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Frank Carlucci and the Last Days of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo

Long before he was President Reagan’s Secretary of Defense, Frank Carlucci was a young State Department political officer in Kinshasa, Congo (then known as Leopoldville).  He got to know Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and was among the last Americans to see him alive before Lumumba’s 1961 murder.

Multiple theories surround Lumumba’s death, which remains controversial to this day.  In his oral history, Carlucci does not provide exact details on the assassination. But he offers fascinating vignettes of the embattled Congolese politician in his final days.  He also describes the chaos that followed Congo’s abrupt independence, including his house arrest by the breakaway government of Katanga Province and an armed standoff at Leopoldville’s airport when Lumumba was attempting to fly to Stanleyville (Kisangani).

Lumumba, the first prime minister of independent Congo, was a prominent leader in the nationalist movement that achieved independence in 1960.  Within eleven days of independence, Katanga, a southern province rich in mining resources, seceded from Congo. Lumumba called on the international community to help him regain control of the country, accepting help from anyone who would provide it, including the Soviet Union. At the height of the Cold War, this put him squarely at odds with the United States and other western powers.  Lumumba was assassinated in January 1961 under suspect circumstances.

Carlucci went on to a distinguished career in government, including service as Ambassador to Portugal and National Security Adviser.  He retired after two serving as Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan.

Ambassador Frank Carlucci was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy initially on December 30, 1996.

Read Ambassador Frank Carlucci’s full oral history HERE and HERE.

Drafted by Jamie Smith

“Nobody knew what was going to happen on the day of independence.”

The Chaos of Independence: I arrived 15 days before independence. We had a Consul General who was leaving and an ambassador had been designated, Clare Timberlake. The situation was one of considerable confusion. Nobody knew what was going to happen on the day of independence. There was a lot of focus in the consulate general on getting our independence delegation in place, making sure we were appropriately represented. There was a feeling that we did not really know the real African leadership. What was it going to be? Who was it going to be? What did the Belgians let go of at the time of independence? There were just a lot of unanswered questions. Some felt the Belgians had gone too fast. Everybody knew that education-wise the Congolese were not fully prepared for independence so there was anticipation of difficulty.

I set about to get to know the political figures. I did several unorthodox things which irritated the administrative officer of the embassy to no end. I persuaded the DCM (deputy chief of mission), Rob McIlvaine, a marvelous man, to allow me to rent a Volkswagen so I had my own car and didn’t go around in an embassy chauffeured car. I then got myself some press credentials because the press moved around more freely than anybody else could. Lumumba tended to hold a press conference a day and I figured it was important to get into those. Then I got myself a pass to the Parliament which was in formation. And basically spent all day outside the embassy. Just floating in from time to time.

“I was standing in the middle between the two forces with machine guns pointed at each other.”

Meeting Lumumba: I’d sit in the bar in the Parliament and go up and shake hands with them and strike up a conversation. I got to know Patrice Lumumba under fairly adverse circumstances which is getting ahead of the story a little bit. But after independence when chaos broke loose-I might as well go into this story, it’s an interesting story. It has to do with Ralph Bunche [the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who received the Nobel Peace Prize].

He [Bunche] came out just after independence. Prior to that, we had been through the evacuation, the rapes and the pillaging. We were living in the embassy around the clock. He dictated a cable calling on the UN to send in a multinational force from my office. I was standing right beside him when he dictated the cable. When the first planes came in bringing Ghanaian troops, we had a critical situation.

The ambassador called me up and said, “There is nobody at the airport, the controllers have fled, the airplanes are in the air, they’re something like an hour from landing, get out there and get them down.” So I went out to the airport and spent the day acting like (an air traffic) controller, an airline attendant, and what have you.  We got the airplanes in. Meanwhile the Belgian troops had moved in to take over part of the airport.

Towards the end of the day, Rob McIlvaine, the DCM, called me and said, “Patrice Lumumba called and wants to go to Stanleyville and would we take him?”

And he said, “Frank, he’s coming, he’s on his way out [to the airport].”

I guess that was early afternoon. Well, he didn’t show up until about 5:00 and just drove out onto the tarmac with a big entourage. On the other side, the Belgian forces drove up and confronted him. I was standing in the middle between the two forces with machine guns pointed at each other.

Lumumba said, “I’m here to go to Stanleyville [later Kisangani] and you’re going to take me.”

The aircraft commander came up and said, “We’ve just learned that the controllers in Stanleyville have been killed and all the lights are out. We’re not going.”

The Belgian colonel said, “Unless you get these people off the tarmac in five minutes, I’m opening fire.”

So I had a dilemma on my hands. I finally grabbed the aircraft commander and I said, “I don’t care if we fly up to Stanleyville. Turn around and fly back. We’re getting in this airplane right now or there is going to be gunfire here.”

He said, “Okay.”

So I took Lumumba and [Congolese president] Kasavubu, both to Stanleyville.

“I said, ‘Why did you scream at me?’ He said, ‘I didn’t realize you were an American. I thought you were European.’”

Developing a Friendship with Lumumba: Lumumba was prime minister and Kasavubu was president at that point. And there was a man named Maurice Mpolo who was accompanying them as sort of a military aide, who later became Minister of Sports. I told him that we had a problem in Stanleyville, but if they insisted on going, I would take them. They said we insist on going. In fact Lumumba had screamed at me. He called me and he said something to the effect that “You Europeans are all hypocrites. You promised me.”

And when we got on the airplane, I said, “Why did you scream at me?”

He said, “I didn’t realize you were an American. I thought you were European.” The two of them stood in the cockpit. It was a Globemaster C-124. They stood in the cockpit the entire flight to Stanleyville. On the way up, I told them that there were Europeans in Stanleyville and I assumed they didn’t have any objection if we took them back on the plane. Lumumba agreed. Then when we got off the plane, the Europeans came to me and said, “We want to leave but the immigration authorities won’t let us leave.”

I said, “Well, that’s your problem. You go work it out with them. I’m not your Consul.” These were basically Belgians. There were about 30 of them. They came back a couple of hours later and said, “It’s really hopeless. They won’t let us leave and they are now treating us in a way that our lives are in danger.”

I said, “Well, I’m not your Consul but I’ll see what I can do.”

So I went around to the governor’s house in Stanleyville where Lumumba and Kasavubu were having a cocktail party and talked to Lumumba and said, “You had in effect said I could take them out. We have done you a favor by bringing you up here and I hoped that we could go ahead. You should let these people loose.”

And he responded with something like, “These are bad ‘Flemish’ and they shouldn’t be allowed to go.” But then he turned to me–he was tall and I am short–and dropped his hand on my shoulder and said, “But I like you. You are my friend. I give you the Belgians. It’s a gift.”

I said, “Don’t give it as a gift, but I’m happy to take them.”

For several years thereafter I got cards from the Belgians thanking me for getting them out of Stanleyville. That’s how I got to know Lumumba. We became pretty good–I don’t want to say friends–but every time I’d run across him, he’d have a pleasant greeting for me.

The Congo in Context:  The Congo was the focus of world attention. It was at the heart of the Cold War struggle at the time. There was a lot of feeling that Lumumba was a Communist sympathizer. We had Senator Dodd, Tom Dodd, who was an active critic of people like Lumumba and Gbenye, the latter being Lumumba’s Interior Minister. Dodd came out and I was his escort officer. I thought he had become convinced that Lumumba and Gbenye, while they may have had some sympathy for the Soviets, didn’t really understand what communism was. But when he went back to the U.S., he called them communists again. We should remember that Lumumba came to Washington and was rejected before he turned to the Soviets. How he got to Washington was an interesting story.

Lumumba’s Journey to the United States: DCM McIlvaine called me one day and said the prime minister had just called him and he said that he wanted to go to Washington. McIlvaine had said, “Fine, we will be glad to welcome you in Washington. Could you tell me when the visit will take place?”

The answer was “this afternoon.” McIlvaine instructed me, “Frank, you’ve got to organize this.”

I went to the consul, who was a rather strong-willed woman named Tally Palmer–Alison–who later became famous for defense of women’s rights in the State Department. I said, “Tally, I want you to prepare about 20 visas on blank sheets of paper.” She looked at me like I was crazy. I said, “Now, just do it.” Sure enough, all of a sudden a delegation appeared on her doorstep and said, “We want 20 visas.” She was able to issue these visas on blank sheets of paper.

I then went to the airport. I couldn’t find an airplane. I couldn’t figure out how they were going to get to the U.S. So I went to the controller’s office and said, “Do you have an aircraft coming in that is going to take the prime minister of the Congo to the United States?”

He said, “No. The only thing we’ve got in is a Ghanaian Air Force plane that just landed and disembarked some troops.”

So, I went back to the radio room and at that moment, Lumumba and his entourage pulled up. I stopped them and said, “Mr. Prime Minister, we would like to welcome you to the United States, but do you know how you are going to get there?”

He said, “Do you see that plane over there?”

And I said, “Yes. It’s a Ghanaian Air Force plane.”

He said, “We’re going in that plane.”

I went over to the plane and said to the pilot, “Did anybody give you any instructions to take a group of Congolese to the United States?”

He said, “No.” And at that moment Lumumba and company approached the plane. The pilot looked at me and he said, “What should I do?”

I said, “You better salute and let him board and take them wherever they want to go,” which is precisely what the pilot did. In fact, there was a humorous sequence when he got out on the tarmac ready to take off. A straggler came running out and stood in front of the airplane and wouldn’t let them take off until they put him on board. They lowered the ladder and put him on board. They flew to Accra where apparently they got a plane to go to the United States.

“I and then-Senator Gale McGee were probably the last two westerners to see him alive.”

Lumumba’s Assassination: [The story about Lumumba and 100 Soviet trucks] had been blown up out of proportion to its intrinsic worth. We were all worried about the Russian technicians who had come along with the trucks and what they would do. It was a symbol that Lumumba was willing to, if necessary, play the Soviet game and that aroused a great deal of concern. Lumumba moved further and further to the left. You could argue that he was driven there by the West’s lack of responsiveness. Whether it was that or whether it was his inclination, or whether he was enticed by what the Soviets had to offer, those were all fears.

The fact was that he gradually became more critical in his comments toward the West and more erratic in his behavior. I came to fear that he had lost not only our confidence but he was losing the confidence of his own parliament. A lot of people thought I was nuts when I said that. One of the riskier things that I’ve done in my entire career was to do a nose count of the Congolese parliament in 1960. But I listed each member and where I thought he was going to vote and I concluded that Lumumba would lose. Washington couldn’t believe that but we managed to persuade Washington that the UN should be allowed to hold what was called the Lovanium summit where the parliament was sequestered. It was kept insulated from political pressures and beer until they voted. Lumumba was defeated. It was out of that meeting that Adoula became Prime Minister, a much more moderate man. It’s common to say that . . . there was a coup against Lumumba, but in fact he was voted out.

It was then that he . . . reacted.  He went into his residence and it was only when he left his residence to try and flee that he was captured. Had he stayed in his residence, he probably wouldn’t have been captured. As it was, I was probably–I and then-Senator Gale McGee–were probably the last two westerners to see him alive. We were having a drink about mid-afternoon at a sidewalk café and a truck went by. Lumumba had his hands tied behind his back and was in the rear part of the truck. The truck was on the way to the airport. As you know, he was killed either in the airplane or shortly after he got off the airplane in the Katanga.

“I had to find my way out of Stanleyville. I did that by hitchhiking . . . in a UN plane. I went back up to Stanleyville a couple of weeks later and they arrested me.”

Aftermath of the Assassination: I didn’t get involved. I was at the press conference when he called on the Soviets to come in. The trucks were sent and that caused quite a fuss, quite a stir in the western press. It was the beginning of the slippery slope that Lumumba got on.

Well, we were of course distressed [about Lumumba’s assassination], but what we tried to do was report the facts as we had them. There wasn’t a lot to be obtained in Leopoldville. Most of the action had taken place in the Katanga and we had to depend on our consul in Elizabethville [now Lubumbashi] to report in on what had transpired there. Our best assessment was that he had been killed after he arrived in the Katanga. A UN report subsequently said this, probably in the presence of Monongo.  

We had other things on our mind. When this happened, as I recall, I was in Stanleyville. This was shortly after they had arrested all the Europeans in Stanleyville and thrown them out. [Ambassador] Timberlake asked me if I’d go up there, back and forth and act as consul for Stanleyville. They announced on Stanleyville radio that Lumumba had been murdered and that I was the man who had done it. They claimed I was a paratrooper captain or colonel, I guess. I had made it up to the rank of colonel. They were going to see that justice was done. And as I recall, Kwame Nkrumah sent a cable to Dag Hammarskjold about me killing Lumumba and a few other things like that. So we had to worry a little bit about survival. I had to find my way out of Stanleyville. I did that by hitchhiking. In fact, I hitchhiked in a UN plane to Bukavu and then to Elizabethville and then back to Leopoldville. I went back up to Stanleyville a couple of weeks later and they arrested me.

They [the breakaway government in the Katanga province] put me under house arrest. They declared me persona non grata. . . . [T]hey said I should get back on the airplane and go back to Leopoldville.

I said, “I had no intention of doing that. I was staying in Stanleyville.”

By that time the airplane had left and the next airplane was four or five days away. So they said, “Well we’re going to put you under house arrest.”

So they put me in a house with a guard out in front. The guard had a machine gun. I managed to step out once or twice anyway. The day I was due to leave, the acting foreign minister, a man named Arsen Dionge, acting foreign minister of the Gizenga breakaway government, came around. He was trying to be very diplomatic. He came in and he said, “How is everything?”

I said, “Not very well.”

He said, “What’s your problem?”

I said, “I certainly don’t like being under house arrest and I don’t like being declared persona non grata.”

He said, “Oh, well, that. That, you shouldn’t worry about it. It’s just that it’s not convenient to have you around right now. It’s really not persona non grata or anything like that.”

I said, “Well the next thing you are going to tell me is that I’m not under house arrest.”

He said, “No, you’re not under house arrest, no problem.”

With that, the guard, who had apparently lost his patience, came in and pointed his machine gun at the acting Foreign Minister and starting talking in a local dialect. And Dionge turned to me and said, “Well, could you tell him who you are and who I am and that I’m the acting Foreign Minister because he doesn’t seem to understand.”

Well, it was a little hard to contain my laughter. So I tried to explain to the guard that it’s okay because he was the foreign minister and the foreign minister is a big man around here. Finally, the guard decided it was okay, and he put down his gun and walked back to his post. With that, the acting foreign minister turned to me and said, “This place is terrible. Can you sell me any dollars?”

They then took me and put me on an airplane and that was my last time in Stanleyville.




     Graduated, Wyoming Seminary                                                                       1948

     Graduated, Princeton University                                                                     1952

     MBA, Harvard Business School                                                                       1955


Joined the Foreign Service                                                                           1956

     Kinshasa (Leopoldville), Congo—Political Officer                                      1960-1962

     Lisbon, Portugal—Ambassador                                                                       1975-1978

     Central Intelligence Agency—Deputy Director                                            1978-1981

     The White House—National Security Advisor                                             1986-1987

     United States Secretary of Defense                                                                1987-1989