The United States and the Congo Crisis, 1960 - 1961

A Constructivist Interpretation of US Foreign Policy

Scientific Essay, 2012

18 Pages, Grade: A



Since its inception, the Congo has been universally known for chaos, underdevelopment, violent repression and conflict, almost as the synonym for the dominant image that persists of Sub-Saharan Africa in the American mindset. In recent weeks, it has been in the headlines because of the violent takeover of parts of eastern Congo by the rebel group M23, which has caused renewed streams of refugees into Rwanda and Uganda reminiscent of the war in the Congo which took place from 1997 to 2002. On November 26, 2012, a report on this conflict captured the front page of the New York Times, which centered on what was identified as the perpetuity of Congolese chaos (Gettleman, November 26, 2012: A1). Terms such as “killers” and “instability” dominated the report’s language. In fact, it is probably fair to say that this is the sort of language that we are used to when the subject of the Congo is brought up.

What were the catalysts which led to the Congo becoming synonymous with chaos and despair? This essay will seek to investigate the influence wielded by American foreign policy towards the Congo, while also discussing possible explanatory models to define the catalysts of US policies. The timeframe under investigation will be limited to the initial stages of the so-called “Congo Crisis” from 1961 to early 1961. Thus, it will be shown that the United States had a significant hand in the removal of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the newly independent Congo, from power, and in his subsequent assassination in 1961.

The essay will frame the underpinnings of US foreign policy and their explanations from a three-dimensional theoretical perspective. First, American foreign policy will be approached from a Realist perspective, which will deal primarily with Cold War imperatives and superpower competition with the Soviet Union. Secondly, American economic and commercial interests in the Congo will be analyzed, which conforms to Marxist theories of International Relations. Lastly, the essay will bring into focus the extent to which the American image of Africa in general and the Congo specifically, that is American ideas about how African independence and sovereignty should be interpreted, circumscribed American policies. It will be argued that this Constructivist perspective is essential in order to understand the larger picture of the US in the Congo. The Cold War argumentation as well as explanations revolving around business interests cannot be fully comprehended without taking into account the wider mindset which informed both policymakers and the public. Thus, a Constructivist interpretation will provide the most comprehensive analysis of US foreign policy during the Congo Crisis, centering on the idea of social construction.

Historical Context


On the eve of independence, June 30 of 1960, the Congo was badly prepared for the challenges it would face as a sovereign country. There were only 13 Congolese college graduates, while virtually all of the senior administrative staff were white Europeans (Prados, 2006: 273). Thus, from its inception, the country faced a problem pertaining to the question of how to govern its vast territory without having to depend on its former colonial patron, Belgium. It was this very situation which Belgium sought to exploit. In fact, even though the Belgians had begrudgingly granted independence to the Congo, what they had envisioned was a continuing presence in the country, leading to the perpetuation of political and economic dependence.

In the late 19th and early 20th Century, the Congo had been exploited economically by Belgium’s King Leopold, who had turned the Congo into his personal possession (Gondola, 2002: 66-67). Under the rule of the Belgian state from 1908, little investments in institutional and physical infrastructure were made, while ethnic nationalist political movements started to demand independence (Ibid: 102-105). Thus, while Belgium acquiesced to Congolese independence, it still expected a dominant position for Belgium in the short to medium term in the Congo, given the Belgians’ own interpretation of the absence of viable institutional structures, a problem which they had ignored in the first place. This problem was most visible within the military, finding its clearest expression in the words of the Belgian military commander, General Emile Janssens, who declared that “‘before independence equals after independence for the men in uniform’” (Kibasomba, Mungala, 2002: 24) only five days after the independence ceremony.

The Katanga Secession

Thus, the elected government headed by President Joseph Kasavubu and Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba was handed a precarious situation. Many Congolese, Lumumba included, were quickly becoming displeased with the continued dominance exerted by Belgium over the military forces. Enraged by Janssens’ statement and the fact that they had been exempted from public sector wage increases, the Congolese soldiers of the Leopoldville garrison mutinied, attacking whites and sending the capital into disarray (Kalb, 1982: 4-5). Initially, the Lumumba government was unable to control its military, which in the eyes of many discredited its legitimacy. It also gave Belgium the pretext to intervene, which it did on July 10, sending paratroops to the Congo to protect its white population (Prados, 2006: 274). Moreover, on July 11 the mineral rich eastern province of Katanga declared independence, backed by Belgian military assistance (Gondola, 2002: 119). Hence, within two weeks of independence the Congo was already at a crossroads. It could either acquiesce to the continued control exerted by Belgium over large segments of its institutional makeup, most crucially the military, or engage in open confrontation with the former colonial rulers. Lumumba, demonstrating his nationalist credentials, chose the latter option.

To deal with the Katanga issue, which Lumumba argued was driven by Belgian interests, the Prime Minister in fact appealed to the United States, which however preferred a solution mediated by the United Nations. Thus, a UN force was dispatched on July 14 (Kalb, 1982: 18), which was however largely bankrolled by the United States (Schmitz, 2006: 20). Nevertheless, the UN mission did not act in the way that Lumumba demanded, which was to end the Katanga secession. UN Secretary-General argued that the secession was an “internal dispute” and did not warrant UN involvement (Weissman, 1974: 74). Thus, even though there was a UN presence, Lumumba did not obtain the sort of assistance he sought to put an end to the Katanga secession. Thus, one of the main tensions in late July and early August of 1960 was the ongoing question over whether Katanga would ultimately break off for good from the Congo, which, given Katanga’s economic importance, would have had grave consequences for the country’s financial position. Moreover, on August 14 the province of South Kasai declared its secession as well (Nzongola-Ntalaja, 2002: 105).

Removing Lumumba

Thus, with insufficient UN backing and a United States which was largely deferring to Belgium, Lumumba was left with the option to turn to Soviet help in terms of military assistance (Kalb, 1982: 41). Hence, information about this disposition alarmed US policy-makers who noted the increasing weakness of the central government, its administrative and economic breakdown as well as the perceived increase in authoritarian rule exercised by Lumumba (Weissman, 1974: 85). On August 1, the National Security Council had concluded that the Congo was under a communist threat (Schmitz, 2006: 21). At a later meeting on August 18, President Eisenhower suggested that Lumumba should be eliminated (Weiner, 2008: 162). Curiously, this decision was made three days before Lumumba made his move and finally appealed to the Soviet Union for help (Prados, 2006: 275). Thus, by the end of August the so-called “Project Wizard” was underway, which involved political operations to neutralize the Prime Minister (Ibid)

Simultaneously, however, separate plans were developed by the CIA to assassinate Lumumba altogether. Prados points out that the agency contemplated poisoning Lumumba, which was understood as an implicit order coming from President Eisenhower himself (Ibid). Weiner notes that it was “[CIA station chief] Devlin’s job to deliver death to Lumumba” (2008: 163). However, in his account Larry Devlin claims to have had moral objections to such plans which led him to refuse an outright murder of Lumumba (2007: 96). But at that point it was clear that Lumumba’s days were likely to be numbered. Hence, there is ample evidence that the covert arm of the US foreign policy machinery was heavily involved in trying to influence domestic politics in the Congo to their liking.

On September 5, 1960, President Kasavubu dismissed Prime Minister Lumumba in what amounted to a coup attempt with implicit backing by the United States (Gondola, 2002: 125). However, Lumumba succeeded in retaining the legislature’s support (Ibid). Since the United States had started supporting the Army Chief of Staff Joseph Desiré Mobutu, a successive coup was carried out with success by this new political player on September 14 to remove both Kasavubu and Lumumba from power (Weissman, 1974: 97). Weissman points out that this second coup had significant support from CIA operatives (Ibid).

In the following days, there were reports of Kasavubu and Lumumba having come to a new power-sharing agreement, which worried US policy-makers who wanted to see Lumumba gone (Kalb, 1982: 100). Hence, Mobutu sent officers to arrest Lumumba. However, he was under the protection of Ghanaian UN guards and could thus not be taken into custody (Ibid). Nevertheless, Devlin maintained that Lumumba continued to be a threat and needed to be taken care of permanently (Ibid: 101). Yet, due to his protection by the UN forces, none of the plans devised to dispose of Lumumba were feasible. Thus, Lumumba remained under effective house arrest until November 27, when he made an attempt to flee to Stanleyville to rally political supporters and recapture leadership of the country (Schmitz, 2006: 23).


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The United States and the Congo Crisis, 1960 - 1961
A Constructivist Interpretation of US Foreign Policy
University of Miami  (Department of International Studies)
American Imperialism
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ISBN (Book)
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Realism, Marxism, Constructivism, International Relations, Congo, Congo Crisis, 1960, Patrice Lumumba, Eisenhower, Kasavubu, social construction, Belgium, United States, United Nations, Instrumental Marxism, racism, paternalism, Mobutu, natural resources, Katanga, Katanga Crisis, King Leopold, Central Africa, Cold War
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Tim Pfefferle (Author), 2012, The United States and the Congo Crisis, 1960 - 1961, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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