Robert Mugabe, then president of Zimbabwe, at the African Union Summit, Ethiopia, 2008.
Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Lock (USAF)/Wikimedia Commons
origin story / power

How the U.S. Aided Robert Mugabe’s Rise

Cold War politics empowered democracy — and dictatorship.
Facing almost certain impeachment, Robert Mugabe has resigned, ending his 40-year rule in Zimbabwe. And while it’s tempting to see the attempted coup that preceded his resignation as purely a problem of a foreign dictator who has overstayed his welcome, the rise of Mugabe was actually intimately tied up with U.S. Cold War politics.

In late 1975, the Cold War had arrived in southern Africa. By early 1976 — while Ronald Reagan and President Gerald Ford were battling for the Republican nomination and Jimmy Carter was still a long shot for the Democrats — 36,000 Cuban troops had landed in Angola.

Ford, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and a whole host of Americans were convinced that these Cuban troops were Soviet proxies. This set into motion decisions that would draw the U.S. into the politics of southern Africa and contribute to Mugabe’s rise.

By the mid-1970s, there was rising concern about detente, particularly among the group that would become known as neoconservatives. In his campaign against Ford, Reagan railed against the weakness of detente, and urged the United States to take a stronger position against Soviet adventurism.

One of Reagan’s main targets was Henry Kissinger. Just a few months earlier, South Vietnam had fallen. The detente that Kissinger had spearheaded looked like a failure. Kissinger, who had been depicted as “Super K!” on the cover of Newsweek in 1974, now faced calls for his firing from conservatives, led by Reagan. He was seen as too moderate, too soft, too associated with the Nelson Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party.

Kissinger needed a win. And he thought he could ring up a cheap one in Angola where three independence movements were vying for power in the wake of Portugal’s decision to decolonize. Kissinger masterminded a covert operation, including a South African invasion, to bring the most pro-American faction to power.
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