Myth and Geopolitics from Below: Apartheid South Africa and America in the Angolan Civil War

 

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Jamie Miller
University of Pittsburgh
Follow on Twitter @JamieMiller85

In 1975, the armed forces of apartheid South Africa intervened in the Angolan Civil War, carrying the flag of the anti-communist West into a burgeoning Cold War conflict. South Africa’s armed forces, confronted by Cuban troops, ended up in a military stalemate and a political disaster. Its government was pilloried internationally for interfering in a political contest in black Africa. African liberation movements across Southern Africa were emboldened. A model for achieving decolonisation through armed force, backed by Cuban and Soviet assistance, was established. And within South Africa itself, black political movements saw the regime’s aura of invincibility shattered, as did some puzzled white voters. The intervention in Angola, in other words, was an important turning point for the apartheid regime.

Ever since, historians have broadly accepted that South Africa was acting in Angola as an agent of American interests. “The US government urged South Africa, which might otherwise have hesitated, to act,” writes Piero Gleijeses, the preeminent specialist in Cuban and American foreign relations.[1]

In South Africa, a parallel notion has proliferated. The regime is remembered as having acted on America’s behalf in Angola; failure is ascribed to the lack of US congressional support for the commitments the Ford Administration had made to the apartheid regime. Then Defence Minister and soon-to-be Prime Minister P. W. Botha told Parliament:

I know of only one occasion in recent years when we crossed a border and that was in the case of Angola when we did so with the approval and knowledge of the Americans. But they left us in the lurch… . The story must be told of how we, with their knowledge, went in there and operated in Angola with their knowledge, how they encouraged us to act and, when we had nearly reached the climax, we were ruthlessly left in the lurch.

The Director of Operations for the Army Jannie Geldenhuys echoed this line in his memoirs. “The turning point of the war … was the new law passed by the American Congress forbidding military support to any Angolan Party.” Various versions of this thesis have been repeated to me by numerous highly placed apartheid-era diplomats, generals, and politicians alike in interviews.

But new evidence and fresh conceptual approaches turn these narratives upside down. Research in a range of South African state archives—civilian and military—enables us to piece us together a much richer picture of South African geopolitics and the relationship with the United States. Meanwhile, bringing South African actors and their worldviews into the foreground provides an entirely different view on the big picture at stake here.

The Cold War did not mean one and the same thing to different actors around the world. Instead, the localised intellectual history of the Cold War should be prioritised: how different languages and idioms were appropriated and internalised by actors in the global south, reinterpreted in politically useful and self-serving ways, and then utilised within the original Cold War paradigm in ways that were quite unexpected by superpowers.

This approach clarifies much of the mythology of American betrayal in Angola, and allows us to see the Cold War in the global south in a new light. Continue reading “Myth and Geopolitics from Below: Apartheid South Africa and America in the Angolan Civil War”

Forum Interview – An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and Its Search for Survival

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Dr. Jamie Miller’s new book, An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and Its Search for Survival (Oxford University Press, 2016), is an ambitious new international history of 1970s apartheid South Africa. In it, he makes sense of the many domestic and foreign political, economic, and ideological forces at work in South Africa at the time: decolonization and European imperialism; economic development and cultural globalization; nationalism and anti-communism; Afrikanerdom and African nationalism; white supremacy and postcolonial rights agendas; local politics and the Cold War in the global south. Based on newly declassified documents and oral histories in multiple languages on three continents, Miller gets inside the “official mind” of South Africa’s apartheid regime in Pretoria and uncovers the ways in which these myriad forces found their complements and contradictions.

Miller, having earned his doctorate from the University of Cambridge in November 2013, has been a Fox Predoctoral International Fellow at Yale University, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Quinnipiac University, and a Postdoctoral Fellow at both Cornell and Pittsburgh Universities. He has published articles in the Journal of African History, the Journal of Cold War Studies, and Cold War History. His work has also appeared in the London Review of Books and the Imperial & Global Forum, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @JamieMiller85.

Here is the Forum interview with Dr. Jamie Miller. Continue reading “Forum Interview – An African Volk: The Apartheid Regime and Its Search for Survival”

Graveyard of Empires? Writing the Global History of Development in Cold War Afghanistan

Nunan, Humanitarian Invasion (Book Cover)

Timothy Nunan
Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies
Follow on Twitter @timothynunan

How did Afghanistan in 2016 end up, yet again, as the graveyard of empires? Not only do Taliban franchises control much of the countryside outside of Kabul, but the start-up Islamic State battles them for influence. Tens of billion of dollars of aid have gone missing. Many Afghans are voting with their feet, forming one of the largest refugee diasporas in the world (a title they held until the Syrian Civil War).

Yet as my recent book, Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016) shows, tortured attempts to develop Afghanistan have a long history. Sure, events like the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842) have left a deep imprint on how outsiders view the place. But for much of the twentieth century, neutral Afghanistan wasn’t at war with any of the superpowers. And when the Soviets went into Afghanistan, they did not annex it into some “Soviet empire.” The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was a dues-paying member of the U.N. General Assembly, and Kabul played host to international conferences touting the regime’s solidarity with the Third World. Continue reading “Graveyard of Empires? Writing the Global History of Development in Cold War Afghanistan”

Revisiting Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech 70 Years After

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Richard Toye
History Department, University of Exeter

Follow on Twitter @RichardToye

The 5th of March marks the seventieth anniversary of Winston Churchill’s speech in Fulton, Missouri, in which he declared that an ‘iron curtain’ had descended across Europe. Delivered in the presence of US President Harry Truman, who had been instrumental in securing the former Prime Minister his invitation to speak, the address is well known as a landmark in the onset of the Cold War. Yet it is rarely considered in its full historical context. For the speech – formally entitled ‘The Sinews of Peace’ – was not merely a criticism of Russia. It was the means by which Churchill publicly enunciated his vision for a new world order. Continue reading “Revisiting Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech 70 Years After”

This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

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Album cover shoot for Aladdin Sane, 1973. Photography by Brian Duffy.

Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From how the Cold War shaped David Bowie to lessons from Japanese Canadian internment, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history. Continue reading “This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History”

Debating the History of Humanitarianism

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Andrew Thompson
Director, Centre for Imperial & Global History
University of Exeter

Humanitarianism developed at the intersection of Decolonization, the Cold War, and new & accelerating forms of Globalization. Decolonisation was about much more than the ending of colonial relationships: what was at stake was the dismantling of an entire global order: an old world of imperial states was replaced by a new world of nation states and this ushered in new patterns of cultural, political and economic relations. In the existential struggle that was the Cold War, the control of overseas territory mattered intensely to each side’s sense of security and power.

Capitalist West and socialist East competed to convince nearly and newly independent African and Asian states to adopt their models of humanitarian and development aid. As a result it became more difficult to distinguish aid given to further state interests from that given according to recipient needs. Globalisation meanwhile expanded the range of voices to which humanitarians had to listen while radically differentiating them. Aid agencies intensified their use of the international media, yet were exposed to greater pressures from their donor states and publics.

Together these 3 geopolitical forces − Decolonization, the Cold War, & Globalization − raised far-reaching questions about the relationship of international organizations and NGOs to state power; the basis upon which humanitarian needs were identified and prioritized; and the interaction of humanitarians with non-state armed groups. Continue reading “Debating the History of Humanitarianism”

Soviet Internationalism in Latin America

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Tobias Rupprecht
History Department, University of Exeter

‘This is a great conservative system,’ reported the visitor following his trip to Moscow, ‘there is no lack of order, no anarchy, no lack of discipline! Everyone respects the authorities!’ While the liberal leaders of the materialist and soulless West allegedly no longer took up a stance against decadent art, degenerate music, and immoral sexual libertarianism, the leaders in the Kremlin, he claimed, heroically defended traditional family values and a ‘healthy patriotism’.

The tone of this argument will sound rather familiar to a contemporary observer of Russia’s reactionary domestic policies and its regression to Cold War style foreign intervention. A swashbuckling Vladimir Putin has attracted the tacit, and sometimes open, admiration from many Europeans who no longer feel represented by what they see as the liberal mainstream in politics and media. Continue reading “Soviet Internationalism in Latin America”