The Secret Meeting Where the Idea of America as a Global Power Was Born
On the Campaign to Rearrange the Balance of Power on the African Continent
In August 1941, President Franklin Roosevelt told the American people he was going fishing. For four days, a secret service agent sat on the deck of a boat off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard puffing on a cigarette holder and pretending to be FDR. Staff onboard issued homey press releases about Roosevelt’s Scottish terrier Fala who was “restless for a little shore leave.”
The real FDR was with Winston Churchill aboard the HMS Prince of Wales off the coast of Newfoundland drafting a five-page statement of the aims of the still nascent alliance between the US and Britain against Hitler. The original Atlantic Charter hangs in the museum on Roosevelt’s Hyde Park estate, not far from where Lawrence Kiwanuka Nsereko, a journalist from the East African nation of Uganda now lives. On a beautiful spring day in 2015, we went to see it.
The document lists eight principles to which the U.S. and Great Britain pledged to abide. The third one reads as follows:
They respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them;
America’s new image of itself as a global power was born on that ship. But how would America engage with this new world? Would it seek to transform it by restoring “sovereign rights and self government” to oppressed people? Or would it seek to dominate it, by replacing one form of colonialism with another? After the war, U.S. internationalism would give rise to the UN, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the World Bank and countless other promising organizations, conventions, and agreements. Sometimes these entities would work for the benefit of people in foreign lands; sometimes they served as instruments of U.S. power and foils to absorb the blame for disastrous policies implemented on behalf of Washington.
But on that boat, Roosevelt was almost certainly sincere about the sentiments contained in the Atlantic Charter. He’d expressed similar views eight months earlier in his “Four Freedoms” speech, calling for freedom of speech and religion and freedom from fear and want, “everywhere in the world.”
It was this last phrase that worried FDR’s advisers. “That covers an awful lot of territory, Mr. President,” speechwriter Harry Hopkins said at the time. “I don’t know how interested [the American] people are going to be in the people of Java.”
“I’m afraid they’ll have to be someday, Harry,” the President replied. “The world is getting so small that even the people in Java are getting to be our neighbors now.”
Churchill’s devotion to the British Empire was “visceral” writes historian James Hubbard, and he never supported self-determination “everywhere in the world.” His signature on the original Atlantic Charter document is actually in FDR’s handwriting. A month later, he told the House of Commons, “at the Atlantic Charter meeting, we had in mind primarily the States and nations of Europe now under Nazi yoke.”
But neither the Americans nor the British could rein in the ideas contained in the Charter itself. Nelson Mandela was a 23-year-old law clerk when he heard about the shipboard signing of the Atlantic Charter. In his memoir Long Walk to Freedom, he writes that it “reaffirmed faith in the dignity of each human being. Some in the West saw the Charter as empty promises, but not those of us in Africa.” The African National Congress would soon draw up African Claims, its own civil rights manifesto based on the Charter.
When Harry Truman, standing in the shadow of the atom bomb, launched America’s first foreign aid program in 1952, his speech echoed the Charter’s sentiments. America’s greatest gift to other nations would not be our technology and know-how, Truman said, but “the true secret of our American revolution . . . that the vitality of our science, our industry, our culture is embedded in our political life . . . that only free men, freely governed, can make the magic of science and technology work for the benefit of human beings, not against them.”
Despite Truman’s stirring words, State Department officials were extremely apprehensive about the prospect of African self-government. George Kennan, who helped shape early Cold War foreign policy complained privately that non-Europeans were “impulsive, fanatical, ignorant, lazy, unhappy and prone to mental disorders and other biological deficiencies,” wrote historian James Hubbard. The mixture of westernized and exotic backgrounds created “embittered fanatics,” he wrote in his diary, who would easily succumb to Soviet-inspired demagoguery. “We have to get over our complex that every little black or brown man with a tommy gun in his hand is automatically a 16 carat patriot on the way to becoming the local George Washington,” echoed Eisenhower’s foreign policy adviser C. D. Jackson. In 1952, the US even opposed including an article on government by the will of the people in a proposed United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Vice President Richard Nixon put it bluntly: Africans could not be democratic, having only emerged from the trees 50 years earlier.
The Americans would have greatly preferred that the Europeans continue handling the dark continent through their empires, but decolonization was inevitable. The fate of the French, who were being pummeled in Algeria, provided a lesson for what was in store for imperialists who overstayed their welcome. In 1960, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan spent two months touring Her Majesty’s African colonies. Looking back on a decade of pro-independence riots in Malawi, Uganda; Kenya and elsewhere, and fearing a string of Boston Tea Parties across the globe, he drafted his famous “Winds of Change” speech announcing his Empire’s imminent dismantling. By 1965 it had virtually disappeared.
Washington realized it needed an Africa policy quickly. Diplomats were convinced that the Soviets were already “wooing” African independence activists. This wasn’t true, according to numerous national security estimates; most emerging African leaders were concerned with internal and regional politics, and wished to remain neutral in the Cold War. But the Americans saw Marxist conspiracies in every trade deal or contact between African leaders and the USSR and they quietly panicked about what this might mean for control of the newly created United Nations and world supplies of diamonds, gold and other strategic resources. But Africa’s soon to be 40-plus independent nations, countless tribes, and numerous clans posed a vexing policy conundrum because few in Washington knew anything about them. To Undersecretary of State George Ball, their names seemed like “typographical errors.” America’s treatment of its own black population posed serious diplomatic problems. Flummoxed as to what to say to a visiting Ethiopian diplomat, President Dwight Eisenhower said he’d heard that African elephants, unlike their Indian cousins, could not be tamed, a remark the visitor considered racist.
Eventually, Eisenhower arrived at a solution. America would pursue a “two track” approach, professing support for African self-determination, while giving African leaders a stark choice: Side with us or the Soviets. If with us, expect lavish foreign aid and a free rein to control your own people by any means, including harsh repression. If with the Reds, expect no US military or development or development aid, and risk being overthrown or assassinated by covert CIA operatives or rebels backed by them. In due course, African leaders deemed ambivalent about protecting US interests, including Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, and Uganda’s Milton Obote were shown the door, if not by US operatives, then by those of her allies. When the Cold War ended, the U.S. cautiously began supporting multi-party democracy in some African countries including Ghana, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania, South Africa and eventually Kenya. But poor, landlocked Uganda, wracked with political strife since independence, would not make the list. The Reagan administration and those that followed had other plans for Lawrence’s beleaguered country. Instead, it would become a knight in America’s bloody campaign to rearrange the balance of power on the African continent, and hold back what Washington saw as the growing power of political Islam on the continent.
Lawrence Kiwanuka Nsereko had been fighting to bring democracy to Uganda since he was 14 years old. He’d been a child soldier, a journalist, an editor and a political candidate; he’d been imprisoned and tortured and narrowly escaped assassination. After he fled Uganda in 1995, nearly every physical copy of The Citizen, the newspaper he worked for, was destroyed. My own efforts to find them 20 years later nearly proved futile. But during and for a few years after the cold war, the U.S. government microfilmed nearly every periodical in the world, and copies of many issues of The Citizen are stored in the Library of Congress, where I read them in 2015. Eventually, a courageous Ugandan intellectual made additional copies available to me in Uganda. They tell an extraordinary and little known story about what happened in eastern and central Africa, after the Berlin Wall fell.
Beginning in the late 1980s, a series of deadly conflicts erupted in this region. The Rwanda genocide, the wars in Sudan, Congo and South Sudan, as well as the rise of both warlord Joseph Kony and the frightening Somali terrorist group Al-Shabaab, are all linked to one man: Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni—Lawrence’s tormentor, and America’s longstanding ally in the War on Terror.
Since taking power in Uganda by force in 1986, Museveni had managed to convince every US President since Reagan of his commitment to fighting Islamic terrorism and working for peace in the Horn and Great Lakes of Africa. Museveni’s government has received tens of billions of dollars in Western civilian and military assistance, and Museveni himself has enjoyed more contact with high level Washington officials than any other living African leader. U.S. officials have continued to praise him, even as he has crushed nascent democracy movements in Uganda and other countries and even as his associates have diverted donor aid meant to pay for health care, education and other public services to shore up Museveni’s grip on power.
Along with others, Lawrence witnessed the early moves in Museveni’s brutal game and tried to warn Western diplomats. The journalists’ efforts made no difference. The administrations of Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush and, alas, Obama as well, continued to provide Museveni with vast amounts of foreign aid, more open trade arrangements, and a quiet but steep increase in military assistance. Throughout the years of mayhem, decisions concerning the deployment of Ugandan troops would be made by Museveni alone or in consultation with U.S. national security officials, often without the democratic niceties of parliamentary or public debate.
As long as Museveni cooperated, or appeared to do so, the U.S. and other Western nations ignored his corruption, rigged elections, and outrageous human rights abuses against Ugandans, Sudanese, South Sudanese, Rwandans, Congolese, and Somalis.
What explains Washington’s infatuation with Museveni? One of Lawrence’s journalist colleagues believed the Ugandan strongman must have bewitched the Americans. It’s increasingly clear, however, that US policy in eastern and central Africa is determined almost exclusively by perceived security concerns. During the 1980s, what policy makers refer to as militant Islam gradually replaced the Soviet Union as America’s public enemy number one.
For its devotees, militant Islam seemed like a cure for a fractured world where the interests of the poor and weak were trampled by American might and greed. For Washington, this frightening movement, responsible for ever-bloodier terrorist attacks against Western and Israeli targets, posed a security conundrum. The terrorists didn’t come from a world they knew, in which monolithic enemies with clear ideologies faced each other with enormous weapons drawn but seldom used. These new enemies weren’t represented by states; they were everywhere and nowhere, and their weapons were deadly, portable and used without hesitation.
In Africa the stakes were high: an estimated $24 trillion worth of unexploited oil, gold, diamonds, cobalt, uranium, and coltan, the raw material for cellphone and computer chips. Much of this loot lay underground in Uganda’s neighbor Congo—or Zaire, as it was known between 1971 and 1997—that vast, poorly governed country at the heart of the continent. During the Cold War, these resources were kept out of Soviet hands by U.S. backed thugs such as
Zaire’s Marshall Mobutu Sese Seko and the militaristic Apartheid regime of South Africa. But the fall of the Soviets shifted the kaleidoscope, turning former enemies into friends and vice versa. South Africa would soon be free, and the aging and increasingly addled Marshall Mobutu was growing closer to Sudan, where a new Islamist government was recruiting militants throughout the Middle East to expand their own sphere of influence.
As in the Cold War, Washington would need proxy armies. Officially, U.S. policymakers would say Africans needed to fight their own battles; in reality, Africans would be fighting ours. Wedged between Congo/Zaire, with its enormous mineral wealth, and eastern Africa’s Muslim fringe, predominantly Christian Uganda occupied a crucial geostrategic position. Its leader Museveni was a brilliant military strategist, whose ragtag rebel group had famously toppled Uganda’s much stronger national army. Since then Ugandan troops have served as a doorstop against what American national security officials see as potential Islamic militant advances across Africa, with troops at one time or another in Sudan, the Central African Republic, and Somalia—as well as Rwanda and Congo, where they removed regimes that although not themselves Islamic, were potential allies of Sudan.
To many Americans and Europeans, the resulting conflagrations—the Rwanda genocide, the Congo wars, the Sudanese civil war, Joseph Kony’s massacres in northern Uganda, the gruesome Sharia amputations in Somalia—must have seemed like distant storms having nothing to do with us. But U.S. advisors and military officials were involved in some of this violence, at times arming one side against the other, at times doing nothing until tensions built up and then downplaying abuses by our allies, including Museveni.
Lawrence had never heard of the Atlantic Charter before. As he gazed at the crumpled sheets, typed out on un-headed paper with small corrections penciled in by Roosevelt, he told me he’d always thought of FDR as a violent president. On a previous visit to Hyde Park, he’d seen the study where Roosevelt and Churchill resolved to drop the atom bomb on Japan.
That day, he’d brought along a group of visiting Ugandan politicians. They were feuding about something—he didn’t remember what—and Lawrence decided to use a trick of Eleanor Roosevelt’s whose cottage Val-Kill is just down the road from Hyde Park. Rather than let the Ugandan politicians argue all day, Lawrence tried “picnic diplomacy.” Eleanor’s idea was that it’s hard for people not to be civil once they’ve spent a pleasant day together. So he took them to Hyde Park and Val-Kill and the Vanderbilt Mansion and then they all sat by the Hudson and watched the boats.
I asked him what the visiting Ugandans thought of the Roosevelt family mansion, with its enormous living room, lavish draperies, table settings and chandeliers and the dramatic naval paintings in the hallway. They didn’t comment on those things, Lawrence said. What amazed them was that the building was standing at all. Why didn’t the Republicans burn it down after Eisenhower won in 1952? The former residences of Uganda’s ex-leaders Milton Obote and Idi Amin were in ruins.
Lawrence continues to teach political science at Dutchess County Community College. His courses stress the importance of political participation. All U.S. citizens who enroll in them must vote in order to pass, and students regularly read and debate newspaper articles on politics. “Student involvement is important,” he says. “We are leaving the government to a few crazy people, and that’s how we’ve ended up where we are.”
Adapted from Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda, and the War on Terror. Used with permission of Columbia Global Reports. Copyright 2017 by Helen Epstein.