The Cold War

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How did the Cold War affect Africa?

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Africa, like all continents, was affected by the Cold War. It was probably less strategically important than Europe and Asia, though. The United States fought two large conflicts in Asia—Korea and Vietnam—during the Cold War but none in Africa. The US strategy of containment was applied less strictly in Africa than elsewhere, and the US did not have a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for Africa.

Most of Africa had been divided into colonies until after World War II. Western European nations, exhausted by WWII, were no longer able to maintain control of their colonies in Africa. Africa's newly independent states were confronted by a choice: Western-style democracy or Soviet-style communism? In this competition between East and West for Africa, the Soviet Union could rightly claim that it had not previously colonized and exploited African nations. Africans remembered, on the other hand, the injustices they had endured under Western control. Nevertheless, most African nations tried to stay neutral during the Cold War.

The creation of Israel after WWII led to a conflict between it and neighboring Arab states. The most powerful of these Arab states was Egypt. Both sides courted Egypt, as both wanted to maintain access to the Suez Canal.

Congo was the scene of an intense Cold War confrontation. Patrice Lumumba, the country's first post-independence leader, was supported by Moscow. In 1961, he was murdered, probably with help from the US.

Angola finally gained independence from Portugal in the 1970s. But it was torn by civil war between pro-communist and anti-communist factions. Communist Cuba sent thousands of troops to fight in that war.

Africa faced many challenges after winning its independence, and the Cold War added to its difficulties.

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As both the United States and the Soviet Union were nuclear powers, direct confrontation between the two superpowers was impossible, not to say unthinkable. So both sides used proxies in the developing world to help advance their respective geopolitical objectives. The continent of Africa, like Asia, became a Cold War battleground. The economic weakness of Africa made it especially vulnerable to overtures from both Americans and Russians alike as they sought to gain a strategic foothold in the continent. The main area of interest for successive American governments was North Africa, due to its proximity to the Middle-East and the vital oil supply routes so important to the US economy. Yet the Soviets checked US interests in Egypt, for example, using the Arab nationalism of Nasser as a way of gaining influence in the region.

The Soviets' approach to Egypt was indicative of a wider strategy. The USSR set itself up as an ally of subject African peoples in their struggle against Western colonialism. Communism—in theory, at least—was a natural partner with anti-colonialism on account of its liberationist ideology. The growing desire of many Africans to throw off the yoke of colonial oppression could comfortably be reconciled with Marxist rhetoric about emancipation of the workers from capitalist domination and control. The Soviets aggressively exploited this rhetoric to the full in their dealings with a number of African governments, rebels, and independence movements.

Yet aside from the high-flown revolutionary slogans, the Soviet Union was also motivated by economic interests in its dealings with Africa. Angola, for instance, became an especially volatile theater of conflict in the Cold War, opening a new front in the struggle between East and West. As the country was rich in oil it inevitably attracted the attention of both sides. The United States supported rebel movements such as UNITA against the Marxist MPLA, which was backed by the Soviets. The ensuing Angolan Civil War lasted a staggering 27 years before the MPLA finally prevailed. But the conflict took an incredible toll of death and destruction on the country, undoubtedly exacerbated by the constant flow of arms and cash supplied by both the Americans and the Soviets.

There's often a fine line between assistance and exploitation, especially in the conduct of an overtly ideological conflict like the Cold War. Whatever the respective motivations of the United States and the Soviet Union may have been, there's little doubt that self-interest played a major part, and that both sides saw in a continent moving away from its colonial past a great opportunity to open up virgin territory and make their mark.

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Africa was impacted by the Cold War. Much like other parts of the world, the communists and "non-communists" tried to get control over lands in Africa. There were some nations that sided with the Soviet Union, while some sided with the United States. There were wars fought in countries such as Angola, Mozambique, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These wars killed many African people.

One example of the Cold War can be seen in Egypt. When Egyptian president Nasser could not get money for the building of the Suez Canal, he seized the canal from British and French investors. This eventually led to a conflict with Israel, France, and Great Britain against Egypt, which was supported by the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union threatened to use nuclear weapons against Europe unless the invasion ended. The United States suggested to the Soviet Union that this was not a good idea and also suggested that the Soviet Union stay out of the conflict. Eventually, the United States pressured Great Britain, France, and Israel to end the conflict. Once the conflict ended, the Soviet Union still supported Egypt, leading to future tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States.

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