Between Oil and Vietnam: Activists and their Opposition to Angola

by Julianne Haefner

About one year ago I shared my on-going dissertation project “U.S. Foreign Policy towards Angola during the Ford Administration, 1974 to 1977.” In the meantime, I have passed my comprehensive exams and have returned to working on my dissertation. Initially this was quite the struggle. On one hand, I was relieved to have passed my exams and finally be able to work on my dissertation again. On the other hand, I was a bit overwhelmed: I hadn’t touched my research in about six months and had to familiarize myself with my topic again. However, in January, I had a lucky break.  

As I have written previously for this blog, I researched quite a bit of President Ford’s foreign policy documents in the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library last summer. Throughout this research, I had an inclination that activists in the United States would have been active in opposing the intervention. But I didn’t have specific evidence for that. Until one day this past January when I stumbled over the African Activist Archive at Michigan State University. Their online holdings transpired to be a gold mine. I found countless images, newsletter, and pamphlets discussing the dangers of U.S. involvement in Angola and drawing attention to rallies and protests. In this post I want to share two of them: one of them an image from a demonstration in Washington D.C, the other a leaflet promoting a protest march in Philadelphia.

Credit: Southern Africa Committee photo archive (http://africanactivist.msu.edu)

Credit: Southern Africa Committee photo archive (http://africanactivist.msu.edu)

The first image was taken at a demonstration in front of the White House on December 13, 1975. One of the protestors had a sign that read: “If you liked Vietnam you’ll love Angola.” Many activists drew connections between the situation in Indochina and Southern Africa: In both regions the U.S. was interfering in the self determination of countries that had long been under foreign, colonial, rule. U.S. involvement in Vietnam had escalated over the years. This was a fear that many activists had regarding Angola as well. Although there were numerous reports about U.S. mercenaries fighting in Angola, at the time of many of the demonstrations the U.S. had not yet deployed troops to Angola, But activists argued that even though troops had not been deployed, similar to Vietnam this was just a matter of time in the stages of escalation.

The second document is a leaflet advertising two events in early February 1976 connected to intervention in Angola. One of those events was a protest march to Gulf Oil in Philadelphia. Several other oil companies had already secured drilling rights, but Gulf Oil was in 1975 the only company that had already been drilling in Angola. Oil was a particularly contested issue because of the first oil crisis that had taken place in 1973. Activists on the other hand argued for the divestment of oil companies from Angola. Criticism towards Gulf Oil appears in dozens of documents that activists had created. Reading about the criticism towards Gulf Oil reminded me of the divestment movement. As international criticism ramped up against apartheid in South Africa, activists called for the divestment of companies and universities from South Africa. The calls for the divestment of Gulf Oil were definitely not as wide-scaled as the divestment movement, but it is nonetheless interesting to see the similarities.

Credit: Vincent Klingler papers (http://africanactivist.msu.edu)

Credit: Vincent Klingler papers (http://africanactivist.msu.edu)

As I continue to read through the African Activist Archive documents I am sure I will come across more interesting documents. This is then the bottom line for other students working on research projects, no matter if they’re pursuing a PhD, master’s degree, or writing a capstone paper: Sometimes it pays off to aimlessly click around the internet.

The Global Cold War: Gerald Ford and Angola

Left: First official portrait of President Gerald R. Ford. Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library - Right: location of angola in africa.

Left: First official portrait of President Gerald R. Ford. Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library - Right: location of angola in africa.

By Julianne Haefner

It is finally summer in Michigan – which means all PhD students are just hanging out on one of the beautiful Great Lake beaches, right? Not quite, for many PhD students – like myself – summer is the time to dive into our research (and yes, sometimes dive into Lake Michigan). In this post, I would like to share my on-going dissertation project. I will discuss how I became interested in the topic and what I am hoping to accomplish. As of now, the project is titled: “U.S. Foreign Policy towards Angola during the Ford Administration, 1974 to 1977.”

Backtrack a few years back: At the time I was pursuing a Master of Arts at the University of Jena in Germany. In one of my political science classes, I was assigned to write a research paper about the 1988 New York Accords (also known as the Agreement among the People's Republic of Angola, the Republic of Cuba, and the Republic of South Africa). The accords ended foreign involvement in the Angolan Civil War and granted independence to Namibia (formerly known as South West Africa).

While I had to write a political science paper on the accords, I still had to research the decade-long conflict. I was intrigued. I roughly knew where Angola was. The country is situated at the southwest coast of Africa, with direct access to the Atlantic Ocean. Neighboring countries include Namibia, Zambia, and Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo). What I did not know was that the United States had been financially involved in the civil war. Angola, formerly a Portuguese colony, became independent on November 11, 1975. In the aftermath of independence, a civil war broke out in Angola, with three movements vying for control of the newly independent country: the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA). These movements were backed by outside powers: the United States and some of its European allies supported UNITA, Cuba and the Soviet Union backed the Communist MPLA.

Why, though, did foreign powers become involved in internal Angolan affairs? There are multiple answers. One of them certainly is competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Angola was a proxy war. But this is not the entire story. Angola also has natural resources, in particular oil. Oil had been found off shore and in the Angolan province of Cabinda. The relationship between South Africa, Namibia, Zaire, Zambia, and the U.S. played an important role. Understanding the different players and their attitudes and interests in Angola has been fascinating (and very complicated).

For any Michigander Gerald Ford is an important name. But his presidency has received little to no scholarly attention at all. He is often grouped in with the Presidency of Richard Nixon. The Cold War has been studied extensively, and proxy wars like the Vietnam War have received a lot of scholarly attention. The Angolan war, however, has not been studied with as much detail. In recent years there has been a push to study what is called the global Cold War. This refers to studying the Cold War as a global phenomenon, and not just as a conflict that took place between the Soviet Union and the United States. With my research, I hope to contribute to studying Gerald Ford and the global Cold War.

Thankfully, I have been able to conduct much of my research online. The Gerald R. Ford library in Ann Arbor has been digitizing a lot of their holdings. In a few weeks, however, I will be travelling to Ann Arbor. The library has awarded me a travel grant to further my research. I look forward to this opportunity. This research experience has been truly rewarding and challenging. To me, there are worse ways to spend my 2018 summer.

Feel free to contact me (haefn1jh[at]cmich.edu) if you have any questions or ideas.