Bare-chested dancers wearing grass skirts carried a royal visitor aloft through the jammed streets of Leopoldville, the capital of the newly independent Republic of the Congo. Throngs shouted their welcome. The object of their adulation, beaming in gratitude, waved back from his red leather throne. He was no mere prince or king, but a monarch of global reach: Louis Armstrong, jazz visionary and America’s premier cultural ambassador.
Jazz was a potent weapon in America’s Cold War arsenal, and “Satchmo” had become arguably the most beloved musician in the world. He had played for adoring crowds across the United States and Europe, appeared in films, made hit records like “Mack the Knife,” and been the first jazz musician featured on the cover of Time. His joyous music conveyed an image of the United States as an open, happy place. His stardom suggested that American society was free of racial prejudice. Not for nothing did the State Department sponsor his tours. The New York Times called him “America’s secret weapon.”
In 1957 Armstrong agreed to represent the United States in what would have been a groundbreaking tour of the Soviet Union, but he angrily canceled when President Eisenhower proved reluctant to support the integration of public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. Three years later, with school integration finally proceeding in much of the South, he relented. This time the State Department wanted him to tour not the Soviet Union but Africa, where long-colonized countries were racing toward independence. It became a three-month, twenty-seven-city extravaganza.
The welcome that greeted Armstrong in Leopoldville on October 28, 1960, was one of the most jubilant. His concert, held at a packed stadium, peaked with a soulful rendition of “What a Wonderful World.”
I see skies of blue, clouds of white
Bright blessed days, dark sacred nights,
And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
The world of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, the elected leader of the Congo, was at that moment far from wonderful. Lumumba was being held prisoner at his official residence, not far from the stadium where Armstrong performed. He was among the world’s best-known prisoners, so Armstrong must have either known about his predicament and rationalized it away or kept himself willfully ignorant.
Under other circumstances, Armstrong would probably have met Lumumba. Instead he dined after his concert with a starstruck American fan named Larry Devlin, who introduced himself and, finding that the great man had no dinner plans, took him out for a night on the town.
Armstrong could not have known it, but Devlin was chief of the CIA station in Leopoldville. When the trumpeter dined with the secret agent on October 28, 1960, he was unwittingly breaking bread with a CIA officer under orders to kill one of Africa’s heroes.
At the beginning of that year, almost no one outside of the Congo had heard of Lumumba. By midsummer, many powerful Americans had come to consider him a frightening new enemy. On August 18 President Eisenhower made private comments—they were not recorded—that Allen Dulles and others present interpreted as an order to kill Lumumba. A week later the Special Group, a subcommittee of the National Security Council that considered covert operations, met to discuss Lumumba, and Eisenhower’s national security adviser, Gordon Gray, reported that the president had “extremely strong feelings on the necessity for very straightforward action.”
Eisenhower had created the Special Group in 1955 with a decree that Allen later called “one of the most secret documents in the US government.” It had just five members: the president, his national security adviser, the undersecretaries of state and defense, and the director of central intelligence. Its stated purpose was to authorize covert operations, but it also served as Eisenhower’s link to covert action. “Politically and diplomatically it would have been unseemly, and inciting, for the President to order coups, assassinations, and other mischief,” one historian has written. “The Special Group acted as his proxy. But in the end, its actions—its decisions, its approvals—were taken on behalf of the President, with his knowledge and approval.”
Allen could not mistake the message he took from the Special Group meeting of August 18, 1960. He promised to take it “very seriously” and proceed “as vigorously as the situation permits or requires.” The next day he sent Devlin a cable ordering him to strike against Lumumba.
“In high quarters here it is the clear-cut conclusion that if he continues to hold high office, the inevitable result will be at best chaos and at worst pave the way to communist takeover of the Congo with disastrous consequences for the prestige of the UN and the interests of the free world generally,” Allen wrote. “Consequently we conclude that his removal must be an urgent and prime objective and that under existing conditions this should be a high priority of our covert action. You can act on your own authority if time does not permit referral here.”
On September 19 Devlin received a second, more cryptic cable from CIA headquarters. It advised him to expect a courier called “Joe from Paris” who would be carrying orders so sensitive that they could only be delivered verbally. A week later, as Devlin was leaving the American embassy, where he worked under cover as a consul, a man approached him and introduced himself as “Joe from Paris.” He recognized the visitor as Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, a CIA chemist who had run the MKULTRA mind-control project. Allen had named him to head a “health alteration committee,” assigned to prepare toxins and incapacitating drugs for possible use in CIA operations.
The two men drove off in Devlin’s car. Gottlieb came directly to the point. He was carrying lethal poison, including one dose mixed into a tube of toothpaste. Devlin was to use it to kill Lumumba.
“It’s your responsibility to carry out the operation, you alone,” Gottlieb said. “The details are up to you, but it’s got to be clean—nothing that can be traced back to the U.S. government.”
One of Devlin’s Congolese agents had access to the residence where Lumumba was being held, but could not reach a bathroom where he might plant the poisoned toothpaste. CIA officers spent hours discussing other ways to carry out the killing. Meanwhile Louis Armstrong, with his mile-wide smile, gave the Congolese the idea that every American loved them.
The contrast between the idealized and real faces of power is an ancient archetype. In American and Congolese history, it has rarely been more sharply drawn than during the autumn of 1960. An American who epitomized some of his country’s most appealing qualities won the hearts of the Congolese. At the same time and in the same place, a handful of other Americans were plotting to kill the Congo’s most popular leader.
Allen set off against Lumumba just as passionately as he had set off against other foreign leaders he thought of as monsters. His tactics were well practiced. In one way, though, this campaign was different from the others. In the past, Allen always had Foster at his side. They attacked like a serpent: two jaws not organically connected but working in perfect harmony. This time Allen was alone.
* * *
The intimate partnership that guided Foster and Allen through their years in power was not shaken by the failure of Archipelago in Indonesia. Allen had called “pulling the plug” there his most difficult decision, but neither brother took it as an occasion for deep reflection. Their sister Eleanor found them closer than ever.
“They loved to talk into the late hours,” she remembered. “Foster would call Allen for a brief telephone word, or to ask him to come to the Department or his house on any occasion when conditions presented him with a new situation or growing crisis.”
One reason the brothers drew so close during this period was that their once-powerful hold on Washington was slipping. Both were increasingly seen as out of touch—Foster because he could not respond creatively to Soviet overtures or to the intensifying challenge of Third World nationalism, Allen because of his failure to manage the burgeoning CIA bureaucracy effectively. Allen was further weakened by a spate of reports that CIA officers in Indochina had abetted heroin trafficking by their tribal allies. There were new calls to split the CIA in two, separating the collection and analysis of intelligence from covert action.
On an official visit to South America in the summer of 1958, Vice President Nixon was attacked by demonstrators, and Foster and Allen were blamed for having exposed him to danger and failing to defend the image of the United States. Nixon asserted afterward that the “Communist high command in South America” had orchestrated the attacks. Allen was more realistic. In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he made the trenchant observation—obvious to some, but rarely spoken in Washington—that Latin Americans might have reasons to be angry at the United States. Among these reasons, he suggested, might be “our support of dictators in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Paraguay,” and “the support of United Fruit and intervention in Guatemala.”
As both brothers came under increasing public criticism, rumors of their political demise began circulating. Eisenhower was reportedly ready to name General Alfred Gruenther, the supreme allied commander in Europe, as his new secretary of state. General Mark Clark, who had commanded allied troops in Korea, was said to be his choice as the new director of central intelligence. Never before had such speculation touched Foster or Allen.
Nixon’s violence-torn trip through Latin America, the collapse of Archipelago, the overthrow and murder of pro-American leaders in Iraq, and the marine landing in Lebanon were more than enough to occupy both beleaguered brothers during the spring and summer of 1958. Then, at the end of August, China resumed shelling the disputed islands of Quemoy and Matsu. Three months later, Khrushchev gave a speech asserting that it was time for all foreign powers to withdraw their troops from Berlin. He said that if the United States wished to continue occupying a sector of the city, it should negotiate with the government of East Germany, which the United States did not recognize.
Another secretary of state in another era might have played down these challenges. Foster took them both as major strategic threats, and seized on them to sharpen the sense of imminent danger that he always sought to instill in Americans. He dramatized the “offshore islands crisis” and “Berlin crisis” as threats to vital American interests. They filled front pages for months.
Foster sought momentary escape from these confrontations at a World Council of Churches conference in Cleveland. Eminent theologians and religious leaders, many of whom he had known for years, were among the delegates. He hoped for a level of spiritual as well as political solace among them, but found neither. The delegates listened politely to his speech and then, within a couple of hours, passed a resolution urging the United States to recognize the People’s Republic of China and support its entry into the United Nations. Foster was shocked.
“It was to him a real and deeply felt hurt,” Eleanor wrote.
She also reported that Foster had another source of private distress: “On orders from his doctors, he had given up smoking, meaning that he was forced to sip his evening brandy without the cigar he usually enjoyed. He found this difficult, and it contributed to a recurring nightmare. In it he was sipping brandy with a group of men and was offered a cigar. As he reached for it, he would awaken drenched with sweat.”
As autumn turned to winter, Foster felt intensifying abdominal pain. Despite it, he traveled to Mexico City to attend the inauguration of President Adolfo López Mateos. There he had a long talk with his son John, a mining engineer based in Monterrey, who flew in to see him. He was clearly unwell. On his way home he stopped for a few days at Smoke Tree Ranch in Palm Springs, California. He found no relief. On December 6 he entered Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington for a week of “rest and check-up.”
At the end of that week, Foster was driven directly from Walter Reed to National Airport, from which he flew to Paris for a NATO meeting. Eisenhower, evidently sensing that the end was near, lent Foster his personal plane and pilot. The trip took a toll. Rather than return directly to Washington, Foster flew to Jamaica, where he spent two weeks at the estate of the financier Clarence Dillon.
“I feel able to carry on,” he told reporters when he returned to Washington.
At the end of January 1959 Foster flew to Europe for what turned out to be his last foreign trip. His health had deteriorated to the point that he could not bathe or dress himself. In Bonn he met his old comrade Chancellor Adenauer, for what both suspected would be the last time. He could eat only porridge.
On February 10 Foster returned to Walter Reed. There he had a hernia operation, which was also a probe for cancer. After emerging, he pressed doctors for the truth about his condition. They were evasive.
“Foster was aware of certain medical facts and of his own grave physical suffering,” Eleanor wrote afterward, “but he did not appear to anticipate that his work on earth was to end.”
On March 30, after several days trying to relax in Florida, Foster decided he did not have the strength to continue in office. He tried writing a resignation letter on one of his ever-present yellow legal pads, but his handwriting was too unsteady. Instead he dictated it to Janet. She had it typed and passed it on to Allen, who delivered it to Eisenhower. The president replied with a letter thanking Foster for being “a staunch bulwark of our nation against the machinations of Imperialistic Communism.”
Three women kept vigil outside Foster’s room. Janet was quietly grief-stricken, Eleanor stoic, and Clover disarmingly cheerful, talking of miracle cures and the foolishness of doctors. As they waited, Foster underwent radiation treatments, but declined narcotic painkillers. Cancer metastasized into his bones. He died shortly after dawn on May 24, 1959. The nation mourned with an emotion few had expected.
“A few weeks before, his name had been a synonym for intransigence, rigidity, inflexibility to the point of preferring armed conflict to concession,” one commentator wrote. “Now young men and women were weeping over his body.”
Americans had come to view Foster the way children might view a strict old schoolmaster. At the end of his life he seemed frozen into immobility, an anachronism, a prisoner of the past. When he was gone, though, the nation felt bereft. For years he had led its resistance to what was presumed to be mortal danger. His death led many to reflect that they had survived a frightening period, and to give much of the credit to him. Virtually every American knew his name. So did most literate humans on earth. When he died, the world suddenly seemed a different place.
Allen suggested that his brother be memorialized at a small private service, but he was overruled. His fears were realized when the day of the funeral turned out to be intensely hot, a huge crowd turned out, and tributes were interminable.
“Some fellow got up and read all of the Old Testament,” former secretary of state Dean Acheson groused over a drink later in the day. “Then somebody else, not to be outdone, read all of the New Testament. By that time I was so tired I could hardly bear it. The number of eulogies—you’d never believe it.… The greatest mistake I made was not to die in office.”
Allen was naturally shaken by the death of a man to whom he had been joined, personally and professionally, for all his life. No longer was he part of a duo that could shake the world. Eisenhower invited him to the White House less often, and told aides that whenever he and Allen met he wanted at least one other person to be present.
Some thought Eisenhower might name Allen to succeed his brother, giving him the post he had long coveted, but that was never a realistic prospect. In the end Eisenhower chose Undersecretary Christian Herter, a New England patrician who had been known to wince at some of Foster’s more militant turns of phrase.
“Christian Herter never really replaced Dulles,” the historian Blanche Wiesen Cook wrote. “Nobody did. The tough guy who snarled was gone.”
The first new figure to emerge on the world stage during Herter’s tenure was one who would bedevil and obsess American leaders for decades: Fidel Castro. On January 1, 1959, Castro had seized power in Cuba after toppling the military dictator Fulgencio Batista. For years Batista had been a faithful servant of the United States, and Allen’s men had trained his secret police force, which became notorious for torturing and killing revolutionaries. This alone gave Castro a threatening aura. During his first months in power he refrained from direct confrontation. Then, while Foster was dying at Walter Reed, he turned up in New York.
Castro’s eleven-day visit was a sensation. Young, bearded, long-haired, and impossibly romantic, he held court at the legendary Hotel Theresa in Harlem, attended a baseball game at Yankee Stadium, visited the Central Park Zoo, ate hot dogs and hamburgers, and was kissed by a beauty queen. “He came, he saw, he conquered,” the Daily News reported.
Eisenhower avoided meeting foreign leaders of uncertain loyalty, and assigned Vice President Nixon to meet Castro. The two men spoke for three hours. In his report, Nixon wrote that Castro “has those indefinable qualities which make him a leader of men,” and worried that the United States might not be able “to orient him in the right direction.”
“In his attitude toward Communism,” Nixon concluded, “he sounded almost exactly like Sukarno.”
That proved prescient. In the months after his return from New York, Castro decreed a sweeping land reform, forbade the ownership of property by foreigners, and signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union. The unthinkable seemed to be happening: a country on the doorstep of the United States was slipping under Soviet influence.
Although Eisenhower was near-apoplectic at this prospect, he directed his anger at Castro, not the Soviets. In fact, as his anti-Castro fervor was rising, he decided to invite Nikita Khrushchev to Washington—something that would have been inconceivable while Foster was alive.
When Khrushchev arrived on September 15, 1959, he became the first Soviet leader to set foot on American soil and an object of immense fascination. Eisenhower had invited him to the presidential retreat at Camp David, but Khrushchev wanted to see the United States first. A horde of reporters followed his every move. One of them, Murray Kempton, later wrote that this had been “the most profoundly entertaining public experience of our lives.”
In New York, Khrushchev visited the top of the Empire State Building, toured IBM headquarters, called on Eleanor Roosevelt, and sparred lustily with tycoons at Averell Harriman’s town house. He visited a farm in Iowa and a supermarket in San Francisco. Photos of him were on every day’s front page: embracing a live turkey, ogling chorus girls, patting a fat man’s belly, even pretending to shoplift a napkin holder by slipping it under his jacket. He met Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and Shirley MacLaine. Newspaper headlines ranged from “Khrushchev Is a Showman on His Arrival” and “Khrushchev’s US Tour Like Traveling Circus” to odd ones like “Sees K on TV, So He Murders 2” and the classic “Denied Tour of Disneyland, K Blows Top.”
This visit achieved for Khrushchev just what Foster had feared. It gave him the image of a normal human being who could be at turns charming, tempestuous, irascible, threatening, and reassuring. Pictures of Eisenhower and Khrushchev together—a pair of balding grandfathers with big smiles—undermined the premise of hostility that shaped the Cold War.
At Camp David, Eisenhower screened the film Shane for his guest. Perhaps he wanted to send a message. Khrushchev had threatened to force Western powers out of Berlin, and the film is full of lines like, “We can’t give up this valley and we ain’t gonna do it.” The summit produced no breakthroughs, but Khrushchev’s threats over Berlin faded in what some called “the spirit of Camp David.” It was something that could not have happened while Foster was alive: Khrushchev blustered, Eisenhower pretended not to notice, time passed, and both sides tacitly agreed to forget the whole episode.
Khrushchev’s visit, however, did nothing to ease the fear of Castro that was coursing through Washington. In January 1960, Allen created a Cuba Task Force and directed it to come up with a plan for covert action in Cuba. When the plan was ready, Eisenhower approved it.
As the covert war against Castro was taking shape, two things happened that distracted both Allen and his boss. On May 1, a U-2 spy plane disappeared during a high-altitude flight over the Soviet Union. Allen presumed it had exploded. He helped concoct a cover story, and Eisenhower agreed to use it. The State Department issued a statement saying the pilot of a “weather research aircraft” had “reported difficulty with his oxygen equipment,” and that the plane might have “continued on automatic pilot for a considerable distance and accidentally violated Soviet airspace.” Later a spokesman added, “It is ridiculous to say we are trying to kid the world about this.… There was absolutely no deliberate attempt to violate Soviet airspace, and there never has been.” A couple of days later Khrushchev struck back.
“I must tell you a secret,” he said with a smile at a press conference in Moscow. “When I made my first report, I deliberately did not say that the pilot was alive and well.”
It turned out that although the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, had been given a hollowed-out silver dollar containing a lethal dose of poison, he did not use it when his plane was shot down. Even worse, the plane was hardly damaged in the crash, and all of its spy cameras were intact. Khrushchev, with evident gusto, ridiculed American leaders for the “silly things” they had said to cover up the truth.
“The whole world knows that Allen Dulles is no weatherman,” he added.
Eisenhower had been caught telling Americans, and the world, a giant lie. His son John urged him to fire Allen, who had steered him into it. “I am not going to shift the blame to my underling,” the president replied.
“If you gentlemen are spies and I am the government,” Eisenhower mused at a press conference, “and you get caught, I can say I never heard of you or saw you before. But if you strap a U-2 to your back, it is a little more difficult, to say the least, not to admit and assume responsibility.”
Eisenhower had previously agreed to meet Khrushchev in Paris on May 18, and he had told Allen to be sure nothing disrupted the summit. After the U-2 crash, just as Eisenhower had feared, Khrushchev pulled out. At an angry press conference, the Soviet leader threatened “to take the American aggressors by the scruff of the neck and give them a little shaking, and make them understand that they must not commit such acts of aggression against the Soviet Union—and that if they come again, they will receive another blow.”
Although surveillance photos taken by U-2 planes had provided valuable intelligence, it was all but inevitable that at some point one would be shot down. When it happened, Cold War tensions sharpened. Eisenhower had hoped to end his term with Soviet-American relations improving. Instead they were nearly as frigid as when he took office.
“The episode humiliated Khrushchev and discredited his relatively moderate policies,” George Kennan wrote. “It forced him to fall back, for the defense of his own political position, on a more strongly belligerent anti-American tone of public utterance.”
As the U-2 crisis was unfolding, Patrice Lumumba suddenly emerged in the Congo and began challenging Western power. He terrified many in Washington. The war against Castro remained a priority, but in mid-1960 stopping Lumumba became even more urgent. Allen saw the chance to launch an audacious operation. At a National Security Council meeting just three weeks after Lumumba’s inauguration, he grabbed everyone’s attention by using a phrase calculated to strike terror into Washington’s collective heart. Lumumba, he said, was “a Castro or worse.”
* * *
Never was a country described with more pitiless accuracy than when the novelist Joseph Conrad called the Congo a “heart of darkness.” It brings out the worst in some people. Perhaps its spectacular resource wealth is the cause. The Congo is said to be the richest piece of geography on earth. When King Leopold II of Belgium appropriated it in 1885, he called it “a splendid piece of cake.” During their seventy-five-year rule, Belgians made immense fortunes in the Congo. Millions of Congolese died through massacre or in slave labor. It was the bloodiest episode in the history of European colonialism.
Foster and Allen considered themselves anti-colonialist and believed that the nations of Africa should become independent. Two of the first that did so in the late 1950s, however, produced strongly nationalist leaders: Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Ahmed Sékou Touré in Guinea. They considered themselves socialists and refused to ally their countries with Washington. This disconcerted both brothers.
Like all wise supporters of the status quo, Foster and Allen promoted measured, controlled change. They abhorred populist nationalism, which to them was not a response to history and indigenous conditions but a smoke screen behind which rabble-rousing demagogues could do Moscow’s work. Already they had fought nationalism in Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Middle East. In Foster’s last years it erupted in Africa. This would have been his next battleground. Instead it became Allen’s.
Slaughter on an epic scale was not Belgium’s only legacy to the Congo. Perhaps never has a country been granted independence with less preparation. Belgium had refused to educate its Congolese subjects; in 1960, by one count, there were just seventeen college graduates in a population of thirteen million. Not a single Congolese had substantial experience in government or public administration. There were no Congolese doctors, lawyers, or engineers. The economy was almost entirely in foreign hands. Citizens were spread out across a country the size of Western Europe, and represented a bewildering array of tribes, cultures, and languages. There was neither an educated elite nor a middle class. Since Belgian military commanders refused to promote native soldiers above the rank of sergeant, there was not even a single Congolese officer.
Even with these handicaps, the Congo might have been able to survive in peace if outsiders had left it alone. That was impossible, for two reasons. First, the Congo has too many rich resources ever to be left alone. Second, it emerged as a nation when the Cold War was raging, and could not remain apart from the global confrontation.
Belgian rule over the Congo had been well established by the time Lumumba was born in 1925. He attended religious schools and, after completing the equivalent of three years of high school, set off on a life of learning. He read voraciously, took a correspondence course to perfect his French, became a volunteer librarian, and wrote poetry. After passing a rigorous examination, he won appointment as a postal clerk, one of the few civil service jobs available to natives. Later he became a beer salesman, which gave him the chance to crisscross the Congo and hone his talents as a persuasive speaker. During this period he also developed the look that millions around the world would later recognize: tall, thin, erect, usually in a dark suit, thin tie, and starched white shirt, with a small mustache and goatee, close-cropped hair, and intense eyes behind rimmed glasses.
Independence movements blazed across Africa during the late 1950s, and in the Belgian Congo, Lumumba emerged as an indefatigable activist. Inevitably, he was arrested, and a judge sentenced him to six months of penal servitude on charges of instigating violence. He was in jail when, in January 1960, King Baudouin of Belgium summoned more than eighty Congolese citizens to a conference in Brussels to discuss ways the Congo might be granted independence. It quickly became clear that the conference could not proceed without Lumumba. Finally the Belgians agreed to release him.
In the course of barely more than a single dizzying day, Lumumba went from a prison cell in the Congo to an elegant conference hall in Brussels, from penal servitude to chief negotiator for his country’s independence. Before he sat down for the first negotiating session, a Belgian doctor rubbed salve into his wrists where manacles had cut his skin, and tended to scars from flogging that laced his back.
After generations during which there had been no political change in the Congo, and indeed no politics at all, events began moving at breakneck speed. Negotiators in Brussels agreed on a formula for independence. The Congolese people were called to the polls for the first time.
“The man to beat was Patrice Lumumba, 34, the tall, goateed radical from Stanleyville, who last week was storming through the back country in a cream-colored convertible,” Time reported.
Lumumba’s party emerged victorious, defeating the “moderate” party many Belgians favored, and he prepared to take office as prime minister. Few dared to imagine what might come next. Sub-Saharan Africa had already produced two defiantly neutralist leaders. Lumumba was poised to become a world figure on a larger scale than either of them.
“Mr. Patrice Lumumba is living proof that events create men as much as men create events,” wrote a correspondent for the Times of London. “This tall, slender young man with the little moustache and goatee beard and large gesticulating hands, glows conviction from behind his spectacles.… The Belgians will have to be exceedingly clever to outsmart Mr. Lumumba.”
No Congolese had a better understanding of the art of governing than Lumumba. This only meant, however, that instead of no understanding at all, he had a small bit. His dream was breathtakingly ambitious: build an independent state, regulate the exploitation of natural resources, and keep his country out of the Cold War conflict. Yet his lack of experience, and lack of compatriots with experience, rendered this dream all but impossible—especially since it implied confrontation with Belgium and the United States.
Both countries had evident reasons to oppose Lumumba. Belgium feared he would cut off the rich concessions from which Belgian corporations had long benefited. The United States saw him as a Cold War enemy. Behind both of these interests, and intertwined with them, was the Congo’s uniquely rich resource base. Eisenhower spoke often of the West’s need to secure strategic minerals, and he realized that this need would become more acute as industrial progress accelerated. The Congo—in particular the southeastern province of Katanga—was an invaluable source of industrial diamonds and strategic metals like copper, manganese, zinc, cobalt, and chromium. It had also become the world’s principal source of a suddenly precious ore: uranium. Few knew it, but the uranium used to fuel the first American nuclear reactor, built in Chicago, as well as the uranium used in the atomic bombs that had been dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had come from the Congo. Resource wealth would have made this new country a strategic prize even if the Cold War had not been raging.
Independence came to the Congo on June 30, 1960. The ceremony, held at the Palais de la Nation in Leopoldville, was supposed to be no more than a formal handover. Lumumba made it an epochal turning point.
Beside the entrance to the ornate salon stood a bronze statue of King Leopold II, whom history holds responsible for cruelties in the Congo that challenge the human imagination. Belgian dignitaries filed in. Members of the newly elected government followed. Diplomats and journalists stood by. King Baudouin began his welcoming speech by paying tribute to his genocidal grandfather, calling Congolese independence “the result of the undertaking conceived by the genius of King Leopold II.” He described independence as a gift Belgium was giving the Congo. Then he addressed the country’s new leaders.
“Don’t compromise the future with hasty reforms, and don’t replace the structures that Belgium hands over to you until you are sure you can do better,” the king advised. “Don’t be afraid to come to us. We will remain by your side, give you advice, train with you the technical experts and administrators you will need.”
The next speaker, Joseph Kasavubu, who was about to assume the ceremonial presidency of the new Republic of the Congo, was brief and inoffensive. Then, unexpectedly, another Congolese dignitary rose to summon a speaker whose name did not appear on the official program. Patrice Lumumba, the leader of the Congo’s largest political party and the incoming prime minister, strode to the microphone. Across his chest he wore the Ribbon of the Order of the Crown, a wide crimson sash the king had conferred on him.
Lumumba’s first words were thunderbolts: independence was not a gift from Belgium but a triumph of “passionate, idealistic struggle” that had finally thrown off “the humiliating slavery that was imposed on us by force.” By one account King Baudouin “turned a deathly pale.” Lumumba continued:
Our wounds are too fresh and too painful for us to drive them from our memory.… We have known sarcasm and insults, endured blows morning, noon and night because we were “niggers.” … We have seen our lands despoiled under the terms of what was supposedly national law, but which only recognized the right of the strongest. We have seen that this law was quite different for a white than for a black: accommodating for the former, cruel and inhuman for the latter. We have seen the terrible suffering of those condemned for their political opinions or religious beliefs.… And finally, who can forget the massacres in which so many of our brothers perished, the cells where the authorities threw those who would not submit to a rule where “justice” meant oppression and exploitation? All of that, my brothers, we have endured. But we, who by vote of your elected representatives have been given the right to direct our dear country, we who have suffered in our body and our soul from colonial oppression, we tell you loudly: all that is now ended!
The Congolese in the hall, and thousands listening to loudspeakers outside, interrupted Lumumba no fewer than eight times with bursts of applause and cheering. Many listening on radio approached delirium. None had ever heard an African address colonial power in terms remotely like these, let alone in the presence of a reigning monarch.
In one electrifying moment, a former postal clerk and beer salesman propelled himself to mythic status.
At first it seemed that the transition might go smoothly. Eisenhower sent a veteran diplomat, Robert Murphy, to Lumumba’s inauguration, bearing a bust of Lincoln and an offer to educate three hundred Congolese students at universities in the United States. “To the surprise of many whites who expected pillaging and insults from the newly independent blacks,” Time reported, “there was universal inter-racial politeness, even open camaraderie.”
Trouble began quickly. Lumumba, who had agreed to retain Belgian troops as long as they were subject to his ultimate control, appointed a commission to reorganize the military and consider the feasibility of soldiers electing their own officers. General Emile Janssens, the Belgian commander, who considered Congolese troops “a stupid rabble,” sent him a curt note advising him to desist and telling him to “consider this a last and final warning.” Then Janssens convened his Congolese troops, told them that “in the army the white will always remain superior to blacks,” and famously wrote on a chalkboard “Before Independence = After Independence.”
The soldiers, already angry that Lumumba had refused to increase their pay, rebelled at this Belgian effort to maintain control of the Congolese army. Some were propelled by tribal passions, especially in regions that felt under-represented in Lumumba’s cabinet. Indiscipline and mutiny spread. Some soldiers beat, kidnapped, terrorized, and raped Europeans. Images of white families huddled into airports and packed onto ferries, fleeing violent Africans, were beamed around the world. Within a couple of days, all but a few hundred of the Congo’s twenty-five thousand Belgians were gone, including nearly every doctor, civil servant, and technician in the country. On July 10, claiming the need to protect civilian lives, Belgian commandos began parachuting into remote regions of the Congo.
The first ten days of independence were an unmitigated disaster for Lumumba and his country. On the eleventh day came the crowning blow. A local figure in Katanga province, Moise Tshombe, declared Katanga independent and proclaimed himself its leader. Katanga is the center of the Congo’s mineral wealth, and the powerful Belgian mining company that had exploited its wealth for generations, Union Minière du Haut Katanga, was Tshombe’s sponsor. The Belgian military commander in Katanga, Colonel Lucien Champion, cashiered hundreds of soldiers loyal to Lumumba and recruited Europeans to replace them. Belgium’s government sent him nine tons of ammunition. “Overnight Tshombe became the most unpopular and reviled black leader in Africa,” one CIA officer reported. The London Daily Telegraph described him as “under the domination of Belgian officials.”
As soon as the secessionist rebellion broke out, Lumumba commandeered a plane and flew to Katanga. He counted on the force of his will, and his ability to mobilize nascent Congolese patriotism, to turn the tide in his favor. His plane was not allowed to land. After returning to Leopoldville, he angrily announced that the Congo was breaking diplomatic relations with Belgium. “We accuse the Belgian government of having meticulously prepared Katanga secession in the aim of keeping a hold on our country,” he wrote. Then he asked the United Nations to send troops to the Congo so that he could expel the Belgians.
Fatefully, Lumumba also took another step: he sent a cable to the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev. “We ask you to follow hour by hour the evolution of the situation in the Congo,” it said. “We might be forced to solicit intervention from the Soviet Union if the Western camp does not put an end to aggressive action against the sovereign Republic of the Congo.”
The Soviets, like the Americans, had largely ignored the Congo. Both superpowers had presumed that the Belgians would arrange to hand power to a trusted Congolese minion, and never imagined that they would allow someone like Lumumba to emerge. Khrushchev was preoccupied with other matters: his country’s intensifying relationship with Cuba, its emerging rivalry with China, the continuing U-2 crisis, and the repercussions from the shooting down of a second American reconnaissance plane on July 1. Nonetheless he could not ignore Lumumba’s overture, and assured the new Congolese leader that the Soviet Union would send “whatever aid necessary for the triumph of your just cause.” In case Washington missed this disturbing message, Lumumba repeated it publicly in a speech to parliament on July 15.
“We have no arms, but we shall appeal to any friendly nations that want to help us,” he said. “If it is necessary, we will call on the devil.”
A week later Lumumba set out for New York to present his case at the United Nations. He arrived to a storm of attention. A nineteen-gun salute greeted him at Idlewild Airport. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld warmly welcomed him, and after their first meeting proclaimed himself “very optimistic, very satisfied.”
Lumumba held several press conferences, in both New York and Washington, his next stop. At one of them, a reporter asked how he envisioned his personal future. He turned reflective.
“If I die tomorrow,” he said, “it will be because a foreigner has armed a Congolese.”
Behind closed doors, Lumumba’s visit to Washington went poorly. He felt under siege—angry, suspicious, and overwhelmed by the pace of events. There was no way he could have understood the Americans’ complex of fears, or learned the vocabulary he might have used to calm them. He asked Secretary of State Herter for technicians, a loan, a small plane so he could travel freely around his country, and, above all, help in forcing Belgian troops out of the Congo. Herter disingenuously replied that these were all matters for the United Nations.
Herter’s deputy, Douglas Dillon, later testified that officials who met Lumumba concluded he was “just not a rational being … an individual whom it was impossible to deal with.” Declassified transcripts suggest that the real problem may have been Lumumba’s views, especially his steadfast refusal to rule out soliciting military aid from the Soviet Union. New on the world stage and unschooled in Cold War truths, he never grasped how frightened and angry the United States became when a government began flirting with Moscow. When he pronounced himself ready to invite Soviet military power into Africa’s richest heartland, he may have believed he was only seeking ways to re-establish his country’s unity.
By American standards, however, Lumumba seemed dangerously defiant. Eisenhower refused to see him. Washington feared that he was preparing to hand the Soviets a historic victory.
“We are being attacked because we will no longer bow down!” Lumumba declared when he returned to Leopoldville. “We are being attacked because the members of the Congolese government are honest men.… They have tried to buy me for millions. I refused.”
Larry Devlin, the CIA station chief in Leopoldville, had been warning that Lumumba was serving “the Russian bear,” and felt vindicated by the fiasco in Washington. Devlin was a classically action-oriented officer, immersed in the Cold War ethos and eager to launch covert operations. He had joined the agency the way most officers of his generation did. While he was studying at Harvard, one of his professors invited him and three other students to a genteel recruiting session conducted by McGeorge Bundy, a Council on Foreign Relations member and the future national security adviser to President Kennedy. Bundy described the CIA’s mission as “thwarting Moscow’s ambitions for world domination without having to resort to open warfare.” That was all Devlin needed to hear. He served in several posts in Europe, and in 1960, when he became Allen’s field commander in the Congo, he considered his mission an urgently important defense of freedom. Half a century later, he was less certain.
“In retrospect, I think that Lumumba’s actions and statements may well have resulted from his limited education and his total lack of experience in dealing with sophisticated leaders and governments,” Devlin wrote in a memoir. “Lumumba did not act like any other government leader with whom American officials were familiar. He came across as an unpredictable loose cannon.… With the full backing of Headquarters, the station began work on a plan to remove Lumumba from power.”
Inside the Congo, public administration had broken down, police forces had evaporated, and unemployment was skyrocketing. Lumumba proved unwilling or unable to discipline unruly soldiers, in part because he considered them a social movement and was reluctant to order them to submit themselves once again to Belgian officers. One platoon beat up a crew of Canadian and American airmen delivering a cargo of food from the UN. Secessionists remained in control of Katanga, and a second province, Kasai, center of Belgian diamond-mining interests, also seceded. Anarchy was in the air.
Eisenhower decided to summon the American ambassador in the Congo, Clare Timberlake, for a personal report. On August 1, Timberlake addressed the National Security Council. After he spoke, the council decided that the United States should be prepared “at any time to take appropriate military action to prevent or defeat Soviet military intervention in the Congo.” That same day, Soviet leaders announced they were preparing “resolute measures to rebuff aggressors … who are in fact acting with the encouragement of the colonialist powers of NATO.”
Nearly three hundred foreign journalists converged on Leopoldville to cover the “Congo disaster.” They packed Lumumba’s press conferences and made him, by one account, “the most talked-about man in the world.” Time commissioned a portrait for its August 22 cover. It showed Lumumba looking intense and purposeful, against the background of a stormy forest symbolizing the turbulent Congo.
Articles about Lumumba, most with photos, had been featured in every issue of Time since independence, more coverage than the magazine gave to any other story during the summer of 1960. He became the focus of intense debates in the United States over race, decolonization, and the rights of emerging nations. The prospect of a Time cover distressed Ambassador Timberlake, who detested the man he called “Lumumbavitch.” Timberlake arrived on a visit to Belgium as the magazine was going to press, and shared his frustration with his host, William Burden, the American ambassador in Brussels.
“Time magazine plans to do a cover story on Lumumba with his picture on the front of the magazine,” Timberlake fumed. “Celebrity coverage at home will make him even more difficult to deal with. He’s a first-class headache as it is.”
“Then why don’t you get the story killed, or at least modified?” Burden asked.
“I tried to persuade the Time man in Leopoldville until I was blue in the face. But he said there was nothing to do because the story had already been sent to New York.”
Burden belonged to the small clique of perfectly connected aristocrats who shaped American foreign policy for the first two-thirds of the twentieth century. He had been born to wealth, attended Harvard, married a granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt, joined the Council on Foreign Relations, been assistant secretary of the air force, and even served a term as president of the Museum of Modern Art, succeeding his friend Nelson Rockefeller. In the weeks before Timberlake’s visit, he had sent vivid cables to Washington warning that Lumumba “threatens our vital interests in Congo and Africa generally” and that “a principal objective of our political and diplomatic action must therefore be to destroy Lumumba government.”
Upon hearing Timberlake’s complaint, Burden picked up his telephone, and a few minutes later had Henry Luce on the line from New York. He told Luce what the interests of the United States required: Lumumba should not appear on the cover of Time. Luce replied that the cover could not be changed because the magazine was going to press. Burden persisted.
“Oh, come on, Henry,” he said. “You must have other cover stories in the can.”
They spoke for a few more minutes. As soon as Luce hung up, he ordered that a portrait of Dag Hammarskjöld replace Lumumba’s on the forthcoming cover. There was not even time to change the background. Hammarskjöld appeared before the storm-bent trees drawn originally for Lumumba.
Neither Foster nor Allen knew or cared much about Africa. The State Department had no bureau of African affairs until 1957. Allen was even slower, running Africa as a subsidiary of his Middle East division until finally creating an Africa division in mid-1959. He had no direct reporting from the Congo until Larry Devlin arrived in July 1960.
Devlin and the handful of other CIA officers Allen hurriedly dispatched to the Congo represented the best and worst of the CIA: masters of their trade, but ignorant of the country around them. They were puppeteers of power. Everything Allen and his men knew or cared to know about the Congo had to do with the Cold War. In their eyes, Lumumba was the newest incarnation of the global threat they were sworn to resist.
“None of us had any real concept of what he stood for,” one of them later reflected. “He was simply an unstable former postal clerk with great political charisma, who was leaning toward the Communist bloc. In Cold War terms, he represented the other side. The fact that he was first and foremost an African nationalist who was using the East-West rivalry to advance his cause was played down by the Belgians, who greatly feared him.”
Devlin first set out “to discover who the real shakers and movers were, what made them tick, and what they planned to do.” Then he and his men recruited informers and provocateurs inside political parties, labor unions, youth groups, parliament, and the cabinet. One recalled “recruiting agents and running them under conditions of public disorder that would have had others fleeing for their lives.” The station organized rowdy protest demonstrations, rented safe houses, planted listening devices, and provided “anti-Lumumba story lines” to friendly or suborned journalists. Politicians who had supported Lumumba began deserting him. Anonymous leaflets appeared with warnings that Lumumba “is the devil” and would soon “sell your wives to the Russians.” Allen’s destabilization machine was purring.
In midsummer Hammarskjöld flew to the Congo in an effort to mediate between Lumumba and the secessionists. He failed. Lumumba wanted UN troops to march into the secessionist provinces and bring them back under central government rule. That, however, would have required the UN to act against Belgian and Western interests, which was unrealistic. Lumumba was infuriated. He believed he had won a victory when the Security Council ordered Belgian forces to leave the Congo and replaced them with fifteen thousand UN troops, but soon concluded that the UN force was simply another form of Western occupation. Seeing enemies everywhere, he decreed a nationwide state of emergency.
On August 18 Devlin cabled an urgent warning to Allen.
“Embassy and station believe Congo experiencing classic Communist effort takeover government,” he wrote. “Anti-West forces rapidly increasing power Congo and therefore may be little time left in which take action to avoid another Cuba.”
Later that morning—it was from 11:10 to 11:23, according to the White House log—President Eisenhower held an “off the record meeting” with Allen, Richard Bissell, and six other senior national security officials. Allen could not have failed to present Devlin’s cable. Years later, congressional investigators pinpointed this as the day when Eisenhower “circumlocutiously” ordered Lumumba assassinated.
After becoming the first American president to give such an order—so far as is known—Eisenhower met briefly with the departing ambassador of Ecuador, had lunch, and then adjourned to Burning Tree Country Club in Maryland for eighteen holes of golf. Allen passed the order to Devlin.
“I was authorized to spend up to $100,000 on my own authority on any operation that appeared feasible,” Devlin later recalled. “To the best of my knowledge, no other station chief had ever been given such latitude.… If further evidence was required that Washington supported our own conclusion about replacing Lumumba, that was it.”
When plotting against a foreign leader, Allen normally worked in concert with the State Department. His relationship with Foster meant that the CIA and State Department functioned as a single agency, without any of the normal tensions or debates that might otherwise have divided them. This intimacy could not survive the death of one of the partners. Herter understood that Eisenhower wished Lumumba gone, and was willing to do what he could to help. Nonetheless he was determined to reassert the State Department’s interests and positions as distinct from those of the CIA. This was a radical change.
“The moment they became aware of it, deputy assistant secretaries and foreign service officers began to maneuver for greater independence between the two agencies, feeling they could afford to hold firmer to the positions they deemed proper for their own agencies,” Bissell later recalled. “There were subtle differences of attitude as a result of this feeling that the widely presumed intimate connection at the top no longer existed.”
At the end of August in Leopoldville, Ambassador Timberlake paid a discreet call on President Kasavubu. Timberlake, according to one account, “suggested that Lumumba was a dangerous man and implied that he should not continue as prime minister.” Kasavubu remained impassive, as was his wont. He understood what the United States wished him to do, however, and Timberlake made clear its eagerness for his cooperation.
Lumumba and Kasavubu were rivals pushed together by politics. For a time they cooperated awkwardly, but when outside powers decided to strike against Lumumba, they found in Kasavubu a willing partner. He was one of many assets they used during those frantic summer days.
“The embassy and station were humming with activity,” Devlin recalled.
Before setting out to crush the rebellions in Katanga and Kasai, Lumumba held mass rallies in Leopoldville to marshal support, attracting crowds in the tens of thousands. Then he began requisitioning transport planes from Air Congo for his attack. Tensions rose further when ten small planes from the Soviet Union turned up in Leopoldville. Each could carry twenty soldiers into battle.
Soviet leaders had paid just as little attention to sub-Saharan Africa as their American counterparts, and knew just as little about it. Their first venture in Africa had been to aid the former French colony of Guinea, which lost French support after refusing to join a Paris-centered Francophone community. In 1957 Khrushchev brought one thousand African students to schools in the Soviet Union. Then he announced the creation of Peoples’ Friendship University, dedicated to educating students from Africa and the rest of the Third World. Later that year Lumumba burst onto the world scene. In a matter of weeks, he became the world’s most famous African and a vivid symbol of resistance to Western power. Naturally the Soviets took notice.
Some of Lumumba’s friends, notably the outspokenly neutralist President Nkrumah of Ghana, warned him that under no circumstances should he invite non-Africans to intervene in the Congo. Lumumba wavered briefly, and then, facing secessionist rebellion, took the fateful step of asking for Soviet planes. With the planes came pilots, crews, and advisers. Some of them, according to possibly exaggerated accounts in the Western press, distributed pamphlets and gave speeches about Marxism to Congolese troops. Timeran an alarming story headlined “Red Weeds Grow in New Soil.”
Early on the evening of September 5, President Kasavubu arrived at Radio Leo, the main station in Leopoldville, and gave the station manager a tape that he said contained an urgent message for the nation. Then he prudently drove away. Twenty minutes later, an English language lesson was interrupted and Kasavubu’s tape was played. He announced he was dismissing Lumumba and naming a new prime minister.
Lumumba immediately convened his cabinet and secured a unanimous vote to dismiss Kasavubu. Then he proclaimed the decision in a vivid speech on Radio Leo, blaming “Belgian and French imperialists” for fomenting the crisis. The next day, UN soldiers closed Radio Leo, depriving Lumumba of his national voice. Then they shut all airports in the Congo, making it impossible for him to tour the country and rally support.
On September 8 in Washington, the Special Group met to discuss these dramatic developments. Gordon Gray, Eisenhower’s national security adviser, dropped in to convey “top-level feeling in Washington that vigorous action would not be amiss.” Allen assured him that while Ambassador Timberlake was trying to arrange Lumumba’s ouster through a parliamentary vote or other quasi-legal means, CIA officers were indeed taking “vigorous action.”
As part of his rump regime, President Kasavubu had named a mild-mannered soldier and trained typist, Joseph Mobutu, to command the embryonic Congolese army—a post he had also held under Lumumba. Devlin immediately began passing him sums of money, then visited him and arranged a deal. Mobutu agreed to lead a coup and seize power. In exchange, Devlin promised that the United States would quickly recognize his government.
“The coup will take place within a week,” Mobutu promised. “But I will need five thousand dollars to provide for my senior officers.”
With that, the bargain was sealed. Mobutu struck on September 14. In a proclamation on the reopened Radio Leo, he said that he had decided to “neutralize” Lumumba and Kasavubu, close parliament, and name a College of Commissars to govern the country. He ordered the Soviet embassy closed and gave citizens of Communist countries forty-eight hours to leave. When parliament tried to assemble in defiance of his order, he sent soldiers to block the entrance.
Devlin was jubilant but could not immediately deliver American recognition for the new regime. First, he told Mobutu, a way would have to be found “to legalize the illegal,” preferably by “de-neutralizing” President Kasavubu and restoring him to his position as the Congo’s titular leader. Second, Mobutu should change the name of his governing council because the word commissar sounded “too Russian, too communist.”
Mobutu resisted for a time, but before long he “de-neutralized” Kasavubu, restored him to the ceremonial presidency, and announced that the Congo’s new governing council would be renamed the College of Commissioners. Both its president and vice president were on the CIA payroll.
With this accomplished, the United States recognized Mobutu’s government. Leaders of many other nations howled in protest. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India demanded that the Congolese parliament be reopened and allowed to vote on Lumumba’s leadership. The powers of the world—in this case the United States, Belgium, and other Europeans with interests in Africa, acting through the United Nations—had no reason to pay heed.
Although Lumumba had been deposed, Allen remained uneasy. “Lumumba talents and dynamism appear overriding factor in re-establishing his position each time it seems half lost,” one of his aides cabled to the Congo station. “In other words each time Lumumba has opportunity to have last word he can sway events to his advantage.”
With that insightful message, Allen told his men in the Congo that their work was not done.
Lumumba was arrested twice in the week after the coup but talked his way free both times. He then retreated into his official residence, an elegant three-story manse where Belgian governors-general had once lived. United Nations commanders recognized danger and posted blue-helmeted guards nearby. Soon afterward, soldiers loyal to Mobutu arrived. Unable to seize their prey, they deployed nearby. Lumumba found himself surrounded by an inner ring of soldiers protecting him and a second, outer ring of others eager to capture or kill him.
Oddly, Lumumba’s telephone was not cut off, and he spent many hours talking to his supporters. He planned what he would do when he returned to office. At one point he appealed to the United Nations to lend him a plane so he could fly to New York and present his case to the General Assembly, but Hammarskjöld and James Wadsworth, the new American ambassador to the UN, made sure none was provided. In an even clearer sign of American intent, Allen sent a blunt cable to his Congo station.
“We wish give every possible support in eliminating Lumumba from any possibility of resuming governmental position,” he wrote.
Lumumba remained inside his residence. Time reported that he “prowled the balcony” to let off steam. His isolation may have saved his life, since it was during this period that CIA officers were trying to find a way to poison him. They could not penetrate the two rings of guards and cluster of friends surrounding their intended victim.
Allen encouraged officers in his Leopoldville station to think imaginatively about ways to kill Lumumba. Unable to do it with poison, they discussed other options. At one point they considered trying to lure Lumumba out of hiding and using a “commando type group” to capture him. Later they suggested hiring a sharpshooter equipped with a “high powered foreign make rifle with telescopic sight and silencer.”
“Hunting good here when light’s right,” one officer helpfully wrote in a cable to Washington.
These ideas appealed to Allen. At his direction, Richard Bissell sent two covert operatives to the Congo with orders to concentrate full-time on the assassination plot. “[Bissell] called me in and told me he wanted me to go to the Belgian Congo, the former Belgian Congo, and to eliminate Lumumba,” one of the operatives later testified. “I told him that I would absolutely not have any part of killing Lumumba.… What I wanted to do was to get him out, to trick him out if I could, and then turn him over … to the legal authorities, and let him stand trial.… And I am not opposed to capital punishment.”
It was at this life-or-death moment—Lumumba in brooding confinement while the CIA plotted to kill him—that Louis Armstrong arrived in the Congo. Rather than playing for an audience that included Lumumba, he played for one that included Devlin and Ambassador Timberlake.
Music distracted Leopoldville only briefly. A few days after Armstrong departed, President Kasavubu traveled to New York on a crucial diplomatic mission. He asked the United Nations to strip the Congolese ambassador of his credentials and accredit a new one loyal to the Mobutu regime. Several African and Asian countries were bitterly opposed. So was the Soviet bloc. In the end, they lost to the power of Mobutu’s friends: Belgium, his principal sponsor; the United States, which was paying him and saw him as a strategic bulwark; and France, always eager to prevent nationalism from spreading in Africa.
On November 22, the General Assembly voted to recognize the Mobutu regime and accredit its ambassador. Soon afterward, Lumumba’s ousted ambassador, Thomas Kanza, telephoned Lumumba at his surrounded residence in Leopoldville. Kanza was the first Congolese to win a university degree, renowned for his wisdom, and he begged Lumumba to be patient.
“Wait, even indefinitely, for the resolution of the Congolese crisis,” he urged.
“No,” Lumumba replied. “It will be difficult for you to understand that one of us must die to save the cause of our homeland.”
Lumumba rejected not only his friend’s counsel, but that of the African leader he most admired, President Nkrumah of Ghana, who advised him to stay “cool as a cucumber” and wait for the situation to unfold. He also turned aside chances to escape. Supporters suggested that he seek diplomatic asylum in the embassy of Ghana or Guinea. When his wife departed to Switzerland, his Italian doctor suggested it might be possible for him to leave with her. He was not tempted. Martyrdom had become some mix of premonition and wish.
Five days after President Kasavubu won his diplomatic triumph in New York, he held a gala reception in Leopoldville to celebrate. Guests were in a festive mood. As they toasted their success, however, their nemesis, whom they believed to be safely confined, was launching a counter-conspiracy. The College of Commissioners learned of it the next morning in a brief but astonishing note.
“The big rabbit has escaped,” it said.
* * *
Allen enjoyed the company of wealthy people, and during his last couple of years in office, he sometimes slipped away for weekends at the Palm Beach estate of Charles Wrightsman, an oil executive and art collector who decorated his walls with paintings by Renoir and Vermeer. Among neighbors he visited regularly was retired ambassador Joseph P. Kennedy. Often other members of the Kennedy clan were around, including Senator John F. Kennedy. During one of his visits, Senator Kennedy’s young wife, Jacqueline, gave him a gift.
“Here is a book you should have, Mr. Director,” she said.
The book was Ian Fleming’s novel From Russia, with Love, featuring the British secret agent James Bond, whose code number, 007, entitles him to kill in the service of the state. Senator Kennedy was already a confirmed Bond fan—he later named From Russia, with Love as one of his favorite books—and Allen quickly became one, too. He bought each book in the series as soon as it appeared, and often sent notes to Kennedy offering his analysis. Ian Fleming, who was himself a former intelligence officer, learned of his interest.
“As our acquaintanceship grew, Fleming condescended to include in his books references to the CIA and its people,” Allen later wrote. “Occasionally CIA personnel even joined James Bond in his exploits—in a subordinate role, of course, but after all with a great by-line.… I would be glad to hire several James Bonds.”
Allen found Bond endlessly intriguing. He even asked CIA technicians to try replicating some of the gadgets Bond used during his exploits. Most, like the homing device Bond slipped into the cars of enemies whose movements he wanted to track, proved unworkable. Allen admitted that the flamboyant Bond bore “very little resemblance” to a real spy, yet to a certain degree both he and Kennedy conflated reality with the Bond novels. Bond’s triumphs strengthened their faith in covert action. It was a case of life imitating art imitating life, as when gangsters watch gangster movies for tips on how they should behave.
“Dulles liked Bond because the series was an unashamed celebration of the spy business,” wrote the intelligence historian Christopher Moran. “007 projected an image of Western intelligence services as a noble band of decisive and courageous patriots, fighting an enemy in the Soviet Union that possessed a kind of wanton, undiscriminating belligerence.”
Beneath the Bond novels lies a seductive assumption. In each of them, a spymaster sends an intrepid agent to a faraway land, and the agent proceeds to crush a great threat to civilization, all in secret. This was the spy trade as Allen liked to imagine it, brutal at times but essential to world peace—and always with a neat ending. Neither Bond nor his superiors ever worry about the long-term consequences of their acts, and there never are any.
One of Allen’s most important real-life officers, Frank Wisner, offered a radically different narrative of the spy’s life.
Wisner was one of the OSS “old boys” who formed the core of the early CIA. As deputy director for plans, he had the agency’s most sensitive job. The list of places where he helped direct covert operations is an intelligence abecedarian’s dream: Albania, Berlin, China, Guatemala, Hungary, Indonesia, Iran, Korea, Poland, Romania. He was never the same after Hungary.
For years Wisner had worked relentlessly on plans to liberate the “captive nations” of Eastern Europe. When his Hungarian operatives launched their uprising in 1956, he sent Allen a stream of cables demanding help. He even composed an “ultimatum” to the Soviets that he wanted Eisenhower to deliver. No one paid attention. The Soviets brutally crushed the Hungarian resistance. Wisner, not without reason, blamed himself. He felt betrayed by Allen and everyone in Washington, who, as he realized with acute pain, never intended their calls for “liberation” in Eastern Europe to be taken seriously. This tormented him.
Other failures, especially the one in Indonesia—after which Allen removed him as deputy director for plans and named Richard Bissell to succeed him—pushed Wisner further toward madness. After he received a diagnosis of “psychotic mania” and endured six months of hospitalization that included electroshock treatment, Allen gave him a new job as chief of the London station. He proved not to have recovered and had to be recalled. At home he focused his rage on Allen, who he believed had cynically sent anti-Communist partisans to their deaths.
“Frank Wisner came out to my house, and sat on my terrace and drank my liquor, and told me my brother was a no-good so-and-so!” Eleanor recalled after one of their encounters.
Wisner lost his grip on reality, or perhaps was overwhelmed by reality. Finally he left the CIA. At the age of fifty-six, he committed suicide with one of his son’s shotguns. Nothing like this ever happened in James Bond novels.
If some practitioners of the spy trade are tormented by its inherent cruelties, though, Allen was not among them. Like Bond, he was untroubled by collateral damage. Failure disappointed but did not disturb him.
“He remained an actor, Mr. Chips doing intelligence,” the historian Burton Hersh wrote of Allen’s final years in office. “He took such obvious, boyish pleasure in all the ‘side’ the position entailed—the limousine pickups, the secret inks, the world-girdling inspection tours punctuated by dead-of-night takeoffs the moment he climbed aboard bundled into his custom-made jump suit. Now he was preoccupied with the overlays for the seven-story monument to civilian intelligence going up in Langley, Virginia. This was to institutionalize his work.”
Allen had decided soon after taking over the agency that it needed a new headquarters to replace the scattered complex of buildings it occupied in Washington. He conceived the idea of a campus-like setting in a wooded area, found an isolated tract in northern Virginia that had once been an estate called Langley, lobbied the $65 million appropriation through Congress, and took a personal interest in the design. The 258-acre “campus” emerged as remarkably cold and forbidding, but well hidden. Eisenhower laid the ceremonial cornerstone on November 3, 1959.
Five thousand people turned out. Senators and other dignitaries mixed with CIA officers and their families. Journalists added what they already knew about the agency’s budget to what they saw that day—a five-hundred-seat auditorium, a cafeteria to accommodate one thousand people, a three-thousand-car parking garage—and concluded that the CIA probably had about thirty thousand employees worldwide.
“By its very nature, the work of this agency demands of its members the highest order of dedication, ability, trustworthiness, and selflessness—to say nothing of the finest type of courage, whenever needed,” Eisenhower said in his speech. “Success cannot be advertised: failure cannot be explained. In the work of intelligence, heroes are undecorated and unsung, often even among their own fraternity.… The reputation of your organization for quality and excellence of performance, under the leadership of your director, Mr. Allen Dulles, is a proud one.”
This tribute was no doubt sincere, but, with Foster gone, Allen’s influence in Washington had palpably declined. The same was true for Eleanor. She had a last hurrah in her beloved Berlin, dedicating an avenue that Mayor Willy Brandt named John-Foster-Dulles-Allee, and then was eased out of her job. Herter sent her on a forty-nation tour to assess the impact of Soviet aid in the Third World.
On a flight between Saigon and Phnom Penh, which she shared with chickens and livestock, Eleanor was struck by an intestinal attack. Despite obvious pain, and not wishing to be seen as proof that women could not handle strenuous assignments, she pressed on through Bangkok, Rangoon, New Delhi, Karachi, Tehran, Ankara, and the rest of her scheduled stops. Upon her return to Washington she checked into a clinic, underwent a month of treatment and recuperation, and then began writing her report. She was sixty-four and could have retired, but was determined to make the best of her career and leave a strong example for women to follow.
Allen’s best hope to regain Eisenhower’s favor was to rid the world of troublesome Lumumba, and during the second half of 1960 he worked intently to accomplish it. Nonetheless he was always alert for any chance to wound the Communist giants. In late 1960, the Sino-Soviet split burst into public view when Khrushchev abruptly withdrew all Soviet advisers from China, which had emerged as the more radical of the two countries. This development intensified interest in covert action there. Allen welcomed it. His plan to foment civil war in China by attacking from Burma had failed but, undaunted, he decided to try again a thousand miles away, in Tibet.
The Tibetans had resisted Chinese efforts to subject and assimilate them in the 1950s, and some had turned to rebellion. The CIA, always alert for chances to make trouble inside the Communist heartland, began working with Tibetan rebels in 1957 and ultimately brought more than 250 of them to Fort Hale, Colorado, for secret mountain-warfare training. CIA planes dropped weaponry to hideouts nestled in the Himalayas—much of it from stockpiles that had been designated for Indonesia before Archipelago collapsed. At the peak of this “war for the roof of the world,” the CIA was supporting an army of fourteen thousand men. Ultimately and inevitably, their rebellion was crushed by overwhelming Chinese power. Tens of thousands were killed. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s principal leader, who fled the repression in 1959, later observed that Americans’ help for his cause had been “a reflection of their anti-Communist policies, rather than genuine support for the re-establishment of Tibetan independence.” Allen said the operation was worthwhile because it baited the Chinese into brutal repression and therefore produced “propaganda value.”
* * *
A tropical rainstorm engulfed Leopoldville on the night of November 27, 1960, as the Congolese drama entered its final phase. Both groups of guards surrounding Lumumba’s residence took refuge in a small shelter. Only a couple of them stirred when Lumumba’s Chevrolet station wagon appeared out of the darkness at around nine o’clock. The chauffeur said he was going for cigarettes. He was waved through. Curled on the floor of the car, behind the front seat, was Lumumba.
Lumumba began planning this breakout immediately after learning that the United Nations had ratified the ouster of his government. He contacted a handful of close friends and enlisted them in a plan that was as simple as it was mad. He would sneak out of the residence that had become his prison, flee Leopoldville, reconnect with his supporters in the countryside, travel 750 miles to his home base in Stanleyville, and from there lead a movement that would restore his power.
After stopping briefly at the Guinean embassy, Lumumba set off in a convoy of three cars and a truck. His trip was an odyssey of arrests, escapes, roadblocks on rain-slicked roads, and river crossings by ferry and canoe. At several points, local people demanded that he speak to them. News of these impromptu rallies gave the authorities an idea of where he was. Devlin, by his own account, was “working closely” with Congolese police “to get roads blocked” and to cut off “possible escape routes.”
On November 29, Lumumba’s pursuers pinpointed his location through the use of a spotter plane. It was provided by what one report called “a European airline company,” complete with “the European pilot, a specialist in low altitude reconnaissance flights.”
Soldiers loyal to Mobutu moved in and stopped the convoy. They pulled Lumumba from his car and subjected him to what one European witness called “a very bad fifteen minutes.” After hurried consultation, they placed him on an Air Congo DC-3 bound to Leopoldville. There, his hands tied behind his back, he was led through a jeering crowd and driven to a military base.
“Colonel Mobutu, with folded arms, calmly watched the soldiers slap and abuse the prisoner,” the Associated Press reported.
After Lumumba was thrown onto the back of a pickup truck, one soldier produced a copy of a statement in which he had declared that he was still the Congo’s legitimate prime minister. The soldier read it aloud, then crumpled the paper and stuffed it into the prisoner’s mouth. Lumumba, his hands bound behind him, remained impassive. Television cameras recorded the scene. Millions of Americans saw it that evening.
At his military prison, Lumumba was regularly beaten. News of his ordeal leaked out, and calls for his release echoed around the world. The leaders of Morocco, Ghana, and Mali demanded that the “illegal Mobutu bands” free him.
Mobutu and his foreign sponsors—represented by the CIA and its Belgian counterpart, the Sûreté de l’État—wished Lumumba dead, but also wanted to avoid the opprobrium of killing him. As they pondered their options, time began to press on them. President Kasavubu suggested convening roundtable talks among all political factions, presumably including Lumumba’s. The United Nations voted to form a “conciliation commission” to consider the possibility of a new Congolese government. African leaders who sympathized with Lumumba held an emergency summit in Casablanca, and there were rumors they might try to foment an uprising to free him. Worst of all, John F. Kennedy had been elected president of the United States and would take office soon. Kennedy’s younger brother Edward had accompanied a fact-finding mission to the Congo that heard pleas on Lumumba’s behalf. It seemed plausible that the new president might revoke the death sentence Eisenhower had pronounced.
“Present government may fall within a few days,” Devlin wrote to Allen on January 15, 1961. “Such conditions would almost certainly insure [Lumumba] victory in Parliament.… Refusal take drastic steps at this time will lead to defeat of policy in Congo.”
Lumumba’s enemies came up with an elegant solution. They decided to turn him over to the secessionists in Katanga, tools of Western power who were also his most violent tribal and political enemies.
Early on the morning of January 17, Lumumba and two of his comrades were hustled onto a plane. All three were handcuffed to their seats and pummeled steadily during the six-hour flight. The pilot, who was Belgian, locked himself in the cockpit to avoid the spectacle. His radio operator, also Belgian, vomited.
As the plane approached Elisabethville, the capital of Katanga, its pilot radioed, “I have three precious packages aboard.” The prisoners were near death. A CIA officer on the scene cabled to Devlin in Leopoldville, “Thanks for Patrice. If we had known he was coming we would have baked a snake.” Half a century later Brian Urquhart, a United Nations official, gave this account of what happened next:
After Lumumba and his two companions were dumped, bloody and disheveled, in a remote corner of the Elisabethville airfield, they were beaten again with rifle butts, and thrown onto a jeep and driven two miles from the airport to an empty house in the bush, where a veteran Belgian officer, Captain Julien Gat, took charge. A series of visitors—the notorious Katangese interior minister Godefroid Munongo and other ministers, Tshombe himself, and various high-ranking Belgians—came to the house to gloat over the prisoners, who were again beaten.…
[T]he prisoners were stuffed into a car with Captain Gat and police commissioner Frans Verscheure, and, in a convoy that also carried Tshombe, Munongo, and four other “ministers,” were driven at high speed to a remote clearing fifty kilometers out in the wooded savanna. Joseph Okito, the former vice-president of the Senate, was the first to face the firing squad; next came Maurice Mpolo, the first commander of the Congolese National Army; and finally Patrice Lumumba. Their corpses were thrown into hastily dug graves.…
The Belgians also decided that the corpses must disappear once and for all. Two Belgians and their African assistants, in a truck carrying demijohns of sulphuric acid, an empty two-hundred-liter barrel, and a hacksaw, dug up the corpses, cut them into pieces, and threw them into the barrel of sulphuric acid. When the supply of acid ran out, they tried burning the remains. The skulls were ground up and the bones and teeth scattered during the return journey. The task proved so disgusting and so arduous that both Belgians had to get drunk in order to complete it, but in the end no trace was left of Patrice Lumumba and his companions. Lumumba was thirty-six years old.…
Patrice Lumumba’s assassination was an unpardonable, cowardly, and disgustingly brutal act. Belgium, Kasavubu and Mobutu, and Moise Tshombe bear the main responsibility for this atrocity. The United States, and possibly other Western powers as well, tacitly favored it and did nothing to stop it.
Three days later, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated. He had spoken repeatedly about the need to support change in Africa, and on February 9 he publicly raised a possibility that Eisenhower would never have considered: Lumumba should be freed and integrated into a new Congolese government. It was a remarkable change of heart for the United States, but it came too late.
Hours after Kennedy made his appeal, secessionists in Katanga announced that Lumumba had escaped. A couple of days later they said that hostile villagers had killed him. By then he had been dead for a month. Kennedy received the news with what his press secretary called “great shock.”
The shock extended far beyond Washington. Angry crowds carried portraits of Lumumba through the streets of London, Paris, Vienna, Warsaw, Moscow, Damascus, Lagos, and New Delhi. Half a million marched in Shanghai. In Belgrade, Marshal Tito said the killing had “no precedent in modern history,” and a mob stormed the Belgian embassy. The same thing happened in Cairo, where after tearing down a portrait of King Baudouin inside the embassy and replacing it with one of Lumumba, rioters set the building afire. French and American embassies, as well as UN offices, were attacked in several cities. A protester outside UN headquarters in New York carried a sign reading THE MURDER OF LUMUMBA EXPOSES TRUE NATURE OF COLONIALISM.
Jean-Paul Sartre lamented the loss of “a meteor in the African firmament.” Malcolm X called Lumumba “the greatest black man who ever walked the African continent.” Aimé Césaire, the leading dark-skinned voice of French culture, wrote that Lumumba was “invincible—like the hope of a people, like a prairie fire, like pollen in the wind, like roots in the blind earth.” In Africa, streets, hospitals, and schools were named for him, stamps were issued in his honor, and parents christened newborn children “Lumumba.” Khrushchev announced that Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow would henceforth be known as Patrice Lumumba University.
The oddest leader of the Lumumba cult was the new strongman, Joseph Mobutu. Rather than seek to tarnish Lumumba’s image in order to justify his own seizure of power, Mobutu did the opposite. Acting as if he were as grieved as anyone in the Congo, he pronounced Lumumba a national hero, ordered a statue of him, and even renamed the capital of Katanga, where he was killed, in his honor. Elisabethville became Lumumbashi.
“I have nothing against him,” Mobutu shrugged when asked about his professed admiration for the man he had delivered to death.
Larry Devlin later came to believe that America’s fears of Lumumba were “far-fetched,” but placed them in the context of the era.
“In those days, when everything was seen in Cold War terms, we were convinced that we were observing the beginning of a major Soviet effort to gain control of a key country in Central Africa as a springboard to the rest of the continent,” Devlin wrote. “There was little doubt in our minds that the Congo was a strategic linchpin in that epic struggle.”
If this was a misjudgment, it was a colossal one. Lumumba’s murder stunned the world and set off a wave of anti-Western passion in Africa and beyond. In the decades that followed, the Congo became a hell of repression, poverty, corruption, and violence. There is much to support the view that this killing was, as the Belgian scholar Ludo De Witte has suggested, “one of the twentieth century’s most important political assassinations.”
Lumumba, it is now clear, had no long-term geopolitical strategy. He spent the two hundred days between his inauguration and his death frantically improvising, reacting to onrushing events. Khrushchev did the same.
The first Soviet aid project in Africa was a shipment of snowplows for Guinea, where no flake of snow has ever fallen. Next was a cargo of wheat for the Congo’s “oppressed workers and peasants,” which could not be used since the Congo had no flour mill. Propaganda leaflets that Soviet advisers distributed to Congolese soldiers were written in English, which few Congolese could read. All of this, as Devlin later conceded, “made clear that our Cold War adversaries were not ten feet tall.” At the time, though, they seemed to be.
If Lumumba’s greatest error was believing he could choose his own allies while the Cold War raged, his other important one was trusting the United Nations. He fully misunderstood its mission. In his imagination, it was a supranational body with the will and power to crush all who sought to break nations apart. Too late, he recognized it as a tool that powerful countries could use to impose their will.
Once in the Congo, UN forces effectively protected the secessionists in Katanga. They helped ensure Lumumba’s downfall by preventing him from using radio networks or flying to cities where he might rally his supporters. Belgium also bears heavy responsibility for the crime. Belgian officers were present at his execution. The fatal shots were fired by Congolese, so they and their superiors, especially Mobutu and Tshombe, share the guilt.
The CIA worked intently to force Lumumba from power and was authorized by Eisenhower to kill him. Yet in the end its officers were only junior partners to the more decisive and resourceful Belgians. The result was what both Belgium and the United States wanted.
Less than two years later, Allen casually admitted that he might have exaggerated the danger Lumumba posed to the West. A television interviewer, Eric Sevareid, asked him if he had come to believe that any of his covert operations were unnecessary. He named just one.
“I think that we overrated the danger in, let’s say, the Congo,” Allen said. “It looked as though they were going to make a serious attempt at takeover in the Belgian Congo. Well, it didn’t work out that way at all. Now maybe they intended to do it, but they didn’t find the situation ripe and they beat a pretty hasty retreat.”