Before Drones: U.S. Covert Action in Africa During the Congo Crisis

By Drew A. Calcagno
Cornell International Affairs Review
2017, Vol. 11 No. 1 | pg. 1/1


As with much of the African continent, the Congo endured a harsh colonial past. What trailed, after its 1960 independence from Belgium, also followed a similar trend of its continental neighbors – continued foreign meddling. At the outset, reasons for such continuation of influence tended to surround economic ventures. Belgium and the West – the United States included – benefitted from prolific mining operations in the Congo. Additionally, foreign influence grew through the Congo's central location as a barometer for social movements across the African continent.2

A man named Patrice Lumumba led the nation's independence struggle, starting as the head of a local anti-colonial movement and eventually growing to be the first democratically-elected prime minister. Lumumba was under no delusion that Belgium and the greater West would continue to exploit the Congo if given the chance. Due to this philosophy, he expressed in famously charismatic terms that the Congo would progress only if it fully divorced itself from the colonial yoke. Through his magnetism, Lumumba found great allies as well as great enemies. His approach was rich with revolutionary diction, and eventually, the United States began to view the prime minister as someone who the Soviet Union could entice. In the early 1960s, much of United States foreign policy could be viewed through a Cold War lens of the US versus the USSR with battleground states in between. The Congo's independence proved to be a prototype of that line of diplomatic thinking, and Lumumba was the pawn. That pawn, the United States eventually decided, had to be removed from the chess board by any means necessary – even assassination. As post-independence crises began, the United States inserted itself as a vigorous actor in a way yet to be seen on the continent, and this paper considers the ramifications of a powerful external state relying on covert intelligence operations to shape global events. One of those major events was the killing of Lumumba by Katangan forces in the dark of night in 1961.

The United States' misunderstandings of the so-called "Congo Crisis" enabled a worldview, policy narrative, and operational reality that mistook the death of one Congolese political leader as the most important domino for American control – or at least a lack of Soviet control – in the Congo. On a broader plane, the Congo Crisis was characterized by resource conflict and formation of political identity for the new Congolese ruling class. While resource-motivated secessionist movements in the provinces of Katanga and South Kasai escalated political division, foreign influence from Belgium, the UN, the US, and then, the USSR, proved to be the preventative factors from full political emancipation in the post-colonial climate. While the US-plotted and Katangan-operated assassination of Lumumba removed one nationalist leader with Soviet ties from the Congolese political space, such a maneuver did not solve the Congo's festering problems of overlapping actors and secessionist dissolution. Using recently declassified materials from this plot, this paper investigates the efficacy of lethal covert action and finds that the efforts to replace Lumumba contributed to the long term instability of the Congolese state.

In order to delve into the debate of the United States' position on the Congo Crisis, this piece begins with an understanding of the framework for covert action as a political tool in the United States' foreign policy arsenal. I analyze CIA communications from the period, declassified only in 2013, adding insight into the intentions of US leadership and their regard to the good governance of the Congo as merely a peripheral concern. Then, I apply such a policy framework to the crisis itself, manifesting a short-sighted application to remove Lumumba in order to block Soviet influence. The paper concludes with a discussion of the intra-state political struggle that remained, and how the US enabled its bloodiness for years to come after quick-fix assassination plans did not yield hopeful results.

Background of the Congo Crisis

The United States' focus in the Congo arrived at the heels of one of the first examples of collaboration with other newly independent African states, such as with the first Ghanaian prime minister, Kwame Nkrumah, who grew eager to recruit engineering and consulting assistance from the US. However, in the Congo, the potential for a new leader to be leaning more towards Communism than Capitalism snowballed with the election of Patrice Lumumba in 1960. His no-holds-barred approach to radical self-determination led to intense US distrust, and immediate association with the Soviet Union. When he was killed by a secessionist group that enjoyed US tacit approval, rumors swelled regarding the level of activity by the West, particularly the Central Intelligence Agency – the most prolific US institution in the country.

The Congo Crisis was many things – a secessionist movement, a nationalist political battle, and a competition on multiple levels with plenty of dollars and death in between, which eventually resulted in a dictatorship. So what exactly did the US aim to ‘solve' and how would a Lumumba assassination accomplish that goal? While the Cold War was just beginning, fervor to fight off Communism in the Congo was growing equivalently. The Eisenhower administration's highest echelons of intelligence and diplomatic policy making, operationally led by the on-the-ground Chief of Station Larry Devlin, established opinions, policies, and actions based on carefully manipulated descriptions of Lumumba and Congolese affairs in 1960. Due to Lumumba's pertinence at the beginning of the crisis, the Eisenhower administration strongly believed in the power of leadership in the global South through specific people rather than through social movements. The CIA's Chief on the ground saw Lumumba as the linchpin that, if removed, could disable Soviet entry into the Congo. However, at what cost?3 Based on a declassified cable from the Station Chief to the CIA Director during the month of August in 1960, perhaps the US was not so sure itself at the time:

"Many forces [are] at work here: Soviets * * * Communist party, etc. Although [it is] difficult [to] determine [the] major influencing factors to predict [the] outcome [of the] struggle for power, [the] decisive period [is] not far off. Whether or not Lumumba [is] actually [a] Commie or just playing [a] Commie game to assist his solidifying [of ] power, anti-West forces [are] rapidly increasing [in] power [in] Congo and there may be little time left in which take action to avoid another Cuba."4

Lumumba's eventual alliance with the USSR did create a dynamic where he represented such a linchpin, particularly in relation to other Cold War tensions with Fidel Castro gaining power in Cuba. Yet, the US underestimated the prevalence of his followers, the Lumumbists, in the Congo after his death and the complicated framework of actors in the country regardless of the prime minister's removal.5

In order to understand the Congo Crisis and how Lumumba came to be killed by Katangan authorities, one must explore the politics of the country's secessionist movements. The Katangan secession was motivated by the hoarding of mineral wealth in the province. The movement's inherent principle, one scholar suggests, was to consolidate Katanga's resource capital in order to maximize its own political capital.6 Belgium endorsed the secession, for independence would reduce barriers to mining along the colonial lines it enjoyed in prior decades. However, as a result of international alarm over Belgian military protection of mining in the province, the UN embarked peacekeepers to remove all Belgian forces from the Congo – especially in Katanga.

While the extensive drama of the UN invasion is not the focus of this paper, it is of note that the nuances of the UN charter to remove Belgian forces, rather than stop the secessionist movement itself, created a problem for Lumumba – the new leader who sought unity in the Congo. Thus, he turned to the US in July of 1960, and was rebuffed. Soon thereafter, he turned to the USSR, and thus set in motion a wild series of events which led to plotting by the US to remove him from power. His eventual assassination, and a slew of disastrous mistakes brought on by CIA meddling would plague the Congo for decades.

Subsequent to Lumumba's death, and after the UN ultimately ended the Katangans' hopes for full political and economic emancipation, Congolese figurehead President Joseph Kasa-Vubu and chief-of-staff Joseph Mobutu stuck around to be perennial political players. Additionally, the US foreign policy apparatus, dominated by the CIA, dug in. A scholar writing about the leader of the Katangan secessionist movement, Moïse Tshombe, in the midst of the crisis made note of the businessman-politician's flexibility and persistence. "Tshombe's main value to the United States and its allies, and his greatest personal asset, is his remarkable political resiliency…He is not a colonialist tool; He is just an opportunist who once thought the grass would be greener on the colonialist side of the fence."7 Accordingly, the US proffered weapons, dollars, and political polish for Tshombe's regime after Lumumba was out of the picture.

Nevertheless, Lumumba's ideals of self-determination lived on. The US and the UN surged their influence in the Congo once Lumumbist rebels took over swaths of the country, including Stanleyville, in the Simba Rebellion of 1964. The rebellion was focused on displaying discontent with the Congolese central government's squandering of opportunity to reform governance structures after gaining independence. Yet, without Lumumba, much of the strategic vision was lost. Thus, rebellions like the one in Stanleyville became more prevalent and more violent. Lumumba-minded rebels projected the government's incompetence onto foreign meddlers, notably any American or Belgian they could find. They took hostages to display their power and focused on a Communist-leaning and populist message of a second revolution to fully rid the country of kleptocracy.8

As a consequence of Western efforts to rescue hostages, the Soviet Union labeled the intervention as a covert attempt to "save the Tshombe regime and suppress the national liberation struggle,"9 citing the next example of "armed intervention in the domestic affairs of the Congo on the part of Belgium, the U.S.A., and Britain."10, 11 As a result, suppression of the liberation struggle led to increased association between Lumumba's ideology and that of the Soviet Union. This US-led suppression also indeed provided leverage for Tshombe, but even more so for his chief-of-staff, also lead army general, Joseph Mobutu, to rise to power. Once the latter solidified his anti-Communist brand of politics, the Soviet Union's influence dwindled in comparison to the United States' strategic gains vis-à-vis an alliance with Mobutu. A Russian scholar of late, Sergey Mazov, decided that the USSR's leverage was therefore "rather limited, and was inferior in comparison with that of the United States," making its mark instead in its ability to retreat from escalation.12

In the midst of this mercurial crisis, Tshombe was not the only adroit negotiator. Mobutu understood quite well how careful choices of anti-Communist diction could engender a close relationship with the US and its purse. Buying time during the Congo Crisis, he massaged his way to perpetual relevance each year. After his second coup in 1965, he consolidated power by "taking pages right from Machiavelli,"13 silencing critics and limiting the scope of provincial government outposts over which he had less control. Previously when he was solely the military head, it was in his best interest to mediate civilian-military relations. Later as the Congo's leader, "he found [fellow] civil leaders superfluous"14 and ensured a dictatorship.

Before exploring the analysis of how the CIA went about affecting Lumumba's fate in the midst of the Cold War, one ought to consider how the US foreign policy apparatus was constructed at the time. Particularly, why the CIA's covert action program earned the reputation of the United States' most potent instrument of foreign policy during the Eisenhower administration, and why it continued into Kennedy's arsenal, and even Johnson's.

Background of the U.S. Foreign Policy Apparatus

While the US government in the early 1960s strongly resembles its construction today, the powers in foreign policy making strongly favored the CIA at the time, and that paradigm was prevalent in the Congo Crisis in particular. For context, the National Security Act of 1947 created the CIA as well as the National Security Council to direct it. The CIA's purview of activity was broad, with a mandate to "perform such other functions and duties related to intelligence affecting the national security as the National Security Council may from time to time direct," including political-economic and informational warfare in covert settings such that origins and foreknowledge of operations could be denied.15 Covert activity was governed by the council's directive NSC 5412/2, which did not specifically disbar assassination, yet evolved more commonly into discrediting and diminishing the success of Communism around the global South through propaganda.16

The lack of mention of assassination in NSC 5412/2 did not necessarily give the CIA carte blanche to kill in the name of fighting Communism, or any other national security concern – or perhaps it did. It was incumbent on the CIA to get policy permission, yet the de facto and de jure chains of command were divergent. In practice, the CIA only reported to itself, the "Special Group" of select members of the National Security Council, and a handful of only the highest officials in the State Department and Executive branch.17 Meanwhile, the additional step of informing Congress was merely implied in the loosely written directive.18

Thus, the Special Group is central to this discussion of the Congo Crisis because it limits the sources and viewpoints through which one is able to view the events. Despite large-scale declassification, the State Department-run archive of documents and cables almost entirely revolves around CIA personnel and communication, only occasionally including State Department diplomats or members of other agencies and departments. When those documents do allude to such government diversity, the nature of the Special Group and its tight grip on the United States' actions surrounding the Congo Crisis dictated that only top level non-CIA officials, such as the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, would be part of the conversation. Even the small number of differing opinions tended to be silenced in history, as the bulk to declassified material involved CIA memoranda emanating from the Congo, a singular viewpoint through which even the Special Group, let alone other foreign policymakers, had to view the Congolese.

Years later in 1975, leading US Democratic senator Frank Church led a Senate Select Committee to investigate intelligence abuses. Nicknamed the Church Committee, it was "faced with determining whether CIA officials thought it was ‘necessary' to obtain express approval for assassination plans and, if so, whether such approval was in fact either sought or granted."19 In fact, there were times where members of the CIA did not even report to the agency itself, not to mention the Special Group. "One CIA operation, an aspect of which was to develop an assassination capability, was assigned to a senior case officer as a special task," the Church Committee mysteriously mentions in its introduction.20 The conduct of that operation is what I aim to unpack: the planned assassination of Patrice Lumumba by the lead CIA officer in the Congo, Larry Devlin, as a solution to the Congo Crisis.

The US, largely led by the CIA during this time, viewed not only the Congo but the greater African continent as a monolithic and chaotic space, whose primary function was a litmus test of whether Soviet ideology was gaining ground in the world. Thus, the United States' efforts to rid the Congo of Lumumba were haphazard and reactive to eliminate a perceived threat, as opposed to a long-term strategic plan.

Literature on the Congo Crisis

The key feature of this paper is its consideration of perspectives from after the 2013 declassification of the Church Committee proceedings. While a majority of the literature on the Congo Crisis indulges in critique of the CIA's worldview during this period in the early 1960s, literature that has come after the declassification provides more exacted analysis that benefits from specific examples of US meddling from the words of its own intelligence officials. Stephen Weissman, perhaps the most prolific critic of the post declassification era, investigated the findings of the US Senate investigation committee, particularly with regard to the assassination of Lumumba. He found the top US spy in the Congo to be much more culpable than the Church Committee determined, let alone the tenor of non-culpability in that CIA Chief 's memoir, Fighting the Cold War in a Hot Zone (2007). Based on recent declassification of government documents, Weissman conveys the CIA's interference in the 1960s in both political and paramilitary activities, which he suggests were enacted to encourage the continuation of pro-Western politics.21 While that committee saw Lumumba's assassination as an event that occurred outside of the United States' hands,22 Weissman suggests that Devlin, "had direct influence over the events that led to Lumumba's death,"23 and strategically turned a blind eye at an advantageous time. I explore his reasoning further in the subsequent analysis section.

The recent nature of the 2013 declassification trove has provided little time for scholars to react fully to the Church Committee's findings. Thus, this piece serves to be one of the first analyses of the declassified materials, and of the resultant viewpoints of both the CIA in the early 1960s and the Senate Select Committee which investigated that agency in the mid 1970s. Nevertheless, a few others have responded to these documents after their release, namely Lise Namikas and William Mountz.

Namikas' Battleground Africa: Cold War in the Congo (2013) and Mountz' The Congo Crisis: A Reexamination (2014) both, at least in part, view the Congo Crisis through the lens of US administrations and their relationship with the CIA. Namikas' analysis surrounds the United States' reactive policies through the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. Of particular interest to this paper, and a mark of post-classification literature, her book's fifth chapter explores intelligence cables – again, mostly drawing from the dominating presence of CIA documents in the Church Committee's trove. She establishes the fear of Communist takeover as the United States' driving motive for involvement in the Congo Crisis. Even when the Kennedy administration could have broken away from Eisenhower's focus on removing Lumumba, Namikas identifies that he fell short. Kennedy's "insight and analysis could be crisp and new, [but] his approach was muddied by reliance on the old tactic of covert operations,"24 she submitted.

Mountz views Congo's history from a similar vantage point. His take on Kennedy's reliance on CIA activity in the Congo was indeed steeped in US versus USSR rhetoric, but more accurately surrounded a liberal ideology. Kennedy's liberal ideology "ultimately undermined the genuine independence desired by Congolese nationalists by confining the meanings of liberty, equality, and development to an American framework."25 This continuation of covert assistance to any political actor that may fit such a framework had disastrous effects. As the years wore on, and the US proceeded to its next president, "the Johnson administration [was left] with little choice but to attempt to create a semblance of stability and extricate the United States from the Congo and provided the opportunity for Moise Tshombe, leader of the Katanga secession, to become prime minister in June 1964 and Joseph Mobutu to become dictator in November 1965."26 Throughout these power exchanges and coups, Mountz's addition to the literature suggests that the United States' actions directly correlated with the creation of a dictatorship – the hallmark of failure for a pro-democracy foreign power.

These scholars tend to agree: the US made mistakes in the Congo. But what the literature has yet to fully explore is why the US continued to pour fuel on the fire. As I take a first-hand look into the declassified archives, I find that no matter how many times the US saw an imperfect leader in the Congo, a permanent advisor remained in the information loop: CIA Station Chief Larry Devlin. Even when he finished his tenure as the top US intelligence officer in country, he became Congolese dictator Joseph Mobutu's personal advisor. Thus, this piece seeks to illustrate how such small number of people – potentially as few as a single Station Chief and political advisor – could wield lasting authority over US foreign policy.


This analysis makes use of primary source communications from declassified US intelligence message traffic, raising the profile of the Congo Crisis over 50 years since its occurrence. These documents fill in existing publicly available information, including the US Senate-led Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities, also known as the Church Committee, which was declassified in 1992. Furthermore, the US State Department's records of foreign policy decision-making along with hundreds of documents, predominantly penned by members of the most active government agency during the Congo Crisis, the CIA, were declassified and made available for public consumption online in 2013. With these recently released primary sources, secondary analyses of them, and memoirs of the tumultuous times, there is now an unprecedented amount of public information. These myriad sources aid in the discernment of the level to which the US sought to solve the Congo Crisis through Lumumba's assassination.

To narrow the scope of this paper to the discourse surrounding the decision to assassinate Lumumba rather than the Congo Crisis in general, I selected documents relayed by the instigators of the Katangan-operated assassination, the CIA. The selection of these documents limits the scope under consideration for this short piece, and is inherently biased toward a viewpoint of both the CIA as an institution, and also the CIA's leader in the Congo, Larry Devlin. In addition, I included discussion and evidence from the Church Committee, which reaffirmed the dominance of the CIA, and Devlin, in nearly all US actions and communications relating to the Congo Crisis. To that end, I added documentation from the White House, arguably the only other witting actor in the US foreign policy apparatus during the period. As a method of corroborating the events and discourse that transpired around the assassination plot, I referenced Devlin's memoir, one of the only available firsthand accounts of the operation. With these sources, I sought to identify the intention and expected outcome of Lumumba's assassination to find evidence of the United States' view of the Congo as a political battleground rather than a sovereign entity. Evidence of this view would indicate that the future of the Congo's good governance was peripheral to the main intention of removing Soviet influence.


An inherent distaste for the Congolese political environment is evident in many of the recently declassified US government foreign policy documents. This notion, whether it be racist, ill-informed, or a combination of both, is particularly prominent in a 1961 CIA reflection on the Congo Crisis for high levels of government leadership including the President and the National Security Council. It states, "the country was grossly unprepared for independence. The Congolese people, largely illiterate and primitive, had no concept of national unity," suggesting a need for struggle to successfully decolonize.27 What level of struggle? How much struggle is enough? Who decides? These questions went unanswered, but one is left wondering if there was deference to the Belgian colonial position that treated the Congo with paternalism.

Despite Lumumba's oratory prowess and nation-wide focus,28 the CIA's analysis provincially continues. "The sudden grant of political independence to a weak Congo government was accompanied by terrorism and a resurgence of tribalism; nearly all the inexperienced and unstable political groupings that appeared on the scene were based on tribal associations and were concerned mainly with local interests."29 The Church Committee, while extremely critical of the CIA's overreach in covert activity, spared the opportunity to criticize the agency's thoughts on Lumumba and fixated on his connection to the Communist cause.

The committee cited a presidential advisor who recalled the "‘necessity for very straightforward action' against Lumumba and prompted a decision not to rule out consideration of ‘any particular kind of activity which might contribute to getting rid of Lumumba,'" due to his magnanimous personality and proclivity to the Soviet cause.30 While the committee did mention Lumumba's meeting with the US Secretary of State in Washington, D.C. in July of 1960, its analysis jumps to the conclusion that the privilege of said meeting had no effect on Lumumba and he turned to Soviet aid.31 This lazy (or perhaps strategic) omission of detail pushed a narrative of Lumumba's political leanings that, at best, was conjured years later in the heat of the Cold War, or, at worst, was endemic among the policy makers in 1960 and cost Lumumba his life.

The omission to which I am referencing is the nuanced detail of that fateful state visit in late July, and Lumumba's resultant deliberation in the month of August 1960 – a forgotten month that the Church Committee tended to chalk up as undecipherable turmoil. But it can be deciphered, and August must not be overlooked. The Katanga secessionist movement was building in strength in July 1960 and Lumumba's plea for assistance at the end of that month was directed towards the US first, not the Soviet Union. Lumumba wished to speak with President Eisenhower, but because a meeting was not conducive to the US president's schedule, the Secretary of State took his place.

Despite the slight diplomatic rebuff, Lumumba's request for US military aid was met with yet another condition: no bilateral assistance would be given, but rather it would have to come through a UN-led mission.32 Over the subsequent weeks, the UN mission dragged its feet in shutting down the Belgian-endorsed secession, not to mention that it personally escorted the Belgian Ambassador out of the country.33 Despite his best efforts, and his initial willingness to ally with the US and even the UN, the two entities effectively burned Lumumba. The omission of Lumumba's crucial deliberations in August 1960 signals that the United States' underlying motivation may have dallied into apathy for resurging Belgian influence in the Congo, as well as revenge for Lumumba's turn to the Soviet Union.

As a result, there was a lot more to the story than the Church Committee's quick mention of Lumumba's meeting with the Secretary of State in July, then quick turnaround to describe that "by the beginning of September, Soviet airplanes, trucks, and technicians were arriving in the province where Lumumba's support was strongest" – as if such activity occurred immediately subsequent. Thus, the scene was colored by a multitude of factors, especially the CIA's disdainful critique of Congolese political culture, which seems to have been off the mark when viewed through present day source corroboration.

Despite helpful declassification, not all views line up neatly. While the Church Committee found Devlin to be an unwitting actor in the eventual non-US assassination of Lumumba,34 a combing of the sources considers a much deeper level of Devlin's personal agency. In fact, Weissman suggests that Devlin indeed "had direct influence over the events that led to Lumumba's death."35 Yet, it is difficult for any scholar to create conclusive determinations on Devlin's culpability due to governmental redaction and delays on declassification.

After years of delay, the US released its archive of cables and message traffic surrounding the Congo Crisis, but the volume "takes an overly cautious approach to redactions, withholding four documents in their entirety, cutting 22 by more than a paragraph, omitting the financial costs of specific activities, and attempting to guard the identities of the CIA's key Congolese clients besides Mobutu."36 Weissman's critique of Devlin clashes against the Church Committee's findings as well as Devlin's own memoir where the CIA Station Chief attempts to clear his name under the guise of following secret orders while dragging his feet in a deeply personal conviction against killing "even an insect."37 Devlin's tone suggests that the US political establishment acted in its own self-interest.

Throughout his memoir, Devlin's accepted reason for US meddling was the mere prevention of a Soviet foothold in Central Africa. Despite his expressed disinterest in murder, he confirmed the CIA's feeling about Lumumba – the Congolese leader simply had death coming. Devlin expounds on the sentiment; "His lack of understanding of world politics and his dalliance with the Soviet Union made him a serious danger to the United States…Had the Soviet Union succeeded in gaining control of a large part of the African continent and its resources, it could have carried us over the thin red line into a hot war."38 This justification seemed to pacify the Chief of Station over the subsequent months to the point that he avoided informing the already small circle of the NSC Special Group about Lumumba's transfer to his Katangan enemies while the Eisenhower administration turned over to the Kennedy administration. "By the time Devlin's January 17 cable arrived in Washington, Lumumba had been shot dead in Katanga."39 Devlin's strategically blind eye had sealed Lumumba's fate.

When the death of Lumumba did not quell his followers, the US doubled down on funding in the search for a successor. The CIA's influence focused quickly on Kasa-Vubu and then Mobutu, and the effects were consequential. Thereafter, Mobutu's dominance was in part due to the willful bribery, legitimacy campaign, and intelligence gathering led by the CIA. Mobutu was eager to be an anti-Soviet mouthpiece in exchange for influence, material wealth, and US-gathered information – all signs that his interest in power was partially kleptocratic in nature. However, the quality of his leadership was not the concern of the US government, only his ideological alignment. His lack of governing ability, however, foiled the attempt to "solve" the Congo Crisis.

In light of his poor governance, Mobutu proved to be an unpredictable partner. He surely had his own agency to govern, even turned down CIA covert salaries at times, and he continued to benefit in a multitude of ways in the postLumumba years. "Throughout 1966 and 1967, the [CIA] forwarded Mobutu intelligence about threats to his regime, uncovering a number of major plots (one of which ended with the public hanging of the alleged conspirators)," not to mention the US-funded military aircraft and weapons that filled his hangars and armories.40

Nevertheless, the essential question remained: did the US solve the Congo Crisis with the death of Lumumba? Based on declassified message traffic, the Church Committee's findings, a memoir, and assorted analyses surrounding the situation, the answer is no, the US could not solve the Crisis with the death of a single man. There was no swift removal of a Communist sympathizer and subsequent ascension to power of a pro-Western leader. Instead, as argued by Weissman, "rather than end the struggle for control of Congo, Lumumba's assassination only intensified it."41 He continues, "while the resulting powersharing deal did include some Lumumbists…the most important positions went to members of the Binza Group," which included Mobutu as the military leader who would later perform a coup d'état.42

As the years wore on, the Kwilu and Simba Rebellions of 1964 – contemporaneous movements of Lumumbists supported by the Soviet Union, Cuba, and China – manifested a rising tide of anti-American sentiment in the Congo. Rebels took Western hostages, including Americans, and as a result of their political aims, national fragmentation appeared imminent without US intervention.43 Pushed to act, US mediation via hostage rescue robbed the rebels of their political capital, and ripped away their most advantageous means of installing an alternative government based on Lumumba's principles of independence from the colonial burden. As a result, Mobutu's stock shot up – and the US did not obstruct it. Devlin rectified, "there has been a great deal of ink spilled in criticizing Mobutu, much of it by those who knew little about the Congo and even less about Mobutu himself. While not the ideal solution to the Congo problem, Mobutu provided the United States with what it wanted."44 What the US wanted, in Devlin's eyes, was stability – even if predictability meant Mobutu's shifting titles so long that he was an impactful stakeholder in the Congolese government long term.

The Chief of Station continued to outline Mobutu's US-approved ascendance: "he ousted Lumumba on September 14, 1960, and installed a government acceptable to the Western world as well as to the majority of Congolese in the areas controlled by Leopoldville."45 For the greater part of 1960 to 1965, he exercised his weight as the chief of the army while maintaining a great deal of cross-over into the political realm. At a crucial moment in late 1965, after rebellions and disarray of foreign influence, the US was gratified to see that "he led a bloodless army coup. Kasa-Vubu resigned under pressure from the Congolese military, and Mobutu assumed the presidency," with an existing professional and friendly relationship with the CIA.46

Devlin-advised and CIA-backed Mobutu had consolidation of his own to manage. Furthermore, the mixed interests of the UN and Belgium were yet to be solved in relation to the Katangan secessionist movement – a Lumumba death did not solve those issues. They raged on for another four years in various forms until Mobutu's second coup and subsequent removal of parliamentary procedure and government representation, both of which the CIA was willing to fund and with which was satisfied, so long that the Soviet Union lost influence in the long term.47 Thus, that coveted stability came with a price of the iron-fist rule and eventual dictatorship. Mobutu's handle on the military, political realm, and dalliance into the economic sphere of the Congo meant the United States' actions constrained all political futures other than those through their prized anti-Communist. Despite his pillage of the Congo's already meager government, Mobutu enjoyed US institutional backing as well as the personal loyalty of the United States' most powerful intelligence officer on the ground, before and after Devlin's retirement from public service.48


The brewing Cold War context caused US policy to have great relevance in Congolese politics. In their haste, US policy makers rebuffed an initial attempt by Patrice Lumumba to quell rebellion in his central African country. As a result, he sought assistance from the USSR, and the US took the move both personally and strategically. This paper explores the mechanisms behind US covert action during the Congo Crisis, and how such action was employed to plot against Lumumba's life as a quick-fix to influence the country away from Communism. Nevertheless, in its application, the US may have encouraged an anti-Communist regime to take hold through Mobutu, but did so through an incredibly messy and expensive set of coups that took place over several years, costing lives and setting the Congolese political establishment on a path of international dependency. The US relied on very few experts, shielding information and planning to a select few – and at times, a single Chief of Station. Applying this case to the present day, US strategy ought to be wary of mistaking the ousting of one leader for a surefire result of a regime conducive to good governance in the long-term for the citizens themselves. Thus, there are no quick fixes in the game of statecraft – only complicated socio-political dynamics that cannot be ignored, especially when they may engender decades-long kleptocratic dictatorships.


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———. "Declassified Telegram from the Station in the Congo to the Central Intelligence Agency." Washington, D.C.: US Government, 1966.

———. "Foreign Media Reaction to the Congo Rescue Mission [Report]." Langley, Virginia: CIA Research and Reference Service, 1964.

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Klein, Olivier, and Laurent Licata. "When Group Representations Serve Social Change: The Speeches of Patrice Lumumba During the Congolese Decolonization." British Journal of Social Psychology 42, no. 4 (2003): 571-93.

Mountz, William ‘The Congo Crisis: A Reexamination (1960–1965)', The Journal of the Middle East and Africa 5, no. 2 (2014): 151-165.

Namikas, Lise. Battleground Africa: Cold War in the Congo, 1960-1965. Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2013.

National Security Archive, "Bay of Pigs: 40 Years After," George Washington University National Security Archive. Washington, D.C.: GWU, 2001. Accessed November 2017.

Nugent, Paul. Africa since Independence: A Comparative History. New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2004.

Pravda. ‘Radio Moscow Report on Operation Dragon Rouge', Pravda Report, November 26, 1964.

Sherer, Lindsey. "U.S. Foreign Policy and Its Deadly Effect on Patrice Lumumba." Washington State University Digital History, Spring 2015.

US Senate. "Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders." In Declassified Interim Report with respect to Intelligence Activities edited by Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations. Washington, D.C.: US Government, 1975.

Weissman, Stephen. "What Really Happened in Congo." Foreign Affairs, 2014.


  1. Drew Calcagno writes on development, counterterrorism, and US security instutitions on the African continent. As a Rotary Scholar at the University of Oxford's African Studies Centre and a Fulbright Scholar at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, his work surrounds the security-development nexus as it pertains to the US military and intelligence community's actions on the continent. He has performed field work in Kenya, Ethiopia, Liberia and Turkey and has worked with the Department of Defense, the Department of State, and the intelligence community. He now serves as an active-duty naval officer. The views presented in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the positions of the US government or its departments, the U.S.-UK Fulbright Commission, or the Rotary Foundation.
  2. William Mountz, ‘The Congo Crisis: A Reexamination (1960–1965)', The Journal of the Middle East and Africa 5, no. 2 (2014): 152.
  3. CIA, "CIA Cable from Leopoldville to the Director," Washington, D.C. (1960).
  4. US Senate, "Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders," in Declassified Interim Report with respect to Intelligence Activities ed. Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations, Washington, D.C.: US Government (1975); CIA, "Cable from Leopoldville," (1960).
  5. Paul Nugent, Africa since Independence: A Comparative History (New York: Palgrave-MacMillan, 2004).
  6. Ibid.
  7. Daniel Chasan, "Moise Tshombe's Curious Position in the Line-Up of African Leaders," The Harvard Crimson, 1964.
  8. Bill Freud, The Making of Contemporary Africa: The Development of African Society since 1800, (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998).
  9. CIA, "Foreign Media Reaction to the Congo Rescue Mission [Report]," Langley, Virginia, (1964).
  10. Pravda, ‘Radio Moscow Report on Operation Dragon Rouge', 1964.
  11. Lise Namikas, Battleground Africa: Cold War in the Congo, 1960-1965, (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2013), 210.
  12. Sergey Mazov, A Distant Front in the Cold War: the USSR in West Africa and the Congo, 19561964, (Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2010), 254.
  13. Namikas, Battleground Africa, 220.
  14. Ibid., 220.
  15. US Senate, "Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders," in Declassified Interim Report with respect to Intelligence Activities ed. Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations (Washington, D.C.: US Government, 1975), 9.
  16. Ibid.
  17. The NSC 5412/2 "Special Group" was a classified subcommittee in charge of planning and coordinating covert action on behalf of the United States. Members included the CIA Director, Secretary of Defense, National Security Advisor, and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs. This small group headed the Bay of Pigs invasion as well as the topic of this paper: the assassination of Patrice Lumumba.
  18. "Bay of Pigs: 40 Years After," George Washington University National Security Archive, accessed November 2017.
  19. US Senate, "Alleged Assassination Plots," 9-10.
  20. Ibid., 10.
  21. Stephen Weissman, "What Really Happened in Congo," Foreign Affairs, 2014, 4.
  22. US Senate, "Alleged Assassination Plots," 9.
  23. Weissman, "What Really Happened in Congo," 4.
  24. Namikas, Battleground Africa, 142.
  25. Mountz, "The Congo Crisis," 151.
  26. Ibid., 151.
  27. CIA, "Main Elements in the Congo Situation," ed. US Department of State (Washington, D.C.: US Government, 1961), 4.
  28. Olivier Klein and Laurent Licata, "When Group Representations Serve Social Change: The Speeches of Patrice Lumumba During the Congolese Decolonization," British Journal of Social Psychology 42, no. 4 (2003).
  29. CIA, "Main Elements in the Congo Situation" (1961), 4.
  30. US Senate, "Alleged Assassination Plots," 13.
  31. Ibid.
  32. Jonathan E Helmreich, United States Relations with Belgium and the Congo, 1940-1960 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1998).
  33. Lindsey Sherer, "U.S. Foreign Policy and Its Deadly Effect on Patrice Lumumba," Washington State University Digital History (Spring 2015); Thomas Brady, "Lumumba Threatens to Invade Katanga; Decrees Emergency," The New York Times, August 10, 1960.
  34. US Senate, "Alleged Assassination Plots."
  35. Weissman, "What Really Happened in Congo," 4.
  36. Ibid., 13.
  37. Lawrence Devlin, Chief of Station, Congo: Fighting the Cold War in a Hot Zone (New York: PublicAffairs, 2007), 95.
  38. Ibid., 131.
  39. Weissman, "Alleged Assassination Plots," 9.
  40. Ibid., 12.
  41. Ibid., 9.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Gleijeses, P, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959-1976 (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2002).
  44. Devlin, Chief of Station, 262.
  45. Ibid., 263.
  46. Ibid., 263.
  47. CIA, "Declassified Telegram from the Station in the Congo to the Central Intelligence Agency," (Washington, D.C.: US Government, 1966).
  48. CIA, "Intelligence Memorandum: The Congo's Joseph Mobutu: Past, Present, and Future [FOIA Request Released Document]," (Langley, Virginia: Central Intelligence Agency Directorate of Intelligence, 1966).

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