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Four Blind Mice

Central Press/Hulton Archives/Getty Images

It is a riveting experience to find, within the covers of a single short book, such a splendid variety of American scholars, officials, politicians, activists, publicists, and hacks making fools of themselves. Here is James Burnham imagining the early decolonization of Africa as a replay of the fall of the Roman empire, with the West “fleeing in thousands, in tens and hundreds of thousands, our weapons spiked and abandoned, our homes looted, our property smashed or stolen, our women raped, our children brutalized.” Here is David Halberstam gushing over the “immense potential” of Moise Tshombe, no less. Here iss Malcolm X glowing at the prospect of “700,000,000 Chinese who are ready to die for human rights”—in Africa and the United States, of course.

Here is Professor Herbert Spiro learnedly opining that “African notions of time and space lend a less unpleasant aspect to arrests than they have to us.” Here is Adlai Stevenson speaking of “the most innocent of continents ... tremblingly poised on the razor’s edge between peace and calamity—between one of the most inspiring possibilities of human liberation and progress in all history and one of the ugliest eventualities of chaos and international danger.” Here we can enjoy a hallucinatory debate over whether the Ibos are the Jews or the Germans of Nigeria, and hence whether, in 1966-67, they were fleeing the Holocaust or plotting to impose a “Vichy-style” regime in Lagos. William Buckley, Immanuel Wallerstein, Claire Sterling, Herbert Aptheker, James Meredith, and many other eminences make their own odd contributions, to say nothing of the editors of Time, Ebony, National Review, The Progressive, The New York Times, and the African Studies Review. 

It is Martin Staniland’s purpose not to pillory such imbecilities—he notes them with gentle amusement—but to explain their manifestation in the age of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and early Nixon. What he shows is that Africa was a sort of political Rorschach blot onto which four American ideological groups (liberals, “leftists,” African-Americans, and conservatives) projected their view of the world, and their shared, Quiet-American messianism.

In the early 1950s, American ignorance about Africa was almost total. The American presence in the continent before World War II was so thin and so weak that American consuls had to struggle to dissuade British merchants from peddling American flags to the colonized peoples as loincloths. In 1950 there were fewer than two dozen Africanists of any kind in the sprawling world of American universities. Two decades later 80 percent of the full professors teaching African history had been recruited overseas, mainly from Britain. No serious intellectual or academic journal devoted to African affairs was published until the l960s.

In a popular textbook called World History that was published in 1950, Carleton J. H. Hayes, Parker T. Moon, and John W. Wayland could write that “the Dark Continent is an unexplored wilderness, with an unbearable climate, a Negro population largely barbarous, and deserts and jungles quite impenetrable... The people are dark of skin; many of them are even darker of mind.” In 1951 the Negro Digest could calmly speak of a “continent of people confined in a prison of their own making from almost the dawn of time until about 60 years ago... Channels of contact had been open for hundreds of years. But the Africans had no use for progress of any kind,” For most Americans, says Staniland, the then main source of “information” about Africa was Edgar Rice Burroughs. His twenty-six Tarzan novels sold 30 million copies, and spawned sixteen movies and 10 million comic books. Burroughs had never been to Africa and he had no intention of traveling there. Why ruin an enchanting fantasy?

This ignorance began to lose its innocence with the extraordinary worldwide expansion of American power after World War II, and the collapse, between 1957 and 1975, of the European colonial regimes in most of Africa. Staniland has picked an appropriate period for his study: it allows us to watch, in tight order, American responses to presently-existing colonialism, decolonization, and the institution of variously military and civilian authoritarian regimes in independent Africa (outside the Portuguese domain), He has also, rather more problematically, elected to focus on two particular crises—the Katanga affair of 1960-63 and the Nigerian civil war of 1966-70—which, he believes, serve to bring into high relief the inner contradictions in thee four world views with which he is concerned.

Because New Deal liberalism was politically dominant in the United States between 1955 and 1970, it comes first under Staniland’s scrutiny. Initially, there was a good deal of enthusiasm for decolonization and for the first generation of African civilian leaderships, especially in Anglophone countries. The examples of 1776, and of Franklin Roosevelt’s construction of a powerful, centralized, capitalist-welfare state, permitted many liberals to fantasize, in the characteristically teleological “modernization” discourse of that silver age, that independent Africa was following cheerfully if belatedly in American footsteps.

By 1970, however, this rosy consensus had largely broken down. Some intellectuals, working the individualist-moralist side of the liberal street, became upset over the plainly brutal treatment of oppositions and minorities by postcolonial authoritarian regimes. If African states had the right to self-determination, they were certainly not permitted the right to abandon “basic human values.” Such liberals sympathized with Biafra and denounced the “anti-Semitic” pogroms against the Ibos in 1961-67. Others, more enchanted with Keynesian welfare-capitalism, tended to accept the claim that “African nationalists” had the right to run their countries in accordance with local conditions and traditions, provided that the general trajectory of their regimes could be read in a “progressive” New Deal light. These people conjured up the dangers of tribalism and sectionalism, and Lincoln’s use of strongarm methods to “save the Union,” to insist on the need to support the “nationalist” military regime of General Yakubu Gowon and its look-alikes elsewhere on the continent.

On the whole, liberals of all stripes were happier with African nationalism than with African nationalisms. The former was abstract enough to be read under the sign of a planetary emancipation from European colonialism, and thus as a part of world historical Progress. With Nigerian or Tanzanian or Congolese nationalism, however, liberals were usually uneasy. For everything serious and specific about these nationalisms threatened to legitimize strayings from the universal path. Many nationalist leaders, moreover, regarded it as in their specific nation’s interests to pursue foreign policies substantially divergent from that of the United States, and domestic economic policies marked by nationalizations, protectionism, and state monopolies.

To appreciate Staniland’s discussion of American conservatism, one has to make an effort to think back to a pre-Vietnam War, confidently guns-and-butter era that today seems extraordinarily remote. In those days, self-consciously conservative intellectuals were a small, idiosyncratic minority’ of ex-Marxist publicists, romantically Anglophile professors, born-again Catholics, and a rentier-rich wangster or two. Staniland suggests that at the start, no doubt because American universities and American magazines and newspapers were then desperately hiring Englishmen with putative experience in Africa, a quasi-colonial fantasy tended to hold sway.

Old Kenya hands like Elspeth Huxley attacked the deleterious consequences of deracinated nationalism and modernization for the “natural African” living in his Burkean tribal community, and defended the decency of civilized Anglo-Saxon rule. But since no American intellectual was an Old Africa hand, the sexy glories of traditional Masai warriorhood had little lasting appeal on this side of the Atlantic. A stronger, native-American line of thought came to predominate, marked by enthusiasm for Marx’s worldtransforming capitalism, and by hostility to African nationalism, which was easily equated with communism if African state leaders dealt with Moscow or Peking, or placed restrictions on American capital’s access to local resources.

This shift, and the tension between the two conservative strains, is well illustrated by the response to the Katanga crisis, which developed when, two weeks after the Belgian Congo’s independence, Moise Tshombe, the president of Katanga province, proclaimed a secessionist state, whereupon the national government of Joseph Kasavubu and Patrice Lumumba appealed to the U.N. for military assistance. The nattily suited, bon bourgeois Tshombe, with bis fluent French and his expensive Parisian tastes, was hard to sell as a dignified representative of an “unspoiled” Africa. No matter. Senator Thomas Dodd found him “one of the most impressive men I have ever met.” The National Review characterized him as “a believing, unapologetic Christian,” and as a man “convinced that the progress of his country and of Africa could only be achieved by the cooperation of black with white and the aid of white expertise and capital.” Better still, beside his warm relations with the Union Minière and the white Rhodesian regime, Tshombe led the opposition to the central government of Lumumba, whom the Review puzzlingly described as both “Moscow’s man” and a “small-time megalomaniac crook.” (Could the KGB really do no better?)

The same shift and tension appeared in conservative responses to the Nigerian civil war. Huxleyish sympathies for gallant Ibos were generally overridden by America-Fister “realism,” which perceived a strong American interest in preserving a pro-capitalist, pro-Western, and potentially oil-rich national government in Lagos. Although Staniland does not mention it, another aspect of the Biafran affair perhaps encouraged a “realist” ascendancy: for the coalitions behind the contending parties—China, France, South Africa, and Portugal for Biafra, the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain for Lagos—were difficult to account for by other lights. Staniland may also be too generous in attributing all the views of his conservatives to “conservatism,” for there is more than a whiff of racism in many of their pronouncements. In an article called “The Afro-Asian Inferiority Complex,” for example, the emigre Hungarian scholar of French literature Thomas Molnar allowed in 1965 that “the black man has a deep-seated admiration for the white man.” (No doubt such sentiments earned him, in 1969, a visiting professorship in political theory at the Potchefstroom University for Higher Christian Education in the Broederbond’s Transvaal.) Ex-Marxist James Burnham was sure that “the cultural level of most of the population is incredibly low: for the most part, the natives are—and, who knows, may perhaps long to be, may perhaps prefer to be— at the stage of primitive, precivilized barbarism.”

Among black Americans, Staniland argues, knowledge about Africa was quite sparse in the early 1950s, despite the earlier efforts of leaders like Marcus Garvey and W. E. B. Du Bois. For a fair number, colonized Africa was a source of embarrassment. “What is Africa to me?”Countee Cullen had said. And Roger Wilkins, recalling his youth, wrote later that “to identify with the black clods of Tarzan’s Africa never entered my mind.” But with the emergence after 1957 of what an ecstatic Ebony described as “pipe-smoking, cultivated African leaders who wore Bond Street tweeds and carry briefcases,” Africa quickly came to be something enviable and admirable—at a time when the civil rights struggle was entering its most perilous days.

Yet it was also a cause of deep tension, for two main reasons. By the later 1960s some black Americans felt that many African regimes ruled by methods that the civil rights movement was courageously opposing in the South. Andrew Young, for example, spoke of “massive violations of human rights and destruction of people” in Amin’s Uganda. Richard Gibson strongly criticized those who “prefer to sink into easy fantasies about the homeland of their ancestors. In the fantasies of those who have never touched its soil, Africa is a continent peopled with Mau Mau generals, steel-nerved freedom fighters, and militant masses marching against Whitey. This never-never world, of course, does not exist.” And the actor Geoffrey Holder lampooned what he called the “Awful Afro Trend” and “Love Thy African Neighbor Time.” (These are just a few of Staniland’s examples.)

African independence, moreover, inspired a pan-racial, implicitly separatist and nationalist current among American blacks, which emphasized the similarity between colonialism in Africa and white racist domination in the United States. This stance was perhaps most succinctly expressed by Harold Cruse, who wrote that “from the nationalist point of view, the nature of economic, cultural, and political exploitation common to the Negro experience in the United States differs from pure colonialism only in that the Negro maintains a formal kind of halfway citizenship within the nation’s geographical boundaries.” Out of this current there later grew the ideology of Black Power, with its hostility to, and contempt for, the older, integrationist, “we’re-all-Americans” thinking of the NAACP, Martin Luther King, and Ebony. 

For much of the period between 1955 and 1970, the “Left” in America—let alone the intellectual left—was a thoroughly marginalized minority. The witch hunts of the McCarthy era, the advent of the national security state, and post-Korea cold war thinking, combined with (at the least) violent Soviet repression in East Germany and Hungary, had destroyed an earlier, quite vigorous leftist intellectual culture. For a long while, the Monthly Review and Dissent remained the only outlets for independent Marxist-oriented intellectuals. Not until the era of the Vietnam War (toward the end of Staniland’s period) did an energetic, self-confident New Left come into existence.

Energetic it might be, says Staniland, but it still faced a Rorschach blot. “Africa” was above all a site on which “world forces” struggled with each other, and on which (since one understood these forces very well) one did not need to lay frequent foot. The veteran black socialist Alpheus Hunton visited Accra in 1959 and was put off by the nouveau riche luxury of Nkrumah’s new Ambassador Hotel: “Little such modernization [is] as yet under way in the housing of the city’s poorer workers or upcountry.” In Lagos he noted the “new residences of extraordinary sumptuousness in which senior officials and other members of the African upper strata dwell.” But this truth-telling made little impression on Shirley Graham (Du Bois) who, writing from Accra in 1960, saw “the renaissance of the ancient glories of Africa giving flower to the loftiest reaches of Socialism.” In 1964 Herbert Aptheker passed through Accra and was delighted to see that “there are no beggars ... the children have solid frames and clear eyes and are unafraid ...the people ... are consciously seeking to help create a united, free Africa—integrated with socialism.” Alas, poor Ghana. 

Staniland shows, with exemplary sobriety, how the left, like the other American intellectual groups, inscribed its own confusions onto a blank template. Whether, by the late 1960s, Africa was a front-line zone in the struggle between world-revolutionary and world-reactionary forces, whether American leaders were corrupt bureaucratic bourgeoisies or determined opponents of European and American imperialism, whether the future lay with African workers or African peasants, or whether African socialism was a fraud or a unique contribution to the rich diversity of an imminent planetary heaven—it was almost always Africa, almost never Mali, or Benin, or Somalia, or Equatorial Guinea. 

It is here that one notices a curious subterranean handshake between all of Staniland’s ideological groups. In different ways, all agreed that “Africa” exists, while Ghana and Angola do not. Who, by contrast, still seriously believes in an “Asia” above and beyond Ankara, Seoul, Colombo, and Manila? A “Europe” above Tirana, Valletta, Moscow, Reykjavik, and Dublin? A “Latin America” above Paramaribo, Belize, Ciudad Mexico, Lima, and Los Angeles? All these “zones” live mainly as bureaucratic fantasies and ideological conveniences; and have next to nothing to do with the real lives of real people. That “Africa” survives, against reality more energetically than its classmates, strikes one as testimony to the strange way that ignorance can bring racism and the hostility to racism into hidden alliance.

This book is such a fair-minded, amusing, and perceptive read that certain reservations take time to emerge. The title itself is a little misleading, given the prominence in the book of European ideologies, professors, and reporters, and the dubious stretching of “intellectuals” to include such philistine figures as Henry Luce and Roger Wilkins. More important is a curious disembodiedness, at two levels. On the one hand, Staniland explicitly rejects the possibility of showing that these clouds of opinion and argument translated into foreign policy outcomes. On the other hand, the clouds are also detached from concrete political interests. This detachment is probably accentuated by his decision to focus attention on Katanga and Nigeria, neither of them areas where Americans then had long-standing economic or strategic interests.

But what if the focus had been on Rhodesia or South Africa, Liberia or Ethiopia? A substantial number of conservative and liberal opinion-makers had corrupting business interests in the first two. The odious, long-standing Tubman-Tolbert regime was controlled not by “Africans” but by “returned” American blacks, and was studiotisly ignored by all of Staniland’s ideological groups. The brutal and feudal monarchy of Haile Selassie had strong military ties to the Pentagon, and spawned a “military-socialist” regime that both ended feudalism and killed millions of Ethiopians out of paranoia, power hunger, and stupidity. It would be unfortunate if Staniland’s distanced analyses of how different American ideological groups fantasized about “Africa” encouraged readers to overlook the real complicities of the United States in the horrors of Mobutu’s Congo, Barre’s Somalia, Vorster’s South Africa, Doe’s Liberia, and Moi’s Kenya. Those, too, are real places!