Betting on the Africans: John F. Kennedy's Courting of African Nationalist Leaders

Betting on the Africans: John F. Kennedy's Courting of African Nationalist Leaders

Betting on the Africans: John F. Kennedy's Courting of African Nationalist Leaders

Betting on the Africans: John F. Kennedy's Courting of African Nationalist Leaders

Synopsis

As a presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy established a reputation across Africa as a sympathetic supporter of African nationalism, who if elected would realign Washington's priorities toward the continent. Once in office, Kennedy indeed made changing the image of America in Africa a toppriority of his administration, believing that the Cold War could be won or lost depending upon whether Washington or Moscow won the hearts and minds of the Third World. Africa was particularly important because a wave of independence saw nineteen newly independent African states admitted into the United Nations during 1960-61. By 1962, 31 of the UN's 110 member states were from the African continent, and both Washington and Moscow sought to add these countries totheir respective voting bloc. Kennedy feared that neglect of the newly decolonized countries of the world would result in the rise of anti-Americanism and needed to be addressed irrespective of the Cold War. Philip Muehlenbeck demonstrates how Kennedy used all means at his disposal-economic,cultural, personal-to appeal to the leaders of the developing world, including Nkrumah, Senghor, Toure, Nyerere, and Ben Bella.Drawing on archival sources from Africa, the United States, and the United Kingdom, Muehlenbeck closely examines Kennedy's policies towards Guinea, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Egypt, Algeria, Tanganyika, and South Africa, which were to a large extent successful in winning the sympathies of itspeoples, while at the same time alienating more traditional American allies. Betting on the Africans adds an important chapter to the historiography of John F. Kennedy's Cold War strategy as well as the history of decolonization.

Excerpt

John F. Kennedy became the thirty-fifth president of the United States of America during an exciting and optimistic time in Africa. The first wave of African independence had begun on March 6, 1957, when Kwame Nkrumah led Ghana away from its colonial past and to independence. By the time of Kennedy’s inauguration in January 1961, the dismantling of the French, British, and Belgian colonial empires had led to the independence of an additional eighteen African states. Kennedy’s sympathy for African nationalism, both as a senator and on the presidential campaign trail, had helped swell the African continent with hope that under his leadership the United States would be more responsive to its needs.

It is clear that Africa’s main importance to Kennedy was strategic and geopolitical, as he was determined not to lose ground to Moscow on the continent. This was particularly important because the wave of African independence saw nineteen newly independent African states admitted into the United Nations during 1960–1961. By 1962, thirty-one of the UN’s 110 member states were from the African continent, and both Washington and Moscow sought to add these countries to their respective voting blocs. The Non-Aligned Movement was founded in 1961, too, and it gave developing world countries an alternative to joining either of the Cold War blocs and served to empower African states by providing them greater opportunity for playing the superpowers off against each other. It was also a time of significant progress and agitation within the US civil rights movement, which gave relations with Africa even greater importance both domestically and internationally.

The most important factor in raising the profile of Africa in the eyes of Kennedy and his advisors, creating the belief that the Cold War could be won or lost on the continent, was a speech made by Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev on January 6, 1961, only days before Kennedy took office. Khrushchev said it . . .

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