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

By Philip E. Muehlenbeck | Go to book overview

Conclusion
The Kennedy Legacy in Africa

Shortly after taking office John F. Kennedy told a group of African visitors to the White House, “I hope when the history of these times is written—when the history of the decade of the Sixties will be written, they will record a more intimate and closer attachment year by year between your countries of Africa and this country of the United States.”1 While his successors in the Oval Office prevented this interpretation from being applied to the decade as a whole, it certainly is an apt description for the years 1961–1963.

Kennedy’s interest in Africa far surpassed that of any other American Cold War president. Olcott H. Deming, who worked in the State Department’s African Bureau during the Kennedy administration, has stated that Kennedy had “great intellectual, political, and romantic interest in Africa south of the Sahara.”2 Kennedy saw Africa as an arena of considerable Cold War rivalry in which vigorous American involvement was essential, but he also saw the courting of Third World nationalism—and African nationalism in particular—as a policy that transcended the Cold War. For Kennedy, the Cold War only amplified the need for a strong US policy toward Africa—but did not create it. Although the recurring intrusion of Cold War crises in such places as Berlin, Cuba, and Vietnam— as well as a Congress that worked as a “force of moderation” against his African policies—hampered his activism, he still managed to successfully realign American diplomacy toward Africa to accommodate the needs and aspirations of the leaders of that continent.3

Toward the end of his life Kennedy began to realize that the courting of African nationalist leaders was more complicated than he had originally anticipated. Early in his presidency when this policy and broader Cold War considerations came into conflict, Kennedy often sided with Africans, judging it an essential long-range priority for which he was willing to sacrifice more tangible short-term concerns. Despite some visible successes that resulted from this policy, the majority of Kennedy’s foreign policy establishment and his NATO allies remained opposed to this strategy and continually chastised him for risking relationships

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