John H. Morrow First American Ambassador to Guinea

webGuinée Diplomatie

Guinée — Etats-Unis d’Amérique

John H. Morrow
First American Ambassador to Guinea.

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

Never a Dull Moment

Life was never dull during my tour of duty in Guinea, whether I was engaged in averting a break in diplomatic relations, representing the United States at the independence celebrations of newly emerging African nations, or supervising an airlift of Guinean soldiers in U.S. planes bound for the Congo.
One evening my neighbor, Ambassador Herbert Schroeder, called on me at the official residence prior to his return to Bonn, where he had been summoned by his Government. It was early in March of 1960, and the report was spreading throughout world capitals that the Republic of Guinea had become the first African nation to recognize the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). This report was supposedly based on pictures that had been made in East Germany purportedly showing the Guinean Ambassador to Moscow presenting his credentials to the East German President.
The Government of the Federal Republic of Germany had been adhering to the Hallstein Doctrine, according to which it would sever diplomatic relations with any nation that reconized the Government of Communist East Germany. The calling home of Ambassador Schroeder on the heels of the news linking Guinea and East Germany seemed to be the first step in a break between West Germany and Guinea.

Despite the fact that no aid agreement existed between the United States and Guinea in March 1960, it was generally accepted among the Western and Eastern members of the diplomatic corps in Guinea that I had successfully established strong personal rapport with President Touré and the members of his Government. It was therefore not unusual for Ambassador Schroeder to seek my views in a moment of crisis. In addition, Ambassador Schroeder and I had established very friendly relations and often used our daily swim in the ocean to talk over mutual problems.
I told Ambassador Schroeder that nobody could advise him on a course of action and that he undoubtedly would have made his decision by the time of his arrival in Bonn. However, if I were in his place, I would, before leaving Conakry, send a message to my Government recommending that it investigate the incident carefully before taking any action as drastic as severing diplomatic relations with Guinea. I pointed out to Ambassador Schroeder that his country was the only Western power doing anything tangible toward making Guinea viable and it would be a tremendous blow to have this cut off. I reminded him that the Guinean Government had resisted the efforts of the East German Trade Mission in Conakry to establish an embassy, and I thought it significant that this report of the establishment of diplomatic ties between Guinea and East Germany had come at a time when President Touré was away from Conakry visiting his constituents in the brush. I assured the West German Ambassador that I would call unofficially on the Guinean Government to urge that every possible step be made to clear up this misunderstanding; until I was presented with specific proof that Guinea had taken the action claimed by East Germany, I intended to act as if the report were not true. We agreed, of course, that if Guinea actually had recognized East Germany, nothing could avert a break between his country and Guinea.
In keeping with my promise to Ambassador Schroeder, I called the next day on Acting President Abdourahmane Diallo, Minister of State, who happened also to be one of my neighbors in Donka. Diallo, never without his pipe, received me at the Présidence, and we immediately got to the matter at hand. I told him that I was there unofficially as a friend of the court and wished to stress the seriousness of the situation confronting Guinea in its relationships with the Federal Republic of Germany. I said that it would probably be the responsibility of the Guinean Government to take the initiative to establish beyond the shadow of a doubt what a Guinean diplomatic representative was doing in East Germany, if he had been there at all. Guinea must do this if it wished the community of nations to continue to believe its professed policy of positive neutralism and its affirmed belief in self-determination.
Acting President Diallo thanked me for my interest and said that to the best of his knowledge the Republic of Guinea had not recognized the East German Government. He admitted that the East German representative of the Trade Mission in Conakry had made repeated efforts to get the mission raised to the status of an embassy, but the Guinean Government had refused this. The Acting President said that he did not have the full details of the Guinean Ambassador’s visit to East Germany, but he felt certain that it had nothing to do with the establishment of diplomatic relations. He assured me that word had been sent to President Touré to return to Conakry, and that the matter would be taken up with the President the moment he returned.
I expected that there would be increasing sentiment among certain government agencies in Washington to press for a break in diplomatic relations between the United States and Guinea, in order to present a united front with West Germany and to chastise Guinea for its failure to adhere to its policy of positive neutralism. I feared that such an action on the part of the United States would strike a fatal blow to American influence in Africa. West Germany itself had not formally broken ties with Guinea; it had merely called home its Ambassador for consultation. If the matter were settled in a satisfactory fashion between West Germany and Guinea, the United States, once it had broken, would find itself in an untenable position. Only as a last resort should a major world power break relations with a struggling developing nation yet to acquire skill and sophistication in things diplomatic. I planned and launched a campaign to combat any attempt to initiate a break between Guinea and the United States.
After a week went by and the Federal Republic of Germany had yet to report that it was going to break with Guinea, I began to feel slightly more at ease. President Touré returned to the capital and finally yielded to the insistence of the West German Government and answered several specific questions concerning the relation between the Republic of Guinea and the Communist East German regime. President Touré authorized his Ministry of Foreign Affairs to inform me that his answers to these questions were to be hand-carried to Paris, where they would be delivered to the West German Government by the Guinean Ambassador to France, Nabi Youla
In the final stages of negotiations between Guinea and West Germany, West German officials came to Guinea during the first week of April 1960 and traveled to Kankan in Upper Guinea to have talks with President Touré, whos was presiding over the National Conference of the Party Démocratique de Guinée. Shortly after this discussion at Kankan, it became known officially that East Germany was not opening an embassy in Conakry and that there was not going to be a break between West Germany and Guinea.
Before Ambassador Schroeder returned to Guinea, his Government had requested the State Department in Washington to convey to me its warm thanks for the very helpful role I had played during a period of crisis between Bonn and Conakry. Upon the return of Ambassador Schroeder to Guinea, his first official act after his protocol visit to the Guinean Ministry of Foreign Affairs was to come to my office in Conakry to express to me in person the thanks of his Government for my good services. This was one of the few moments during my stay in Guinea when I felt that my efforts had not been in vain.
Not long after the solution of the West German-Guinean malentendu, I received word from the State Department that I had been designated by President Eisenhower to be one of the representatives, with the rank of Special Ambassador, to attend the ceremonies at Léopoldville, in connection with the independence celebration of the Democratic Republic of Congo, scheduled for the last three days of June 1960. I was pleased with the assignment and looked forward to visiting this republic which had been granted its independence so suddenly by the Belgian Government after a somewhat confused “round-table” conference in Brussels. I was happy also at the prospect of renewing my acquaintance with former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Robert Murphy, who was to head the American delegation to the Congo.
It will be recalled that Mr. Murphy had presided over the meeting held at the State Department in the fall of 1959 during the state visit of Sékou Touré. Mr. Murphy had been very helpful to me in ironing out certain troublesome last-minute details. (Several of my academic colleagues have recently called to my attention the omission of my name from the list of delegation members attending the Congolese independence celebration, which appeared in Mr. Murphy’s book Diplomat Among Warriors. I pointed out that this was an unfortunate oversight, since I was the only member of that delegation who was an accredited U.S. Ambassador to an African nation, and that mine was not the only name omitted, because Mr. Murphy had forgotten to mention the name of a very prominent Washington businessman who was most certainly a member of that delegation.)
My experience in Guinea made me wonder how the Congolese experiment was going to work out. I was concerned with the possible implications of the policy of the Belgian Government in limiting opportunities for higher education to only a very few Congolese. The Belgians had thought, in all probability, that their policy had prevented the awakening of “false” hopes in the minds of the great mass of Congolese, who then remained more easily manageable. Under the French regime Guinea had been far from the top of the list of territories from which students could go to France for advanced study. Yet I had reason to believe that even Guinea had had more students trained abroad than had the Congolese. If the Guinean Government was experiencing much difficulty in maintaining its sovereignty and its independence, how could the Congolese Government expect to be better off when the Belgians moved out? At this particular stage the Belgians might have been lulled into thinking that their continued presence in the Congo was an absolute must; for, they thought the Congolese would fail miserably without Belgian technical and administrativc skills.
Mr. Murphy has reported correctly that there was a mood of hope in the Congo before and during the independence celebration, but I personally found it extremeley difficult to accept this hope, especially after having lived in Guinea for eleven months. Furthermore, I was unwilling to discount the serious disturbances among the rival political and tribal grotips in the Congo, which had the earmarks of a nascent uprising. What was clear before independence and became increasingly clear after independence was that its leaders, Kasavubu and Lumumba, were pulling in opposite directions. This had not been the case in Guinea on the eve of independence. Moreover, it was well known even outside the Congo that Kasavubu was more the Belgians’ choice than Lumumba, who was a veritable thorn in the Belgians’ side. It interested me that the Guineans were so intensely for Lumumba, and I went to the Congo with the resolve to observe both these leaders closely with the hope of gaining some insight into the Congolese future. Of course, I realized the impossibility of unraveling the complex Congolese situation during a three-day ceremonial visit. I did not have the foresight to anticipate, however, that a little more than one month later the Congo would be torn with strife and slaughter and Belgian nationals would be fleeing for their lives.
I had to fly from Conakry to Dakar to meet the Military Air Transport Service plane bringing the rest of the American delegation to the Congo. We reached the airport in Léopoldville the following evening not long after the arrival of the official party from Belgium, and there was a good deal of excitement and hustle. Among the Congolese officials on hand to greet us at the airport was Antoine Gizenga, whom I had seen in Cuinea several months before, when he visited Conakry on the way back to Léopoldville from the Brussels “round-table” conference. At the moment when Gizenga was shaking my hand, a photographer’s flash bulb popped, and I remarked jokingly to C. Vaughn Ferguson, Jr. (later appointed ambassador to the Malagasy Republic and of the few really knowledgeable career officers in African affairs), that I wondered what State Department officials would have thought about my being in such a picture two or three months before. There were no visible signs of the uneasy state of affairs that had preceded independence, and the Belgian Government had gone to great lengths to prepare an impressive series of inaugural events—receptions, dinners, luncheons, parades, cultural events, and fireworks.
I was particularly well received by Congolese officials, which I attributed to my being accredited to the Government of the Republic of Guinea, and to the high regard Lumumba and other Congolese had for President Touré. Some officials told me very frankly that they had never before seen a U.S. Ambassador who was a Negro.
I noticed that the name of Lumumba was conspicuously absent from the list of those participating in the solemn cercmony of granting and accepting Congolese independence. Indeed, the omission of his name made more of an impact than if it had been printed in bold letters. Nevertheless, as Delegate William Paley, board chairman of CBS, and I sought seats in the crowded and impressively new Parliament Chamber, we had no inkling of the real drama that would be played on that platform, where we saw King Baudouin and the Belgian and Congolese Ministers quietly awaiting the opening of the morning program (June 30).
King Baudouin, as was to be expected, made a brief, polite, and tactful statement relinquishing his authority to rule the Congo, and granting full independence to the former territory. President Kasavubu, with a grace that momentarily diverted attention from his somewhat short and plump figure, accepted the authority on behalf of his Republic in a tempered and well-delivered speech of acceptance.
Thinking the ceremony about over, William Paley had just turned to say something to me when we both saw a tall, thin, ebony-hued young man get up from his seat on the platform and rush toward the microphone. When I saw the goatee I knew that this was Lumumba. The Congolese Prime Minister, who had been left out of the morning ceremonies, launched into a vitriolic attack on the Belgians, citing the wrongs and injustices inflicted upon the hapless Congolese during the Belgian occupation. Lumumba had seized the initiative in this solemn moment and was announcing to the world that he could not be silenced through the subterfuge of omitting his name from the program. To say that Lumumba’s precipitous action caught everybody by surprise—Congolese, Belgians, visiting African dignitaries, Americans—would be an understatement. All of us looked to see whether the King and his Ministers were going to leave the platform in protest. Although the King’s feelings were clearly visible, and his Ministers made no effort to conceal their anger and shock, no Belgian moved. The hush which had first descended over the audience was broken by hearty applause from Lumumba’s followers. Lumumba, the wily, ruthless, fiery politician, was playing to the grandstand, but he was also making his bid for power; and it was evident he was not wanting for followers, if the number of Congolese applauding had any significance.
Lumumba’s action that morning revealed his lack of common sense, propriety, timing, and judgment. Many Congolese and Belgians felt that their family squabbles should be settled behind closed doors, not aired in public before invited guests. The Prime Minister’s action brought to the surface the instability and rashness which would be his undoing. It warned all those within hearing that here was a man who was going to be dangerous in the infighting and who would not hesitate to go for the jugular. Yet Lumumba, lashing out in some of the most bitter French I have ever heard, cxpressed the hidden sentiments not only of some of thc Congolese listeners, but also of some of the visiting African dignitaries, as he castigated the Belgians for their “exploitation” of the defenseless Congolese and for their “avariciousness.”
As Lumumba turned from the microphone, the session broke up amid the loud buzzing of excited voices. Outside the Parliament Chamber I saw a crowd collecting around Lumumba, and soon heard the angry, agitated voices of Congolese Ministers, all trying to speak at once. This noise did not subside until a Belgian, accompanied by a Congolese official, approached the group and spoke a few words. The crowd dispersed, and order reigned once again.
At the crowded luncheon following the tension-packed morning session, a hush once again swept over the guests when Patrice Lumumba got up to speak. I looked at him and wondered what else he could possibly have to say. I had underestimated Lumumba’s versatility and his ability to change positions. Speaking in tones no longer strident, and wearing a somewhat subdued air, Lumumba proceeded to sing the praises of those whom he had condemned one hour ago. He cited the constructive things done by the Belgians during their regime in the Congo and concluded his startling remarks with the hope that cooperation and understanding between the Congolese and the Belgians would continue after independence.
I left the table immediately and went in search of a Congolese official whom I had met in Conakry several months before. I asked him to explain this bewildering conduct. The official was reluctant to talk. He hastily explained, however, that the Belgian Ministers had told Lumumba and the Congolese Ministers that the King would leave Léopoldville that day if Lumumba did not retract his harsh accusations of the morning. Lumumba seemingly had found it difficult to understand what all of the fuss was about, for he had merely repeated what he had been saying for a long time across the length and breadth of the Congo. Lumumba overlooked the fact that formerly he had not been talking in the presence of the King, a captive listener, on the occasion of his surrendering a territory. Sékou Touré had likewise spoken out one day in the presence of a distinguished visitor, General de Gaulle; but on that August day in 1958, Touré had taken a calculated risk and had spoken from a wellprepared text, submitted in advance, so it is said, to the French Governor General of Guinea.
I did not react to Lumumba at all in the same fashion in which I had reacted to Sékou Touré. Lumumba puzzled me, it is true, but he did not impress me. I respected Touré, but I could not bring myself to respect Lumumba. I might have had more respect for him if, despite his blatant show of poor manners and his lack of diplomacy, he had refused to recant and had stood by his bristling statement of the morning Touré would not have recanted; he would have gone to perdition first. Naturally, I could understand how a politician, under pressure from the angry Belgian Ministers and his conciliatory Congolese colleagues, fearful that the King’s departure would mar the celebration, might opt to compromise. But to recant publicly in such a humiliating fashion after exhibiting such defiance a short time before did not in my opinion, engender respect.
Lumumba’s exercise in poor taste and political expediency caused me to think back over the events of the two preceding days. I had been faintly aware that whenever King Baudouin appeared in public, President Kasavubu had always been at his side, engaging him in conversation. In each instance, Lumumba had been seated or standing off to one side. Every time a cameraman approached to photography the King and Kasavubu, Lumumba had edged had edged his chair over to get into the picture, or he had jumped out of his seat, rushed up to Kasavubu, and engaged his attention. This not a matter of my imagination, because these maneuvers had been repeated too many times within forty-eight hours. I did
begin to question how long a man with the drive, ambition, and amour-propre of Lumumba was going to allow himself publicly to be relegated to a secondary position. After all, Lumumba probably had a sense of history as well as an image of himself as a great leader.
There is little point in conjecturing about what might have happened if the Belgians and Congolese responsible for planning the celebration ceremonies had given a more prominent role to Patrice Lumumba in the hope of dissipating the intense rivalry smoldering between him and Kasavubu. This would have brought simply a temporary truce. The roots of the problem went much deeper, and the Belgians themselves must be held greatly responsible for subsequent events in the Congo. It is not necessary to hark back to the time of Leopold II, whose reign (1865-1909) was characterized by industrial and colonial expansion, and whose ruthless greed and condonation of very harsh treatment of the Congolese in the Congo Free States, then under his personal rule, provoked international protests which led to this area being ceded to Belgium in 1908. Nor is it necessary to discuss the Belgian-controlled Union Minière du Haut-Katanga, operating in the Katanga Province, that once produced most of the world’s supply of cobalt, as well as quantities of uranium, radium, copper, tin, and diamonds. Small wonder that Moïse Tshombé could not resist the temptation to secede, with the Katanga Province as his base of operations.
The Belgians had not prepared the Congolese for self-rule. They had been satisfied to keep the situation under control by playing one tribal group against another. Many of the improvements in sanitation, roads, buildings, etc., came about as a result of creating more favorable conditions for the thousands of Belgian civil servants and business people living and working in the Congo. The French had done something somewhat similar in Guinea for the same reasons. When the freedom avalanche began to gain momentum in the Congo, the Belgians gave in to the pressures and stepped out, not in anger, as De Gaulle left Guinea, but in panic. The United Nations could not find a satisfactory solution which resulted from the poorly managed Belgian pullout.
A sidelight to the visit of the American delegation to Leopoldville came as the result of a chance remark I had made to Minister Ismael Touré, Guinean delegate to the Congolese independence celebration. During a luncheon I was seated with William Paley and saw the Minister and another guest looking for seats. I said jokingly to Mr. Paley that I was going to bring together a “Marxist-oriented”
Guinean and “American” capitalist. I called to Minister Touré and his friend from the Cameroons and asked them to join us. I served as interpreter for what turned out to be a very enjoyable conversation. I told Minister Touré that I understood many delegates were having difficulty getting plane reservations out of Léopoldville, and if he ran into any trouble to let me know. I gave this
conversation no further thought until Friday, July 1, at the parade, when the Guinean consul to Ghana came up to the reviewing platform and said that Minister Touré and he would appreciate getting a ride as far as Accra. I consulted with our delegation head, Robert Murphy, and he said he would be delighted to have the Guineans aboard. On Saturday, in addition to the American delegation, Minister Touré, the Guinean Consul, and two unexpected Ghanaian delegates boarded the American plane at the ultramodern Airport.
It had been previously decided that this MATS (Military Air-Transport Service) plane was to land at Conakry instead of at Dakar to let me off, and I had persuaded the American delegation to come to the residence for light refreshments, to be followed by a quick tour of Conakry. I had sent ahead a wire to my new deputy, Tony Ross, to alert my wife so that food and drinks would be ready at the residence that afternoon. Once Minister Touré was aboard, I mentioned casually that the plane was going to land at Conakry, and that he would be welcome to go the full distance with us. He thanked me but declined the offer. The Minister’s plan was to make connections with President Touré’s plane, due in Accra that day.
We landed at Accra, and Minister Touré and the Consul departed with their baggage. I learned from American Ambassador William Flake, who met our plane, that President Touré’s plane had left Accra that morning. Within a few moments Minister Touré reappeared alone, expressing apologies, and asked if he might accompany us to Conakry. I immediately wired ahead to Ross to let the Guinean Government know that Minister Ismael Touré was returning with us. I also suggested that he invite all available Guinean Ministers and Western diplomats to the impromptu gathering at the residence.
As we circled over the Conakry Airport preparatory to making what was to be the first landing of an American plane on Guinean soil, I could see a large crowd assembled in front of the waiting room. With Minister Touré leading the way, we filed out of the plane to find all the Guinean Ministers and Western diplomats who were in or around Conakry that Saturday, waiting to greet the Minister and the visiting American dignitaries. At the entrance to the airport we found a long line of cars, with a police escort. The American delegation were assigned seats in cars with the various Guinean Ministers, and the procession made its way from the airport to the residence in Donka. After the brief reception we re-entered the cars, drove through the streets of Conakry and returned to the airport.
It should not be difficult to imagine the bewilderment, not only of my Western colleagues, but also of the Communist bloc diplomats, at the unaccustomed sight of Guinean Ministers and American visitors riding together through the streets of Donka and Conakry. With the slow pace and the open cars, there was no difficulty in seeing who was talking to whom. As somebody remarked, the United States got as much benefit and good will from bringing Minister Touré back from the Congo as it did from opening a cultural center in Conakry.
In November 1960 I was again designated by President Eisenhower to be a representative with the rank of Special Ambassador to an independence celebration. This time it was the celebration of the independence of the Islamic Republic of Mauritania, to be held at Nouakchott, beginning November 27. On this occasion the President sent just two of us, the other being Henry S. Villard, the American Ambassador at Dakar.
Ambassador Villard was sent as the President’s personal representative, which meant that he was the ranking member authorized to convey to the Mauritanian President the congratulatory statement from the United States and the personal gift of President Eisenhower. The colorful ceremonies that took place in Nouakchott, a city that had been constructed literally in a portion of the desert, went off with a smoothness and precision that were indeed admirable. The speech turning over authority, delivered by French Minister Debré, and the acceptance speech by President Mokhtar Ould Daddah were well received by the Mauritanians and visitors. Feeding the more than a thousand visitors was a veritable tour de force made possible by supplies flown in from Dakar and France. The parade featuring Mauritanian paratroopers in camouflaged uniforms and soldiers in desert garb mounted on camels added to the exotic setting. The friendly and hospitable Mauritanians had the knack of making visitors feel welcome. I regretted very much when their first effort to enter the United Nations was thwarted. The Mauritanian Republic was finally admitted to the United Nations in 1961, despite the opposition of Morocco, which laid claim to a portion of its territory.
When I had returned to Guinea on July 2 from Léopoldville, aboard that United States plane with its efficient crew, I had no reason to believe that, within one month and a few days, I was to become the unwilling supervisor of an airlift involving United States planes flying under the flag of the United Nations. Not long after the Congolese independence celebration, civil strife had erupted in the Democratic Republic of Congo and had destroyed all traces of law and order.

The United Nations had intervened in the middle of July and authorized the establishment of a United Nations force that was to protect the Congo from foreign intervention and aid in the restoration of peace. Secretary General Dag Hammarksjold had appealed to member states of the United Nations to contribute troops to the United Nations force there. The Secretary General received pledges from Guinea, Ghana, Ethiopia, Morocco, Tunisia, and the newly formed Mali Federation (which dissolved after 1960 because of political dissension and became the Republic of Senegal and the Republic of Mali).
I never discovered the real reason why Secretary Secretary Hammarskjold did not accept immediately Guinea’s pledge of troops, as he accepted the pledges of the other African nations. President Touré interpreted Hammarksjold’s action as a reflection on Guinean national honor and challenged this failure to process Guinea’s pledge in the same fashion as the pledges of other African states. The Secretary General then acknowledged acceptance, but indicated that the Guinean troops would be called up at a future date and might be used for police duty. Touré then issued an ultimatum to the United Nations which said in effect that if the United Nations did not offer immediately to put Guinean soldiers to an honorable use in the Congo along with the troops from other African nations, his Government intended to place these troops directly at the disposal of the Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The United Nations responded swiftly to the Touré threat, and this decision led to “Operation Airlift.”
In the latter part of August I was informed that American planes flying under the flag of the United Nations were going io arrive in Guinea within the next twenty-four hours to begin the airlift of troops to the Congo. I did not feel that this information presented any immediate problems to our Embassy, since the operation was to be under the supervision of the United Nations Mission in Conakry assigned to aid the Guinean Government develop administrative cadres. Naturally, our personnel would co-operate in every way possible, but this was a United Nations operation. The United States and other powers had merely offered to give help in the form of transportation, communications, and supplies.
The United Nations Mission in Conakry received word that a U.S. Air Force officer, in charge of the logistics of the airlift, was to arrive on a plane coming from the American air base in Châteauroux, France. Merely as a courtesy gesture, I was on hand at the airport to greet the officer when he arrived several hours later in a huge C-119 transport plane. Major Behrens had expected to load the plane immediately with soldiers and supplies, but discovered that the first contingent from the interior had not arrived at the airport. A hasty consultation brought the decision to postpone the departure until the following day.
The next morning the Guinean troops were assembled in thr center of Conakry near the political party headquarters. President Touré made a brief speech urging the troops to comport themselves as brave men and to fight to liberate their African brothers in the Congo. He then asked Major Behrens to stand at his side as the troops passed and marched to the buses and trucks waiting to carry them to the airport. The members of the Guinean government then hurried to the airport to see the take-off. Theirs was a long wait because the food supplies and and military equipment had to be loaded first. There was some questions about the weight of this matériel as a steady stream of soldiers carried into the yawning opening at the rear of the C-119. The President and his Ministers were becoming somewhat impatient at the unforeseen delay, but finally the soldiers assigned to take off in the first contingent were aboard.
I had been standing near the C-119, watching the loading operations, when suddenly I heard my name called. As I turned around, I saw the Embassy political officer, John Cunningham, hurrying across the tarmac in the morning heat. Cunningham, called “Pat” by all of us at the chancery, was perspiring heavily by the time he reached me, and I could see that he was very much troubled. In his hand were two telegrams, and when he handed them to me he said softly:
“Mr. Ambassador, here are two more problems for your attention.”
The telegrams had not been sent to me, but were directed to Major Behrens and the captain of the C-119. They had been sent in my care from Châteauroux through commercial channels, which meant that anybody in the downtown telegraph office in Conakry who could read English already had had access to their contents. The stark, succinct messages typed on those yellow slips of paper indicated that the airlift had been suspended and that the captain of the C-119 was to return immediately to the air base at Châteauroux.
Cunningham stood by in silence as I glanced hurriedly at the dismaying words. Without a word to him, I placed the telegram quickly in my inside coat pocket, walked over to the major and captain and said: “Come on, men, let’s get this blooming plane out of here before Thanksgiving Day finds us still trying to get to the Congo.” My tone was quiet, and I was not smiling. The captain saluted smartly, thanked us for our hospitality, climbed into the plane and started the engines. He taxied the huge plane off the tarmac toward the airstrip as the military band struck up the Guinean national anthem. The members of the Government were waving good-bye. After a brief warm-up, the C-119 started down the runway with its very heavy load, and as it approached the end of the runway it still was not airborne. At that moment the terrible thought passed through my mind that possibly the runway was not long enough for a plane so heavily laden to get off the ground in the heat of the day. Seemingly with inches to spare, the plane with its precious cargo lifted off the ground, wavered just for a moment and rose toward the noonday sun.
As the plane disappeared in the distance, I turned to the major and said, “Major, I have just done something which is probably going to cause all hell to break loose, but I want you to know that I stand ready to accept the sole responsibility for my act.”
The major was clearly surprised by what I had said, but he waited with quiet interest for what was to follow.
“Did you see the two messages which FSO Cunningham delivered to me a short while ago? What I mean to say is, did you see him hand me two yellow slips of paper”
“As a matter of fact I did, Mr. And I was wondering whether or not something important had come up about our air operation.”
“The truth is that something very important has come up which is going to complicate life for us here in Guinea for the next forty-eight hours or so.” I gavc him the two telegrams, which he proceeded to study carefully. It was not until after I saw the faint traces of a smile bcginning to form on the major’s features that I began to feel a little more hopeful about the whole business.
“Major,” I continued, “I had to withhold those messages from you and the air force captain, for once you had seen them you would have had to compl y. I’m sure that you can understand that I would rather have faced a firing squad than to have been forced to go up in that balcony to tell President Touré, Defense Minister Fodeba Keita and their colleagues that the airlift was off. What explanation could I have offered?”
“You were confronted with a tough decision, Mr. Ambassador, and you have undoubtedly made it on the basis of your knowledge of the situation here.”
“Can you imagine yourself, Major, going into that plane to tell those soldiers to get off the plane, unload the supplies and munitions, and await orders to return to their campement? How do you suppose they would have reacted, especially those who are obviously none too military? What would have been the reaction of that huge crowd of Guineans massed around the airport to see the triumphal departure of the first contingent of troops ever to leave the Republic of Guinea?”
After reiterating that I was accepting full responsibility for withholding the two official messages, and stood ready to be recalled for so doing, I went on to explain that I had had no alternative. It was my feeling that, if the orders had been carried out as directed, the United Nations as well as the United States would have been in a position not only delicate but untenable. I said that there had already been enough problems concerning Guinean troops going to the Congo without the United States taking any unilateral action that could be interpreted as blocking their passage. I requested the major’s assistance in demanding the reason why the airlift was called off and in urging that the operation not be suspended but carried out in keeping with the U.S. pledge to the United Nations. The major consented to help.
We sent messages to Washington and to Châteauroux, and had the local UN Mission send one to New York, insisting on an explanation for the cancellation of the airlift and stressing the necessity of keeping the promise to transport Guinean troops to the Congo. Then began one of the most tedious waits of my stay in Guinea.
The Guinean Government had been informed that the schedule for the arrival of the next plane was somewhat uncertain, but word was supposed to come confirming the arrival time.
A 8:00 p.m. the same day the telephone rang at the residence, and I recognized the voice of Minister Fodéba Keita. He asked me when the airlift was to recommence. I reminded him that this was actually an operation by the United Nations, and I did not know exactly when the next plane would reach Conakry. The Minister informed me that if no American planes had arrived by the next day, the Government would have to seek its own mode of transportation to the Congo. These words brought to my mind a picture of IL-18’s with Czechoslovakian pilots coming in from Accra to pick up the stranded Guinean soldiers.
I did not sleep well that night, and found no difficulty in getting up at 4:30 A.M. when a ringing telephone added its noise to that of the heavy rainfall outside. An unfamiliar voice said that the caller was the airport commandant and that he wished to speak to the American Ambassador. I asked him what he wanted. He said he had been instructed to call me because an American plane was asking permission to land at the airfield. He could not grant permission unless the American Ambassador himself certified the permission to land. I told the commandant that the airlift was an operation of the United Nations. The United States had assigned these planes to the UN to be flown under the flag of the United Nations. The commandant said his instructions were that I had to certify the permission to land. I gave the commandant my word that I would come to the airport, and told him if another plane came over requesting permission to land to let it come in. I also told him to call Minister Fodéba Keita and ask him to meet me at the airport. I called my deputy, Tony Ross, and asked him to meet me at the airport within the next hour. I also called Major Behrens at the Hôtel de France and asked him to come to the airport.
It was still raining very hard when I left the residence, and dawn had not broken. I reached the airport first, and the saluting guards informed me that the commandant was upstairs in the restaurant with some Americans. Standing in the door of the restaurant with a crew of young American pilots was the somewhat upset airport commandant, who could speak no English. He smiled with relief as I approached. The captain of the American plane stepped forward and in a broad southern accent told me that he surely was glad to see me. He explained that a number of C-130’s had landed at Dakar. One plane had continued on to Conakry, arriving there at 1:00 a.m., but had not been given permission to land. It was decided in Dakar that the difficulty was due to a misunderstanding, because the person in the tower had not spoken English clearly enough. (Under the terms of a United Nations agreement, a Czechoslovakian national was working in the tower at the Conakry airport.) The next plane sent in had a French-speaking American aboard, and it had received permission to land. I discovered that the airport at Conakry had not been equipped for night landings, and this American plane had come into an unfamiliar airfield during a rainstorm by means of the plane’s landing lights and some flares set up by the Guineans on the airfield.
I then learned that the telegrams from Châteauroux, announcing the suspension of the airlift, had failed to say that this delay was only temporary. Someone at that air base had discovered that the airport’s runway was not long enough for heavily loaded C-119 planes to take off with safety. The order had been given to take C-119’s out of the operation and replace them with C-130’s, which could take off fully loaded after a very short run. Nobody had thought of notifying Conakry that there had been a change in plans or that there would be at least a thirteen-hour delay while sufficient C-130’s were called in to carry on the airlift.
By this time Minister Fodéba Keita had arrived in very good humor at the prospect that the airlift would go on. He ordered breakfast for the American crew, Major Behrens and his staff, and for Ross and me. He said that arrangements had been made for meals to be served to all American airmen who would arrive during the next two days. The crews flying overnight (night flying was not possible) would be kept at the Hôtel de France as guests of the Government. He apologized for my having been called to the airport through a misunderstanding, but said that the commandant had been unaware that the landing permission secured for the C-119 planes applied to any planes that might be used to airlift Guinean troops to the Congo.
I did not let the Guinean Minister know just how happy I had been to see that C-130 crew and to learn that the airlift would go on. It was indeed an inspiring sight to see the plane take off soon afterwards with its load of soldiers and supplies. The arrival and the departure of these planes at two- or three-hour intervals continued for the next two days. All plane traffic was stopped after 5:00 p.m., and the last crew to arrive went into Conakry to enjoy a good meal at the Hôtel de France. One plane developed engine trouble, necessitating the flying in of a new engine a day later from an air base in Morocco. An around-the-clock guard of Guinean soldiers watched over the plane until it was repaired. The installation of the engine was watched with avid interest by the soldiers and airport personnel, for this was a most unusual operation in this section of Africa.
During the afternoon of the first day of the arrival of the C-130’s, President Touré and his Ministers arrived at the airport with General Diané Lansana, a member of the National Political Bureau who had been promoted to the rank of General at the beginning of the Congo crisis. The General and his staff went aboard the waiting C-130 after a brief ceremony.
When the last Guinean contingent had been flown from the Conakry Airport, I was able to breathe more easily. I could truthfully express sincere thanks for the United States Air Force, even though the planes had been flying under the UN flag. I knew that the Eastern Communist members of the diplomatic corps had spent a very uneasy forty-eight hours, during a goodly portion of which American planes had been in the Guinean skies.
In addition to the satisfaction of seeing this efficiently carried-out operation—once it had got under way—was the satisfaction of receiving a letter from the Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force, Thomas D. White, congratulating me for what he called the “inspired, split-second decisionto continue the airlift when it had apparently, but mistakenly been cancelled.”