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The Lumumba Plot by Stuart A. Reid
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The Lumumba Plot

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The Lumumba Plot by Stuart A. Reid
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Oct 17, 2023 | ISBN 9781524748814

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“Fascinating. . . . Reid develops his main characters beautifully, especially Lumumba. . . . [A] carefully researched book that warns us about what is lost when tensions between great powers play out in the developing world. ” The New York Times Book Review

“Reid has brought welcome narrative coherence to a globe-spanning, multilayered story. He manages a difficult balancing act, serving up the detail that will satisfy experts while providing the dramatic tension and character analysis craved by the general reader. Despite the story’s complexity, one’s attention never wanders.” The Atlantic

[The Lumumba Plot] is many things at once: a biography, a history of Congo’s chaotic independence, a dissection of the UN’s first big peacekeeping mission and a thriller about plots to kill Lumumba. There are villains of every stripe, from rogue Belgian pilots to shamelessly scheming UN officials and racist ambassadors. This is a tragic tale but also a rollicking read. . . .  Lumumba’s life might seem of a distant, dramatic era. Yet this story feels timely.” The Economist

“Masterfully stitching together testimonies like these as well as interviews, investigations, diplomatic cables and a thorough assessment of a range of declassified files, the book often reads like a John le Carré novel, partly thanks to Reid’s gripping writing style. . . . Groundbreaking.” Financial Times

“This is the book we’ve needed for years: a thorough, judicious, eloquent account of one of the twentieth century’s pivotal moments. Patrice Lumumba’s murder was a tragedy not just for his young and troubled country but also for the way it stimulated Washington’s illusion that America could rearrange the world to its liking. Stuart Reid captures this ominous turning point with the clear-eyed wisdom it deserves.” —Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa

“This is one of the best books I have read in years. Stuart Reid writes beautifully, and the story he tells is gripping, full of colorful characters and strange plot twists. There is a powerful lesson here as well. When America gets paranoid about foreign enemies, it can make choices that are politically foolish and morally indefensible.” —Fareed Zakaria, host of Fareed Zakaria GPS on CNN, Washington Post columnist, and New York Times best-selling author

“A powerful account. The author casts tremendous clarity on this important period and how essentially the world looked away. An evenhanded work of deep scholarship that clearly elucidates a largely hidden piece of U.S. foreign policy.” Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Sweeping and detailed. Reid’s elegant prose features sharply etched sketches of historical figures, especially of the dynamic, irrepressible Lumumba. This riveting study makes of Lumumba a Shakespearean figure undone by tragic flaws.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Stuart Reid has done the impossible. He makes the almost mythical Lumumba human by placing him firmly in the context of Congolese postcolonial politics and Cold War geopolitics. By recounting how this inspired but flawed man moved a  nation, he shows how Lumumba played an outsize role in shaping Africa and indeed the world in his short lifetime. Deeply researched and thrilling to read, Reid’s work heralds a new voice and new perspective on contemporary African history.” —Uzodinma Iweala, CEO of the Africa Center and author of Beasts of No Nation

“Gripping, brilliantly written, and sobering. In Reid’s deft hands, the tragic Lumumba story reads like a le Carré thriller. Full of narrative details interwoven into a compelling analysis, The Lumumba Plot renders the past urgent for understanding the world in which we live today.” —Caroline Elkins, professor of history and African and African American studies, Harvard University, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Author Q&A

What first interested you in Congo’s history?
In 2014, I had the opportunity to travel to the Democratic Republic of the Congo for a magazine article I was working on. I was immediately taken with the place and started reading up on its history. The more I read, the more I realized there was a great untold story here about the country’s traumatic birth. The Congo crisis was front-page news in the West in 1960 and 1961, only to be largely forgotten afterwards. And the United States played a massive role in it. 

For those that might already be familiar with the established narrative of Lumumba, what would they be surprised to learn in your book?
One of the things that surprised me was how inherently pro-American he was. His critics, and even some of his supporters, later tried to paint him as deeply anti-Western—and he of course opposed European colonialism with every fiber of his being. But he put the United States in a different category from Belgium, France, and the U.K. He wanted his people to be educated in the United States. He sought out American money and expertise. At one point, he even called for U.S. troops on Congolese soil. When he eventually asked the Soviets for help, he did so out of desperation, after being turned down by Washington.     
Can you talk about your research process and the access you had to recently declassified documents? How critical were those documents in your understanding of this pivotal time in world history?
The book is built on archival documents. I spent weeks and weeks at various libraries—particularly the Dwight Eisenhower Presidential Library in Kansas, the U.S. National Archives in Maryland, and the Swedish National Library in Stockholm. I also relied heavily on a volume of documents published by the State Department in 2013, a collection that includes many CIA cables that had been top secret for more than fifty years. These documents allowed me to discover key details about the story, such as why or when a particular policy was made. In the National Archives, for example, I found a memo that to my knowledge has never been cited before. It’s written by the outgoing CIA station chief in the Congo, and it reveals that he tried to get Lumumba ousted as prime minister quite a bit earlier than we had previously known. But the documents also give you texture. When I went through the papers of Clare Timberlake, the U.S. ambassador to the Congo at the time, I discovered a casual letter written to a friend in which he makes a joke about Lumumba being a cannibal—which tells you a lot about U.S. attitudes toward Congolese leaders at the time.  
Can you talk about the role of the Congo Crisis within the larger context of the Cold War? 
In 1960, the Congo was one of seventeen African colonies to become independent. People called 1960 “the year of Africa.” The Cold War was raging, and everyone was worried which way all these new countries would go. Guinea had become independent from France in 1958 and quickly turned toward the Soviets, and the Americans didn’t want a replay of that in the Congo. So when Lumumba made overtures to Moscow, that triggered alarm bells in the State Department, the CIA, and the White House. In retrospect, it is clear that Washington was paranoid, seeing communist apparitions everywhere it looked in the Congo. Lumumba and most other Congolese were in fact simply nationalists. They opposed foreign interference no matter where it came from.   
In what ways do you think the events of 1960-1961 are still playing out in this region of Africa?
The main consequence of the Congo crisis was the installation of Joseph Mobutu—who later called himself Mobutu Sese Seko—as the country’s dictator. He ruled the country until 1997, and ran it into the ground, really. The problems the Democratic Republic of the Congo is dealing with today—poverty, violence, corruption—can all be laid at Mobutu’s feet. And the fact that Mobutu got into power and stayed so long can be laid, in turn, at America’s feet.  
Similarly, do you think the United Nations is still grappling with its role in this story?
In 1960, the UN set up its biggest and most expensive peacekeeping operation in the Congo. The secretary-general, Dag Hammarskjöld, was making a massive bet that his organization could bring stability to the troubled country. But the operation was seen as a failure, and the UN largely sat out the rest of the Cold War. Hammarskjöld was an influential diplomat. You couldn’t say that of any secretary-general that followed him. The United Nations we know today is a very different—and far less powerful—organization than the United Nations of 1960. And its failure in the Congo is responsible for much of that diminution.  

To what extent do you think the American intervention in the Congo shaped future foreign policy decisions in the decades after, particularly with respect to other newly independent nations?
In the halls of power in Washington, the U.S. operation in the Congo was seen as a success. With Lumumba’s overthrow and death, America got rid of a seemingly pro-Soviet leader and replaced him with a compliant pro-American dictator. What wasn’t to like? So one effect of the episode I write about was to enhance America’s confidence in its own ability to control the domestic politics of other countries. It’s an attitude we’d see again and again in the Cold War, from Vietnam to Chile to Iran and beyond. The problem, of course, was that propping up pro-American dictators and funding pro-American rebels wasn’t very good for the populations of those countries.   
What do you hope readers take away from this book?
Two things. First, an appreciation for what the United States did to the Congo. It’s a scandalous story, and no matter what one’s politics are, I hope my book draws attention to this oft-forgotten chapter in the history of U.S. foreign policy. Second, I want readers to gain an appreciation for Lumumba himself, warts and all. He is an endlessly fascinating figure, and despite his mercurial ways, I hope readers feel like they know him as a human and understand why he acted the way he did.

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