Following the break-up of the federation in the early 1960s, Southern Rhodesia's whites voted in the right-wing Rhodesian Front headed by Ian Smith. It was Smith who in November 1965 unilaterally declared independence from Britain and launched the country as Rhodesia. The British government had ruled out the use of force against the settlers, who therefore got away with the illegal act. By then, a white population of some 200,000 ruled more than 4 million Africans. For a time it seemed that the settlers would be able to retain power indefinitely. As their position was increasingly challenged, Cold War involvement grew in the struggle to turn Rhodesia into an independent Zimbabwe.
In the early 1960s two major nationalist parties emerged, first the Zimbabwe African People's Union (ZAPU) under Joshua Nkomo, which developed ties with the Soviet Union, and then a rival Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), which was courted by the People's Republic of China (PRC). These links to communist countries were in both cases forged mainly for practical reasons and because of what the African nationalists believed to be Western support for the settler regime rather than from ideological commitment to communism.
In response to the unilateral declaration of independence, the United Nations (UN) imposed sanctions against Rhodesia, but these were flouted by South Africa, which crucially continued to supply oil by Portugal and, for a time, by the United States. In 1971, Senator Harry F. Byrd of Virginia piloted through Congress an amendment to sanction legislation that permitted the United States to import chrome ore, used for steelmaking, from Rhodesia. It was argued that because the only other source of chrome was the Soviet Union, the United States must put Cold War concerns above any antipathy to white supremacist regimes in southern Africa. In 1969 the National Security Council (NSC), under Henry Kissinger, had recommended that U.S. policy should be based on the assumption that the white settler regimes in southern Africa would remain in power for the foreseeable future. Dubbed the Tar Baby Option by its critics, this meant that the United States would give tacit support to the settler regimes.
ZAPU and ZANU had launched an armed struggle against the settler regime in the mid-1960s, and during 1967–1968 ZAPU had forged an alliance with the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa and had sent guerrillas into Rhodesia. But until 1972 the Rhodesian regime, with South African police support, was able to contain the insurgency with relative ease. Internal feuds divided ZAPU and helped render it ineffective, but the Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army (ZANLA), ZANU's military wing, began to operate from Mozambique in the early 1970s and was there given active support by the Mozambican Liberation Front (Frelimo), which came to power at independence from Portugal in 1975.
From 1972 the liberation war began to intensify, and by the time Cuban military forces intervened in Angola in late 1975, the military wings of ZAPU and ZANU were making inroads into Rhodesia from neighboring territories. Although the Rhodesian Air Force began in the mid-1970s to bomb their camps in both Mozambique and Zambia, causing large-scale loss of life, the guerrillas increasingly operated openly in parts of rural Rhodesia, having won the support of the local people. The war dragged on and became more brutal, with both sides using terror tactics. By the time the war came to an end in 1979, more than 30,000 lives, most of them black, had been lost. There was considerable white emigration during the war, and the ratio of Africans to whites rose by the end of the decade to about 25 to 1.
By early 1976 Kissinger, now U.S. secretary of state, was concerned that unless he could bring about a negotiated settlement in Rhodesia, the war would escalate and the Cubans might become involved there as well. With Marxist regimes having come to power in Angola and Mozambique, he feared the creation of more radical pro-Soviet regimes in Africa, and he was worried that Rhodesia might be the next domino to fall. He thus traveled to Africa in April 1976 and in Zambia's capital, Lusaka, announced that the United States favored majority rule in Rhodesia. He then put pressure on Ian Smith via South African Prime Minister John Vorster, who was himself under domestic pressure, to accept the principle of majority rule, which Smith reluctantly did in October 1976 after the South Africans threatened to withdraw support from his regime. Attempts by President Jimmy Carter's administration and the British government to mediate in the conflict to produce a moderate black successor regime initially bore little fruit.
Soon after he became president, Carter pushed Congress to repeal the Byrd Amendment, which it did in March 1977, ending American violation of UN sanctions against Rhodesia. As Smith moved toward implementing a new constitution in which black Africans would take nominal power, there were many in the United States who argued that the time had come to lift sanctions. At the invitation of U.S. Senator Jesse Helms and others, Smith visited the United States in October 1978 to court support for the lifting of sanctions. Carter, however, stood firm against this and supported the British position that a settlement must include ZAPU and ZANU, which had now come together under pressure from the neighboring states in an uneasy Patriotic Front (PF).
The internal election that Smith organized and that the nationalists boycotted ushered in the majority-rule government of Abel Muzorewa. Margaret Thatcher, who became British prime minister following the Conservative Party's victory in Britain's April 1979 general election, was tempted to recognize the Muzorewa government. Instead, she invited all parties, including Smith, Muzorewa, Nkomo, and Robert Mugabe, to attend a conference at Lancaster House in London in order to reach an internationally recognized settlement. Mugabe reluctantly agreed to attend, only because Samora Machel of Mozambique threatened that if he did not, ZANU would lose its bases in his country.
British Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary Lord Carrington followed a brilliant negotiating strategy. He insisted, for example, that negotiations take place one step at a time. Thus, in the last months of 1979, the constitution for an independent Zimbabwe was agreed to, and then a process was approved for a transition to independence via a direct British presence. Mugabe in particular disliked the terms of the settlement, but Machel again put pressure on him. A British governor, Christopher Soames, was sent out to Rhodesia to oversee the holding of elections. Plots by white supremacists to assassinate Mugabe and stage a coup were foiled.
Thanks to U.S. and British diplomacy and to the cost of the war, the bitterest liberation war fought in southern Africa came to an end, and an internationally recognized, independent Zimbabwe was born. To the dismay of the British and U.S. governments, however, it was not the moderates who triumphed in the election held in early 1980 but rather Mugabe of ZANU-PF, the austere revolutionary who had served eleven years in Smith's detention centers.
Coming into office, Mugabe initially preached reconciliation, but he had never absorbed democratic norms and was prepared to act with force to suppress any opposition to his rule. Nevertheless, when Zimbabwe became independent in April 1980, the United States provided an aid package of $225 million to the new government, hoping that Mugabe's radicalism might be tempered, that Zimbabwe would remain stable and prosperous, and that it might serve as a role model for white South Africans. Whatever doubts they had about Mugabe, the Western powers had successfully prevented any significant involvement by communist countries in Rhodesia beyond the training of guerrillas and the supply of military materiél to ZAPU and ZANU.
For its first two decades after independence, Zimbabwe remained relatively stable and prosperous, although Mugabe used brutal measures in 1982, sending a brigade trained by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) to stamp out opposition in southwestern Zimbabwe. More than 10,000 people are thought to have been killed in an episode that largely escaped the world's attention. Although Mugabe did not allow the ANC's armed wing to operate from Zimbabwe, his country was nevertheless the victim of a number of acts of South African aggression during the 1980s. Even as Zimbabwe moved toward becoming a de facto one-party state, the Lancaster House agreement prevented expropriation of land for ten years, and no moves were made to take land from whites by force until well after the end of the Cold War. In the early 1990s, Zimbabwe remained a viable state, but the rise of an effective opposition brought out Mugabe's dictatorial tendencies. By the end of the century, the country was plunging into economic ruination, with massive confiscations of white-owned farms, declining agricultural production, an AIDS epidemic, and political violence leading to rigged elections.
Lake, Anthony. The "Tar Baby" Option: American Policy towards Southern Rhodesia. New York: Columbia University Press, 1976.; Martin, David, and Phyllis Johnson. The Struggle for Zimbabwe: The Chimurenga War. Johannesburg: Ravan, 1981.; Meredith, Martin. Robert Mugabe: Power, Plunder and Tyranny in Zimbabwe. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2002.; Stedman, Stephen. Peacemaking in Civil War: International Mediation in Zimbabwe, 1974–1980. Boulder, Co.: Lynne Rienner, 1991.; Tamarkin, Mordechai. The Making of Zimbabwe: Decolonization in Regional and International Politics. London: Frank Cass, 1990.