Book Launch -- Engaging Africa: Washington and the Fall of Portugal's Colonial Empire
Witney Schneidman, Author and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa
Discussant: Amb. Johnnie Carson, Senior Vice-President, National Defense University
Moderator: Howard Wolpe, Director, Africa Program
Witney Schneidman's diplomatic history of U.S. relations with Portugal during the Cold War was the focus of a book launch jointly sponsored by the Africa Program and the Cold War International History Project. Schneidman's talk laid out the intricate diplomatic maneuvers in Washington, Lisbon and Africa, as the U.S. sought to advanced the independence of Portugal's colonies without losing Portuguese assistance in its Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union.
Schneidman argued that there were two quite distinctive ways in which the U.S. viewed Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. The first view, espoused by the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, was that African nationalism was a burgeoning movement, and that U.S. policy should acknowledge and engage African nationalists directly in order to identify the United States with African political aspirations. The second position, which dominated the approach of the Nixon and Ford administrations, viewed Africa as one of many arenas of the global struggle between NATO and the Soviet Union, and Africa policy as a function of broader Cold War interests.
Across the Atlantic, Portuguese Africa policy was being shaped by very different principles. Portugal considered itself an agent of "civilization," and viewed its colonies as an integral part of its national empire. Salazar, the nation's autocratic ruler, was in many ways an anachronism in the late 20th century, according to Schneidman, who quoted one American diplomat as saying that Salazar conducted foreign policy as if "Prince Henry the Navigator, Vasco de Gamma and Ferdinand Magellan were his closest advisors." As Britain and France saw their empires dissolve in a wave of nationalist movements, the Salazar regime maintained that it would be spared this anti-colonial backlash, because of what it termed, "Lusotropicalism." The regime propagated the belief that, unlike other Europeans, the Portuguese were racially predisposed to living in tropical regions, and thus ruled their colonies with greater wisdom and benevolence than other European powers.
This mythology was challenged in 1961, when nationalist insurgents launched a guerilla war seeking independence for the then-colony of Angola. Portugal's swift and bloody response—using American-supplied weapons that had been earmarked for NATO use—drew stern condemnation from the U.S. State Department and a follow-on arms embargo. Infuriated by American proposals for gradual Portuguese withdrawal from Angola (in exchange for U.S. economic aid), and by ongoing contacts between the State Department and some of the Angolan rebels, Salazar played Portugal's trump card. He threatened that if the U.S. did not back Portugal, he would revoke American access to the Azores, a strategic refueling point that served 70% of the military flights to Europe and the Middle East, and was vital in monitoring Soviet naval activity in the Atlantic. The prospect of losing the access to the Azores terrified American military planners. Following Kennedy's assassination the U.S. government began increasingly to elevate its ties with Portugal over the goal of decolonization. This policy shift began under the Johnson administration, and became the established U.S. position under Nixon and Kissinger.
During the Nixon years, the fear of losing access to the Azores was so intense that when a coup d'etat in Lisbon brought General Spinola, a veteran of the counterinsurgency in Guinea-Bissau, to power, American planners contemplated forcing a countercoup in the Azores in order to install a government that would be predisposed to formally request that the islands join the United States. Schneidman closed by noting that while Spinola ultimately granted Angola its independence, the U.S. continued to back anti-communist guerrilla movements in Angola. The super-power rivalry had the effect of plunging the country into more than two decades of civil war.
Following Schneidman's remarks, Ambassador Johnnie Carson observed that during the Cold War U.S. policy was driven primarily by the desire to counter Soviet, Chinese and Cuban influence in Africa. He noted that despite the tensions with the U.S., Portugal overcame its autocratic leadership and became a stable and successful democracy; its African colonies, however, did not follow the same path. The events detailed in Schneidman's book, he said, should be a cautionary example that U.S. foreign policy best serves the U.S. and the world when it is designed to achieve long-term successes and is consistent with American democratic principles. The tragedy of the Cold War was that both the U.S. and the Soviet Union were focused only on short-term objectives and consequently destroyed the long-term prospects for African countries with which they were engaged.
In the question-and-answer session that followed the presentations of Schneidman and Carson, particular attention was drawn to the internal politics in Washington that shaped the U.S. stance toward Lusophone Africa. Schneidman and others noted the tension that existed between the European specialists in the State Department and their Africanist counterparts, with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger consistently favoring the former. The marginalization of the Africa specialists was compounded by the Department of Defense's insistence that antagonizing Portugal would threaten American access to the Azores and dramatically compromise U.S. security. Schneidman emphasized that the intelligence community consistently reported that the Portuguese position in Africa was untenable, but that flawed analysis and conflicting bureaucratic interests prevented the U.S. from pushing decolonization more aggressively.
Mike Jobbins, Africa Program Assistant ext. 4158
Howard Wolpe, Director