HomeOpinionUS African policy: An opportunity lost

US African policy: An opportunity lost

By Bruce Oudes

“WE Americans know and we observe the difference between world leadership and imperialism,” former US President Dwight Eisenhower said in his 1953 inaugural address. It was a logical remark for the new leader of a nation that had unilaterally declared its own independence in 1776 and which had assumed in the 1940s the mantle of world leadership.


In defining a key distinction between the US and its Western European allies, as well as the communist world, Eisenhower was articulating the way forward for American foreign policy.


In southern Africa today, pessimism about Zimbabwe’s future is to a significant degree marked by a failure to understand the importance of the orientation of American policy in the region, particularly in the years following the assassination of US President John Kennedy.

All that has flowed under the bridge in the past half century is best understood by first analysing and comparing the major currents of domestic policy with those of foreign policy, civil rights and self-determination.

Civil liberties
Late in 1955 residents of Birmingham, Alabama, of African descent began a boycott of public transportation because of the city’s systematic racial discrimination.

That December the New York Times reported for the first time the words of a young Protestant minister from Africa critical of colonialism. Reverend Ndabaningi Sithole was quoted as saying in an address at a university in Ohio that “the church must never make the mistake of trying to reconcile the Africans to foreign domination”.

Two months later the Times cited for the first time the name of Rev Martin Luther King Jr, the young minister leading the Montgomery bus boycott.
By 1963 Rev Sithole had immersed himself in founding the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu), a non-violent political movement with the aim of bringing self-determination to what then was called Southern Rhodesia.

On the day before Kennedy left for Texas in November that year, a memorandum informed staffers of his intention to convene a White House meeting on November 23, on future American policy towards European colonialism, a question especially pertinent to American policy in Africa.
In 1960 Kennedy had selected former Michigan Governor Mennen Williams to direct the Africa bureau at the State Department weeks before he chose Dean Rusk, a Georgia native, to be his secretary of state. Williams, known for his interest in civil rights, had supported Kennedy in 1960 after concluding his own brief bid for the presidency.

As Kennedy and his brother Robert, the attorney general, discussed how to hold the “solid” south in 1964 they realised the need to combine support of self-determination in Africa with their domestic civil rights agenda.

In 1963 the Kennedys began providing covert financial support to the nascent non-violent political movement in Portuguese Mozambique headed by Dr Eduardo C Mondlane, a sociologist educated in the US Mozambique shared a long common border with landlocked Rhodesia.

Had Kennedy completed the term for which he had been elected, it is likely the British government would have remained under continuing American pressure for democratic change in Southern Rhodesia.

In 1961 the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (Zapu) in Southern Rhodesia headed by Nkomo agreed to participate in a referendum on a new constitution in which the black majority would have achieved enough power in the Rhodesian parliament to be able to block legislation not to its liking. However, Nkomo failed to pursuade black Rhodesian voters to participate, and they boycotted the referendum, a step that upset British Foreign Secretary Alec Douglas-Home who had negotiated the arrangement with Nkomo.

In November 1963, Kennedy’s foreign policy agenda also included his first bilateral meeting with Britain’s new prime minister, former foreign secretary Douglas-Home. When Kennedy lived in London in the 1930s as the son of the first American ambassador of Irish descent, Alec’s brother William, a budding playwright, reportedly was Kennedy’s best friend.

Britain had been decolonising in West Africa since 1957 and in East Africa since 1961. In fact, the other major Western European colonial powers, except for Portugal, had also begun decolonising in Africa. Southern Africa, therefore, would have been an appropriate agenda item for Kennedy and Douglas-Home.

Paradigm shift
On November 22, however, everything changed with Kennedy’s assassination. The accession of Lyndon Johnson — a southerner and former Senate majority leader — to the presidency altered the trajectory of domestic policy just enough to enable Congress to pass the long overdue civil rights legislation.

At the same time, however, the Kennedy assassination reversed the trajectory of American foreign policy in many ways poorly understood to this day. In addition to escalating American involvement in Southeast Asia Johnson mindlessly muddled America’s leadership in southern Africa.

Rusk became a much more important influence on Johnson’s foreign policy than he had been on Kennedy’s. Three weeks after Kennedy’s assassination Rusk lunched with Prime Minister Douglas-Home in London. Rusk had been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford in the early 1930s along with Hilgard Muller of South Africa. Muller had become South Africa’s foreign minister shortly before Kennedy was murdered.

Rusk quietly worried that the State Department’s Mennen Williams and his Africa bureau did not sufficiently understand South Africa’s pigmentocracy. Instead of America being a progressive influence on British policy in southern Africa during the Johnson administration, Britain defined American policy in southern Africa to the point that, for example, white minority-ruled Southern Rhodesia unilaterally declared itself independent of Britain in 1965, which would not have been supported under Kennedy.

Rather than putting down this white minority rebellion the new British government headed by Harold Wilson chose to involve the United Nations mechanism. In 1966 the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on Southern Rhodesia as it posed a “threat to international peace”, thus invoking for the first time the gravest provisions possible under the UN Charter.

Archibald “Archie” Roosevelt Jr, Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson, the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) London station chief, returned to Washington as the assistant director of the CIA for covert operations in Africa. That meant he directly supervised the CIA station in Southern Rhodesia.
Archie clashed repeatedly with Joseph Palmer, his counterpart for Africa at the State Department who had known and thought well of both Sithole and Mondlane.

Short-term memory
In 1968 voters for the first and thus far only time in American history elected a president previously elected vice-president who did not assume the presidency immediately following his tenure as vice president. Richard Nixon, therefore, had a far longer institutional recollection than the press or his political opponents.

Nixon, for example, had represented the US at Ghana’s independence ceremonies in 1957 where he first met Douglas-Home as well as Martin Luther King Jr. Palmer had accompanied Nixon on his three-week safari during which he visited all of the then-independent African states except for Egypt and South Africa.

The destination of his 1967 Africa trip as a private citizen was Zambia, which until 1964 had been the British colony of Northern Rhodesia. Zambia was his window on southern Africa analogous to Hong Kong as his window on China.
Thirteen days after Nixon was sworn into office Mondlane was assassinated by an improvised explosive device allegedly sent through international mail by Portuguese intelligence.

In 1970 the US began violating the mandatory UN sanctions on Southern Rhodesia by covertly allowing Southern Rhodesia to import American aircraft. Archie Roosevelt became the de facto American ambassador to Rhodesia, according to Ian Smith, leader of the white minority rebel Rhodesian regime. Smith also said in an interview that Sithole had lost control of Zanu in 1970 to Robert Mugabe.

This new American opposition to decolonisation was sufficiently obvious to Zhou Enlai, China’s foreign minister, that he asked Nixon about it in 1972. The coup that overthrew the Portuguese oligarchs

Recent Posts

Stories you will enjoy

Recommended reading

You have successfully subscribed to the newsletter

There was an error while trying to send your request. Please try again.

NewsDay Zimbabwe will use the information you provide on this form to be in touch with you and to provide updates and marketing.