First American Ambassador to Guinea

webGuinée/Etat/Diplomatie/John H. Morrow/First American Ambassador to Guinea/Introduction

Guinée/Etats-Unis d’Amérique

John H. Morrow
First American Ambassador to Guinea.

New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. 1968. 291 p.


As I made my way through the winding streets of Paris toward the Quai d’Orsay during the hot summer of 1958, I had no way of knowing that the events of that summer would change my way of life and catapult me, a Negro college professor teaching in North Carolina, into the realm of diplomacy. Supposedly, I was en route to Algeria and French West Africa, where I hoped to get additional data for a manuscript on challenge and response in French colonial politics. But in Paris I was experiencing setback after setback in my effort to convince the French authorities that I should be allowed to continue to Algeria. The French Army had staged an uprising in Algeria in May 1958, and conditions there were still very unsettled and certainly unsafe for civilian travel.
I had made an appointment with an official at the Quai d’Orsay in the hope that he might be of some assistance to me in securing passage to North Africa. Although the official showed polite interest in my desire to get to Algeria, he reminded me that the city of Algiers was no longer in civilian hands but under military control. He asked me whether I had attended the colloquium held the previous summer at the University of Manchester. I told him I had never been in England. He asked me whether any of my recent articles had been discussed at this conference. I told him I doubted very much that anybody at such a gathering would have any interest in anything I had written. The Frenchman pulled out from among the papers on his desk a reprint of an article that I had written in 1955 entitled “Unrest in North Africa.” At this moment I realized that I would never obtain passage to Algeria, for in the article I had suggested that the French should get out of Algeria, a proposal diametrically opposed to the prevailing sentiment in 1958, which sought to keep the French in Algeria at any cost.
I am indebted to William Witman II, then serving as First Secretary of the Embassy and Officer in Charge of African Affairs, and his very able assistant, young David Korn, for their suggestion that I might profitably spend my time in Paris talking with African students and officials who were spending the summer there, and also with important officials at the French Overseas Ministry. I believe that those conversations with the Africans and the French during that vexatious summer had something to do with my subsequent appointment as the first American Ambassador to the Republic of Guinea the following June.
The conversations with the officials at the French Overseas Ministry were stimulating because we discussed primarily the subject of African independence. I was struck by the readiness with which each of these men, all of whom had spent years in the colonial service, talked about the right of French territories to independence. They saw independence, however, as coming only after an evolutionary period during which these territories would be prepared to assume the responsibilities of self-government.
It was clear that any idea of independence in the foreseeable future was far from the minds of those in charge of the French Overseas Ministry in the summer of 1958.
My very frank conversations with African students and officials were particularly important to me because they provided background on the Franco-African political situation in France as well as in Africa. The students insisted upon the urgent need for all African territories to set up republics run by Africans. Unlike the students, most African officials seemed to be talking, at least during June and July, about independence to be achieved at some undetermined moment in the distant future.
It was my good fortune to interview Léopold Senghor in August, shortly after his return to Paris from the important July Congress of his political party (Parti du Regroupement Africain), held at Cotonou in Dahomey. Mr. Senghor was still somewhat disappointed that his proposal for a federal republic within a confederate union had not been fully accepted by the Congress. Senghor’s proposal had provided the overseas territories with the possibility of achieving the status of states, which would have meant nominal independence; he insisted upon the inherent right to independence rather than upon immediate independence. The opposition, consisting of African youth groups, students, and labor union members, however, who opted for immediate independence, carried the day.
It became increasingly clear even to me, an outsider, that General de Gaulle and his Cabinet had already made the decision on the fate of the overseas territories. As early as the first week of August 1958 it was evident that France was to offer federation to the overseas territories with the stipulation that the choice would be between association or secession. Furthermore, the overseas territories would have to take a stand on the Constitution of the Fifth French Republic in its entirety, not just on those portions that concerned the territories alone. Thus the territories would face the option of remaining under French influence or being cut off-entirely or only in partfrom French assistance.
As the summer wore on, I wondered increasingly about the Franco-African situation and the outcome of the September Constitutional Referendum. The Referendum would afford some of these French African territories the opportunity to seize their much-talked-about independence. Yet there seemed to be no indication that General de Gaulle was the least perturbed about this possibility. In fact, De Gaulle did not let the revolt of the French Army in Algeria or the struggle of the two major African political parties to change the Constitution keep him from setting out for Africa. He confidently took off for an August tour of the African continent while I was still in Paris. The French leader had made up his mind to travel 13,000 miles in order to convince forty million inhabitants of French African territories that they should accept the new constitution and membership in the new French community of free states. Apparently, General de Gaulle had convinced himself that for most Africans the advantages of an association with France far outweighed the attraction of independence.
I felt that this French leader was seeking to establish that by an act of free determination the peoples of Metropolitan France and the overseas territories would vote to accept membership in a community of free peoples. But I submit that De Gaulle never expected in August 1958 that his efforts to enlist the support of Africans would run into opposition in Guinea, a French West African territory.
I followed with great interest the reports on the reception tendered General de Gaulle as he made his way through Africa, in the hope of getting some indication of the sentiment for or against the September Referendum. The French newspapers reported that the General received a mixed reception as he traveled, ranging from sporadic applause to enthusiastic cheers. Upon reaching Guinea, General de Gaulle was greeted by some cheers as he rode from the airport to Conakry, but the welcome lacked warmth. In the Guinean Council Chamber came the confrontation of De Gaulle with the dynamic labor leader Sékou Touré, in the course of which the latter informed the French leader that the people of Guinea preferred « freedom in poverty to riches in servitude. »
With the harsh words of the Guinean leader ringing in his ears, General de Gaulle reached the airport at Dakar in Senegal, only to be met by a crowd of jeering demonstrators demanding immediate independence and urging De Gaulle to “go home.”
No official whom I met in Paris during De Gaulle’s African tour felt that the incidents in Conakry and Dakar augured anything unusual as far as the September Referendum was concerned. The impression seemed to prevail that General de Gaulle had conveyed his desire for an affirmative vote to his African constituents and had thus ensured an overwhelming victory for the new Constitution of the Fifth Republic.
Indeed, General de Gaulle did achieve a victory, for on election day, September 28, 1958, all the French territories except one voted to accept the new constitution. Only the French West African territory of Guinea indicated its desire for immediate independence.
I had returned to North Carolina some three weeks before the Guineans went to the polls to cast their fateful No vote, but had kept in touch with the situation through the French newspaper Le Monde and correspondence with friends in Paris. But I would not have predicted before the election that Sékou Touré would have been able to get 96 per cent of the Guinean voters to go to the polls and reject General de Gaulle’s appeal to become a part of the French community. At the time I was not aware that Sékou Touré had succeeded in getting his chief political rival, Diawadou Barry, to support the drive for a No vote, ensuring a unified stand among the Guinean people.

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