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An Embassy in Brazzaville During the Time of Independence

Prior to mid-August 1960, the United States had limited diplomatic activity in the French African colonies. However, within a 48-hour time span, Alan Wood Lukens, the U.S. Consul in Brazzaville, suddenly had plenty to do when the French announced a rapid withdrawal from their African colonies.

JFK welcoming Fulbert Youlou, the first president of the Republic on Congo (1961) JFK Library, Wikimedia Commons
JFK welcoming Fulbert Youlou, the first president of the Republic on Congo (1961) JFK Library, Wikimedia Commons

This action suddenly promoted him de facto as the only U.S. representative to four new countries. Fortunately, the 36-year-old World War II veteran from Pennsylvania had experience at performing under pressure and was well equipped to think on his feet. Arriving in Central Africa after stints in Paris, Martinique, and Istanbul, Brazzaville was simply a new adventure for him.

With the French withdrawal from their African colonies in 1960, formerly unified colonial states were rapidly given their independence and separated into distinct countries. Lukens, then Consul of French Equatorial Africa stationed in Brazzaville, was the only U.S. representative in the area when it was announced that the four countries of Central Africa—Chad, the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, and the Central African Republic—would each become officially independent within 48 hours of one another. Unfortunately for Lukens, since France tended to take the lead on Western policy in Central Africa, he didn’t have much official guidance from the U.S. government to draw from. Furthermore, policy was hard to solidify from the top down as the Eisenhower administration entered its twilight era and the election between Nixon and Kennedy loomed. At this point of transition, Lukens jumped into action. He realized that in order to get diplomatic relations off on the right foot, and as a show of goodwill, these countries needed a U.S. representative at their independence ceremony.

Realizing that little direction would be coming from Washington, Lukens proactively drafted a message in Eisenhower’s name to each of the presidents of the newly independent states and sent it off to Washington for approval. With no changes reported back, Lukens delivered each message in turn to the new presidents, rushing from country to country as rapidly as he could.

It would be Lukens, a consul, who would present his credentials to each of the four new nations in lieu of an ambassador. Even then, it would take years for each new state to receive their own embassies. Lukens and his proto-mission also dealt with the relative lack of interest and expertise in Central Africa within the State Department. Ultimately, the State Department established a formal mission in Brazzaville with an ambassador that would also lead the missions to the Central African Republic, Chad, and Gabon. A chargé d’affaires was assigned to each of the three countries in the stead of the non-resident ambassador. Alan Lukens was assigned as chargé to the Central African Republic in 1961 and would later be ambassador to the Republic of Congo, Brazzaville in 1984. This “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history examines the atmosphere and circumstances facing Lukens as he acted quickly.

Ambassador Alan W. Lukens’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on November 17, 1989.

Read Ambassador Alan W. Lukens’s full oral history HERE.

Drafted by Julia Gilstrap and Merrill Rabinovsky

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Excerpts:

“We don’t even care if the consuls come.”

           
Coat of arms of the Republic of the Congo from 1963 to 1969 (c.1960) Republic of Congo, Wikimedia Commons
Coat of arms of the Republic of the Congo from 1963 to 1969 (c.1960) Republic of Congo, Wikimedia Commons

Anyone There?—Lukens as the Representative: It turned out to be in my area, after they’d already been to West Africa, an independence every 48 hours, starting with Chad, Bangui, Brazzaville, and then Libreville. So I cabled all this to Washington, and said, “What are you going to do? We need messages, we need a representative to the independence.” Well Washington, being very cautious in those days about offending the French before the Kennedy era, went to the Quai d’Orsay and said, “What do you want us to do?” And they said, “Nothing.” Then the British did the same thing, and they told the British, “Nothing, we don’t need any foreign representatives, you’ve got consuls, they’re good enough. We don’t even care if the consuls come,” they said in Paris. So this all went back and forth with cables, and I was getting nowhere about getting anybody from Washington to make a fuss over the independence celebrations because we only had about ten days notice. So finally it became clear that I would be the representative, and I tried very hard to get a message. I couldn’t get very far. That was, of course, during the campaign in August of ‘60 between Nixon and Kennedy, and nobody was terribly interested in this area. So I drafted a message from President Eisenhower to each future president in the area, cabling them to Washington. They finally came back and said, “Okay.” They didn’t change anything, and then I translated the message into French so that I could hand each President his at the time of each independence.

“And bring him greetings from our President, even though Eisenhower was not aware of this.”

Anyhow, I was the senior Consul there. There weren’t very many others. There was a fellow from Taipei, and there was a poor old Portuguese that didn’t know what he was doing, and a rather obnoxious German, and a very nice Brit. So I said to them, “Look, if you’re all going to be representing your respective countries, we’ve got to get to these damn independences somehow.” So I went to my good friend, General Sizaire, the head of all French troops in Central Africa, and I explained our dilemma. So finally he agreed that we could have a DC-3 to follow around the independences because there was no other possible way to be present, air flights being what they were. The French had two fancy planes; one for Malraux and his bunch of bureaucrats; and the other for the French press, and we followed along with this DC-3. But, contrary to the French attitude about downplaying the consular part of the ceremonies, the countries themselves, the Africans, were very happy to see us. It was quite amusing. In Chad, they had an old 1935 right-hand drive car that somehow had been given to the governor, God knows how, an open car.

So I heard about this and I managed to get my hands on that, but there weren’t enough cars, so the Brit rode with me, and I had a little American flag that I tied on for the occasion. So when we got down to Libreville in Gabon, I had to share a room with the Brit, so a little knock at the door came when we got there and this beautiful Gabonese said that she’d be part of our service of protocol. I slipped out the door and said, “Here comes a lady for you,” to my British friend. We had a lot of laughs over that. But the independences were very exciting, and they usually ended up with a speech by Malraux at midnight, the flag thing, the parade, and lots of African dancing. But in each case I was
able to work in a private visit with the President, and take him the message that I’d written, and bring him greetings from our President, even though Eisenhower was not aware of this. It was quite a time.

“. . . the Air Force had sent down a couple of helicopters and several other planes, so it was the only time in my life I could say I commanded an air force.”

No Time to Breathe—The Belgian Congo Mutiny: Mutiny had broken out across the river from Brazzaville against the Belgians who controlled the future-named Democratic Republic of the Congo with a tight grip directly after Lukens returned from the many French African independence ceremonies.

At 5:00 in the morning I got a call from the Embassy that all hell had broken loose, and the Force Publique had broken out in mutiny, and that the whites basically, including Americans, were all commandeering ferries and coming across to Brazzaville…. Then as the situation got worse, the search for Americans moved out to the bush, and finally there were Americans discovered all over the place, especially missionaries—some of whom had been there for years. They’d gotten lost, nobody knew who they were. But there was a fairly good missionary radio network. So what we finally did, was to set up a command post at the Consulate with the radios tied in with the missionaries. And meantime the Air Force had sent down a couple of helicopters and several other planes, so it was the only time in my life I could say I commanded an air force. We organized missions every day through this network out into the bush in the Belgian Congo to bring back these missionaries.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, 1942–1948
MA from Georgetown University, 1951
Joined the Foreign Service in 1951
Paris, France — Assistant to the General Secretary of NATO 1956–1960
Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo —Principal Officer 1960–1961
Bangui, Central African Republic — Consul 1961–1961
Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo — Ambassador to the Congo 1984–1987