Kissinger in South Africa

With US policy in war-torn southern Africa perpetually on the verge of capsizing, Henry Kissinger’s desire for stability put him in conflict with the ascendant New Right, which was firmly committed to white minority rule.

Henry Kissinger (left) with then president Gerald Ford and his secretary of defense, James R. Schlesinger, in November 1974. (White House Archive / Wikimedia Commons)

Henry Kissinger almost drowned.

It was 1976. Scrambling to avoid being overtaken by events in the wake of Cuba’s earth-shattering intervention in Angola, he had decamped to southern Africa, where his immediate goal was to assess whether the illegal white minority regime in Rhodesia might endure. (Rhodesia, fearing that London was beginning to favor African majority rule in the colony, had recently issued its “Unilateral Declaration of Independence,” or UDI.) However, he had taken a tourist detour to the natural wonder European colonizers had earlier termed Victoria Falls—twice the height of its cousin, Niagara Falls. There, his overloaded boat almost capsized.

Kissinger and his navigator were able to right themselves in the nick of time. But US policy in the war-torn region seemed perpetually on the verge of capsizing, particularly when the Rhodesian minority regime was overthrown and replaced by the independent Zimbabwean government in 1980. Later, in 1994, Washington’s client in neighboring apartheid South Africa was finally dislodged in that nation’s first democratic election, which led to the swearing into office of President Nelson Mandela.

Still, that perilous journey to what became the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe did more than just potentially jeopardize the life of the US secretary of state. His unsuccessful negotiations with the Rhodesian regime also inflamed the base of the Republican Party in the United States, whose white supporters sympathized with their racial brethren under the flinty leadership of the Rhodesian prime minister, Ian Smith.

As Kissinger was gallivanting in southern Africa, President Ford was facing a challenge from former California governor Ronald Reagan in the GOP primaries. Reagan and his supporters charged that Kissinger and Ford were selling out the interests of the European minority in Salisbury and Pretoria. The white settlers of southern Africa, these critics of Washington’s policy charged, were, like themselves, the embodiment of “law and order” in the face of stiff and unruly challenges from rambunctious Negroes, be they in Harlem or in the city that would soon be Harare.

When Ford lost a critical GOP primary in May 1976, the supposed reason was Kissinger’s abandonment of the European minority population in southern Africa. James A. Baker III, a future secretary of state himself, was among those who demanded Kissinger’s resignation in response to the diplomat’s presumed malfeasance in the region. In the immediate aftermath of this setback, Kissinger was bewildered when he received, via correspondence, no fewer than 1,700 negative appraisals of his African handiwork, and a mere twenty-three messages backing African majority rule.

However, these critics had not followed events carefully. The eradication of fascist rule in Portugal in 1974 was followed in seriatim by the liberation of Lisbon’s colony in Mozambique; likewise, the compelled decolonization of its sister colony in Angola, with a Cuban military force acting as skilled midwife, came soon after. These developments tightened the noose now encircling these nations’ besieged neighbors in Rhodesia and South Africa, while reducing Kissinger’s leverage. Kissinger was not engaging in puffery when he suggested that these Copernican changes in Portugal and southern Africa “revolutionized the geopolitical context.”

With the liberation of the former Portuguese colonies, the forces fighting for majority rule had a rear base: Mozambique served as a point from which to launch attacks inside South Africa, while Angola served as a site from which guerrillas could be trained under the expert tutelage of Cuban instructors. Portugal was a key ally of the United States in NATO, and providing basing rights for Washington in the Azores was deemed strategic. This had hampered Washington’s ability to adjust to the new era of African majority rule, but now it seemed that failure to adjust could mean advances for a major geopolitical adversary: Cuba, Moscow’s ally in the Caribbean.

This placed Kissinger in a real bind. The Africans fighting minority rule — even today’s sainted Nelson Mandela — were then perceived as little more than Cuban and Soviet proxies. Thus, the secretary of state had to cede ground to those seen widely in the GOP as little more than communist dupes, while simultaneously inducing Salisbury to do the same. Unsurprisingly, this pushed the ordinarily duplicitous Kissinger into stances that were stunning, even by his unprincipled standard.

The largest bloc of votes in the United Nations was comprised of African nations, many of which were still smarting from decades — if not centuries — of colonial rule by Washington’s closest European allies. The events of 1974–75 in Portugal and its erstwhile colonies impelled independent Africa to step up its support for anti-regime forces in Rhodesia. In the Cold War context, these anti-colonial victories were seen in Washington as victories for the Soviet Union. This was bound to redound to Kissinger’s detriment, as this all occurred on his watch  which his ultra-right detractors did not see as coincidental.

Kissinger did not help his case with the GOP base when he pledged “unrelenting opposition” to minority rule. “American travelers will be advised against entering Rhodesia,” he declared. “American residents will be urged to leave.” The response to his remarks was unbridled anger. After all, there were a mere few hundred thousand Europeans in Rhodesia, surrounded by millions of Africans, and as a direct result Euro-Americans had been flooding into this erstwhile colony since the UDI in 1965, not only as tourists but also as mercenaries and investors.

Thus, as Gerald Ford put it his memoirs, Republican conservatives “hit the ceiling” when they heard Kissinger’s remarks. In retrospect, however, these comments should not have been taken so seriously (and indeed they weren’t by savvy African leaders), since US mercenaries fighting rifle-in-hand in southern Africa seemed to have little difficulty traveling to Rhodesia and went curiously unprosecuted upon returning home, while US oil giants continued to “smuggle” their valuable commodity into the beleaguered colony with little fear of retribution from Washington.

Unconvinced, a resolution was unanimously adopted by the Republican National Committee Heritage Groups Council that echoed Baker’s démarche by demanding Kissinger’s immediate ouster. Saltier critics said Kissinger was either a “traitor” or a “communist.” These obdurate detractors were also displeased when Kissinger, in a failed attempt to assuage African-Americans’ growing opposition to US policy in Africa, initiated a series of “emotional” meetings with this group, whose foreign policy interests had been routinely ignored; this was the “first time,” he said, that they “had [been] systematically consulted by a Secretary of State.” John Reinhardt, an African-American, was even added to Kissinger’s negotiating team in South Africa. But the situation there had soared beyond cosmetic reforms, no matter how ill-intentioned.

Reagan took advantage of the contretemps, and his success in the polls raised the specter of a sitting president not receiving his party’s nomination. Kissinger considered resignation. But then Reagan stumbled when he seemed to indicate that he would send US troops to Rhodesia, causing even some hardline conservatives to blanch, given the recently concluded disaster in Vietnam.

Kissinger’s right-wing opponents did not accept the point that events in Portugal, Angola and Mozambique had changed the “geopolitical context” fundamentally, necessitating the unscrupulous wiliness that was the hallmark of the secretary of state’s tenure — winking at the arrival in Rhodesia of mercenaries and investors alike while mouthing anodyne words that appeared to oppose minority rule. Then, in June 1976, the South African township of Soweto exploded in protests. In the resultant tumult, youth began flooding into neighboring Mozambique and Angola, where they received military and political training — from Cuban comrades. This had a ripple effect in the Pretoria colony of Namibia — larger in size than California and Texas combined — and pushed that nation closer to independence from South Africa, which was to emerge finally in 1990.

Beyond the perception that the liberation of southern Africa represented a Cold War setback, there were other reasons that Kissinger scrambled to shore up a losing cause in Rhodesia. When Prime Minister Smith met the secretary of state and his spouse, the Rhodesian leader, in an attempt at camaraderie, once said of Mrs. Kissinger, “Like me [she] was conservative by nature, had Scottish blood through ancestry and believed that we had much in common.” Smith himself had an uncle who was “well established in the United States” and eventually resided in southern California. Then-president Lyndon Johnson was “very interested” in the Baines School in Bulawayo — the second city of the colony — and wondered if it was part of a familial relationship. He could trace the Baines branch of his family back to 1741 and wondered if he had relatives in Rhodesia.

This would not have been unusual. From the beginning of this British colony in the 1890s, Euro-Americans had been prominent in Rhodesia and, like the mercenaries that Kissinger pretended not to notice, had been instrumental in the war against Africans. But, at long last, despite the herculean efforts of white settler governments to preserve their power, majority rule came to the region—and in the fall of 1976, Ford was defeated by Jimmy Carter. Carter, aware of his electoral debt to African-Americans, appointed civil rights leader Andrew Young to be his ambassador to the United Nations.

However, Reagan and his relentless supporters simply reloaded. They defeated Carter in 1980, with Zimbabwean independence that spring held against the Democratic incumbent from Georgia. By that point, Kissinger was well on his way to cashing in on his diplomatic tour of duty, having formed a business consultancy that would translate his foreign policy knowledge into a minor personal fortune.