For Ronald Reagan and a great many Americans, the arrival of Cuban troops in Angola in 1975 epitomized the poisoned fruit of détente. The way they saw it, the Soviets had dared for the first time to engage in a massive military intervention in Africa; they had pushed their Cuban proxies forward; and they had found this act of naked aggression both painless and profitable. President Ford and Kissinger had been unable to devise an effective response. They had “blustered and made demands unbacked by action,” Reagan charged. This narrative contains only one element of truth: Kissinger and Ford had fumbled in response to the Cuban intervention in Angola.
The backdrop of the story is straightforward. In the late 1950s, France and Britain—Africa’s major colonial powers—had concluded that delaying the inevitable end of their imperial rule would risk turning the local elites into enemies, whereas promptly granting independence would allow the metropoles to retain economic and political influence in their former colonies. Belgium had followed suit.
But Portugal bucked the tide. As a result, in the early 1960s armed struggle broke out in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique. This posed a serious problem for American policymakers. The US Air Force had critical military facilities at the Lajes air base in the Azores, which meant Washington wanted to remain friendly with Portugal without appearing to support its colonial wars in Africa. From the Kennedy through the Nixon administrations, American officials asserted that the United States sold weapons to Portugal only on condition that they not be used in Africa. But the Portuguese diverted the weapons there anyway. “We would have been fools not to have done so,” a Portuguese general remarked. “Now and then the Americans would grumble. It was all for show.”
In April 1974, Portuguese military officers overthrew their country’s dictatorship. They moved quickly toward decolonization: Guinea-Bissau became independent in September 1974 and Mozambique the following June. In both countries there had been only one guerrilla movement, which inherited power in a smooth transition. Angola, however, had three guerrilla movements: the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA), and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). They had fought each other as bitterly as they had the Portuguese. The MPLA leaders espoused an eclectic interpretation of Marxism-Leninism that was, Yugoslav officials noted, “adapted to the specific conditions and needs of Angola.” The FNLA and UNITA were anti-communist but led by corrupt and unprincipled men. Even American officials acknowledged that the MPLA “stood head and shoulders above the other two groups.”
The new Portuguese government and the three Angolan movements agreed that a transitional government would rule until independence on November 11, 1975. Civil war erupted, however, in the spring of 1975. The following July, both South Africa and the United States began providing the FNLA and UNITA with weapons and military instructors to crush the MPLA. South Africa was motivated by the need to shore up apartheid at home and to eliminate any threat to its illegal rule over Namibia, the sprawling country sandwiched between Angola and South Africa. South African officials feared the MPLA’s implacable hostility to apartheid and its promise to assist the liberation movements of southern Africa. (By contrast, UNITA and the FNLA offered Pretoria their friendship.)
In the United States, senior officials—from the Departments of State, Defense and the Treasury—advised against a covert operation. An MPLA victory, they argued, would not threaten US interests. But one man disagreed: Henry Kissinger. And Kissinger ruled the roost. He served as both national security advisor and secretary of state. President Ford, who knew very little about foreign policy and nothing about Angola, deferred to Kissinger.
Why would Kissinger plan a covert operation in Angola, against the advice of his aides? It was not to counter the Kremlin: the Soviets were behaving with great restraint in Angola. They distrusted the MPLA leaders and did not want to jeopardize the SALT II negotiations with the United States; therefore, they had sent very little aid to the MPLA. Nor did Kissinger argue that American economic interests in Angola were threatened.
What impelled him to act was Vietnam. In April of that year, the South Vietnamese regime had collapsed. For Kissinger this debacle was both a national and personal humiliation. It undermined his standing at home and it made America look weak abroad. A display of resolve in Angola would exorcize the ghost of Vietnam, and the installation of a client regime in Luanda would provide a cheap boost to American prestige and to his own reputation.
By September, however, it was evident that the MPLA was winning the civil war, despite the arms and instructors that Washington and Pretoria had supplied to the FNLA and UNITA. It was winning not because of Cuban aid (no Cubans were yet fighting in Angola) or superior weapons, but because, as the CIA station chief in Luanda noted, the MPLA was “more effective, better educated, better trained, and better motivated.”
Washington urged Pretoria to send troops, and on October 14, a South African armored column invaded Angola. As the column raced toward Luanda, MPLA resistance crumbled. The MPLA turned to Cuba, asking for troops. The South Africans would have seized the capital had Fidel Castro not decided on November 4 to respond favorably to the MPLA’s appeals. The Cuban forces, despite their initial inferiority in numbers and weapons, halted the South African onslaught. The official South African historian of the war wrote, “the Cubans rarely surrendered and, quite simply, fought cheerfully until death.”
Neither Kissinger nor his aides had imagined that the Cubans might intervene, and, as Reagan pointed out, they botched their response. Kissinger tried to enlist the help of the French and the Chinese, to no avail. He ordered the CIA to raise an army of mercenaries, but the few men the agency gathered were cut to pieces by the Cubans as soon as they reached Angola. There was only one practical response: “We should assign a major role to South Africa in restoring freedom in Angola,” Senator Jesse Helms urged. Ford and Kissinger would have been happy to oblige, but Pretoria demanded that Washington openly endorse its invasion and pledge military assistance if the Soviet bloc escalated. For Ford, facing a presidential election in 1976, this was politically impossible.
As the South African operation unraveled and credible evidence surfaced in the Western press that Washington and Pretoria had colluded in Angola, the White House drew back. It claimed ignorance and condemned the South African intervention. This outraged South Africa’s defense minister, who told parliament:
I know of only one occasion in recent years when we crossed a border and that was in the case of Angola when we did so with the approval and knowledge of the Americans. But they left us in the lurch. We are going to retell the story: the story must be told of how we, with their knowledge, went in there and operated in Angola with their knowledge, how they encouraged us to act and, when we had nearly reached the climax, we were ruthlessly left in the lurch.
By April 1976 the Cuban troops had pushed the South Africans back into Namibia, whence they had come. US officials responded to the humiliating defeat with fury. They blasted the Cubans as Moscow’s mercenaries.
Perhaps some believed it. The image of Castro as Moscow’s proxy was comforting: it cast Cuba’s extraordinary internationalism in a squalid light. As former under secretary of state George Ball observed, “Myths are made to solace those who find reality distasteful and, if some find such fantasy comforting, so be it.”
With the passing of time, however, the evidence that the Cubans sent their troops to Angola on their own initiative and without consulting the Soviets has become too compelling to deny. In 1981, the CIA noted that the intervention “was a unilateral Cuban operation designed in great haste.” Even Kissinger was forced to reconsider—Castro had confronted the Soviets with a fait accompli, he admitted in his memoirs. Castro had sent his soldiers because of his commitment to what he called “the most beautiful cause,” the struggle against apartheid. He understood that the victory of the Pretoria-Washington axis would have tightened the grip of white domination over the people of southern Africa. Kissinger acknowledged that Castro “was probably the most genuine revolutionary leader then in power.”
The tidal wave unleashed by the Cuban victory washed over southern Africa. Two statements from across the political divide in apartheid South Africa illustrate its psychological impact and the hope it aroused. In February 1976, as Cuban troops were pushing Pretoria’s army out of Angola, a South African military analyst wrote:
In Angola, Black troops—Cubans and Angolans—have defeated White troops in military exchanges… and that psychological edge, that advantage the White man has enjoyed and exploited over 300 years of colonialism and empire, is slipping away. White elitism has suffered an irreversible blow in Angola, and Whites who have been there know it.
The “white giants” had retreated and black Africans celebrated. “Black Africa is riding the crest of a wave generated by the Cuban success in Angola,” noted the World, South Africa’s major black newspaper. “Black Africa is tasting the heady wine of the possibility of realizing the dream of total liberation.”
Kissinger’s foolhardy adventure brought thousands of Cuban soldiers to Angola, where they remained until 1991. They protected the Angolan government from South African attacks and trained Namibian and South African freedom fighters. In 1988, they gained the upper hand over the South African army and forced Pretoria to allow free elections in Namibia.
In the words of Nelson Mandela, the Cuban victory:
destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor… [and] inspired the fighting masses of South Africa… [It] was the turning point for the liberation of our continent—and of my people—from the scourge of apartheid… What other country can point to a record of greater selflessness than Cuba has displayed in its relations to Africa?