses him of.  But it’s true that Helms was a powerful leader, not merely an obstructionist, in foreign affairs.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tad says:

    ILL is actually a ‘bad/inefficient’ way of getting 101, 49 is XLIX….not that this nit picking makes it any less funny.

  2. James Joyner says:

    ILL is actually a ‘bad/inefficient’ way of getting 101, 49 is XLIX.

    I meant “99th.” 49 is simply IL (50-1). But, yes, LL would be inefficient since IC would get there more simply.

  3. Richard Gardner says:

    Damn, none of this would have happened if Warren Christopher was alive! (Old joke, told when he was the Sec State before Madeleine Albright, then again, was she alive?). I remember the Helms-Albright love-fest. Helms was a major force in international relations because the Constitution says that is the Senate’s responsibility. Pesky Constitution.

  4. robertl says:

    When Jackie Robinson died Jesse Jackson said at his funeral that he was safe at home. Well, Jesse Helms is now safe at home as well. Hopefully someone is there to kick some dirt over the plate. Good riddance to bad (white)trash.

  5. Bruce Moomaw says:

    It’s a pity that neither of the two quotes mentioned by Joyner refers to his two most famous foreign policy adventures at all: his furious opposition (as a TV editorialist) to Nixon’s 1972 China trip because it was “coddling Red China”, and his equally furious support for the Argentinian junta over Margaret Thatcher in the Falklands War because Argentina was a better ally for us than Britain. Ah, yes, he was indeed a powerful leader in foreign affairs, yes indeed. Rather like van Ribbentrop.