by Robert Baker
Until I did my report on the March, 1961 terrorist uprising in Angola, I had done well at my job as an intelligence analyst, especially at the hard slog of scanning thousands of pages of reports to assemble a good picture of communist efforts in Africa. My reports helped guide where and how the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) directed its propaganda efforts. They also helped convince Congress that USIA needed more money to match the communists. They outspent us in propaganda by about ten to one, measured by their output of films, radio broadcasts, books, pamphlets, magazines and exhibits tailored for Africa. Communists also gave more equipment and mass media training to Africans than did the U.S., though the West got the best students and other trainees and had a head start in African mass media and education programs. Few top students really wanted to learn Russian or Czechoslovakian for example, nor to live in those countries and to study communist theory in addition to their technical or academic work. A handful of African students at communist universities were recruited for communist intelligence work when they arrived back in Africa.
I tracked communist activities in Africa carefully. That led to my Angola problem. Angola was at the time a Portuguese colony. The Portuguese claimed it was an “overseas territory” and therefore an internal Portuguese matter. That meant the U.N. could not legally demand Portugal give Angola freedom. The Portuguese government had strongly encouraged some 200,000 Portuguese, mostly peasants, to emigrate to Angola to become coffee and cotton farmers. The government did that partly for the economic benefits but also to bolster the claim that Angola was an integral part of Portugal.
Portugal had for decades been under the harsh dictatorship of President Antonio Salazar, and his secret police (PIDE). Portugal in 1960 had only 40% literacy and was very poor. It was economically dominated by roughly four hundred wealthy, almost feudal, families. It was also a member of NATO and so provided us with some of its intelligence reports.
A handful of the elite’s offspring joined the outlawed, underground Portuguese Communist Party. When the PIDE caught ordinary communists, they were imprisoned or killed.
PIDE occasionally discovered communists among the children of the rich. Those were given a chance to choose exile in Africa rather than prison in Portugal. However, they had to give the secret police their “word of honor” as gentlemen not to participate in political activities while in exile. Some of them gave their word of honor, went to Angola and continued their communist political work.
In March, 1961 there was a very widespread, horrific, African uprising in Angola in which overnight, more than four hundred Portuguese were horribly murdered. Babies were ripped from wombs, limbs hacked off, men’s eyes gouged out and replaced by gonads, tongues cut out and the penis stuffed into the mouth. Ghastly stuff. In addition to our own intelligence reports, I received a Portuguese propaganda photo pamphlet on the massacres a year later with horrific pictures of the victims. The uprising was a clear effort at political terrorism.
The Portuguese Army struck back cruelly, killing many more innocent Africans in the affected areas than the number of Portuguese killed. However, the original terror worked. Many Portuguese peasants wanted to go home and international outcry followed Portuguese repression.
I had been following the story and was able to put together a fairly complete, if speculative, appreciation of who had been behind the uprising. We had across the years, received among hundreds of reports, some from Portuguese intelligence, telling where and when a rich family’s communist son was exiled to Africa. I kept track of them.
I had also read a half dozen reports over the two years previous to the terror attack of raids on isolated rural Angolan police stations. One telegram in 1959 reported a raid on a small police station. As usual, weapons were stolen and a few policemen killed. However, I noticed one line in the intelligence report on the raid which said one raider seemed to be white with a blackened face. That stuck with me.
When a friend working at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) called me on a secure line and asked me to do a little study on the March uprising, I pulled out all my files on Portuguese rich kid communist exiles. I asked our CIA Liaison Officer to get me a CIA document run on a dozen individual exile Portuguese communists by name. The run brought me about a thousand pages of reports in which those names popped up. By cross checking among the reports, I noted that the exiles were geographically located in a long oval that covered the area of the uprising. African rebellions had never before been so concentrated in time and extensive in space. I wrote up my findings, including reports on the earlier raids on police stations and sent my report to my pal at the DIA.
Although exiled Portuguese communists were likely leaders in the uprising, they worked together with mostly Bakongo African nationalists in northern Angola. They played upon the legitimate complaints of ordinary Africans. They had been robbed of land, forced to do unpaid labor, taxed heavily and sometimes killed or tortured with no protection from Portuguese law. A favorite Portuguese secret police tool was the palmatdria, a heavy wooden paddle with holes in it. Your hand or the sole of your foot was hit very hard and the flesh sucked up into the holes. It hurt horribly. No wonder the Africans rebelled.
My Angola report was longer but like others I had done informally for other elements of the intelligence community. I had some of the best files in Washington on Africa and was pleased to write the requested reports. It never occurred to me that I had to ask my boss for permission to do those little favors. I still did all my own work for him very well. I was glad to help and did not expect more than a thank you on the telephone. That had happened several times already.
Unknown to me, my Angolan report resulted in a formal letter of thanks to my boss from the Director of the DIA. My boss called me into his office one day, his face red with anger. He shoved a letter across his desk at me. I read it with pride. He demanded to know how I dared to do work for another agency without first asking him. I was angry in my turn as I was being criticized for doing good work. I told him that very clearly.
He replied that I had better look for other work as he doubted I would ever be promoted in that office. He was as good as his word for the next two years. He was right. I should have asked him before I did a bit of work for another agency. I was brand new to the bureaucracy and as a working class kid in my first job, I had no insight into how I should act toward superior officers.
After a couple years during which he did not promote me, he suggested I join the U.S. Foreign Service. I took his suggestion and passed the Foreign Service entrance examination. After I told him I had passed, he called me into his sanctum to tell me it was my decision to go overseas. He added, it was my own responsibility if anything happened to me or to my family. He was a real charmer, a honking New York Yalie, smart, dedicated and an utter careerist.
I need to add that early in my work for him I made a bad mistake and he forgave me. One day, he stuck his head into my office on his way to his weekly briefing for the Director of USIA. He asked if it was the Chinese Communists or the East Germans who had given the printing press to the Zanzibaris last week. I was unsure, as I read hundreds of cables each week, but guessed, the Chinese. He came back after his briefing and told me I had embarrassed him. I had made a mistake. I never again guessed about anything in my work when asked a question. If I did not know, I said that.
He also helped me by suggesting I try the Foreign Service. It was a much broader career than the civil service one I had in Washington. And lots more fun.