Confidential

The Congo Crisis and Foreign Intervention

The Congo crisis affected the current territories of the Democratic Republic of Congo from the 5th of July 1960 to the 25th of November 1965.

Key Judgments

KJ-1.    The US and the CIA intervention were the results of a possible invasion of the Soviet Union and communism in Congo.

KJ-2.    The Soviet involvement was reinforced by Czechoslovak support but limited by the continuous changes of the government and its factions.

KJ-3.    The intervention of China and Cuba was driven more by the possibility to expand the communist ideology in Africa than the support to Congo.

Background

The Congo Crisis began after the Congolese declaration of independence from Belgium. Chaos and political instability characterised this period. On the one side, there was the President of Congo, Joseph Kasa-Vubu, and its supporters. On the other side, there was the Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba and its Vice-President, Antoine Gizenga. Riots, tumults and attempts of secession from the central government of the provinces of South Kasai and Katanga, the wealthiest province of Congo, affected the country.

The Congo Crisis also involved foreign powers, such as the United States, supporting the central government and the Soviet Union, supporting the Prime Minister. Also, the United Nations, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, China, Cuba and mercenaries took part in the various conflicts. After causing the death of more than 100,000 people, the conflict ended in November 1965. General Mobutu, supporter of the previous president, took the power with a coup d’état and established a dictatorial regime.

The Congo Crisis
Congo map showing political fragmentation and territorial control in 1960.

The Congo Crisis and the Overreaction of the US

The Congo crisis worried the US, which feared an intervention and expansion of the Soviets in Africa. The US invited Prime Minister Lumumba to Washington, but its visit was not successful due to Lumumba’s “magnanimous personality and proclivity to the Soviet cause”.

Many reports from Lawrence Devlin, the CIA Chief in Leopoldville, described the situation as a “classic communist effort to take over the government”. After the US received one of these reports on the 18th of August 1960, it was decided that something needed to be done to remove Lumumba from the picture. The CIA, with the support of the British MI6, came up with different plans to eliminate the Congolese Prime Minister, such as poisoning or snipers. In the end, the US did not carry out these plans. The difficulty and the political and military consequences were too high.

The government dismissed Lumumba. Right after, Congolese soldiers captured and killed him on the 17th of January 1961. Even though the CIA did not pull the trigger, there was its complicity behind Lumumba’s death.

The US Reaction

Congo and its territories are important for the United States, for its central location, size and mineral resources. After Lumumba’s death, the CIA bribed various politicians, tribal chiefs and a labour union to achieve its goals. Cyrille Adoula became the new Prime Minister, and the CIA helped him by bolstering him and hiring him a political adviser. Adoula’s government did not perform as the US hoped and they replaced him in 1964. Moise Tshombe took the power and once again, the United States supported the new Prime Minister. The US provided him with an instant air force and financial assistance.

The communist threat during the conflict was weaker than the one felt by the United States. The US actively took action in the Congo crisis in order to establish a pro-Western government. They also used mercenaries from all over Europe, South Africa and Rhodesia as an instrument of its foreign policy. The US supplied Congo with American weapons and aeroplanes. Many countries such as Belgium, France, Nigeria and Senegal did not want to send their troops. Hiring mercenaries was the only option.

CIA Interventions in the region

This secret intervention of the CIA was not the first in history. The CIA tried to “get rid of” Castro many times in the 1960s. They tried to poison him with a botulinum toxin in a box of his favourite cigars. In 1963, the CIA planned to contaminate with a fungus one of Castro’s diving suits. In the same year, the CIA tried to eliminate him using a hypodermic needle located in a pen. According to the Church Committee, the CIA attempted to kill Fidel Castro eight times between 1960-1965.

This operation is one of the largest covert operations in the CIA’s history. The US spent around $90-150 million in US dollars, without counting the weapons, the military equipment and the transportation. Since then, corruption, economic disaster, political instability and little capacity for governing afflicts Congo and its politicians.

Assessment

The US and the CIA intervention were the results of a possible invasion of the Soviet Union and communism in Congo.

The Soviet expansion

Even though Moscow subdued Czechoslovakia, it had its strategic and economic interests in Africa.  Since its independence in 1918, one of the main goals of Czechoslovakia was to develop relations with countries outside Europe. For this reason, it approached states like Egypt, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Congo. Czechoslovakia was the only communist country to have diplomatic representation in Congo from 1948. Its wish, as the USSR one, was to expand communism in the African continent. It also had economic interests in the country. Congo was rich in natural resources, such as diamonds, uranium, and copper.

In 1960, KGB and the Czechoslovak State Security (StB) began their first joint operation in Congo. Even before Congo’s independence, Czechoslovakia was already present in the country. This facilitated the process of cooperation and infiltration of the Soviet Union. Moscow’s attention to the Congo crisis was drawn in 1960. The USSR agreed to support the UN mission with 10,000 tonnes of food, aeroplanes, helicopters and money.

After Lumumba’s death

After Lumumba’s death, Czechoslovakia increased its support to Gizenga. Both the Soviet Union and its junior partner sent some of their officers. The role of KGB officers was to gather information about Congolese politicians and the Western plans for the country. The StB role was to recruit informants, infiltrate their personnel into Western institutions and discredit Western powers in Congo.

Gizenga took the power. The USSR then planned to send military equipment, food, weapons, and medication to support its Congolese ally. The main issue was that countries, such as Sudan, did neither want to be involved in the conflict nor it to become an international incident. The CIA was an obstacle for the USSR since it kept devising plans to undermine the communist support to Congo.

The death of Lumumba started a series of events within the opposition in Congo, which made harder the support and intervention of the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Even though in 1963, not many “communist officers” were left in Congo, this was the first major Soviet- Czechoslovak operation in the whole region. StB came out as the key Eastern bloc actor in the conflict in Congo.

Assessment

The Czechoslovak support reinforced the Soviet involvement but the changes of the government and its factions limited the same.

The intervention of China and Cuba

The relation between China and Congo materialised in 1960 when the Chinese Communist Party offered economic support to Congo. The Chinese wish for expansion in the African continent and the fight against American imperialism and capitalism mainly drove this support.

When the mercenaries were hired to join the fight, many radical African states as Egypt and Algeria announced their support to the rebels with troops and weapons. Rebels were led by Christophe Gbenye, a former colleague of Lumumba, who established a government in Stanleyville, thanks to the USSR and China.

The Cuban government, led by Fidel Castro, respond to the call and decided to join the fight. At the UN General Assembly in December 1964, Che Guevara, a member of the Cuban leadership, gave a speech and described the intervention of the Western powers as an “unacceptable intervention”. After touring many African states he went to China to seek more support for his cause in Congo. His goal was to extend the influence of the Cuban Revolution and defend those countries affected by Western intervention, especially by the US one.

The Cuban Plan

The Cuban plan was for one contingent to travel to Tanzania and then to North Katanga, and the second contingent had to fly to a base near Brazzaville, close to the Congolese capital. Che Guevara arrived with a smaller eastern column that comprised 150 guerrillas. Cuba was very prepared for the fight, nonetheless, it overestimated the willingness to cooperate of the rebels.

The Congolese rebel leadership was in Egypt to ask for support in that period. Consequently, Che Guevara had to share his plans with the rebel junior personnel, who was neither trained properly nor interested in listening. After months of exploration and fighting, the Cuban realised they were not advancing in the conflict. In November 1965 Che Guevara’s dream collapsed and decided to withdraw its troops from the country.

China and Cuba felt that communism was threatened by the Western countries and capitalism. Their ideology and beliefs were the ones that pushed both of the countries to join the fight. On the one hand, China contributed with weapons and financial help. On the other, Cuba sent Che Guevara and many troops to fight on the ground.

Assessment

The possibility to expand the communist ideology in Africa rather than the support to Congo was the main reason for China and Cuba intervention.

Intelligence Cutoff date 23rd of March 2021 (UTC -7)

Author

Rachele Momi

Rachele Momi is a graduate in Intelligence & Security Studies at Brunel University and in Middle East Politics at SOAS. Her research is mainly focused on the Middle East region, tradecraft, and cyber warfare.

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