The Lumumba Plot

The Secret History of the CIA and a Cold War Assassination 

A spellbinding work of history that reads like a Cold War spy thriller—about the U.S.-sanctioned plot to assassinate the democratically elected leader of the newly independent Congo.

Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

It was supposed to be a moment of great optimism, a cause for jubilation. The Congo was at last being set free from Belgium—one of seventeen countries to gain independence in 1960 from ruling European powers. At the helm as prime minister was charismatic nationalist  Patrice Lumumba. Just days after the handover, however, the Congo’s new army mutinied, Belgian forces intervened, and Lumumba turned to the United Nations for help in saving his newborn nation from what the press was already calling “the Congo crisis.” Dag Hammarskjöld, the tidy Swede serving as UN secretary-general, quickly arranged the organization’s biggest peacekeeping mission in history. But chaos was still spreading. Frustrated with the fecklessness of the UN and spurned by the United States, Lumumba then approached the Soviets for help—an appeal that set off alarm bells at the CIA. To forestall the spread of Communism in Africa, the CIA sent word to its station chief in the Congo, Larry Devlin: Lumumba had to go.

Within a year, everything would unravel. The CIA plot to murder Lumumba would fizzle out, but he would be deposed in a CIA-backed coup, transferred to enemy territory in a CIA-approved operation, and shot dead by Congolese assassins. Hammarskjöld, too, would die, in a mysterious plane crash en route to negotiate a cease-fire with the Congo’s rebellious southeast. And a young, ambitious military officer named Joseph Mobutu, who had once sworn fealty to Lumumba, would seize power with U.S. help and misrule the country for more than three decades. For the Congolese people, the events of 1960–61 represented the opening chapter of a long horror story. For the U.S. government, however, they provided a playbook for future interventions.

More on:

Central Africa

Democratic Republic of Congo

More on:

Central Africa

Democratic Republic of Congo

Reviews and Endorsements

This is the book we’ve needed for years: a thorough, judicious, eloquent account of one of the twentieth century’s pivotal moments. Patrice Lumumba’s murder was a tragedy not just for his young and troubled country but also for the way it stimulated Washington’s illusion that America could rearrange the world to its liking. Stuart Reid captures this ominous turning point with the clear-eyed wisdom it deserves. 

Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

This is one of the best books I have read in years. Stuart Reid writes beautifully, and the story he tells is gripping, full of colorful characters and strange plot twists. There is a powerful lesson here as well. When America gets paranoid about foreign enemies, it can make choices that are politically foolish and morally indefensible. 

Fareed Zakaria, host of Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN, Washington Post columnist, and New York Times best-selling author

A powerful account. The author casts tremendous clarity on this important period and how essentially the world looked away. An evenhanded work of deep scholarship that clearly elucidates a largely hidden piece of U.S. foreign policy. 

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Sweeping and detailed. Reid’s elegant prose features sharply etched sketches of historical figures, especially of the dynamic, irrepressible Lumumba. This riveting study makes of Lumumba a Shakespearean figure undone by tragic flaws. 

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Stuart Reid has done the impossible. He makes the almost mythical Lumumba human by placing him firmly in the context of Congolese postcolonial politics and Cold War geopolitics. By recounting how this inspired but flawed man moved a  nation, he shows how Lumumba played an outsize role in shaping Africa and indeed the world in his short lifetime. Deeply researched and thrilling to read, Reid’s work heralds a new voice and new perspective on contemporary African history. 

Uzodinma Iweala, CEO of the Africa Center and author of Beasts of No Nation

Gripping, brilliantly written, and sobering. In Reid’s deft hands, the tragic Lumumba story reads like a le Carré thriller. Full of narrative details interwoven into a compelling analysis, The Lumumba Plot renders the past urgent for understanding the world in which we live today. 

Caroline Elkins, professor of history and African and African American studies, Harvard University, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize

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