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  • Washingtons Söldner: Verdeckte US-Interventionen im Kalten Krieg und ihre Folgen by Klaas Voß
  • Roger E. Kanet
Klaas Voß, Washingtons Söldner: Verdeckte US-Interventionen im Kalten Krieg und ihre Folgen. [Washington’s Mercenaries: Covert U.S. Interventions during the Cold War and Their Consequences]. Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 2014. 590 pp. € 38.00.

Anyone interested in the place of mercenaries in U.S. policy in the developing world during the height of the Cold War will find this comprehensive analysis of the topic an essential introduction to the mass of sources on which Klaas Voß has drawn. Washingtons Söldner: tracks the role of the United States and of U.S.-organized mercenary operations in four civil wars—that in the Congo in the mid-1960s; those in Angola and Rhodesia a decade later; and finally the insurgency waged by the Contras against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in the 1980s. In all cases Washington attempted to keep its involvement hidden, but with increasingly limited success.

Voß is a young historian at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research, the foremost organization in Germany conducting research and publishing extensively on the history of the Cold War. Voß’s book is a welcome and important contribution to the list of distinguished publications that draws on a comprehensive examination of the relevant secondary literature and, most important, a vast amount of archival material and memoirs. The result is an overwhelming picture of political leaders in Washington, whether Republican or Democrat (except the Carter administration), who were driven by the Cold War obsession with the global struggle against the Soviet Union and international Communism and the challenge to U.S. global security represented by local and regional military conflicts across the Third World.

Voß organizes his material in a straightforward historical narrative and structures it around the central question of “plausible deniability” that underlay U.S. policy throughout the many years of U.S. recruitment and deployment of mercenaries in regional conflicts. Initially, the goal of this approach was to distance the United States from visible involvement in local and regional conflicts in Africa that might be construed as neo-imperialist activities and, thus, contribute to the anti-imperialist animus that threatened the unity of the Congo (pp. 62–64). To a substantial degree, the United States successfully hid the extent of its involvement in organizing and supporting mercenary forces in Congo, forces that played an important role in preventing the dissolution of the country in the civil war of 1964. Here, as later in Angola and in Nicaragua, the mercenaries provided essential leadership, training, and logistical support (p. 459). In Congo, however, more effective management and integration of their activities contributed to a much more successful outcome from the U.S. perspective than in the later cases.

When developments in Angola were not going to Washington’s liking in the mid-1970s, attempts were made to replicate the successes of the prior decade with the recruitment of white mercenaries from Europe and North America to buttress the forces of the National Front for the Liberation of Angola and the Smith government [End Page 252] in Rhodesia. Although U.S. administrations were actively involved in the support of mercenary forces in Angola, Voß finds no documentary evidence to support the charge that the Ford administration pursued a similar effort in Rhodesia (pp. 305–306).

Despite the failure of U.S.-organized mercenary operations in Angola, the outbreak of civil war in Nicaragua in the 1980s led to the decision to intervene directly in the war despite the opposition and strict restrictions that existed by then on such intervention under U.S. law. As Voß demonstrates, the Reagan administration saw Nicaragua as a new Vietnam or Cuba (p. 408) and decided that U.S.-recruited mercenaries could fill the serious gaps in military leadership among the Contras, as they had done earlier in the African cases (p. 424). However, the performance of the U.S. CIA in Nicaragua suffered, even more than earlier operations in Africa, from poor management and a lack of effective coordination. In part the magazine Soldier of Fortune, with its regular focus on the individuality of the heroic anti...


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