Individual African states—and regions—were an important component in the geopolitical chess match between the United States and the USSR, but not until later in the Cold War. From the late 1950s to the late 1970s, the United States purposely played a secondary role to that of the Europeans in Africa. During President Dwight D. Eisenhower's second term (1957–1961), the U.S. National Security Council proposed a "division of labor" for the developing world; the Europeans would be responsible for Africa, while the United States would play the dominant role in Latin America. The White House, in particular, expected France to police franco-phone Africa, while Great Britain would take the lead in southern Africa. Nonetheless, it was also the Eisenhower administration that created the Bureau of African Affairs within the U.S. Department of State. In 1957, Senator John F. Kennedy presciently warned of growing communist influence in Africa. As the Cold War advanced, African countries became labeled as either pro-Soviet or pro-American. A shorthand for this dichotomy was membership in either the relatively radical Casablanca Group, led by Ghana's President Kwame Nkrumah, or membership in the more pro-West Monrovia Group.
From 1981 to 1988, U.S. military aid to sub-Saharan Africa amounted to about $1 billion. During the latter days of the Cold War, American aid became indistinguishable from U.S. geopolitical aims. Pro-Western governments such as the one in Senegal under President Abdou Diouf received aid, for instance, while Marxist governments such as President Didier Ratsiraka's of Madagascar did not. The United States routinely tied its aid to African nations to their geopolitical importance.
Generally speaking, America's Cold War geopolitical interests in sub-Saharan Africa were narrow in scope, but where the commitment existed it ran deep and often manifested itself in covert activity. Three regions deserve special mention: the Horn of Africa (Ethiopia and Somalia), where an intense superpower rivalry played out; Zaire (Democratic Republic of the Congo), one of the earliest battlegrounds of Cold War rivalry; and southern Africa, where the superpowers fought a proxy war in Angola and where they were directly or indirectly involved in an intricately latticed struggle for independence and freedom in Mozambique, Namibia, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), and South Africa.
The Horn of Africa is comprised of Ethiopia, Somalia, and Djibouti. Because it adjoins the Middle East and the Indian Ocean, flanks the oil-rich states of Arabia, controls the Bab el Mandeb Straits (an important choke point for oil), and overlooks the passages where the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Indian Ocean converge, it was a very important piece in the Cold War geopolitical chess game. The competition between the United States and the Soviet Union in the Horn was intense, and their policies were analogous, if obviously in direct competition. American policy there was grounded on four principles: the economic security of the West (i.e., oil), stability and security in the Middle East and in the Horn, the ability to block Soviet attempts to choke Western oil lanes, and keeping the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean open for Israeli and Israel-bound shipping. The Soviet strategy in the Horn was predicated upon strategic deterrence, naval presence, sea denial or sea control, and projection of power. The geopolitical competition between the United States and the USSR revolved around the Ethiopian-Somalian conflict.
America's foothold in the Horn was Ethiopia, where it had maintained a presence since 1953. The Soviet Union initially had a strong presence in Somalia. Between 1953 and 1974, when Ethiopian ruler Haile Selassie was overthrown, the Zaire during the crisis. By the end of May, the joint force had regained control of Shaba. The FLNC then withdrew to Angola and Zambia.
Government reprisals after Shaba I drove 50,000–70,000 refugees into Angola. Also, Zaire's continued support for Angolan dissident groups ensured continued Angolan government support for the FLNC. The Shaba II Crisis was triggered in May 1978 when the FLNC launched its second invasion of Zaire in a little over a year. During early May 1978, ten FLNC battalions entered Shaba through northern Zambia, a sparsely populated area inhabited by the same ethnic groups (Lunda and Ndembu) that made up the FLNC. A small group went toward Mutshatsha, about 60 miles west of Kolwezi, to block the path of Zairian reinforcements that threatened to move into the area. During the night of 11–12 May 1978, the remainder of the force moved to Kolwezi, where it joined with the rebels who had earlier infiltrated the town. The town of Kolwezi was lightly defended, and the rebels quickly gained a foothold in the mineral-rich Shaba (formerly Katanga) province, thereby controlling about 75 percent of the country's export earnings. The French and Belgian governments requested U.S. help in putting down the rebellion.
The administration of President Jimmy Carter viewed Shaba II as an instance of Soviet expansionism. Subsequently, in a total of thirty-eight flight missions, U.S. planes transported roughly 2,500 French and Belgian troops and supporting equipment to the region. The American commitment to Mobutu and Zaire was consistent with its long-standing support of Mobutu and with the U.S. concern over Soviet/Cuban influence in neighboring Angola. President Carter, in fact, rebuked Cuban leader Fidel Castro for supporting the FLNC attack launched from Angolan territory. Carter's national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, claimed that the invasion was launched with Moscow's blessing. The Carter administration believed that it had to respond to aggressive Soviet/Cuban penetration of Africa (15,000 Cuban troops and Soviet advisors were already in Ethiopia). By the end of May 1978, the second Shaba invasion was all but over. Belgian forces began to withdraw, leaving a battalion in Kamina, and the French Foreign Legion departed by the end of May.
Southern Africa was the third African hot spot during the Cold War. The epicenter of American-Soviet conflict was Angola, but Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa also featured prominently in the latter years of the Cold War. Each of these countries, with the notable exception of South Africa, was seen as aligned with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Namibia, under tight South African control, was linked to the Angolan civil war. Mozambique, which gained independence on 25 June 1974, was a self-designated Marxist-Leninist regime led by Samora Machel, chairman of the Frente Libertação de Moçambique (Frelimo) and president of the People's Republic of Mozambique, and joined the Soviet-led Council of Mutual Economic Assistance. In turn, Frelimo, with the backing of the Soviet Union and other communist states, supported Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) and its armed wing, the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), in the Rhodesia/Zimbabwe national liberation struggle against the settler regime of Ian Smith, leader of the Rhodesian Front (RF).
The RF had declared Rhodesia's independence from Great Britain in 1965, triggering a fifteen-year-long civil war. A second insurgency group in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe led by Joshua Nkoma's Zimbabwe African Peoples Union (ZAPU) along with its armed wing, the Zimbabwe People's Revolutionary Army (ZIPRA), was supported by the Soviet-aligned Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). In an important subplot during the era, the United States was almost completely dependent on southern Africa for its uranium supply and was willing to go to great lengths to secure the critical fuel for its nuclear arsenal.
In March 1975, a civil war broke out in Angola. The United States initially supported the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) as a counter to the Marxist MPLA. After the FNLA fell apart, America switched its support to the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). The United States refused to support the de jure MPLA government, and what followed was a quarter century of civil war. The Soviets and Cubans intervened in Angola in support of the Marxist MPLA regime, which subsequently developed close military ties with the South West Africa People's Organization (SWAPO, Namibia) and the socialist regime in Mozambique as well as with Zambia and the African National Congress in South Africa. American involvement in Angola was seriously inhibited by the U.S. Congress's Clark Amendment of 1975, which banned military aid to any Angolan party. For a decade, direct U.S. involvement in southern Africa was minimal. The election of President Ronald Reagan, however, changed that.
In July 1985, Congress repealed the Clark Amendment. Thus, the leader of UNITA, Jonas Savimbi, became a primary recipient of U.S. paramilitary aid under the Reagan Doctrine, which argued that the USSR should not only be contained but that its influence and gains abroad (such as in Angola) should be rolled back. Zaire was a major conduit (along with South Africa) for U.S. covert assistance. At the peak of America's clandestine operations, Reagan labeled Savimbi a "combatant for liberty."
In 1981, under the stewardship of Chester Crocker, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, the United States announced a policy of constructive engagement for southern Africa. This was the endgame for U.S.-Soviet competition in the region. Crocker linked the independence of Namibia (from South Africa) to the withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola. This entailed a quasi-alliance with South Africa's apartheid government but not support for the regime in Pretoria per se. To some, this disinterred what was called the Tar Baby Option, President Richard Nixon's secret policy of rapprochement with Smith's white minority regime in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe embodied in Option Two of the National Security Study Memorandum 39, a review of U.S. African policy ordered by National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. The United States became one of three UN members (along with Portugal and South Africa) that allowed trade with Rhodesia from 1971 to 1977 under the Byrd Amendment, which circumvented UN sanctions against Rhodesia by permitting importation of Rhodesian chrome.
Nevertheless, following eight long years of negotiations, constructive engagement led to the 1998 New York Accords and the subsequent exit from Angola of Cuban and South African forces aligned, respectively, with the MPLA and UNITA. The Cold War in southern Africa was over.
James J. Hentz
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