The Congo 1960-1964

The assassination of Patrice Lumumba

excerpted from the book

Killing Hope

by William Blum


Within days of its independence from Belgium on 30 June 1960, the land long known as the Belgian Congo, and later as Zaire, was engulfed in strife and chaos as multiple individuals, tribes, and political groups struggled for dominance or independence. For the next several years the world press chronicled the train of Congolese governments, the endless confusion of personalities and conspiracies, exotic place names like Stanleyville and Leopoldville, shocking stories of European hostages and white mercenaries, the brutality and the violence from all quarters with its racist overtones.

Into this disorder the Western powers were "naturally" drawn, principally Belgium to protect Its vast mineral investments, and the United States, mindful of the fabulous wealth as well, and obsessed, as usual, with fighting "communism".

Successive American administrations of Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson, looking through cold-war binoculars perceived an East-West battleground. The CIA station in the Congo cabled Washington in August that "Embassy and station believe Congo experiencing classic communist effort [to] takeover government." CIA Director Allen Dulles warned of a "communist takeover of the Congo with disastrous consequences ... for the interests of the free world". At the same time, Dulles authorized a crash-program fund of up to $100,000 to replace the existing government of Patrice Lumumba with a "pro-western group''.


Years later, Under Secretary of State C. Douglas Dillon told a Senate investigating committee (the Church committee) that the National Security Council and President Eisenhower had believed in 1960 that Lumumba was a "very difficult if not impossible person to deal with, and was dangerous to the peace and safety of the world." This statement moved author Jonathan Kwitny to observe:

"How far beyond the dreams of a barefoot jungle postal clerk in 1956, that in a few short years he would be dangerous to the peace and safety of the world! The perception seems insane, particularly coming from the National Security Council, which really does have the power to end all human life within hours.

Patrice Lumumba became the Congo's first prime minister after his party received a plurality of the votes in national elections. He called for the nation's economic as well as political liberation and did not shy away from contact with socialist countries. At the Independence Day ceremonies he probably managed to alienate all the attending foreign dignitaries with his speech, which read in part:

"Our lot was eighty years of colonial rule ... We have known tiring labor exacted in exchange for salary which did not allow us to satisfy our hunger ... We have known ironies, insults, blows which we had to endure morning, noon, and night because we were "Negroes" ... We have known that the law was never the same depending on whether it concerned a white or a Negro ... We have known the atrocious sufferings of those banished for political opinions or religious beliefs ... We have known that there were magnificent houses for the whites in the cities and tumble-down straw huts for the Negroes."

In 1960, it must be borne in mind, this was indeed radical and inflammatory language in such a setting.

On 11 July, the province of Katanga-home to the bulk of the Congo's copper, cobalt, uranium, gold, and other mineral wealth-announced that it was seceding. Belgium, the principal owner of this fabulous wealth, never had any intention of giving up real control of the country, and it now supported the move for Katanga's independence, perceiving the advantage of having its investments housed in their own little country, not accountable to nor paying taxes to the central government in Leopoldville. Katanga, moreover, was led by Moise Tshombe, a man eminently accommodating to, and respectful of, whites and their investments.

The Eisenhower administration supported the Belgian military intervention on behalf of Katanga; indeed, the American embassy had previously requested such intervention. Influencing this policy, in addition to Washington's ideological aversion to Lumumba, was the fact that a number of prominent administration officials had financial ties to the Katanga wealth.

The Belgian intervention, which was a very violent one, was denounced harshly by the Soviet Union, as well as many countries from the Afro-Asian bloc, leading the UN Security Council on the 14th to authorize the withdrawal of Belgian troops and their replacement by a United Nations military force. This was fine with the United States, for the UN under Dag Hammarskjold was very closely allied to Washington. The UN officials who led the Congo operation were Americans, in secret collaboration with the State Department, and in exclusion of the Soviet bloc; the latter's citizens who worked at the UN Secretariat were kept from seeing the Congo cables. Hammarskjold himself was quite hostile toward Lumumba.

The UN force entered Katanga province and replaced the Belgian troops, but made no effort to end the secession. Unable to put down this uprising on his own, as well as one in another province, Lumumba had appealed to the United Nations as well as the United States to supply him with transport for his troops. When they both refused, he turned to the Soviet Union for aid, and received it, though military success still eluded him.

The Congo was in turmoil in many places. In the midst of it, on 5 September, president Joseph Kasavubu suddenly dismissed Lumumba as prime minister-a step of very debatable legality, taken with much American encouragement and assistance, as Kasavubu "sat at the feet of the CIA men". The action was taken, said the Church committee later, "despite the strong support for Lumumba in the Congolese Parliament.
During the early 1960s, according to a highly-placed CIA executive, the Agency "regularly bought and sold Congolese politicians''. US diplomatic sources subsequently confirmed that Kasavubu was amongst the recipients.

Hammarskjold publicly endorsed the dismissal before the Security Council, and when Lumumba tried to broadcast his case to the Congolese people, UN forces closed the radio station. Instead, he appeared before the legislature, and by dint of his formidable powers of speech, both houses of Parliament voted to reaffirm him as prime minister. But he could taste the fruits of his victory for only a few days, for on the 14th, army strongman Joseph Mobutu took power in a military coup.

Even during this period, with Lumumba not really in power, "CIA and high Administration officials continued to view him as a threat" ... his "talents and dynamism appear [to be the] overriding factor in reestablishing his position each time it seems half lost" ... "Lumumba was a spellbinding orator with the ability to stir masses of people to action" ... "if he ... started to talk to a battalion of the Congolese Army he probably would have had them in the palm of his hand in five minutes".

In late September, the CIA sent one of its scientists, Dr. Sidney Gottlieb, to the Congo carrying "lethal biological material" (a virus) specifically intended for use in Lumumba's assassination. The virus, which was supposed to produce a fatal disease indigenous to the Congo area of Africa, was transported via diplomatic pouch.

In 1975, the Church committee went on record with the conclusion that Allen Dulles had ordered Lumumba's assassination as "an urgent and prime objective" (Dulles's words). After hearing the testimony of several officials who believed that the order to kill the African leader had emanated originally from President Eisenhower, the committee decided that there was a "reasonable inference" that this was indeed the case.

As matters evolved in the Congo, the virus was never used, for the ClA's Congo station was unable to come up with "a secure enough agent with the right access" to Lumumba before the potency of the biological material was no longer reliable.

The Church committee observed, however, that the CIA station in Leopoldville continued to maintain close contact with Congolese who expressed a desire to assassinate Lumumba. CIA officers encouraged and offered to aid these Congolese in their efforts against Lumumba, although there is no evidence that aid was ever provided for the specific purpose of assassination.

Fearing for his life, Lumumba was on the run. For a while he was protected from Mobutu by the United Nations, which, under considerable international pressure, had been forced to put some distance between itself and Washington. But on 1 December, Lumumba was taken into custody by Mobutu's troops. A 28 November CIA cable indicates that the Agency was involved in tracking down the charismatic Congo leader. The cable spoke of the CIA station working with the Congolese government to get the roads blocked and troops alerted to close a possible escape route of Lumumba's.

The United States had also been involved in the takeover of government by Mobutu-
whom author and CIA-confidant Andrew Tully described as having been "discovered by the CIA." Mobutu detained Lumumba until 17 January 1961 when he transferred his prisoner into the hands of Moise Tshombe of Katanga province, Lumumba's bitter enemy. Lumumba was assassinated the same day.


The government was now headed by none other than Moise Tshombe, a man called "Africa's most unpopular African" for his widely-recognized role in the murder of the popular Lumumba and for his use of white mercenaries, many of them South Africans and Rhodesians, during his secession attempt in Katanga. Tshombe defended the latter action by explaining that his troops would not fight without white officers.

Tshombe once again called upon his white mercenary army, numbering 400 to 500 men, and the CIA called upon its own mercenaries as well, a band which included Americans, Cuban-exile veterans of the Bay of Pigs, Rhodesians, and South Africans, the latter having been recruited with the help of the South African government. "Bringing in our own animals" was the way one CIA operative described the operation.


The concluding tune for the musical chairs was played in November, when Joseph Mobutu overthrew Tshombe and Kasavubu. Mobutu, later to adopt the name Mobutu Sese Seko, has ruled with a heavy dictatorial hand ever since.

In the final analysis, it mattered precious little to the interests of the US government whether the forces it had helped defeat were really "communist" or not, by whatever definition. The working premise was that there was now fixed in power, over a more-or-less unified Congo, a man who would be more co-operative with the CIA in its African adventures and with Western capital, and less accessible to the socialist bloc, than the likes of Lumumba, ... et al. would have been. The CIA has chalked this one up as a victory.

What the people of the Congo (now Zaire) won is not clear. Under Mobutu, terror and repression became facts of daily life, civil liberties and other human rights were markedly absent. The country remains one of the poorest to be found anywhere despite its vast natural riches. Mobutu, however, is reputed to be one of the richest heads of state in the world.

William Atwood, US Ambassador to Kenya in 1964-65, who played a part in the hostage negotiations, also saw the US role in the Congo in a positive light. Bemoaning African suspicions toward American motives there, he wrote: "It was hard to convince people that we had provided the Congo with $420 million in aid since independence just to prevent chaos; they couldn't believe any country could be that altruistic."

Atwood's comment is easier to understand when one realizes that the word 'chaos" has long been used by American officials to refer to a situation over which the United States has insufficient control to assure that someone distinctly pro-Western will remain in, or come to, power.


Killing Hope