Fifty years before Barack Obama’s historic election last November, a group of American intellectuals met in New York to begin thinking about what a new American policy toward Africa might look like at the beginning of a decade of profound global change. That informal gathering, led by Immanuel Wallerstein, David Apter, Wayne Fredericks and others—along with the “New American Policy Toward Africa” (PDF) they signed their names to—eventually became the blueprint for President John F. Kennedy’s Africa policy.
For American decision-makers, the process of African independence in the early 1960s represented a series of crises, the most politically motivated of which was the conflict in the Congo. With the Africa Bureau only two years old and with a policymaking bureaucracy with few African specialists, Kennedy, well aware of his administration’s limited capacity to understand and respond to the rapidly changing events in Africa, turned to an external community of professionals with experience in Africa for policy advice.
This community of Africanists established parameters within which political bargaining over policy priorities could take place. In other words, it framed the debate within as well as outside the policymaking bureaucracies by providing competitive ideas. It provided alternative roadmaps to existing roadmaps and offered a more liberal ontology than had its predecessors. It set standards for American involvement in Africa, and helped build domestic and international coalitions in support of American policies in Africa by drawing on its established domestic and international constituencies and its networks of information in the US, Europe, and Africa. And it served as a mediating force between American and African national interests.
Kennedy’s ascent to power at the apex of the African struggle for independence stirred the hope of change in U.S.-Africa policy not only in the hearts of American intellectuals, but also in the hearts of African nationalist leaders who saw in the United States’ own revolutionary struggle against colonialism a kindred spirit in the global fight for self-rule. Kennedy’s earlier pronouncements on colonialism and especially France in Algeria had already stirred the pot and raised expectations on both sides of the Atlantic of what a young American president could do right in Africa and what Africa could achieve unencumbered by external occupation. So certain were some that the winds of change extended to Washington, that the populist Congolese Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, would be assassinated by his political rivals in Katanga province on 17 January 1961—just three days before Americans inaugurated their youngest president.
How little Americans understood African societies then and how powerfully Eurocentric the official American lexicon on Africa was, is illustrated by the frustration in the account Chester Bowles’, President Kennedy’s Special Representative and Advisor on African, Asian, and Latin American Affairs gives of preparations for his first official trip to the region:
[I]n preparing for my trip [to Africa] I had occasion to visit the Library of Congress where I looked in vain for an African division that would tell me something about then current developments in the Gold Coast, Nigeria, Kenya and the Rhodesias. When I turned in desperation to the librarian, she remarked with some impatience, “You will find those colonies listed under Europe. Look up Belgium, Great Britain, Portugal and France.” “But where,” I asked, “can I find information on such free countries as Liberia and Ethiopia?” “Oh, they come under ‘miscellaneous,’” she answered.(1)
President Kennedy came to the White House with his own ideas and advisers on Africa, and brought with him a long-standing, personal conviction on colonialism and the need for self-determination. He established an Advisory Council on Africa comprised of the top scholars on Africa of his time and adopted a different vernacular from his predecessors. The recommendations of that 1958 policy paper, echoed again in the so-called Herskovits Study on Africa commissioned of the American anthropologist later that year by the Senate Foreign Relations committee—of which Senator Kennedy was a member—profoundly changed the discourse on U.S.-Africa relations in the United States. Emphasis shifted from a more NATO-driven narrative that privileged bilateral relations with European capitals to one emphasizing greater and more direct engagement with African nationalist movements. This was bold at the height of the Cold War.
It also raised great expectations among young Africans that Kennedy ultimately proved unable to fulfill. While the narratives of nationalism and self-determination were historic forces in 1961, these were up against the dominant paradigm of the Cold War. Ultimately, we have come to appreciate President Kennedy as a cautious leader who sought a difficult and at times impossible compromise between the exigencies of Western unity and African aspirations.
It is fitting then, that on the inauguration of another young American president so oft compared to John F. Kennedy and whose message of change and hope and African heritage has raised enormous pride and expectations in Africa and in the U.S., that we pose the question, what should President Obama do in Africa? In his inaugural speech today he announced that “The world has changed and we must change with it.” Kennedy came into office with a similar message. He was prepared to work with Africa on its terms and tried to show a greater sensitivity to the needs and demands of the emerging African leadership; but could not transcend the meta-narrative of his day. Let us hope that Barack Obama can.
(1) Address by The Honorable Chester Bowles, President’s Special Representative and Advisor on African, Asian and Latin American Affairs, at the Fiftieth Anniversary Dinner of the Phelps-Stokes Fund, Hotel Commodore, NY, Friday, December 14, 1962. Department of State Press Release, no. 730, December 14, 1962.