Murder in the Congo
The author, an executive editor at Foreign Affairs magazine, talks about his first book, The Lumumba Plot: The Secret History of the CIA and a Cold War Assassination (Knopf).
Why write about Lumumba?
I realized there was this amazing, not very well-known story about Congo’s traumatic birth after 75 years of Belgian rule. It was front-page news in the summer of 1960, the Cold War crisis of the moment. I focus on this amazing human story of Patrice Lumumba, a charismatic nationalist leader of the Congo, and his dramatic rise and tragic fall. When his army mutinied, he turned to the United Nations for help. It declined.
Why did the United States care?
Lumumba made the fatal mistake of asking the Soviets for help. The CIA decided it needed to get rid of Lumumba and sent poison to be put in his food and toothpaste. That failed, but he was toppled in a coup with CIA help and murdered in January 1961.
Did the CIA eventually regret its actions?
They actually viewed Congo as a success.
How different would the country be if Lumumba had survived?
I grapple with that a bit at the end of my book. It’s a fascinating question. It’s possible he would’ve been a sort of standard leader as part of the standard post-colonial African state that was relatively poor, somewhat politically chaotic. But we would not have had the corrupt Mobutu dictatorship for three decades, which utterly collapsed in the 1990s in the Congo, which was then known as Zaire, and led to a civil war that killed millions of people.
What new aspects of this story did you uncover?
The CIA declassified a bunch of cables in 2013, and every two years they release a new trove that is less redacted than the previous ones.
You had to spend a lot of time sifting through research?
Yes, when I sold the book I was unmarried and childless. Now I’m married and have two kids.
And many of the documents were in French?
I was a French minor and studied under the late great professor John Rassias. I could not have written this book had I not learned French at Dartmouth.