FROM COLONY TO CHAOS
Congo’s problems were a direct outcome of Belgium’s botched transition of Congo to independence in 1960. Unlike the British and the French, who started preparing their African colonies for independence in the early 1950s, the Belgians initially planned to delay independence for Congo until the 1980s, at the earliest. The revenue from the colony’s rich copper and diamond resources was too great to contemplate losing. But in 1958, Belgium’s internal politics turned leftward and anticolonialist, and the government was forced to move Congo toward independence with only two short years to prepare. The result was disastrous.
The Belgians decided that they could transition Congo to self-rule after independence by maintaining their expatriate administrative control, including within the security forces, for enough years to enable the Congolese to eventually take over. This was a naive assumption. The Congolese military’s rank and file mutinied against their Belgian officers from day one. The Belgian business community tried to preserve their investments in the copper-rich Katanga Province and the diamond-rich Kasai Province by financing and arming local secessionist groups. Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was as responsible as anyone else for the chaos, given his fierce anti-Belgian rhetoric. As a result of his sympathies, Soviet diplomats started spreading money around in support of Lumumba, pushing U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower to the brink of sending in NATO forces. Lumumba also caused the Belgian business community to hire mercenaries to help the secessionist ambitions. By August 1960, the country was a total mess.
What stabilized Congo during its first five years was the successful UN peacekeeping mission initiated by the Eisenhower administration. Contractors from the UN and the World Bank kept the public works and other services going while the basics of Congolese politics were being sorted out. The CIA’s support for Mobutu’s taking power in 1965 was truly the least bad option, given Belgium’s failure to train any Congolese cadres.
The first ten years of Mobutu’s rule, from 1965 to 1975, were actually positive. Working through the U.S. ambassador and the CIA station chief, U.S. experts provided sound advice to the Congolese government, especially when it came to economic and financial management. They persuaded Mobutu to accept an International Monetary Fund stabilization program that reduced inflation and filled store shelves with consumer goods. The CIA helped Mobutu co-opt the secessionists in Katanga and Kasai. When I was U.S. chargé d’affaires in Congo in 1968–69, my team advised Mobutu on how to nationalize the copper mines in the proper and legal fashion, a move that made him popular. This good decade came to an end in 1975, when the world price of copper fell by 50 percent and Mobutu found his Treasury deeply in debt and unable to pay. At that point, corruption and mismanagement took over. But political stability continued until Rwandan and Ugandan invaders overthrew Mobutu in 1997.
Weissman’s characterization of Mobutu’s rule as something aberrant during Africa’s first three decades of independence is not accurate. Mobutu was mainstream Africa. Every independent African government was a one-party state at the time. None allowed opposition. Every one of them had rent-seeking political leaders. The only thing that set Mobutu apart was how ostentatious his theft was. Governments in Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania, and Zambia, to cite just a few examples of moderate regimes that the U.S. government admired, routinely diverted public revenues to private pockets through their ruling political parties. That theft was stealthy, but the net result was the same. And when oil production took off in Angola, Gabon, and Nigeria in the 1970s, the theft in those countries made Mobutu look like an amateur.
Although the CIA was very active in Congo during that country’s first five years of independence, the agency’s actual impact on events there was peripheral. The unhappy decolonization process was the driving negative force.
In his article on U.S. covert action in Congo during the 1960s, Stephen Weissman asserts that “Lawrence Devlin, the CIA station chief in Congo for most of the period, had direct influence over the events that led to [Patrice] Lumumba’s death.” Having served as deputy chief of station in Congo from May 1963 to July 1965, the period between Devlin’s two tours as station chief, and having examined the archival record in detail, I can say with confidence that Weissman mischaracterizes Devlin’s role in the death of Lumumba.
As the Congo crisis unfolded in the summer of 1960, with 1,000 Soviets having been flown into the country, by Devlin’s calculation, the U.S. government concluded that Lumumba was impossible to deal with. On August 18, 1960, the National Security Council held a meeting at which President Dwight Eisenhower may have indicated that Lumumba should be eliminated. Robert Johnson, the NSC note taker at the meeting, later told the Church Committee, “President Eisenhower said something—I can no longer remember his words—that came across to me as an order for the assassination of Lumumba.” On the basis of that meeting, Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA, considered that he had a mandate for Lumumba’s assassination, and he took action accordingly.
In September 1960, CIA headquarters sent agents to Léopoldville to put in motion a plan to assassinate Lumumba. The main idea was to gain access to Lumumba’s bungalow and place poison there, preferably in his toothpaste. But the highly impractical operation never materialized. Devlin, who opposed it, intentionally dragged his feet and eventually dumped the poison into the Congo River—even though, in a cable that same month, he had said he favored “arrest or other more permanent disposal of Lumumba.”
In December, however, events were set in motion that led to Lumumba’s death. After his arrest by Colonel Joseph Mobutu’s forces, Lumumba and two of his aides were taken from Léopoldville to the Thysville military camp down the Congo River. Mobutu’s government initiated informal negotiations for the transfer of Lumumba to Katanga with Moise Tshombe, the province’s governor, in early January 1961. On January 12, Devlin warned the Congolese government that the Thysville garrison was likely to mutiny in support of Lumumba, and on January 14, Devlin learned that Lumumba was to be transferred out of Thysville. Devlin took no action after January 14 but wrote a lengthy dispatch on the subject in early February.
On January 17, after being flown to the Elisabethville airport, in Katanga, Lumumba and his two aides were taken away and were never seen again. The most commonly accepted version is that Lumumba was put to death later that night in the presence of Godefroid Munongo, Tshombe’s close lieutenant. A UN report written later that year named the probable actual killer as “Col. Huyghe, a Belgian mercenary.” As for Devlin’s role, the Church Committee’s conclusion still stands: “It does not appear from the evidence that the United States was in any way involved in the killing.”
According to Weissman, “Devlin gave no indication that he had voiced any opposition to the plan” to move Lumumba and thus gave “a green light to the transfer.” He also writes that “Devlin’s permissive stance was undoubtedly a major factor in the government’s decision to move Lumumba.”
But that characterization vastly overstates Devlin’s power to stop the transfer even if he had wanted to. True, it does not appear that the U.S. government made much more than pro forma appeals that Lumumba not be harmed. But it is doubtful that Devlin could have had any influence over his fate. Devlin was much more a spectator than a participant in these events; the Congolese were running the show. Although Devlin had twice saved Mobutu’s life during the turbulent summer of 1960 by informing him of plots, Mobutu was an extraordinarily arrogant and arbitrary figure. He later turned against Devlin, wrongly suspecting the station chief of preparing a coup against him.
Charles G. Cogan is an Associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he authored the case study ”Containing the Chaos: The US-UN Intervention in the Congo, 1960–1965.”
Although the critiques by Herman Cohen and Charles Cogan supply useful contextual information, I am disappointed that they virtually ignore my evidence that CIA covert action in the 1960s in Congo helped shape and perpetuate unrepresentative, incompetent, and corrupt regimes in that country.
To begin with, Cohen uses too broad a brush to portray my view. He complains about my “attribution of blame for all of Congo’s initial instability and the subsequent corrupt dictatorship of President Joseph Mobutu to the CIA.” What I actually wrote was that “the agency’s legacy of clients and techniques contributed to a long-running spiral of decline, which was characterized by corruption, political turmoil, and dependence on Western military intervention,” and that “the United States must bear some responsibility for what Mobutu wrought.”
In contrast, Cohen argues that the key factors behind the country’s crises were “Belgium’s botched transition of Congo to independence,” Patrice Lumumba’s anti-Belgian rhetoric, Soviet opportunism, the 1975 collapse of copper prices, and the region’s propensity for single-party regimes and “rent-seeking political leaders”—in short, everything but the massive and effective CIA political and paramilitary interventions of 1960–68 and their effect on subsequent U.S. policy. Cohen even downplays the impact of the CIA’s support for Mobutu’s 1965 coup, characterizing it as a kind of obligatory reaction to poor decolonization. It was, he says, “the least bad option, given Belgium’s failure to train any Congolese cadres.” In reality, it was a calculated effort by U.S. officials to end preelection feuding among leading CIA clients, which threatened to provide an opening for leftist forces.
Cohen emphasizes the “positive” results of the first decade of Mobutu’s rule, a period that roughly coincided with Cohen’s own diplomatic focus on Congo. But it is telling that the main accomplishments he cites are Mobutu’s acquiescence to the U.S. government’s recommendations to accept an International Monetary Fund stabilization program and nationalize copper mines in “the proper and legal fashion.” When it came to Mobutu implementing his own ideas, many of which were aimed at shoring up his political support, flashy initiatives devolved into abject failures. Thus, he created a single political party to sustain his legitimacy, but it soon deteriorated into a hollow shell. He misspent some of the newfound revenue from the nationalized mines on white-elephant projects and illicitly diverted other funds. His ill-conceived policy of transferring foreign-owned agricultural and commercial businesses to members of the political elite became a monumental fiasco that paralyzed the economy and decimated his transient popularity.
Cohen is correct that the Mobutu regime’s authoritarianism and corruption reflected broad political currents in Africa. The era’s dominant political model was “neopatrimonialism,” a powerful form of political patronage that verged on corruption and personalized rule. Yet Cohen fails to recognize that Congo constituted a particular and extreme variant of the pattern. As I wrote, “Ever since the CIA’s intervention, Congo’s leaders have been distinguished by a unique combination of qualities: scant political legitimacy, little capacity for governing, and corruption so extensive that it devours institutions and norms.” Cohen’s view that the regimes in Côte d’Ivoire, Tanzania, and Zambia were essentially similar might appear to get the CIA off the hook, but it is not accurate. Unlike Congo, these three countries were headed by figures who had led the anticolonial struggle and thereby retained some political legitimacy. Moreover, neopatrimonialism was relatively subdued in Côte d’Ivoire and Tanzania, with the former maintaining a reputation for effective governance and the latter preserving some legal norms. And none of the countries had such widely rampant corruption as Congo, where Mobutu told his bureaucrats publicly, “If you want to steal, steal a little cleverly, in a nice way.”
Cogan, for his part, rejects my conclusion that Lawrence Devlin’s permissive stance was a major factor in the Congolese decision to transfer Lumumba to the Belgian-supported secessionists who murdered him. Yet Cogan makes no effort at all to grapple with the considerable evidence I offer for my opposite finding. He does not address Devlin’s intimate working relationship with those who decided on the transfer. That group received essential financial support and political advice from Devlin, habitually consulted him on matters affecting Lumumba’s security, and almost always heeded his counsel. Nor does Cogan make any mention of Devlin’s withholding of advance warning of the transfer from Washington, which Devlin most likely did to foreclose the possibility that the State Department would discourage the move on the eve of President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.
Cogan also backs the claim Devlin makes in his memoir that he intentionally dragged his feet in opposition to an earlier order to plan Lumumba’s assassination. In an article based on research into declassified CIA documents (“An Extraordinary Rendition,” Intelligence and National Security, April 2010), I found that there was no independent evidence that Devlin had stalled the plot. To the contrary, he proposed and explored eight possible options within three weeks, all of which were turned down by his boss. He subsequently asked headquarters to dispatch a third-country national to do the job and to send him by diplomatic pouch a high-powered foreign-made rifle with a telescopic sight and a silencer. And after Lumumba escaped from UN custody, Devlin queried headquarters about dispatching one of his operatives to go after Lumumba to take “direct action.”
These events occurred more than five decades ago but have only gradually come into full light. If the United States wants to improve its foreign policy, it needs to acknowledge and reflect on the historical record—especially where it suggests that Washington made poor choices.