“The Dark Continent”
In his sweeping and revolutionary Lectures on the Philosophy of History, the 19th-century Prussian philosopher G. W. F. Hegel detailed a vision of history unfolding through the bold and decisive actions of what he deemed “world historical” personalities. Having seen Napoleon and his ornate retinue of generals parade through his hometown of Jena as a young man, Hegel was impressed by the singular power of individuals to shape history, and eventually developed this notion into his rarefied theory of how unseen forces find their expression in the actions of powerful leaders who themselves—unwittingly or actively—force the grand wheel of history to turn through its great dialectical arc.
So compelling was this vision to late 19th-century Europeans, who stood at the apex of technological achievement in contrast to the developing world, that even today few realize Hegel’s version of human history is but one narrative in a vast tapestry of explanations as to how societies have organized themselves throughout the centuries. We also forget, at our peril, the pernicious implications of Hegel’s theory concerning non-Europeans, especially the retrograde, even worthless qualities he ascribes to those inhabiting the African continent. As he noted in his series of lectures presented at the University of Berlin from 1822-30, “Negroes are enslaved by Europeans and sold to America. Bad as this may be, their lot in their own land is even worse, since there a slavery quite as absolute exists; for it is the essential principle of slavery, that man has not yet attained a consciousness of his freedom, and consequently sinks down to a mere Thing—an object of no value.” He concludes, after a lengthy digression on cannibalism, polygamy and the perpetual brutality among tribal sub-Saharan African groups, by claiming, “From these various traits it is manifest that want of self-control distinguishes the character of the Negroes. This condition is capable of no development or culture, and as we see them at this day, such have they always been.” (Lectures on the Philosophy of History, p. 98)
This patriarchal view held by many 19th-century European intellectuals was the cornerstone for the many justifications used to perpetuate the brutal colonization of the African continent. The colorful flags of Denmark, Germany, France, Belgium, Portugal, England and Spain all shimmered in the hot African breeze at some point, continuously reaffirming from the colonizers’ perspective Hegel’s enduring vision of the infantile and helpless African peoples and their European “civilizers.” In this sense, the abject horror many historians have detailed at length in the Belgian Congo was not an aberration, but was more a crystalline and total distillation of the tenets of European racial subjugation as practiced elsewhere.
In 1885 King Leopold II effectively declared the entire Congo basin his personal property, akin more to a medieval kingdom than a traditional colonial region like British India, for example, where to some extant the British were compelled to integrate aspects of local culture and politics into their own system. In the Belgian Congo, as Adam Hochschild and others have detailed, unrestrained brutality was normalized to such an extent that one might have forgotten that slavery had been universally abolished decades earlier. Established in 1885 at the Conference of Berlin, the “Free State of Congo” was ostensibly created to enrich the lives of its inhabitants, incapable, as Hegel noted, of managing their own affairs. And yet almost immediately this benevolent charter was reversed, with Leopold II using his mercenary Force Publique to maim, torture, and essentially re-enslave the native Africans of the Free State of Congo. Estimates vary, particularly due to the burning of records by the colonizers, but a conservative figure is that in his twenty-five year reign, nearly ten million Congolese were killed as a result of his policies, representing fifty percent of the 1880 population. During his reign of terror, Leopold and his provincial overseers extracted ivory, rubber, and other rare goods for export to Europe, personally enriching the king to the tune of 220 million francs ($1.1. billion today) by the estimates of the Belgian scholar Jules Marchal. (Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost, p. 276) Incentivized through a tiered system of profit-maximization, the king’s men were rewarded with bonuses and promotions for resources gathered. Reluctant or underperforming Congolese were subjected to pitiless horrors, including having their limbs hacked off or enduring a hundred lashes of the whip, most of which proved fatal. The Force Publique also kidnapped villagers’ wives, who were frequently beaten and raped, holding them as ransom to induce workers to secure their release through reaching their rubber quotas. Herded like cattle into slave labor camps and paid just enough to purchase subsistence rations from their overlords, they remained powerless to resist Leopold’s private army, cordoned off in their remote Congo basin by armed outposts, attack dogs and a complacent international community at a time when information was the stuff of rogue travelers’ tales and stories told by escaped prisoners, rather than mass media headlines. In the United States, it was the lone voice of an African American military officer, Colonel George Washington Williams, who, having visited the Free State of Congo just years after its creation, felt compelled to openly criticize the regime in the international forums, declaring the Belgian king guilty of crimes against humanity:
All the crimes perpetrated in the Congo have been done in your name, and you must answer at the bar of Public Sentiment for the misgovernment of a people, whose lives and fortunes were entrusted to you by the august Conference of Berlin, 1884—1885. I now appeal to the Powers which committed this infant State to your Majesty’s charge, and to the great States which gave it international being; and whose majestic law you have scorned and trampled upon, to call and create an International Commission to investigate the charges herein preferred in the name of Humanity, Commerce, Constitutional Government and Christian Civilization. (Washington, “Open Letter to King Leopold of the Congo”, 1890)
Tales of his terrible and sinister exploits were the stuff of legend, and it was Leopold’s Free State of Congo that inspired author Joseph Conrad to write his famous novella Heart of Darkness, in which a distant and jaded Marlowe tells his shipmates his terrifying story of going up-river into the seething heart of colonial Central Africa. Yet from this tragic past, as the twentieth century dawned and Hegel’s dialectic of history moved the peoples of the world forward in the wake of the Second World War, the powerful and latent forces of human emancipation which had been awaiting their chance to check colonial oppression found their expression in a charismatic Congolese intellectual who intimately understood the powers arrayed against an autonomous Congo.
A New Hope
The President observed that in the last twelve months, the world has developed a kind of ferment greater than he could remember in recent times. The Communists are trying to take control of this, and have succeeded to the extent that … in many cases [people] are now saying that the Communists are thinking of the common man while the United States is dedicated to supporting outmoded regimes. (Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958—1960, XIV, Document 157.)
The Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) had been founded and led by Patrice Lumumba. Its aim was to seek the Congo’s independence from Belgium. In December of 1959, the MNC won a majority of local elections and participated at a conference in Brussels in late January of 1960. That conference set June 30, 1960 as the date for an independent Congo after national elections for new leadership were held in May. The MNC won the May elections. Lumumba was to be Congo’s first prime minister and Joseph Kasavubu the first president.
In an impassioned and catalyzing speech to a crowd of thousands of newly liberated Congolese men and women, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s newly elected thirty-five year old prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, captivated his constituents by recounting the significance of what had just been achieved:
We are deeply proud of our struggle, because it was just and noble and indispensable in putting an end to the humiliating bondage forced upon us. That was our lot for the eighty years of colonial rule and our wounds are too fresh and much too painful to be forgotten. We have experienced forced labour in exchange for pay that did not allow us to satisfy our hunger, to clothe ourselves, to have decent lodgings or to bring up our children as dearly loved ones.
Morning, noon and night we were subjected to jeers, insults and blows because we were “Negroes”. Who will ever forget that the black was addressed as “tu,” not because he was a friend, but because the polite “vous” was reserved for the white man? We have seen our lands seized in the name of ostensibly just laws, which gave recognition only to the right of might. We have not forgotten that the law was never the same for the white and the black, that it was lenient to the ones, and cruel and inhuman to the others.
We have experienced the atrocious sufferings, being persecuted for political convictions and religious beliefs, and exiled from our native land: our lot was worse than death itself. We have not forgotten that in the cities the mansions were for the whites and the tumbledown huts for the blacks; that a black was not admitted to the cinemas, restaurants and shops set aside for “Europeans”; that a black travelled in the holds, under the feet of the whites in their luxury cabins.
Who will ever forget the shootings which killed so many of our brothers, or the cells into which were mercilessly thrown those who no longer wished to submit to the regime of injustice, oppression and exploitation used by the colonialists as a tool of their domination?
All that, my brothers, brought us untold suffering. But we, who were elected by the votes of your representatives, representatives of the people, to guide our native land, we, who have suffered in body and soul from the colonial oppression, we tell you that henceforth all that is finished with. The Republic of the Congo has been proclaimed and our beloved country’s future is now in the hands of its own people.
Freed from human bondage by a reluctant King Baudouin of Belgium in June of 1960, the Democratic Republic of Congo stood poised to capture the imagination of still-colonized and recently decolonized regions throughout the African continent. With Kasavubu as president and Lumumba as prime minister, along with a freely appointed parliamentary body, the Congolese provinces were taking the first decisive steps towards freedom. In the post-Free State of Congo period, stretching from its dissolution in 1908 to the 1960 creation of the Democratic Republic of Congo, although the abject horrors of Leopold II’s slave-labor program had largely subsided, the people of the Congo were still living under the thumb of their European overlords. In this interregnum period, education for black Africans was provided by white Catholic missionaries who proselytized their vision of what good Christians were to endure in the face of hardship. No African living in the Congo during this fifty-year period could vote, and apartheid was the default social framework in which blacks and whites co-existed. For the Congolese, these times were “free” only symbolically.
But as many have pointed out, most recently John Newman in Countdown to Darkness, Belgium had schemed in advance to make sure that the free state of Congo would have an unsuccessful launch. The mechanism would be fouled to the degree that Belgium would have to retake the country in order to save it from a descent into chaos. As Newman points out, it was not just Belgium, but the USA that was unprepared to accept the success of a newly independent African country, especially one as large and as mineral-rich as Congo. Allen Dulles, Director of Central Intelligence, had smeared Lumumba’s character at a May 5, 1960 National Security Council (NSC) meeting. Dulles also suggested that there was “Some possibility that a movement might develop in the rich Katanga area for separation from the Congo.” (Newman, p. 152, all references are to the Kindle version) In other words, the foreign economic mining interests in Congo had planned the Katanga secession before independence day. And Dulles knew about it.
On the day of Congo’s independence, there was another NSC meeting. This time Dulles was accompanied by Deputy Director Charles Cabell. Cabell now stated that Lumumba’s government would be communist-oriented and that Lumumba had already “solicited communist funds to help him obtain his present political position.” (Newman, p. 155) In other words, the CIA was doing its best to poison Lumumba’s character at the higher levels of governance in Washington.
Within weeks of Lumumba’s pivotal June 30, 1960 speech, tensions within the Congolese state’s numerous and disparate factions and its multiracial army began to spill over into the general population. In sectors of the Congolese army, many black soldiers sought the removal of white officers, who they viewed as a cruel reminder of the colonial past, and demanded increased pay, commensurate with a professional army defending a newly unified and free nation. Katanga Province soon seceded from the Democratic Republic of Congo, only weeks after its creation, with its leader, Moise Tshombe, painting a picture of Prime Minister Lumumba as a radical. The mineral-rich region in the southeastern reaches of the Congo contained vast stores of precious metals, from copper to gold to the uranium used to build the atomic bombs the United States dropped on Japan at the end of WWII. Diamonds were also in large supply in Katanga, making it a truly invaluable region in the eyes of the colonizers. Indeed, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, along with Belgian military and intelligence support, began to get its hands dirty in Central African developments. Having sent cash, supplies, and the tacit support of intervention should their anti-Lumumba puppets fail to secure their tenuous hold during the crisis, the Western powers were instrumental in assuring the Democratic Republic of Congo would be stillborn. To tilt the scales even more against Lumumba, all of the country’s gold reserves had been transferred to Brussels prior to freedom day. And Brussels would not allow their transfer to Leopoldville. (Newman, p. 156)
On July 9, 1960 Belgium began to airlift paratroopers into Congo. With the Belgian troops already there, this now amounted to almost four thousand men. The next day, the provisional president of Katanga, Moise Tshombe, requested Belgian troops to restore order. To counter this, Lumumba and Kasavubu requested to meet with Tshombe, but the rebel leader of Katanga refused to let their plane land there. (Newman, p. 157) The Congolese troops now began to open fire on the Belgians and other Europeans. The Belgians returned the fire and shot scores of Congolese. (Richard Mahoney, JFK: Ordeal in Africa, p. 36) Lumumba now asked for American help in stopping the insurgency and the attempt by Belgium to reinstate control. Eisenhower turned the request down. (Mahoney, p. 37) On July 13, 1960 Belgian troops occupied the airport at Leopoldville, and shortly after this, Lumumba severed relations with Brussels. One day later, Dag Hammarskjold, Secretary General of the United Nations, shepherded through a resolution to send UN troops to the area. Hammarskjold also called on Belgium to remove its forces from the theater. This was the first time the UN had taken on such a mission. Hammarskjold was trying to make good on his intent to make the United Nations a forum where newly liberated countries could let their voices be heard against the established powers of the world.
But Hammarskjold had the deck stacked against him. The largest mining operation in Congo was Union Minière, a joint Belgian/British enterprise. When the struggle broke out, the Belgians now began to pay business taxes not to Congo, but to Tshombe and Katanga. The Russians had also expressed their disappointment in what Belgium and the United States had and had not done. Dulles used this proclamation to turn the conflict into a Cold War struggle. (Newman, pp. 158-59) Lumumba and Kasavubu did not make things easier for him; they sent Hammarskjold a written ultimatum that demanded the Belgians be removed by July 19th. Furthermore, if this did not occur, they would then turn to the USSR in order to accomplish the task. (See Foreign Relations of the United States, hereafter FRUS, Vol. 14, Document 32) As both Richard Mahoney and John Newman have noted, this demand sent the NSC into overdrive. It sealed the CIA’s objective of turning a nationalist independence movement into a Cold War crucible, and on July 19th, the American ambassador to Belgium sent the following cable to Allen Dulles:
Lumumba has now maneuvered himself into position of opposition to the West, resistance to United Nations and increasing dependence on Soviet Union ... Only prudent therefore, to plan on basis that Lumumba government threatens our vital interests in Congo and Africa generally. A principal objective of our political and diplomatic action must therefore be to destroy Lumumba government as now constituted, but at same time we must find or develop another horse to back which would be acceptable in rest of Africa and defensible against Soviet political attack. (FRUS, Vol. 14, Document 136)
The problem with this cable as sent by diplomat William Burden—a Vanderbilt fortune heir who had bought his way into the State Department—was that almost every statement in it was false. As Mahoney has shown, Lumumba was actually still trying to communicate with the USA at this time. Similarly, he was not resistant to Hammarskjold; he just wanted the UN Chief to perform with alacrity. And he was not dependent on the USSR. But further, his request to Moscow for supplies would have been prevented if the United States had acceded to his earlier cable to Washington. Finally, Lumumba did not constitute any danger to American interests in Congo or Africa. In fact, Burden confabulated the first part of the cable in order to jump to the second part, namely that the USA should now be prepared to take terminal actions against both Lumumba and Congo and should begin to search for a new leader there.
As Senator John Kennedy once noted, it was this kind of State Department performance—backing the imperial powers while discounting the hopes of the native people—that was ultimately self-defeating, as France had seen at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. There, as Senator Kennedy had said, we had wrongly allied ourselves with “the desperate effort of a French regime to hang on to the remnants of empire.” (Mahoney, p. 15) This is a major reason why, in 1958, Kennedy purchased one hundred copies of that prophetic novel about Vietnam, The Ugly American, and passed it out to each of his Senate colleagues. But, unfortunately for Lumumba and the Congo, Kennedy was not yet president.
The Burden communiqué seemed to inspire Dulles to scale even further heights in smearing Lumumba as not just a communist, but in league with Egypt, the USSR and the communist party in Belgium. (FRUS, Vol. 14, Document 140). The allegation of Lumumba´s allegiance to Egypt was natural, since the CIA considered Gamel Abdel Nasser too leftist and, according to author William Blum, had contemplated overthrowing him in 1957. Nasser was also a pan-Arabist, and therefore it was claimed that the union of Nasser and Lumumba could unleash a Red Horde across Africa and the Middle East. This was all propaganda. As Jonathan Kwitny later wrote in his seminal essay on Lumumba, there was never any credible evidence that Lumumba was a communist, or that he had any interest in proselytizing that dogma either in Congo or across Africa. (Kwitny, Endless Enemies, p. 72) But Dulles was not going to let the minor matter of evidence get in his way. At this same NSC meeting of July 21st, he now said that with Lumumba “we were faced with a person who was a Castro or worse.” (FRUS, Vol. 14, Document 140) Since President Eisenhower had already approved a plan to overthrow Castro, and Dulles was privy to CIA plots to assassinate him, the CIA Director was now playing his ace in the hole. With that card, Dulles was now clearly in opposition to Hammarskjold.
In the latter part of July, Lumumba—further contradicting the Burden memo—decided to visit America. He arrived in New York to speak with Hammarskjold, and then went to Washington DC. Eisenhower avoided meeting him there by staying out of town in Newport, Connecticut. Lumumba told Secretary of State Christian Herter that Tshombe did not represent the people of Katanga and that Belgium has essentially stolen Congo’s gold assets and left the country with no treasury. (Newman, p. 218) He therefore requested a loan. Herter dodged all these requests by saying that these would all be considered by Hammarskjold and the USA would have input into these decisions—all the while Dulles, as previously noted, was working at odds with the United Nations.
Lumumba now expressed disagreement with Hammarskjold over the terms of UN intervention. He demanded that the UN expel all non-African troops and enter Katanga to stop its secession. (Newman, p. 221) If not, then he would turn to the USSR to do so. The Russian aid began arriving just after mid-August. This included military advisors and supplies, by both ship and plane. With this, all hope for Lumumba and Congo’s independence went down the drain. There was now open talk in cables about Congo experiencing a classic communist takeover, and how the United States must “take action to avoid another Cuba”, and how “the commie design now seems suddenly clear.” (Mahoney, p. 40; Newman p. 222)
All of this culminated in the August 18th NSC meeting. This meeting consisted of advisors like Maurice Stans and Douglas Dillon turning Lumumba into some kind of Red Menace. And this kind of talk eventually got the best of President Eisenhower. As Newman informs us, the turnaround time for NSC steno notes was usually a day. At the most it would extend to 3-4 days. In this case, the transcription took one week. In 1975, fifteen years after the meeting, the transcriber Robert Johnson decided to explain why the draft memo of that meeting took so long. Johnson testified that during the meeting Eisenhower gave an order for the assassination of Lumumba. (Newman, p. 224) After checking with a superior, Johnson decided not to include the order in the transcript. This issue was then followed up on a week later at another meeting. But as Newman has discovered, the Church Committee interview notes of a participant who conveyed Eisenhower’s interest in following up his assassination request with covert action have now disappeared. Luckily, however, Newman copied the notes back in 1994 before they were removed, so we know that after one week to think about it, Eisenhower had not changed his mind on the issue. (Newman, p. 232)
The day after the August 25th meeting, Allen Dulles composed what can only be called an assassination cable. It reads as follows:
In high quarters here it is the clear-cut conclusion that if Lumumba continues to hold high office, the inevitable result will at best be chaos and at worst pave the way to communist takeover of the Congo with disastrous consequences for the prestige of the UN and for the interests of the free world generally. Consequently, we conclude that his removal must be urgent and prime objective and that under existing conditions this should be a high priority of our covert action.
On the second page of the cable, Dulles authorizes the station chief in Leopoldville to spend up to $100,000 to carry out the operation without consulting headquarters about the specifics. On the same day Dulles sent the cable, Director of Plans Dick Bissell talked to the head of the CIA’s Africa Division. He told Bronson Tweedy to start thinking about “reviewing possibilities, assets, and discussing them with headquarters in detail.” (Newman, pp. 236-240)
On September 5th, 1960, only months after Lumumba’s grand speech, the President of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kasavubu, dismissed him on Radio Brazzaville, officially of his own volition, but in actuality, with the urging of his CIA and Belgian intelligence handlers. (Stephen Weismann, “Opening the Secret Files on Lumumba’s Murder,” Washington Post 07/21/2002)
Kasavubu had been a reluctant supporter of Lumumba, and Western strategists were quick to play on his hesitations regarding Congolese independence. For months leading up to this announcement, UN Undersecretary in Charge of General Assembly, Andrew Cordier, later president of Columbia University, had been coaching the Congolese president, and carefully monitoring developments as he prodded him to fire Lumumba. (Carole Collins, “The Cold War Comes to Africa: Cordier and the 1960s Congo Crisis,” Journal of International Affairs, 6/22/1993) After this bold radio dismissal, Cordier ordered U.N. troops into the region, with orders to ostensibly shut down the airport and radio stations in Brazzaville. As Collins notes, however, there was a backhanded motive to this move:
These actions primarily hurt Lumumba because only Kasavubu enjoyed access to radio facilities in the neighboring state of Brazzaville. Similarly, Kasavubu’s allies were allowed to use the ostensibly closed airport to travel into the Congolese interior to mobilize support for the president while Lumumba’s supporters were grounded. Near the end of his three-week stay in early September, Cordier authorized the United Nations to offer food and pay to the Congolese Army. This action allowed Mobutu—a one-time Lumumba aide who had been appointed chief-of-staff of the army by Kasavubu just days earlier—to win credit for paying the soldiers their past-due salaries, and to pave the way for his coup attempt a few days later. The combination of U.N. and U.S. support was pivotal for Mobutu’s subsequent seizure of power.
Colonel Joseph Mobutu, another key figure in the tripartite struggle for indigenous Congolese independence, was, like Kasavubu, not altogether enthusiastic about Lumumba’s historic and sweeping proclamations of independence. Now the titular head of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s armed forces, after a recent promotion by Kasavubu, Mobutu was essentially an opportunist from all extant evidence. Carefully monitoring local political developments and the slow but steady marshaling of Western armed forces in the sweltering jungle basin, he hedged his risk and quietly stood poised to make his bold power play. As Brian Urquhart recalls from his station at Leopoldville on the night of Kasavubu’s announcement,
Mobutu appeared once again at our headquarters, this time in uniform. He said he was tired and nervous and needed a quiet place to relax. Our office was already jammed with jittery suppliants, so I put him in my bedroom. At his request, I lent him a radio, adding half a bottle of whiskey to cheer him up. Some time later, I looked in on our uninvited guest. He seemed to be enjoying the whiskey all right, as Radio Leopoldville continued to play the cha cha cha. But then the music stopped, and a voice was heard to say that he was suspending the president, the prime minister and the parliament and taking over the country.
‘C’est moi!’ Mobutu exclaimed, triumphantly pointing to the radio. ‘C’est moi!’
I don’t know when I have been more irritated. I told Mobutu that if he wanted to make a coup d’état, the place for him was in the streets with his followers, not listening to the radio under false pretenses in someone else’s bedroom. We then threw him out.” (Brian Urquhart, “Mobutu and Tshombe: Two Congolese Rogues,” UN News Character Sketches)
By the end of September, 1960, Mobutu and his remaining loyal soldiers and officers from the former Belgian Congo Army became the western Congo basin’s de facto functioning political body. This had been done in agreement with the Leopoldville CIA station chief, Larry Devlin. Devlin had also authorized Mobutu to eliminate Lumumba and had guaranteed him a large sum in French francs to do so. (Newman, p. 268) To the east, Lumumba’s deputy, Antoine Gizenga, assumed a provisional role as the leader of the short-lived Stanleyville government. To the south, Tshombe still held onto the Katanga and South Kasai provinces. Patrice Lumumba himself remained under house arrest, having been detained on September 16th by U.N. peacekeeping troops, ostensibly for his own safety.
But the CIA had still not given up. In September, the Agency had three agents in Congo and their shared mission was to assassinate Lumumba. These were contract assassins QJ/WIN, WIROGUE, and the CIA headquarters chemist Sidney Gottlieb. Gottlieb was to prepare a toxic agent and deliver it to Congo. From there, Devlin was to recruit a Lumumba aide to insert it in the prime minister’s toothpaste. If that failed, Devlin was also trying to recruit an assassin to break into the safe haven the UN had provided for Lumumba and simply shoot him. These were in addition to Devlin’s agreement with Mobutu. Therefore, by the end of September, the CIA had five different methods on hand to kill Lumumba. But at the end of the month, Tweedy cabled Devlin that they must choose a plot that would conceal America’s role. (Newman, p. 268)
To detail the full sweep of the Congo Crisis and its myriad twists and betrayals is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice to say, after Tshombe’s secession of Katanga province and Mobutu’s and Kasavubu’s betrayals of Lumumba, the prime minister was surrounded by hostile forces, and desperately sought outside help. Among these were the United States, which categorically rejected his pleas, and the Soviet Union, which agreed, at least ideologically, with his fight for freedom. But they were initially reluctant to commit armed forces for fear of escalating the regional conflict into a larger strategic battle with the West.
President Tshombe, who still held onto Katanga in January 1961, had the most to lose and the likeliest chance of receiving outside help, given his region’s enormous natural resources. One of his initial strategies involved creating a group of 700 to 800 foreign mercenaries, both for personal protection and as a stopgap unit to quell any potential attacks from neighboring provinces on Katanga. Belgians, Rhodesians, South Africans, and French nationals answered the call; for a decent wage, they could partake in a quixotic adventure in the Congo, led by their much-loved and no-nonsense Thomas Michael “Mad Mike” Hoare, a retired WWII captain who promoted himself to major upon answering Tshombe’s call.
Having served in the Second World War as an infantryman with the Royal Army’s London Rifles, Hoare was a veteran of the North African and Italian theaters of combat. After a brief stint in the peacetime army, he relocated to warmer climates, finally settling down in Durban, South Africa in the 1950s. Moonlighting as a safari guide and a used car salesman, he was looking for something new when he heard from a close friend that Tshombe was looking for mercenaries. Hoare flew to Katanga, and quickly placed an ad in a local newspaper. Within weeks he had mustered a few dozen able-bodied men. Among their colorful ranks were an ex-Wehrmacht soldier who flaunted his iron cross medal on deployments, former British and Australian soldiers from WWII, local Katangese soldiers trying to protect their homesteads and families, members of the former Belgian occupation and security forces, and a few former South African police officers. Hoare was quick to note that his men were seriously lacking in actual battlefield experience, with many faking feats of valor and claiming decorations and accomplishments that, when investigated, more often than not proved fictional. Through a punishing physical training regimen and a cursory demonstration of fundamental battlefield tactics and command protocols, “Mad Mike” whipped his infamous “4 Commando” (later 5 Commando) into basic shape by the early months of 1961, with his headquarters situated in the provincial capital of Elizabethville. He and a former Royal Army officer, Alistair Wicks, each led a company of sixty men, with Hoare in nominal command of the two units. (Mike Hoare, The Road to Katanga: A Congo Mercenary’s Personal Memoir)
Initially tasked with securing Elizabethville against raiding parties of the local Baluba tribe, Hoare’s account is half Arthur Conan Doyle novel, half military memoir, but always gripping:
The column had bogged down in the heart of enemy territory. The track had collapsed after days of torrential rains and more than twenty trucks had sunk into the mud up to their axles. We were surrounded by an unseen army of Baluba warriors, a tough and merciless foe. That day we had lost one of my men from a wound inflicted by a poisoned arrow. He had lasted less than sixty minutes and was one of my first casualties. Morale among my Katangese drivers was at rock bottom. My unit, 4 Commando, which was escorting the column, was on edge, several of the men down with malaria, the remainder near exhaustion from lack of sleep. (Hoare, 4)
Initially tasked with supporting transport columns carrying food and supplies to the beleaguered Belgian security forces fighting in Katanga, Hoare’s 4 Commando eventually earned the trust of the Elizabethville government enough to serve as a small but effective personal army for Tshombe, who funded the adventure through the previously mentioned Union Minière, an enormously rich mining conglomerate based in Katanga. With access to nearly unlimited ammunition, modern Belgian assault rifles and belt-fed machine guns, and a motley assortment of military jeeps and half-ton trucks, Hoare’s group of foreign legionnaires was a truly frightening sight for an indigenous uprising armed with 19th-century shotguns, bows and arrows, and a mystical courage imbued in them by local witch doctors. For many of the Baluba, who were 4 Commando’s principal opponents in the early days of his deployment, a ritual dance, along with the ceremonial drinking of beer and smoking of marijuana, combined with the soothing rhythmic words of their shamans, steeled them against the commandos. Hoare noted that, while the notion that Western bullets passed through the Baluba was obviously absurd, their belief in this was fueled only in part by wishful thinking and mysticism; in previous uprisings before the declaration of Congolese independence, Belgian security forces would often fire blanks into crowds of Balubas who were marshaling to rebel.
A man of average height and wiry build, with slicked-back blonde hair and sharp features, Thomas Michael Hoare was the spitting image of the great white hunter, which, as mentioned before, he once was. With his decorative beret, rolled up sleeves, and ubiquitous radio receiver in hand, he seemed archaic even in the mid 1960s. And yet this old-fashioned, Rule Britannia mentality was probably what saved him and his men’s lives in the depths of the jungle. Under no illusions regarding the challenges arrayed against him—especially the health risks presented by sustained deployments in the jungle without modern medical facilities—he was equally curious, in that colonial way, about the innate differences between Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans. While still under the same spell as Hegel, Kipling, Spencer, and other proponents of racial hierarchical thinking, to his credit, “Mad Mike” was more open to the African experience, if solely for practical considerations. Like an integrated unit in Vietnam, or a professional football team whose members must put their differences aside, if only temporarily, 4 Commando ultimately served, like the pirate ships of the 16th Century, as a strange meeting place for people of all walks of life. Hoare exercised executive control over the expedition, and in the case of a man who murdered a young Congolese boy after numerous other infractions, was not averse to summary execution. Another soldier under his command, who had raped and killed a local Katangese woman, was lined up in front of the trucks on the side of a house; Hoare knew the man was a semi-professional soccer player back in Europe, and saw fit to pull out his pistol and personally shoot off both of the man’s big toes.
To these ends, throughout the early months following Katanga’s secession, Hoare’s motley crew slogged through the rugged Katanga backwoods, driving through monsoon downpours and blistering heat, setting up camp at night in some of the world’s most desolate regions, firing bright green illuminating flares at the sounds of potential raiding parties gathering in the jungle, but more often than not, firing blindly at imagined armies where only wildlife and rustling bush existed. Their first real encounter with the enemy, ironically, was an armed standoff in the village of Nyunga with U.N. peacekeeping troops. Having been placed there at the behest of the Feb. 21, 1961 U.N. Security Council decision to prevent a full-blown Congolese civil war, a detachment of Malayan soldiers with a platoon of armored cars ordered Hoare and his men to stand down. In the night, while the two forces stealthily checked their weapons and sandbagged their positions across the town square, Hoare’s radioman received a report from Albertville HQ that the U.N was very likely going to arrest 4 Commando and intern them in Leopoldville; all Belgian and foreign mercenaries, under the U.N. Security Council’s resolution, were considered hostile combatants. After a brief meeting with the Malayan colonel in charge of the U.N. detachment, Hoare had to think on his feet. He told the officer he would briefly consult with his men and try to forgo the inevitable and likely suicidal shootout with a heavily armed professional army. After walking across the town square and debriefing his men in his makeshift headquarters, seven of which wanted to surrender, he ordered a breakout. Those wishing to avoid capture would cut a mad dash across town as the others approached the checkpoint to surrender. They would scatter and rush through the jungle to a prearranged rendezvous point a few miles away and take it from there. Hoare checked his compass, grabbed his rifle, blew his whistle and they were off.
As long as Lumumba stayed in his UN-guarded safe haven he was relatively secure from any attempt by Mobutu to arrest him, for the simple reason that Hammarskjold’s representative would not allow the warrant to be served. Lumumba had survived several futile attempts by the CIA’s Executive Action program to eliminate him. For example, QJWIN and WIROGUE had been recruited through the CIA’s Staff D, which came under the control of William Harvey in 1960. Director of Plans Dick Bissell had himself offered the job of case officer on the operation to at least two agents and they both turned it down. But the second one, Justin O’Donnell, did agree to run an operation to politically neutralize Lumumba. The opportunity came when, under intense lobbying by America and England, the UN decided to seat Kasavubu’s delegation. This occurred just when Lumumba’s following was gaining strength in Congo. So Lumumba decided to arrange his escape to Stanleyville, his political base on the evening of November 27, 1960. (Mahoney, p. 55)
Devlin now conferred with Mobutu to plot the paths that Lumumba would have to take in order to make it to Stanleyville. The CIA helped Mobutu set up checkpoints along river crossings and to block certain roads. (Mahoney, p. 56) On November 30th, QJ/WIN offered to go to Stanleyville to kill Lumumba himself. But within 24 hours of that offer, Lumumba was captured in the rebel province of Kasai. (Newman, p. 295) Fearing that killing him on their own soil would provoke a full-blown uprising, his captors decided to send him to his certain torture and death at the hands of the rulers of Katanga province. He was moved from a temporary holding barracks in Thysville to Elizabethville, the capital of Katanga, where his previous colonizers, the Belgians, were waiting with their close friend and president, Moise Tshombe. Having contemplated killing him through a tube of poisoned toothpaste only months earlier, the CIA was relieved at news of his capture and subsequent murder, which they helped orchestrate. Indeed, Sydney Gottlieb, the American witch doctor who pioneered many of the Central Intelligence Agency’s lethal potions and covert execution methods for ZR/RIFLE (the codename of the central assassination arm of the CIA), had only weeks earlier flown in from Europe to personally deliver the goods. (NY Times 12/11/2008)
After a kangaroo court and short military trial which accused him of inciting a revolt, Lumumba, along with his two escaped aides who had all been beaten and sadistically abused throughout the night, was lined up against a tree and shot by a Belgian firing squad. President Tshombe personally oversaw the execution. After killing his two supporters, the Belgians and their Katangese paramilitary officers dumped them in shallow graves, later deciding to disinter them, dissolve their bodies in sulphuric acid, and grind their bones into a fine powder to forever erase them from history. When the sulphuric acid ran out, what was left of the corpses was set afire. (Newman, p. 296) This happened three days before John Kennedy’s inauguration. The news of his death was kept from Kennedy for almost one month. Whether this was by accident or by design, it is a fact that once Kennedy was in office his policy drastically altered Eisenhower’s. And it would have favored Lumumba.
The murder of Patrice Lumumba made it much easier for a continuation of neocolonial policies in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In one fell swoop it laid waste to the nascent progressive hopes of a people essentially freed from over a hundred years of brutal colonial slavery, and paved the way for the rise of figures like Joseph Mobutu, who would later rule the Congo until 1996, becoming a billionaire and a brutal despot. Mobutu was a great friend of Washington, a tremendous ally to the CIA, and the bane of African nationalists seeking the practical, achievable vision of figures like Lumumba, who could have stood as a beacon of hope for a Pan-African unity of purpose against their white European overlords in this time of turmoil and decolonization. With the murder only months later of U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold—and Susan Williams’ book proves it was a murder—the last best measures for preventing a downward spiral of the DRC were lost. When his airplane, engulfed in flames, crashed into the jungle outside Ndola airport as he was attempting to land and begin ceasefire talks, one of the few honest statesman from the European power structure who was truly concerned about the fate of the Congo was lost. As Richard Mahoney notes in his fine book, JFK: Ordeal in Africa, Kennedy made a strong effort to try to keep Congo independent after Hammarskjold’s death. (See further Dodd and Dulles vs Kennedy in Africa) For as Greg Poulgrain revealed in The Incubus of Intervention, Kennedy and Hammarskjold had made a secret alliance to do all they could to keep Congo and Indonesia free from imperialism. Kennedy did his best to maintain that pledge after Hammarskjold was assassinated. (See Hammarskjold and Kennedy vs The Power Elite)
Epilogue: Why Congo Matters Today
As Jonathan Kwitny noted in Endless Enemies, after his death Lumumba became a hero in Africa. One could find his name affixed to avenues, schools, squares and parks. As Kwitny wrote: “Lumumba is a hero to Africans not because he promoted socialism, which he didn’t, but because he resisted foreign intervention. He stood up to outsiders, if only by getting himself killed.” (Kwitny, p. 72)
But there is also a larger, more epochal aspect to what happened to Lumumba and Congo. This has to do with being a historical marker for Africa as it came out of the second Age of Colonialism. Again, Kwitny eloquently summarizes it:
The democratic experiment had no example in Africa, and badly needed one. So perhaps the sorriest and the most unnecessary blight on the record of this new era is that the precedent for it all, the very first coup in postcolonial African history, the very first political assassination, and the very first junking of a legally constituted democratic system, all took place in a major country and were all instigated by the United States of America. It’s a sad situation when people are left to learn their ‘democracy’ from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. (Kwitny, p. 75)
One cannot understand why the so-called “Third World” remains just that if one does not confront the very harsh realities of episodes from mid-century U.S. foreign policy like the CIA’s attempts to kill Patrice Lumumba. Though mainstream media outlets eventually admit to our sad and tragic “mistakes” made in the distant past and point to “startling revelations” about this and that player and agency involved, they fail to admit the obvious: The United States, for its entire post-WWII history, up to the publication of this article, has almost entirely suppressed, held-back, or outright destroyed freedom-seeking, nationalistic movements on a global scale. It does this through a variety of means, be they the actual targeted assassination of a movement’s leader, the depreciation of a nation’s currency, the overthrow of a regime through a proxy army or CIA-backed coup, or a traditional military invasion.
This is a painful but necessary fact for its citizens to internalize, seeing as it runs counter to almost everything we are told about America in school, on the radio, or in the news. It is acceptable to critique the power structure insofar as that critique points to a technical glitch, a rogue personality, or a tactical error, as in the mainstream media´s common admission now that the Iraq War was a “mistake.” There are no mistakes at that level. The mistake was intended to be a mistake. Destabilization of a region, like the Middle East, or in our case, central Africa, is extremely helpful to people who seek to benefit from chaos. It was enormously profitable for mining interests in the Congo that the region fell into a perpetual civil war or under a brutal dictatorship. It was equally lucrative for hundreds of thousands of Indonesians to be slaughtered by Suharto’s death squads, seeing as parts of his nation contained hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of gold veins. It was a strategic victory for nations like Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, and others on the Project for a New American Century’s list to be decimated since this opened the way for greater geopolitical leverage against other superpowers like Russia and China, while subtly flooding the southern reaches of Europe with refugees, and spawning groups like ISIS and ISIL. What a more honest assessment of U.S. foreign policy would note is that the United States, as Martin Luther King famously noted, still remains the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world,” and yet the average citizen within its borders is blissfully unaware of this fact; and is equally unaware that it was a statement like that which likely got King killed by the very government he sought to change. Like Lumumba, figures like Dr. King, President Kennedy, and Dag Hammarskjold paid the ultimate price for seeking to effect change in the developing world and at home in America’s impoverished communities. And it is this sinister, plausibly deniable ugliness of the United States that is largely to blame.
Editor’s note: the following feature appeared in 2016, and speaks directly to the theme of the Congo’s (and Africa’s) continuing relevance today.