The Cold War Comes to Africa: Cordier and the 1960 Congo Crisis

Article excerpt

The spectacle is of the working of the political fate of human beings: the veiled logic which requires from political men actions which are the function of what they represent -- and to a lesser extent of what they are -- in circumstances which they cannot ever have wholly foreseen.

The movement of this logic, toward the mutual destruction of Dag Hammarskjold and of Patrice Lumumba, is the movement of Murderous Angels. The angels are the great and noble abstractions represented by the protagonists: Peace in the case of Hammarskjold, Freedom in the case of Lumumba. That the idea of Freedom can be murderous is obvious.... To connect Peace with murder seems ... shocking, yet the reality of the connection can be demonstrated.

-- Conor Cruise O'Brien, former representative

of the U.N. Secretary-General to Katanga, in

the preface to his 1968 play Murderous Angels.(2)

Since its founding, the United Nations has sought to defuse tensions between member states that have threatened international peace and security. In the past five years, however, the U.N. Security Council has increasingly authorized intervention in civil conflicts including those in Angola, Bosnia and Croatia, Cambodia, El Salvador, Mozambique, Somalia and Western Sahara. U.N. operations in Cambodia and the Balkans are reported to be the largest such operations since the United Nations' 1960 intervention in the former Belgian Congo (now Zaire). A measure of this growing interventionist role in civil conflicts has been the price tag: Such U.N. operations cost member states a mere $200 million in 1987, but close to $3 billion by 1992.

U.N. members have increasingly supported intervention in civil conflicts for humanitarian reasons -- to assist famine victims and halt widespread violence against civilians -- as well as to forestall wider regional strife and to monitor democratic elections aimed at restoring peace. While the United Nations has been reluctant to become too deeply involved in these complex local conflicts, the mounting human toll from inter-ethnic and sectarian violence has multiplied demands for U.N. action. The central dilemma of such intervention, however, lies in the risk that the United Nations itself may become a player in the local conflict, sacrificing its ostensible role as a nonpartisan mediator. The neutrality and impartiality of a U.N. intervention has been challenged, fairly or not, as far back as the 1960 Congo crisis and as recently as its current interventions in Angola, Bosnia, Cambodia and Somalia.

Indeed the 1960 United Nations Operation in the Congo (UNOC) presents a classic example of the risks of U.N. crisis intervention and attempted mediation in a civil conflict. UNOC looms large in U.N. institutional memory because, until recently, it was the largest U.N. peacekeeping operation ever, involving over 20,000 troops and logistical support from 30 countries;(3) it marked one of the first U.N. attempts to intervene in a civil conflict, albeit one involving many external powers, and set major precedents for future interventions; it further polarized already acute East-West tensions and paralyzed U.N. decision-making for years afterward; it served as an unconscious midwife to the arrival of the Cold War in Africa; and it inadvertently aborted the Congo's transition from colonial to democratic rule.

In analyzing the U.N. intervention in the Congo, this paper focuses on a pivotal man, a pivotal period and a pivotal decision. While most studies of the Congo crisis concentrate on Dag Hammarskjold -- the charismatic U.N. Secretary-General who directed the overall intervention in the Congo until his death in a suspicious 1961 plane crash(4) -- this study focuses on Andrew W. Cordier, who worked for the United Nations from its inception in 1946 until 1961, and later went on to a distinguished career at Columbia University. As Hammarskjold's executive assistant from 1952 until soon after the Secretary-General's death, Cordier became a pivotal diplomatic player early in the Congo crisis. …