by Robert Baker
The 1962 Cuban missile crisis and 1964’s Belgian paratroop drop from U.S. C-130s in the Congo were the most interesting events in my five year intelligence career. Lowly intelligence analysts like me working for the U.S. Information Agency had to sit in the Director’s chair about three weekends every year as part of the job. Our building near the White House was almost empty on weekends. Nobody else was on duty except the front door guards and the cable/code room guys. If some critical action telegram came in during Saturday or Sunday, my job was to phone the Director on his red, secure phone immediately, wherever he might be.
A guy from the Agency code room hand-carried clutches of cables to you every hour or, for urgent ones, within minutes of their decoding. Usually, nothing important happened except you had given up a weekend.
The world was close to nuclear war when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev sneakily installed ballistic missiles with atomic warheads in Cuba in 1962. Cables flew from President Kennedy’s White House to our military and to U.S. embassies around the world; all fell on my desk. There were 17,000 U.S. nuclear warheads mostly on international continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in 1962. They would destroy every city and town as well as military targets in the Soviet Union. The Soviets had 12,000 ICBMs which would destroy all American cities, towns, military bases, etc. in case of nuclear war. The Cuban missile crisis augured possible annihilation, but the Congo hostage crisis had dramatic human interest.
President Johnson managed the rescue of white captives in the Congo through Operation Dragon Rouge in November, 1964. I read dozens of “Eyes Only” cables delivered in frantic succession as the two crises developed. The weekend cable guy dropped the distinctively marked red folders with the cables inside onto the Director’s desk. USIA’s role was to report via the Voice of America and our official wire service our government’s actions and comments.
The Cuban missile crisis hit President Kennedy suddenly. Cloud cover over Cuba kept our air spy photography from spotting the Soviet installation of medium range nuclear missile launchers in that country. When the weather cleared and photographs became available again, the danger was dramatically clear. Such missiles operated by battalions of Soviet troops could hit Washington, D.C., in less than 15 minutes, psychologically altering the nuclear balance of power against the U.S. We already had similar missiles in Turkey aimed at Moscow. Still, their missiles in Cuba were seen as an extremely dangerous new threat and a slap in the face. In fact, the Soviets had far fewer intercontinental ballistic missiles than the U.S. but were hugely superior to the West in conventional land arms.
Unstoppable American rockets with atomic warheads were targeted to destroy several thousand Soviet major and minor towns and military facilities. The Soviets had unstoppable rockets targeted likewise on the U.S. Both countries would be destroyed in such a war. In addition, our tactical nuclear weapons in Europe were matched by the Soviets and would destroy Europe as well. The world balance of power in the Cold War was psychological as well as military. Moscow’s installation of missiles 90 miles from Florida was a gamble by Soviet Prime Minister Khrushchev to scare Americans and their allies.
President Kennedy on October 23 showed on national and international television, aerial photographs of the Soviet missile installations in Cuba. He demanded they be dismantled. Some were already operational. He said the U.S. Navy had begun a blockade of Cuba. No Soviet ships would be permitted to enter Cuban waters. He made it clear that a nuclear war was possible. The tension built world-wide as Soviet ships carrying additional missiles approached our no-go zone.
At the last moment, the Soviet ships turned back and the crisis was over. But before they did so, the White House for the final day of the ongoing crisis sent out reams of immediate, top secret cables. They were clear, reasoned, complete, informative instructions to our Embassies and armed forces commanders worldwide. Every foreign government knew what we planned.
I was deeply impressed by the high professionalism of the White House in this most critical time. If it had come to war, the U.S. would have done all it could to avert the war and to prepare ourselves and our allies for it. To give the Soviets a fig leaf to withdraw their missiles from Cuba, Kennedy agreed to dismantle old American missiles in Turkey. We retained our huge lead in intercontinental missiles based in the U.S. and on board submarines, together able to reach all targets in the USSR. The crisis focused attention on the deadly danger of nuclear war. That eventually lead to serious steps to reduce that threat sadly still with us.
Interestingly, the Indian press and others in the non-aligned bloc of poor and less powerful nations, praised the Soviets as peace keepers for withdrawing their missiles. They did not focus on the provocation given to the U.S. by installation of the missiles. However, the worldwide psychological and military victory clearly belonged to President Kennedy and his team. USIA tracked and analyzed all media reaction reports worldwide to major events as a regular part of our work. Many in the Soviet Politburo and military leadership had strongly objected to Prime Minister Khrushchev’s Cuban missile plan. When it failed, they ousted him.
Very callow at the time, I was instantly sure the U.S. would prevail when I got the first cable to say the Soviets had put missiles into Cuba. I was certain Moscow would lose its gamble. Much sounder heads than mine were deeply disturbed. I knew our Navy was hugely superior to the Soviet’s so Moscow could never successfully stand against us in the waters around Cuba. I believed that Moscow had no truly serious national interest in installing the missiles in Cuba. It was very stupid as well as doomed to failure from the start. No Soviet leader would dream of trading the sure destruction of the USSR for a small advantage like missiles in Cuba. The rest of world wisely did not share my certainty. The White House came up with detailed, extensive war plans and peace plans that were far beyond my callow confidence. It was the most interesting weekend I ever spent on duty in the Director’s chair.
USIA intelligence officers had to sit weekends in the Director’s chair a couple times a year. You saw all the cables the Director would see if he were in Washington. His red telephone could reach him anywhere immediately if his action were needed. One of the most interesting weekends on that duty combined tense hours for hundreds of European hostages held by Soviet backed Congolese terrorists with swift, U.S./ Belgian military action.
Operation Dragon Rouge (Operation Red Dragon) combined a Belgian paratrooper battalion with a U.S. airlift for a rescue mission to the Congo, in November, 1964. It tested President Johnson’s policy in Africa and the Cold War.
I sat in the U.S. Information Agency Director’s chair as Duty Officer that weekend, and followed the Pentagon and State Department cable traffic all day as the rescue unfolded. The Eyes Only Limited Distribution minute by minute cables were fascinating.
The Congo, as big as the U.S. west of the Mississippi, rich in diamonds, gold, copper, uranium, etc. had lost its central government in fact if not in form, after independence. Congolese regions just refused to obey orders from the capital. Rampaging tribal struggles were exploited by the Soviets who gave weapons and support to regional rebels. The U.S. supported the central government in Leopoldville (now, Kinshasa). The corrupt central government army retreated again and again (hello Iraq) in the face of the Simbas (Lions in Swahili), a ragtag but vicious and bloodthirsty army of rebels.
The Simbas had taken about a thousand Belgians, other Europeans and some Americans as prisoners in the Congo. They threatened to murder them in Stanleyville, eastern Congo. The hostage story dominated world news for weeks.
The U.S. could not let the Simbas murder the civilians, including priests, nuns, women and children. The hostages were held in a Stanleyville hotel a thousand miles from the nearest Congo government armed support. The U.S. and Belgium decided to send a Belgian paratroop battalion to save the hostages,Operation Dragon Rouge.
The Portuguese dictator Salazar gave us permission to refuel our C 130s in the Azores. They carried the Belgian paratroopers from Brussels to the Congo. Incoming cables said refueling was successfully carried out and the planes took off again. Hours later, the paratroop drop took the Simbas by surprise. After a short, sharp fight with the Simba guards, the paratroopers broke into the hotel prison of the hostages and saved all but a small number. The Simbas deliberately murdered some and a few died in the fighting.
The rescue was a huge humanitarian and public relations success for the White House. It stopped dead, for the moment, Soviet ambitions to win influence or control of Congolese copper and gold mines. The world press carried reams of front page stories and pictures of the freed hostages. On the scene reports from our Embassy were fascinating. The day after the rescue, one Australian tabloid journalist barged into the rescue hotel and yelled, “Anybody here’s been raped and speaks English?”
I later saw secret Belgian military film footage of the fighting aftermath. In one scene, a Belgian paratrooper machine gunned a six foot high stack of Simba corpses that jumped with the bullet impacts. That shooting may have been with humane intent as the bodies later in the footage were splashed with gasoline by Belgian paratroopers and set on fire. That was probably for hygiene reasons, though in fact slain bodies do not pose a public health risk.
Anarchy and bloodshed followed often when the colonial powers pulled out of Africa without preparing Africans to take over. That was the rule rather than the exception. However, the Belgians had planned to make Congo ready for independence.
About a year before Operation Dragon Rouge, a huge, folio-size black leather tome published in French by the Belgian government dropped onto my desk at USIA‘s Intelligence Research Service. The book was a thoughtful and detailed plan to educate and train Congolese for independence. Following their mastery of lower level, technical and clerical skills, the Congolese were to assume responsibility at higher and higher levels of government, politics and the economy. It was an excellent plan and would have probably led to a responsible, trained, efficient, peaceable Congolese government. The plan was to conclude with Congolese independence in 100 years.
Congolese independence was granted on June 30 1960, by Belgium in response to Congolese riots and army rebellions, 99 years before the orderly independence was to be granted.
The Congo then had about 37 million people but the Belgians had trained only a couple hundred Congolese high school graduates and sixteen university graduates. Many of them were Catholic priests trained in Louvain. Most Congolese are Christians, largely Catholic.
The sudden Belgian pullout left political and military chaos, though the big Belgian mining companies continued to produce copper, gold, diamonds, etc. supported by their modern, road, rail and port system. Congolese were almost exclusively laborers under Belgian rule.
The King of the Belgians had acquired the Congo as a personal estate in 1885. One major reason other European powers granted that to him was his promise to end slavery. That had been a curse. Arab slavers from the East African coast had raided a thousand miles inland into the Congo for slaves. The Christian Portuguese, the British and others raided the Congo for slaves starting from its west coast. Slavery was so widespread that the area literally was reduced in overall population.
The Belgian King abolished formal slavery in the Congo as he had promised, but he introduced forced labor with no pay. His overseers cut off the hands or feet of African rubber gatherers who did not meet their daily quotas. Mark Twain’s 1904 pamphlet, King Leopold’s Soliloquy, scathingly denounced the King. Long out of print in the U.S., I found it in 1964 in an East German edition distributed for Africa in English.
In response to international outrage, the Belgian government took over the Congo from the King in 1906. It developed a hugely prosperous (for Belgians) modern mining state within a country of 200 tribes and 400 languages. Less than half the Congolese were literate at independence.
Tragedy followed and continues today, though copper mining has again become massive while gold and diamond smuggling on a smaller scale has never ceased. Very little of the wealth has ever helped ordinary Congolese. The one leader who might have held Congo together, Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, was overthrown. Low ranking Belgian soldiers beat him and then murdered him while he was a prisoner. He had begged President Eisenhower to send U.S. troops to the Congo to put down regional rebellions. President Eisenhower refused so Lumumba asked the Soviets for help and that led to Western efforts to drive him from power.
Operation Dragon Rouge showed how American power with Allied help could act decisively for the good, at least in the short run for very limited objectives. It would have been a lot better for everyone if the excellent Belgian plan to train Congolese gradually had been started a century before they turned over the government to an untrained and politically fissiparous Congolese government.
Anxious to keep the Soviet communists from taking over the Congo, our spooks helped to power a Congolese military officer, Mobutu Sese Seko, who became a ruthless dictator whom the U.S. could barely influence. He stole much of the Congolese treasury, did very little for his ordinary citizens, but at least remained anti-communist. He ruled from 1965-1997 using his wealth to buy off opponents while his secret police and torture did the rest to keep him in power. The Congo fell back into wild disarray after his death and suffers hugely to this day from corruption and rebellions.
Still, President Johnson did save some 1,000 non-natives and stopped Moscow’s designs on the country. The mines continue to produce wealth but sadly, not for the ordinary Congolese.