In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Africa in the Cold War

  • Introduction
  • Algerian War of Independence, 1954–1962
  • War in the Portuguese Colonies, 1961–1975
  • Horn of Africa, 1977–1978
  • Shaba, 1977–1978

African Studies Africa in the Cold War
Piero Gleijeses
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846733-0225


In the interwar period (1919–1939), the Africans who fought against colonial rule, such as the Moroccans, were virtually on their own: they received very little help from abroad. This changed after 1945. Henceforth, the backdrop of decolonization was the Cold War. While the colonial empires crumbled, two superpowers jostled for influence in the world. The United States was sympathetic, in principle, to the gradual progression of colonized people toward independence. The onset of the Cold War added a sense of urgency. Washington feared that the metropoles’ intransigence would open the door to Soviet meddling. The Cold War, however, also pushed US policymakers in the opposite direction. US empathy for the colonized faced two constraints that were most significant when their struggle was violent: the colonial powers were America’s allies against the Soviet Union, and Washington insisted that independence movements be free of the Communist virus. Therefore, US policy on decolonization often clashed with its rhetoric. On the other hand, both ideology and realpolitik led the Soviet Union to support those who fought for independence. Not only did Moscow oppose colonialism in principle, but the insurgents were fighting Washington’s friends. At times, however, realpolitik acted as a brake. For example, after the Algerian revolution began in November 1954, the Soviets hesitated for more than two years before sending weapons to the rebels for fear of antagonizing the French government. Soviets and Americans were not the only outside actors on the stage of decolonization. Two small countries deserve pride of place: Cuba, which sent tens of thousands of soldiers to southern Africa, and Sweden, which gave vital economic assistance to African liberation movements. The list of external actors also includes the other Scandinavian countries, Yugoslavia, Moscow’s Eastern European clients, Egypt, and the People’s Republic of China. This bibliographical essay focuses on the Cold War crises in Africa. It will not include, therefore, one of Africa’s greatest human dramas, the Nigerian civil war (1967–1970), because the two superpowers supported the federal government in Lagos.

The First Fifteen Years, 1945–1960

In 1945, Africa was controlled by the friends and clients of the United States—Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium, and Spain. There were only four independent states: Liberia, de facto a US protectorate; Egypt, nominally independent but occupied by British troops; Ethiopia, eager to establish a close relationship with the United States; and white-ruled South Africa. In the mid-1950s, two developments signaled the arrival of the Cold War in North Africa: the Algerian War of independence against France began in November 1954; and Egypt adopted an independent foreign policy, challenging British influence in the Middle East, helping the Algerian rebels, and buying weapons from the Soviet bloc. In sub-Saharan Africa the colonial powers faced no major challenges until the late 1950s. In these colonies, jailing, torturing, and killing Africans was routine, but not on a large scale, except in Madagascar (1947–1948) and Kenya (1952–1956), where there were major revolts; neither received outside assistance. By the late 1950s, however, Paris and London, which had by far the two largest colonial empires in Africa, were ready to make concessions to the Africans’ growing demands for self-determination. Furthermore, the British and French publics were increasingly grumbling that maintaining their African colonies was too costly: repression was expensive. Under the glare of international public opinion, colonial rule could be justified only through economic aid to “uplift the natives,” and this would add to the financial burden on the metropoles. In 1960, France granted independence to most of its colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, and the British and the Belgians followed suit.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.