CFR Book Launch Series: "The Lumumba Plot" by Stuart Reid

Tuesday, November 7, 2023
Dominique Berretty/Getty

Executive Editor, Foreign Affairs; Author, The Lumumba Plot


Peter G. Peterson Chair and Editor, Foreign Affairs; @dankurtzphelan

Foreign Affairs Executive Editor Stuart Reid discusses his new book, The Lumumba Plot, which follows the dramatic history of the Congo in 1960 on the edge of its independence from Belgium, the ensuing CIA plot against its prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, and how these events set the stage for the country’s next three decades of misrule.

KURTZ-PHELAN: Thank you. Good evening, everyone. It is my enormous pleasure to welcome both all of you in the room and everyone joining virtually to this discussion, and really celebration, of Stuart Reid’s magnificent new book, The Lumumba Plot. Stuart is an executive editor here at Foreign Affairs. So it’s particularly thrilling for all of us who work with him at the magazine and at the Council to see what was an idea he first raised with us five or six years ago come to fruition in such incredible form.  

I imagine most of you have seen one of the many rave reviews of this book. It has gotten a stir. You can give us the whole list, but the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Economist, and the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, and more. And it is—all of those are richly deserved. It is a really incredible combination of biography, of Cold War history, and—I’m going to use this very hackneyed comparison, but it really is the apt one—it reads like a kind of LeCarre Cold War thriller on top of all of that. So highly recommend that you pick up a copy for yourself, if you don’t have one already. If you do, the holidays are coming, so please buy a book in the back of the room—(laughter)—at some point during this discussion.  

I’m going to spend about half an hour talking to Stuart about the book and drawing him out on some of the just incredibly fascinating material that’s in here. Much of it very resonant for foreign policy questions today, and considerations of Congolese politics and geopolitics today. So we’ll get to some of that. But then I will make sure we leave time for all of you to ask questions as well. So, Stuart, first of all, congratulations on the book. Thank you for doing this.  

I’m going to start with just a very, very broad question. I think most of us think of Lumumba as this figure of myth, right? He’s this kind of Cold War martyr, or maybe the first real Cold War martyr. And we think of him on that level. One of the things about your book that is so remarkable is that you explain that myth, and its significance, and its resonance historically. But you also really go beneath it to the man. You really kind of bring them alive as a as a figure in flesh and blood. So tell us what the myth was. What was the symbolic significance of Lumumba? But then what did you—what surprised you, as you did the work of biographer, and really drew him out as a person? 

REID: Thank you. So after Lumumba’s death—Lumumba was the prime minister of Congo, which became independent in 1960—June 1960. He was assassinated just seven months later, in January 1961. And in afterlife, he sort of took on, as you said, this mythical status and became sort of adopted by the left, and seen as this, you know, Pan-African hero. My goal in my research was to find out—to sort of set all that aside and focus on Lumumba the man, Lumumba the leader, and explain who he was, in his own words and through his own actions, rather than focusing on sort of the hero he became. Because he became mythologized not only by sort of the European left but also, in the height of irony, by Mobutu himself, who had sent Lumumba to his death and then replaced him as leader of Congo. But all that happened after his death. And I wanted to look at everything before that, and who he was, what he did. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: And, of course, some of what fueled this myth was the mystery of his death, and who exactly killed him, and the machinations behind it. But it was very striking to go back to this moment and understand the significance of Congo and this kind of wave of decolonization, and what that meant in the context of the Cold War. Can you talk about what that meant to U.S. foreign policy at that moment? The U.S. had a kind of, you know, complicated relationship with decolonization, which very much shaped the way it reacted to Lumumba in the Congo. So what was that context, before we get to the specifics of his death? 

REID: So 1960 was known as the year of Africa, because seventeen African nations would become independent that year. And it all happened very quickly. And at the beginning of 1960, in January, it wasn’t even clear that Congo would be one of those countries becoming independent. And so in the Cold War context, a new part of the world was opening up, from the American perspective. And it was the first time that the United States really was sort of torn between its European allies and what was then called the third world. And so there was a sense of a struggle.  

This is a new area of the world opening up. The United States needs to win it, and win over the hearts and minds of Africans, and align itself with African nationalism. But it also needs to deal with its European allies—France, the United Kingdom, in this case Belgium. And so that was a real tension that was—it never had to be dealt with before until really 1960, when it came out. And so the Congo crisis, which is the crisis the book deals with, is really a moment where America had to choose between these competing impulses of its friendly European allies with whom it had just fought World War Two and the new African nations coming into international life. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: And Lumumba himself is, of course, very aware of these dynamics. He’s this incredibly charismatic figure domestically who has this incredible life story that you depict, his kind of, you know, self-creation as this figure. But he’s kind of aware of the complicated geopolitics but doesn’t always handle them perfectly. And how does this look through Lumumba’s eye in that moment? 

REID: Yeah. So Lumumba was sort of aware of the Cold War context, and rejected it. He said: For Congo, there are no blocs. And he imagined that Congo could chart a neutral course and not have to pick sides in the Cold War. That proved to be a naive view, as events would show him. But in his view, Congo was becoming independent. It practically—it just needed a lot of help. It needed—it wanted to develop along its own course. He had no interest in replacing colonial domination with Soviet or American domination. But, I mean, the tragic—the tragedy of the story is that ultimately, he was shown that he did have to choose. And in America’s eyes, it wasn’t really possible to be neutral in the Cold War. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: So let’s look at it through America’s eyes. You have this amazing quote as the epigraph of the book from a senior CIA official, I believe, in the 1970s in the Church hearings, this is from. Where he says: I can’t even quite remember what we disliked about Lumumba. He sounds like he was a fine figure. But if we go back to the late 1950s or 1960s, what was the concern? What were the U.S.’s, when they looked at this charismatic new leader? 

REID: Yeah, so Lumumba is elected in May 1960. Independence is June. When it becomes—Congo becomes independent from Belgium, he takes the helm as prime minister. And in the months leading up to independence, when it was clear that Lumumba would be a figure to be contended with, the U.S. embassy in Belgium was really the main source for Washington to understand Lumumba. And the cables there—there was a particularly sort of retrograde U.S. ambassador. And his views were that Lumumba was sort of totally unreliable, erratic, you know, willing to say anything to anyone. Sort of behavior typical of most politicians was seen as—(laughter)—as particularly, you know, problematic. But there was sort of a let’s wait and see approach to this guy. 

And then Congo becomes independence—becomes independent. The country falls into crisis almost immediately. There’s a mutiny in the army. There’s a massive flight of the Belgian population. There’s a Belgian military intervention without permission on Congolese soil. The mineral-rich province of Katanga secedes. And at that point, Lumumba makes a fatal flaw of going to the Soviets—it should be said, after going first to the U.N., and then to the United States. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: So he goes to the Soviets for military assistance. What is—what was he looking for, exactly? 

REID: Yeah, so there’s a massive U.N. peacekeeping operation set up by Dag Hammarskjöld, the U.N. secretary-general. And the goal is to put Congo back together again, end the mutiny, eventually reintegrate the secessionist province. It fails, particularly on that latter goal. So Lumumba’s frustrated. He goes to New York. Meets with Hammarskjöld. It’s a failure of a meeting. He goes to D.C. Doesn’t get a meeting with Eisenhower. He’s out of town. Has a meeting that goes poorly at the State Department with Secretary of State Christian Herter. And returns to Congo frustrated and, you know, unable to get the help he wanted. In fact, in D.C. he had called on the U.S. to send American troops to Congo, which gives you a sense of his sort of Cold War orientation, such as it was. At that point, after being rebuffed—frustrated by the U.N., rebuffed by the United States, he asked the Soviets for military aid, specifically so that he can invade the secessionist province and bring it back into the fold. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: So and what’s really remarkable about this moment, as you paint it, is that it’s this kind of, you know, seminal moment for post-colonial Africa. Also a seminal moment for the CIA. And we’ll get to that in a second. As well as for the United Nations. Dag Hammarskjöld was incredibly active in trying to resolve the conflicts. Famously died under mysterious circumstances while doing so. But you have a—you know, I think there are kind of heroic accounts of what Hammarskjöld was doing. You have a somewhat dimmer view, a more critical view of U.N. mistakes. So talk a bit about the U.N. role and what you see is having gone wrong in that—in the attempted intervention. 

REID: Yeah. So the broader context here is that this was the moment when the U.N.—so as part of the seventeen African countries entering—you know, becoming independent states, the U.N.’s composition itself was diversifying. And the Afro-Asian bloc, as it was known as the time, was growing in significance. And so 1960 is sort of the pivot point between the U.N. being a vehicle for American policy, at least when the Soviets didn’t use their veto, and it becoming a much more representative and chaotic international organization. And so the U.N., its goal in Congo—they set up this massive peacekeeping operation. It was completely unprecedented. The U.N.’s previous operations had been much more limited sort of monitoring a truce and a ceasefire. This was—they were suddenly responsible for restoring order to an entire country. 

Hammarskjöld himself—I mean, the U.N. 1960s, sort of unrecognizable from the one we know today. And a lot of that can be attributed to Hammarskjöld himself, who turned the secretary-general position from sort of recording secretary of the Security Council into this independent position with real diplomatic heft. That model sort of failed in Congo, and everything went wrong. The U.N. was blamed for a lot of the problems, including Lumumba’s death. And so it was a pivotal moment for the U.N. in its evolution. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: And in some ways, as you depicted, the U.N. has never really recovered from that moment. That was a high watermark of U.N. ambitions when it came to resolving international crises. 

REID: Yeah. And the Soviets had not vetoed the resolution authorizing action in Congo, and later came to regret it, and sort of vowed never again. And it also led to calls for the troika, which was the idea that there would be, you know, a tripartite leadership of the U.N., which would have destroyed it. So it marks sort of the—in many ways—the end of its ambitions. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: So let’s turn to the U.S. role, which is a major focus of the book. The CIA is, of course, the actor that you, appropriately, highlight in the subtitle of the book. There’s an—you know, the most sort of LeCarre-esque character here is the CIA agent on the ground, Larry Devlin, who’s this, you know, kind of on the one hand bumbling, also is kind of sinister, but this this fascinating character. In what—how did the CIA start to get involved in these machinations within Congo? You know, some of this was orchestrated from Washington but, as you depict it, a lot of it was being driven by, you know, these kinds of young actors on the ground, who may or may not be taking direction from Washington at that point. 

REID: Yeah. So the CIA did not think that Congo was going to be a hotspot, whatsoever. It was this boring Belgian colony. Nothing much happened. It imagined that that would continue after independence. And as evidence of that, the person they appointed to be stationed chief was Larry Devlin, who was thirty-seven or thirty-eight years old and been working in the Brussels station. And after independence, there’s this massive crisis. And at a certain point, official Washington opinion really turns against Lumumba. He had threatened to kick out the U.N. He was playing footsie with the Soviets.  

And so there’s this pivotal August 18, 1960 White House meeting, where Lumumba’s latest antics are discussed. And President Eisenhower says something to the effect that Lumumba needs to be eliminated, physically. And we know this in part because the notetaker at the meeting later testified to the Church Committee about what the president had said. We also know this—in the Eisenhower library I found this document that—handwritten notes of the meeting by a State Department official. And this is not proof positive, but he wrote the word Lumumba and then a big black X next to it—(laughter)—which suggests something. You know, different possible interpretations of that. 

And we also know it because of what happened next, which is Eisenhower said this, looking directly at Allen Dulles, the director of the CIA. And Dulles, after some nudging, sort of gets in train this bizarre operation, where Sidney Gottlieb, the CIA’s top chemist, flies to Congo with vials of poison. And he instructs Larry Devlin, the CIA station chief, to find a way to put these in Lumumba’s food or toothpaste. And so that was the first time that the president of the United States had authorized the assassination of a foreign leader. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: So this precedes attempts on Castro’s life, this precedes— 

REID: Right. At that point, there had been attempts to embarrass Castro with all sorts of James Bond-style schemes—like having his beard fall out, or giving him LSD before he gave a radio speech. (Laughter.) But the assassination stuff hadn’t started. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: And how much of this actually was attempted against Lumumba? What happened when Sidney Gottleib went to Congo? 

REID: So, he gives the poison to Larry Devlin, who is shocked and asks, you know, where did this order come from? He’s told it’s from Eisenhower. But by then it’s September 1960. And events have sort of intervened. Lumumba, as prime minister, has been removed in a—he’s been fired by the president of Congo, a man named Joseph Kasavubu, who then turns around and says—and Lumumba turns around and says, you can’t fire me, I fire you. So the two leaders have fired each other. (Laughter.) And that particular coup was sort of supported by the U.N. That’s an interesting side story.  

And then into the void, into this stalemate, steps Joseph Mobutu, as he’s then known, who is the head of—the chief of staff of the Congolese Army. A former protege of Lumumba, his friend and sort of intern. Eventually turns on Lumumba. Steps in and takes power in a coup, financed by the CIA. He had been given cash before taking power. The idea from Washington’s perspective is that this would be stabilizing. There’s this stalemate. Mobutu is, you know, seemingly pro-Western, reliable. He’s encouraged to take power, and does, and then puts Lumumba under house arrest. 

So back to the assassination plan. Devlin, like, physically can’t get access to Lumumba’s house, because it’s—Lumumba’s under house arrest. There are rings of troops surrounding his house. So that plot sort of fizzles. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: U.S.-funded, supported troops are around his house so the CIA is not able to get there to assassinate him? Just—(laughter)— 

REID: Exactly. And the U.N. is also surrounding—and so there’s this sort of left hand not knowing with the right hand is doing. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: OK. And Mobutu, of course, you know, looms large over Congolese history subsequently. But just to trace the, you know, final days of Lumumba’s life, the CIA is authorized to kill him, as you see it, as you interpret that evidence from the Eisenhower Library. Devlin is trying his best to get there but is not able to. Lumumba is ultimately killed, with the U.S. cheering on. But you do not ultimately determine that it was an American assassin who did it, or American-backed assassin. Is that the way you’re reading the evidence? 

REID: Correct. So Lumumba is under house arrest. He then escapes, hides under the legs of servants in the back of a car when they’re going home for the day. And he’s caught by Mobutu’s men days later, with CIA help, which helped arrange the search party. Flown into a military prison, where it’s not—you know, he will now never escape again. And the timing here is important. So this is December 1960. Eisenhower is on the way out. Kennedy’s going to take power—take office on January 20, 1961. And there were signs from the Kennedy camp that there was going to be a more pro-Lumumba policy.  

The chaos in Congo had not ended with Mobutu taking power. Lumumba was the most popular politician. There was—some of Kennedy’s advisors sort of proposed a plan that involves bringing Lumumba back to power as part of some sort of more moderate coalition government. So there’s a real fear on the ground in Congo, both among Mobutu and his men who knew that Lumumba’s returned would mean the end of them. They were worried about him—about the Kennedy administration. And then Devlin, the CIA station chief, was also worried. And in fact, he had—so this this key moment happens, where on January 14, 1961, he learned that Lumumba’s about to be sent away to his death. Mobutu realizes he needs to get rid of him. He doesn’t want him to last into the Kennedy era. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: And they have their eye on the calendar. They know that twentieth is coming. 

REID: Every knows. And there’s many signs from the U.N. and from the Kennedy camp that there will be this shift in policy from the Eisenhower era. And so Devlin learns from someone in Mobutu’s circle that this transfer is about to happen, which will certainly mean Lumumba’s death. Everyone knows that. And so what does he do? Two things. One, he doesn’t tell Mobutu, whom he’s regularly giving cash, and advice, and intimately involved in all decisions—he doesn’t tell Mobutu to stop this to save Lumumba’s life.  

And, two, he keeps Washington out of the loop. So even as he’s updating headquarters about other twists and turns in the events, he deliberately does not tell them about the biggest, most explosive news in the Congo. Why? Because days earlier he had just had a previous request for—to give more money to Mobutu, as it happened, denied on the grounds that we need to wait until the Kennedy administration takes power. This is a big question. No big decisions in Congo can be made now. We have to wait, wait, wait.  

And so he sits on this information. And then on January 17, 1961, Lumumba is flown to the breakaway province of Katanga, tortured the whole way. Upon his landing, tortured even further by the secessionist government there and their soldiers, who were led by Belgian officers still. Then he’s driven away into a clearing in the woods, and shot dead by a Katangian firing squad, under the command of Belgian officers answering to the secessionist leaders. And three days later, Kennedy was inaugurated. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: And does Washington register this is a major event at the time? Or is it kind of—in the distraction of the inauguration and everything else, does it go into an abyss? 

REID: Interestingly, there’s a bit of a mystery. No one knows for three weeks, I think, what’s happened to Lumumba, aside from those involved in his death. And so Kennedy takes office thinking Lumumba might be alive. It’s sort of the biggest kept secret in the Congo at that point. And then only in February, mid-February, it comes out that Lumumba’s been murdered. So the whole alternative Kennedy policy becomes a moot point. And they—his administration just falls in line with the Eisenhower support Mobutu policy. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: In your view, is the Kennedy policy the right one? Would that have been a better course, that would have changed the course of Congolese history. perhaps Cold War history? 

REID: Yeah. I mean, and the big test when you’re looking back at history and seeing, you know, were there are other options, one test is where people proposing another option? And, indeed, certain members of the Kennedy camp, like Chester Bowles, had this vision where they recognized that Lumumba was too powerful and popular to be excluded from the Congolese political scene. He represented a real strain of popular opinion. And there was a reasonable plan to sort of rehabilitate him, you know, sand off some of the rough edges that he had displayed earlier. It became a moot point because Lumumba was dead by the time JFK took office. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: So you quite persuasively argue in the book that this becomes an important precedent for the CIA, that this becomes a model of what they’re going to attempt to do elsewhere, and often succeed in doing elsewhere. How was it seen by the CIA in that moment? How does that kind of shape the way this kind of covert operation is carried out over the next few decades of the Cold War? 

REID: Yeah, I mean, it’s seen as a smashing success. And in narrow Cold War terms you can see the logic. A potentially pro-Soviet leader had been disposed of. And a pro-American military leader had been put in his place. The Soviet diplomats were expelled from Congo. It was this clear Cold War win. I think also, it was seen as a win for the power of covert action that, you know, behind the scenes you can carefully tip events and make things happen in America’s favor, and no one will really even see the CIA hand. 

And so, you know, over the rest of the Cold War you have a lot of—I’m not saying it entirely began in Congo. There was Guatemala and Iran. But you have a string of covert operations—Bay of Pigs, a lot of supporting pro-Western autocrats—that became a real model. And a lot of that was perfected in Congo. Devlin himself was promoted for his actions in Congo. He won at least one internal CIA award. Even the Church Committee, when it looked at the various operations it was studying, coded Congo as a success, the paramilitary support that the U.S. later gave for the country. So it was seen as a success. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: And so the fact that Mobutu became himself a very destabilizing figure for those decades was seen as less important the fact that he was on our side of the Cold War? 

REID: Yeah. I mean, the irony is he was not entirely pro-American. He had this whole authenticity campaign, which was explicitly anti-Western. He invited in North Korean military advisors. I mean, can you imagine if Lumumba had done that? He nationalized all sorts of private industry. So—but, yes, he was officially pro-American, on the right side. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: And, I mean, you—one of the fascinating and quite grim strands in this book is the shadow this casts over Congo’s history, which has been chaotic one and has had huge, you know, humanitarian costs, and often geopolitical costs. In what way do you see this as a turning point when it comes to the Congo’s course right after its decolonization? 

REID: I mean, the most important event in Congo over the past one hundred years, I would say, would be the installation of Mobutu in 1960. And, you know, he was de facto in charge in 1960 and then became officially in charge in 1965 and ruled until 1997. And that was a period in which the country was utterly run into the ground. You know, the most fabulously corrupt dictator you could imagine. Repressive. You know, did not allow any sort of real political activity at all. And then that country collapsed in ‘96-’97. The Economist very aptly wrote that, you know, there was no longer a Zaire—he had renamed the country Zaire—or a Zaire-shaped hole in the middle of Africa. And I think that captured it really well. And even to this day, you know, Congo is still suffering from the consequences of that collapse, which was the result of thirty years—thirty-plus years of Mobutu, who was the result of outside interference, largely American. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: And supported by the U.S. for most of that period. 

REID: Until the end of the Cold War, in which he was—he had outlived his usefulness. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Right. I’m going to ask a couple more questions, then we’ll go to a few questions in the room and some online. But, Stuart, let me ask a history nerd question. One thing that is really extraordinary is that you’ve taken an event that has been written about endlessly, has become, you know, a myth in its own right, and you’ve managed to find new information about it. You’ve managed to kind of bring to life characters who, you know, have been named in history books, but you really kind of see them in a new light here. Just talk about the sourcing. And where did you find new material? How did you manage to uncover, you know, new evidence? Maybe not, you know, proof positive, as you say, but still new evidence in this event that, again, has been kind of picked over endlessly, including by the—by the Church Committee? 

REID: Yeah. So, I mean, the main sources are archival documents. The CIA released a big trove of documents in 2013. I did research at the State Department archives. Dag Hammarskjöld’s papers in Sweden, the U.N. archives here in New York, some Belgian materials as well. But, I mean, and so there are a lot of—you know, that added a lot of detail. But what I found helpful was also sort of adding a journalistic element to it as well, particularly to get the Congolese side. Because there were very few—virtually no documents survived from that era. Lumumba’s government, and just, you know, the chaos that followed, and those were all lost or destroyed.  

And so I went to Congo. I interviewed Lumumba’s children. I went to the site where Lumumba was executed in 1961. And while I was there getting a tour, someone said: You know, there’s a man who lives one town over. He was actually—he witnessed Lumumba’s death. And it turns out he was hunting that night with his father and saw, you know, cars come off the road. And so I interviewed this man, who had great detail about what he remembers from that night, which also sort of tracked with what we know from other records. So it was a(n) omnidirectional point but, you know, the bulk of it, the foundation, is archival documents. But then filling in a lot of details with interviews, oral histories. 

And then a lot of Congolese politicians wrote sort of obscure French-language memoirs in the ’60s and ’70s. So that was another source. There was a ton of journalism going on at the time as well. So, you know, newspaper articles, magazine articles, and, you know, any given paragraph can have, you know, ten different sources. But I try to conceal that from the reader. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Right. No, it’s a wonderful reading experience that you get these almost novelistic scenes with this very vivid detail. And then you go to the—there are probably two hundred pages of notes in the book. And if you go back, you can see that each one of these details was very carefully sourced. So that in itself was an achievement. 

One last question. You know, without going down the rabbit hole of debates about whether we should talk about this moment as a new Cold War or not. We can, you know, direct all of you to pieces of pages of Foreign Affairs that will address that question for you. But, you know, this is a moment where we are talking about competition with China in the Global South, with Russia in the Global South. You can see the temptations of certain kinds of meddling. From what we know so far, a lot of that has is being done by U.S. competitors more than the U.S., but I’m sure the temptations will be there. 

As you reflect on the lessons of this moment in the early Cold War, the first Cold War, what do you—what are the kind of guidelines that you would apply to U.S. foreign policy decisions now, knowing that there will be this kind of concern, knowing that the temptations will be there? 

REID: I think one chief lesson is the danger of paranoia. So if you look at the American cables at the time—the CIA, State Department—there’s this extreme fear about what the Soviets are up to. And every possible action that Lumumba takes is interpreted as the result of, you know, Czech advisors whispering in his ear, or sort of you know, the Soviet ambassador meddling. So you really see this intense fear. When the Soviet archives were opened up after the Cold War, it turned out there was basically nothing on Congo in it, because Moscow did not care about Congo. It viewed it as a faraway place where it was a heavily Catholic population, not amenable to communism. In 1960, the Soviets were not as powerful as they would become. And so they viewed it as, you know, we can get some—make some propaganda hay out of it, but not really have influence. 

But you’d never know that from the American side. So I think the lesson today is to not imagine that your geopolitical rival is ten feet tall and perfectly competent, and active everywhere. In fact, they’re consumed with their own domestic problems. And in the Global South today, I think the lesson is, you know, let these countries chart their own course. They often don’t care about our geopolitical rivalry. Lumumba didn’t. He just wanted to end the crisis and move the country in the direction he wanted? And when you impose that rivalry frame, it’s often the people of that country who suffer the most. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Well, I hope U.S. policymakers will read the book, or at least listen to that clip. But let me go to questions from people in the room and virtually. We’ll start in the room. Let me just remind people that we are on the record. So let’s start in the front row here. And there’s a mic coming around. Please identify yourself as well before you ask your question. 

Q: Good evening. Negah Kongary (ph) from—(inaudible). Thank you for this. This sounds like just a fantastic piece of work. 

I’m really curious around your thinking around ripple effects. And I’m curious around whether you did any work—I know this is not the thrust of your book—but around ripple effects on other newly emerging African countries who were becoming independent, and whether that had any effect on their trajectory? 

REID: I think, in fact, the crisis was largely contained to Congo. And if you look at the fate of the other countries bordering it in 1960 and thereafter, a lot of them—a lot of the problems they faced didn’t have to do with Congo. I think that sort of change—partly changed in the mid-’60s. In ’64 what happens is Congo sort of erupts in rebellion. There’s two separate rebellions that eventually sort of merge. And it’s Lumumba’s heirs, essentially, carrying on the anti-Mobutu resistance. And that was destabilizing in lots of cross border ways. It’s sort of outside the scope of my book. 

But certainly when we get to ’96 and ’97, I mean, that was the great African war, involved—you know, Congo borders nine African countries, and really destabilized the entire central African region. And as I said earlier, that—you can sort of draw a straight line from the decisions in 1960 to the bloodbath and ’96-’97. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s go to a question in the back, second table there. Yes, you. There’s a mic right behind you. 

Q: I have a very simple question. Considering your last statement about leaving countries to make their own choices and creating their own future, how many women and what kind of women did you talk to when you were interviewing over this book? I’d be very interested to know. 

REID: How many women did I talk to? 

Q: How many women, or what kind of women, or what kind of questions that you get back from that kind of—that part of the society? 

REID: Yeah. So I—Lumumba’s daughter is sort of the chief spokesperson for her family. And I talked to her extensively. And she was extremely useful in sort of bringing back memories of her father. I mean, she was four or five at a time, so it’s very limited. So I talked to her. But there’s one character in my book who is just this fascinating woman, named Andrea Bluahe (ph). And she was half—she was born in French equatorial Africa to a French father and, you know, local mother, and then sent to an orphanage in Brazzaville, in Republic of Congo, and ended up becoming—through this bizarre sequence of events—one of the Lumumba’s foreign advisors, and sort of had his ear. 

And so I actually wrote separately an obituary—the New York Times has this overlooked obituary series of people who didn’t get proper obituaries at the time. And I encourage you to look that up, because she’s this fascinating character who is, you know, a woman in a man’s world at that time, in terms of African political advice. So, yeah, that’s a whole other story there. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: And Larry Devlin’s daughter was also useful at one point or another. 

REID: She was another key source, yeah. But I mean, admittedly, at the time, the main political actors were almost exclusively men, of course. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: We’re going to go to a virtual question. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take our next question from Laura Kupe. 

Q: Hi. Can you hear me? 


Q: OK. Hi, my name is Laura Kupe. And I am currently an official at the Department of Defense.  

And I am also Congolese American. So my parents were born ’55 and ’56, so slightly before Congo became independent. And especially being Congolese American and currently working in the U.S. government, this is—this book, I think, will change a lot, or at least hopefully, like you said, senior officials will read it. 

And so my question is, do you think that the U.S. could benefit from some type of atonement with what is—what has been revealed in your book and through your research? Especially because, as you mentioned, the strategic—you mentioned strategic competitors like Russia, and China. And so would you think it would be in U.S. interests to atone for their involvement in, you know, Patrice Lumumba assassination, or leaders like him, especially given the fact that when the U.S. now has rallied support on the war in Ukraine and the current conflict in Israel and involving Palestine, that there has been less of a confidence in U.S. leadership? So just wondering if maybe with your book and your exploration into the U.S.’s involvement in such a key figure could—if an atonement could maybe address that. Thank you again. 

REID: Yeah. Funny you asked, because I have an op-ed I wrote for the Washington Post about exactly this topic. And yes, is the answer. I think there should be an atonement. Somewhat interestingly, I mean, sub-Sahara generally, and Congo included in that, there’s not a ton of anti-Americanism there. So the Congolese population is more pro-American than you might expect, given what Washington did to it. However, I think atonement begins with accounting. And right now, sixty-three years after the book—the events in my book, there’s still—so much of the material is still classified.  

You know, the names of which Congolese politician was getting bribed, you know, the dollar amount. There’s an entire—the CIA has an entire internal history of its anti-Lumumba operations that’s still classified in full. Which is ridiculous. I mean, it’s been long enough. That’s mainly a function of just the broken declassification system. But yeah, I think the United States broke Congo. And I think it owes an apology. And, you know, you could debate some form of reparations or extra aid, but I think it begins with just an honesty about what happened. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: I assume you spoke to CIA officials and tried to get this declassified? What is the explanation that was given when you tried to get access to it? 

REID: I totally avoided the Freedom of Information Act request route, because that take can take a decade or more. And I didn’t have that time for my book. I think the only plausible explanation I’ve heard—so, I mean, the main thing is just there’s a bureaucratic backlog and there aren’t enough people to actually go through and declassify things. If there were, the only objection I could imagine is that you’re disincentivizing future cooperators from talking to the CIA by the knowledge that their names can become public. I just think the idea that, you know, decades after your death your grandchildren would know that you cooperated with the CIA, it seems like a pretty tenuous reason to maintain secrecy. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: And just to piggyback on that question for a second, is—have U.S. officials addressed this on trips to Congo? And what’s the official rhetoric around this? 

REID: I mean, no. The only detail I know is I interviewed Joseph Kabila, Congo’s former president, in 2018. And he—I asked him about this. And he told me that some unnamed American official had privately apologized to him and said: I know that many of the troubles that your country has faced date back to American meddling in the ’60s, and I apologize. But, you know, a private apology is very different from a public one. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: And oblique, rather than kind of explicit mention. 

REID: Yeah. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: We’ll do—we’ll do one more virtual just to maintain balance, and then go over here. 

OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from James Clinton Francis, who asks: Why do you think the United States failed to see the consequences of this extreme form of covert action? Was it ignorance of African regional politics, organizational groupthink at the CIA, ethical shortcomings among leaders, or some other factor? 

RIED: I mean, all of the above would be one easy answer. (Laughter.) I think there was this—I mean, the stakes of the Cold War were seen as so high. And that caused sort of extremely alarmist thinking. And there were ethical lapses galore. I think one main factor was sort of short-term thinking. At any given moment there could be a plausible case that the best thing to do was back Mobutu, operate against Lumumba. If you widen the time horizon only slightly, that logic sort of falls apart. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Was there—as you looked at the NSC records and the CIA records—was there evidence of debate about the ethical considerations, about the potential repercussions regionally? I mean, to what extent were they grappling with those, or was it just kind of— 

REID: I mean, occasionally, you’d come—like, there’s this State Department memo where someone in the State Department was asked, like, who is Lumumba? What are his ideological views? Is he a communist? And there’s this great memo, which had him dead to rights, saying: He’s not a communist. He’s an anti-colonial activist. Here are lots of quotes of Lumumba saying he’s not a communist. Here’s evidence that he doesn’t really like the Soviet Union. And that was just totally ignored by the higher levels of the bureaucracy. So there were people who got it in the moment. 

The ethical stuff I think was more on the CIA side. And there, there was a very flexible view of ethics. (Laughter.) I mean, there’s this—there’s this one character, a guy named Justin O’Donnell, who was sent—he’s a CIA officer who was sent to Congo to sort of speed up the operation. Devlin was seen as dragging his feet, nothing was happening. And Richard Bissell, one of the number-twos at the CIA, met with him at CIA headquarters and said: OK, you’re getting on the next flight to Leopoldville in Congo. And, you know, you’re going to help with this assassination operation. 

And he says, absolutely not. As a Catholic, I’m opposed to murder. And by the way, it’s a crime in this—in the District of Columbia to—you know, conspiracy to commit murder is a crime. And then he and Bissell talk. And they say, OK, well, what if Lumumba were merely captured and then handed over to the Mobutu government and tried? And he says, oh, that’s totally fine. I’m not opposed to capital punishment. There’s a legal process. So people were making their own judgments of what was ethical. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: OK. There are two over here. We’ll start there and go to this table. 

Q: Hi, Stuart. Great book. Congratulations. 

As I— 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Can you please identify yourself quickly? 

Q: Yes. I’m sorry. Marshall Kambari (ph), new term member. 

As I listened to you speak around the events around the Lumumba assassination, it’s eerily similar to one that happened twenty-three years later, 3,200 kilometers northwest, in Burkina Faso, which is where I’m from. Great idea for your next book. (Laughter.) But my question to you is, in your research did you get a sense as to whether or not Lumumba was aware of the danger that awaited him? And if you can speak to that as well, did any of your finding change your perspective on the role of international law during the Cold War? 

REID: Lumumba at a certain point had a very fatalistic attitude, and talked openly about how, you know, if I die, tant pis—too bad—he told a friend. So there—and he purchased a gun when he was under house arrest and he fired it into the wall. And there were these notes from U.N. officials who met with him sort of concerned about how he seems to be losing it and totally fatalistic. So I think there was a sense of that. And certainly, I mean, when he was captured, you can see the video of it on YouTube today because it was a newsreel at the time. And he really has this sort of stoic—he looks like a man who’s accepted his fate, who knows what’s in for him. So I think—I think he did know. And he wrote this beautiful letter which I quote in the book to his family, but also to the Congolese nation. And you read that, you know that—you get the sense that this is sort of like a last will and testament.  

And as to your international law question, I mean, I think I went in with a fairly skeptical view of international law, and certainly emerged with that view intact. (Laughter.) 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s go here. 

Q: Thank you very much. Paul Sheard. It sounds like a fantastic book. Congratulations. 

Could you say a little bit more about the connection between the two parts of the subtitle, the CIA’s role in its attempted assassination and then the actual assassination? Would the latter have happened without the former? Was this just a case of the poisoning didn’t work, so they went another route? Or was it much more complicated than that? 

RIED: So the CIA’s role in Lumumba’s death has nothing to do with that poisoning plot. That’s sort of a red herring. It’s an interesting story. It shows the lengths to which the CIA was determined to get rid of him, but it ultimately went nowhere. But the United States more broadly, and the CIA in particular, had a role in every major event. So the Lumumba’s firing by—the president firing him, the CIA was encouraging him, as was the U.N. Mobutu taking over in a coup, financed by the CIA. Lumumba getting caught after escaping house arrest, CIA helped there. And, most importantly, Lumumba being sent to his death, where he really had a green light from the CIA station chief. And so, you know, the actual trigger pullers was not a CIA. There were multiple things that had to happen for Lumumba to die. But the role that Devin played was one of those key things. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Had Devlin given a red light in that moment instead, do you think that would have changed the course of events? 

REID: Yeah. I mean, the United States was the most powerful actor on the scene in Leopoldville at the time. It was—the CIA was funding. Mobutu personally, had an enormous amount of influence. And Mobutu at that—he later became this—you know, a dictator. But he was sort of—this is, like, a 28-years-old, nervous, quivering, asking the Americans what he should do. You it’s hard to overstate the influence that the CIA had over him. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Got it. We’ll go to another question online. 

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Jeremy Suri. 

Q: Hi. Wonderful discussion. 

I’m going to ask the question we as historians hate. How would things have been different if Lumumba—(laughter)— 

REID: It’s a great question. And it— 

KURTZ-PHELAN: We should say, Jeremy Suri, professor of history at University of Texas. (Laughter.) 

REID: My basic take is that things were so bad under the course of history that did happen that almost any alternative history would have been better than what actually happened. I think it’s unlikely that Lumumba would have turned Congo into a thriving Jeffersonian democracy in Central Africa. There were so many structural problems. It sort of didn’t make sense as a country, in many ways. Indeed, it was a colonial fiction. And anyone who led Congo would have faced those structural problems. I think there’s a—and there’s a plausible case that, you know, some other military leader would have overthrown Lumumba. But there’s also a plausible case of Congo as a sort of middle of the road, post-colonial state, you know, politically chaotic, relatively poor, but free of the, like, mass disruption that happened under Mobutu. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: And you also note that the Belgian role was very—was likely to be a threat, even if the U.S. had— 

REID: Yes. But by that—I mean, what happens upon independence is the Belgians were the big outside power in town. And then once Congo is independent, one, the diplomats are all kicked out by Lumumba. And then, two, its—you know, now it’s an independent country. And so the Americans can muscle their way in there. And they quickly displace Belgium is the big outside power. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Let’s do one more online. 

OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Andres Vaart, who asks: A recent Wired article told the importance of uranium mined in the Congo for Oppenheimer’s Manhattan Project. Was exploitation of Congo’s uranium resources still a factor in the U.S.-Soviet competition into the ’60s? 

RIED: No. Which was surprising to me. By 1960, there was no uranium exported to the United States, I think, perhaps from Congo at all. Check me on that. So there was—uranium—Congolese uranium ended up in one of the atomic bombs. But by that point, it was no longer relevant. And sort of to my own surprise, financial interests in minerals were not a relevant factor at all on the American side. It was all Cold War. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Huh, OK. We’re going to do a couple—I’ve been neglecting the back. So we’ll go to this table here, and then the man on the back there. 

Q: Hi. My name is Sophie Rutenbar. I’m a current CFR international affairs fellow, was formerly with the United Nations. My mom was also born in Congo, sort of pre-Lumumba. Grew up under Mobutu. So this is a fascinating kind of set of research and very interesting story. 

My question, kind of coming from the United Nations perspective, is you spoke about the peacekeeping mission, which was very sort of, I mean, unprecedented up until kind of the 1990s in the sort of work of the United Nations. What role, if any, did the United Nations play on sort of a political level? I mean, I know Hammarskjöld was very involved in kind of the rebellion, and kind of negotiating with the Katangans. But was there any sort of inkling and any effort to engage kind of at sort of, like, the more strategic international level in these sorts of issues? 

REID: Yeah. So the U.N. was intimately involved in Congolese politics at the time. And what’s interesting is there’s sort of a shift. That first coup, where the president fires Lumumba was—you know, had the extreme encouragement of the U.N. official on the ground there, a man named Andrew Cordier. And this comes out, and the U.N. gets a lot of criticism, especially from the African delegates and Asian delegates in New York. And so then Hammarskjöld sort of backpedals. And only at that point do you start to see daylight between U.S. policy and U.N. policy. The U.N.’s a little more accommodationist, less explicitly anti-Lumumba. And the U.S. is Mobutu all the way. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Man with the beard, right there, yeah. 

Q: Thank you very much. Elliot Waldman. I’m with Point72 and I’m a term member. 

Given that Mobutu’s rise happened in parallel with, and in consonance with other African independence movements, political anti-colonial movements, wondering if you can talk a little bit about the legacy of Lumumba, how the ideas that he died for lived on, and to what extent that they sort of shaped the course of events after him. Thank you. 

RIED: Yeah. I mean, so one thing that’s important to keep in mind is Lumumba never had a chance to sort of institute any ideology, because Congo becomes independent June 30th. On July 5th, there’s a mutiny. So it becomes pure crisis management and survival. To the extent that he had an ideology, what do we know? He was certainly pan-African and, you know, believed in the idea that Africans were involved in the sort of same struggle against colonialism and outside interference. 

But beyond that, a lot of the sort of vibes that have been attributed to him are not based in evidence. I mean, to give just one example, his economic plan for Congo was to sign over its mineral and hydroelectric rights to an American entrepreneur. So he—as I said, he sort of got adopted by the left later, but if you actually look at what he said and believed, was much more middle of the road and, I mean, mainly just sort of unclear. As a politician, he didn’t plan out—you know, have some very specific platform he was planning on implementing. It was all platitudes. And so we don’t really know what his—you know, other than when I said—what other ideological views he held. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Sam, let’s go to another one online. 

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Irving Williamson. 

Q: Thank you for a fascinating presentation. I’m Irving Williamson, a former U.S.—commissioner of the U.S. International Trade Commission. 

I was just wondering, Belgium did a horrible job of preparing the Congo for independence. To what—how well did senior U.S. officials understand the situation in the Congo? And was there too much reliance on Belgium? Or to what extent were they relied on views from Belgium, a NATO partner? 

REID: Yeah. Part of the problem, I argue, was American reliance on their Belgian allies to sort of interpret the situation. So especially in that pre-independence period, there was a U.S. diplomat who met with Lumumba at an out-of-the-way restaurant, and was expelled from the colony because he offended the Belgian sensitivities. They were very tightly controlling what interactions America could have with Congolese political leaders. Kasavubu, the president, they met with him in, I think, the ambassador’s kitchen, in a secret meeting. So there was a real control that the Belgians had. As a result, most of America’s impression that it was forming of Lumumba and other leaders was filtered through Belgium, and also through the U.S. ambassador to Belgium at the time. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: To what extent—I mean, I’m sure this was certainly racially inflected. To what extent was raised an explicit part of that discussion between the Belgians at the U.S.? 

REID: I mean, the one thing that really stood out going through all the archival documents was the role of racism. So, for instance, at a White House meeting, the impending Congolese independence comes up. And someone says, there are eighty political parties that are—have formed. And Eisenhower jokes: Oh, I didn’t know there were eighty Congolese who could read. And then another point, the White House director of the budget, Maurice Stans, says that the Congolese are still up in the trees, and Eisenhower says something in agreement with that. The U.S. ambassador to Congo, a man named Clare Timberlake, joked in a private letter that I found that Lumumba was a cannibal. 

So this was affecting their worldview. How could it not? And I think the chief way it played a role was that it made Congo seem like this uncivilized place where bad things happen, and violence happened. And the political class were seen as children who needed supervision and intervention. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Sam, let’s do one more virtual. 

OPERATOR: Our next question is a written submission from Kacper Jamro, who asks: What lessons can be drawn from Lumumba’s life and leadership in terms of post-colonial struggles and national sovereignty? 

REID: I mean, in a way, that the lesson that Lumumba—he shouldn’t have had to have learned this lesson, but it would have helped him—was that it was kind of impossible to be truly neutral in the Cold War in Africa. And at a certain point, you know, he paid the price for that, and didn’t quite understand—to him, the Cold War was this foreign idea of no concern to him. But a different leader perhaps could have more elegantly played that Cold War game. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Did other African leaders take that lesson forward in subsequent decades of the Cold War? 

REID: I mean, I think what happened is, at that point, the continent wasn’t yet divided into its Cold War camps. But then you had, you know, Angola, for instance. And so there was a real—in the subsequent years and decades—there was a sorting and choosing that happened. And you had a lot of, you know, violent struggles over that question, as in Angola. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: Let me—let me take this last minute just to urge everyone to buy the book. As you can see, it’s an incredibly rich account, both in its human detail and its resonance for foreign policy today. So if you’re in the room, there are books in the back. All of you online can go to the independent bookshop of your choice and make sure to get a copy. 

Stuart, Congratulations. It’s a wonderful read. Thank you for starting to untangle some of this. 

RIED: Thank you so much. 

KURTZ-PHELAN: But really, for those who have not read it, do. And we will have—for those in the room, there are drinks in the back. You can—I know we didn’t get to a lot of questions. You can buttonhole Stuart to ask as he—as he gets a drink. But thanks, everyone, for joining. And we will see you for the next one of these. Thanks, all. (Applause.) 

REID: Thank you. 


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