Bettman / Corbis Hands tied: Lumumba's capture in Léopoldville, December 1960.

What Really Happened in Congo

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

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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

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