Documents Expose U.S. Role in
By Paul Lee
Special to SeeingBlack.com
Declassified National Security Council and Central Intelligence
Agency documents provide compelling, new evidence of United
States government involvement in the 1966 overthrow of Ghanaian
President Kwame Nkrumah.
The coup d'etat, organized by dissident army officers, toppled
the Nkrumah government on Feb. 24, 1966 and was promptly hailed
by Western governments, including the U.S.
The documents appear in a collection of diplomatic and
intelligence memos, telegrams, and reports on Africa in Foreign
Relations of the United States, the government's ongoing
official history of American foreign policy.
Prepared by the State Department's Office of the Historian, the
latest volumes reflect the overt diplomacy and covert actions of
President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration from 1964-68.
Though published in November 1999, what they reveal about U.S.
complicity in the Ghana coup was only recently noted.
Allegations of American involvement in the putsche arose almost
immediately because of the well-known hostility of the U.S. to
Nkrumah's socialist orientation and pan-African activism.
Nkrumah, himself, implicated the U.S. in his overthrow, and
warned other African nations about what he saw as an emerging
"An all-out offensive is being waged against the progressive,
independent states," he wrote in Dark Days in Ghana, his 1969
account of the Ghana coup. "All that has been needed was a small
force of disciplined men to seize the key points of the capital
city and to arrest the existing political leadership."
"It has been one of the tasks of the C.I.A. and other similar
organisations," he noted, "to discover these potential quislings
and traitors in our midst, and to encourage them, by bribery and
the promise of political power, to destroy the constitutional
government of their countries."
A Spook's Story
While charges of U.S. involvement are not new, support for them
was lacking until 1978, when anecdotal evidence was provided
from an unlikely source—a former CIA case officer, John
Stockwell, who reported first-hand testimony in his memoir, In
Search of Enemies: A CIA Story.
"The inside story came to me," Stockwell wrote, "from an
egotistical friend, who had been chief of the [CIA] station in
Accra [Ghana] at the time." (Stockwell was stationed one country
away in the Ivory Coast.)
Subsequent investigations by The New York Times and Covert
Action Information Bulletin identified the station chief as
Howard T. Banes, who operated undercover as a political officer
in the U.S. Embassy.
This is how the ouster of Nkrumah was handled as Stockwell
related. The Accra station was encouraged by headquarters to
maintain contact with dissidents of the Ghanaian army for the
purpose of gathering intelligence on their activities. It was
given a generous budget, and maintained intimate contact with
the plotters as a coup was hatched. So close was the station's
involvement that it was able to coordinate the recovery of some
classified Soviet military equipment by the United States as the
coup took place.
According to Stockwell, Banes' sense of initiative knew no
bounds. The station even proposed to headquarters through back
channels that a squad be on hand at the moment of the coup to
storm the [Communist] Chinese embassy, kill everyone inside,
steal their secret records, and blow up the building to cover
Though the proposal was quashed, inside the CIA headquarters the
Accra station was given full, if unofficial credit for the
eventual coup, in which eight Soviet advisors were killed. None
of this was adequately reflected in the agency's records,
Confirmation and Revelation
While the newly-released documents, written by a National
Security Council staffer and unnamed CIA officers, confirm the
essential outlines set forth by Nkrumah and Stockwell, they also
provide additional, and chilling, details about what the U.S.
government knew about the plot, when, and what it was prepared
to do and did do to assist it.
On March 11, 1965, almost a year before the coup, William P.
Mahoney, the U.S. ambassador to Ghana, participated in a candid
discussion in Washington, D.C., with CIA Director John A. McCone
and the deputy chief of the CIA's Africa division, whose name
has been withheld.
Significantly, the Africa division was part of the CIA's
directorate of plans, or dirty tricks component, through which
the government pursued its covert policies.
According to the record of their meeting (Document 251), topic
one was the "Coup d'etat Plot, Ghana." While Mahoney was
satisfied that popular opinion was running strongly against
Nkrumah and the economy of the country was in a precarious
state, he was not convinced that the coup d'etat, now being
planned by Acting Police Commissioner Harlley and Generals Otu
and Ankrah, would necessarily take place.
Nevertheless, he confidently—and accurately, as it turned
out—predicted that one way or another Nkrumah would be out
within a year. Revealing the depth of embassy knowledge of the
plot, Mahoney referred to a recent report which mentioned that
the top coup conspirators were scheduled to meet on 10 March at
which time they would determine the timing of the coup.
However, he warned, because of a tendency to procrastinate, any
specific date they set should be accepted with reservations. In
a reversal of what some would assume were the traditional roles
of an ambassador and the CIA director, McCone asked Mahoney who
would most likely succeed Nkrumah in the event of a coup.
Mahoney again correctly forecast the future: Ambassador Mahoney
stated that initially, at least, a military junta would take
Making it Happen
But Mahoney was not a prophet. Rather, he represented the
commitment of the U.S. government, in coordination with other
Western governments, to bring about Nkrumah's downfall.
Firstly, Mahoney recommended denying Ghana's forthcoming aid
request in the interests of further weakening Nkrumah. He felt
that there was little chance that either the Chinese Communists
or the Soviets would in adequate measure come to Nkrumah's
financial rescue and the British would continue to adopt a hard
nose attitude toward providing further assistance to Ghana.
At the same time, it appears that Mahoney encouraged Nkrumah in
the mistaken belief that both the U.S. and the U.K. would come
to his financial rescue and proposed maintaining current U.S.
aid levels and programs because they will endure and be
remembered long after Nkrumah goes.
Secondly, Mahoney seems to have assumed the responsibility of
increasing the pressure on Nkrumah and exploiting the probable
results. This can be seen in his 50-minute meeting with Nkrumah
three weeks later.
According to Mahoney's account of their April 2 discussion
(Document 252), "at one point Nkrumah, who had been holding face
in hands, looked up and I saw he was crying. With difficulty he
said I could not understand the ordeal he had been through
during last month. Recalling that there had been seven attempts
on his life."
Mahoney did not attempt to discourage Nkrumah's fears, nor did
he characterize them as unfounded in his report to his
"While Nkrumah apparently continues to have personal affection
for me," he noted, "he seems as convinced as ever that the US is
out to get him. From what he said about assassination attempts
in March, it appears he still suspects US involvement."
Of course, the U.S. was out to get him. Moreover, Nkrumah was
keenly aware of a recent African precedent that made the notion
of a U.S.-organized or sanctioned assassination plot
plausible—namely, the fate of the Congo and its first prime
minister, his friend Patrice Lumumba.
Nkrumah believed that the destabilization of the Congolese
government in 1960 and Lumumba's assassination in 1961 were the
work of the "Invisible Government of the U.S.," as he wrote in
Neocolonialism: The Last Stage of Imperialism, later in 1965.
When Lumumba's murder was announced, Nkrumah told students at
the inauguration of an ideological institute that bore his name
that this brutal murder should teach them the diabolical depths
of degradation to which these twin-monsters of imperialism and
colonialism can descend.
In his conclusion, Mahoney observed: "Nkrumah gave me the
impression of being a badly frightened man. His emotional
resources seem be running out. As pressures increase, we may
expect more hysterical outbursts, many directed against US."
It was not necessary to add that he was helping to apply the
pressure, nor that any hysterical outbursts by Nkrumah played
into the West's projection of him as an unstable dictator, thus
justifying his removal.
On May 27, 1965, Robert W. Komer, a National Security Council
staffer, briefed his boss, McGeorge Bundy, President Johnson's
special assistant for national security affairs, on the
anti-Nkrumah campaign (Document 253).
Komer, who first joined the White House as a member of President
Kennedy's NSC staff, had worked as a CIA analyst for 15 years.
In 1967, Johnson tapped him to head his hearts-and-minds
pacification program in Vietnam.
Komer's report establishes that the effort was not only
interagency, sanctioned by the White House and supervised by the
State Department and CIA, but also intergovernmental, being
supported by America's Western allies.
"FYI," he advised, "we may have a pro-Western coup in Ghana
soon. Certain key military and police figures have been planning
one for some time, and Ghana's deteriorating economic condition
may provide the spark."
"The plotters are keeping us briefed," he noted, "and the State
Department thinks we're more on the inside than the British.
While we're not directly involved (I'm told), we and other
Western countries (including France) have been helping to set up
the situation by ignoring Nkrumah's pleas for economic aid. All
in all, it looks good."
Komer's reference to not being told if the U.S. was directly
involved in the coup plot is revealing and quite likely a wry
nod to his CIA past.
Among the most deeply ingrained aspects of intelligence
tradecraft and culture is plausible deniability, the habit of
mind and practice designed to insulate the U.S., and
particularly the president, from responsibility for particularly
sensitive covert operations.
Komer would have known that orders such as the overthrow of
Nkrumah would have been communicated in a deliberately vague,
opaque, allusive, and indirect fashion, as Thomas Powers noted
in The Man Who Kept the Secrets: Richard Helms and the CIA.
It would be unreasonable to argue that the U.S. was not directly
involved when it created or exacerbated the conditions that
favored a coup, and did so for the express purpose of bringing
Truth and Consequences
As it turned out, the coup did not occur for another nine
months. After it did, Komer, now acting special assistant for
national security affairs, wrote a congratulatory assessment to
the President on March 12, 1966 (Document 260). His assessment
of Nkrumah and his successors was telling.
"The coup in Ghana," he crowed, "is another example of a
fortuitous windfall. Nkrumah was doing more to undermine our
interests than any other black African. In reaction to his
strongly pro-Communist leanings, the new military regime is
almost pathetically pro-Western."
In this, Komer and Nkrumah were in agreement. "Where the more
subtle methods of economic pressure and political subversion
have failed to achieve the desired result," Nkrumah wrote from
exile in Guinea three years later, "there has been resort to
violence in order to promote a change of regime and prepare the
way for the establishment of a puppet government."
Copyright ©2001, Paul Lee.
Paul Lee is a historian, filmmaker, and freelance writer. He
is Director of Best Efforts, Inc. (BEI), a professional research
and consulting service that specializes in the recovery,
preservation, and dissemination of global black history and
culture. BEI offers "OurStory," a black history lecture series.
You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.