Nancy Mitchell is a professor of history at North Carolina State University and author of "Jimmy Carter in Africa: Race and the Cold War," which won the American Academy of Diplomacy's Douglas Dillon Award and The Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations' Robert Ferrell Prize.

Robert Mugabe rose to power in Zimbabwe as a result of Cold War politics. (Ben Curtis/Associated Press)

Facing almost certain impeachment, Robert Mugabe has resigned, ending his 40-year rule in Zimbabwe. And while it’s tempting to see the attempted coup that preceded his resignation as purely a problem of a foreign dictator who has overstayed his welcome, the rise of Mugabe was actually intimately tied up with U.S. Cold War politics.

In late 1975, the Cold War had arrived in southern Africa. By early 1976 — while Ronald Reagan and President Gerald Ford were battling for the Republican nomination and Jimmy Carter was still a long shot for the Democrats — 36,000 Cuban troops had landed in Angola.

Ford, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and a whole host of Americans were convinced that these Cuban troops were Soviet proxies. This set into motion decisions that would draw the U.S. into the politics of southern Africa and contribute to Mugabe’s rise.

By the mid-1970s, there was rising concern about detente, particularly among the group that would become known as neoconservatives. In his campaign against Ford, Reagan railed against the weakness of detente, and urged the United States to take a stronger position against Soviet adventurism.

One of Reagan’s main targets was Henry Kissinger. Just a few months earlier, South Vietnam had fallen. The detente that Kissinger had spearheaded looked like a failure. Kissinger, who had been depicted as “Super K!” on the cover of Newsweek in 1974, now faced calls for his firing from conservatives, led by Reagan. He was seen as too moderate, too soft, too associated with the Nelson Rockefeller wing of the Republican Party.

Kissinger needed a win. And he thought he could ring up a cheap one in Angola where three independence movements were vying for power in the wake of Portugal’s decision to decolonize. Kissinger masterminded a covert operation, including a South African invasion, to bring the most pro-American faction to power.

As Piero Gleijeses shows in his masterful Conflicting Missions, Kissinger’s scheme would have worked — if Fidel Castro had not decided to counter with 36,000 soldiers. This changed, or at least appeared to change, the balance of power: From Washington’s point of view, the Cuban troops meant the Soviets now had a means to project power well beyond their borders.

Thus the Cold War came to southern Africa.

Castro’s troops repelled the South Africans. Kissinger’s plan was in shambles, and a pro-Cuban, leftist regime took power in Luanda.

Enter Zimbabwe.

The Ford administration was convinced that Cuban troops would next move to Zimbabwe (then known as Rhodesia), where several independence movements were battling the illegal, racist regime of Ian Smith.

Ford, Kissinger and many others in Washington feared that the independence movements might ask the Cubans for help. This would put the administration in a terrible bind: In Cold War terms, Washington would have to counter another Cuban intervention in Africa, but that would mean publicly supporting Smith’s regime. Both options were untenable. Therefore Henry Kissinger rushed to cut the Cubans off at the pass.

In April 1976, Kissinger traveled to sub-Saharan Africa for the first time. In Lusaka, Zambia, he declared that the United States supported black majority rule in Rhodesia.

It was an extraordinary moment. The Nixon team had expected the white minority regimes of the Portuguese colonies, Rhodesia and South Africa to survive for a long time, and they were happy about that. For Kissinger to appear in Zambia and declare support for majority rule in Rhodesia was revolutionary. And it was a direct response to the Cuban victory in Angola.

For the remainder of 1976, Kissinger spent the bulk of his energy trying to resolve the war in Rhodesia. He used similar techniques to those he had employed in the Middle East and Vietnam: secrecy and urgency. He rode roughshod over the British and left much of the State Department in the dark. He declared to a friend that his strategy was “to keep it confused until somebody’s nerves go.”

By the end of the year he had strong-armed the British into convening a conference in Geneva to force negotiations between Ian Smith and the guerrilla leaders. It was in the crucible of the need to present a united front at the conference that Robert Mugabe emerged as the leader of one of the two main independence movements, ZANU.

This was the situation that Jimmy Carter inherited: Cuban troops in Angola, Soviet-backed independence movements fighting an illegal, racist regime in Rhodesia and intense American involvement in the crisis.

On the day Secretary of State Cyrus Vance moved into his office in Foggy Bottom, Ian Smith announced that negotiations were over, and the Geneva conference collapsed. Kissinger’s policy had failed. A prolonged guerrilla struggle in Rhodesia, with Soviets and Cubans intervening to help the insurgents and South Africans intervening to aid Smith, seemed likely. This would not only destabilize all of southern Africa, but also further undermine detente.

The Carter administration, therefore, could not avoid Rhodesia. But there were also other reasons to pay attention. Carter had pledged during the campaign to restore American values, post-Watergate, to U.S. foreign policy. Carter, a man from the Deep South, was particularly attuned to the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and ’60s

During the presidential campaign, he had declared, “I think the greatest thing that ever happened to the South was the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the opening up of opportunities to black people . . . It not only liberated black people, but it also liberated whites.” Carter and his point man on Africa, U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, saw a parallel between the struggle in Rhodesia against Ian Smith and the U.S. civil rights movement.

Moreover, Carter’s victory over Ford had been a squeaker, and the black vote had made the crucial difference. As Andrew Young declared, “The hands that picked the cotton have elected a president.”

Finally, Africa was not only the locus of the Cold War in the 1970s, it was also seen as the land of opportunity: with oil-rich Nigeria as an engine, the continent seemed poised for an economic take off.

For all these reasons — Cold War security concerns, racial justice and economics — Jimmy Carter wanted to resolve the Rhodesian war.

In terms of the Cold War, Carter continued Kissinger’s policy, but with a very different approach. Whereas Kissinger had relied on secrecy and speed, the Carter administration methodically sought buy-in from all parties — including, crucially, the top three Rhodesian independence movement leaders, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, Joshua Nkomo and Robert Mugabe.

Mugabe was in many ways the dark horse of the three. Muzorewa, a Methodist bishop, had studied in the United States and was lionized by conservatives like Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Nkomo was a bon vivant who traveled the world seeking funds, networking and living the good life. The British foreign office favored him. Mugabe, on the other hand, was an ascetic intellectual who eschewed the backslapping that fostered friendships in the West.

While Kissinger had forbidden his small team working on Rhodesia to circulate their cables, Vance encouraged all U.S. ambassadors in Africa and the Africa desk at the State Department to always copy to each other, creating an early listserv. Everyone was in the loop, and they all contributed to the policy.

Additionally, a joint team of British and U.S. diplomats, headed on the American side by Andrew Young, repeatedly toured southern Africa to mediate among the guerrilla factions and the Smith government. Secretary of State Vance and British foreign secretary David Owen also toured Africa and hosted the parties in London and Washington, in search of a solution.

This was the U.S. government’s first exposure to Mugabe. Kissinger admitted, after his Africa tour, that he did not even know who Mugabe was. The Carter team, on the other hand, opened direct negotiations with him, as with the other guerrilla leaders.

In the history of U.S. foreign policy, this was extraordinary. What other Cold War president had directly negotiated with Communist-backed guerrillas? Carter himself refused to allow negotiations with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua until the fall of the Somoza dictatorship was imminent. Nor did he open direct negotiations with the anti-Shah dissidents in Iran. But Rhodesia was different. Why?

In part because Carter framed the war there in terms of the U.S. civil rights struggle. The analogy was inaccurate, but useful. It allowed Carter to see the Rhodesian guerrillas as freedom fighters against injustice rather than communist proxies. It also gave him courage when the negotiations stalled, which they did frequently. Carter was steadfast in his belief that change — racial justice — would transform Rhodesia just as it had the U.S. south, and that it would benefit blacks and whites alike.

Framing the war as a liberation struggle allowed Carter to pursue an unusual course in U.S. diplomacy. Rather than chase an elusive “moderate center,” the Carter administration sought peace in Rhodesia through truly free, democratic elections. Peace would close the door on the opportunity for the Soviets and Cubans to intervene, and peace could only be achieved, Washington believed, through elections that were transparently fair.

This was the goal of Carter’s diplomacy in Zimbabwe. “I spent more effort and worry on Rhodesia than I did on the Middle East,” Carter told me. It bore fruit: it laid the groundwork for the Lancaster House conference in 1979, when the parties finally agreed to a peace settlement and free elections. When those elections were held, Robert Mugabe won in a landslide.

So does Jimmy Carter bear any responsibility for the rise of Mugabe?

In a way, yes. Had Ford still been president, he would have accepted the results of an earlier, deeply flawed election that had handed victory to Muzorewa. Had the British had their way, they would have tipped the scales for Nkomo. The Carter administration was convinced that neither solution would have ended the war, and ending the war was its primary goal. Carter was not pro-Mugabe, but he was in favor of free and fair elections, and the Rhodesian people, given this opportunity, chose Mugabe.

Mugabe’s landslide victory seemed, at the time, to auger hope for the newly independent Zimbabwe. At his inauguration, Mugabe snubbed the Soviets and embraced the Americans. Washington opened the first embassy in Harare, while the Soviets had to wait ten months before Mugabe approved theirs.

From the perspective of 1980, it appeared that Carter had achieved his goals: peace and racial justice. From today’s perspective, contemplating almost four decades of Mugabe’s dictatorship, we can reflect on a central challenge of democracy: that free and fair elections do not always result in good leaders.