Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
Teaser Image

Africa, U.S. Interventions in

During the Cold War, U.S. intervention in Africa took many different forms. American intervention was shaped in part by history, as the nation had experienced varied economic and cultural ties with different parts of Africa over a long period of time. Freed slaves from the United States settled in Liberia in the early nineteenth century, and so that country became a virtual American colony. Much of the continent, however, was ruled by European colonial powers and therefore had been long off-limits to American influences.

By the 1940s American economic and cultural ties to South Africa were significant, and in the early Cold War period the United States relied heavily upon South African uranium deposits for its nuclear programs. At the same time, the United States continued to make clear its opposition to formal colonialism and welcomed Africa's independence movements in the 1950s, hoping that newly independent nations would not slide into the Soviets' orbit of power.

The strongest initial African ally in this period was Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, who allowed the United States to build a major communications facility in his country. Direct U.S. political involvement in Africa was, however, quite unlikely. When the Congo crisis erupted in 1960, the United States remained determined to exert influence via the United Nations (UN), despite evidence of Soviet and Cuban involvement there. President John F. Kennedy was concerned that America should not be seen as actively supporting the apartheid regime in South Africa and so, despite that country's strategic significance, American policymakers began to take measures to express their displeasure with apartheid. In general, however, Africa remained low on the list of U.S. priorities, and under President Richard M. Nixon American policy again swung behind the white minority regimes of southern Africa, on the grounds that the existing liberation forces were unlikely to overthrow them.

In the 1970s, however, the continent underwent significant changes. In 1974 the United States lost a key ally when Selassie was overthrown. Then, with the approach of Angola's independence in 1975, U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger decided to intervene covertly to prevent the pro-Soviet Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) from coming to power. The Ford administration provided the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with funding to work with the South Africans to support the two rival Angolan political movements, the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA). But after the arrival of Cuban forces in Angola, the CIA operation collapsed in disaster, and the Clark Amendment passed by the U.S. Congress forbade the use of funds for further covert operations in that country. The CIA then sought to recruit mercenaries for use in Angola and to aid the increasingly beleaguered white Rhodesian regime in Zimbabwe's liberation war. These measures proved equally ineffective, however.

The Clark Amendment was repealed in the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan hoped to dislodge the pro-Soviet MPLA government in Angola by supporting UNITA. Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi was invited to Washington and hailed as a "freedom fighter." At the same time, Reagan's assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Chester Crocker, was trying to secure the linkage of the complete withdrawal of Cuban forces from Angola with the independence of Namibia. In 1988, through active mediation in a series of meetings among the governments of Angola, Cuba, and South Africa, Crocker was at last able to achieve a negotiated settlement of the Namibia issue, and the Namibia/Angola accords were signed at UN headquarters in December 1988. This was perhaps the U.S. government's most successful intervention in Africa, although by that point the United States was working together with the Soviet Union rather than against it.

Christopher Saunders

Further Reading
Clough, Michael. Free at Last? U.S. Policy toward Africa and the End of the Cold War. New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1992.; Cohen, Herman J. Intervening in Africa: Superpower Peacemaking on a Troubled Continent. London: Macmillan, 2000.; Schraeder, Peter J. United States Foreign Policy toward Africa: Incrementalism, Crisis and Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  About the Author/Editor
ABC-cLIO Footer