Kennedy’s interest in ending colonialism and supporting the struggle for self-determination, which first attracted national attention in the 1950s as a result of his speeches attacking French colonialism in Vietnam and Algeria, extended as well to the struggles for independence in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1958, the State Department first established a Bureau of African Affairs and the following year, Kennedy became chairman of the African Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
During the 1960 campaign Kennedy repeatedly faulted the Eisenhower administration for neglecting “the needs and aspirations of the African people” and stressed that the U.S. should be on the side of anti-colonialism and self-determination. Kennedy learned during that campaign summer that a group of Kenyan students who had won scholarships to study at American universities were unable to raise the funds to cover their travel expenses to the U.S. When the Eisenhower administration refused to intervene, JFK arranged to have the Kennedy family foundation underwrite their travel. The airlift received a great deal of national and international attention.
President Kennedy recognized, in the ever-present context of Cold War politics, that Africa was on the cusp of a historic revolution; if the U.S. continued to side with the colonialists there was no doubt which side would be chosen by the Soviet Union. Kennedy was particularly careful about selecting skilled and open-minded ambassadors to the newly emerging independent African states and made a special effort to personally meet with them during their periodic consultations at the State Department.
Unfortunately, Kennedy’s somewhat idealistic notions about Africa’s potential for democracy soon came into direct conflict with the Soviet Union’s effort to expand its influence throughout the African continent. The Congo had become independent from Belgium in 1960 and was almost immediately torn apart by what President Kennedy described as “civil strife, political unrest and public disorder.” Former Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba had been murdered early in 1961 despite the presence of a United Nations peacekeeping force; Moïse Tshombe, leader of Katanga Province, declared its independence from the Congo and the Soviet Union responded by sending weapons and technicians to underwrite their struggle. Khrushchev even charged that the U.N. had been involved in Lumumba’s murder and was covertly trying to prop up Africa’s dying colonial regimes. The bloody struggle, exacerbated by Cold War tensions and the 1961 death of U.N. secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld in a Congo plane crash, continued well into the 1960s.
JFK also employed very effective personal diplomacy, inviting more than two-dozen African leaders to the White House during his brief presidency. In each case, Kennedy made clear that he was committed to African nationalism and independence. He repeatedly surprised many of his African visitors by declaring that he understood their professed need to remain neutral in the Cold War. He also expressed the hope that the United States would eventually win them over by example, rather than by words alone.