a PAW web exclusive column
American mercenaries in
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
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