Why did the Angola Civil War of 1974-75 turn into a Cold War battleground?
After a successful military coup in Portugal that toppled a long-standing authoritarian regime on April 25, 1974, the new rulers in Lisbon sought to divest the country of its costly colonial empire. The impending independence of one of those colonies, Angola, led to the Angolan civil war that grew into a Cold War competition. The Angola crisis of 1974–1975 ultimately contributed to straining relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.
Angola War for independence from Portugal started in the 1960s
Three main military movements had been fighting for Angolan independence since the 1960s. The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) was a Marxist organization centered in the capital, Luanda, and led by Agostinho Neto. The National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), led by Holden Roberto, was based in the north of the country and had strong ties to the U.S. ally, Mobutu Sese Seko, in neighboring Zaire. The National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), an offshoot of the FNLA, was led by Jonas Savimbi and supported by the country’s largest ethnic group, the Ovimbundu.
Following the Portuguese coup, these three revolutionaries met with representatives of the new Portuguese Government in January 1975 and signed the Alvor Agreement that granted Angolan independence and provided for a three-way power-sharing government. However, trust quickly broke down among the three groups, and the country descended into civil war as each vied for sole power.
The United States, China and the Soviet Union picked sides in the Civil War
The crisis in Angola developed into a Cold War battleground as the superpowers and their allies delivered military assistance to their preferred clients. The United States supplied aid and training for both the FNLA and UNITA while troops from Zaire assisted Holden Roberto and his fighters. China, also, sent military instructors to train the FNLA. The Soviet Union provided military training and equipment for the MPLA.
During the summer of 1975, the Soviet-supported MPLA was able to consolidate power in Luanda and oust the U.S.-supported FNLA from the capital, but the FNLA continued to attack. The remaining Portuguese troops failed to stem the violence. When MPLA leader Neto announced November 11, 1975, as the day of Angolan independence, Lisbon decided to withdraw its troops on that day.
Why did the MPLA ask Cuba for assistance in the Civil War?
The MPLA also had long-established relations with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Before November 11, the MPLA had negotiated with Castro for Cuban assistance. At the same time, UNITA, which enjoyed U.S. support, approached the Apartheid government in South Africa for military reinforcement. Pretoria, with the aim to end the use of Angola as a base for rebels fighting for the independence of South Africa-occupied Namibia, contributed forces that entered southern Angola in October and made rapid progress toward the capital. In response, Castro sent Cuban Special Forces to halt the South African advance and succeeded in drawing attention to the fact that the United States had provided support to a group that now accepted assistance from an Apartheid government.
South African involvement in the conflict improved the standing of the Soviet-supported MPLA
The U.S. Government had encouraged the South African intervention but preferred to downplay its connection with the Apartheid regime. However, once Pretoria’s involvement became widely known, the Chinese withdrew its advisers from the region, and the Ford Administration was faced with domestic resistance to the U.S. role in the Angolan conflict. President Gerald Ford had requested Congressional approval for more money to fund the operation in Angola. However, many members of Congress were wary of intervening abroad after the struggle in Vietnam, others wished to avoid the South Africa connection, and still, others did not believe the issue was important. In the end, Congress rejected the President’s request for additional funds. South Africa withdrew its forces in the spring of 1976 and the MPLA remained as the official government of Angola. Still, Jonas Savimbi and UNITA continued an insurgency until his death in 2002.
During the period of the Angolan crisis, the United States and the Soviet Union were still enjoying a brief thaw in their relations, in an era referred to as détente. During this time, Washington and Moscow had reached a series of agreements that aimed to reduce tensions between the two superpowers. However, by 1974, strains on bilateral relations had already compromised U.S. support for détente and the crisis in Angola served to accelerate this trend. From the U.S. point of view, one of the aims of détente was to draw the Soviet Union further into the international system so that Washington could induce Moscow to show restraint in its dealings with the Third World. The Ford Administration believed that Cuba had intervened in Angola as a Soviet proxy and as such, the general view in Washington was that Moscow was breaking the rules of détente. The appearance of a Soviet success and a U.S. loss in Angola on the heels of a victory by Soviet-supported North Vietnam over U.S.-supported South Vietnam continued to erode U.S. faith in détente as an effective Cold War foreign policy.
The U.S. failure to achieve its desired outcome in Angola raised the stakes of the superpower competition in the Third World. Subsequent disagreements over the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan contributed to undoing the period of détente between the Soviet Union and the United States. Additionally, the Angola crisis also ended a recent thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations.
- Republished from Office of the Historian, United States Department of State
- Article: The Angola Crisis 1974–75