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When the US president met Africa’s independence heroes

John F Kennedy: When the US Pres met Africa's independence heroes
Before John F Kennedy became president in 1961, his country had made little attempt to understand the rapid changes that Africa was undergoing.

By the time he was assassinated in 1963 the picture had radically changed.

In his short time in office, John F Kennedy had received at the White House either the leader of every independent African state – numbering more than two dozen at the time – or its ambassador.





President John F. Kennedy greets President of Senegal Léopold Sédar Senghor
Senegal’s President Léopold Sédar Senghor, a key figure in the anti-colonial movement in Francophone countries, flew into Washington in November 1961
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A year before he became president, 17 African countries had gained independence from

their colonial masters, and aware that the world was changing, Kennedy knew that a new

relationship needed to be forged.

That relationship was based on supporting the new African nations.


President Kennedy with Julius Nyerere
Another leading pan-Africanist Julius Nyerere, who was prime minister of Tanganyika at the time, went to the White House in July 1961, five months before independence from the UK

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It was a foreign policy outlook that essentially survived, given the occasional tweak,

until President Donald Trump’s efforts to replace it with his more transactional approach.

It was reported that Mr Trump infamously used derogatory language when talking about

the continent, and Kennedy’s predecessor, Dwight D Eisenhower, had his own negative views.






He told Togo’s President, Sylvanus Olympio, that the reason the US shared one

ambassador between Togo and Cameroon was because he did not want his diplomats to “have to live in tents”.


President John F. Kennedy speaks at arrival ceremonies for President of Togo, Sylvanus Olympio
Togo’s President Sylvanus Olympio was greeted at the airport by Kennedy in March 1962
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During the 1960 election campaign, John F Kennedy repeatedly criticised Eisenhower’s

administration for “neglecting the needs and aspirations of the African people” and

stressed that the US should be on the side of anti-colonialism and self-determination,

not on the side of the colonialists.

Once in power, John F Kennedy invited African leaders for state visits and laid out the red carpet.


Haile Selassie being greeted by President Kennedy
Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, one of the founders of the Organisation of African Unity in May 1963,

was welcomed to Washington by first lady Jacqueline Kennedy and the president in October of that year

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Accompanied by first lady Jackie Kennedy, he would greet each of them – including

Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie and King Hassan IV of Morocco – when they arrived in the country.

Haile Selassie being driven through Washington
Haile Selassie was driven through the streets of the US capital
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There were also guards of honour, lavish dinners and visits to the ballet, the theatre and places of historical interest.


President Kennedy hosting a state dinner
Félix Houphouët-Boigny, Ivory Coast’s first President, and his wife, Marie-Thérèse Houphouët-Boigny, were invited to a formal dinner during their visit in May 1962
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The visits were all highlighted in the media and the public was encouraged to come out and cheer.

Kennedy and his guests would be driven through streets festooned with welcome banners and cheering crowds and, weather permitting, in an open-top car.

Crowds under a banner welcoming Haile Selassie
A banner reading “Welcome to His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I” was part of the welcome parade for the Ethiopian leader
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Of course, there was an element of realpolitik in all this.

The Soviet Union was making similar overtures to African states seeking to distance themselves from former colonial masters.

On assuming office, John F Kennedy knew he had to act quickly to make friends with the emerging African nations.

President John F. Kennedy delivers remarks at arrival ceremonies in honour of President of Guinea, Ahmed Sékou Touré.
Guinea’s President Ahmed Sékou Touré, who in 1958 led the country to independence from France two years before most of its other African colonies, was in Washington in October 1962
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In the Oval Office, he told the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs:

“I believe that… if we live up to the ideals of our own revolution, then the course of

African revolution in the next decade will be towards democracy and freedom and not

towards communism and what could be a far more serious kind of colonialism.”

A month after his inauguration, he asked Vice-President Lyndon B Johnson to go to

Senegal to meet President Léopold Sédar Senghor, who he saw as a key ally in trying to

get Francophone countries on-side.


President Kennedy with Nigeria's prime minister
Nigeria’s first Prime Minister, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, held talks with Kennedy at the White House in July 1961
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Then another month later, Kennedy launched the Peace Corps – which sent young

Americans across the globe – and in August 1961, invited to the White House the first set

of volunteers getting ready to head to Ghana and Tanganyika.

The assassination of Congolese independence hero, Patrice Lumumba, with suspected CIA

involvement, three days before Kennedy took office is a reminder that Cold War battles

with the Soviet Union were also being played out on the continent.


President John F. Kennedy meets with William V.S. Tubman, President of Liberia
William Tubman, the president of Liberia, whose capital is named after former US President James Monroe, sat down with Kennedy in October 1961
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But I would argue that Kennedy was genuinely interested in the development and

advancement of the continent. African leaders who fought hard for independence were not

naïve and took Kennedy at his word: that the relationship could be mutually beneficial.

His untimely death was keenly felt in Africa – especially as his successor, Johnson, did not share his drive for cementing relations.


President John F. Kennedy greets Fulbert Youlou, President of the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville)
Congo-Brazzaville’s first President Fulbert Youlou went to Washington in June 1961
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Now, 60 years on, President Jo Biden is starting to shape his policy towards Africa.

In a statement earlier this month, he said the US was ready to be Africa’s “partner, in solidarity, support, and mutual respect”.

Biden’s words echoed Kennedy’s commitment – now we are waiting to see if the actions match the rhetoric.