Kwame Nkrumah was the first President of the Republic of Ghana.
Documents Expose U.S. Role in Nkrumah Overthrow
By Paul Lee
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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
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 pattern.
"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
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 sourcea 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
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 the facts.
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, Stockwell wrote.
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
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 confidentlyand accurately, as it turned
outpredicted 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 over.
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
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 superiors.
"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 plausiblenamely, 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
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
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
"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 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
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
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 one about.
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
"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
-- June 7, 2002
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