The Cold War in Independent Africa

By Jay Dee '93

African History

Writing Objective: Write a 10-15 page research paper on a topic of significance in African History.

The independence movements in Africa during the early 1960’s provided foreign policy opportunities to both the United States and the Soviet Union. The year John F. Kennedy was elected to the White House, more than fifteen African nations became sovereign (Mazrui and Tidy, 362). The U.S., reflecting its own anti-colonial heritage, sympathized with emerging Africa. In his years in the Senate and months on the campaign trail, Kennedy promised to recognize and support African nationalism. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, also saw its history reflected in Africa. Nascent socialist revolutions were springing up across Africa in response to imperialism. Khrushchev pledged his support to national liberation movements around the world. The USSR, therefore, sympathized with revolutionary Africa.

Such sympathies, however, were tempered by the Cold War. The ideals of American and Soviet policy toward Africa fell victim to the realities of containment In Soviet foreign policy, anti-Americanism became more important than anti-capitalism. Reluctantly, Khrushchev had to embrace weak ideologies and endure shifting alliances among his African clients. For the U.S., anti-communism prevented support for many independence movements. U.S. policy-makers could not fully embrace socialist-leaning African leaders. Furthermore, Kennedy could not antagonize NATO members who were also colonial powers.

The effects of the Cold War on Africa were stifling. In many respects. It was a second scramble for Africa. The great powers (in this case the Soviet Union and the U.S.) wanted Africa simply to prevent each other from possessing it African economic and political development was hindered; independence was often delayed. Neither the Soviet goal of socialist development nor the American goal of democratic nationhood were realized from the vast opportunities present in independent Africa.

The election of John F. Kennedy appeared to be a milestone in U.S.-African relations. As chairman of the Subcommittee on Africa of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kennedy had been in close contact with many African nationalist leaders. Showing his support for African nationalism, Kennedy, in 1957, criticized Eisenhowers non-involvement policy toward French colonialism in Algeria.

“Overseas territories are sooner or later, one by one, going to break free and look with suspicion on the Western nations who impeded their steps to Independence . . . Nationalism in Africa cannot be evaluated purely In terms of the historical and legal niceties argued by the French and thus far accepted by the State Department National self-identification frequentiy takes place by quick combustion which the rain of repression simply cannot extinguish” (Mahoney, 20).

During the 1960 campaign, Kennedy referred to Africa 479 times. “This demonstrated his keen and informed awareness of the significance to the United States of the emergent African nations” (Jackson, 38-39).

Once elected, Kennedy’s diplomatic appointments reflected concern for Africa. Kennedy appointed Michigan Governor G. Mennan Williams to the position of Assistant Secretary of State for Africa. Williams, an idealistic liberal, was a strong supporter of civil rights and “proved to be the most effective and durable defender of a new approach to Africa” (Noer, 63). Undersecretary of State Chester Bowles and UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson also advocated more attention to Africa.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Soviet policy-makers also began to look more seriously at Africa. Khrushchev renewed the USSR’s interest in the Third World (Kempton, 1). In a January 1961 speech, Khrushchev pledged Moscow’s support to wars of national liberation. The CPSU position argued that national liberation did not end with political independence. Unless the new nation severs colonial ties and undergoes radical social and economic change, independence will be in name only (Kempton, 36). To Soviet leaders, Africa appeared to be an ideal place to promote Soviet-style revolutionary states.

Africa possessed several characteristics favorable to socialism–“the natural place of the commune in African peasant society, the near absence of an indigenous bourgeoisie, and the expanding role of the state sector” (Legvold, 179). According to Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Soviets had four distinctive advantages in their relations with Africa: (1) Africans agreed with the Soviets about the connection between capitalism and imperialism. They believed that the two were linked, and both were worthy of elimination; (2) Africans and Soviets had a common enemy. The former colonial powers were also anti-communist; (3) No communist nation had ever been a colonial power in Africa; and (4) Africans admired the rapid development in the Soviet Union and saw it as a model for their own development (Brzezinski, 205-207). Nevertheless, the Soviets felt frustrated in their attempts to realize this ideological opportunity. Indeed, the realities of African politics failed to fit in the limited conceptions of either the Soviet Union or the United States.

Gaining independence in 1957, Ghana was in the vanguard of the African nationalist movement Kwame Nkrumah emerged as the leader of the new nation. Although Nkrumah’s party held 71 out of 104 seats in parliament, his electoral mandate was not great. Nkrumah’s party won only 57 percent of the vote and was defeated In northern Ghana (Mazrui and Tidy, 59). The reasons for opposition to Nkrumah stemmed from tribalism and the effects of indirect rule. Under British colonial rule, Ashanti chiefs in the north had maintained much of their power. “Nkrumah’s agitation for independence and centralized rule threatened to undo this arrangement” (Mahoney, 160).

It would appear that Nkrumah’s triumph would be a blessing to the Soviet Union. Nkrumah espoused socialism and even thought of himself as an African Lenin (Mazrui and Tidy, 57). Yet, the situation was not that simple. Nkrumah was a pan-Africanist the goals of an independent and united Africa took precedence over the socialist revolution. Furthermore, Nkrumah feared close relations with the Soviets would lead to a neo-colonialist relationship. Quite prudently, Nkrumah courted aid from both the USSR and the U.S., balancing one off the other while preventing external domination (Mazrui and Tidy. 64).

The Soviets had ideological concerns about Ghana as well. Although he saw himself as an African Lenin, Nkrumah was not a communist and did not adhere to Lenin’s concept of an elite-driven revolution. Nkrumah’s party “was, from the start basically mass organization” (Mazrui and Tidy, 57). More fundamental, however, were the shortcomings discovered by Ivan Potekin, the USSR’s most prominent Africanist scholar, on his late 1957 visit to Ghana.

Potekin criticized the fact that the British Queen was still head of state, that English was still the state language, that British institutions still existed in Ghana, and that Christian missions still influenced education (Legvold, 43). Such conditions did not enhance economic independence or noncapitalist development Potekin’s criticisms were legitimate. The British-influenced Ghanaian civil service “strongly opposed formal ties with the Soviet bloc” (Legvold, 46). Ghana and the Soviets did not establish diplomatic relations until January 1958. It would be another year before the two nations opened embassies. Trade relations were also slow to develop. Economic talks did not begin until June 1959; the agreement was not concluded until August 1960; it was not ratified until June 1961 (Legvold, 47).

Events outside Ghana, however, would change Nkrumah’s ambivalence toward the Soviets into support. Nkrumah was outraged by the December 1960 kidnapping of Congo Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. He implicated the UN and the West in the plot According to Nkrumah, the UN supported Lumumba’s rival, Head of State Joseph Kasavubu (Nkrumah, 120).

The Soviets quickly took advantage of Nkrumah’s anger. Within two weeks of Lumumba’s kidnapping, two of a promised six Ilyushin aircraft arrived in Ghana from the Soviet Union. Soon thereafter, “Nkrumah welcomed a thirty-four member Soviet technical assistance team to discuss $40 million worth of projects” including the Volta dam (Mahoney, 164).

Lumumba’s murder further hardened Nkrumah’s position. He invited Soviet President Leonid Brezhnev to meet with him in Accra, and he fired off a stinging letter to President Kennedy. Meanwhile, the Ghanaian press ran old photographs of black fynchings in the U.S.

Kennedy, however, had been in the White House for less than a month at the time of Nkrumah’s letter. In fact, Lumumba had been assassinated days before Kennedy took office; the news of his murder was released weeks later. To rectify relations with Ghana and to prove his commitment to Africa, Kennedy invited Nkrumah to Washington. The March 1961 meeting was a success. The two came to an agreement on Congo policy, and they negotiated U.S. assistance for the Volta dam. Nkrumah proclaimed a “new era of African-American friendship” (Mahoney, 167).

The Soviets must have been stunned by this diplomatic “about-face.” Nkrumah’s personality, however, predisposed him to personal diplomacy. Kennedy treated Nkrumah graciously, even introducing him to Mrs. Kennedy and daughter Caroline. Perhaps exaggerated but essentially accurate, a CIA briefing paper described Nkrumah as “a politician to whom the roar of the crowd and the praise of the sycophant are as necessary as the air he breathes . . . (and who] desperately wants a favorable verdict from history” (Mahoney, 166). The Soviets later used the same flattery during Nkrumah’s July 1961 trip to the Soviet Union. Khrushchev told Nkrumah that he was a candidate for the Lenin Peace Prize. Khrushchev also invited Nkrumah to join him during his summer vacation.

Vacillation between East and West was typical of Ghana’s foreign policy during the early 1960s. This caused Kennedy to continually reconsider the Volta dam project Nkrumah had strong opposition in the administration, including members of the State Department and Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who thought Nkrumah was a communist (Mahoney, 172). Khrushchev was frustrated, too. The vagaries of Ghana’s foreign policy caused Khrushchev to hold back plans to sponsor the creation of a Ghanaian Communist party. Such action “would have antagonized Nkrumah, guaranteeing the early suppression of Communism in Ghana” (Legvold, 49). Without a vanguard party in the vanguard nation of African independence, Soviet ideological goals were necessarily thwarted.

Guinea would prove to be an easier test for Soviet policy. In a sense, Guinea “represented everything that Ghana was not” (Legvold, 60). Under the leadership of Sekou Toure, Guinea rejected the 1958 French referendum on constitutional union. De Gaulle had warned Toure that a “no” vote would be tantamount to a declaration of independence. Outraged, France cut off relations with Guinea, creating a vacuum the Soviets were only too happy to fill.

Economically, Soviet exports to Guinea rose from 9.3 percent of the total in 1959 to 44.2 percent a year later. Exports to the Soviet Union increased from 16.2 percent of the total to 22.9 percent In the same period (Legvold, 75). Politically, Toure aligned Guinean foreign policy with the Soviets. Toure supported Khrushchev’s disarmament schemes and Soviet intervention in the Congo. He also provided refuge in the capital of Conakry for African revolutionary movements and gave the Soviets exclusive access to their leaders. Soviet policy-makers began to hold up Guinea as the model for proper African development.

Although their policy goals appeared to be synonymous, the motives of Guinea and the Soviet Union were not identical. Whereas the Soviets wished to influence the East-West balance of power, Guinea held to an “uncompromising desire to keep its independence intact” (Legvold, 120). Reflecting this spirit Toure proclaimed in April 1960 that “if certain people wished to found a Guinean Communist party they should realize that the PDG (Toure’s party) would oppose them … for Communism was not the way for Africa” (Legvold, 73). Furthermore, Toure began to complain about the quality of Soviet goods sent to Guinea. Not only were the products inferior, but they were often in the wrong quantity, shipped to the wrong location, or sent without necessary parts. Also, a personal conflict between Toure and the Soviet ambassador contributed to Soviet-Guinean animosity.

In this climate, the election of Kennedy offered an alternative for Toure. In light of the isolation imposed by France, Guinea was dependent on Soviet aid. Kennedy, however, made the U.S. another option. Toure had been impressed by Kennedy’s pro-nationalist speeches in the Senate; he soon began to imply to Western reporters that he would be interested in obtaining U.S. aid. By May 1961, Washington had granted Toure a $25 million assistance package. Once again, the Soviet goal of promoting a revolutionary socialist state in Africa was confounded by realities. Both Nkrumah and Toure “claimed equally that their socialism incorporated features from several systems, not only Marxism-Leninism, that in conformed uniquely to African conditions” (Legvold, 115).

Although Ghana and Guinea attracted the first U.S. and Soviet overtures, during the early 1960s, the main point of Cold War friction was in the Congo. In January 1960, the Belgian government granted Congolese demands for independence. Six months later, the Congolese were free of Belgian rule. Unfortunately, the Congolese had not been prepared for independence. The Congo faced enormous problems. “Fourteen million people drawn from over two hundred tribal groups had no sense of national identity” (July, 452). Only a handful had earned college degrees, and only a few were trained professionals. To make matters worse, many Europeans In the Congo, fearing retaliation from formerly oppressed blacks, fled the country. “With the flight of the Europeans, the civil administration, the magistrature, and much of the army began to disintegrate” (Jackson, 28).

Such a power vacuum was tempting to both superpowers, especially since the Congo held strategic and economic significance. Located in the center of Africa, the Congo held a vital position bordering nine nations. Economically, the West obtained 49 percent of its cobalt and 69 percent of its industrial diamonds from the Congo. Iron, gold, zinc, copper, bauxite, and tantalum (a mineral necessary In U.S. aerospace production) were all found in high quantity (Jackson, 23).

The instability of the Congo was not long in surfacing. Just five days after independence, a rebellion erupted. Congolese soldiers in Leopoldville revolted against their remaining Belgian superiors. With his speeches on the Africanization of the Congo, Prime Minister Lumumba indirectly supported the military revolt. “Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Emlle Janssens, the commander of the Force Publique, antagonized the (Congolese) soldiers by dramatizing his die-hard colonialist opposition through a statement he inscribed on the blackboard at Force headquarters: Before independence = after independence” (Jackson, 27). The local rebellion quickly went nationwide.

Lumumba soon made his support explicit by dismissing all 1,135 Belgian officers. Head of State Kasavubu, however, wished to maintain Western contacts. Therefore, he opposed Lumumba’s decision. Lumumba could not afford to upset Kasavubu. It was only through granting Kasavubu the position of Head of State that the various Congolese factions allowed Lumumba to lead the diverse coalition government Lumumba and Kasavubu, however, were forced to reach a common policy. On 10 Jury 1960, Belgium sent paratroopers to reinforce their troops stationed in the Congo. They were successful in suppressing the rebellious Congolese, particularly in Katanga province. Such intervention helped precipitate the secession of Katanga, provider of one-half the national revenue (Jury, 452). Both Lumumba and Kasavubu appealed to the UN for emergency forces.

Nevertheless, ideological differences remained between the two. Kasavubu was pro-Western; Lumumba was a strong advocate of socialism (Jackson, 28). Such a distinction was not lost on the Eisenhower administration. CIA director Allen Dulles believed Lumumba was another Fidel Castro. Eisenhower sent Lawrence Devlin to the American embassy in Leopoldville in order to set up a CIA office in the Congo. Devlin’s mission was to encourage the overthrow and assassination of some Congolese leaders, presumably including Lumumba (Jackson, 32).

Eisenhower’s violent opposition to Lumumba stemmed from Cold War myopia. In an August 1960 National Security Council meeting, Eisenhower declared “we were talking of one man forcing us out of the Congo, of Lumumba supported by the Soviets” (Mahoney, 40). Eisenhower did not want to “lose” the Congo. What Eisenhower failed to realize, however, was that Lumumba’s move toward the Soviet Union was precipitated by Western misconceptions.

UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold refused to send UN troops into Katanga or agree to Lumumba’s request to put the UN forces under his command. Furthermore, Eisenhower maintained that it was Lumumba himself, not the Belgians, who had caused the disorder. Eisenhower placed Lumumba’s anti-Belgian position in the context of his alleged communist sympathies (Mahoney, 38, 45).

Lumumba, however, did not immediately count the West out The UN had already sent 10,000 peacekeepers, so accommodation was possible. On July 20, Lumumba spelled out his plight “We will take aid from the devil or anyone else as long as they get the Belgian troops out. If no Western nation helps us, why can we not call on other nations?” (Mahoney, 38).

The U.S. missed the implication. Lumumba was snubbed in his late July visit to Washington; Eisenhower did not even meet with him. Without an alternative, Lumumba accepted Khrushchev’s offer of military assistance. The U.S. had driven Lumumba to the devil. But it was Lumumba who paid the price.

Lumumba’s acceptance of Soviet aid reopened the rift between Lumumba and Kasavubu. On 5 September 1960 Kasavubu fired Lumumba from his position as Prime Minister. Later that day, Lumumba fired Kasavubu. According to Nkrumah, there was no doubt as to whom the UN favored in this split On September 6, the UN forces closed down the Leopoldville radio station.

“This action was indefensible. It deprived Lumumba of the means to address the people while Kasavubu, broadcasting freely on Brazzaville radio [was] openly stirring up anti-Lumumbist feeling. How could such action of the United Nations possibly be justified when Lumumba was the lawful Prime Minister?” (Nkrumah, 36).

Nevertheless, Lumumba moved his organization underground. Kasavubu, however, would not allow such clandestine activities to proceed unchecked. With the aid of CIA surveillance reports, Kasavubu forces captured Lumumba on 1 December 1960. The incoming Kennedy administration, however, was contemplating aiding Lumumba. The outgoing Eisenhower administration was intensifying its anti-Lumumba CIA efforts. Kasavubu’s hand was forced. On January 17, the imprisoned Lumumba was flown to Elizabethvflle, was beaten en route, and was assassinated, probably at the hands of Katangese authorities (Mahoney, 70).

Now the Head of State, Kasavubu, the new Prime Minister, Cyrille Adoula, and the head of the military, Joseph Mobutu were all pro-Western. Kennedy was able to convince the UN to invade Katanga. Simultaneously, his policies restored order and kept the Soviets from proceeding with a unilateral military operation. Professor Richard Mahoney described Kennedy’s Congo policy as a success.

“Kennedy had proven that there could be a creative aspect to containment policy: by addressing the internal origins of the Congo crisis in addition to addressing the external communist threat, the President made containment in the Congo what it never was in Vietnam—a workable and constructive policy that was fundamentally in consonance with nationalist reality” (Mahoney, 247).

While it may be true that convincing the UN to invade Katanga was easier without the presence of Soviet-leaning Lumumba, it is difficult to concede that U.S. policy coincided with Congolese interests. Lumumba had the most legitimacy of any national leader. Lumumba’s party was the political organization “least identified with tribal or ethnic factions.” Furthermore, his party “was also the country’s major civilian institution” (Jackson, 29). Lumumba’s successor, Adoula, proved to be a weak leader who lacked a strong base of popular support. In 1964, he fell to a military coup as Mobutu rose to power.

U.S. Congo policy actually neglected realities. It was based on a tenuous relationship. Instead of working to support strong, legitimate institutions, U.S. diplomacy relied on personality. A more prudent policy would have been aiding Lumumba while convincing the UN to restore order to Katanga. Both actions would have decreased the possibility of Soviet influence. Perhaps if Kennedy had been in office sooner, he would have taken a more pragmatic course. Yet the precedent for anti-communism over nationalism he set in Angola does not make it appear that that would have been the case.

In Angolan policy, Kennedy allowed Cold War alliances to overwhelm his concern for African nationalism. Initially at least, Kennedy appeared to advocate a new view toward Angola. Eisenhower had continually ordered his UN ambassador to abstain from votes protesting Portuguese colonialism. Twice, however, Kennedy instructed Ambassador Stevenson to vote for anti-Portuguese resolutions. In both March and April 1961, the U.S. voted for resolutions calling on Portugal to grant Angola independence.

The U.S. also began to establish relations with Angolan opposition leader Holden Roberto. In March 1961, Roberto met with State Department officials. Although securing no commitments, Roberto impressed U.S. policy¬makers. “Roberto successfully played to U.S. anticommunism by repudiating Marxism and emphasizing the radicalism of his opponents” among the Angolans (Noer, 72). His rival organization, the MPLA, was.Soviet-supported. As a further sign of a changing attitude, the U.S. cut aid to Portugal from $25 million to $3 million (Noer, 73).

Kennedy, however, met with opposition at home and abroad. De Gaulle felt that antagonizing Portuguese dictator Salazar might encourage a communist revolution in Lisbon. “Europeanists” In the State Department argued for support of fellow NATO member Portugal. Presenting a united front against the Soviets was a vital priority. In addition, the U.S. wished to maintain its rights in the Portuguese Azores. The Azores was an important re-fueling and troop transport base; it had been used in the recent Lebanon and Congo crises. The Berlin Crisis in August 1961 also strengthened the “Europeanist” case (Noer, 81-82).

In response, the Portuguese government hired the New York public relations firm of Selvage and Lee. Through press releases directed at the U.S. media, Selvage and Lee “documented” that the Angolan revolution was directed from Moscow. Selvage and Lee’s greatest success was convincing House Speaker John McCormick and Representative Tip O’Neill to praise Portugal in congressional speeches (Noer, 74).

Meanwhile, Roberto’s position in Angola was becoming more unstable. Africans began to criticize Roberto for approaching the U.S., claiming that U.S. aid through NATO was being used by Portugal against the Angolans. They pointed out that the U.S. did not prohibit private companies from selling such militarily applicable products as jeeps to the Portuguese. Roberto’s MPLA opposition was also solidifying as it acquired more Soviet aid (Noer, 84-85).

Assistant secretary Williams perceived that Kennedy was beginning to drift to the “Europeanist” camp. Williams then shifted his tack in approaching Kennedy. Instead of basing his arguments on abstract concepts of nationalism, Williams focused on the concrete issues of trade and anti-communism. Countering the Azores argument, Williams argued that a reversal of support on African nationalism might lead to a loss of U.S. bases in Morocco, Libya, and Ethiopia (Noer, 88, 92-93).

Cold War pressures, however, forced Kennedy to capitulate. It was not without coincidence that as the U.S. lease on the Azores was expiring in December 1962, the U.S. abstained from two anti-Portuguese resolutions at the UN in December 1962. By the beginning of 1963, the U.S. “had moderated its public criticism of Portugal and had eliminated informal meetings with rebel leaders” (Noer, 94-95).

Since U.S. support to Roberto never materialized, the pro-Soviet MPLA became dominant in Angola. Ironically, U.S. Cold War policy drove a potential ally to the Soviet bloc. The MPLA need not have risen to power. Roberto’s party had a greater base of popular support, Including the large Bakongo ethnic group. By contrast, the MPLA’s support came mainly from the Mbundu, which represented only 18 percent of the population. Furthermore, in military confrontations with the Portuguese, Roberto’s organization showed more leadership potential (Kempton, 53).

Neither the U.S. nor the USSR were able to accomplish their African policy objectives. Perhaps it was arrogant for either superpower to attempt to impose its agenda on Africa. Nevertheless, it was superpower ignorance of African conditions which guaranteed policy failure. The Soviets attempted to impose a rigid ideology and economic plan on a region desperately in need of experimentation. Therefore, Ghana and Guinea were policy disappointments. Although the U.S. advocated African independence from colonialism, American policy-makers allowed such goals to be submerged by anti-communism. Subsequently, the Congo became an oppressive dictatorship, and Angola was driven to the “devil.” Cold War policies proved inadequate to the needs of post-independence Africa.

Works Cited

Brzezinski, Zbigniew. Africa and the Communist World, Stanford University Press: Stanford, California, 1963.

Jackson, Henry F. From the Congo to Soweto: U.S. Foreign Policy Toward Africa since 1960, Morrow Publishing: New York, 1982.

July, Robert W. A History of the African People. Waveland Press: Prospect Heights, Illinois, 1992.

Kempton, Daniel R. Soviet Strategy Toward Southern Africa: The National Liberation Movement Connection, Praeger Press: New York, 1989.

Legvold, Robert. Soviet Policy in West Africa, Harvard University Press: Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1970.

Mahoney, Richard D. JFK: Ordeal in Africa, Oxford University Press: New York, 1983.

Mazrui, All A and Michael Tidy. Nationalism and New States in Africa, Heinemann Publishing: London, 1984.

Nkrumah, Kwame. Challenge of the Congo, International Publishers: New York, 1967.

Noer, Thomas J. Cold War and Black Liberation: The U.S. and White Rule in Africa. 1948-1968. University of Missouri Press: Columbia, Missouri, 1985.