Kissinger’s secret war in Angola

Henry Kissinger was convinced that Africans were incapable of responsible government—so he fought against the national liberation movements fighting for independence.

FNLA in Zaire, 1973. Image credit Rob Mieremet (ANEFO) via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0 Deed.

The legacy of Henry Kissinger, who died in November at the age of 100, has dominated the mainstream news. A former secretary of state, national security advisor, and elder statesman, he was lionized during his life as the man who opened the door to China, conducted “shuttle diplomacy” in the Middle East, and ended US involvement in the Vietnam War. He was also demonized as the man who conducted a secret war in Cambodia that opened the door to the murderous Pol Pot regime, resulting in millions of civilian deaths, and the man who facilitated a military coup against the democratically elected Chilean government, bringing a brutal dictator to power. Rarely mentioned is Kissinger’s collaboration with South Africa’s apartheid regime to overthrow the government of Angola and their support of an armed insurgency that destroyed the country’s prospects for establishing a successful democracy and progressive development plan. 

The Angola debacle began in 1975 during the chaotic and humiliating US evacuation from Vietnam. Knowing that Congress and the US public would oppose yet another distant war, Kissinger’s war in Southern Africa was covert, hidden from both Congress and the citizenry, and carried out by US proxies.  

In contrast to Asia and the Americas, Kissinger had relatively little interest in Africa, which he viewed as a geopolitical backwater. The white-ruled settler colonies of South Africa and Rhodesia and the neighboring Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique were notable exceptions. Angola was the most valuable of Portugal’s Southern African colonies. A major producer of oil, industrial diamonds, and coffee, it was the site of significant investments by US firms. It also bordered the mineral-rich Congo (then called Zaire) and South African-occupied Namibia—both staunch US allies.

Convinced that Africans were incapable of responsible government, Kissinger considered them easy targets for Soviet propaganda. According to Kissinger’s plan, the white settler and Portuguese imperial regimes would serve as regional policemen, keeping African populations in check and serving as an important bulwark against Soviet expansion. Kissinger’s actions in 1975 and 1976 turned this region into yet another Cold War battleground.

Angola, like other African territories, had long suffered from the brutal effects of colonialism. When the wind of change blew through the continent after World War II, Angolans joined in the demand for an end to colonial rule. When its nonviolent attempts failed it turned to armed struggle. During Kissinger’s tenure as national security advisor and secretary of state in the Ford administration (1974-77), three Angolan organizations vied for dominance: the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA).

A 1974 military coup in Portugal led to negotiations for independence, culminating in the Alvor Accord in January 1975. Signed by the three liberation movements and Portugal, the accord stipulated that a transitional government representing all three movements would hold constituent assembly elections in October 1975. The elected assembly would choose a president, and independence would be granted on November 11, 1975.

The Alvor Accord was violated almost immediately. The FNLA, backed by the US, was the strongest movement militarily, but the MPLA was far better established among the civilian population than either the FNLA or UNITA—another US beneficiary. War would play to FNLA and UNITA strengths, while peaceful political activism would benefit the MPLA.  

Kissinger considered the MPLA to be a Soviet proxy and was determined to challenge it. Rejecting the cautions of Africa experts in the State Department, he promoted a CIA plan to undermine the organization. With Washington’s public endorsement of the Alvor Accord as a cover, the CIA resumed covert support for the FNLA less than a week after its signing, providing increasing amounts of military and economic aid.

Moscow responded reluctantly to the US-led escalation. In March 1975, it shipped arms that enabled the MPLA to expel the FNLA from the capital, where the MPLA had significant public support. With Moscow in the game, South African intelligence reported that an MPLA victory could only be thwarted if South Africa got involved. In July of that year, US and South African intelligence began to collaborate. Moving in tandem, Washington and Pretoria funneled weapons and vehicles valued at tens of millions of dollars to the FNLA and UNITA.

Moscow again responded, supplying the MPLA with more arms and military advisors. In September, East Germany followed suit, furnishing weapons, instructors, pilots, and doctors. By the end of the month, the MPLA was dominant in nine of Angola’s sixteen provinces, including the capital, the coastline from Luanda to Namibia, and the coastal hinterland. Angola’s five major ports, the oil-rich Cabinda Enclave, and most of the diamond-bearing Lunda district were also under MPLA control.

In October, the South African Defence Force launched a massive invasion to thwart the MPLA’s ascendancy. By the end of the month, an estimated 1,000 South African soldiers were entrenched in Angola. Another 2,000 troops, along with planes, helicopters, and armored vehicles, were poised on the border. Joined by FNLA and UNITA soldiers, Zairean troops, and European mercenaries, the South African contingent, with CIA encouragement, began to advance on the capital, rapidly winning the territory that the FNLA and UNITA had been unable to conquer on their own.

Until this point, Cuba’s response to MPLA requests had been relatively modest. It was only after the South African invasion in October that Cuba responded to the MPLA’s pleas for troops. Unwilling to upset a tenuous détente with the US, Moscow had refused to supply Soviet troops—or to airlift Cuban soldiers—until after Independence Day on November 11. As the agreement disintegrated, it became clear that whoever controlled the capital on that day would determine the government.

Convinced that South Africa would take Luanda before November 11 unless impeded by outside forces, Havana was unwilling to wait. On October 23, Cuban soldiers participated in the fighting for the first time. On November 10, MPLA and Cuban forces held Luanda against an onslaught of 2,000 FNLA and 1,200 Zairean soldiers, more than 100 Portuguese mercenaries, and advisors supplied by South Africa and the CIA.  

On November 11, the Portuguese high commissioner ambiguously granted independence to the “Angolan people,” rather than transferring power to any of the warring movements. The MPLA, in control of the capital, announced the establishment of the People’s Republic of Angola.

After independence, thousands of foreign troops poured into Angola. Having waited until November 11 to intervene directly, the Soviet Union embarked on a massive sea and airlift, transporting more than 12,000 Cuban soldiers between November 1975 and January 1976. Meanwhile, thousands of South African troops and hundreds of European mercenaries, recruited and funded by the CIA, arrived to assist the MPLA’s rivals.

In late November, the CIA’s secret Contingency Reserve Fund was depleted. In December, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh broke the story of the covert operation in the New York Times, sparking a furor in Congress. Embarrassed by the imbroglio, especially US collaboration with white-ruled South Africa, Congress passed the Clark Amendment to the International Security Assistance and Arms Export Control Act of 1976, which banned further funding of covert activities in Angola. President Ford reluctantly signed it into law.

Abandoned by its allies, South Africa withdrew from Angola during the first few months of 1976. Without Pretoria’s backing, the FNLA and UNITA rapidly collapsed. By February 1976, the MPLA, with Cuban assistance, controlled all of northern Angola. 

Disgusted by the collaboration between the MPLA’s rivals and apartheid South Africa, the Organization of African Unity and the vast majority of African nations recognized the MPLA government. By the early 1980s, only the US and South Africa continued to withhold diplomatic recognition.

Kissinger’s war was on pause, but it had not ended. After a brief hiatus, UNITA resumed the fight. In 1985, the Reagan administration convinced Congress to repeal the Clark Amendment, and in 1986, Congress restored US military aid to UNITA, supplying the rebel forces with some of the most sophisticated American weapons on the market, including heat-seeking Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. The war against Angola continued until 2002, when UNITA leader Jonas Savimbi was killed in combat.

Angola has not yet recovered from the devastating destabilization wars that lasted more than a quarter of a century—wars that destroyed the country’s infrastructure, claimed the lives of some one million people, and drove four million people from their homes. This, too, is Henry Kissinger’s legacy.


About the Author

Elizabeth Schmidt is emeritus professor of history at Loyola University Maryland and the author of several books on Africa including Foreign Intervention in Africa: From the Cold War to the War on Terror (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2013). She is also vice president of the US-based African Studies Association.

Further Reading

Idi Amin, TV Star

This is also Found Object, Number 15

as Uganda’s dictator Idi Amin Dada on his short-lived 1977 TV sketch comedy show on the American network channel, NBC.