Cold War and Decolonization Essay

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Why did Africa become a theatre of Cold War conflict in the period between 1957 and 1962?

The Cold War, originating in the aftermath of the Second World War, colored political, social, and cultural development during the second half of the twentieth century. The phenomenon of decolonization was no different, with newly independent states in both Africa and Asia finding themselves faced with a choice between aligning with either the capitalist or communist camps. While Asian decolonization seemed a surprisingly rapid process to the superpowers, the US and USSR were more prepared for African decolonization and were therefore able to assert their power more readily. African decolonization began in 1957, with Ghanaian independence, and the year 1960 saw independence in 17 former colonies. This essay will focus on the post-decolonization societies of Ghana, Guinea, Angola, and the Congo, and their entanglement with the Cold War. Ultimately, Africa became a theatre of Cold War conflict due to the fundamental desire of each superpower to direct and control the newly independent African societies, in ideologically political and economic ways. Africa was particularly susceptible to superpower interest due to the undeveloped political and economic situations in which they had been left after centuries of European colonial rule. [1: Melvyn Leffler, and Odd Arne Westad, The Cambridge History of the Cold War (Cambridge University Press, 2010), 464-854 ]

Weigh up the two arguments – which caused more conflict

Historiographical debate surrounds the reason most emphatic for generating Cold War conflict in Africa. Piero Gleijeses points toward political influence and alignment as the primary reason for the Cold War conflict in Africa. Gleijeses argues that while American exceptionalism was, in principle, anti-colonial rule, in practice, America placed Cold War ambitions superior to any alternative option. Consequently, the US encouraged Western colonial powers to maintain their African influence. Gleijeses also highlights the Soviet pursuit of communist ideology in Africa and their determination to aid any socialist-leaning force.

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Iandolo on the other hand, places the importance of ‘exporting’ the respective economic models of development to Africa as the primary reason for conflict. Iandolo explains that Moscow’s policy, between 1957 and 1962, was driven by the belief that socialism was a superior economic system, and could replicated in Ghana and Guinea. In contrast to Gleijeses, Iandolo points to Soviet policy in Africa as being driven by a form of ‘economic ideology;’ with the ultimate visions of shaping the Third World in accordance with a ‘socialist model of development.’

Westad provides an alternative perspective, arguing that African elites framed their own political agendas in direct response to the models of development presented by the superpowers. Westad emphasizes the role of local actors and their decision to ideologically align, which resulted in close cooperation with either the USSR or the USA. However, locally crafted decisions only enhanced Cold War tensions in Africa, with the Congo Crisis being labeled as a ‘defining moment’ for the Cold War in the Third World, and contributing to a major turning point for the Soviet-US balance of power in Africa.

Soviet and American forces turned the process of African decolonization into an ideological alignment battle to impose their respective political objectives of capitalism and communism on newly independent African societies.

Following the death of Stalin in 1953, the Soviet Union, now under the leadership of Khrushchev, pursued an increased focus on Soviet infiltration in Africa. In 1956, at the Congress of the Communist Party of the USSR (CPSU), fearful sentiments circulated that African independence was in danger of being won under African ‘bourgeois’ leadership, based on American-style presidential rule. Nkrumah was targeted as an atypical African ‘bourgeois,’ because of his education in Britain and America and his preferred policies of gradualism, championed by the UGCC. Such fears were propelled by the calls from small communist parties in Nigeria and Senegal to help create a broad-based alliance that would incorporate the ‘national bourgeois alongside the ‘petty bourgeois’ and the working class in the fight for nationwide socialism. Following calls and threats to African decolonizing states of the infiltration of American capitalism, or the lack of a socialist presence, the Soviet Union asserted its presence in Africa more noticeably. The USSR subsequently engaged in United Nations debates calling for an end to Western imperialism and vocalized its aim of fostering friendly relations with all newly independent African states, regardless of their ideological alliance, as evidenced by its amicable relations with Guinea and Ghana. The Soviets had made obvious efforts on the international stage to reinvigorate their influence and presence in Africa. At this early stage, in 1957, the Soviets preferred to enhance their standing in Africa through practical means. Hence the USSR encouraged the communists in sub-Saharan Africa to infiltrate trade unions and construct African nationalist movements, as well as networks of agents, through local ‘peace movements,’ cultural fronts, youth leagues, and women’s associations. The 1956 recognition by the CPSU of the need to rethink its policies, followed by genuine efforts to bolster its position, was extremely innovative for the time; not even Ghana had achieved independence by this point. However, Soviet forward-thinking was predominantly bolstered by suspicions of a supreme American influence in the African continent.

Americans observed with alarm the spread of Soviet influence and the preference for Socialist cultural values in Africa, a continent whose societies were already deeply imbued with community values. This influenced US policymakers to ease pressure on their European allies to decolonize, in the hope that the continued Western influence would dominate. The Marshall Plan even aimed to help European powers strengthen their colonial structures with the view that it would boost metropolitan prosperity. More importantly, Marshall aid would boost the European position in Africa, simultaneously benefitting America’s strategic position in Africa, and therefore, its supremacy in comparison to the USSR.

In the case of Angola (1961), the US seemed most determined to annihilate any trace of Soviet influence in an African state; Duignan claims that the Kennedy administration went further in supporting African nationalists than any other administration before or thereafter. Washington provided substantial amounts of covert financial support to Holden Roberto, the leader of the Frente de Libertacao National de Angola (FLNA). This movement was just one of several independence movements engaged in guerrilla warfare against Angola’s Portuguese overlords. This financial support was provided to a ‘rogue’, disestablished nationalist group, largely in order to hinder Angola’s influential Portuguese Communist Party. Kennedy’s cunning but ambitious policy, designed to strip a NATO ally of its possessions, had no precedent and was internationally recognized as treacherous. It was, however, entirely of a piece with the broader American aim of spreading the ideology and benefits of free-market capitalism throughout Africa; presumably, the intention was to hold up Angola as a model of the attractions of association with America and its values - the corollary being a repulsion against its antithesis, the USSR.

Unlike the case of Angola, in which the USSR was not directly involved, the Congo Crisis, truly exemplified the use of forceful American means to enforce capitalist, western values in Africa in order to abort a counter-attempt by the Soviets. On June 30, 1960, the Congo, under the leadership of Patrice Lumumba, was granted de jure independence from Belgium. Shortly afterwards, Eisenhower sent a welcoming, if expected message to the newly formed Congo Government: ‘The government and people of the United States look forward to close and friendly relations with the government and people of the Republic of Congo.’ The friendly tone of Eisenhower’s message almost takes for granted that the Congo would align with the Western bloc and is an evident, not-too-subtle attempt to pre-empt similar overtures by the Soviet Union. However, on July 5th, 1960 a force of 25,000 Congolese soldiers mutinied against their white Belgian commanders at a garrison, roughly 90 miles from Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. American officials stood by and did nothing to intervene in the political turmoil, until Congolese leaders, Lumumba and Kasavubu, broke off diplomatic relations with Belgium and alluded to a possible Soviet intervention if the UN forces scheduled to arrive the following day did not force a Belgian withdrawal. This perfectly exemplifies the way the newly independent African states arguably played off the two superpowers for their own benefit, and reveals the African states themselves as in part at least responsible for Cold War tensions in the continent. This view of the conflict is proposed by Gleijeses, who goes further, arguing that while American and Soviet intervention in Africa generated conflict, the driving force was the role played by the colonized people themselves. In his view, rather than the superpowers themselves orchestrating the conflict, it was the tragic failure of the new African states to negotiate their relationships with superpowers that made Africa a theatre of Cold War conflict during these years.

As the incident escalated and tensions increased, the Belgians showed no intention of leaving the Congo, and the possibility of a Soviet invasion became increasingly likely. The US embassy in Kinshasa cabled Washington, emphasizing the precarious nature of the situation: “Lumumba is an opportunist and not a communist. His final decision as to which camp he will eventually belong will not be made by him but rather will be imposed upon him by the outside.” This supports Gleijeses’s thesis; the ideologically neutral Lumumba did not choose to align with the communist ‘camp’ but circumstances ‘imposed upon him by the outside’ aligned him with the Soviet bloc. Subsequently, the US turned the issue into a severe Cold War conflict, despite the lack of prior American involvement in the region.

More even than the Eisenhower administration, the CIA was suspicious to the point of paranoia of Lumumba’s Soviet aspirations; the hard-line CIA director Allen Dulles, went as far as to label Lumumba as ‘Castro or worse.’ Accordingly, the CIA pushed for a covert mission to eliminate Soviet influence in the Congo. However, the turning point for the Eisenhower administration came when Lumumba broke relations with UN President Hammarskjold on August 14, 1960. This retreat from the global community was followed by the arrival of substantial Soviet aid, including a squadron of 17 Ilyushin transport planes. This prompted a covert CIA operation, killing Lumumba on 17 January 1961.

Catherine Hoskyns wrote in 1965, in the aftermath of the Congo Crisis, about the devastation across the country caused by the assassination of Lumumba. At this time the CIA operation remained shrouded in secrecy and speculation continued to swirl around the identity of the perpetrators. Hoskyns depicts Lumumba’s death as a shock to the entire Congolese nation, regardless of whether people were supporters of Lumumba or not. Contemporary Congolese journalists reported that people seemed ‘stupefied, almost anesthetized, at the news and unwilling to comment.’ The City of Gizenga even ordered a week of mourning and closed the market. The country was left without a ruler, in political turmoil, and most importantly with a violent hatred of the Belgians, who were presumed responsible. The Congo crisis highlighted the ruthlessness with which the Eisenhower administration approached any Cold War crisis or tension. American policymakers completely overturned the Wilsonian values of self-determination, liberty, and individuality, but instead imposed on the Congo their preferred US regime. The entire episode illustrates an important feature of Cold War strategy: neither side was willing to engage in direct hostilities, and used their African clients for the dual purpose of ‘shadow-boxing’, and simultaneously testing out new weapons technology.

decolonization was a major battle for African countries, but African leaders found huge obstacles to guiding and reconstructing their newly independent countries. Both superpowers rushed to attract African countries to their economic models, in the hope of capitalizing on the economic benefits that would accrue to America. America famously advanced the Modernisation Theory, while the USSR developed its five-year models and planned economies.

The USSR viewed African decolonization as damaging to Western power and prestige, while it proved beneficial to the global socialist revolution. These ideas date back to Lenin, who had argued since 1917 that imperialism was the highest form of communism. Legvold, the first pioneering author of Soviet policy in Africa under Khrushchev, explains how the Soviets hoped that the economic difficulties Africans experienced following neglect by their colonizers, would lead them to radical economic solutions of land reform and socialist planned economies. The Soviets were especially hopeful due to the African make-up of largely agrarian economies. Legvold further depicts Soviet hopes for a trend to consequently unfold, whereby the adoption of Soviet economic systems in Africa would accelerate the alignment of African states with the sympathetic socialist camp.

At a party conference in Kankan (April 1960), Guinea committed to a Soviet agriculturally-based 3-year-plan. The planned economy aimed to implement 500 collective farms. In the first months of 1961, Guinea nationalized the diamond industry and two of the country’s major public utility companies for electricity and water. The Soviet economic intervention was emphatic, Guinean socialist-leaning economic policies were funded directly by the USSR. The USSR offered Guinea $35 million in economic assistance and on August 24, 1959, the Soviets and Guineans signed a protocol specifying future projects that the Soviets would finance. Such infrastructure endeavors ranged from a 25,000-seat stadium to mechanical equipment for the port of Conakry polytechnical assistance. Direct Soviet assistance epitomized the Cold War conflict within Africa because the implementation of overwhelmingly socialist economies consequently horrified the US into producing counteraction. Iandolo emphasizes how the case of Guinea shows how Moscow became interested in Africa not with the intention of spreading the communist regime, but with the aim to export to Africa those ideas and innovations that had modernized the Soviet Union into an industrial society.

America developed Rostow’s Modernisation Theory in 1960 as an obvious Cold War weapon. The Americans were terrified by the increasing Soviet economic intervention in Africa, especially because while the Soviets had less capital to provide aid to premature African nations, they were able to attach to their loans, less stringent conditionalities, making Soviet aid more appealing. The modernization theory aimed to attract African countries to align with the US through the adoption of a capitalist economic system. The MIT professor explained that a traditional and agricultural nation could achieve the same economic growth as a modern society. Rostow’s Five Stages of Economic Growth hypothesizes that economic growth occurs in five basic stages. A major component of Rostow’s theory is that in order for a developing country to experience economic take-off, 10% of the country’s GDP must be dedicated to an entrepreneurial aim. Rostow’s economic structure theorizing for a developing country, ideologically juxtaposed that of the heavily planned Soviet economic models. Such rhetoric suggested American economic superiority as opposed to the Soviet Union. American economic assistance was designed to develop health, housing, and education, and more importantly, to stimulate the creation of central planning agencies. From an orthodox perspective, this type of American intervention was perceived as altruistic. However, Latham argues against the prospect of altruism, due to the way modernizers were so determined to direct progress that when foreign aid and development programs did not work well or were not fully accepted, violence would erupt. In somewhat agreement, Cooper highlights that modernity, and so by extension, the modernization theory, is condemned as an imperial construct used to be imposed globally, specifically in Western social, economic, and political forms.

Alternatively, in accordance with Westad’s thesis, Africa turned into a theatre for Cold War conflict due to local actors fabricating their own political directions, following invitations from both superpowers to adopt their models of development and accept political and economic aid.

African leaders were attracted to Soviet economies when faced with the threat of their previous colonizers to continue exploiting African natural resources. Kojo Botsio, the leading Ghanaian delegate to the Tunis All-African People’s Conference in January 1960 emphasized the importance of resisting the ‘devilish new strategy’ perpetuated by the colonial powers following the retreat from de-jure domination. At the conference, Botsio exclaimed that the Western powers sought ‘to keep Africa perpetually poor and dependent, even though politically free.’ Botsio builds upon Nkrumah’s idea of ‘neo-colonialism’ whereby the West continued to influence African societies through more subtle economic exploitation, a theory that found full favor in the USSR. At the same conference, the Guinean delegate, Ismael Touré reminded the attendees of the ‘importance of combining the class struggle with the anti-colonial struggle in Africa.’ Touré’s statement to combine ‘the class struggle with the anti-colonial struggle,’ exhibits how local African actors played a role in generating superpower conflict. Through such public alignment, the Soviets inevitably are perceived as the victorious power at the conference; the ‘class struggle’ is an overt Soviet-inspired movement. Consequently, the Americans are worried about acting on how they can improve their African presence. The conference ultimately had nothing to do with the Cold War; it was named the All-African Conference, with the aim of uniting independent African states to work toward a goal of economic prosperity, societal reconstruction, and the cultural importance of the African identity. However, the representatives at the conference had no choice but to discuss the all-engulfing Cold War, and in doing so, framed their future direction on superpower presence.

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