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Angola National Liberation 1961-1974

The Angolan National Liberation was the successful revolution against Angola's Portuguese colonists, which took place from 1961-1974. After a successful military coup in Portugal that toppled a long-standing authoritarian regime on April 25, 1974, the new rulers in Lisbon sought to divest the country of its costly colonial empire. The impending independence of one of those colonies, Angola, led to the Angolan civil war that grew into a Cold War competition. The Angola crisis of 19741975 ultimately contributed to straining relations between the United States and the Soviet Union.

However, for decades thereafter civil war had been the norm in Angola since independence from Portugal in 1975. This relatively unknown multi-decade "Border War" was the third or fourth largest of the "Cold War" wars, after the Korean and Vietnam wars, but ahead of the Soviet Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the relatively short and sharp Middle East wars of the time.

What initially started out as a low intensity conflict escalated into a fierce and ultimately conventional war, indirectly involving the two superpowers - the Soviet Union and the USA. Although at it's peak South Africa never committed more than 3000 troops (not counting the Angolan UNITA soldiers), it is generally accepted that the apartheid regime of the Republic of South Africa faced the following: 55,000 Cubans, 3,000 Soviets, 2,000 East Germans and a sprinkling of Ukrainian, Rumanian, Bulgarian, Polish, North Korean and at least 40,000 Marxist FAPLA/SWAPO/ANC soldiers. These elements were backed by billions of dollars of some of the most advanced Soviet weaponry of the time, including MiG 23's/27's, Mi24/25 Hind gunships, T-55/T-62 tanks and various SAMs, radars and other equipment. These were led by Soviet generals, some of whom were veterans of the Afghanistan war.

As decolonization progressed elsewhere in Africa, Portugal, under the Salazar and Caetano dictatorships, rejected independence and treated its African colonies as overseas provinces. Consequently, three independence movements emerged: the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) led by Agostinho Neto, with a base among Kimbundu and the mixed-race intelligentsia of Luanda, and links to communist parties in Portugal and the East Bloc; the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA), led by Holden Roberto with an ethnic base in the Bakongo region of the north and links to the United States and the Mobutu regime in Kinshasa; and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), led by Jonas Malheiro Savimbi with an ethnic and regional base in the Ovimbundu heartland in the center of the country and links to the People's Republic of China and apartheid South Africa.

From the early 1960s, elements of these movements fought against the Portuguese. In the first months of 1961, tensions came to a head. A group of alleged MPLA members attacked police stations and prisons in an attempt to free African political prisoners. Then, a group of disgruntled cotton workers in Malanje Province attacked government officials and buildings and a Catholic mission. In the wake of further sporadic violence, many wealthy Portuguese repatriated. They left behind them the poor whites who were unable to leave on short notice but who were ready to take the law into their own hands.

The violence spread to the northwest, where over the course of two days Bakongo (thought by some to have been UPA members) in Uge Province attacked isolated farmsteads and towns in a series of forty coordinated raids, killing hundreds of Europeans. Also involved in the rural uprisings were non-Bakongo in parts of Cuanza Norte Province. During the next few months, violence spread northward toward the border with the former Belgian Congo as the Portuguese put pressure on the rebels. Although it had not begun that way, as time passed the composition of the rebel groups became almost exclusively Bakongo.

The Portuguese reacted to the uprising with violence. Settlers organized into vigilante committees, and reprisals for the rebellion went uncontrolled by civilian and military authorities. The whites' treatment of Africans was as brutal and as arbitrary as had been that of the Africans toward them. Fear pervaded the country, driving an even deeper wedge between the races.

The loss of Africans as a result of the 1961 uprisings has been estimated as high as 40,000, many of whom died from disease or because of famine; about 400 Europeans were killed, as well as many assimilados and Africans deemed sympathetic to colonial authorities. By summer the Portuguese had reduced the area controlled by the rebels to one-half its original extent, but major pockets of resistance remained. Portuguese forces, relying heavily on air power, attacked many villages. The result was the mass exodus of Africans toward what is now Zaire.

The uprisings attracted worldwide attention. In mid-1961 the UN General Assembly appointed a subcommittee to investigate the situation in Angola, and it produced a report unfavorable to Portuguese rule. The events also helped mobilize the various liberation groups to renewed action.

In an effort to head off future violence, in the early 1960s the Salazar regime initiated a program to develop Angola's economic infrastructure. The Portuguese government increased the paved road network by 500 percent, stimulated the development of domestic air routes, provided emergency aid to the coffee producers, and abolished compulsory cotton cultivation. To reestablish confidence among Africans and among those who had been subject to reprisals by white settlers, the military initiated a campaign under which it resettled African refugees into village compounds and provided them with medical, recreational, and some educational facilities.

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