International competition and political action sometimes appear to be channeled between frail dikes. To put the thought another way, it is as if the seething mass of ambition and potential violence so characteristic of international relationships is contained in quieter times behind a thin shell of a veneer. Once the shell of constraint is broken, subsequent adventures become easier to contemplate. It is for some of these reasons that we should, perhaps, examine how the confines of restraint in Angola were broken through, and whether a different American policy in the period before the Soviet/Cuban intervention in 1975 might have produce a different result.

I served as Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in the spring and summer of 1975, and this is essentially an account of my role during that time. In the January-February 1975 issue of Africa Report, Bruce Oudes wrote that "Davis reportedly was reluctant to assume the new position." He was right. I asked more than once that the appointment not be made. Although my African experience was greater than Mr. Oudes recognized in his article, a regional Assistant Secretary should have very impressive credentials in his geographic area of responsibility. Moreover, I knew that my service from October 1971 to October 1973 as U.S. Ambassador to Chile would complicate matters.1 Lastly, it was clear that the replacement of Donald B. Easum as Assistant Secretary would be widely interpreted as a U.S. withdrawal from Ambassador Easum's commitment to black African aspirations. I pointed out to Secretary of State Kissinger that I had sympathy for a number of Mr. Easum's views as I understood them, and was not confident that I could satisfy him where Easum apparently had not. The Secretary happened to be out of Washington when the question came to a head, and I telegraphed him, saying that the African Bureau was not a responsibility I would seek under the circumstances. However, Foreign Service officers are bound to accept discipline in assignments. In my telegram to the Secretary, I added, therefore, that I would do my best as chief of the African Bureau if the Secretary nonetheless asked me to discharge that assignment. He did, and the nomination was announced on January 8, 1975.

On February 21, 1975, the Ministerial Council of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), meeting in Addis Ababa, passed without vote a consensus resolution questioning what the nomination might portend in light of what was called "the U.S. policy of 'political destabilization' in Latin America." Nevertheless, after public hearings before the Foreign Relations Committee, the Senate confirmed my appointment on March 11, 1975.


Shortly thereafter, William G. Hyland, the Director of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, told me that a $300,000 program of covert support for the veteran Angolan liberation fighter, Holden Roberto, had been approved that past January by the Forty Committee, the top-level review board that passes on covert operations abroad.2 This came as a surprise. While the money was for political action and expenses, and not for arms, I had not been aware that such programs were still being approved in the wake of the congressional investigations and interest in U.S. covert activities abroad. In any case, this was water over the dam.

I was sworn in as Assistant Secretary on April 2, 1975. Shortly thereafter, my colleagues in the African Bureau and I prepared a Staff Study on Angola for the Secretary. It was directed to the developing political situation in Angola and was essentially a status report. However, the Central Intelligence Agency soon posed the question of substantially greater covert support for Holden Roberto and his National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA) and the initiation of support for Jonas Savimbi, the head of the second of the three main Angolan independence movements (UNITA). Savimbi - popular, charismatic, Swiss-educated, and highly energetic - had his roots in the Ovimbundu tribe, the largest in the country, and was probably the most democratically inclined of the Angolan leaders.

The third group, the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), was led by Agostinho Neto, a socialist doctor and poet. It had its tribal support in the region around the capital city of Luanda, its intellectual support among the leftists in the country's civil service and educated mestiço community, and its foreign support from the Soviet Union and other East European states.

I sent a memorandum on the Savimbi movement to the Secretary on May 1, 1975. That memo pointed out that Mr. Savimbi was soliciting arms "everywhere," and added that "the wide knowledge of Savimbi's solicitations and subventions make me skeptical that U.S. support could long be kept secret." It expressed concern about a possible link between Savimbi and South Africa, cautioning that "the South Africans have expressed interest in providing financial assistance." The conclusion was:

If the major actors [in Angola] settle on Savimbi, that might be the best solution. However, signs are multiplying that Angola is moving toward a violent dénouement.

If we launch a program of covert support for Savimbi, I think we must reckon with probable disclosure. At most we would be in a position to commit limited resources, and buy marginal influence. . . . We might find ourselves drawn in deeper very fast, as the fighting produces more intense pressures for arms and ammunition - as well as money. The political price we might pay - as reports of bloodshed and alleged atrocities multiply - would, I believe, exceed the possibility of accomplishment.

Between May 5 and 19, I traveled to five countries in West Africa, calling on chiefs of state, foreign ministers and other leaders, and meeting a wide variety of Africans from all walks of life. In the meantime, the world press headlined that MPLA and FNLA militants had attacked each other's offices with grenades and mortars in Luanda, with a thousand people reported killed during the ensuing fighting. I returned to Washington just in time to chair an interagency NSC Task Force on Angola set up by National Security Council staff directive. We submitted our Report on June 13, 1975.

The Report of the House Select Committee on Intelligence (the Pike Committee) later gave the following account of our conclusions:

The Committee has learned that a task force composed of high U.S. experts on Africa strongly opposed military intervention; instead . . . they called for diplomatic efforts to encourage a political settlement among the three factions to avert bloodshed. Apparently, at the direction of National Security Council aides, the task force recommendation was removed from the report and presented to NSC members as merely one policy option. The other two alternatives were a hands-off policy or substantial military intervention.3

Our Task Force, in its great majority, did favor an effort to achieve a peaceful solution through diplomatic-political measures. The "diplomatic option" would have had us urge Portugal to play a stronger - but impartial - role. We would have encouraged Portugal and influential African governments to press the U.S.S.R. to reduce its support to Agostinho Neto and the MPLA faction. We urged that the U.S. government privately approach the U.S.S.R. or build public pressure to induce the U.S.S.R. to reduce its support of the MPLA or, ultimately, to support or promote a U.N. or OAU mediation effort.

The Task Force's "diplomatic option" favored the United States working in concert with Tanzania, Zambia and Zaïre to reduce the arms flow to Angola. We favored a positive U.S. response to Portugese requests that we approach President Mobutu of Zaïre, and that we give encouragement to Portuguese initiatives directed toward a peaceful solution.

The Task Force saw one of the advantages of a diplomatic-political effort as the chance that the factional competition within Angola might be shifted back toward the political arena, thereby improving FNLA and UNITA prospects and reducing the likelihood of Soviet arms determining the outcome. We believed that such an effort might reduce the danger of big-power confrontation and might further our policy of supporting peaceful solutions on that continent. We felt it would reflect our recognition that Angola was basically an African problem, and that Africans could and should play a major role in an Angolan solution. The Task Force also made the point that such a diplomatic-political initiative would probably elicit congressional and public support in the United States.

Regarding the option of covert military intervention, the Task Force pointed out that such intervention would commit U.S. resources and prestige in a situation the outcome of which was in doubt, and over which we could at best exercise limited influence. The Report also observed that U.S. military intervention might contribute to increased involvement by the Soviet Union and other foreign powers. The Task Force noted that there would be high risk of exposure, and that such exposure would have a negative impact on our relations with other contending factions, with a number of African states, with Portugal, with socialist and Third World countries, and with large segments of the U.S. public and Congress.

The Task Force pointed to the fact that covert military involvement would probably increase the level of violence, with all the foreign and domestic consequences that this would entail for the United States. If widespread tribal or racial massacres should occur - a distinct possibility, it was noted - our support for one or more of the contending forces could become a significant political issue. The Task Force observed that a covert intervention might greatly damage the chances for workable relations with the successor Angolan regime if the MPLA should come to power. The Task Force also discussed the advantages and disadvantages of all options, including drawbacks of the diplomatic-political option and possible advantages of a covert military effort.


Almost immediately after the submission of the Task Force Report in June, I left Washington on a second trip to Africa, traveling this time to four East African countries between June 14 and 29, 1975. By the time I returned, the Angola issue was moving toward decision.

In preparation for an impending Forty Committee meeting, I sent a memorandum on July 12 to the State Department representative on the Committee, Under Secretary Joseph J. Sisco, with a copy to the Secretary. In essence, the memo argued that covert intervention would not serve larger U.S. interests; that an attempted intervention could not be kept secret; and that a covert intervention would have to be so circumscribed as to fall between stools in any case - while the other side could escalate at will. Most of the memo is quoted below, omitting a few sections whose publication might even now complicate our foreign relations.

A Test of World Power? At present we have no irrevocable commitment of U.S. power and prestige in Angola. A Neto Government would be ideologically rather like the Samora Machel Government in Mozambique. We have so far succeeded in avoiding the engagement of our vital interest in Angola and even the accusations of U.S. intervention are sporadic and not a serious political liability.

So far as concrete interests are concerned, Gulfs $300 million stake in Cabinda is the principal one. . . .

If we become engaged under . . . [the specific proposals put forward for covert military intervention] (and developments over this weekend make it clear - if it was not clear before - that . . . [the proposals under consideration] would probably be inadequate), the Soviets will become aware of our decision almost immediately. The CIA paper significantly notes that the "Soviets enjoy greater freedom of action in the covert supply of arm, equipment and ammunition" and "can escalate the level of their aid more readily than we."

I believe the Secretary is right in his conviction - if I understand his views - that if we go in, we must go in quickly, massively and decisively enough to avoid the tempting, gradual, mutual escalation that characterized Vietnam during the 1965-67 period.

Unless we are prepared to go as far as necessary, in world balance of power terms the worst possible outcome would be a test of will and strength which we lose. The CIA paper makes clear that in the best of circumstances we won't be able to win. If we are to have a test of strength with the Soviets, we should find a more advantageous place.

Under the heading, Lack of Tolerance for Error, the memo noted that: "The CIA proposal sets forth an intricately constructed mechanism of covert action in which every part must mesh and work."

The paper then discussed the situation in Zaïre and Zambia. It also commented on Savimbi's forces, noting the limited number of armed and trained men he had at the time of the Portuguese coup in April 1974 and pointing out that his recent recruits "have mostly not been tested or trained with real weapons." Leadership deficiencies and troop weaknesses in the FNLA were also pointed out.4 The July 12 memo continued:

Risks of Disclosure

The CIA paper identified the principal risk of disclosure as in Washington. Besides such risks of compromise as there may be in the Executive Branch, there are certainly high risks in the Congress, where numbers of Senators, Congressmen and staffers must now be briefed - through unstable liaison arrangements.

I believe the CIA paper grossly underestimates the risks of disclosure abroad. The CIA paper itself speaks of . . . [supply] flights to Zaïre. . . . In Angola, "the MPLA is omnipresent." Zaïre, Portugal, Angola, Congo-Brazzaville, Zambia and neighboring territories are infiltrated by a wide variety of agents and operatives of every political color - where money can buy many things. We would have to reveal our plans and arrangements to senior officials of at least four governments or movements. . . . Even the purely external signs on the ground of changed military capabilities would be almost immediately apparent. . . . The risks of discovery are so great as to make compromise virtually certain. And plausible U.S. official denial is no longer the recourse it might once have been thought to be - so the distinction the CIA paper makes between possible disclosure from authoritative or non-authoritative sources loses much significance.

Similarly, the distinction the CIA paper makes between providing arms and the provision of money to buy arms under tutelage does not seem so great as suggested. In any case, time is running out for money subventions. The visible effects on the ground are the same either way. . . .

Legal Aspects

The following are inexpert comments or questions.

For some years the United States has maintained an embargo on arms to the Portuguese territories, under Presidential decision pursuant to authorities granted under the Mutual Security Act of 1954. The Act, as amended by the Foreign Assistance Act of 1973, also requires prompt reports to the Congress of licenses for arms exports; and the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (Section 657) requires an annual report of significant arms exports whether or not under license. Whether CIA-exported arms would be covered, or whether the provisions might be evaded by transfers of arms physically outside of the U.S., is not entirely clear. In any case the long-standing U.S. embargo of arms to the Portuguese territories would be effectively broken.

If Zaïre should transfer FMS or MAP equipment or arms, a new authorizing agreement would have to be signed with the U.S., the recipient would have to be eligible, under Presidential Determination, for FMS and MAP, the recipient would have to sign an agreement with the U.S., and a report would have to be made to the Congress - under penalty of termination of military assistance to Zaïre.

Other Questions

. . . The [CIA] Paper (p. 1) suggests that arming Roberto and Savimbi could "discourage further resort to arms and civil war." So far, the arming of the various factions has fed the civil war, not discouraged it. The Paper gives no clear explanation where the courses of action described will take us, explicitly acknowledging that the anti-Neto forces cannot win militarily, and rather hopefully expressing the view that restoration of some sort of triangular "balance" (which has been the past reality) will produce a peaceful, negotiated, collective solution (which the record in Angola and experience elsewhere in Africa indicate is most unlikely).

. . . The CIA Paper envisages covert CIA-organized military training, organization, orientation and leadership. Apparently the CIA did this with considerable success in the Vietnam highlands and elsewhere in East Asia. It is, however, a line of work that our military establishment has traditionally found professionally within its purview. The idea of organizing mercenary troop leadership from ex-Portuguese and Zaïrian Officers and non-coms has obvious hazards.

Much of what is proposed as a covert political program (pp. 17, 21, 22) would more normally be regarded as in the diplomatic or foreign policy area. Why must all this be covertly executed? It also seems to be a small sum . . . to accomplish the purposes outlined. . . .

I sent another memo to Under Secretary Sisco and the Secretary on the morning of July 14, the day the Forty Committee was to meet to consider the Angola issue. The memo was designed to serve as the basis for a State Department position at the meeting. It was mostly a synthesis of the July 12 memo quoted above, but the final paragraph referred explicitly to the June 13 Report of the Task Force, saying that the diplomatic-political alternative "was favored by most of the agencies participating." The thrust of the diplomatic-political alternative "would be to reduce the infusion of arms and enlist African, Portuguese and multi-lateral influences toward a political solution."

The July 14 Forty Committee meeting was inconclusive. I had asked for the opportunity to attend, but was not invited. Mr. Kissinger had apparently expected me to be there, since, according to word that reached me later, he asked where I was when the meeting convened.

A small ad-hoc working group was then formed to refine the covert action proposal and answer the questions not satisfactorily resolved. I attended two sessions of this working group in the NSC Situation Room in the West Basement of the White House. On July 16, I sent Under Secretary Sisco another memo, with a copy to Mr. Kissinger. It said:

In the four days since my memorandum to you of July 12, the situation in Angola has importantly changed:

- We have evidence the Soviets are introducing more, heavier and more sophisticated weapons. . . .

- The MPLA appears to have accomplished the expulsion of the FNLA from Luanda; substantial numbers of FNLA troops have surrendered their arms and sought Portuguese protection or fled. . . .

- South Africa is reported to be giving Roberto some support.

If it were not true before, it seems clear now that it is unrealistic to think in terms of a program that could be both effective and covert.

On the following day, July 17, I sent Under Secretary Sisco still another memorandum, with a copy to Mr. Kissinger. While continuing to argue against intervention, it also addressed the fall-between-stools argument:

. . . So far as the CIA draft Action Plan is concerned, my view - which I have expressed - is that the measures proposed are inadequate to accomplish the purposes outlined.

The memo then went on to argue against several further interventionist proposals which were not adopted.

The CIA Action Plan was considered once again by the Forty Committee (I believe on July 17); it was given to President Gerald Ford sometime within the next several days; and it was approved. The Secretary assured me afterward that he had described my views fully and clearly to the President and had given the President a copy of my memorandum of July 12 to read.

When I received word that the President had decided to go ahead with the proposed covert action program, I submitted my resignation as Assistant Secretary.5 Mr. Kissinger generously tried to convince me not to resign. I remained firm in my expressed view that I was not the person suited to accomplish the President's and the Secretary's purposes in the African Bureau under the circumstances. In the letter or orally, I said that I would be honored to continue actively serving my country if the President and the Secretary should wish to consider shifting me to other responsibilities abroad, unconnected with the African policy question that had arisen. But I went on to say that I would entirely understand if the President and the Secretary did not wish to consider such a possibility.


Deputy Under Secretary Lawrence S. Eagleburger advised me in a few days that it was the President's and the Secretary's desire that I continue in service. He raised the possibility of my going to Switzerland, where Ambassador Peter Dominick had just retired on account of ill health. I had planned to go on leave during August in any case, and expressed the hope that it would be possible to work out my transfer during the time I was to be away. In particular, the next in a series of Senate Foreign Relations African Subcommittee hearings, an overview on U.S. policy toward southern Africa, was due the following Monday, July 28, 1975. Mr. Eagleburger and I agreed that it would be advisable that I already be on vacation by that date, as my resignation and the reasons for it were not publicly known and a necessity for me to testify could result in disclosures that the Administration wished to avoid, or could result in a public refusal on my part to answer sensitive questions.6

On Labor Day, just before my return to work, the story of my resignation broke in a piece by Murray Marder in The Washington Post. The "cover story" put out by senior officials at the Department was that I had decided that I was "working against too many psychological obstacles" in overcoming African and congressional opposition. Although prepared to bear up with the only possible explanation of my resignation that would not "blow open" the Angola intervention, I must admit that I found the weeks that followed galling. I was entirely willing to acknowledge that the controversy over my appointment in early 1975 made it difficult for me to do the job of Assistant Secretary. But I did believe I had been overcoming these handicaps, both in Africa and at home. My contacts with African leaders, including most of the founder presidents on the continent, had been constructive. Regarding the Black Caucus on Capitol Hill, I found that once the nomination fight was over, its members treated me with generosity and consideration.

In the weeks that followed, I declined to comment on the subject to anyone. In those same weeks I passed from being a very lame duck in the Department to being a student at the Foreign Service Institute, resuscitating my German.

On September 25, 1975, Leslie H. Gelb of The New York Times reported that both "East and West," including the United States, were pouring millions of dollars covertly into Portugal and Angola. The Gelb report continued: " . . . sources said that the funds ear-marked for two anti-Soviet liberation fronts in Angola had been dispersed mainly through President Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaïre. . . . What was learned was that American funds were being used to buy arms for both Mr. Roberto and Mr. Savimbi. . . ."

It was, and still is, a mystery to my why the Gelb report had so little public impact in the United States when it was published. Perhaps this was because the main emphasis was on Portugal - where there was considerable U.S. public approval for covert help to the non-communists - and because Mr. Gelb emphasized Soviet actions in support of the leftists in Angola and linked the United States and the People's Republic of China as opponents of them. In any case, the report came and went without creating a great public uproar.

Covert U.S. aid to Angola surfaced again on November 7-8 when both Mr. Gelb of The New York Times and Walter Pincus of The Washington Post reported that Under Secretary Sisco and CIA Director William E. Colby had defended covert U.S. military assistance to Holden Roberto and Jonas Savimbi in a closed-door appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. I was surprised, once again, by the relative lack of public reaction to these disclosures.

On December 14, 1975, Seymour M. Hersh of The New York Times revealed my opposition to the covert intervention in Angola, the substance of my reasons for it, and its relation to my resignation as Assistant Secretary. This did create a stir. I had been in London at a meeting between Secretary Kissinger and U.S. Ambassadors in Europe when the Hersh story broke. On my arrival back in New York, CBS News was waiting for me at the airport. Although my response to the interview was to say "no comment" about eight times, CBS ran footage of me without sound, adding its own commentary. Peter Lisagor, on the Agronsky television show of December 27, 1975, was asked: "What was the best advice given in 1975?" Mr. Lisagor answered: "Nathaniel Davis' advice to Henry Kissinger."

I do not know whether Mr. Hersh's December 14 story triggered the introduction and Senate passage on December 19 of the Tunney Amendment against further covert aid to Angola. According to reports, Senator Dick Clark and a number of other key members of the Congress had already expressed strong opposition to the involvement in executive session.7 It was also clear by that time that a large and rapidly escalating military and financial commitment would have been necessary to have any hope of blocking an MPLA victory. For whatever reasons, Congress declined to support further covert intervention; in Angola, opposition to the MPLA collapsed.

Virtually everybody has subsequently characterized our Angolan involvement as a costly failure. There has been much argument, however, over where to place the responsibility. The Ford Administration blamed congressional unwillingness to face up to the hard facts of international life and Soviet power. Congressional critics said the Administration's secret policy and the effort to implement it by stealth were doomed from the start.


Besides the ex post facto political debate in the United States about the wisdom or unwisdom of covert military intervention in Angola, and the debate over responsibility for its failure, there has been another controversial issue. This has been over the question of cause and effect, as between the successive outside interventions which occurred. Which side provoked the reaction of the other?

On December 19, 1975, Mr. Hersh of The New York Times revealed the January 1975 Forty Committee decision to give Holden Roberto $300,000 in covert funds. Mr. Hersh wrote that this authorization came

more than two months before the first significant Soviet build-up . . . . The Soviet Union has been involved in Angola since 1956, but according to well-informed American intelligence officials, did not substantially increase its support for one of the liberation armies in Angola until March and April of this year [1975]. At that time at least two shiploads and two planeloads of Soviet war materiel were sent.

The implication of the foregoing and considerable other subsequent comment by critics of the Ford Administration was that the United States made the first move and that the Soviet buildup was a reaction.

Perhaps evidence will come to light in the future showing that the January 1975 Forty Committee decision really did trigger the step-up in Soviet aid and arms supply, but I do not believe the case is made. As already noted, the $300,000 was for political action, not weapons, and only part of the money was expended between January and the Soviet arms buildup of March/April - probably decided upon in Moscow somewhat earlier. Considerable sums of money and quantities of arms were filtering into Angola during that period from a multiplicity of sources and to all three movements.

If one is looking for externally visible actions that might be said to have triggered the Soviet buildup, one should perhaps also consider Holden Roberto's movement of troops into northern Angola and the capital city of Luanda, and the Chinese support for Roberto in 1974-75 which no doubt had an impact on Soviet thinking. By March-April 1975, it was clear that the Alvor Accord - which postulated cooperative administration of the country by all three factions - was breaking down. Moreover, fighting between the FNLA and MPLA escalated sharply during that period.

After March-April of 1975, the difficulty of establishing causality becomes more complicated, rather than less so. Indeed, there had been varying degrees of involvement by most of the major actors even before the 1974-75 time frame. Nevertheless, the major interventions by Cuba, Zaïre and South Africa - and the covert CIA program - all occurred during the latter half of 1975. It may be helpful to take a careful look at the chronological sequence of over a dozen actions by half-dozen intervening powers over that period of about six months. One should bear in mind, however, that the time sequences are not always exactly known, and that cause and effect do not necessarily conform to the time relationships.

July 1975: In the course of the month, 40 to 50 additional Cuban advisers for Neto and the MPLA came to Angola via Congo-Brazzaville.8 In mid-July, President Mobutu of Zaïre sent a commando company and an armored-car squadron across the border and into combat in northern Angola. By then, according to intelligence reports, South Africa was supporting the two factions fighting against the MPLA. In Luanda, the MPLA, strengthened by heavier and more sophisticated weapons supplied by the U.S.S.R., was successfully driving the FNLA from the city. In Washington, the Administration decision in favor of covert military intervention was being made on or about July 17, and concrete implementation followed very quickly.

August 1975: In the second week of August, two additional Zaïrian paratroop companies were committed to action in Angola. At about the same time, South African troops (which may have moved just inside Angola in June) occupied the Cunene Dam complex in southern Angola. The Cuban decision to send combat troops to Angola was being made in Havana, presumably in consultation with Moscow. (The decision in Havana must have been made before the end of August if one considers when troops carried by ship arrived in Africa, as discussed below.)

September 1975: Early in the month, Soviet-made 122-millimeter rockets were committed to battle north of Luanda. In mid-September two more Zaïrian battalions were sent across the border to Angola. By the latter part of September the South Africans were shipping military material to the FNLA and UNITA forces, and had established a training base for the FNLA in southeast Angola. In the latter part of the month, Cuban troops arrived by ship in Pointe Noire (Congo-Brazzaville) and additional Cuban trainers and advisers arrived by air.

October 1975: A South African-led strike force was committed to battle in the latter part of the month and made spectacular advances in south-central Angola. In late October, an additional Zaïrian battalion went south. Cuban troops arrived in greater numbers.

November-December 1975: In the first days of November, a mixed Angolan-Zaïrian force moved against Cabinda, which was successfully defended by MPLA troops reinforced by Cuban advisers. Americans were evacuated, and the American Consulate General closed on November 3, eight days before the Portuguese retired and the MPLA proclaimed Angolan independence in the capital. FNLA forces were advancing south toward Luanda, and the South African-led column was rolling north. The Cuban airlift stepped up to as many as five troop flights a week, and there was an increased Cuban sealift. Cuban troops were soon committed to battle in large numbers and threw back the advancing columns on the north and south.

January 1976: By the latter part of the month, there were 10,000 to 12,000 Cuban troops fighting in Angola, backed by increasingly sophisticated Soviet weaponry. The FNLA-Zaïrian forces in the north gave way; the South Africans in the south withdrew; and UNITA was overwhelmed in the sense of conventional combat.

Does the foregoing chronology answer the question of which side caused the other to intervene? This depends, to some extent, on the perspective of the beholder. Angolan spokesmen and Fidel Castro have their answer: it was South African "aggression and invasion" that triggered the Cuban military intervention.9 However, if this refers to the South African-led strike force that rolled across south-central Angola in October, it must be noted that Cuban troops had been sent to Angola considerably earlier. It could be true that large-scale commitment of Cuban troops to battle was a reaction to the South African-led strike, but the speed and size of the commitment suggest that the troops would have been used if needed in any case.

There is little question that smaller-scale South African involvement in Angola preceded the dispatch of large numbers of Cuban troops from the Caribbean; but small-scale Cuban intervention preceded South African involvement.

The Soviets and Cubans were no doubt aware of both the U.S. covert intervention of July-August 1975 and the open incursions by Zaïre before the final decision was made to dispatch large numbers of Cuban troops - if one accepts the probability that this decision was made in August. On the other hand, the massive escalation in the supply of Soviet weapons antedated the U.S. covert intervention of July-August 1975 and the open incursions by Zaïre.

So the answer seems to be that the escalations mutually produced counter-escalations. One would have to go much further back to find the original intervention. Colonialism preceded the Soviet commitment to support "national liberation" movements, by means judged differently by the interested parties and observers. NATO imperatives influenced U.S. policy toward the Portuguese colonies in ways which compromised our policy alternatives in Africa. None of the major actors entered the drama of 1975 unencumbered by the baggage of the past. Nobody can make a very good claim to have been uninvolved until provoked.


It is obvious that the United States made mistakes. Judging from the results, the substantive decisions made were wrong somehow - at some times and at some places in the structure of power in America. Perhaps not only the substance but also the machinery and policymaking processes were flawed in ways which should carry some lesson.

So far as the processes were concerned, my perspective is better than some, but partial at best. I shall not presume to comment on the interaction between President Ford and Secretary Kissinger. My struggle was for some impact on the Secretary's mind, and I cannot complain on that score. Perhaps it was a weakness in our system that Secretary Kissinger's intellect and will so dominated the Department of State. But I am not so sure. In many ways it was also our strength in those times.

As for the substance of the decisions made, it has remained a mystery to me why the Secretary was so determined to push ahead on a course which I thought was so clearly destined to fail. I shall not attempt to speak for the Secretary - as he will undoubtedly give his own account of the Angolan intervention. I hope I understand the depth of his conviction that it was dangerous to permit the Soviet Union to conclude that détente placed restraints only on America, and that the Third World was fair game, unlinked to the totality of our relationship. Both during the final weeks of the Vietnam War and during the Angolan crisis of 1975, the Secretary and the President seem to have believed that it was better to roll the dice against the longest of odds than to abandon the competition against our great adversary. The Secretary would freely acknowledge, I believe, that he saw Angola as part of the U.S.-Soviet relationship, and not as an African problem.

The foregoing argument is part of the greater question whether containment is a doctrine of universal, inherently interrelated worldwide applicability, or should be limited in the military sense to interests in Western Europe and a few other places which we regard as vital.

The strategic world overview of U.S. policy is the responsibility of the President and the Secretary of State. Necessarily, my focus and argument had to be on a different level. The question I was principally addressing in my memos to the Secretary was whether covert intervention in Angola could work. This issue also led to larger questions, of course, connected with the nature of American society, secret action abroad, and the kinds of foreign policy initiatives the United States can effectively undertake.

I might add a last word to complete the circle of argument and to return to the point where this article began. As noted at the beginning, the veneer of restrained international behavior seems to be thin in the best of circumstances in today's world. It is also true that the responsible answer to the problem cannot be to mistake the veneer for the whole reality - in weakness or self-deception. But it may be one of the higher tasks of statemanship to work to thicken that veneer when the possibility exists.

Angola was a tragedy. It was a tragedy for moderate blacks, for radical blacks wishing to fend off alien influences, for whites in southern Africa, for Mobutu, Kaunda, Roberto, Savimbi, soldiers of fortune, Zaïrian infantrymen, and countless others. Perhaps America's choices were impossible ones. I cannot assert any easy confidence in the likely success of the course of action favored by most of our task force on Angola in June 1975. But I think we would have done better at least to have tried that other course.


2 Seymour M. Hersh revealed this program in a New York Times article of December 19, 1975.

3 As quoted in The Village Voice, February 16, 1976, which published the text of the Report without official authorization, having received it via Daniel Schorr, then of CBS.

4 Seymour M. Hersh quoted a "directly involved" U.S. official, who presumably had access to the memo, as saying it asserted that neither Savimbi nor Roberto could "fight their way out of a paper bag," The New York Times, December 14, 1975. The memo did not say this. Considering the brave men from both those movements who died in Angola, I am sorry the remark was ever attributed to me. However, I do not doubt that Mr. Hersh correctly quoted the "directly involved" official, who apparently characterized the memo that way; and Mr. Hersh's piece was remarkably accurate in all other respects. I gave Mr. Hersh no assistance, information or confirmation at this or any other time in developing the story. Mr. Hersh called me in London the day before he published it, and I declined comment.

5 Actually, I was told the President had made the decision somewhat before I now believe he finally and formally did so. This word came orally. I went home, spent a sleepless night trying to figure out what I should do, and typed out my letter of resignation to the Secretary and the President at about 5:30 the next morning. As I subsequently learned, I had submitted my resignation - believing the issue decided - before the President made his conclusive determination.

6 Wishing to guard against the fact and appearance of doing anything that might result in unauthorized disclosure, my wife and I agreed that I would not even tell her the country in Africa to which my policy difference with the Secretary pertained.

7 The New York Times, November 7, 1975; The Washington Post, November 8, 1975; and The Christian Science Monitor, March 8, 1976.

8 There had been up to 100 Cuban advisers in Angola for at least a decade, and the buildup from that number to roughly 250 had already started in the late spring of 1975.

9 The Christian Science Monitor, October 19, 1977; United Press International, October 18, 1977, quoting a Fidel Castro speech in Jamaica on October 17, 1977.

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  • Nathaniel Davis is currently State Department Adviser at the Naval War College, Newport, R.I. He was Ambassador to Chile in 1971-73, Director General of the Foreign Service in 1973-75. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs in 1975, and Ambassador to Switzerland in 1976-77.
  • More By Nathaniel Davis