Teaching the Article
Exercise 2

The United States and Colonialism in Africa

In the “scramble for Africa” in the second half of the nineteenth century, European powers quickly claimed vast tracts of land, and within forty years they controlled all but a few parts of the vast continent. While the United States claimed no territory during that fevered rush to establish colonies, it was no uninvolved actor. The United States became the first country to recognize the sovereignty of the Belgian king Leopold II over the Congo, and it sent observers to the 1884–1885 Berlin Conference, where it acquiesced in the partition of Africa.

Yet the United States also had at times embraced anticolonialism, perhaps most prominently during the American Revolution. As the world’s leading power at the end of World War II and thereafter as the undisputed leader of the Western alliance, the United States could be a part of virtually any aspect of the postwar world. No country had more power—morally as well as politically, economically, and militarily—to influence world events. That power was not limitless, yet by the choices it made or, in many cases, did not make, the United States could influence the pace, path, and priority of decolonization in Africa.

As it did elsewhere, Washington generally chose to act in Africa on the side of caution and preserving the status quo. Historians generally have used the language that U.S. officials did at the time: following a “middle path,” not wanting “premature independence” while not advocating the continuation of “old-style colonialism.” As you read, consider what was often left unsaid: What was “premature” about independence, and who would define when a nation was “ready”? How did views of “premature independence” reflect attitudes of U.S. policy makers? Given such views, when might have Africans expected independence?

“‘Worth a Lot of Negro Votes’” and the documents in this exercise focus on the late 1950s and early 1960s. As the Cold War progressed, those who argued that national security interests demanded support for European allies and white minority governments in Africa generally held the upper hand over those who argued that ideological impulses promoting African freedom and independence were not just morally right but also would ultimately create a stronger alliance of free peoples against Communism. Even in the 1980s, with the world having turned against the last holdout of white supremacy in Africa, President Ronald Reagan vetoed congressional measures imposing sanctions on South Africa.

In the 1950s in Africa, just as in today’s world, the United States government faced conflicting demands and desires. When it confronted colonialism in Africa, the United States thus also wrestled with its own national priorities and view of itself. What exactly did support for “democracy” mean when support for one person/one vote in Africa might weaken the Western alliance and its stand against Communism? How far would the United States go to support “freedom” when that meant the freedom to choose other allies? If policy makers feared Communism might spread in the fledgling democracies of Africa, was it better to support authoritarian rule? As the nation struggled to confront its own racial heritage, inequalities, and prejudices, how would it handle similar issues abroad? The struggle over how American ideals and principles play out in the relationship with those abroad often mirrors as well as helps define what they mean at home.


  1. Africa’s Role in the Free World Today,
    George C. McGhee, State Department Bulletin, July 16, 1951, 97–101
  2. Statement of U.S. Policy toward Africa South of the Sahara prior to Calendar Year 1960,
    NSC 5818, Aug. 26, 1958, Foreign Relations of the United States 1958–1960, XIV, pp. 24–37.
  3. Memorandum of Discussion at the 432nd Meeting of the National Security Council,
    Jan. 14, 1960, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958–1960, XIV, pp. 73–77
  4. Memorandum of Discussion at the 441st Meeting of the National Security Council
    April 14, 1960, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1958–1960, XIV, pp. 126–28
  5. Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt: Prospects of Mankind,
    March 6, 1960. Courtesy Henry Morgenthau III Papers, Box 2, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York