It was a memorable evening: Louis Armstrong, his wife, and a diplomat from the US embassy went out to dinner at a restaurant in what was still Léopoldville, the capital of the newly independent Congo.
The trumpeter, singer and leader of the band, nicknamed Satchmo as a child, was in the middle of a tour of Africa that would drag on for months, organized and sponsored by the State Department in an attempt to improve the image of the United States by dozens. of countries. who had just freed himself from the colonial regimes.
What Armstrong did not know was that his host that night in November 1960 was not the political attaché described, but the head of the CIA in the Congo. Nor was he aware of how his fame had allowed the spy who was chatting in the headlines to obtain crucial information that would facilitate some of the most controversial operations of the entire Cold War.
Armstrong was basically a Trojan horse for the CIA. It is truly heartbreaking. He was hired to serve an interest that was completely contrary to his own sense of right or wrong. He would have been horrified, ”said Susan Williams, a researcher at the University of London School of Advanced Studies and author of White malice, a new book that exposes the astonishing scope of CIA activities in West and Central Africa in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Documents found by Williams in UN archives during a five-year investigation strongly suggest that the Armstrong anchor, CIA station chief Larry Devlin, and other US intelligence officers dispatched to Congo, used the cap. of the visit of the musicians to access the strategic places. important and very wealthy province of Katanga, which had recently been separated. The United States, while sympathetic to the province leader’s agenda, had not officially recognized the self-proclaimed government there.
The CIA had a lot of interest in Katanga, from top officials they might not otherwise meet with to crucial mining infrastructure, with 1,500 tons of uranium and great potential to acquire more. Armstrong’s tour to Katanga was the perfect opportunity, so Devlin and others flew in from the capital with the musician and his famous band. “They needed a cover and this gave them one,” Williams said.
There was something else that Armstrong, who had retired from a similar tour to the Soviet Union three years earlier in protest at racism in America, didn’t know. The CIA in the Congo, led by Devlin, was trying to kill the first democratically elected prime minister of the Congo, Patrice Lumumba, 35, out of fear that he would take the country into the Soviet camp. Historians now believe that the nationalist leader wanted his country to remain neutral during the cold war.
Just a mile from where Armstrong and Devlin had dined, the charismatic Lumumba was held captive in his official residence by soldiers loyal to Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, the young warlord with a close working relationship with the CIA, who had effectively become seized of power a few weeks before.
Two months after Armstrong’s tour, Lumumba was assassinated in Katanga by officials from the separatist province. and Belgian police. Later, Mobutu would consolidate his control over the Congo and become a loyal customer of the United States.
Devlin later claimed that the CIA was responsible, and told a US Congress investigation “that the Mobutu coup … was organized and supported, and in fact, managed by the CIA.”
Lumumba’s assassination would be one of the most infamous episodes of the cold war and sparked outrage around the world. While it accepted responsibility for the coup, the CIA has always denied its involvement. In 1975, Devlin told a government investigation in the US that the agency had been trying to assassinate the nationalist leader for the previous months, but had ceased its operation long before the actual assassination.
Williams, however, found evidence that casts doubt on the reliability of Devlin’s testimony. Recently released US documents show that the CIA station chief sent an agent known as WI / ROGUE to Thysville, the city where Lumumba was imprisoned in the weeks leading up to his death, long after the agency claimed to have lost everything. interest in the possible assassination of the popular politician.
“We can’t say what WI / ROGUE did in Thysville, but at least it undermines Devlin’s reliability,” Williams said.
The CIA had begun developing a network of agents, hired assistants, collaborators, and clients in Africa shortly after its creation in 1947, building on work done during World War II. By 1960, this vast network was made up of union leaders, businessmen, cultural and educational organizations, businesses, and even airlines.
The agency would be involved in some of the most important events in the postcolonial history of the continent.
In 1962, a tip from a CIA spy to officials of the racist and repressive apartheid regime in South Africa may have led to Nelson Mandela’s arrest and imprisonment for 27 years, while the agency has also been blamed for the overthrow of the Ghana’s first government. President, Kwame Nkrumah, in a military coup in 1966.
“The tragedy is that Nkrumah and Lumumba and several other African leaders in the book did not oppose the United States. They wanted friendly relations with the United States, but since they were not opposed to the Soviets either, Washington viewed them as enemies. The attitude was ‘you’re with us or against us,’ “Williams said.
Armstrong, who was 59 when he traveled to the Congo, was inspired by his experiences there to compose a musical called The true ambassadors, which was made and made into an album. He expressed some of his own deeply conflicting feelings about his involvement in the United States government’s public relations efforts on the continent.
“Although I represent the government,” the musician said at work, “the government does not represent some of the policies that I am for.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism