“Burning with a Deadly Heat”: NewsHour Coverage of the Hot Wars of the Cold War
Angolan Civil War (1975-2002)
Background and Context
After the end of World War II, in Africa and across the globe, the many centuries of European colonial control were coming to an end. In Angola, the Portuguese Empire had ruled the nation since the 16th century, initially drawn to the land for its many valuable resources: mainly, oil, iron, diamonds, and coffee.16 Portuguese rule in southwestern Africa had been particularly brutal and repressive, and in the 1950s, some 300,000 Angolans still lived under forced labor conditions akin to slavery.17 In response to the conditions in Angola, the first major Angolan leftist political party was formed in 1956: the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA). The MPLA, a multiethnic conglomeration of political groups centered around the Angolan capital, Luanda, quickly became popular among the people.18 Soon after, in 1957, another major political party, the National Liberation Front of Angola (FNLA), was founded in the north of Angola. Its founder, Holden Roberto, was an anti-communist inspired and supported by the President of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).19
With the founding of these two parties, it became clear that political change was coming to Portuguese Angola. On January 3, 1961, an uprising occurred among workers on a cotton plantation; the workers burned their identification cards and attacked the Portuguese traders working on site. The Portuguese, in response, bombed nearby villages, killing up to 7,000 civilians. This event, known as the Baixa de Cassanje Revolt, began the Angolan War for Independence. On February 4, 1961, another uprising broke out on the streets of Luanda, leading the Portuguese government to arm groups of white settler vigilantes. The resulting massacre sent shockwaves through the country.20 The Angolan people continued the fight for independence, but they were far from unified themselves. A third major political party was born in 1964 when Jonas Savimbi, accusing Roberto of factionalism and regionalism, split from the FNLA and formed his own party, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). UNITA attracted support from the Ovimbundu people of central Angola, dividing Angola’s political factions largely along tribal lines.21
The Angolans effectively won the war for independence in 1974, following the fall of the Portuguese military dictatorship the previous year.22 The three main political parties (MPLA, FNLA, and UNITA) met with Portuguese representatives to draw up and sign a treaty that stated Angola would become officially independent in 1975, giving the Portuguese time to withdraw their troops.23 Despite a common colonial enemy, however, the MPLA, FNLA, and UNITA were unable to work together to create a unified Angolan government. After the Portuguese withdrew from Angola, the MPLA took control of Luanda, the center of the Angolan government. Unhappy with the MPLA’s position of power, FNLA forces attacked MPLA forces near Luanda in February of 1975, setting off the Angolan Civil War.24 Control of Luanda was critical; although the Angolans had won their independence, the treaty with Portugal decreed that power would be officially transferred to the Angolan government on November 11, 1975. Therefore, many Angolans believed that whoever held power in Luanda come November 11 would gain legitimacy as the leader of the new government.25
With the outbreak of the civil war, global powers became increasingly involved in Angola. The Soviet Union had been supporting the socialist MPLA since 1962, providing weapons for their fight against Portugal. The United States, as a Portuguese NATO ally, was more reluctant to involve itself during the revolutionary period. Ultimately, however, the CIA began providing support to Holden Roberto and his FNLA forces.26 As the revolutionary war transitioned into a civil war, the Soviet Union and the United States increased support to their chosen factions, vying for control and influence in the newly formed country. The CIA was determined to support the FNLA, despite the fact that the recent end of the Vietnam War had made many Americans reluctant to engage in outside conflicts. As John Stockwell, a member of the CIA Angola task force, said, “Right after Vietnam, the American people … and the Congress and the media … in no way would put up with the U.S. putting its forces in to control the outcome of a country that none of the American people were interested in.” To avoid any such opposition, the CIA began secretly funneling money to the FNLA through Zaire, without approval from the National Security Council.27
Superpower involvement in the conflict only increased after Cuba, without informing the Soviet Union beforehand, sent military advisors to Luanda to support the MPLA army. The United States, seeing Cuba as an extension of Soviet influence, was outraged.28 With the Cubans supporting the MPLA, the Reagan administration, in office after January 1981, feared that the FNLA alone would not be able to achieve a victory and considered supporting Savimbi’s UNITA fighters as well. The CIA, however, was unable to provide direct military support to either UNITA or the FNLA, and they reached out to the government of South Africa to ask for military assistance.29
U.S. relations with the nation of South Africa were difficult, as the United States officially opposed South Africa’s apartheid state. Any public show of alliance between the two countries could negatively impact U.S. diplomatic relations with other nations of Africa, nearly all of which opposed apartheid. The matter was further complicated by South Africa’s presence in Namibia, on Angola’s southern border, which the majority of world nations understood as an unlawful occupation of an independent nation.30 As such, it was vital that the U.S.-South African agreement to send South African troops to Angola remain secret. South African troops joined with UNITA in occupied Namibia and from there began an invasion into Angola, heading for Luanda. The Cubans, in response, sent thousands of troops to Luanda to defend the MPLA’s position. The Cubans ultimately stopped the South African troops in their tracks, securing Luanda for the MPLA and leaving the United States with very few options remaining. Undeterred, the CIA hired mercenary support for the FNLA and UNITA, once again without the knowledge of Congress, whose members were increasingly outspoken against involvement in Angola. John Stockwell of the CIA’s Angola task force provided insight into the CIA’s mentality at this point: “The Congress [would have] stopped us up front if we had not successfully lied to them, putting in arms, putting in advisors, bringing in South Africa. We kept [American aid to the FNLA and UNITA] propped up for a while, but opposition was mounting.”31
Opposition to American involvement in Angola had come to a head in February 1976, when Congress, suspicious of CIA and executive branch action in southwest Africa, passed the Clark Amendment, which “specifically prohibited any assistance that might involve the United States more deeply in the Angolan War.”32 This effectively ended United States support to the factions in Angola; however, when the Clark Amendment was repealed in 1985, with pressure from the Reagan administration, the CIA resumed funding to UNITA.33 By 1988, peace seemed close at hand with the signing of the New York Treaty, which secured independence for Namibia and negotiated the withdrawal of South African and Cuban troops from Angola.34 This effectively marked the end of the superpowers’ interest in Angola.
After a brief period of peace and an attempted election, Savimbi and UNITA re-started the war in 1992, resulting in United Nations sanctions against the party. Ultimately, the Angolan Civil War continued until the murder of Savimbi in 2002 provided another opportunity for peace. Even with the achievement of a peace treaty, however, after twenty-seven years of civil war, three-quarters of Angolan society had never known peace, much less democracy. In the 21st century, Angola has re-built its economy through exports of its natural resources, particularly oil, although wealth remains unevenly distributed and most of the population lives in poverty. The Angolan people established a new constitution with elections after the end of the civil war. Despite all that has changed in Angola in the years since the end of the civil war, however, the MPLA remains a ruling party in Angolan politics, and they still are opposed by UNITA, a decades old power struggle that continues, non-violently, in Angola today.35
Coverage of the Angolan Civil War was largely defined by the assumption that the American public, for the most part, knew very little about Angola and the significance of the war there. As such, segments that discuss the civil war in Angola often begin with a history of the country, a visual representation of its location, and a description of the different factions at war. Due to the remote nature of the conflict, The MacNeil/Lehrer Report and later The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, faced an uphill battle to convince its viewers of the war’s importance. They did so by relying heavily on a wide variety of guests and tying the conflict in Angola to wider U.S.-African policy.
Guests typically fell into one of two categories: representatives of political groups in Angola and American political figures. In the former group, the most notable guest was Jonas Savimbi, the leader of the American-supported National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) faction, who gave an interview on his own and then debated an American congressman who was against providing aid for UNITA. Other notable African and Angolan guests include Oliver Tambo, a famous anti-apartheid revolutionary and head of the African National Congress, and United Nations representatives for UNITA and the opposing group, the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA).
To represent the American policy perspective, the Report and the NewsHour primarily featured U.S. congressmen, United Nations ambassadors, and journalists, inviting them to express their opinions and debate one another on policy issues relating to Angola. Many of the debates, such as this one from September 1981 between former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Donald McHenry and Senator Richard Lugar (R-Indiana), focused on whether the situation in Angola had escalated into an East-West conflict between the United States and Soviet Union.
The coverage also covered the wider scope of U.S-African policy. Jeane Kirkpatrick, President Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations, was a frequent guest and spokesperson for the administration. In the Angolan War, the U.S. shared a common goal with apartheid South Africa to prevent the Soviet-backed faction from winning the war, leading to confusion and suspicion over whether the Reagan administration truly supported Black African autonomy in Angola. Ambassador Kirkpatrick was often pressed to clarify Reagan’s Southern African policy in her appearances on the Report. Discussion of U.S. policy toward Angola led to a debate over whether Reagan’s policies abroad and at home were “race conscious” and “racist,” as in this heated exchange between the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).
Finally, the Report and NewsHour coverage of the war in Angola featured almost no footage of the war itself. However, a brief clip of UNITA soldiers training can be viewed here.