Winning Hearts, Minds, and Independence

How the United States Approached Post-Colonial Africa

The Sierra Leone Independence Movement (SLIM) campaigning for elections in pre-independence Sierra Leone, December 31, 1956. Edward Blyden Library / Wikimedia Commons

It was midnight on October 9, 1962, in Kampala, Uganda—the former British colony at the source of the White Nile on the shores of Lake Victoria. The Namboole National Stadium was full. Katharine, Duchess of Kent, represented the British Crown and presided over the lowering of the Union Jack and the raising of the red, yellow, and black flag of the newly independent Republic of Uganda. A high-level delegation from Washington featured the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), accompanied by a bipartisan congressional group. As a very junior Foreign Service couple, my wife and I were thrilled to witness history in the making.

Between 1955 and 1965, 15 French and 10 British colonies in sub-Saharan Africa achieved independence. At the time, I volunteered to specialize in African affairs in the U.S. Foreign Service because I was enthusiastic about the challenge of conducting diplomacy toward these new sovereign entities. Additionally, several of my colleagues and I were fascinated by a U.S. policy that we considered surprisingly rational. After several heated debates in the National Security Council in 1957, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower decided that the United States would do its best to keep the Cold War out of Africa. In fact, at the final National Security Council meeting about Africa, Eisenhower set the tone of Washington’s outreach to the newly independent states by saying, “We must win their hearts and minds.”

After each new African country declared independence, the United States established major bilateral aid programs in short order. As the Ugandan Embassy administrative officer in Kampala, I was responsible for finding housing for 50 new USAID experts involved in health, education, infrastructure, agriculture, and urban planning. They were all assigned as advisers to the different government departments to help plan new investments financed by the international donors. For all of us involved in the process, it was a heady experience.

And as we in the U.S. diplomatic community focused on development initiatives, the new African heads of

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