Shadow Wars: Cold War Foreign Policy in Africa

Written by: Jack Bennett

The international political, economic and military landscape was chilled by the ongoing tensions between the USA and USSR during the Cold War. These hostilities contributed to the flaring of ‘hot conflicts’ through ‘proxy wars’ across Africa following the process of decolonisation during the latter half of the twentieth century. These declarations of diplomatic and military power created an arena in which the fundamental ideological dichotomy between democracy and communism could be fought out. Within this international climate the United States engaged in an exceptionalist foreign policy. This doctrine was based on the notion that the United States was internationally distinctive by upholding Enlightenment values of liberty, democracy and freedom, defining the nation’s mission to spread these foundational principles. As a result, American intelligence agencies played kingmakers across the African continent during the Cold War, financing and overseeing coups to install biddable rulers in an attempt to ward off the threat of communist encroachment.

At the opening of the decade in 1960, the Congo Crisis erupted following the declaration of independence. For five years, widespread violence and suppression of political and military opposition ensued under the nationalistic, communist-inspired leadership of Patrice Lumumba. The question of who controlled the southern region of the Congo was of particular diplomatic concern and conflict between The United States and Soviet Union, as it was a location rich in uranium deposits. As Lumumba resorted to Soviet military support in the systematic suppression of rebel factions, the CIA director Allen Dulles’ declaration that Lumumba was ‘a Castro or worse’ encapsulates the anxieties surrounding the United States’ ideological stance of exceptionalism during the Cold War. As a consequence, US finances secured the loyalty of Colonel Joseph-Desire Mobutu, whom the CIA believed to be ‘childish’ and easily led. Mobutu utilised American economic support, financing an army in order to expel the Soviets. Additionally, he detained Lumumba, who was murdered soon afterwards. Even the assassination of Lumumba in 1961, rumoured to have been conducted through the espionage-movie like use of poisoned toothpaste according to Kalb (1982), serves to highlight the exceptionalist autonomy asserted by the United States through these proxy shadow wars.

Declarations of independence followed decolonisation elsewhere in Africa, leading to further instability and other examples of proxy engagement by the United States and the Soviet Union. Examples include both the Ogaden War from 1977 to 1978, which was rooted in the ongoing political and social tensions surrounding the independence, and the partition of Somalia in 1960. In the context of the Cold War, the United States’ unwillingness to intervene on behalf of the Somali regime, President Carter’s lack of expediency in confronting communist aggression, and the Soviet victory prompting their invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 led to a gradual decline of détente between the United States and the Soviet Union. Additionally, the protracted Angolan Civil War from 1975 until 2002 further elucidates the interrelationship between domestic ethno-political divisions following decolonisation, and the ideological conflict underpinning the Cold War between capitalism and communism. We can therefore see the concept of exceptionalism greatly influencing the United States’ foreign policy, both in their attempt to transplant democratic frameworks onto newly independent nations undergoing conflict-ridden processes of decolonisation, and in their simultaneous prevention of the spread of communism into these vulnerable, developing states.

However, both international superpowers tended to suborn local strongmen with military backgrounds and authoritarian instincts, whether or not these dictators had any ideological commitment to communism or capitalist democracy. Turse (2015) argues that the actions of the United States during this time period only produced chaos and destabilisation of the region. They were motivated by the economic advantages seen in developing diplomatic ties with newly independent African states, as opposed to the idealist vision of democratisation. Furthermore, following the Soviet Union’s support of General Nasser in Egypt in 1955, the US was convinced that ‘democratic’ Africa was fragile and prepared to embrace authoritarian but reliable alternatives by 1958. This reveals the limitations in underpinning the pursuit and support of proxy conflicts by the United States’ with exceptionalist ideologies during this time period. For example, the US Secretary of State, John F. Dulles, argued that it was imperative for America “to fill the vacuum of power which the British filled for a century”. The US, therefore, welcomed the rule of General Ibrahim Abboud, who had in November 1958 seized power in recently independent Sudan, declaring himself an enemy of communism and Nasser. Through these foreign policy manoeuvrings and strategies of supporting anti-communist groups and resistance movements in recently decolonised African states, the United States’ aimed to politically, economically and militarily ‘roll back’ the global encroaching influence of the Soviet Union in an attempt to end the Cold War. Even if that meant adopting a neo-imperialist and hegemonic projection of diplomatic and military power.

During the proxy rivalry in which Africa was embroiled over the next 30 years, the concept of American exceptionalism clearly prevailed in determining this geographic strategy in the political, ideology and economic projection of power during the Cold War. Despite no direct military engagement between the US and USSR, the two superpowers clashed through their respective support of opposing regimes. Ultimately, it can be argued that America came out of these proxy wars victorious, asserting their dominance in the face of Soviet expansionist efforts. With the ideological influence of exceptionalism shaping the foreign policy actions pursued in Africa during the 1960s, the USA fundamentally aimed to spread American concepts of liberty, freedom and democracy globally at a time of political division and opposition to communism. However, it is important to consider the ramifications for Africa as a continent left to pick up the pieces after decades of political and social turmoil. The development and proliferation of corrupt dictatorships, civil wars, environmental destruction, social turmoil and economic instability clearly define the Cold War’s lasting legacy.


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Dearborn, J. A.  Exceptionalist-in-Chief: Presidents, American Exceptionalism, and U.S. Foreign Policy Since 1897. Mansfield: University of Connecticut, 2013.

Hollington, K. Wolves, Jackals and Foxes: The Assassins Who Changed History. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007.

James, L. ‘Africa’s Proxy Cold War’, BBC World Histories, Issue 3, April/May.

Kalb, M. G. The Congo Cables: The Cold War in Africa – from Eisenhower to Kennedy, Macmillan, 1982.

Madsen, D. L. American Exceptionalism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998

Naimark, N. ‘Becoming Global, Becoming National’ in N. Naimark, S. Pons, & S. Quinn-Judge (Eds.), The Cambridge History of Communism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2017.Turse, N. Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015.

Image: Somalian troops,

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