A Perspective on Fifty Years of U.S. Africa Policy: The Nixon Legacy


The second half of the 1950s was a rather tense period in the cold war. The possibility of 200 Soviet divisions attacking West Germany had still not been put to rest. Communist parties in Western Europe, especially in France and Italy, were garnering as much as 25 percent of the votes in democratic elections. Some of the more radical elements in those Soviet-financed parties were speculating about being ‘‘liberated’’ by the Red Army. Communist insurgencies in Southeast Asia were on the move.

Against this cold war backdrop, one would think that the pending arrival into the international community of 30 or more newly independent African countries would not be of much interest to the highest echelons of the United States government. On the contrary, the number of National Security Council (NSC) meetings devoted to Africa between 1956 and 1960 and chaired by President Dwight Eisenhower himself was quite significant. In many respects the influence of those deliberations on American policy toward Africa is still palpable half a century later in the administration of President Barack Obama, the first son of Africa to occupy the White House.

Planning for African Independence

The key debate in those NSC policy-planning meetings was between Vice President Richard Nixon and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Both had taken the time to find out what was happening to Africa in the process of decolonization. Nixon traveled to Africa on a fact-finding mission in 1957. Dulles sent his executive assistant, career Foreign Service Officer Julius Holmes, on a 10-week fact-finding mission to Africa the same year. On the basis of those missions, which came up with the same set of facts, Nixon and Dulles developed opposing views on what U.S. policy toward the newly independent African states should be.1

Looking through his cold war prism, Dulles told Eisenhower to get ready for a fierce competition for power and influence in Africa between the Soviet Union and the United States. Julius Holmes had informed Dulles that the situation in postindependent Africa would be chaotic. He said that independence was premature and that the grafting of Western style parliamentary democracy onto an African culture that still believed in paramount chiefs and animism would turn out to be a big mistake. He predicted ethnic strife, rampant corruption, and extensive violence. He said that the situation would be ripe for Soviet manipulation.

Nixon interpreted the same set of facts from a different perspective. He said that the driving force within the newly enthroned independent regimes in Africa would be ‘‘nationalism.’’ Having struggled so hard and for so long to achieve independence from their European colonial masters, the African leaders would defend that independence fiercely. It had to be their highest priority. The Soviets, of course, would not grasp that and would stub their toes trying to recruit new African satellite governments into the Communist International or at least persuade African governments to be obedient as they supported Soviet foreign policy. The best U.S. policy approach, according to Nixon, was to recognize African nationalism as a positive force and play up to it in everything we do in Africa.

The ‘‘Neutrality of African Nationalism’’

With Eisenhower in the chair, Dulles and Nixon made their arguments.

Dulles argued that Washington must tell the Africans that the cold war is worldwide, that it will impact Africa big time, and that the Africans must choose between the United States and the Soviet Union. There is no middle ground. You are with us or you are against us.

On his side Nixon had the benefit of a national intelligence estimate that indicated that the Soviets would try to subvert African regimes but would fail because of the nationalism factor. In addition, the Pentagon told Eisenhower that U.S. strategic military interests in Africa were minimal. We should have no trouble maintaining our military access to Robertsfield International Airport in Liberia and Kagnew communications station in Ethiopia (now in Eritrea). Neither of those friendly countries had been European colonies and remained close to the United States.2

Consequently Nixon contended that the United States should tell the Africans that we support a continuation of ‘‘independent national neutralism.’’ In other words, African governments should concentrate on economic development and stay out of the cold war. For its part the United States would not get upset if African governments maintained normal relations with everyone, including the Soviet Union.3

Eisenhower sided with Nixon. He added his own codicil to the Nixon proposal: ‘‘Africa has strategic importance, but do not seek military bases. We must first work through educational and cultural relations. We must first win the people.’’4

How did Nixon’s doctrinal proposal translate into concrete policies in preparation for the onrush of newly independent African states? The decisions that came out of the Eisenhower–Nixon NSC were fundamental and far-reaching and can be discerned even today as having constituted the bedrock of U.S. policy toward Africa over a half-century.

  • Extend recognition of full and equal sovereignty to every newly independent Africa nation, large or small.
  • Establish an embassy and send a resident ambassador to every newly independent African nation.
  • In our bilateral relations, concentrate on economic development through technical assistance and the financing of appropriate projects in infrastructure, education, and health. Also, emphasize cultural exchange.
  • Neutrality (and later ‘‘nonalignment’’) in the cold war will not be a barrier to good relations with the United States and will not make a government ineligible for foreign assistance.
  • In the event of out-of-control instability, stabilization operations should not involve U.S. or European troops on the ground because of the colonial memory. All international stability operations should be under United Nations auspices.5

The Upbeat Beginnings

The Eisenhower administration remained in power until January 1961. Its members therefore participated in a large number of African independence celebrations. The mood was positive. The White House sent a presidential delegation, including members of Congress, to every flag-raising ceremony. State Department officers scurried around the British and French colonies, purchasing property for the establishment of new embassies. With every new embassy came a large staff of the International Cooperation Agency (ICA) implementing significant budgets for technical assistance and financing projects.6

The Nixon policy was challenged early on with the chaotic independence of the Belgian Congo on June 30, 1960. The Belgians had not provided enough time to prepare for independence. Within days of independence, the security forces started to mutiny, provincial governments started to talk secession, and rival political leaders started to look for assistance from the United States and the Soviet Union. The Congo was on the verge of catastrophe. Soviet diplomats were doing what they were trained to do: subvert leading politicians with money and promises of support. After giving serious consideration to sending North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) troops to the Congo, Eisenhower listened to wise counsel and proposed a UN peacekeeping operation that stabilized the country using non-Western forces.7

In the eight years that followed Eisenhower–Nixon, the Kennedy–Johnson administration followed the same policies, enhancing emphasis on foreign aid and continued tolerance of African neutrality in the cold war. Kennedy’s creation of the Peace Corps was a significant achievement. Although the crisis in the Congo began during the Eisenhower administration, the bulk of the work of crisis management fell to the Kennedy administration. A special national intelligence estimate on the Congo dated January 10, 1961, described the situation as ‘‘total chaos, with no national leader, no national party, no national consciousness, and political instability on a grand scale.’’ Until the arrival to power of military leader Joseph Mobutu in 1965, the Kennedy administration stayed faithful to the UN as the main instrument of stabilization.8

Disillusionment Sets In

In 1969 Richard Nixon was back in the White House, this time as president. By then the situation in Africa had changed considerably.

As predicted by Julius Holmes in his report to Secretary Dulles in 1958, the vast majority of the first generation of independent African leaders rejected Western democracy and Western market economics. They established the ‘‘African one-party democracy’’ and nationalized the major business enterprises, including banks, insurance companies, plantations, manufacturing, ports, and railways. Within less than a decade, the one-party systems had become very corrupt and repressive in the absence of legal opposition or countervailing power from civil society. The absence of free media was particularly telling.

On the economic front the nationalized enterprises were managed to achieve political objectives rather than as normal profit-making and expanding investment centers. The result was a vast loss of international market share, deteriorated infrastructure, diminished governmental services, and between 5 and 10 percent negative economic growth per year.9

Needless to say, the international euphoria that welcomed the wave of African independence in 1960 had turned into disappointment by the time that Richard Nixon returned to power in 1969. That attitude was especially prevalent in the foreign aid appropriations committees of the U.S. Congress.

But President Nixon decided to adjust and adapt his policy toward Africa rather than relegate the continent to backwater status. He continued to emphasize economic development by establishing a policy called new directions. That policy emphasized the channeling of aid directly to the vast majority of Africans living in rural areas, thereby bypassing the corrupt government regimes. As for the governments, Nixon unleashed the ‘‘bad cops’’ from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) to help straighten out their badly distorted economic policies.10

Cubans in Africa: The End of U.S.–Soviet Détente

True to his original view, President Nixon sent his first secretary of state, William Rogers, on a tour of Africa to reemphasize the policy of keeping the cold war out of Africa. Rogers’s major speech at the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in 1971 was devoted to that very theme. But as fate and irony would have it, the cold war did rear its ugly head in Africa during the Nixon–Ford period.

In 1974–1975 regime-changing revolutions in Portugal and Ethiopia resulted in pro-Soviet Marxist regimes arising in Ethiopia and the newly independent states of Mozambique and Angola. The dispatch of Cuban troops to Ethiopia and Angola to consolidate those Marxist regimes in power against internal and external enemies served as a red flag for the Ford administration that ended the worldwide policy of ‘‘détente’’ with the Soviet Union. A decade later, in 1986, the Reagan administration started a ‘‘covert action’’ operation in Angola to support an anti-Communist rebel group against the pro-Soviet regime in power. But those cold war intrusions were essentially exceptions that did not derail the core U.S. policy of accepting African neutrality and concentrating on economic development.11

Encouraged by the World Bank and the IMF, which advocated economic reform and recovery in Africa, as well as full U.S. support, the administrations of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush were able to concentrate on two issues of growing importance in our nation’s domestic politics: white minority rule in southern Africa and the spread of internal conflict in a number of troubled sub-Saharan countries.

White Minority Rule in Southern Africa

Even before the end of the Ford administration, it had become evident that white minority rule in southern Rhodesia and South Africa was unsustainable in view of the advent of independence and black majority rule in the rest of the continent. The white minority regime in southern Rhodesia had defied its nominal British colonial ruler in 1965 by declaring itself independent. That act resulted in a worldwide economic boycott that would have brought the Rhodesian regime to its knees except for the support of its South African neighbor.

In the United States during the mid-1970s there was growing political agitation against white minority rule in southern Africa. It grew in tandem with increasing brutality and repression against black political militants in Rhodesia and South Africa. That reaction was not just a phenomenon of the African-American community and the civil rights movement but covered the entire spectrum of U.S. politics.

Against the background of American domestic opinion, the Nixon–Ford secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, approached South African Prime Minister B. J. (John) Vorster and told him that the handwriting was on the wall for white minority rule. South Africa could buy some time to prepare for the inevitable by cutting Rhodesia loose. Vorster understood Kissinger’s warning perfectly and informed Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith that he had no choice but to go to the British and request negotiations culminating in black majority rule. That led to Rhodesia’s becoming the independent black majority nation of Zimbabwe in 1980.

The U.S. Role in the Collapse of South African ‘‘Apartheid’’

During President Jimmy Carter’s single-term administration, Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young, one of the pioneer civil rights leaders, started the unraveling of the South African white minority rule, or apartheid, system. He succeeded in passing a resolution by the UN Security Council demanding that South Africa grant independence to its UN-mandated territory of Namibia.12 South Africa had received that mandate as a result of Germany’s defeat in World War I. South Africa was administering Namibia as a part of South Africa itself and had no intention of granting independence and therefore defied the UN resolution. Nevertheless, the Carter administration had launched a clear shot across South Africa’s bow.

During the eight years of the Reagan administration, southern Africa played a major role in U.S. foreign policy. Assistant Secretary of State for Africa Dr. Chester A. Crocker launched a marathon negotiation involving South Africa, Angola, and Cuba that was designed to bring about the independence of Namibia and remove both South African and Cuban troops from Angola where they were fighting a surrogate war. After eight difficult years, the Crocker initiative was successful and culminated in the signing of the New York accords in December 1988. Namibia became an independent state in March 1990.13

In 1986, as the result of growing revulsion in the United States against South African apartheid, the U.S. Congress enacted comprehensive sanctions legislation against South Africa over President Reagan’s veto. Combined with the Crocker initiative in Namibia, the sanctions sent a strong signal to the South African regime that the end was near.14

In 1990 a new generation of white leaders came to the fore in South Africa. Realizing that the continuation of white minority rule was unsustainable internally and influenced considerably by opinion in the United States, they decided to change the system to liberate the black majority and incorporate the Africans into the political and economic life of the country. F. W. de Klerk, the newly elected president of South Africa, released Nelson Mandela, the great leader of the antiapartheid movement, from prison in March 1990. After a difficult four-year transition, Mandela was sworn in as the first black president of South Africa in 1994.

Bush (41) and Conflict Resolution in Africa

The George H. W. Bush administration devoted considerable quiet energy to assisting in the South African transition from apartheid to full majority rule and worked hard to bring about an end to some of the internal African conflicts that had arisen as the result of incompetent colonialism and destructive internal policies. The Bush administration acted aggressively in this area because the Africans themselves were reluctant to act, and internal wars were negating the three decades–long U.S. effort to promote economic development. Those efforts were successful in Ethiopia and Mozambique; temporarily successful in Angola and Somalia; and unsuccessful in Rwanda, Sudan, and Liberia. Today of the original seven civil wars addressed by Bush (41), Sudan and Somalia remain difficult problems for both Africa and the international community.15 Bush (41) was also the first president to fund democracy promotion in Africa, a program that has had the support of all subsequent administrations.

The key long-term result of U.S. involvement in conflict management was a decision by the Africans themselves to take the lead in mediating internal conflicts.

Clinton and Trade Preferences

When President Clinton took office in 1993, the cold war was history, and Africa was still not showing evidence of any breakthroughs toward sustainable development. The World Bank and IMF had done an excellent job of reversing the steep economic declines that had begun in the 1970s, but the 10 to 15 percent economic growth needed to emulate the Asian ‘‘tigers’’ was just not happening. The big question being asked by both the executive and legislative branches was ‘‘What are the missing ingredients needed for Africa’s economic takeoff?’’

Toward the end of the Clinton administration, congressional initiatives led to the Africa Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA), as well as the first efforts to assist African countries trying to cope with an exponential spread of HIV/AIDS. The AGOA program opened the U.S. market, duty free, to virtually anything that Africa could produce, with the hope that investors would flock to Africa to take advantage of this significant trade preference. After a decade AGOA can be credited with creating tens of thousands of jobs in the apparel industry in eight African countries, as well as generating a major boost in manufacturing jobs in South Africa. The program continued through eight years of the George W. Bush administration and the beginnings of the Obama administration. Although the jury is still out in assessing its full impact on African development, it is clear that duty-free preference has so far been insufficient to offset significantly the many impediments to private investment in Africa, including the absence of the rule of law, the high cost and unreliability of utilities, and a shortage of appropriate worker skills.16

In view of the collective decision made by the African Union in 1993 to take the lead in conflict resolution, the Clinton administration established programs designed to train African peacekeeping forces as primary stabilizing elements either under African Union or UN auspices. Those programs have been continued and expanded to train military units in the Sahel17 region in counterterrorism in view of increasing attacks from Islamist fighters infiltrating southward from Algeria. The Clinton administration also continued the Bush (41) policy of active conflict mediation, contributing to the end of civil wars in Liberia, Angola, Burundi, and the Congo.

Bush (43) Breaks New Ground

George W. Bush demonstrated considerable creativity with respect to African economic development. Bush significantly expanded the program to fight HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria in Africa (PEPFAR) and intensified the process of African debt relief through a World Bank program for ‘‘heavily indebted poor countries’’ (HIPC). That program served as an incentive for deeper economic reforms in eligible countries.

Bush also established a new mechanism called the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) designed to give extraordinary support to those governments demonstrating the capability of using resources productively, transparently, and fairly and thereby achieving sustainable development. In effect, MCC is designed to pick winners, representing a breakthrough in traditional U.S. thinking about Africa as an equal opportunity donor regardless of the capacity of individual governments to make good use of foreign aid.

The MCC program took a while to get off the ground during Bush (43) but is clearly gaining momentum under Obama. Here again the bottom line demonstrating success or continued stagnation will be visible sometime in the future. Becoming qualified for this major program under a long list of independently verifiable criteria is currently a very high priority for many African governments.18

With respect to conflict mediation, the Bush administration scored a major achievement in 2005 with the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Islamist government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) representing the non-Islamic and non-Arab peoples of the southern third of Sudan. The treaty will have its dénouement in 2011 when the southerners decide in a referendum whether or not to become an independent state. It is widely agreed among observers and analysts that the southern third of Sudan will secede and become an independent state in 2011.19

The U.S. military footprint in Africa grew larger during the Bush (43) administration through the establishment of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), the geographic military command with the mission of working and planning to deploy only in Africa, with the sole exception of Egypt. Although U.S. military assistance programs in Africa did not significantly expand between the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, the very existence of AFRICOM as a separate entity has stimulated concern among some Africans that U.S. policy in Africa is taking on an increasingly military hue. Nevertheless, with a significant staff of civilian personnel who are expert in civil–military relations, as well as the potential role of the military in economic development, AFRICOM is making a strong effort to downplay any military ambition and emphasize its role as an adjunct to U.S. diplomacy in its emphasis on conflict prevention. All of the military assistance and training programs in Africa established during the Clinton administration and continued by Bush (43) will henceforth be conducted by AFRICOM.20

The ‘‘Tough Love’’ of Barack Obama

What about the still young Obama administration and its view of Africa? Both President Obama and Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson have made it clear that development remains the top American priority in Africa. Pursuant to the ‘‘experimentation’’ approach of Richard Nixon, the Obama administration is looking for new approaches that might promote the development that has so far eluded Africa.

The initial Obama analysis is focused on African agriculture under the rubric of ‘‘food security.’’ He wants to bring the same green revolution to Africa that made India and many countries in Latin America self-sufficient in food production. Growing worldwide food shortages and Africa’s growing food import bill indicate that the Obama analysis is right on target. Africa was once a major food exporter. It must return to that status if development is to have a chance. In this respect, there is no difference between the Obama analysis and the views of today’s generation of African leaders. Their predecessors’ neglect of agriculture has been at the heart of African economic stagnation.

In addition, the Obama analysis is that the deterioration of infrastructure is a major impediment to private investment, without which sustainable development is impossible. He wants to see the World Bank and other major donors as well as the private sector give priority to infrastructure.

As a son of Africa, Obama has an additional message for Africa that his predecessors were reluctant to pronounce. Under the rubric of ‘‘tough love,’’ Obama’s message is bluntly telling the Africans that development must be home grown. The United States and other donors will not be able to inject development. That means an end to corruption, an end to ethnic exclusions, a commitment to good governance and democracy, and the creation of an enabling environment for the African private sector. The $800 billion in private African money sitting outside the continent must be returned and be invested. Obama is telling it like it is quite bluntly, as no other American leader has done in the past.21


What has changed in U.S. policy toward Africa over the past fifty years? Not that much. True to the Nixon legacy, economic development remains the core policy, and respect for African independence and ‘‘nationalism’’ remains the foundation of our diplomatic relations. Since Nixon, support for conflict resolution, a key element of economic development, has also been assigned high priority in all administrations. Perhaps during Obama’s tenure and through his attitude of ‘‘tough love,’’ Africa’s tendency to remain heavily dependent on outside support to balance national budgets will give way to financial self-sufficiency; self- starting, sustainable growth; transparent resource management; and eventual prosperity. Assistant Secretary of State Carson has even suggested that the end of foreign aid as we know it needs to be contemplated.22

If there is anything new in the American message to Africa today, it is ‘‘development continues to be the highest priority for all of us, but getting there is your problem.’’


1. Julius Holmes: Memorandum to Secretary of State Dulles, February 6, 1958, in Foreign Relations of the United States 1958–1960 [FRUS], vol. XIV: Africa (Washington, 1992), 1–11.
2. FRUS 1950, vol. V: Near East, South Asia, and Africa (Washington, 1978), 1698 [Ethiopia offers to send 1,000 troops to Korea], 1728 [U.S. Air Force takes control of Robertsfield Airport in Monrovia, Liberia].
3. Memorandum of Discussion, 375th meeting of the National Security Council, August 7, 1958, FRUS 1958–1960, vol. XIV, op. cit., 22.
4. Ibid., 19.
5. Ibid., 28. See also President Eisenhower’s speech to the UN General Assembly, September 22, 1960.
6. The name was changed to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) during the Kennedy administration.
7. Four hundred fifty-sixth meeting of the National Security Council, August 18, 1960. Statement by C. Douglas Dillon, undersecretary of state for political affairs, in FRUS 1958–1960, vol. XIV, op. cit., 148: ‘‘The U.S. had backed the UN in the development of its unique position in the Congo, and we have to a large extent succeeded in keeping the Soviets out.’’
8. Special National Intelligence Estimate [SNIE] 65–61, January 10, 1961; FRUS 1961–1963, vol. XX: Congo Crisis (Washington, 1995), 2–11.
9. See René Dumont, False Start in Africa (New York, 1966). The volume is a good overview of what went wrong as seen from the grass-roots level in Africa.
10. Congressional Research Service, ‘‘The New Directions Mandate and the Agency for International Development,’’ 1981 (republished by the Subcommittee on Legislation and National Security of the House Committee on Government Operations, 1981). This is a good summary of the ‘‘new directions policy’’ as practiced during the eight years of the Nixon–Ford administrations.
11. See Piero Gleijeses, Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington and Africa: 1959–1976 (Durham, N.C., 2002). The author contends that sending Cuban expeditionary forces to Angola and Ethiopia was essentially Castro’s idea to demonstrate Cuba’s solidarity with African Marxists. The Soviet Union was dragged in for support as an afterthought. Kissinger, however, was quite upset.
12. United Nations Security Council, Resolution 435, September 29, 1978.
13. See Chester A. Crocker, High Noon in Southern Africa: Making Peace in a Rough Neighborhood (New York, 1992).
14. Public Law 99–440, October 2, 1986. Enacted by two-thirds of both houses of Congress over President Reagan’s veto.
15. See Princeton N. Lyman, Partner to History: The U.S. Role in South Africa’s Transition to Democracy (Washington, 2002); also see Herman J. Cohen, Intervening in Africa: Superpower Peacemaking in a Troubled Continent (New York, 2000).
16. The United States trade representative is responsible for administering AGOA. Go to details on AGOA’s operations and results.
17. The Sahel countries of Africa, just south of the Sahara Desert, are Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad. Mauritania, Mali, and Niger, which share common borders with Algeria, are having significant problems with penetration from Islamic bands affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
18. Millennium Challenge Corporation, Annual Report 2009.
19. Department of State, Office of the Spokesman, ‘‘Joint Statement on the Fifth Anniversary of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in Sudan.’’ January 8, 2010.
20. The Web site of the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) provides a comprehensive review of the organization’s mission and activities.
21. The White House, Office of the Spokesman, Remarks by President Barack Obama to the Ghanaian Parliament, Accra, Ghana, July 11, 2009.
22. Johnnie Carson, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, Remarks to the Harvard University Africa Focus Program, Washington, D.C., April 5, 2010.

NOTE: This post originally appeared as an article in American Foreign Policy Interests 32.4 (2010).

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