Monday, 23 September 2013 18:29

Philip E. Muehlenbeck, Betting on the Africans

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By showing the difference between Kennedy and what came before and after him, [Muehlenbeck] helps us understand why the prime minister of Somalia later said that "the memory of Kennedy is always alive in us Africans", writes Jim DiEugenio.


Reading Philip Muehlenbeck's Betting on the Africans is a pleasure. And it was a pleasure for more than one reason. First of all, it forms a complement to Richard Mahoney's milestone 1983 book, JFK: Ordeal in Africa. Mahoney's book was a masterful thesis on the formative stages of Kennedy's foreign policy in Southeast Asia and how this impacted his conduct of the epochal Congo crisis. Muehlenbeck's book focuses on the other important countries in Africa that Kennedy dealt with at the time. But second, it discerns subtle characteristics of Kennedy's African policy and why he acted as he did with certain nations. Most of this information was new to this reviewer, who is well versed in Kennedy's foreign policy. Or thought he was. Finally, the book takes us deeper into just how far Kennedy was willing to go in supporting Third World nationalism in opposition to the NATO alliance, and also in opposition to those in his own administration. By doing so, the book further elucidates the almost uncanny sophistication and subtle nuances of Kennedy's vision of the world. A sophistication and subtlety that no president since has either matched or exceeded.

I

Very properly, Muehlenbeck begins the book with the reaction of President Dwight Eisenhower and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to the break up of colonial empires in Africa during the fifties. Here, he states two simple facts. When Eisenhower became president there were only four independent countries in Africa; 23 independent states arose on the continent by 1960. Even though this tremendous wave of colonial liberation took place on the Eisenhower/Dulles watch, not once did the USA ever vote against a European power over a colonial dispute in Africa. Neither did Ike or Dulles criticize colonial rule by any allies. And very often, Eisenhower would find a reason to go golfing when a new African head of state arrived in Washington. (Muehlenbeck, p. 3)

Much of this attitude came from the Dulles State Department. As the author notes, "Dulles believed that Third World nationalism was a tool of Moscow's creation rather than a natural outgrowth of the colonial experience." (p. 4) Dulles thought that this was really a staged move toward communism and Russian hegemony. For instance, in a 1954 State Department paper, the advice was that the USA had to keep Africa stable to keep relations with NATO afloat. Therefore, the Eisenhower administration generally allowed America's African policy to be set in the European capitals of London, Paris, Brussels and Lisbon. (ibid) Even with Portugal – not really a key ally – the best Eisenhower and Dulles would do was abstain from a vote. Although Eisenhower did raise occasional objections on this issue, he invariably followed Dulles' Soviet obsessed lead. In fact, he once said that he disdained having to invite "those niggers" to diplomatic functions. (p. 5) Eisenhower and Dulles even sent "regional" ambassadors to these new countries. That is, one ambassador would serve two , three, or four nations at a time. This was not just condescending, but it made for inefficient delays in action. (ibid) Also, there was very little discernment by Eisenhower or Dulles as to the differences between countries e.g. Niger and Nigeria.

It's little surprise that Richard Nixon shared these types of views. At a National Security Council meeting, the vice-president claimed that "some of the peoples of Africa have been out of the trees for only about fifty years." (p. 6) Budget Director Maurice Stans replied that he "had the impression that many Africans still belonged in trees." This all pointed to another reason why these men of wealth and white privilege did not see any urgency in the upheaval going on in Africa. In their view, they could not understand why these people wanted to be set free, since they clearly had little ability to actually govern themselves or their nations. (ibid) Consequently, Nixon stated for the record his obvious conclusions about democracy and independence in Africa:

We must recognize, although we cannot say it publicly, that we need the strong men of Africa on our side ... Since we must have the strong men of Africa on our side, perhaps we should in some cases develop military strong men as an offset to communist development of labor unions. (p. 7)

In other words, Nixon was already in favor of backing fascist dictators rather than letting the United States help form the democratic experiment in Africa. This from the man who the MSM constantly praised as being a "wise man" in foreign policy.

Because of this inherent deference to its European allies, many times, neither Eisenhower nor Dulles would meet with African foreign dignitaries upon their arrival. (p. 9) Further, when they did, they would limit the publicity allowed. Sometimes actually embargoing any news stories.

To show just how insensitive John Foster Dulles was to the African issue, consider his association with Gamel Abdel Nasser of Egypt. Nasser occupied a very special place in Africa since he was not just the leader of an important African country, but he was also an Arab nationalist whose nation had great geo-political significance because of the location of the Suez Canal. Well, in the face of all this, Secretary of State Dulles tried to get Nasser to join America in a military pact against Russia. (p. 10) Nasser replied that if he did that, he would lose all stature with his populace since they would now see him as a stooge of America. Dulles also would not sell arms to Nasser. So he bought them from Poland. And then Egypt recognized China.

At this point, Dulles decided to make an example out of Nasser. He cut food shipments to the country, and he also cancelled support for the Aswan Dam project. This was a huge miscalculation that provoked two serious repercussions. First, Egypt now decided to occupy the Suez Canal. This caused an invasion of Sinai by England, France and Israel. Which, in turn, caused a showdown at the UN where the USSR and USA backed Egypt and made the invaders leave. Secondly, the Russians eagerly stepped in and supplied the loans necessary to build the dam.

Dulles now decided to do something that, in light of today, was probably even worse. Realizing he had inadvertently built up Nasser in the Arab world, he now decided to try and make King Saud of Saudi Arabia Nasser's counterweight. Saud then signed onto the Eisenhower Doctrine, the idea that the Russians had to be kept out of the Middle East. Most observers saw this as a step to keep Nasser in check. Therefore, the message was that Dulles was siding with royalty and against nationalism. (p. 15) Which is the same thing that Eisenhower and the Dulles brothers did in Iran in 1954.

There was also the Algeria crisis, where France fought a horrible and bloody guerilla war to keep Algeria part of the homeland. At best, one could say that Ike and Dulles sat this one out. Another serious problem Eisenhower had in Africa occurred after Dulles died in 1959. This was the immense Congo crisis. Since Eisenhower and his new Secretary of State Christian Herter decided to, at first, not back Patrice Lumumba, and then approved his assassination, this cooled the attempt by men like Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana to begin cooperative relations with the USA. In fact, when Nkrumah protested the policy of Eisenhower and CIA Director Allen Dulles in Congo, Eisenhower now looked upon Nkrumah as a communist. And as with John Foster Dulles and Nasser, he withdrew support for a pet project of Nkrumah's, the Volta River Dam. (p. 24)

Another opportunity was squandered in the shadow of the Congo crisis. In late 1958, France set the country of Guinea free since it voted down a referendum to stay part of Francophone Africa. Mimicking what Lumumba had done, President Ahmed Sekou Toure first went to Eisenhower and Dulles for aid. They declined the request. He then turned to Russia for help and they gave it to him. In fact, in deference to French President Charles DeGaulle, Eisenhower even initially declined to recognize Guinea as a country. (p. 26) Again, Eisenhower looked upon Toure as being a Red. Especially since he asked for American help in Congo. The most he would offer Toure was 150 scholarships and an English language training program. (p. 27)

As Muehlenbeck makes clear, because of this irrational tendency to see almost all of Africa through the lens of the Cold War, Eisenhower saw the wave of independence that was taking place a "destructive hurricane". But since the USSR saw it, accurately, as a tornado of nationalism they were in a good position to take advantage of the Eisenhower-Dulles blindness. And they did precisely that e.g. the Aswan Dam, Congo and aid to Algerian rebels.

II

As Muehlenbeck notes, for Kennedy, in 1957, the challenge of dealing with European imperialism was "the single most important test of American foreign policy today." That same year, Kennedy made an eloquent and controversial speech on the floor of the Senate in which he attacked the Eisenhower-Dulles policy of sitting on their hands while France now made the same mistake in Algeria as they did in Vietnam. That speech was so powerful that that the French governor in Algiers warned Americans to stay off the streets of the city. He was right, for a bomb went off outside the American consulate there. (p. 36)

In 1958, Kennedy became the chairman of the Foreign Relations sub-committee on Africa. From that position, he urged Eisenhower to meet all the heads of state of the newly freed African nations. For if he did not, "the future of Africa will seriously effect, for better or worse, the future of the USA." (p. 37) Kennedy specifically rejected the so-called evolutionary approach taken by Eisenhower and Dulles, since he understood that all of Africa would soon be set free. Kennedy was intent on creating a new foreign policy that would break out of the confines of the Cold War. Then, and only then, could America respond to the needs of emerging nations in the Third World. Prior to the Democratic convention, he told Harris Wofford that if Stuart Symington or Lyndon Johnson were the nominee "we might as well elect Dulles or Acheson; it would be the same cold-war foreign policy all over again." (p. 37) Kennedy's Undersecretary of State George Ball explained JFK's ideas from a slightly different angle:

Postwar diplomacy had rested largely on the assumption that the United States ... was a status quo power, while the Soviet Union was essentially a revolutionary power, and that the United States would benefit by encouraging stability; the Soviet Union by exploiting turbulence ... The Kennedy Doctrine challenged this approach ... If America failed to encourage the young revolutionaries in the new countries, they would inevitably turn toward the Soviet Union ... America should, therefore, stop trying to sustain traditional societies and ally itself with the side of revolution. (p. xiv)

Kennedy was not kidding. In his speeches during his presidential campaign the candidate mentioned Africa 479 times. (p. 37) One of the things he said to make his point was this: "There are children in Africa named Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. There are none called Lenin or Trotsky – or Nixon." (p. 38) A newspaper in Africa wrote that, "For Africans, as for everybody else, Mr. Kennedy's election is almost as important as it is for Americans." A month after the election, the new president sent a four man team to Africa to bring back a report. It was led by Senator Frank Church. Upon his return Church said that, whenever his team would near a village, an eager crowd would inevitably materialize. They would then begin chanting in unison, "Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy!"

The new president did not disappoint. When he took charge a veritable sea change took place in American policy towards Africa. Frank Church's team filed a report which recommended "sweeping changes in America's attitude towards Africa." Church said that America should "abandon its traditional fence-sitting – arising from links with the colonial powers – in support for African nationalism." (p. 41) As a result, Kennedy's first State Department appointee was G. Mennen Williams to the office of Assistant Secretary for African affairs. A former governor of Michigan, Williams was a champion of civil rights. In fact he was so staunch on this issue that Kennedy could not appoint him as Secretary of State – a move he briefly contemplated – because he knew that southern senators would filibuster him. So he placed him in a "position of responsibility second to none in the new administration." (p. 42) He and Williams then reversed previous policy and appointed ambassadors to individual countries. But further, they appointed ambassadors who were conversant in the local language, who understood the culture, and were sympathetic to the problems of the emerging continent. For instance, William Attwood – who would later become famous as Kennedy's back channel messenger to Castro – specifically requested to be posted to Guinea. Kennedy and Williams wanted ambassadors who were interested in restoring America's image in a previously ignored place.

As the author outlines it, Kennedy's overall African program had four overall aims:

  1. To oppose European colonialism
  2. To accept African non-alignment
  3. To Initiate economic programs and development
  4. To exercise personal diplomacy to build relationships

In fact, Kennedy issued a specific executive order, NSAM 16, which discarded the Eisenhower trait of deferring American policy in Africa to its European allies. (p. 45) Or as Williams stated in public, "What we want for the Africans is what the Africans want for themselves." This was later misreported as Williams saying, "Africa for the Africans". It was a mangling that the Africans very much liked and Williams did not hotly dispute.

III

Williams and Kennedy placed the new program into effect quickly. In the summer of 1961 they began to apply pressure on Portugal to set free its colony of Angola.. To further hammer the point home, Kennedy then began to aid the Angolan nationalists fighting for their freedom (p. 46)

In his first year in office, Kennedy quintupled Eisenhower's aid package to Africa. (p. 47) And unlike his predecessor, Kennedy began to shift the money in these aid packages from being primarily military to being primarily social and economic aid. In another break with the past, in April of 1961, Kennedy threw open the doors of the White House to the Foreign Service staffs of African missions in the District of Columbia. He even invited African exchange students studying in America to African Freedom Day ceremonies at the White House. An event at which he himself was in attendance and where he mixed in with the guests. (p. 49) This gesture was not symbolic. As Muehlenbeck notes, by the time of his assassination, President Kennedy had formally met with no less than 28 African heads of state. To illustrate the point, the author notes that this comes out to about one per month. Eisenhower's average was about one per year. As Muehlenbeck further notes, many of these meetings went well past the time the appointment was allotted for in JFK's schedule. Further, Kennedy would invariably punctuate the meeting by taking his guest upstairs to meet his wife and daughter. This was done to accent the personal interest the president had in seeing these men succeed in their new endeavor. To say this new approach worked does not do it justice. As Somali prime minister Abdirashid Aki Shermarke later noted, Kennedy had a unique ability "to make himself a friend – immediately." He then added that after his meeting, "I had an unlimited respect for the man; an unlimited respect for the man, beyond any doubt." (p. 51)

Kennedy's new approach was fully complemented by Williams' devotion to his task. He was anything but a stay at home secretary. Williams took tours to Africa eleven times. (p. 53) In one year he spent 100 days abroad. As Muehlenbeck notes, all of this was simply unprecedented in the diplomatic annals of American relations with Africa.

As Richard Mahoney fully noted, although Patrice Lumumba was killed before Kennedy was inaugurated, the announcement was made after he was in office. This may have been done by Allen Dulles to somehow impute blame to Kennedy. Even though Kennedy actually favored Lumumba and had nothing at all to do with his murder. In fact, some observers feel that Lumumba was killed when he was simply because of the fact that Dulles knew Kennedy would take his side in the Congo dispute. Because of this probable tactical maneuver, Kennedy sent William Attwood to personally visit with Sekou Toure of Guinea since he understood what Lumumba meant to these new leaders. Attwood then briefed Kennedy on the meeting and Kennedy approved an extensive aid program for Guinea which included funding for a future dam. (p. 63) Then, after personally speaking with the nation's ambassador in Washington, he sent his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, to the country for a goodwill visit. Toure's discussion with Shriver confirmed that Kennedy's policy was correct. Toure said, "We don't want to become an extension of any foreign political, economic or military system – or a colony of the Soviet Union , the United States, or anybody." (p. 64) He said that with all the problems colonialism had left him with, he had no time for "ideological abstractions." Shriver replied that the USA had no intent to Americanize any country, but he believed that the rich must share the fruits of the earth with the poor to begin to form a basis for equality. Toure liked Shriver so much that he invited him to meet with his entire cabinet. The two then went on an impromptu 160 mile motorcade drive through the countryside, occasionally stopping to give speeches. These speeches would occasionally be finalized with cheers of, "Long live the United States! Long live President Kennedy!" (ibid) When Shriver returned he said that he saw pictures of Toure and Kennedy inside the huts in the poorest villages. He saw none of Castro or Khrushchev. In fact, Toure later kicked out the Soviet ambassador for creating Marxist study groups among students. (p. 67)

Kennedy then invited Toure to visit Washington. Kennedy actually greeted him at the airport. He then took him to the White House to meet his wife and child and share a glass of sherry. At a luncheon that followed, Toure offered a public toast to his host by saying, "Africa is independent today thanks to people like yourself." (p. 68) When he returned home, he told his countrymen that he thought Kennedy fully understood the special problems they faced and was committed to helping them find solutions.

In 1963, Shriver visited the country again to inaugurate a trade fair. Toure stood beside him and said that African leaders must now realize the value of working with the USA. Further, that American help "is contrary to what we were told, the most disinterested, the most effective and the most responsive to our real needs." After the first meeting of the Organization for African Unity in May of 1963, Toure sent Kennedy a letter briefing him about the proceedings. He had rejected offers of French and Russian aid and wished to cooperate with Kennedy on a resolution to the Congo crisis. As the reader can see, Kennedy had moved Toure from being alienated by the Congo crisis and sympathetic to the USSR, to being very much in the Kennedy camp. It had been so sensitively and skillfully done that even Eisenhower's former ambassador to Guinea praised Kennedy's accomplishment. (p. 71)

Another revolutionary leader who was deeply disappointed by America's handling of the Congo crisis and the killing of Lumumba was Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana. The USSR tried to take advantage of this by changing the name of one of its colleges to Patrice Lumumba University. The USSR also told Nkrumah that it would help him build a dam on the Volta River and invite him to Moscow for a state visit. (p. 77)

Kennedy wanted not so much to move Nkrumah into the American camp but to keep him neutral or non-aligned. This is a key point that Muehlenbeck wants to make. Whereas Eisenhower and Dulles considered neutrality a sin, or in some cases – as with Achmed Sukarno of Indonesia – almost as bad as communism, Kennedy welcomed it. As with Shriver's discussion with Toure, JFK understood that when a person was in desperate straits, it did not matter who sent the help. Therefore he considered non-alignment to constitute a level playing field. As long as America was intent on understanding and solving problems, he could compete and win in this contest with the USSR.

Therefore in order to keep Nkrumah in the non-aligned camp, he arranged to meet with him in Washington. Kennedy thoroughly explained to him what his stance on Congo was. (Click here for a summary of JFK's policy there.) Nkrumah then told Kennedy that he was not a communist and there was not a single organized communist party in sub-Sahara Africa. Kennedy understood all this since his special economic advisor on African affairs was English economist Barbara Ward. Ward was very interested in helping colonized economies develop out of poverty. And she was particularly friendly with Nkrumah. She was intent on convincing Kennedy to back the Volta River Dam project which she knew was very important to both Ghana and its leader Nkrumah. She told JFK that if he did not do this, then as with Nasser and the Aswan Dam, Nkrumah would get help from the Russians for it. (p. 82)

Kennedy took her advice. He personally intervened with the World Bank to get approval for the dam. But the mercurial Nkrumah visited Moscow anyway. Kennedy was urged by many to drop Nkrumah at this point. He was even encouraged to do so by his father and his brother Robert Kennedy. But Ward was steady in insisting this would be a mistake. She told Kennedy that not only would Kennedy's aid on this turn Nkrumah, it would serve as a great example to the young nations of Africa to show that the USA understood them on a non-ideological basis. Kennedy decided to stay the course with Ward. He wrote her, "We have put quite a few chips on a very dark horse indeed, but I believe the gamble is worthwhile." (p. 87) He understood that by cooperating with Nkrumah it would particularly help him with Nkrumah's colleague, the first president of Senegal, Leopold Sedar Senghor. In fact, Kennedy did something Eisenhower or Dulles would never do: he actually asked Senghor for advice on the issue. Senghor told him to commit to the project. Kennedy took the advice and did so. (p. 90) Kennedy also decided that to keep Nkrumah non-aligned, he had to switch to a more sympathetic ambassador. So he appointed another staunch advocate of civil rights and African nationalism to the post, William Mahoney. With these moves, the dam project went forward with American help, and Nkrumah stayed in the non-aligned camp. This greatly helped the American image in Africa.

IV

As Muehlenbeck notes, Kennedy and his ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, did something else that Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles never did. And they did it less than two months after Kennedy was sworn in. On March 15, 1961 Stevenson startled the diplomatic world by casting a vote in favor of a Liberian resolution calling for a reform program to gain the independence of Angola from Portugal. In voting against an original NATO ally, Kennedy and Stevenson were voting with the USSR. Further, America was voting against France and England, its two most important allies in Europe. In doing so, Kennedy fulfilled a campaign promise he had made. He had said he would not allow the USA to abstain from every UN resolution, or trade its vote for other supposed gains in order to seek to "prevent subjugated people from being heard." (p. 97) Even the usually somnolent New York Times understood the significance of Stevenson's vote. The Grey Lady called this, "a major shift in American foreign policy on the part of the Kennedy administration" and in " a very real sense a new Declaration of Independence." (ibid) Kennedy understood that if he had not done this, it would have been a blow to his non-aligned policy. For then the USSR would have been the only great power in the Caucasian world to side against colonialism.

To put it mildly, the Portugese did not like the vote. Twenty thousand Portugese citizens picketed the American embassy in Lisbon. They actually began stoning the compound. Truman's Secretary of State Dean Acheson criticized Kennedy for voting against a NATO ally. Kennedy further antagonized Portugal by organizing a scholarship program for Angolan students and aiding the Angolan rebels. (p. 102)

Kennedy understood that this vote would greatly help him with the emerging leaders, and especially with Julius Nyerere of Tanganyika. Because when Neyerere went to the UN in 1954 to lobby for such a resolution for his country, Dulles and Eisenhower limited the young African freedom fighter to a 24 hour visa and an 8 block travel radius for visitation. So Nyerere saw that this 1961 vote signaled a sea change. He visited Kennedy in Washington in July of 1961 and later became close friends with Robert Kennedy. (p. 100) This was in spite of the fact that upon Tanganyika's independence it was one of the worst off nations in Africa: 85% of the inhabitants were illiterate, less than half of the children were in school and the country had no university. (p. 105) Kennedy further angered Portugal by backing Eduardo Mondlane of Mozambique, another Portguese colony. Mondlane was the leader of the rebel group FRELIMO. He was assassinated in 1969. Many believe it was by the Portugese secret services.

How far was Kennedy willing to go in order to get Portugal to set free all of its African colonies? How about bribery. He actually offered to give Portugal a stipend of 500 million dollars a year for eight years if they would do so. Which in today's currency would probably be about 16 billion dollars. Portugal turned it down. (p. 107)

As with Congo, Kennedy's policy was so radical that it now began to be attacked by conservatives in congress. Senator John Tower of Texas called Kennedy's African policy a "horrendous failure". He said Kennedy had waged an indiscriminate anti-colonial crusade. Referring to the autocratic Prime Minister of Portugal Antonio Salazar, Tower declared that "if Angola and Mozambique are wrested from Portugal, the fall of the Salazar government is a possibility ... In turn the succession of a pro-communist government is not unlikely." To complete the specter of communism, he then added that this is what happened with Castro in Cuba. (p. 115) But as with the opposition of Senator Thomas Dodd on Congo, Kennedy proceeded anyway. He now announced an arms embargo against South Africa and the integration of all American facilities there. (p. 118)

Muehlenbeck concludes that this program by Kennedy against Portugal was so radical that even people in his own State Department rebelled against it. Especially when Salazar now began to use landing rights in the Azores as a counterweight to get Kennedy to let up. Because of the Missile Crisis, Kennedy partly did let up. But the author concludes that no other president to that time did more to "support African nationalism and oppose South African apartheid" than did Kennedy. As Nyerere said, "The Americans are trying to adjust themselves to Russia, thanks to Kennedy ... Kennedy – I have great respect for that man; he was a good man, a great man." (p. 121) As we will see, Nyerere's hopes were later dashed by Johnson and Nixon.

V

Perhaps the most fascinating part of Betting on the Africans is the section on Kennedy's relations with Gamel Abdel Nasser of Egypt. As noted above, in light of John Foster Dulles' relation with Nasser, Kennedy had his work cut out for him on this front. But he was intent on trying to make sure that Nasser stayed non-aligned, and further that the United States not be seen as being closely allied with the royalist nation of Saudi Arabia. Kennedy understood that the geography and location of Egypt, plus the fact that Nasser was seen as an Arab nationalist in Africa made him a crucial leader in both Africa and the Middle East. But beyond that, Kennedy also understood that Nasser was a charismatic and active politician who understood that he could influence events and leaders both on his continent and in the Arab world. In a clear reference to the Dulles-Nasser imbroglio over Aswan, Kennedy said:

If we can learn the lessons of the past – if we can refrain from pressing our case so hard that the Arabs feel their neutrality and nationalism are threatened, the Middle East can become an area of strength and hope. (p. 124)

In light of what has happened today in that sector, Kennedy's words seem as wise as they are forlorn.

Kennedy appointed Dr. John S. Badeau as the American ambassador to Egypt. Badeau headed the Near East Foundation, he spoke Arabic and probably had more knowledge of the history of Egypt than any other American. Plus, he already knew both Nasser and Speaker of the National Assembly Anwar El Sadat. Kennedy thought that the USA had to ally itself with men like Nasser rather than with the corrupt and conservative Arab regimes which really did not have any popular support. And he told McGeorge Bundy to put improved relations with Egypt near the top of his foreign policy objectives for the New Frontier. One of his first acts was to offer Nasser a ten million dollar grant to preserve ancient monuments in the Nile Valley. (p. 125)

Like others, Nasser was befuddled by the American conduct in the Congo crisis. But after seeing how Kennedy reversed Eisenhower's policies there, he toned down both his anti-American and anti-Israeli rhetoric. (p. 127) In return, after Syria left the United Arab Republic in 1961, Kennedy extended 500 million dollars in loans to Egypt to stabilize the economy.

But to further show his favoritism toward Nasser, Kennedy did something to demonstrate his breakage with the Dulles-Eisenhower policy. Saudi Arabian monarch King Saud had to take up residence in a Boston hospital for a medical condition in 1961. As Muehlenbeck writes, "For Kennedy the Saudi monarchy was an archaic relic of the past and Nasser was the wave of the future." (p. 133) So not only did Kennedy not visit Saud in the hospital, even though it was his hometown, he instead went to Palm Beach, Florida so as not to even be near him. To Kennedy, Saud exemplified brutality, cronyism, and economic and civil rights abuses. After constant badgering from the State Department, Kennedy did visit Saud after he left the hospital and went to a convalescent home. But on his way he said to his companion, "What am I doing calling on this guy." (p. 134)

How far did Kennedy go in his backing of Nasser? During the civil war in Yemen, Nasser backed Abdullah al-Sallal against the last Mutawakklite King of Yemen, Muhammad al-Badr. Saudi Arabia supported Badr in order to beat back Nasser and nationalism. To show his support for Nasser, Kennedy recognized al-Sallal. He did this even when both Harold McMillan of England and Golda Meir of Israel criticized him for doing so. (p. 135) Kennedy finally sent veteran diplomat Ellsworth Bunker to broker a Nasser-Saud deal to pull out their support. Nasser cooperated only because of his admiration for Kennedy. In fact, Kennedy was so supportive of Nasser and Ben Bella of Algeria that the senate passed the Gruening Amendment to limit his aid to both of them. As the author notes, Kennedy's support for Nasser and Bella stalled the growth of anti-Americanism throughout the Middle East.

To illustrate just how determined Kennedy was in having the new nations of Africa stay independent and not be subject to imperialism from any sector, Muehlenbeck notes that President Kennedy decided that if he had to butt heads with Charles DeGaulle over Africa, then he would do so. Prior to Kennedy, Eisenhower and Dulles clearly let France have its way in Francophone Africa. Their conduct during the Algerian War for independence typified this stance. And when Kennedy criticized their inability to confront France on the issue, Eisenhower and Dulles then attacked Kennedy. Kennedy also understood that although France granted many of their states freedom in 1960, DeGaulle planned on keeping optimum influence there and other countries out of that sphere. For instance, on the day independence was made legal, France did not invite any other foreign dignitaries to the ceremonies. Further, DeGaulle favored those states which decided to stay affiliated with France instead of those who wanted to break away completely. For instance, he gave only one of the former French states aid, and it was the paltry sum of $100, 000. Kennedy targeted the countries ignored by France. By 1962, he had given them 30 million dollars. (p. 161) Further, DeGaulle backed Moise Tshombe in the Congo crisis. (p. 166)

Therefore, Kennedy saw French influence in Africa as being retrograde. And he decided he was going to compete with France in Africa even if it meant endangering his alliance with DeGaulle. He sent an ambassador to each former French colony and offered each one an aid package. He even decided to compete with France in places she was strongest, like the Ivory Coast. In Gabon, which had large deposits of uranium, Kennedy decided to actually back the opposition to the French leaning leader. In fact, the American ambassador there actually met with the opposition leaders. Kennedy was so interested in this issue that he commissioned a paper in November of 1963 to study all the French objectives and strategies in Africa and to come up with ways to counter them.

VI

All of this paid off royally during the Cuban Missile Crisis. There was a great fear by the Pentagon that if the crisis was prolonged and the quarantine line had to be maintained for a long time, the Russians would use air strips in Africa to create and sustain a huge airlift project. This would be similar to what the USA and President Truman did during the Berlin Airlift. Therefore, to stop that contingency from happening Kennedy had to target the countries that could make this possible and have them agree to deny the Russians both overflight rights and refueling stops. The total of requests made was to 16 nations: 5 for refueling and 11 for overflights.

Nkrumah wanted to see the evidence that the Russians were actually installing missiles in Cuba. When the ambassador showed him the U-2 photos, Nkrumah wrote a letter to Kennedy saying, "I appeal to you personally in the name of humanity to see to it that this calamity is averted. The world will be greatly beholden to you if you can save it at this critical moment." (p. 218)

In Senegal, Senghor was in a tough situation since he had an agreement with Czechoslovakia for refueling rights. Kennedy sent him a personal letter which arrived in the middle of the night. Senghor awoke when he heard it was from Kennedy. He then called a cabinet meeting. The vote was to refuse the refueling rights. (p. 218) This decision was so unpopular that there was a leftist coup against Senghor two months later which failed.

In the end all 16 requests were accepted. The Russian airlift was thwarted before it could begin. This reviewer has never seen this important aspect of the Missile Crisis explicated nearly as well as it is here.

As the author notes, Kennedy's extraordinary activism in Africa was made all the more exceptional when one considers the fact that very few people knew or cared about these new countries. And further, that there was no significant export or import market there. Africa made up only 3% of the American export market. In fact, if Kennedy had abided by European colonialism, businesses would have liked it more. Because corporations looked upon the new leaders of Africa as too mercurial and their nations too unstable for large investments. All in all, Kennedy had more official visits with African heads of state than any previous president. And, in constant dollars, he gave more foreign aid to Africa per year than any president ever. (p. 224) Kennedy ignored the business aspect in order to stay true to his vision. Or as one State Department officer said, "Kennedy had successfully changed our foreign policy alignment from an east-west rivalry to a north-south struggle for mutual understanding and cooperation." (p. 227) Another said, "Africans were revolutionaries overthrowing colonial powers and that is what Kennedy was in their minds, he was a revolutionary leader – young and overthrowing the colonial powers."

This, of course was all dropped when LBJ became president. As the author notes, Johnson had little interest in Africa and was much more focused on Vietnam. (p. 231) He did not even know where Nkrumah was from. Johnson was criticized by Ben Bella and Nasser for his tilt toward Israel in the 1967 war. When Johnson favored Moise Tshombe in Congo, Stevenson said that the USA had gone from champions to being viewed as badly as the Belgians in Africa. Nixon then cut aid to Africa to 29% of its 1962 sum and targeted only ten countries with it. The brief and great years of understanding and aid were over. The decades of neglect would now begin.

But the memory lingered. When Harris Wofford visited Africa in the late eighties he said that "in the homes of ordinary people no other American president or world leader had joined the faded photographs of Kennedy." (p. 233) The first leader of Cameroon, Ahmadou Ahidjo, kept a huge picture of Kennedy in the reception room of his residential compound for decades after his death. He would greet his guests there by pointing to it and saying, "Well, that's my hero." (p. 253)

When news of Kennedy's murder arrived in Africa the outpouring of grief was overwhelming. In Nairobi, Kenya 6,000 people crammed into a cathedral for a memorial service. Sekou Toure said "I have lost my only true friend in the outside world." He then issued a stamp in honor of Kennedy. (p. 227) Ben Bella called the American embassy and was obviously shaken. Weepingly he said, "I don't believe it. Believe me, I'd rather it happen to me than him." (ibid) A week later he named a large square in a suburb of Algiers after Kennedy, the first time that had happened with a non-African. Neyerere stayed up late listening to the news from Dallas. He then went to sleep. He then got up in the middle of the night, dressed and went to his office. He then exclaimed, "My God why have I dressed, why have I come here? There is nothing any of us can do about it." When Nasser heard the news he sank into a deep depression. The entire film of Kennedy's funeral was then shown four times on Cairo television. (p. 228) When Nkrumah got the news he called the ambassador. He asked him if there was anything he could do. The ambassador said he could say a prayer. Nkrumah replied, "I am already on my knees." The president of the Ivory Coast declared two days of national mourning. When the American ambassador to that country arrived at work the next morning, there was a strange man waiting for him. He told him he had no official business. He ran a shop about forty miles away. He said, "I came here this morning to simply say that I never knew President Kennedy. I never saw President Kennedy. But he was my friend." (p. 228) As one magazine in Africa wrote, "Not even the death of Hammarskjold dismayed Africans as much as did the death of John Kennedy."

Philip Muehlenbeck has done a laudatory job in further elucidating a complex subject and a complex man. Showing us all that 50 years later, we are still discovering new things about Kennedy's incredibly complex view of the world. By doing so, and by showing the difference between Kennedy and what came before and after him, he helps us understand why the prime minister of Somalia later said that "the memory of Kennedy is always alive in us Africans." These are the kind of books we need today about the presidency of John F. Kennedy. A book like this is worth two by Thurston Clarke and five by Robert Dallek. Muehlenbeck did what the historian is supposed to do. He has forged new frontiers by finding new facts. His book joins the short shelf of volumes that are necessary in understanding who President Kennedy really was. And also, perhaps, why he was assassinated.

Last modified on Saturday, 19 November 2016 19:39
James DiEugenio

One of the most respected researchers and writers on the political assassinations of the 1960s, Jim DiEugenio is the author of two books, Destiny Betrayed (1992/2012) and Reclaiming Parkland (2013/2016), co-author of The Assassinations, and co-edited Probe Magazine (1993-2000).   See "About Us" for a fuller bio.

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