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Angola: A Story of Stupidity

The Angolan Revolution Volume II: Exile Politics and Guerrilla Warfare (1962-1976)

by John A. Marcum
MIT Press, 473 pp., $25.00

In June 1975, Professor John Marcum—then president of the African Studies Association and the leading American expert on Angola—warned the African Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee against American intervention in the Angolan civil war. “The most important thing the American Government can do in Angola,” he cautioned, “is to refrain from projecting parochial or ideological intolerance into its perception of the situation there. Washington should, above all, avoid the trap of overreacting to hostile rhetoric and socialist advocacy and of identifying potential ‘enemies.’ ”

Neither Marcum nor Senator Dick Clark, the chairman of the subcommittee, knew that almost a year before the hearings the United States had already identified its “enemy” and had begun to intervene in support of Holden Roberto, leader of the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA). Six weeks after the hearings, the CIA assigned John Stockwell, a young officer who had served in Vietnam, to the CIA’s Angola Task Force. Not surprisingly, Stockwell had neither heard of Marcum nor read any of his voluminous writings about Angola until he resigned from the Agency in April 1977.

During the year following the June 1975 hearings, while the civil war continued in Angola, Marcum and Stockwell were on opposite sides. Marcum traveled around the US giving speeches against US policy in Angola, and arguing with government officials about it. Stockwell, a former marine, was in Zaire, helping to run the CIA’s Angola operations. Marcum’s activities were only a minor nuisance to Stockwell; the CIA was more concerned about protecting the true nature of its operation from Congress, which it correctly feared would stop its Angola operations if the truth were known. When Stockwell and Marcum finally met in the fall of 1977, they were finishing the books under review. Stockwell was so appalled by the stupidity of US policy he had decided to resign from the CIA and write about it publicly.

Their two books now complement each other. Both are carefully documented and give a remarkably detailed picture of what happened in and to Angola during the final years of the struggles for independence there. Each has much that is useful to say about issues that are still central to US policy in Africa.

Unlike Marcum’s, Stockwell’s book has little to say about events in Angola, including the CIA’s activities, before 1975. He writes, for example, that “the United States ignored Angolan revolutionary movements” before the election of Richard Nixon. He apparently was not informed of the several millions of dollars of military and financial assistance which the CIA gave one Angolan party throughout the 1960s. When he writes that “the CIA had not had coverage inside Angola from the late 1950s until 1975,” he ignores the CIA case officer who worked under cover in the US consulate from 1964 through 1967. The officer was removed because the CIA did not believe that his information justified the expense.

Stockwell’s lack of knowledge about the recent past testifies to the poor quality of information gathered by the CIA. He notes that most of the agency’s “intelligence reporting on Angola was predominantly from Zairian and FNLA sources.” Holden Roberto had been paid about $10,000 a year to provide the CIA with information on his own nationalist movement and two others—Agostino Neto’s Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and Jonas Savimbi’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). CIA briefing sheets, reflecting Roberto’s prejudices, described Neto as a “drunken, psychotic poet” and Savimbi as a thief who allegedly stole $50,000 from the FNLA two years after he quit Roberto’s movement. On more important matters, such as his own relations with the Chinese and North Koreans, Roberto said nothing to the CIA. “The glaring weakness of the program,” Stockwell concluded in his first month, “was a lack of information about our allies and about the interior of Angola.”

Stockwell’s (and the CIA’s) weakness is Marcum’s strength. A professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Marcum has closely followed events in Angola since his travels with nationalist guerrillas in 1961, only months after the start of their fourteen-year war against Portugal. Since then he has written two books and scores of articles on Angola and US foreign policy toward southern Africa. No other scholar or library or government agency can match the amount and depth of information and documentation that Marcum has assembled during the past two decades on the Angolan nationalist parties. The 125 pages of notes at the back of his book give references to hundreds of private letters and documents sent him by Angolan nationalists, from all parties, since the early 1960s. His first volume, The Angolan Revolution: The Anatomy of an Explosion (1950-1962), appeared in 1969 and immediately became the main source for anyone trying seriously to understand Angolan nationalism, including Portuguese officials in Lisbon and revolutionaries in Angola. Marcum’s second volume should prove to be just as valuable as the first since it concentrates on the period from the out-break of armed struggle against Portugal in the early 1960s through 1976, the first year of the People’s Republic of Angola.

Stockwell’s book, useful as it is for its revelations about the CIA’s secret war, may prove to be just as important in showing how high American officials, including Henry Kissinger and William Colby, repeatedly provided congressmen with half-truths and “patently false information.” In Search of Enemies supplied important evidence for the Senate Intelligence Committee which concluded last May that the agency did indeed “mislead” Congress about the Angolan operation. The committee’s study, sent to the White House and the CIA on May 17, could still result in charges of perjury against Kissinger, Colby, and others.

Angola received little attention from the US and the USSR before the crisis in 1974 which led Portugal to give up its colonies. Today the civil war of 1975 is widely thought an important event in the decline of “détente” between the United States and the Soviet Union. During the last three years Ford, Kissinger, Colby, Bush, Moynihan, and, more recently, Brzezinski and Admiral Turner have all claimed that Angola is the testing ground of the American will to stand up to the Russians and Cubans in Africa. Practically everybody agrees that the events in Angola soured relations between the US and the USSR, yet few really understand exactly what happened in Angola before, during, or after the fighting there. Here Marcum and Stockwell provide indispensable information.

Both books suggest that the situation in Angola might not have led to any severe strain in relations between the great powers if the Ford administration had chosen to follow a diplomatic approach to the crisis there instead of engaging in covert military intervention. Ford, Kissinger, Colby, and other high officials shared a similar perspective on the events in Angola and it is in this perspective itself that the causes of the American failure in Angola are to be found.

All of these officials took what might be called a “globalist” view of Third World conflicts, interpreting events in Africa or Asia according to their supposed effect on the contest for world power between the United States and Russia. If the Russians give aid to one side in a Third World dispute, the US, in their view, must back an opposing side, or withhold US cooperation in some matters of special interest to the Soviet Union.1 For the globalists in the Ford administration Soviet support of the MPLA was intended as a direct challenge to the United States. As Senator Daniel Moynihan put it during the Panama Canal Treaty debate last spring, Angola was a case of “openly flaunted Soviet aggression…clearly meant to be a test of our will in the aftermath of Vietnam.” Covert military intervention in support of anti-MPLA factions was the globalists’ response to that “test.”

Ford, Kissinger, Colby, Moynihan, and others who believed in the secret military police in Angola still insist that its failure was caused by Congress, which they accuse of cutting off funds just as the policy had begun to yield results. Ford said the Congress was “losing its head” when it refused to authorize an additional $28 million for the CIA in December 1975 and January 1976. Kissinger argues in a recent issue of Public Opinion Magazine that “we had them [the Soviets] defeated in Angola and then we defeated ourselves.” The facts in the book by Marcum and Stockwell suggest, on the contrary, that the administration’s approach would have failed no matter what funds Congress approved, and that Kissinger, misunderstanding what was happening, followed a policy that was bound to increase rather than diminish Soviet influence.

Throughout the period of US intervention in Angola, for example, Ford, Colby, and Kissinger denounced the USSR and Cuba for supporting the MPLA while denying or minimizing the support given the FNLA and UNITA by other nations including the US and China. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kissinger insisted the FNLA and UNITA were standing on their own against the nefarious triple alliance of the MPLA, the USSR, and Cuba. From this he concluded that the Soviets were trying “to take advantage of a turbulent local situation.”

Marcum and Stockwell present much evidence to show that the FNLA and UNITA in fact had considerable outside help and from strangely assorted sources. Stockwell, for example, notes that the FNLA and UNITA “were supported at one time by the United States, China, Rumania, North Korea, France, Israel, West Germany, Senegal, Uganda, Zaire, Zambia, Tanzania, and South Africa.” In the years just before the Portuguese coup in 1974, China provided both the FNLA and UNITA with most of their foreign aid, far more than the Soviets and Cubans had given the MPLA. That the FNLA accepted help from China, Rumania, and North Korea hardly argues that it was “pro-Western”; yet that was how it was described by the American press, which took its cues from officials in Washington.

Nor was it accurate for the administration to describe the MPLA as a Soviet puppet and therefore an enemy of the United States. While one source close to the MPLA estimated that between 70 and 80 percent of the MPLA’s weapons in 1971 came from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, Marcum shows that “Soviet aid began to wane in 1972, however, and ceased entirely by early 1974.” This prompted Neto, “in his mistrust of the big powers,” to turn to the Scandinavian countries for help. Marcum also shows that just after the 1974 coup in Portugal, the Russians made serious approaches to Daniel Chipenda, Neto’s rival for MPLA leadership, who later joined the FNLA and then collaborated closely with South Africa during the war. The Russians did not resume their support of the MPLA until Neto had gained the upper hand over both Chipenda and the “Revolta Activa,” another dissident faction, in late 1974.

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    I have developed this argument more fully in: “Angola, the Cubans and American Anxieties,” Foreign Policy (Summer 1978), pp. 3-30; and “Kissinger in Angola: Anatomy of a Failure,” in American Policy in Southern Africa: The Stakes and the Stance, edited by René Lemarchand (University Press of America, 1978), pp. 65-143.

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