How the US and France Fought for Control of Africa

Updated on January 9, 2018


In the year 1960, fourteen former French colonies throughout sub-Saharan Africa declared independence. The world they entered was not one at peace, as across the globe the United States and the USSR were locked in a deadly and titanic battle for influence and power over communism. However, most French colonies, due to elites which were under Paris’ thumb and strongly pro-Western, were not immediately vulnerable to a fall from the Western system to that of Moscow. Instead, French colonies wrestled under the continuing domination of France as the United States attempted to exert its influence across the region through institutions like the Peace Corps, foreign aid, and military training and advice circumscribed by its entente with France. What were the objectives of the United States? How did they attempt to expand influence in the region, how did it compare, particularly in rhetoric, to its operations against communism elsewhere, and how did France respond to this American incursion? To these, I hope to present answers.

US policy in the sub-Saharan region was less focused than in other regions and was further circumscribed within African policy with its attention being principally directed towards the troubled Southern edge of the continent where former English and Belgian colonies, and continuing Portuguese colonialism fell into instability. In Francophone (French-speaking) West Africa - composed of the states of Mauritania, Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, Côté d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso (known as Upper Volta during this period, Togo, Benin, Nigeria, and Niger - as well as Francophone Equatorial Africa (composed of Chad, Congo Brazzaville, Central Africa, Gabon, and the principally Francophone state of Cameroon) US attention and influence has been generally viewed by scholars as limited as part of a lack of a decisive US foreign policy in the region and the beneficial confluence of American anti-communist policy objectives and the French desire to maintain their zone of influence in Africa, the pré carré This paper does not attempt to dispute this, but instead aims to achieve a reading of the American-French-African relationship in the region which reflects the confluence of unintended friction, differing foreign policy and cultural perspectives, and the disruption of US world policies being adopted to the African milieu.

The American perspective on West Africa


In the 1960s, the three principal states of West Africa that the US concerned itself with, according to the compiled reports of the Foreign Relations of the United States, were Guinée, Mali, and Ghana, these being the three states that were the most open to East-bloc influence. Of these three, only Mali fell more closely into the traditional archetype of French colonies in the region, although the early 60s saw it experiment with East Bloc-friendly policies to the consternation of the US over its perceived radical policy. Nevertheless, Mali never completely left the French orbit, despite the growth of Soviet influence. Ghana meanwhile, was a former English colony, and Guinée had taken the unprecedented step of dissociation from France in 1958 during a constitutional referendum upon the new French constitution approved that year, a move marked by French retaliatory measures. All three states were areas of US concern, and the rest of French Africa was viewed in relation to security risks due to danger of infection from these three states. These three states, once stated, are the ones which should be viewed as the exception rather than the rule of US policy. In the absence of the same degree of focus as present in other regions, both US and Africans thought more in terms of economics and other aspects of influence beyond simple anti-communist credentials. When Mauritania’s leader Moktar Ould Daddah spoke to President Eisenhower on December 12 1960, no discussion passed of Communism beyond a reference to a diplomatic joke, but detailed conversation occurred about Mauritania’s iron, copper, and oil resources. In similar fashion the conversation between Eisenhower and President Olympio of Togo dealt principally with the need for a conscientious attitude towards Togo’s development and the desirability of regional economic integration. Intriguingly as well for a man seeking a more diversified foreign policy, Togo lauded the educational efforts that the Germans had made during the period when they controlled Togo, but made no reference to the French colonial period : easily seen as a subtle inquiry into the possibility of an institutional system less dominated by France. Perhaps unsurprisingly, by 1978 at least, US firms had partial ownership of the Hahote phosphate mine, alongside French companies. The US was broadly willing to accept and support the structure of French systems, militarily, economically, and politically, established in West Africa, which France found acceptable (such as French acceptance of US aid to Mali in addition to their own). However, US influence in the region could be interpreted as undercutting the basis of French influence, French control over information, political leadership, education, attracted intense French ire, and led to French responses to emphasize their position in former colonies.



American Objectives

Economically, this time period came as one where the temporary lopsided advantageous trade balance of the post-WW2 era was beginning to reverse itself for the United States, as demand for US goods exceeded exports to the United States from foreign countries. This “dollar gap,” which resulted in ambitious programs to attempt to reverse it - - most famously the Marshall Plan - - had by the JFK presidency started to reverse itself due to investments, loans, and aid programs. It had been replaced with a US balance of payment problems, as imports began to exceed exports for the United States. As a result, US policy began to emphasize increasing trade exports abroad, which combined with US government assistance would have made Africa a more valuable market for the US. With French influence in Africa in a period of retrenchment by 1973 the US government declared that “we will equally have to be prepared to compete more vigorously in those markets and countries where French influence is on [the] wane.” By 1973 as well, the American position in Mali was that American personnel stated that there was a growing desire for American goods and that American businessmen should be more aggressive in taking advantage of this. This was opposed to the continuing existence of “reversed preference” - - that in exchange for preferential treatment for one nation’s goods (in this case African countries, and in particular former French colonies) in another (Europe, and in particular France) in exchange for the preferences already granted to the former party. In the context of the 1973 negotiations between the EC (European Community), and African states, the US prepared to utilize its influence to block this if it appeared that African leaders might be co-opted into supporting the continued existence of reverse preference. The success of a French “Eurafrica” policy which would secure Africa as a protected market for the Common Market, would be, as the US said, a “far reaching defeat for U.S. policy.” US fears over the creation of trading blocs did not at first seem unfounded as Latin American nations quickly pushed for an equivalent hemisphere trading bloc - something they had previously rejected in the 1950s.

Nevertheless, American policy makers were also willing to see Africa as a particular zone of European “responsibilities” and France as the only nation which could preserve its Sub-Saharan African nations within the Western bloc. The policy was not one of simply aiming to push the Europeans out, although the United States did present itself as a nation which pro-Western countries could turn to if they wished to diversify their foreign relations, and was cogent about US influence through US-backed institutions. Instead, US policy in French West Africa represents a combination of continental American concerns overriding local policy needs and American influence which aimed to secure increased American status. Perhaps the best example of this mindset is that of US Vice President Humphrey, returning from a trip from Africa in 1968. Among his reflections upon the trip and Africa in general was that “Some 320 million African people in 39 countries cannot be left solely to the care of the former colonial powers, who often lack the necessary understanding and financial resources to help them.” This lack of an overt colonialist link on the part of the US was both used by Africans as a way to attempt to formulate what their relations should be with the US, and for the US to reassure African nations.

Few American agencies attracted as much French concern and occasional ire as the Peace Corps
Few American agencies attracted as much French concern and occasional ire as the Peace Corps

American Institutions and Actions

Yesterday and today, the Peace Corp is inherently a tool for US influence and values. It is deeply shaped by masculine conceptions of service with heavy British influence in its development (another example of Anglo-Saxon solidarity which threatened the French position in Africa). On the American side, there was a knowledge of the general French distaste for the Peace Corps as a tool of American influence. McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor to the President, said about deploying of US peace corp volunteers to Algeria, an “entirely accidental benefit [would be the] mildly irritating [effect the Peace Corps presence in Algeria would have on] some of those in Europe who are giving us the most trouble at the moment,” making reference to the De Gaulle government. The same situation played out in Cameroon, where the government invited the Peace Corps as part of their general effort to diversify their foreign relations. Nevertheless, the US still promoted the expansion of the Peace Corps in Africa, ranking it as part of its critical priorities list.

What is more, the Peace Corp was a project which was designed quite purposefully to counter colonialist-era methods of action. Under colonialist rule, a barrier existed between color groups, and if this was substantially less so in French colonies than in British colonies, the color line was always present. In contrast the Peace Corps urged its volunteers to mix themselves with the local population. The French equivalent of the peace corps, the volontaires du progrès, adopted the American fashion, being agricultural workers who were told to “build their own dwellings, African style.” US involvement had occasioned a change in the norms of relationships between former French African colonies and France.

The US also promoted English language education in Africa, aiming to keep up the number of English teachers in the continent at a stable level when they had been cut back on in the Francophone space by France. For France, such actions have always represented a dangerous threat to continuing French cultural primacy.

The French Response

For France, suspicion reigned over the US influence in former French colonies. The Peace Corps proved one of the biggest French fears, it being an agent of American pressure which the French often did their best to remove, or at least to constrain. In 1968, the Peace Corps’ mission to Ghana was withdrawn under French pressure. American peace corp programs in Francophone Africa had less resources than their Anglophone (English-speaking) equivalents, which ironically sometimes aided them by improving the vitality of the few Americans deployed. However, it also was a partial reason for the French volontaires du progrès, and quite clearly said so by the French themselves. As Raymond Triboulet declared, “We are the ones who undertake the principal effort of technical and cultural cooperation, but can we leave to others this future sector of popular cooperation?” (“Nous qui faisons l’effort principal de coopération technique et culturelle, pouvons-nous laisser à d’autres ce secteur d’avenir de la coopération populaire?”) The French modulated and adjusted their relations in Africa, in an attempt to deal with this potential dangerous American threat which could undercut their prestige, despite the immense machine of French influence and formal power present.

Conclusion

For both the United States and France, their relationship in the former colonies of French West Africa was marked by friction and tension, as the United States, both inadvertently and by policy, expanded its influence by intent or accident at the expense of French dominance. When US global policies, like non-discriminatory free trade, encountered French regional objectives, such as the construction of a Franco-African economic bloc, they clashed despite Washington’s support for the French presence in the region. Competing visions of relationships with the new third world - - as the United States Peace Corp began the project of changing the model of interaction with colonized people, or as France and the United States struggled over what informal empire looked like economically - - restructured and reshaped the relationships of France in the region to its former colonies. The French were not merely passive spectators to American policies, but instead moderated and changed their own interactions in the region to respond to the US challenge, most vividly in relation to social dynamics in the face of the threat of the Peace Corps. American presence in West Africa diversified the region and demonstrated the limits of empire, so that even if French influence reigned paramount, it provided a precursor of the diversification of influence which occurred after the end of the Cold War, as France, the United States, and recently China have all competed and played alongside local African actors in defining the structures and dynamics of the region. It shows that the Cold War was more than simply a battle against communism, and that institutions designed to be tempered in the steely battle between the Free World and Soviet totalitarianism could take on new forms and structures in where the tricolor, not the sickle, was the dominant foreign political force with which the United States contended.

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