12/11/2013 06:02 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2014

The United States' Contribution to Nelson Mandela Belonging to the Ages

The words of Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton are once again appropriate to describe the passing of Nelson Mandela.

As Abraham Lincoln took his last breath in the early morning of April 15, 1865, Stanton was reported to have said, "Now he belongs to the ages."

Now that Mandela is safely dead, unable to offer a counter rebuttal, the world will most likely begin the systematic process of transforming him into a safe nonabrasive hero, who is suitable for framing, but not much more.

It is tempting to begin the story with 27 years of unjust imprisonment, the majority spent on infamous Robben Island. That's the stuff of movies, complete with a clearly defined hero along with an assortment of villains.

His life embodied the words of Dante: "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period moral crisis maintain their neutrality."

It will be much easier to recall with fond remembrance that Mandela opined, "Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies," than it will be to recall the United States must take credit for contributing at the early stages of creating one of history's great statesman.

Sadly, that is not a compliment, but a tragic reminder that for many years America was on the wrong side of history.

Shortly after Mandela's release in 1990, the New York Times reported that the Central Intelligence Agency, during the Kennedy administration, played an important role in the arrest of Mandela in 1962.

The intelligence service, using an agent inside the African National Congress, which Mandel led, provided South African security officials with precise information about Mr. Mandela's activities that enabled the police to arrest him.

As we eulogize the one affectionately known as "Madiba" let us also recall that it was East Bay Congressman, Ron Dellums who put forth a bill calling for economic sanctions against South Africa from 1972 until it eventually passed in 1986.

For many years, there was bipartisan consensus that the sanctions bill was merely the work of that left-wing nut from Berkeley trying to garner attention for himself. When Dellums first took on this fight the dominant ethos in America was that Mandela was a terrorist.

Conservative icon Russell Kirk argued in the National Review after Mandela's arrest that the end of Apartheid was synonymous with the end of democracy and that it "would bring anarchy and the collapse of civilization." Adding, "[it] would be domination by witch doctors (still numerous and powerful) and reckless demagogues."

Even as global momentum was growing for Mandela's release, portions of the United States government were slow to respond. President Ronald Reagan saw Mandela through the myopic lens of Cold War politics, rendering him unable to see Mandela's unjust suffering or black South Africans inhumane treatment.

In 1985, North Carolina Senator Jesse and televangelist Jerry Falwell stood with South African President P.W. Botha, then the face of Apartheid, offering the best way to help black South Africans was to invest in the South African Krugerrand.

But in 1986, Dellums sanctions bill passed, a bipartisan Congress overrode Reagan's veto. Four years later, Mandela walked out of prison a free man.

Three months after his release, Mandela visited Oakland. After an emotional heartfelt introduction by Dellums, Mandela walked out to a thunderous ovation from 60,000 in attendance.

The spirit of Mandela will live on if the story is told authentically.

Though effusive tributes at a time such as this are understandable, short memories and deification will have us honoring someone who never existed. Mandela was an imperfect man with a near perfect ideal, who possessed the force of will and political skill to transform his country and ostensibly the world.

It is for that reason Stanton's words about Lincoln are equally applicable to Mandela today.