Saturday, March 16, 2024

Q&A with Stuart A. Reid


Photo by Mark Jaworski



Stuart A. Reid is the author of the new book The Lumumba Plot: The Secret History of the CIA and a Cold War Assassination. He is an executive editor of Foreign Affairs, and he lives in New Jersey.


Q: What inspired you to write The Lumumba Plot?


A: It all began in 2014, when I had the chance 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.


Q: The writer Adam Hochschild said of the book, “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.” What do you think of that assessment?


A: I am flattered by Adam’s assessment of my book—his King Leopold’s Ghost is a must-read—and think he’s right on about the significance of Lumumba’s murder.


Q: What do you see as Patrice Lumumba’s legacy today, and what would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about him?


A: Lumumba is rightly seen as a nationalist hero who carried the aspirations of his people and led his country to independence. He was intelligent and charismatic.


One fundamental misconception, especially at the time, was that he was Soviet-friendly or communist-curious. Not only was it inaccurate to describe Lumumba that way; it was in fact more accurate to call him pro-American.


He entrusted his country’s economic future to an American entrepreneur, signing a $2 billion contract handing over all the Congo’s mineral and hydroelectric resources. At one point, Lumumba even called on American troops to intervene in the Congo—hardly the words of a man beholden to Moscow!


The modern-day version of this myth is that Lumumba was a committed leftist. He was fiercely anticolonial, to be sure, but his domestic program was rather centrist. He explicitly rejected the nationalization of private industry, for example.


Q: How would you compare the dynamic between the U.S. and USSR during the Congo crisis to the relationship today between the U.S. and Russia?


A: Obviously there is a great deal of talk today about a “new cold war.” All analogies are imperfect, and there are many differences between the United States’ rivalry with the Soviet Union yesterday and its rivalry with Russia (and China) today.


But there are also many similarities—the mutual mistrust, the authoritarianism of the other side, and the supposed interest in what is now called “the developing world” and what was then called “the Third World.”


Today, as before, there is a risk that the United States imagines its rival to be more omnipresent and omnipotent than it really is.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m still basking in the glow of having published a book that took me years to write—though I’m very much open to ideas for another book.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Here, if I may, I would like to mention the groundbreaking book on the same topic, The Congo Cables, which was written by your mother, Madeleine Kalb.


More than 40 years later, it holds up remarkably well and was a valuable source for me. Many of the key documents from this episode were declassified at her behest. I’m sure scholars will still be citing it 40 years from now.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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