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An Inside Look at 1960s Africa via U.S. State Department Central Files
Curated collection is designed to enable researchers to find extraordinary insights with online access to rare full-text/full-image documents
1960s Africa was marked by both turbulence and change – a decade filled with student demonstrations, political unrest, coup d’etats, assassinations, political trials, meetings and visits of foreign leaders, economic and agricultural assistance, disputes over the use of international waters, international trade and military conflicts. The issues were captured in confidential files by the U.S. State Department. Viewed now, the documents transport researchers, placing them within the moment.
The world reacts to a devastating episode in African History
Yesterday evening while eating dinner and watching the news I was unable to finish eating upon seeing the faces of starving children, babies, men, and women in Biafra. I felt nauseated because of having so much when these people were in obvious pain and in dire need of food. I cannot bear to see anyone in need when I have something to share. Though it is not possible for me to go to Biafra at this time, I felt the least I could do was write to you and express my concern for these people and ask that the U.S. and other concerned governments and the United Nations press for a cease fire. I am sending a check to the World Church Service today to help the starving Biafrans.*
- a letter from Mrs. Betty C. Carter of Washington, D.C., to Dean Rusk on July 25, 1968
Around the world, ordinary people shared an overwhelming sense of heartbreak and helplessness as the brutal three-year Nigerian Civil War waged on, ultimately claiming the lives of up to a million or more people.
The letter from Mrs. Betty C. Carter is one example of the personal correspondence and other rare documents collected in History Vault’s Confidential U.S. State Department Central Files, 1960-1969, Africa and the Middle East.
This section of the History Vault module also contains petitions, resolutions, and appeals with dozens (and often hundreds) of signatures from groups such as the Oregon State Legislature, the Ithaca, New York, Junior Chamber of Commerce, the Washington and Northern Idaho Council of Churches, the Catholic War Veterans of Ohio, the editorial staff of Doubleday publishers in New York, and residents of Ottawa, Kansas, Dayton, Ohio, and Hanover and Lebanon, New Hampshire, and White River Junction, Vermont.
Nigeria’s bloody battle for Independence
On May 30, 1967, Lieutenant Colonel C. Odumegwu “Emeka” Ojukwu, the military governor of Nigeria’s eastern region, declared the independence of the “Republic of Biafra.” Ojukwu led a breakaway movement composed primarily of ethnic Ibos who had suffered persecution and massacre at the hands of supporters of Nigeria’s Federal Military Government (FMG).
Refusing to acknowledge the secession, the FMG, led by Major General Yakubu Gowon, invaded Biafran territory in July, commencing a brutal civil war that would last two and a half years and claim the lives of between 500,000 and two million Nigerians. Most of the victims died of starvation and disease brought on by the encirclement of the Biafran enclave, a situation exacerbated by political disputes that hindered efforts to bring food and medical supplies to the besieged population.
The U.S. government, under the administrations of Presidents Johnson and Nixon, officially maintained a policy of neutrality toward the conflict, deeming it “essentially a Nigerian, African, and [British] Commonwealth matter,” but the reality of U.S. involvement was more complex. Despite an arms embargo prohibiting military assistance to either side, the U.S. government continued to recognize the FMG as Nigeria’s sole government while becoming one of the key international sources for humanitarian relief for the Biafran people.
Researchers gain deeper insights and understanding from an almost-daily narrative of the enormous humanitarian crisis brought on by the war and the efforts of various actors, notably the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Joint Church Aid (JCA), to address those needs.
The scope of the tragedy is made apparent in a report noting the estimate of Auguste R. Lindt, the United Nations High Commissioner for Nigerian relief operations, that the ICRC in November 1968 was “feeding 850,000 in Biafra…3 meals per week.” Despite the magnitude of need, analysts determined that “the basic obstacle to increasing food deliveries to…Biafra is political rather than the inadequacy of supplies of availability of transport.” Inhibiting the movement of food and medicine was the problem of relief routes. Biafran leaders refused to accept supplies transported by truck through FMG-held territory.
A decade of in-depth coverage in Africa and the Middle East
The tragedy in Biafra is just one of the many important episodes documented in a new ProQuest History Vault module — Confidential State Department Central Files on Africa and the Middle East.
Researchers will also find material on the 1964 Rivonia trial of Nelson Mandela and seven leaders of the African National Congress, violent protest against the South African government coupled with police crackdowns on the resistance, the troubled relationship between the U.S. and the apartheid regime, and the first years of independence in Ghana and the Congo.
The files on Egypt offer considerable detail on the Egyptian political structure which was dominated by Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s. Documents on Iran follow Ali Amin's tenure as prime minister and his succession by Asadollah Alam. In Israel, State Department personnel tracked developments in the Knesset (Israeli Parliament), the political fortunes of important members of the Israeli government, and the fragile security situation faced by Israel.
Early documents establish the political background to war and introduce the individuals and issues covered throughout the files. A significant portion of the Biafra-Nigeria files are filed under the category of military operations and provide day-by-day, month-by-month accounts of military actions, diplomatic maneuverings, and the international reach of the Nigerian Civil War.
The United Kingdom and Soviet Union—an unlikely collaboration amidst global cold war tensions—supplied arms to Gowon’s FMG. Ojukwu relied on France and Portugal for military aid and succeeded in gaining diplomatic recognition from only five small countries—Tanzania, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Zambia, and Haiti. Peppered throughout the collection are documents relating to the efforts of both sides to develop and enhance relations (diplomatic, economic, and military) with other countries.
Additional resources and more information
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ProQuest resources are designed to connect and support each other, enabling users to understand topics from multiple perspectives and putting them on the path to extraordinary insights. The issue of the Nigerian Civil War is covered extensively in ProQuest Historical Newspapers and by several Alexander Street Videos. In terms of ProQuest Historical Newspapers, Lloyd M. Garrison and Gloria Emerson reported on the tragedy for The New York Times, while Donald Louchheim, Alfred Friendly Jr., and Anthony Astrachan covered events in Biafra for the Washington Post. The major Alexander Street video on the Nigerian Civil War is a 2001 documentary entitled “The Secret History of Biafra” directed by Joel Calmettes (Paris, Ile-de-France: Point du Jour International, 2001).
* Reel 10, Frame 0895