Angola 1975 to 1980s

The Great Powers Poker Game

excerpted from the book

Killing Hope

by William Blum


It is spring 1975. Saigon has just fallen. The last of the Americans are fleeing for their lives. Fallout from Watergate hangs heavy in the air in the United States. The morning papers bring fresh revelations about CIA and FBI misdeeds. The Pike Committee of the House of Representatives is investigating CIA foreign covert activities. On the Senate side, the Church Committee is doing the same. And the Rockefeller Commission has set about investigating the Agency's domestic activities.

The CIA and its influential supporters warn that the crescendo of disclosures will inhibit the Agency from carrying out the functions necessary for national security.

At CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, they are busy preparing for their next secret adventure: Angola.

To undertake a military operation at such a moment, the reasons, one would imagine, must have been both compelling and urgent. Yet, in the long history of American interventions it would be difficult to find one more pointless or with less to gain for the United States or the foreign people involved.

The origin of our story dates back to the beginning of the 1960s when two political movements in Angola began to oppose by force the Portuguese colonial government: the MPLA, led by Agostinho Neto, and the FNLA, led by Holden Roberto. (The latter group was known by other names in its early years, but for simplicity will be referred to here only as FNLA.)

The United States, not normally in the business of supporting "liberation" movements,. decided that inasmuch as Portugal would probably be unable to hold on to its colony forever, establishing contact with a possible successor regime might prove beneficial. For reasons lost in the mists of history, the United States, or at least someone in the CIA, decided that Roberto was their man and around 1961 or 1962 onto the Agency payroll he went.

At the same time, and during the ensuing years, Washington provided their NATO ally, the Salazar dictatorship in Lisbon, with the military aid and counter-insurgency training needed to suppress the rebellion. John Marcum, an American scholar who walked 800 miles through Angola into the FNLA guerrilla camps in the early 1960s, has written:

'By January 1962 outside observers could watch Portuguese planes bomb and strafe African villages, visit the charred remains of towns like Mbanza M'Pangu and M'Pangala, and copy the data from 750-point napalm bomb casings from which the Portuguese had not removed the labels marked "Property U.S. Air Force".'


The United States was directly involved in the civil war to a marked degree. In addition to training Angolan combat units, US personnel did considerable flying between Zaire and Angola carrying out reconnaissance and supply missions, and the CIA spent over a million dollars on an ambitious mercenary program. Several reports appeared in the US press stating that many American mercenaries were fighting in Angola against the MPLA-from "scores" to "300"-and that many others were being recruited and trained in the United States to join them. But John Stockwell, the head of the CIA's Angola task force, puts the number of American mercenaries who actually made it to Angola at only 24. However, Holden Roberto was using CIA money, with the Agency's tacit approval to recruit many other mercenaries-over 100 British plus a scattering of French and Portuguese. The CIA was also directly financing the arming of British mercenaries. (The mercenaries included amongst their number the well-known Englishman and psychopath George Cullen who lined up 14 of his fellow soldiers-of-fortune and shot them all dead because they had mistakenly attacked the wrong side.)

Subsequently, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger informed the Senate that "the CIA is not involved" in the recruitment of mercenaries for Angola.

There were also well over a hundred CIA officers and American military advisers scurrying about Angola, Zaire, Zambia and South Africa helping to direct the military operations and practicing their propaganda skills. Through recruited journalists representing major news services, the Agency was able to generate international coverage for false reports of Soviet advisers in Angola. One CIA story, announced to the press by UNITA, was that 20 Russians and 35 Cubans had been captured. Another fabrication concerned alleged rapes committed by Cuban soldiers in Angola, this was elaborated to include their capture, trial, and execution, complete with photos of the young women killing the Cubans who had raped them.

Both stories were reported widely in the American and British press and elsewhere. Some of the major newspapers, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, and The Guardian of London, were careful to point out that the only source of the information was UNITA and their articles did not attempt to ascribe any special credence to the reports. But this could not of course prevent the placing of seeds of belief in the minds of readers already conditioned to believe the worst about communists.

The disinformation campaign took place within the United States as well. FNLA delegates came to New York in September to lobby for support at the UN and with the New York press, distributing as they went copies of a "white paper" on the Angolan conflict prepared at CIA headquarters but made to look like it was produced in Zaire, French and all. John Stockwell described the paper as sometimes "false to the point of being ludicrous' and other times "simply inaccurate".

Afterward, representatives of UNITA went to Washington and presented to members of Congress, the State Department, the White House and the media, verbal reports about the situation in Angola which were the product of briefings given them by their CIA case officers.

In January 1976, William Colby sat before the Senate investigating committee and solemnly assured the Senators: we have taken particular caution to ensure that our operations are focused abroad and not on the United States to influence the opinion of the American people about things from the ClA point of view.

There was virtually no important aspect of the Angolan intervention which Colby, Kissinger, and other high officials did not misrepresent to Congress and the media.

The odds never favored a military victory for the US-backed forces in Angola, particularly in the absence of a relatively large-scale American commitment which, given the political atmosphere, was not in the cards. The MPLA was the most organized and best led of the three factions and early on controlled the capital city of Luanda, which housed almost the entire governmental machinery. Yet, for no reason, apparently, other than anti-Soviet spite, the United States was unwilling to allow a negotiated settlement. When Savimbi of UNITA sent out feelers to the MPLA in September 1975 to discuss a peaceful solution he was admonished by the CIA. Similarly, the following month when an MPLA delegation went to Washington to once again express their potential friendliness to the United States, they received a cool reception, being seen only by a low-level State Department official.

In November MPLA representatives came to Washington to plead for the release of two Boeing jet airliners which their government had paid for but which the State Department would not allow to be exported. John Stockwell relates the unusual development that the MPLA men were accompanied by Bob Temmons, who until shortly before had been the head of the CIA station in Luanda, as well as by the president of Boeing. While the two Angolans and the man from Boeing petitioned the State Department, the CIA man made known to Agency headquarters that he had come to share the view of the US Consul General in Luanda "that the MPLA was best qualified to run the country, that it was not demonstrably hostile to the United States, and that the United States should make peace with it as quickly as possible."

The State Department's response to the MPLA representatives was simple: the price for any American co-operation with the Angolan government was Soviet influence out US influence in.

At one time or another almost two dozen countries, East and West, felt the urge to intervene in the conflict. Principal amongst these were the United States, China, South Africa and Zaire on the side of FNLA/UNITA, and the Soviet Union, Cuba, the Cong Republic and Katangese troops (Zairian rebels) supporting MPLA. The presence of South African forces on their side cost the United States and its Angolan allies dearly in support from other countries, particularly in Africa. Yet, South Africa's participation in the war had been directly solicited by the United States. In sharp contrast to stated American policy, the CIA and the National Security Agency had been collaborating with Pretoria's intelligence service since the 1960s and continued to do so in regard to Angola. One of the principal focuses of the intelligence provided by the US to South Africa was the African National Congress, the leading anti-apartheid organization which had been banned and exiled. In 1962, the South African police arrested ANC leader Nelson Mandela based on information as to his whereabouts and disguise provided them by CIA officer Donald Rickard. Mandela spent almost 28 years in prison.

In 1977, the Carter administration banned the sharing of intelligence with South Africa, but this was largely ignored by the American intelligence agencies. Two years earlier, the CIA had set up a covert mechanism whereby arms were delivered to the South Africans; this practice, in violation of US law, continued until at least 1978, and a portion of the arms were more than likely put to use in Angola. South Africa in turn helped to ferry American military aid from Zaire into Angola.

In fairness to the CIA, it must be pointed out that its people were not entirely oblivious or insensitive to what South Africa represented. The Agency was very careful about getting its black officers into the Angola program.

A congressional cutoff of aid to the FNLA/UNITA, enacted in January 1976, hammered a decisive nail into their coffin. Congressmen did not yet know the full truth about the American operation, but enough of the public dumbshow had been exposed to make them incensed at how Kissinger, Colby, et al. had lied to their faces. The consequence was one of the infrequent occasions in modern times that the US Congress has exercised a direct and pivotal influence upon American foreign policy. In the process, it avoided the slippery slope to another Vietnam, on top of which stood Henry Kissinger and the CIA with shoes waxed.

By February, the MPLA, with indispensable help from Cuban troops and Soviet military equipment, had all but routed their opponents. The Cuban presence in Angola was primarily a direct response to South African attacks against the MPLA. Wayne Smith, director of the State Department's Office of Cuban Affairs from 1977 to 1979, has written that "in August and October [1975] South African troops invaded Angola with full U.S. knowledge. No Cuban troops were in Angola prior to this intervention."

Savimbi at this time again considered reaching an understanding with the MPLA. The response from Washington was: Keep fighting. Kissinger personally promised UNITA continued support if they maintained their resistance, knowing full well that there was no more support to give. During the two weeks that Savimbi waited for his answer, he lost 600 men in a single battlefield. Yet, incredibly, less than two months before, the Secretary of State had stated: "We are not opposed to the MPLA as such. We can live with any of the factions in Angola." The man was wholly obsessed with countering Soviet moves anywhere on the planet-significant or trivial, real or imagined, fait accompli or anticipated.


The civil war in Angola did not actually come to an end in 1976 as it appeared to, for the fighting lingered on intermittently, sometimes moderately, sometimes ferociously.

In 1984 a confidential memorandum smuggled out of Zaire revealed that the United States and South Africa had met in November 1983 to discuss destabilization of the Angola government. Plans were drawn up to supply more military aid to UNITA (the FNLA was now defunct) and discussions were held on ways to implement a wide range of tactics: unify the anti-government movements, stir up popular feeling against the government, sabotage factories and transport systems, seize strategic points, disrupt joint Angola-Soviet projects, undermine relations between the government and the Soviet Union and Cuba, bring pressure to bear on Cuba to withdraw its troops, sow divisions in the ranks of the MPLA leadership, infiltrate agents into the Angolan army. and apply pressure to stem the flow of foreign investments into Angola.

The United States branded the document a forgery, but UNITA's representative in Washington would neither confirm nor deny that the meeting took place. He stated however, that UNITA had "contacts with US officials at all levels on a regular basis".

The aim of the operation, according to the memorandum, was to force part of the Angolan leadership to negotiate with UNITA, precisely what Washington had successfully discouraged years earlier.

A month after the reported US-South Africa meeting, the UN Security Council censured South Africa for its military operations in Angola, and endorsed Luanda's right to reparations. Only the United States, abstaining, did not support the resolution.

In August 1985, after a three-year battle with Congress, the Reagan administration won a repeal of the 1976 prohibition against US military aid to rebel forces in Angola. Military assistance began to flow to UNITA overtly as well as covertly. In January 1987, Washington announced that it was providing the rebels with Stinger missiles and other anti-aircraft weaponry. Three months earlier, Jonas Savimbi had spoken before the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France in an appeal for support. Following his talk, however, a plenary session of the Parliament criticized American support for the guerrilla leader and passed a resolution which described UNITA as a "terrorist organization which supports South Africa."

Finally, in September 1992, elections were held, but when it became apparent that the MPLA would be the winner in a run-off-in polling which the UN certified to be free and fair-Savimbi refused to accept the result. He ended a year-old cease-fire and launched one of UNITA's largest, most sustained offensives of the war, still being supplied by South Africa, and, in recent years, by American "private" airlines and "relief" organizations with interesting histories such as previous contacts to the Nicaraguan contras.

In May 1993, Washington finally recognized the Angolan government. In January, just before the Clinton administration took over, a senior State Department official had declared: "UNITA is exactly like the Khmer Rouge: elections and negotiations are just one more method of fighting a war; power is all."

The war-which had taken more than 300,000 lives-was still raging in 1994, continuing to produce widespread hunger and what is said to be the highest amputee rate in the world, caused by the innumerable land mines.

Killing Hope