When young Americans are taught about the Cold War, we learn that it was exactly that — a decades-long standoff based on the threat of war, one without mass casualties, tanks and guns. Sure, there were spies, assassinations and intrigue, but even history teachers who cover proxy wars tend to leave out one whopping chapter: Angola’s role as surrogate battleground.
During the Cold War, Angola saw the second-largest American deployment of covert aid.
Only Afghanistan’s mujahideen got more aid from the U.S. And the conflict in Angola was very bloody: By the time the Americans and Soviets backed away, in 1991, hundreds of thousands of people had perished. Angola’s ensuing civil war, which ended in 2002, killed 1.5 million, according to some estimates. Turns out the Cold War wasn’t so cold.
It all started with a coup in Portugal — the colonial rulers of Angola — that ushered in a wave of Portuguese decolonization of its African territories. The transition was abrupt, and its sudden power vacuum prompted a violent three-way bid for rule. The U.S. threw its support behind Angola’s National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, UNITA, and the Soviets backed UNITA’s enemies, the Movement for the Liberation of Angola, MPLA.
The Soviet Union and the U.S. weren’t alone in their meddling. Cuba — led by an ideological imperative to help install a Marxist regime in power — partnered up with the Soviets and poured some 50,000 troops into Angola. The U.S., meanwhile, sidled up to apartheid South Africa to send its troops into Angola. Despite all the spending, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger denied involvement in the southwest African country to Congress for years. With the American public reeling from Richard Nixon’s resignation and the conclusion of the disastrous Vietnam War, the CIA did what it does best: It kept its involvement in Angola secret.
Why Angola? Many scholars argue it was far more than a battle for hearts and minds — the ideological alignment of the powers and their proxies was shaky at best. Instead, the superpowers saw a chance to deplete the other side of weapons and munitions and to maintain physical control of a country valued for its diamonds and oil. The U.S. saw Soviet dominance-by-proxy of Angola as catastrophic, says Keith Somerville, a scholar at the School of Oriental and African Studies. It would give them power over parts of the Cape shipping route around the tip of Africa as well as the export of a whole range of minerals — uranium, copper, platinum, coltan and diamonds — from its next-door neighbors, he says.
In the end, the Cold War subsided and the superpowers pressured the warring parties into signing peace accords in 1991. The MPLA won the mandated elections (its leader, José Eduardo Dos Santos, is still in power today). The U.S. abandoned UNITA and established formal diplomatic relations with Angola. UNITA, in retaliation for its loss, reignited a war that raged on until 2002. No doubt foreign meddling prolonged and deepened the conflict — including by leaving Angola with the highest number of land mines in the world — but for many, the persistence of war long after Soviet-American withdrawal shows that the “core issues were there” and foreign powers “exacerbated the situation with arms and ammunition,” says Alex Vines, Africa researcher at Chatham House.