Getty / AFP Partner in crime: Mobutu in Léopoldville, September 1960.

What Really Happened in Congo

The CIA, the Murder of Lumumba, and the Rise of Mobutu

It didn’t take long for Congo’s transition from Belgian colony to sovereign state to turn ugly. Both the Soviet Union and the United States were keeping a close eye on the mineral-rich country at the heart of Africa when, on June 30, 1960, it gained independence under a democratically elected government headed by Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. A charismatic nationalist, Lumumba led the only party in parliament with a nationwide, rather than ethnic or regional, base. Within days, however, Congo’s troops mutinied against their all-white officer corps (a holdover from the colonial era) and started terrorizing the European population. Belgium responded by sending forces to reoccupy the country and helping Congo’s richest province, Katanga, secede. The United States, declining the appeals for help from the new Congolese government, instead threw its support behind a UN peacekeeping mission, which it hoped would obviate any Congolese requests for Soviet military assistance. But Lumumba quickly came into conflict with the UN for its failure to expel the Belgian troops and end Katanga’s secession. After issuing a series of shifting ultimatums to the UN, he turned to Moscow for help, which responded by sending transport planes to fly Lumumba’s troops into Katanga.

That’s when the Eisenhower administration sent in the CIA. In the decades that followed, the dominant narrative in U.S. foreign policy circles portrayed the U.S. covert action in Congo as a surgical, low-cost success. Even the 1975 U.S. Senate investigation by the Church Committee, which was heavily critical of the CIA, concluded that of the five covert paramilitary campaigns it studied, the operation in Congo was the only one that “achieved its objectives.” Those who hold this view credit the U.S. government with avoiding a direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union and China while foiling the communists’ attempts to gain influence over a key African country. They acknowledge that the CIA contributed to the fall of Lumumba, who lost a power struggle with Joseph

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