It was an improbable locus for a superpower collision. But the shape and location, if not the history and social reality, of Angola were being firmly impressed upon the minds of millions of American television viewers. At issue, they learned from the Secretary of State, testifying before a Senate subcommittee on African affairs, was this basic principle: "The Soviet Union must not be given any opportunity to use military forces for aggressive purposes without running the risk of conflict with us."1 Angola was to be the post-Vietnam testing ground of American will and power in the face of the global expansion of a bullish rival whose recently realized military outreach was seen to be leading it toward dangerous adventures.

But why Angola? When Secretary Kissinger attacked Soviet and Cuban intervention on the ground that they had "never had any historic interests" there, many Americans probably wondered, conversely, what their own historic interests in Angola might be.

Outside of the work of a few dozen Protestant missionaries and teachers who offered an heretical world and extra-world view and some basic skills to several hundred Africans in an otherwise rigidly repressed colonial society, there had been little American interest in Angola until very recently.

American coffee drinkers have for the past few years consumed some $100 million of Angola robusta beans each year. And the Gulf Oil Corporation developed a moderately important petroleum find in the Delaware-sized enclave of Cabinda, where it was pumping some 150,000 barrels a day by 1975. The United States, as a rule, subordinated African concerns to larger issues-in Angola's case, the pressure from its NATO ally and the host to U.S. strategic air and naval facilities in the Azores Islands, Portugal. While voicing support for the principle of self-determination, Washington carefully eschewed taking actions that might have sped its achievement in Angola, Mozambique or Guinea-Bissau, for fear of incurring the wrath of the Salazar regime, which maintained doggedly that Portuguese Africa had been indissolubly fused into the Portuguese body politic.

For 14 years, American policymakers paid next to no attention to the small-scale wars for independence being waged by African guerrilla forces in Portugal's African colonies. With the advent of the Nixon Administration in 1969, a major review of American policy toward southern Africa (NSSM 39) concluded that African insurgent movements were ineffectual, not "realistic or supportable" alternatives to continued colonial rule. As a result, American policy became even more Eurocentric. The authors of the interdepartmental policy review, commissioned by then White House adviser Henry Kissinger, questioned "the depth and permanence of black resolve" and "rule[d] out a black victory at any stage." They did not question the depth and permanence of Portuguese resolve. It was a basic miscalculation stemming from faulty intelligence, in both senses of that word.

By the early 1970s there were ample signs that Portugal's days as a Eurafrican power were numbered. Demoralization and defections among the war-worn Portuguese military; economic dislocation and inflation; the massive emigration of 1.5 million job-seekers; and the burgeoning of anti-regime terrorism and sabotage-these were all visible to those with eyes to see. But when in April 1974 Portugal's armed forces overthrew the government of Salazar's successor, Marcello Caetano, the American government stood surprised, and embarrassed by its close ties to the ancien régime. The debacle of our subsequent involvement in Angola flows from the same propensity to view what is happening there through the distorting lens of a larger strategic concern-this time a global shoving match with the Soviet Union.


The coup in Lisbon freed the United States from the millstone of an awkward alliance. But Washington was slow to rejoice. Alternating between despair and truculence, a preoccupied Secretary of State fretted over the danger of a communist takeover in Portugal but conveyed little sense of enthusiasm for the new opportunity presented to identify with the aspirations of new forces coming to power in Portugal and its soon-to-be-liberated wards. In failing to do so, he left the United States caught up in the consequences of its past actions and inactions. There was a quality of foreboding and fatalism in Washington's response, attributable in part, no doubt, to the fact of having been aligned with a two-continent loser while it was still stuck with a lost cause of its own in Southeast Asia.

In Angola, Lisbon saw its authority slip away in late 1974. Three competing insurgent movements, accorded exclusive political legitimacy by Portugal's new military regime, fought for political and military power. In Mozambique and Guinea-Bissau a single nationalist movement had gained revolutionary ascendancy and become the logical recipient of transferred authority. But in Angola, though at given times a particular movement seemed to be on the verge of eclipsing its rivals and emerging as the dominant force, none ever succeeded. And with the total collapse of Portuguese authority during 1975, the three-way contest among them offered obvious enticements to outside intervention. In its quest for "stability," it would have seemed logical for Washington to turn to preventive diplomacy to muster external support for the cause of a unified Angolan government reflecting all interests. Instead, it chose policies that exacerbated Angolan divisions.

The deep schisms separating Angola's three insurgent groups were partly ethnic in origin and partly the result of Portuguese policy. In the 1950s, the government of Premier Antonio Salazar had rooted out and destroyed individuals and groups in the colonies suspected of nationalistic sympathies. As a consequence, surviving nationalist movements shared common weaknesses. Their leadership ranks would have been thin in any case, coming as they did from the politically aware portions of a tiny elite (only one to five percent of the population were literate). But they were additionally handicapped by travel restrictions, police harassment and lack of funds. Their ranges of action, life-spans and political vision were limited. Thus they remained parochial; most were unable fully to transcend the bounds of primary ethnic or regional loyalties, or of class and racial ties.

Clandestinity left its mark. Decimated by infiltrations and corroded by the insecurities and tensions of underground politics, nationalists became obsessively distrustful. Subsequent years in exile only reinforced mutual suspicions.

During the years of insurgency that followed upon the outbreak of fighting in 1961, Angolan nationalist movements were never able to overcome their constricted origins and harsh conditioning. Less effective than their counterparts in Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique, they spent much of their energy fighting one another. Each of Angola's three major ethno-linguistic communities had produced a major liberation movement with a separate army and separate sources of external support. A look at their origins and history is important:

FNLA. The genesis of and basic support for the FNLA (National Front for the Liberation of Angola) came from within the 600,000 to 700,000-strong Bakongo community of northern Angola. Subsequent to the outbreak of fighting in 1961, up to 400,000 Bakongo war refugees poured north across the border where they joined ethnic kin in the Bakongo regions of the Bas-Zaïre. Added to an already sizable population of Angolan emigrés, whom the comparatively favorable economic and social conditions of the Belgian Congo had long attracted northward, these refugees effectively comprised a transplanted political constituency. They also helped to lodge the FNLA firmly within the confines of the Zaïrean political system.

Under the leadership of Holden Roberto, a Bakongo emigré politician schooled and socialized in the Belgian Congo, the FNLA became, over time, largely an extension or branch of Zaïrean politics. Operating from a secure exile base, Roberto concentrated on military action, giving only minimal attention to matters of political education, organization and strategic planning. And when his movement met with reverses in the face of Portuguese counterinsurgency, he relied on a combination of exile sanctuary and isolated forest redoubts in northern Angola to survive. Politico-military reverses (in 1964 and 1970) sparked mutinies and defections, especially among non-Bakongos, within the FNLA. Over time, Roberto eliminated potential rivals, centered authority in his person and relied on a coterie of mostly Bakongo aides to keep the comparatively unstructured FNLA functioning.

From 1973 onward, the FNLA was the recipient of material assistance from the Chinese as well as the services of a 120-man training mission headed by a Chinese major-general. Enjoying a considerable numerical and material superiority, thanks to Zaïre, FNLA troops occupied the northern Uíge and Zaïre districts of Angola and forced out all MPLA and UNITA rivals along with some 60,000 Ovimbundu farmworkers who fled southward to their Bailundu home country. As a movement, the FNLA entered the 1975 power struggle for control of independent Angola from a position of military but not political strength.

UNITA. The result of a 1964 split within the FNLA, UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola) derived fundamentally from a second ethno-linguistic stream of nationalism. Its leadership came largely from among the well over two million Ovimbundu of the central Benguela plateau. Under the direction of Roberto's one-time chief lieutenant, Swiss-educated Jonas Savimbi, UNITA lost its one contiguous exile base in 1967 when it ran afoul of internal Zambian politics. Making a virtue of necessity, Savimbi then shifted all UNITA operations inside the country, maintaining only tenuous outside linkages through an information office in London. Savimbi, who had visited Peking and been received by Mao Tse-tung in 1964, adopted a highly self-reliant strategy emulating the Chinese. And the latter, in turn, extended a modicum of training, financial support and publicity. But with only a trickle of material aid coming through Zambia, UNITA forces undertook to seize their weapons locally, quoting Mao to the effect that in any case the enemy should be the "principal source" of guerrilla arms. Reflective of Sino-Soviet competition, UNITA denounced the "modern revisionism" of those (the Soviets) who armed its chief rival, the third insurgent group, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). And for its part, the MPLA, whose guerrillas in the early 1970s outgunned and outnumbered UNITA roughly 4,500 to 800 in the eastern Angola zones of insurgency, sought with possibly more dedication (though no more success) than the Portuguese to wipe out UNITA. Indeed, in order to survive, UNITA may have occasionally collaborated with the Portuguese.

When the colonial regime collapsed, UNITA promptly dropped its Maoist rhetoric and adopted a conciliatory posture deemed appropriate to changed circumstances: Savimbi had considerable success in cultivating local European support-which became a counter-weight to FNLA and MPLA external backing-until, with the mid-1975 collapse of all central authority, his new allies fled en masse.

MPLA. Led by a Portuguese-educated Mbundu physician, Dr. Agostinho Neto, the MPLA was spawned in a third ethno-linguistic bailiwick, the city of Luanda and its hinterland of some 1.3 million Mbundu (Kimbundu-speaking) people. For years the MPLA was consistently denied operational bases in Zaïre. It had, therefore, been unable to develop the military potential of its beleaguered partisans in the interior north of Luanda. Instead, from bases in the more marginal contiguous states of Congo-Brazzaville and Zambia, it had organized incursions into the oil-rich enclave of Cabinda and, most tellingly, into the vast grasslands of eastern Angola.

The MPLA's leadership is more urban, intellectual, socialist, and racially mixed than that of the other two movements, and its uneducated rank and file includes the inhabitants of city slums (musseques) as well as the rural Mbundu. Like the FNLA and UNITA, however, the MPLA has remained a captive of its ethnic origins. Whereas its principal theater of military operations from 1966 on, eastern Angola, was inhabited by a variety of peoples-Chokwe, Luena, Luchazi, Bunda-its top leadership remained largely what it had always been: Mbundu and mixed-descent or mestiço. Unlike Roberto, who never ventured from exile into Angola during 13 years of insurgency, Neto and other MPLA officials did make occasional sorties into the fighting zones. But they were not able to weave together a cohesive multi-ethnic movement. And in 1973 the principal organizer of the MPLA's eastern campaign, a fiery Ochimbundu, Daniel Chipenda, broke with Neto and led several thousand followers into dissidence-and eventual (February 1975) alliance with Holden Roberto. At the time of the Portuguese coup, guerrillas loyal to Neto numbered as few as 3,000.

Also attacked by a group of largely mestiço intellectuals led by the MPLA's former honorary president, Father Joachim Pinto de Andrade, for allegedly authoritarian, secretive "presidentialism," Agostinho Neto, like Roberto, owed his survival to external support. For over a decade exclusive recipient of Soviet and East European training and arms, the MPLA, under his leadership, had also been closely associated with the Portuguese Left. Thus after the coup, it enjoyed a preferred position within the councils of Portugal's Armed Forces Movement as well as in communist and socialist circles. The acculturated, lusophile nature and Portuguese linkages of the MPLA's leadership were reflected in prominent political roles in the movement for mestiços, and symbolized by Dr. Neto's own marriage to a Portuguese woman. (Roberto, incidentally, helped to solder his ties with Zaïre by leaving his first wife, a Bakongo, and marrying President Mobutu Sese-Seko's sister-in-law.) And thus it was that Portugal's new government of the Left disallowed an agreement between Mobutu and short-term Provisional President António de Spínola in September 1974 that would have eliminated Dr. Neto and his Luanda/Mbundu-based "loyalists" from political competition by recognizing Daniel Chipenda's dissidents as the "real" MPLA. Dr. Neto thus cashed in on his prestige among Portuguese political and military figures.


From the coup until the end of 1974, the Portuguese moved steadily in the direction of independence for Angola and attempted to lead Angola's nationalists, molded as they were in clandestinity, exile and rebellion, onto the unfamiliar terrain of legal, electoral competition. In so doing they sought to accomplish what a long series of conciliation initiatives by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and its members had not. In early 1975, the Portuguese brought together the three leaders of the liberation movements, first at Mombasa and then at Alvor in Portugal, and an accord was announced under which the three liberation movements would participate with the Portuguese in a Transitional Government that would operate until the outright grant of independence on November 11, 1975.

Already, however, the situation was not particularly hopeful. In mid-1974 the FNLA had received from China hundreds of tons of arms as well as Chinese instructors. It enlisted several thousand recruits, all in Zaïre, which was of course already involved in equipping and training Roberto's army of some 15,000 headquartered at its Kinkuzu base in Bas-Zaïre. Thus the FNLA achieved apparent military primacy, with the Chinese assistance for the avowedly non-socialist FNLA apparently motivated by a desire to humble Leonid Brezhnev, and to please Mobutu and acquire influence as they had in East Africa.

In October or November 1974, the Soviets themselves resumed modest arms shipments to the MPLA-a move perhaps triggered, more than anything else, by the unpleasant prospect of seeing their global rival for influence among revolutionaries, China, assist the movement of her choice to a military victory. Actually, prior to the April coup the Soviets had cut off their help to the MPLA because of its debilitating internal feuds and schisms. According to some reports, they even briefly helped the Chipenda faction before restoring relations with Neto, who had-due largely to support in Luanda-Catete and to Portuguese aid-eventually secured his leadership role over a badly weakened movement.


This was the situation in January 1975 as the U.S. government, apparently for the first time since the coup, came seriously to grips with the question of what posture and actions to take. That the three movements were still sharply divided was apparent. With the existence of a secessionist movement in Cabinda, a four-way partition (Cabinda, Bakongo, Mbundu, Ovimbundu) after a cruel conflict was one possible scenario. There was also considerable conjecture about a possible FNLA-UNITA alliance aimed at shutting out the MPLA-an uneasy two-party coalition which would probably face chronic violence from an MPLA gone underground.

One observer of the scene noted presciently in this magazine a year ago that "Angola at this point is an open and inviting area for outside influence"-but went on to implicitly minimize the possibility of U.S. involvement, saying that: "The Angola situation could present great-power difficulties only if either China or Russia massively steps up assistance to its ally and the other then reacts."2 At this point, early in 1975, the United States might have acted expeditiously to forestall competition with the Soviets, modestly improve its diplomatic position in Africa, and even to encourage conciliation in Angola. In particular, the United States might have mustered its diplomatic forces and encouraged the OAU to take up a continuing role as political arbiter, thereby minimizing the hazards of large-scale external intervention. Although nominal Portuguese sovereignty remained, this had been no bar to OAU efforts in the past, and it seems likely that the Portuguese attitude would have been favorable. Whether OAU arbitration would have been successful or not is by now a moot point. The United States could in any case have made clear its commitment to a foundation stone of African unity-resistance to outside intervention-and thereby created real political difficulties for a Soviet intervention as well as gaining needed diplomatic credit in an area of the world where we have little.

Instead, as we now know, just as the Alvor Accord was being hammered out, the National Security Council's "40 Committee" authorized a covert American grant of $300,000 to the FNLA, the movement with the largest army and the one most disposed to follow a military rather than a political strategy. Curiously, the 40 Committee declined to help UNITA, whose strategy was the most political of the three, since it depended on the prospect of electoral strength among the more than two million Ovimbundu and 325,000 Europeans, not upon external military help. Apparently past connections, and an irrepressible habit of thinking in terms of "our team" and theirs," enticed the Administration into choosing one side.

Almost at once, rumors of "heavy continuing CIA support for the FNLA" became "very prevalent in Luanda," although they were denied by American officials.3 And others, surely including Soviet intelligence, detected a new rash of conspicuous spending by the FNLA in Zaïre.4 Although apparently intended, in U.S. government thinking, for "political purposes" and to fortify the FNLA in its hitherto neglected political area, this American action was wide open to different interpretation by the Soviet Union and other parties.

As the spring of 1975 advanced, FNLA troops that had moved into Angola from Zaïre, accompanied by some elements of the Zaïrean Army, began attacking MPLA units in Luanda and areas to the north. At the same time, the Soviets began smuggling in large shipments of AK-47 rifles, machine guns, bazookas, and rockets via Brazzaville and Pointe Noire to points along the Angolan coast. Holden Roberto purchased Luanda's largest daily, A Provincia de Angola, and a television station and tried to implant his movement in the capital. But Luanda was the MPLA's bailiwick, and the largely Mbundu populace of its teeming musseques, newly armed with Soviet guns, reacted violently to FNLA intrusion. As military encounters increased, a group of some 50 MPLA militants were wantonly slaughtered by FNLA soldiers; by early July the MPLA military had forced the last FNLA units as well as UNITA supporters from the city and the Transitional Government collapsed.

From March to July, fighting and Soviet arms shipments increased in tandem. Perhaps, as the Administration now asserts, the Soviet arms shipments were a major escalatory move. If so, they seemed at the time not an unreasonable response to Roberto's own escalation-and in any event were almost certainly encouraged by the continuing desire to head off the Chinese, a motive that never seems to have been taken into account in Washington.

By the time the government did fold, after one last effort at mediation and reconciliation by Kenya's President Jomo Kenyatta in June, the areas occupied by FNLA and MPLA forces accorded closely to the map of their respective ethnic followings. There were two notable exceptions: MPLA troops operating from bases in the Congo Republic took effective control of Cabinda in June; and MPLA partisans were active in a number of southern ports which were urban centers of relatively high political consciousness and sizable mestiço communities-here the MPLA took control by mid-September. UNITA was left predominant in the densely populated Benguela highlands, home of the Ovimbundus.

In January 1976 Secretary Kissinger recalled how the situation had appeared to the Administration. "By mid-July," he said, "the military situation radically favored the MPLA." Zaïre and Zambia became "more and more concerned about the implications for their own security," and "turned to the United States for assistance in preventing the Soviet Union and Cuba from imposing a solution in Angola, becoming a dominant influence in south-central Africa, and threatening the stability of the area."5 Washington was sensitive to the importuning of Zaïre, where some $800 million in American investment was threatened by latent internal instability related to a drastic fall in world copper prices, failure to develop agricultural production above pre-independence levels and the conspicuous affluence and vanities of a governing elite-none of which was attributable to the Soviets but all of which enhanced their capacity for mischief. And President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia had reportedly warned privately of Soviet designs on Angola during a visit to Washington the previous April.

Rather than multilateral or détente diplomacy, the U.S. response was to provide military assistance to the FNLA and UNITA forces through neighboring black African countries. In order to avoid "a public confrontation" with Congress, in July, the Administration mounted a covert program to beef up the FNLA and UNITA that according to the official reckoning pumped over $30 million in military hardware to the FNLA and UNITA by the end of 1975.6

Given the circumstances, American action and reaction seemed almost designed to provoke the Russians into seeking maximum advantage. Because the Soviet Union's outreach as a superpower is more military than economic, and because its capacity to intervene is essentially unconstrained by democratic accountability, there might have been every reason to conclude that the Soviets would enjoy an advantage in the event of an Angola war by proxy. One would have thought that the President and Secretary of State would have perceived, as the Soviet leadership must have, that an American public chastened and disillusioned by a lost war in Vietnam would not tolerate even a very modest involvement in another distant, unfathomable, civil conflict.


In August, Cuban and Soviet personnel-presumably technicians and military instructors-began appearing in Angola. In late October, as the date for independence drew near and the remnants of Portugal's army departed for home, Cuban forces began to arrive in greater numbers.

Even more serious, however, was what took place on the side the United States was backing. In late October, partly in response to the desperate straits of an underarmed UNITA, South Africa intervened. A "mystery column" marching north from out of Namibia (South West Africa), led by white South Africans, Portuguese and assorted mercenaries equipped with Panhard armored cars and helicopter "gunships," quickly pushed the MPLA out of the southern half of the country toward the region of its own Mbundu home country north of Novo Redondo. With the advantage of surprise, this southern interventionary force, which came to include some 1,200 South African Army regulars, reversed military fortunes for a time.

By November 11, when the Portuguese High Commissioner folded his flag and set sail for Lisbon and no other nations or multilateral organizations stepped forward to mediate, armed force had become the sole determinant of Angola's future. That day, in Luanda, the MPLA announced the creation of a People's Republic of Angola. The Soviet Union and its associates recognized it immediately, and ships and huge Antonov 22 transport planes began disgorging tons of sophisticated arms at Luanda and Henrique Carvalho, including Soviet T54 and T34 tanks. Most telling were the 122-mm rockets that tore holes in the FNLA military front that had been pressing in on Luanda from Caxito some 30 miles to the north. And at this point the "other side" played their ace, in the form of Cuban combat troops sent partly from the Middle East and partly from Cuba itself. As of late February, an estimated 11,000 Cuban combat troops were in Angola, and American officials were placing the value of Soviet material input over the previous 11 months at about $300 million.

Had the Ford Administration attempted to arrest this escalating arms race with the Soviets between the time when it first became alarmed over Soviet involvement in March 1975 and the point of no return marked by Angolan independence in November? According to the Secretary of State himself, it was only at the eleventh hour in October that the United States made any "overtures" to the Soviet Union. Nor is there any reason to believe that, after having made its own January 1975 decision to provide covert assistance to the FNLA, the U.S. government sought either to constrain its client from trying to impose its dominance by force of arms or to allay Moscow's possible misgivings in this regard. Moscow was left to draw its own conclusions about American intentions. In the Angolan circumstances a policy of tit for tat with no communication was doomed to failure.

Why were there no attempts at preventive diplomacy? Why no signal to the Soviets that the United States would be willing to use its influence to safeguard a role for the MPLA in the Transitional Government on a basis of reciprocity? Why did the Administration fail to convey to Moscow-and other interested parties-strong American backing for an inclusive coalition rather than the imposition of any movement by force? And as Soviet weaponry began appearing in Luanda and elsewhere, why did the Secretary of State not sense that the United States would be at a comparative disadvantage playing a "covert game of soldiers" and alert Moscow to his concern for the future of Soviet-American relations?

The answer given by Administration sources is that the United States lacked "bargaining chips." Until it had built up a countervailing force to that of the reorganized and rearmed MPLA, it could not usefully converse with the Russians. And since according to Secretary Kissinger what mattered was not "America's modest direct strategic and economic interests in Angola," but only the "massive foreign intervention," it had to be met in kind.

To insist upon defining the Angolan issue in global terms to the exclusion of local and regional terms, however, was to exclude the most plausible means of remedying the conditions which had attracted foreign intervention in the first place. And to insist that the only "chips" were military chips was to play from the weakest suit in the American hand. The accompanying notion that one should not communicate intentions and concerns but should allow free rein for others to miscalculate and take reckless risk defies any definition of sensible diplomacy. It betrays an obsessional, self-defeating preoccupation with superpower global antics reminiscent of the grimmest days of the cold war.

It was, then, in January-or at the latest in July-that it became imperative for the United States to suggest to Moscow the formula actually proffered in October, a readiness to "use our influence to bring about the cessation of foreign military assistance and to encourage an African solution if they would do the same." (What, one wonders, ever happened to the "hot line"?)

But the offer needed to be made not just to the Soviets-as though they were the only real actors in the play. The U.S. Administration ought at one or both of these earlier dates to have called in the OAU ambassadors and contacted key African leaders-encouraging collective African initiatives and promising U.S. support for them.


By late 1975, as MPLA/Cuban troops got the upper hand in Angola, the apparent tie between the United States and South Africa both destroyed the possibility of collective African support for a compromise solution and undermined the frail and limited acquiescence of those Senators and Congressmen who had been informed, in accordance with a 1974 law, of the covert actions the United States had been taking since July. When the issue came to a head in December, a phalanx of alarmed Senators, sensing a congruence of conscience and a promising election-year issue, derailed the escalation train by voting 54 to 22 to ban further covert aid to Angola. Although Secretary Kissinger promised to continue to "resist" the Soviet effort to "impose its own brand of government" on Angola, how he proposed to "resist" was unclear as the House of Representatives followed the Senate in January 1976 in voting 323 to 99 not to provide him with the "trivial sums," the "tens of millions of dollars" with which he proposed to bolster FNLA-UNITA forces and induce a military stalemate propitious for a negotiated settlement. The Secretary of State compounded his credibility problem by renouncing his remaining leverage with the Soviet Union-ruling out a delay in negotiations on a Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty or a moratorium on massive grain sales to the Soviet Union.

The hapless, would-be beneficiaries of American policy themselves perceived its weakness. In their view, the United States neither persuaded the Soviet Union to moderate its role in the conflict nor provided anti-Soviet forces with enough assistance to be successful. Instead, American rhetoric about a global Soviet threat was counter-productive. As FNLA leader Johnny Eduardo put it: "Whenever [Ford or Kissinger] bang their fists on the table against our enemies, the Russians take them seriously and increase military aid to the MPLA. The Americans don't match this by aid to us." Indeed, American policymakers seemed intent upon escalating the consequences of not doing something after they knew that nothing would be done.

Moreover, when South Africa marched north in October, all remaining hope of a unified African stance in opposition to outside intervention disappeared, as states such as Nigeria and Tanzania, previously critical of Soviet intervention, rallied to the cause of the MPLA. In Nigeria, a major source of American oil imports, the press assailed alleged U.S.-South African collusion, the government gave $20 million to the MPLA, and a crowd stoned the American Embassy in Lagos. Anxious and divided over how to respond to the intrusion of white-ruled South Africa, African leaders assembled at an extraordinary OAU summit meeting in Addis Ababa on January 10-12, 1976, but collectively they were able to do little more than prevent the complete breakup of their regional association. While Senegal and the Ivory Coast (the latter extended landing rights to South African Airways in the midst of the Angolan crisis) reportedly joined Zaïre and Zambia in urging the South Africans not to pull out of Angola in advance of the meeting, Guinea-Conakry threatened to lead a walkout of the organization if it did not recognize the Luanda government of the MPLA and condemn South African intervention. In a 22 to 22 standoff the meeting left the OAU and Africa more divided and vulnerable than ever. Shortly afterward, the organization did recognize the MPLA, after a majority of members had done so.

The point is not that Africans welcomed intervention from any quarter. Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda praised China for her prudent withdrawal from active involvement on the eve of Angola's independence. The point is rather that because of the powerful racial symbolism of South Africa its intervention had had a convulsive effect among Africans, overriding anxieties related to Soviet and Cuban intervention.


All disclaimers notwithstanding, the United States fell here into a double trap. In addition to its de facto alliance with South Africa, it also overreacted to the harsh rhetoric and socialist advocacy of a Marxist-influenced liberation movement by identifying it as the "enemy." Responding to the MPLA as a Soviet pawn rather than a discrete, if blemished, African reality, Washington then wagered against it in a losing contest with the Soviets. The only way to extricate itself from this bind-and it becomes increasingly difficult to do so after national "honor" has been committed and what was a marginal concern has become a test of national "manhood"-is to respond in ways appropriate to the African scene. Continued adherence to a confrontational mode can only increase the likelihood that Angola will become a Soviet dependency.

Today, the possibility that the MPLA might respond to American overtures for direct discussions derives, ironically, from what President Ford has described as the "tragic" action of the Senate. MPLA officials seized upon the occasion of visits by congressional aides and journalists to Luanda to convey their (a) readiness to welcome the Gulf Oil Corporation back to the Cabindan oil fields that it had left under U.S. government pressure; (b) recognition of the importance of Western markets for their oil, iron, coffee, diamond and other exports; and (c) willingness to make a constitutional undertaking not to allow any "foreign power to establish bases" on Angolan territory. Freed from the constraints of global obsession, U.S. policymakers might find that flexibility, time and flux would erode transient Soviet advantage. And, above all, with regained credibility the United States might join African states in urging the MPLA to create a truly national government that reaches out to bring in all ethnic communities and regions of the country.

By exploring possibilities of economic and technical cooperation based on the principle of mutuality of interests, the United States might also help create a climate in which the MPLA is less likely to take harsh retaliatory action against vanquished adversaries and vulnerable neighbors. Zambia and Zaïre need access to the Benguela railroad to export their copper and they will have to come to terms with the new government there-and exert their own efforts to preserve their own internal stability. Indeed, limited American cooperation with Angola is today the best way for the United States to help the very African nations which urged its 1975 intervention.

All this may yet serve to remedy what was the most fundamental weakness of U.S. policy toward Angola. For if the American response to the Angolan crisis on a global level was inept, its total disregard for the realities of African politics was even more crucial. Washington misjudged the character and capabilities of Angolan nationalist movements, jeopardized the future of regimes it sought to support (Zambia and Zaïre), and contributed to a further weakening of Africa's aggregate capacity to mount sanctions against external intervention.

Above all, American policy failed completely to reckon with the negative importance of South Africa in African politics. The more the United States came to depend on tacit cooperation with South Africa to stem Soviet penetration, the more the United States opened the way to Soviet intervention by removing the risk of united African opposition.

In the Angolan case, it is undoubtedly true that UNITA had welcomed the South African intervention. Moreover, it appears that Zaïre and Zambia, both economically dependent on South Africa, secretly encouraged South African intervention, although neither could afford politically to acknowledge this. Nonetheless, what is clear to Africans is that South Africa acted very largely in response to its own agenda: an opportunity to mount search-and-destroy operations against insurgents of the South West African People's Organization (SWAPO), who had been raiding across the Namibian border; and a chance to work for the installation of a "moderate" government in Angola, thus furthering Pretoria's policy of "détente" or diplomatic accommodation with pragmatic black neighbors.

Just what the communications between Washington and Pretoria may have been is not clear. It is alleged that much of the (faulty) intelligence upon which decisions were made in the Angolan affair came from the CIA's "close liaison with the South African security service," which itself would have a vested interest in a larger American involvement.7 Although Mr. Kissinger has asserted it was "untrue" that there had been any U.S. "collusion" with South Africa, "high officials" in Pretoria have announced that South Africa's entry into Angola was made on the basis of an "understanding" with American officials that the United States would rush sufficient supplies to counterbalance the weapons superiority of the MPLA/Cuban forces, and have expressed particular disappointment at Secretary Kissinger's inability to make good on his promises. At the very least the United States connived at the South African intervention and sought to cooperate with it.

The result, inevitably, has been to associate the United States even more closely with South Africa, in what seems to Africans to be a de facto alliance based on a shared global perspective superimposed upon Africa. Together, South Africa and the American Administration appear to have viewed Soviet involvement in Angola as a threat to "moderate" governments in neighboring states, and to the status quo in white-ruled Namibia, Rhodesia and South Africa, as well as to what Secretary Kissinger terms "international equilibrium." The self-perception of South Africa's dominant Afrikaner elite as an outpost of white-Christian civilization standing against the rapacious forces of a liberal/communist world conspiracy fits well with and presumably reinforces Kissinger's own pessimistic views. African nationalists, denied Western assistance, are then defined in terms of their foreign assistance-and identified as "the Soviet-backed" this, and "Chinese-backed" that. The South West African People's Organization, for example, a movement founded by Ovambo migrant workers in Cape Town in the 1950s, is portrayed as a communist tool. Mixed with this distorted perception is the wishful South African assumption that economic and military power far outweigh the racial variable in setting the terms of South Africa's relations with black Africa.

In short, the Angolan experience now suggests that an informal Washington-Pretoria alliance is by no means an alarmist fantasy. The degree of practical cooperation and above all the apparent confluence of strategic thinking have deepened the American association with South Africa in a new and disturbing way.


Accepting the fact that its prestige and credibility in Africa, at least, have hit a new low, the United States must salvage what it can from the Angolan fiasco. In the process it would do well to learn some lessons from its experience. First, to define our interests in Africa simply in terms of the presence or absence of Soviet intervention only serves to increase the danger of intervention and to do grievous harm to those we would help. In contrast, the success of Soviet policy is largely attributable to the prominence of an assessment of African reality and sentiment. Second, the United States has to reconcile itself to the fact that supportive association with the previous colonial regime left its post-coup interest in Angolan independence suspect and unconvincing to many Africans.

The long-term U.S. miscalculation, which was premised on the longevity of European rule, proved a costly error. But the significance of this faulty vision, which discounted African and overestimated European capabilities, may be of even greater moment if it also proves to reflect an unconscious racial bias. American policymakers may also underestimate the extent to which 25 million black Americans share a latent identity with the disenfranchised black millions of white-ruled southern Africa. The unprecedented anxiety and confusion with which black Americans responded to the Angolan crisis is only a portent of what the response might be when the clear-cut, black-white issues of Namibia, Rhodesia and South Africa come to the fore. For reasons of domestic peace as well as relations with Africa, the United States cannot afford to allow either racial bias or the Soviet Union to push it into alliances with embattled white minority regimes attempting to maintain a privileged status quo from which we continue to enjoy economic profit. It is crucial that the United States dissociate itself from the cause of white minority rule and its overt race discrimination in southern Africa.

In this perspective Angola would be but a prelude to Rhodesia, where a regime supported by 275,000 whites is toughing out a pre-doomed rule over nearly 6,000,000 Africans. While the Soviets and Chinese have jockeyed for position as supporter of the winning faction of insurgents, the United States has stood in symbolic violation of U.N. sanctions as it continued to import Rhodesian chrome under the terms of the Byrd Amendment. Whether change will come via insurgency or via a peaceful transfer of power as sought by both Zambia and South Africa, it is too late for the United States to do much more than prudently prepare to deal with any successor government that might come to power. In this regard, Washington must overcome its propensity to take sides.

The rich, industrial core of the whole complex of problems is, of course, South Africa. Whether its setback in Angola has cost it some of its aura of regional invincibility; whether it will respond with quickened efforts to reach accommodation with "moderate" African nationalists in Namibia and speed the formation of small ethnic states (homelands) to provide a kind of vicarious citizenship for some of its disenfranchised African majority; or whether it will become more repressive out of fear of a Soviet-Communist threat from Angola-or a combination of all these-one overriding fact remains. Unless and until South Africa does achieve fundamental internal change it will remain a magnet for trouble. And it is the kind of trouble that the United States should avoid.

Already involved with massive investments ($1.6 billion) and trade ($1.1 billion in U.S. exports in 1974); anxious for continued access to platinum, manganese, vanadium and other metals; implicated, despite a 1964 arms embargo, in agreements to sell enriched uranium suitable for the manufacture of nuclear weapons, as well as "non-lethal dual use" items such as Lear jets and Cessna dual-engine 401s and 402s to the South African Defense Forces; involved in a secret (1971) relaxation of restrictions on the extension of Export-Import Bank facilities to South Africa; and cooperating in the monitoring of the Cape sea route, it will not be easy for the United States to disengage, to dissociate. There could be much argument over the means. But it seems clear that American interests dictate dissociation.

Restraining a propensity for moral posturing and self-righteousness, and avoiding the traps of commitment for or against any partisan solutions-be they "radical, moderate or particularistic"-the United States could achieve the essentials of a constructive policy by adopting some comprehensive guidelines. It should start by concerning itself with such issues as: (1) how visibly, responsibly and convincingly to convert existing American enterprise in South Africa into a force for social change (through wages, fair employment standards, working with black trade unions); and (2) how sensibly to guide or constrict any future capital, science or technological inputs in conformity with universal principles of social justice.

And in many areas of difficult choice, whether, for example, to recognize or extend economic or educational assistance to an "independent homeland," the United States would do best to be guided by the collective judgment of African states as expressed through the OAU. American credibility being a scarce but vital resource, it should be appreciated that the kind of cheating or misleading disclaimers that have surrounded previous dealings with the Portuguese and South African regimes will only further undermine the creative potential of American policy. Only by paying real heed to a responsible consensus of African views can we help to reinforce the African regional strength which is our best hope for avoiding superpower conflict in the area.

The United States must be responsible for the consequences of its own actions and inactions. It cannot control those of others. If the Angolan experience brings home to us the need to base our African policy on African realities; if it alerts us to avoid the traps inherent in our past policies, stimulating a greater willingness to relate to others, however "radical," on a basis of mutuality of interest-then, despite its agonies, it will yet have served us well. More difficult to rationalize will be the cost-in human suffering, death, displacement and destruction-sustained by Angolans.

[Author’s Note:] This article is derived from a segment of the author's contribution, "Southern Africa after the End of Portuguese Rule," to Africa: from Mystery to Maze, ed. Helen Kitchen, Volume XI of a major project of the Commission on Critical Choices for Americans. The 14 volumes of this project will be published in 1976 by Lexington Books, D. C. Heath and Company. All rights reserved. Copyright (c) 1976 by The Third Century Corporation.


1 Testimony of the Secretary of State before the Subcommittee on Africa, Committee on Foreign Affairs, U.S. Senate, January 29, 1976.

3 Ibid., p. 568.

4 Roger Morris, "The Proxy War in Angola: Pathology of a Blunder," The New Republic, January 31, 1976, p. 21.

5 Kissinger Testimony, loc. cit.

6 While the published figure of American arms support to FNLA and UNITA is only $32.3 million, it appears that much of this equipment was undervalued. Senator John Tunney announced in February that data collected by his aides in Angola and elsewhere showed that "American involvement has been much larger and more pervasive than I previously realized or than the Administration has acknowledged."

7 Morris, loc. cit.

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