The cable to the Senate Department - dated Aug. 27, 1964 - acknowledged that the Congolese government would need to keep its Cuban exile pilots in the fighting for at least another year. Copies were routed also to the White House and the Central Intelligence Agency.
"Although a lot will be said about Cubans being U.S. mercenaries," the U.S. ambassador in Leopoldville (now Kinshasa) advised Washington, "we will want (to) continue (to) say as little as possible and refer all inquiries to GOC (Government of the Congo) with whom (the) pilots have contracts."
As that cable shows, the issue of Cuban surrogates in Africa is not a new one. Its history is riddled with ironies such as those concocted by Evelyn Waugh. Fourteen years ago, it was the United States that was concerned with concealing their presence in the fitful land.
The occasion of the once-secret cablegram was yet another crisis in the rebel-torn Congo (now Zaire) where the central government and its armed forces, headed by Gen. Joseph Mobutu, were professing fears of an imminent communist takeover.The Johnson administration had secretly decided, some two weeks earlier, to provide the Congolese government with B26s for "reconnaissance and strafing" as well as bombing of rebel areas.
At least some of the Cuban exile pilots, evidently enlisted with the help of the CIA, had already arrived in the African nation, flying T28 trainer-flighters and other U.S.-supplied planes.
All this, however, was supposed to be kept carefully from the American public, according to recently declassified records of the Johnson administration now available the LBJ Library in Austin, Tex. President Carter has complained that his hands have been tied in Africa by a variety of complex congressional restrictions.
The decision to supply the B26s was reflected in an Aug. 15, 1964, cable from then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk to the U.S. Embassy in Leopoldville, calling, in effect, for a cover-up of the salient facts.
The cable set out a number of questions that might be "stimulated by arrival of B26s" and then laid down the answers that the State Department would supply "only if asked." Rusk even prescribed the format as follows:
"Q. Will Americans fly the B26s?
"A. There has been no change in the department's statement, June 17, that U.S. citizens would not in the future be called upon by the Congo government to engage in operational missions in the police action within the Congo.
"Q. Will these B26s be under the control of our ambassador or of the Congolese government?
"A. The planes are provided to the Congolese government and will be flown by contract personnel engaged by that government."
Concerning any loose ends, Rusk decreed that "the department will not discuss the specific purpose for which Congolese government intends use planes or respond to questions concerning possible bomb loads." (The bombs, other documents at the LBJ Library indicate, were to be kept, until needed, at Wheelus Air Force Base structed simply to "reiterate the purpose of GOC [Government of Congo] request QUOTE for long-range reconnaissance planes to help assure Congolese internal security END QUOTE. . ."
Finally, the secretary of state said in the cable, "if questioned on terms of agreement under which planes are provided (lease, grant), department will respond QUOTE we are not prepared to discuss that END QUOTE."
Contrasts with today's crisis in Zaire are not limited to the current U.S. allegations of Castro Cuban and Soviet Russian complicity with rebel forces. Today it is Peking that is allied with Mobutu and the United States in denouncing Soviet expansionism in Africa. In 1964, it was the alleged "Chicom" threat in the Congo that pervaded U.S. cable traffic ("Chicom involvement has been evident," Rusk declared in one message).
Through it all, the State Department's watchword for helping prop up a unified Congo in the face of widespread rebellions was "Africanization" of the conflict. The LBJ papers, however, show above all how difficult it is to help other nations help themselves. It requires a prodigious amount of maneuvering, even in times when there is barely a hing of congressional oversight.
Witness, for example, the arrangement outlined by then Secretary of the Army Cyrus R. Vance on April 21, 1964, for the operation and maintenance of six T28 fighters, six H21 helicopters and 10 C47s that the United States was planning to ship to the Congo once a U.N. peacekeeping force pulled out at midyear.
"I understand flight and ground-crews to operate and maintain the aircraft provided by the U.S. are to be sought from the Belgians and/or Italians," Vance wrote. But in case that didn't work out, he said, he was setting aside $2 million "for the U.S. to provided, on a contract basis, civilian pilots and mechanics for this equipment . . ."
As contemplated by the Pentagon that spring, Cuban exiles were eventually hired, ostensibly by the Congolese government headed by Mobutu's colleagues of the moment, President Joseph Kasavubu and Prime Minister Moise Tshombe.
According to a CIA daily situation report of Aug. 25, 1964, Moscow's tass International Service was asserting not only that South African pilots were using American planes but that these pilots were "acting together recruited in Miami by the CIA to pilot fighters and bombers supplied to Tshombe by the U.S."
U.S. Ambassador G. McMurtrie Godley II, however, still seemed to think a low profile was possible. While the United States should keep as far away as possible from the mercenaries pouring into the Congo, especially Europeans and South Africans, he said in his Aug. 27 cabe, Washington should recognize that "security has deteriorated in Congo to point only white mercenaries or direct intervention by non-African units can save day."
For their part, Congolese officials appear to have driven the State Department to exasperation at times with their reluctance to seek the help of other Africans, despite repealed U.S. exhortations and backstage solicitations.
"Believe possibility [of] 'Americanizing Africanization' quite likely," Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs G. Mennen Williams cabled Washington during August 1964 visit prompted by the fall of Stanleyville (now Kisangani).
Gen. Mobutu, backed up by Tshombe and other top Congolese, had just asked Williams at a lengthy meeting for three U.S. parachute battalions as soon as possible. Tshombe did most of the talking.
"I ride to talk Tshombe out of even making request by pointing out broad implications for U.S. already deeply committed in Far East," William reported Aug. 15. "However, he insisted that I transmit his request for U.S. paratroops soonest and insisted this only move which could be realistically expected to save Congo from communist rebels."
The dickering apparently lasted several days, at one point prompting an indignant cable from Rusk who told his diplomats that he was "shocked at naivete of Tshombe" and demanding to know, among other things, why Tshombe's once-secessionist-minded Katanga gendarmes, many of them then in Angola, couldn't be brought into the fray.
"What has happened to consideration movement Katanga gendarmes perhaps from Angola to stiffen Leopoldville and threatened areas" the secretary of state asked Williams.
The palavering seems to have ended only when Williams, confronted with a new demand for more U.S. fighter planes and helicopters, told Tshombe and the others on Aug. 16 that about seven B26s would be provided 'as quickly as possible for reconnaissance and strafing." At that he said "Congolese clapped hands in applause."
Back in Washington the next day according to other LBJ Library papers, the White Housee was assured that things were looking up in the Congo.
"The press is pretty quiet, and, since we have little to gain from publicity," a National Security Council staffer advised the president in an Aug. 17, 1964, memo relaying the latest news from the State Department. "We are knocking down any 'Vietnam' talk of U.S. combat involovment in the Congo."