Web Exclusives:Features
a PAW web exclusive column

December 5, 2001:
American mercenaries in Rhodesia
Exploring diplomatic history in Zimbabwe

A review of From The Barrel of a Gun: The United States and the War Against Zimbabwe, 1965-1980, by Gerald Horne, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 389pp.

By Andy DeRoche '89

Gerald Horne '70, a professor of history with appointments in communication studies and African and Afro-American studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, has written many important books, including Race Woman: The Lives of Shirley Graham Du Bois (NYU Press) and Class Struggle in Hollywood, 1930-1950 : Moguls, Mobster (UTexas Press), on the Watts riot.

His latest effort, From the Barrel of a Gun, is a thoroughly researched and well organized study of American relations with Zimbabwe. Having written on American relations with Zimbabwe myself, I approached this review as an opportunity to criticize my competition. I must admit, however, that Horne's book is exceptional. Anyone interested in recent foreign policy, military history, race, culture, or Africa should definitely read it. I am certainly glad I did.

The focus of Horne's book is on Americans who supported the white minority government of Rhodesia, until it became Zimbabwe in 1980. This is an important case study for many reasons. Rhodesia, which was a British colony officially known as Southern Rhodesia, was ruled by a white minority that was never more than 5 percent of the population. In a system similar to apartheid in neighboring South Africa, this minority regime retained power by controlling the military, politics, and economy. When England refused to grant independence to Rhodesia because of its racist system, the Rhodesian government led by Ian Smith unilaterally declared independence in 1965. The American policy toward this rebel regime over the next 15 years is worthy of study in and of itself, but also because it foreshadowed the more well-known example of our policy toward South Africa in the 1980s.

Horne looks at this topic in a new way. He provides a sophisticated analysis of the concept of whiteness, which was the key link between supportive Americans and Rhodesians. The link of whiteness involved leaders in both countries, such as Ian Smith, Jesse Helms, and Dean Acheson. It also featured grassroots groups in the U.S., such as the Friends of Rhodesia. Finally, Horne examines cultural aspects of whiteness in American books, movies, and music. Among his more interesting arguments about whiteness is the point that there were many obstacles which made unity based on whiteness difficult in Rhodesia. For example, whites of British ancestry often looked down on Portuguese immigrants. Similarly, anti-Semitism among Anglo-Rhodesians eroded their unity in the struggle against black equality.

Horne's analysis of official U.S. policy toward Rhodesia, though brief, is useful. He identifies an ongoing struggle within U.S. administrations from Lyndon Johnson to Jimmy Carter over whether to focus on anticommunism or antiracism. The U.S. joined the U.N. in imposing sanctions against Rhodesia during the Johnson administration, most importantly on chrome. Horne blames Nixon for allowing Senator Harry Byrd, Jr., to punch a gaping hole in these sanctions in 1971. He credits the Carter administration, notably Andrew Young, for reinstating sanctions in 1977. He argues convincingly that the sanctions did make a difference. At the same time, he provides a fascinating discussion of the rampant "sanctions busting" that occurred, and implicated some major U.S. companies such as United Airlines.

The American role in the transition from Rhodesia to Zimbabwe has been covered in more detail in other works, such as Anthony Lake's Tar Baby Option and my Black, White, and Chrome. What Horne does so well is provide the other side of the story, looking at Americans who tried to prevent independence and majority rule from coming to Zimbabwe. The most visible way to do so was literally with the "barrel of a gun," and Horne's discussion of American mercenaries in Rhodesia is unquestionably his most important contribution to the literature. In discussing the mercenaries he investigates a number of interesting issues, such as gender and sexuality. He brings to light a massive amount of amazing details, including the existence of a movie about mercenaries called The Wild Geese, which starred Richard Harris and Richard Burton. Most important, Horne documents the experiences of individual American mercenaries.

He demonstrates that many of them were Vietnam veterans, who saw the war in Rhodesia as a chance to fight communism and make up for the failure in Southeast Asia. He shows that Americans were protagonists in a lot of the worst brutalities carried out by Rhodesian forces, including the notorious Selous Scouts. He explains the important role in recruiting American mercenaries played by Robert Brown and his infamous magazine Soldier of Fortune. Horne concludes that most Americans who went to fight in Rhodesia were from the dregs of society, and he characterizes them as "rank anticommunists, simple psychopaths, white supremacists, and bloodthirsty criminals." (211)

For someone interested in the formulation of American policy towards Rhodesia, Lake's Tar Baby Option is still the place to start. For discussion of the influence of African Americans such as Andrew Young in fighting against Ian Smith and his regime, my Black, White, and Chrome has more detail. Nonetheless, by providing an in-depth analysis of American efforts to support Smith, Horne has made an invaluable contribution to the field of diplomatic history.

Andy DeRoche '89