Hitting the South African government in the pocketbook - banning the import of coal, iron, steel and krugerrands, cutting off American investments and bank loans - was too tough. Unfair to black workers.
No, sanctions would never work, they said.
Four years later, after the South African economy was walloped an estimated $15 billion, President F.W. de Klerk has been jolted into changes. Mandela is out in the sunlight.
Pardon me, doesn't anybody in this Imperial City ever admit they were wrong?
Not that I expect any mea culpas from Ronald Reagan, who fought sanctions tooth, nail and veto.
"If Congress imposes sanctions," Reagan said in a July 22, 1986, speech, ''it would destroy America's flexibility, discard our diplomatic leverage, and deepen the (South African) crisis."
Sanctions, argued Reagan, would be "morally wrong and politically unacceptable." Doubtless the Gipper despised South Africa's racism. But I
suspect he cocked a protective eye at American businessmen.
Let's not forget Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., who fulminated on the Senate floor against sanctions: "Here we go again, kicking a friend in the teeth
because they won't do what we want."
Nor overlook the sour shot of Sen. Malcolm Wallop, R-Wyo.: "What we see is middle-class, comfortable, white senators playing up to the black population of America."
Memory says the hero in the sanctions battle was Sen. Richard Lugar, R- Ind., then head of Foreign Relations, who relentlessly battled his own president.
And there was Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., who ripped into Secretary of State George Shultz during a 10-minute shouting match: "Your administration has no moral backbone."
Or Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who predicted: "The day you pass a disinvestment bill will be the day you get a statement freeing Nelson Mandela." (His timing was off four years.)
On the House side, Rep. Bill Gray, D-Pa., destroyed Reagan's arguments with one line: "How can you say sanctions would hurt blacks when apartheid is killing them?"
When eternal maverick Ron Dellums, D-Calif., passed the House sanctions bill, he gasped in astonishment, "I think I'm having a heart attack." Too bad fellow battler Mickey Leland, D-Texas, a 1989 Ethiopian plane crash victim, didn't see Mandela's freedom walk.
South African flacks scoff that sanctions had nothing to do with Mandala's release.
"No correlation between the changes of the last 10 years and U.S. sanctions of four years ago," says embassy spokesman Patrick Evans.
Balderdash - don't tell me a plummeting economy didn't put enormous
pressure on South Africa's white hierarchy.
George Bush, though, is unrepentant. He hews faithfully to the Reagan line.
"Frankly, I think some (sanctions) are counter-productive," said Bush after Mandela was sprung. "American jobs there make good sense. I don't think they perpetuate the status quo."
Bush, if not handcuffed by Congress, would ease the heat on South Africa. But Nelson Mandela in his first free moments pleaded: No, don't lift the sanctions.
Who knows best, Bush or Mandela?
Mandela spent 10,000 days in the slammer.
You'll have to wait much longer before some U.S. politicians admit their powderpuff policy on South Africa was flat wrong.