History through Documents and Memory: Report on a CWIHP Critical Oral History Conference on the Congo Crisis, 1960-1961

Dec 18, 2004

History through Documents and Memory:
A CWIHP Critical Oral History Conference of the Congo Crisis, 1960-1961

By Lise Namikas

Forty-four years after the momentous events in the Congo, former officials and scholars gathered at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on 23-24 September 2004 to discuss the crisis. The conference on the Congo Crisis was one of a series of critical oral history workshops sponsored by the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP), (this one co-sponsored with the Africa Program) under the direction of Christian F. Ostermann. In comparison to the others sponsored by the Project, including the July 2004 conference on the 1980's Iran-Iraq War, this conference plunged farther back in time and was the first to put the spot light on the Cold War in Africa.

A document reader, compiled by former Kennan Fellow Lise Namikes and former CWIHP scholar Sergey Mazov, helped guide the discussion. It included documents gathered specifically for the conference from Russian, European, and U.S. archives. Material recently declassified from U.S. and Belgian archives, as well as several key articles on the crisis and a comprehensive chronology were also included. With few veteran voices left to share their personal account of events, the testimonials heard at the conference added meaningfully to the historical record. Participants at the conference included former CIA station chief in the Congo Lawrence Devlin, former Lumumba confidante and ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Kanza, and provincial president of a political party, the Parti Solidaire Africain (PSA), Cleophas Kamitatu. Scholars from around the globe included Institute of World History, Russian Academy of Sciences scholar Sergey Mazov, Wilson Center senior scholar and eyewitness to the events Herbert Weiss, Congolese scholar and consultant on the Belgian Parliamentary Commssion enquiry into Lumumba's assassination Jean Omasombo, Congolese expert and current director of the U.N. Development Programme's Oslo Governance Center Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, Stephen Weissman, Tatiana Carayannis, and Lise Namikas. Representatives from the National Security Archive at George Washington University also attended.

There were several important revelations at the conference, some of the most significant related to the events of September 1960. Lumumba's dismissal on 5 September has long remained controversial. From the memoirs of Belgian ambassador Jean van den Bosch (1986) we know that Congolese President Kasavubu began talking with Belgian advisors about revoking Lumumba's premiership as early as July 1960. It is also known that Kasavubu talked with U.N. temporary representative in the Congo, Andrew Cordier, who suggested that he was not adverse to Kasavubu's proposed action. Kamitatu explained that Lumumba was told of Kasavubu's impending move at least a week before his actual dismissal. Upon learning of this threat Lumumba met with Kasavubu and tried to work things out. But then suddenly on 5 September Lumumba was dismissed. Cordier immediately closed the airport at Leopoldville and shut off access to the radio, abruptly stymying Lumumba's attempts to rally support. Historians have suspected U.S. complicity in these events, but there has been little conclusive evidence. Cooperation between U.S. ambassador Clare Timberlake and Cordier has long been known, but Timberlake's actions in the days before the coup are not. Timberlake, Devlin recalled, met with Kasavubu shortly before the dismissal and confirmed that he too favored revoking Lumumba, but felt that he had been ignored. Timberlake also met with Cordier before the coup, but the contents of their discussion remains unknown. Pushed by the Belgians and assured of indirect U.S. and U.N. support, Kasavubu acted. Documents translated by the CWIHP revealed that the Soviet Union was also working behind the scenes to urge African states, including Ghana, to put its troops serving under the United Nations operation in the Congo at the disposition of the government of the Congo or create a joint command to aid Lumumba. But before African states could discuss either option events again proved dramatic.

On 14 September 1960 Congolese army chief of staff Joseph Mobutu launched his first coup (the second in late 1965). Again, current documentary evidence does not clarify the U.S. role. But, in a blow-by-blow account of the decisive days and hours, Devlin recalled how, under pressure of events, he agreed that the United States government would recognize Mobutu's coup. The relationship between Devlin and Mobutu has long raised suspicion, but Devlin confirmed that he met with Mobutu only two times before 14 September 1960. These early meetings, nevertheless, convinced Devlin that Mobutu had leadership qualities. On the night of his first coup, Mobutu told Devlin that if the United States would guarantee recognition of his new government then the coup would go forward. Not unaware of the risks involved Devlin demurred. Impatiently Mobutu asked again "what is it," what will the U.S. position be? Devlin recounted how he stepped out on a limb and guaranteed U.S. government support. Had the coup failed, and at least Timberlake thought Mobutu was yielding to pressure to allow Lumumba to return, the entire U.S. position in the Congo could have been jeopardized. As it was, the coup did not fail, but it was not an overwhelming success for Mobutu. Washington in effect countermanded the full coup by insisting on the "de-neutralization" of Kasavubu, safeguarding both the U.S. and the U.N. position in the Congo. Cleophas Kamitatu surmised that the U.S. guarantee might explain why Mobutu neutralized both Lumumba and Kasavubu, since he and others had only been aware of plans to neutralize Lumumba. The conference discussion also provided new details about the money that Mobutu used to pay his soldiers at the end of September, thereby sealing their loyalty and the coup.

There were other revelations at the conference, particularly about Lumumba's Lumumba's relations with Kasavubu and the West which had deteriorated long before September. The circumstances surrounding the Congo's independence attracted much discussion at the conference, as did the relationship between Lumumba and Kasavubu. The two leaders were long time rivals and Kanza recalled that after a secret agreement with Abako, Lumumba had little choice but to support Kasavubu as president. Another important misperception was corrected regarding the long-held impression that Lumumba furiously wrote his inflammatory independence day speech during Kasavubu's speech. In fact Kanza explained that it was written in the days before independence (and, as Jean Omasombo clarified, with the assistance of his European advisors) and reflected Lumumba's growing anger with Belgian attempts to deny him the position of prime minister. The whole episode, along with the many other revelations of the Belgian Parliamentary Commission enquiry, suggests that tension in relations between Belgium and Lumumba was greater than previously assumed and needs to be reassessed.

The Congolese participants explained the importance of the misunderstandings that colored Congolese foreign relations. Thomas Kanza shed light on the importance of the fiasco with Edgar Detwiler, a shady American businessman who proposed to develop and manage Congolese mineral resources. Kanza recounted how Detwiler was introduced to Lumumba by the son of Belgian minister without portfolio, W.J. Ganshof van der Meersch, helping at least in Lumumba's mind to reconfirm Detwiler's credibility, and a contract was signed. The deal was confirmed by the Congolese parliament, although later revoked. After warnings from U.S. Ambassador Timberlake, Guinean and Ghanaian representatives at the United Nations Diallo Telli and Alex Quaison-Sackey, and even concerned U.S. citizens in the Congo like the young Herbert Weiss, Lumumba was still surprised that he had not signed a legitimate contract.

In light of the extensive work of the Belgian Parliamentary Commission, the conference did not spend a lot of time on the assassination of Lumumba. But it became clear that Lumumba's supporters feared the worst as the deposed prime minister remained under house arrest and then became a prisoner. Kanza revealed that in September he had discussions with Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev, who he called a "showman," and more serious discussions with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko on the general topic of how to save Lumumba. Kanza learned, with disappointment, that the Soviet Union was apparently in no position to help directly. So he appealed to U.S. President John F. Kennedy through Eleanor Roosevelt. Kanza remembered an informal deal struck with U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold and president-elect Kennedy guaranteeing that Lumumba should remain in Leopoldville at least until Kennedy took office and then be brought to Parliament. Kanza also recalled that he asked Kennedy (again via Roosevelt) to intervene to protect Lumumba after he became a prisoner, but Kennedy responded that the handling of prisoners must be a U.N. decision. Lumumba was transferred out of Thysville prison on the night of 16 January, an operation conducted by Mobutu's men who carefully skirted U.N. guards, and assassinated on 17 January 1961 in Katanga.

Documents obtained for the conference from both Russian and German archives offered new details about the Soviet role in the crisis. Evidence from the former East German archives suggest that the Soviet Union supported aid to Gizenga's "legal" government from December 1960 to March 1961, but did not want to take the international risks involved in delivering him that aid. A memorandum of a meeting between Soviet deputy foreign minister Vladimir Semenov and Egyptian president Gamal abdel Nasser confirmed that the Soviet Union wanted to send diplomats and military advisors to Stanleyville, but Nasser suggested rather dramatically that the only way to get them into the Congo was to parachute them. On another occasion, Soviet Defense Minister Rodion Malinovsky told Pierre Mulele, Gizenga's representative in Cairo, that Soviet planes were ready to fly to the Congo, but feared the United Nations forces would shoot them down. Documents also established that early in 1961 Moscow sent $500,000 to aid Gizenga's "legal" government in Stanleyville. Devlin heard that the payment was to be made in two installments via courier through Sudan. He sent a U.S. operative to distract the courier and snatch the suitcase with $250,000.

The discussions revealed important details on the Lovanium conference of September 1961, called to form a new government for the Congo. The United States and the United Nations feared that Gizenga would be elected prime minister. As Kamitatu related, the nationalist bloc wanted Gizenga to take the job, but Gizenga refused, fearing a trap. The nationalists then agreed that the "moderate" Cyrille Adoula would be the "least evil" choice, not because they had a change of heart over Adoula, but because he was seen as next best leader who could help re-unify the Congo. Adoula agreed to work with the bloc and, escorted by U.N. representative Robert Gardiner to Kamitatu's residence, worked through the night with other nationalists forming a new government. At the last minute Gizenga surprisingly accepted the post of vice prime minister but remained in Stanleyville (after a short visit to Leopoldville) leaving his intentions open to suspicion. Gizenga's suspicions of Adoula ran deep at least partially a result of Adoula's secret connections with the Binza group, of which Gizenga was aware, and which the CWIHP conference brought to light. Adoula's ties with this pro-western group were not widely known but diminish the importance of his former relations with AFL-CIO. In the end history would show that Adoula's premiership would depend heavily on the nationalist bloc. By December of 1962 Adoula, under great pressure from the nationalists, called on the United Nations to use force to end the secession Katanga. U Thant felt he had few options, and tired of the whole affair, obliged, giving Kennedy little choice but to go along or see the United Nations withdraw from the Congo altogether.

If there was a single message to take away from the conference it is that the course of events in the Congo were at least as strongly influenced by events on the ground as by decisions emanating from either Washington or Moscow. The conference confirmed that Lumumba had little western support and plans for his elimination, politically and physically, were effectively carried out at all levels, no matter what the coordination. Washington seemed to keep its distance with the result that events could force its hand at the last minute, while Khrushchev tended to be more cautious and reluctant to act without the Afro-Asian states. The conference also highlighted the Congolese role in the crisis but without exaggerating their influence. Clearly a general misunderstanding between the Congolese, Americans, Soviets and Belgians overlay the tragic events of 1960 and 1961– events that still haunt the civil war wracked Congo today.

The Cold War International History Project plans to post documents and a transcription of its conference on their website, along with several interpretive articles relating to the documents.

*Thanks to Herbert Weiss and Sergey Mazov for their observations and comments on this draft.


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