SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 111 - July-August 2007

Cold cold warrior

Chief of Station, Congo

Fighting the Cold War in a Hot Zone

By Larry Devlin

Published by PublicAffairs, New York, $26

Reviewed by

Manny Thain

LARRY DEVLIN was the right man on the right side doing the right thing at the right time. Of that he is certain. As CIA chief of station in the Congo he had to ensure the US administration got its way in central Africa. This was the 1960s. The cold war was hotting up.

Devlin reveals no secrets, but his book conveys the murky nature of his ‘work’: underhand deals, unofficial contacts and operations, the paranoia of the time. Devlin clearly loved his job. He deals with individuals, powerbrokers. He is not interested in ‘ordinary’ people or mass movements. His world is one of puppet masters, cynical manipulation, spheres of influence: a cold, calculating place. The book is part memoir, part documentary, part b-movie screenplay.

Devlin, a CIA man since the late 1940s, was given the job in the summer of 1959, the last days of Belgian rule of the Congo. A country bigger than western Europe, it had been the personal possession of king Leopold II. At least ten million people died in 23 years of ruthless slave labour exploitation. In 1908 he willed the Congo to Belgium. There was some infrastructure development but the authorities ensured that all positions of power were restricted to Belgian officers and bureaucrats.

It was not until 1956 that the first political parties were set up, with the first (local) elections in 1957. Uprisings took place in January 1959 after a political rally had been banned. It was a wake-up call for the Belgian rulers. They could see the brutal French endgame in Algeria, and the unravelling British empire.

The first national election took place in May 1960. Joseph Kasavubu became president, and Patrice Lumumba, prime minister. Lumumba had helped form the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) and his faction won a parliamentary majority. Alarm bells rang in western governments with the victory of this radical, pan-African figurehead.

Independence was declared on 30 June. Devlin arrived on 10 July, five days after the military base at Thysville mutinied over low pay and the continued domination by Belgian officers. The country was in chaos.

Devlin’s first task was to create a network of agents and mount clandestine operations against the rival superpower, Stalinist Russia. According to Devlin, the US was playing catch-up. In the US State Department, Africa had been handled as a subsidiary of the Middle East Bureau – the Bureau of African Affairs only set up in 1957. The CIA’s Africa Division was not set up until mid-1959. That gave Devlin a lot of influence in the formulation of policy.

He sums up the US position: "In the past, the European colonial powers had virtually shut the Soviet Union and the other communist states out of Africa. But with the independence of Ghana in 1957 and Guinea in 1958, the cold war struggle got rolling in earnest. These two newly-independent countries declared themselves non-aligned but, sensing an opportunity, were more than willing to play the two superpowers against each other for their own purposes". (p23) The US feared that Lumumba would look to the Soviet Union.

On 11 July, the cobalt and copper rich southern province of Katanga seceded, led by Moise Tshombe, initially supported by powerful Belgian mining interests, the Belgian consulate and army officers, and mercenaries from western Europe and South Africa – in opposition to Lumumba. The province became the focus of frenzied superpower rivalry. In the mix were thousands of Belgian troops and the intervention of UN forces in mid-July.

The US administration under Dwight Eisenhower drew the conclusion that Lumumba’s removal was "an urgent and prime objective" and "should be a high priority of our covert action". (p63)

Devlin fed anti-Lumumba stories to newspapers. He bugged offices. The CIA helped opposition parties. It organised counter-demonstrations to Lumumba’s rallies. A MNC conference was attacked by CIA-backed groups: "This undermined Lumumba’s image of a man loved by his people and in full control of the nation. He had counted on the conference to strengthen his position within the pan-African movement, but instead the delegates were caught up in the reality of the Congo situation". (p66) The ‘reality’ being that US agent provocateurs were sabotaging political activity.

Devlin had frequent meetings with Colonel Mobutu – a leader of the anti-Lumumbist Binza Group. Mobutu said the armed forces under his control were prepared to overthrow Lumumba on condition that the US recognised the government that replaced him. Devlin gave Mobutu the all-clear.

On 14 September 1960, Kasavubu and Lumumba were deposed and parliament shut down. Soviet, Czech and Chinese personnel were ordered to leave within 48 hours. A new, unelected government was put in headed by Justin Bomboko and Victor Nendaka, both from the Binza Group. Kasavubu was brought back as president for the sake of political expediency.

Devlin throws in many anecdotes, along with some with very stilted dialogue. On 19 September, for instance, Devlin received a cable from Richard Bissell, CIA deputy director: agent ‘Joe from Paris’ would contact him and issue verbal instructions. A week later, ‘Joe’ arrived carrying poison and gave Devlin the mission of assassinating Lumumba. Considering the order ‘morally wrong’ – and counterproductive to US aims, especially if he bungled it – Devlin stalled.

After escaping on 27 November, Lumumba was recaptured and brought back to the capital, Leopoldville, on 2 December. Lumumba’s deputy, Antoine Gizenga, announced he was acting prime minister. He controlled Orientale province with the support of many Congolese soldiers. They began to take over wide areas of the Congo.

Lumumba was taken from Thysville military base, which had mutinied again on 13 January 1961, to Elisabethville, Katanga, and killed. Devlin vehemently protests (too much?) his ignorance of the killing. It is an impenetrable fog. Whether or not Devlin was directly involved, however, he was certainly glad to see the back of Lumumba.

John F Kennedy was inaugurated as US president on 20 January 1961. At that time, Lumumba’s fate was still unclear. Devlin feared a change in policy. Kennedy was being pulled from two directions: ‘liberals’ who wanted a broad-based government including Lumumba, and backed the UN operation; and hardliners who wanted an anti-Lumumba coalition around Kasavubu. Kennedy eventually endorsed the policy of excluding the Lumumbists.

The book covers much more of interest, including the Cuban missile crisis. But the main thrust is Devlin’s central role in countering Lumumba and those around him, while building up pro-US figures and backing Mobutu.

In mid-1963, Devlin was promoted to Chief of the East Africa branch at CIA headquarters in Virginia, and made the equivalent of an army colonel. But with a major rebel offensive against the central government the following year, Devlin found himself back in the Congo in July 1965.

Devlin maintains he knew nothing of Mobutu’s coup d’état on 24 November 1965. As soon as he ‘heard’, however, he rushed over to see him: "It was clear that Mobutu was anxious about the American reaction. Mobutu read from a hand-written list the names of persons he planned to name to his new government, discussing the pros and cons of each one. He took my advice when I suggested two changes". (p235)

Devlin plays down Mobutu’s corruption and dismisses allegations of torture and execution as ‘greatly exaggerated’: "While far from democratic, Mobutu’s style of governing was no worse than most African leaders and probably better than many". (p263) This evokes the adage, often used in connection with Anastasio Somoza (Nicaragua), Saddam Hussein (Iraq), and other US-backed butchers: ‘He may be a vicious dictator, but at least he’s our vicious dictator’.

On 1 January 1967, Devlin was promoted again and made chief of station, Laos, leaving the Congo for the hot war of Vietnam in June. He returned as head of the CIA’s Africa Division in 1971, before retiring in June 1974.

In Devlin’s one-sided account, there is only one good side, his own. To both of the superpower regimes, however, the only thing that mattered was their own vested interests. The people did not figure. They were expendable – to both sides.

Devlin does not even mention what life was like for the workers and poor. On that basis, there can be no appreciation of why many anti-colonial movements looked towards Russia at that time. Although a brutal Stalinist dictatorship, it was based on an anti-capitalist foundation: the nationalised, planned economy. It was a grotesque distortion of socialism but, nonetheless, provided a model which offered food, jobs and shelter to the masses, as well as hope for the emancipation from brutal colonial masters and their rapacious profit system. Instead, Devlin’s book offers up an insight into a view of the world that is totally and utterly cynical, wretched and bankrupt.


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