14 Years After Letting Down Mboya’s Student Airlift Project, President Nixon Wasn’t Done With Kenyans

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By Mukurima X Muriuki

When president Richard Nixon welcomed Anthony D Marshall to the Oval Office in January 1974, on the one hand he was glad to see his old friend; on the other hand, a stubborn memory that lingered in his memory may have been re-awakened by the brief ceremony he was about to officiate-sending Marshall to Kenya to serve as America’s ambassador to Kenya.

In Nixon’s world, Kenya was an all too familiar country. The exploits of Kipchoge Keino and Naftali Temu in the 1968 Olympics had endeared the country to the world as the hotbed for middle and long distance athletes. More importantly though and relevant to Nixon, Kenya was the country of Tom Mboya.  See, in 1960 Mboya and his team approached Nixon for help in securing funding from the State Department for the student airlift program.  Nixon at first gave a half-hearted effort, but later took the request seriously, albeit for political expediency, when he learnt that his political nemesis JF Kennedy had offered to help Mboya’s cause with the much needed resources. 14 years later, Nixon had an opportunity to talk about Kenya, and perhaps make it up for the once missed chance. What would he say about Kenya and Kenyans?

Mboya, Nixon, and JF Kennedy

The year is 1959 and 81 students from East Africa arrive at JFK Airport on a chartered flight. They are in New York as part of the student airlift-a term adapted to describe students who were sponsored to study in America. The project was spearheaded by the likes of Tom Mboya, Harry Belafonte, Jackie Robinson among other people.

While the students embark on their sojourn, knowing that they will attain from their new domicile, a world class education, which they would later transfer to their motherland, there are hiccups that the organizers have to overcome: they have to raise about $90,000 to cover the cost of airfare for 250 students from East Africa who had already secured scholarships.

As the 1960-61 academic year drew closer, the situation was growing desperate. Mboya and company approached Vice President Nixon with a plea for help.  Nixon agreed to contact the State Department. He hit a wall. With the future of the project in jeopardy, Tom Mboya returned to the United States to meet Senator JF Kennedy. Accompanying Mboya were William Scheinman, and Frank Montero, president of AASF.

Scheinman provided a thorough briefing about the situation of the East African students and asked the senator if he would take up their cause with the State Department. Kennedy doubted that he would have any more success on this front than Nixon. He discussed the options for private funding and promised a donation of $5,000 from the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation as long as the AASF promised not to publicize his involvement.

JFK Foundation

JFK then recommended that the Kennedy Foundation contribute the entire amount needed for the 1960 airlift. In addition to this initial $100,000 contribution, the foundation would pledge up to $100,000 more to assist students with basic living expenses in the United States. Again, JFK wanted no publicity for the donation. However, word did leak out and at the  Nixon campaign learned that the Kennedy Foundation was financing the airlift. A Nixon campaign staff member then went back to the State Department, which promptly reversed its previous decisions and offered to provide $100,000 for the project.

The situation soon erupted into a political issue. Speaking the next day on the Senate floor, Senator Scott charged, according to an article in The New York Times “that a charitable foundation operated by the family of Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic Presidential candidate had ‘outbid’ the Government and would foot the $100,000 bill. He said this had been done for ‘blatant political purposes.’ Senator Kennedy took the floor and detailed  the sequence of events that led to pledging financial support for the African airlift noting the following:

“Mr. Mboya came to see us and asked for help, when none of the other foundations could give it, when the Federal Government had turned it down quite precisely. We felt something ought to be done. To waste 250 scholarships in this country, to waste $200,000 these people had raised, to disappoint 250 students who hoped to come to this country, it certainly seemed to me, would be most unfortunate, and so we went ahead.”

The controversy received a good deal of attention in the press over the next few weeks. JFK’s slim margin of victory in the 1960 presidential election could not be credited to any single group of supporters. But winning 68 percent of the African American vote was significant, amounting to a 7 percent increase compared with the previous election.

That loss of the black vote may have been influenced by a number of factors and there those who believed JFK’s association with the African cause may have swayed votes to his side, something Nixon did not forget given his speech and tone while seeing off an ambassador returning to Kenya.

Nixon-Marshall Conversation

According to a de-classified White House memorandum, When Nixon stood up to speak at the send-off ceremony, he first cautioned Marshall-in a light touch- to be wary of the fact that in Kenya for he may end up being “outrun.” This was of course in reference to the 1968 exploits by Kenya Olympians. Then the conversation turned to serious business:

President. Nixon: Most of these African countries are disaster areas…they have had a period of stability with a strong leader. ……They will start GOBBLING (my emphasis) up each other. But we are building for the future. They must think we are building for the present. Do you agree?

Marshall: I certainly do…..

President. Nixon: They are all such nice people…. like children. I feel for them……that part of the world is important for the future. We must let them know Kenya is top priority…without giving the impression to others that is the case…..

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