A matter of life or death in the Congo

US Embassy in Leopoldville/Kinshasa

US Embassy in Leopoldville/Kinshasa

In his book, Chief of Station, Congo, Larry Devlin — the CIA’s man in Leopoldville (Kinshasa) during the early years of Congolese independence, and an operative who knew a thing or two about shaping reality — recounts a remarkable diplomatic incident. The United States had established an embassy in the brand new country, but had not yet provided a troop of Marines to guard it.  With mutinous Congolese soldiers rampaging about the streets, many of them — following years of Belgian misrule — intent on humiliating or harming any white man they encountered, it was a very dangerous time.  Expecting trouble, the ambassador and Devlin armed themselves with grenades and firearms, but they knew they were hopelessly vulnerable in the glass-fronted embassy.

So when a jeep full of soldiers turned into the embassy driveway one morning and aimed a fifty-calibre machine gun at the front door, they were understandably alarmed.  The gunner tried to fire, but the machine gun jammed.  Devlin was about to throw a grenade at the jeep, but the ambassador stopped him.  He went out into the driveway, ignoring the rifles pointed at him, and said, “Thank God, you’ve come to protect us from the Belgians.  We’ve been waiting for hours for the Congolese army to defend us.  The Belgians could be here at any minute.”

Remarkably, the soldiers put down their weapons and, in Devlin’s words, “agreed they had indeed come to protect us”.  They even followed the ambassador’s suggestion and set up a defensive post at the end of the street.

With a few well-chosen words, the ambassador reshaped reality for those riotous soldiers in what was probably a matter of life and death.