As U.S. Independence in 1776 is Celebrated What Has Happened to the US Anticolonial Image?

An officer of the U.S. Command for Africa (Africom) salutes Congolese troops in preparation for a joint military exercise in Eastern Congo. (Photo by Africom)

I want to address in this blog the view widely held among Congolese in the 1960’s of the United States as an anticolonial nation. In previous posts I have written how many Congolese bought into Mobutu’s description of the U.S. as a friendly superpower opposed to the further exploitation of their new nation by the former Belgian colonizers.  Like others who had experienced European colonialism, Congolese remembered the colonial era as degrading, humiliating and undermining of their status as equal human beings.   The U.S. provided grounds for hope as a colony of Great Britain that had succeeded in founding a strong independent nation.  Some among the Congo’s leaders thought our leaders would readily identify with the 20th Century colonies’ struggles for independence.  And with Congo’s vast potential given its wealth in natural resources, a trusting partnership with the U.S. held great promise.

As many African nations and a few in Asia gained independence in the 1960’s the U.S. could have enjoyed an image in international forums and politics as a champion and a model for the new nations.  Unfortunately, the U.S. quickly squandered that opportunity as a brief look back at the year 1961 will reveal.

The year began with the assassination of Patrice Lumumba by Belgian officials with the complicity of the U.S. Embassy and Central Intelligence Agency operatives.  That was followed in the spring by the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by U.S. supplied and trained troops intent on overthrowing the Castro regime.  And with little opposition in the Kennedy administration the number of American “advisers” in South Vietnam increased. In the closing months of 1961 the U.S. planned and the South Vietnamese army had begun implementation of the “strategic hamlet program”.  This response to the guerrilla warfare tactics of the Viet Cong failed as did subsequent strategies to counter the Vietnamese people’s struggle for freedom from foreign rule.

Three major failures of the post WW II U.S. foreign policy and all can be attributed to the Kennedy Administration prioritizing the singular focus of the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations’ foreign policies. Our U.S. “establishment” remained focused on countering Russian and Chinese influence with military intervention.  They upheld the post-War image of the U.S. as the foremost defender of the western democracies and their former colonies threatened by Communist expansion.     

In the middle of the fateful 1961, Kennedy had a verbal confrontation with Soviet Premier Krushchev and two months later the Berlin Wall was constructed.  As a result, Soviet and Chinese Communism was feared even more as the greatest threat to world security and peace.  Kennedy told the New York Times that year, “Now we have a problem making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place.”

Rather than embrace its image as an anti-colonial model and “new” highly successful nation, we led the way in 1961 in siding with the European elites who benefited most from colonial rule.  In Congo, Lumumba died in Katanga, the province rich in copper and led at independence by a Congolese elite already corrupted by the Belgians with mining interests.  When Tshombe’s value to them waned, it was time for the lowly Colonel Mobutu to take control of the federal government and the marketing of the nation’s resources. Destroyed with his vicious murder were Lumumba’s hopes, shared by Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh, that the U.S. might want to preserve its anti-colonial legacy and pursue a mutually beneficial relationship with the new post-colonial leaders guided by their people’s vision of economic and political self-determination.

Many in the U.S. today are asking what went wrong with our political system to allow our civil and human rights to be gradually rescinded by the Supreme Court.  How could one of the two major political parties be bent on establishing rule by a minority of the voters as an election strategy?  One way to trace where the nation jumped off the track is to consider our resistance to the changes made possible by the new nations’ advances to self rule. Neither Nkrumah nor Lumumba nor most other African leaders were steeped in Communist theory or saw their nations as partisans of the Communist bloc. In the U.S. however, both major parties, the national media and a preponderance of our influential leaders identified authentic self determination of the former colonies as Communist-inspired.  This justified spiraling expenditures on military defense in response to the world wide march of the majority of the world’s people.  While Islamist terrorism has replaced the threat of Communist expansion, there remains little consideration of how our military presence defends the status quo and squelches the hopes and the rule of the majority of people in many nations today. 

Kinshasa expressway improved with China’s assistance through the worldwide Belt and Road Initiative of the Chinese. (Photo by The Guardian)

The enduring U.S. focus on military defense and security contrasts in a distressing manner with the Chinese emphasis on aid for African infrastructure construction.  Most of the African nations have signed on to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative and continue to welcome the benefits to marketing and trade of improved roads, ports and rail facilities.  Meanwhile, the major U.S. aid for the continent over the last twenty years has been the development of the Africom military defense network to counter Islamist terrorism.