Battleground Africa, one of the most recent publications in the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Cold War International History Project series, provides a detailed, nuanced, and balanced examination of the chaos that ensued in the Congo during the first five years of its existence as an independent state and the role of external actors in that chaos. Author Lise Namikas provides the reader with a careful examination of the factors—both domestic and international—involved in the confrontations that finally culminated in Joseph Mobutu’s seizure of power in 1965 and the establishment of a stable, U.S.-oriented, repressive dictatorship that dominated the country for the next three decades. Moreover, she writes in a way that draws the reader into the narrative she is presenting.
An important factor that separates this excellent volume from other recent studies of aspects of the early years of the Cold War is the author’s success in melding her source materials in a way that integrates both the vast documentary material—from U.S., Russian, Belgian, United Nations, and other sources—on which she draws, along with a broad range of important secondary literature, including the often-ignored assessments written at the time of the events under examination.
Several points emerge most clearly from Battleground Africa. As Namikas herself notes throughout the book, the centrality of the Cold War confrontation between Moscow and Washington in the international involvement is most evident: for example, in the frequent inability of U.S. decision-makers and their advisers to look much beyond Moscow and its involvement when they were crafting and pursuing U.S. policy in central Africa. The divisions within the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy—especially between the Europeanists and the Africanists—are also intriguing.
Soviet policy in the Congo crisis does not come across as vividly as U.S. policy does —no doubt because of the more limited information available about the specifics of Soviet decision-making. But there is no doubt that Soviet policy under Nikita Khrushchev was also driven by the Cold War expectation of undermining the positions of the West throughout the colonial and former colonial world. As Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba’s relations with Belgium and with the United States deteriorated early in the conflict, he became the target of Soviet interest and support—much as did Antoine Gizenga several years later when he challenged the central government in his breakaway portion of northeastern Congo. [End Page 214]
Although Namikas does not emphasize the point, her narrative makes clear that Western, especially U.S., behavior is what drove Lumumba into the arms of the Soviet Union. This development paralleled what had only recently occurred in Cuba. Washington’s inability to understand the driving force of nationalism throughout the Third World and its view that challenges to continued Western dominance were part of a Soviet-oriented plot, became a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Other important points, though not original to Namikas’s analysis, reinforce known aspects of U.S. policy and place them in context, including U.S. plans to assassinate a political leader, in this case Lumumba, whose policies Washington found distasteful (and the failure to act when Belgian allies did, in fact, facilitate his execution). This was part of a broader pattern of U.S. efforts from the 1950s and into the 1970s— in Iran, Guatemala, Belgian Congo, Indonesia, and Chile—to intervene directly in the domestic affairs of other countries to remove legitimate governments whose policies the United States opposed. In almost all cases the long-term results were disastrous for the local population, and inimical for U.S. interests in the country or region concerned.
The book also makes clear that policymakers in Washington viewed the United Nations (UN) largely as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. However, what a growing number of newly independent states interpreted as the pro-Western bias of key UN officials such as Dag Hammarskjöld, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Ralph Bunche, and Andrew Cordier contributed to the...