Editor's note: Newt Gingrich is a co-host of CNN's "Crossfire," which airs at 6:30 p.m. ET weekdays, and author of a new book, "Breakout: Pioneers of the Future, Prison Guards of the Past, and the Epic Battle That Will Decide America's Fate." A former speaker of the House, he was a candidate in the 2012 Republican presidential primaries.
(CNN) -- After the surprisingly harsh response from some conservatives to my statement honoring President Nelson Mandela, I replied last week with a question to his critics: What would you have done, in his place, faced with a crushing apartheid regime determined to eliminate all rights for your race?
Mandela, I pointed out, was fighting for the same freedoms we in America defend most forcefully. Those who don't want to honor him seem to judge by a double standard.
These critics on the right, however, are a relatively minor group. We heard no major conservative leaders or publications repeating their misguided claims.
Compare that with the crass manner in which the mainstream left has seized on Mandela's death to smear Ronald Reagan as having somehow "embraced" apartheid.
Many of the Mandela remembrances have noted Reagan's veto of economic sanctions against South Africa as well as the State Department's addition of the African National Congress to the terrorist list -- saying this proves Reagan supported apartheid.
As someone who at the time was immersed in the debate over South Africa as a member of Congress, I can attest that this is a slanderous mischaracterization of the Reagan policy.
Reagan's chief concern in South Africa was to prevent the country from falling to communism, a priority in line with his chief foreign policy goal worldwide. But Reagan was also part of a new generation of conservatives who were committed to confronting apartheid after decades of what was frankly a disappointing lack of courage on the American right.
A few dozen Republicans in Congress, I among them, were some of the first conservatives to approach the problem seriously. The climax of our effort in the House was passing economic sanctions against South Africa. As many liberal commentators have noted in the past few days, Reagan vetoed that bill, only to have Congress override his veto.
But Reagan's critics are wrong to say his opposition to economic sanctions made him pro-apartheid. He disagreed with our group of activist Republicans in Congress over tactics, not over the aim of ending the institution. The President was absolutely committed to that goal, even if some of our other conservative colleagues were not.
Reagan "detested" apartheid, as he wrote in his diary and said publicly, but thought sanctions would be counterproductive to ending it. In particular, he believed punishing South Africa economically would only have "hurt the very blacks we're trying to help." This was a position Reagan shared with Gatsha Buthelezi, the head of the Zulus, among other black South Africans.
Our disagreement over sanctions, as Reagan said in his remarks after the veto override, "was not whether or not to oppose apartheid but, instead, how best to oppose it and how best to bring freedom to that troubled country."
Reagan's veto of that bill, moreover, was not the sum total of his record on the issue. For one thing, as his former speechwriter Peter Robinson recalled last week, "Reagan himself imposed sanctions against the South African government, issuing an executive order that curtailed military and official relations between the U.S. and Pretoria." These steps hurt the racist regime directly, not the poor majority.
In addition to his own sanctions, one of the president's first foreign policy steps was to send a close aide, William Clark, to South Africa to oppose apartheid. There, as four Reagan biographers wrote recently in The Washington Post, "an unsmiling Clark told Prime Minister Pieter W. Botha to his face that the new president and administration 'abhorred apartheid,' " and ended up walking out on him.
Reagan later appointed Edward Perkins as the first U.S. black ambassador to South Africa, a move that from the perspective of the apartheid regime was highly provocative. In fact, it infuriated Botha. Perkins later recounted that when he presented his credentials to the prime minister, the white South African was shaking in anger. The only modern equivalent might be appointing a woman ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
Reagan was not silent about the imprisonment of Mandela, either. He argued in a 1986 speech that "Nelson Mandela should be released to participate in the country's political process" and counted this step as a "necessary component of progress toward political peace." This is not the record left-wing pundits looking to smear Reagan have been presenting.
There were too many Republicans who were on the wrong side of the apartheid issue. Despite those who are abusing the death of a peacemaker to indulge their hatred of another former president, Ronald Reagan was not among them.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Newt Gingrich.