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date: 06 December 2022

Southern Africa and the United Stateslocked

Southern Africa and the United Stateslocked

  • R. Joseph ParrottR. Joseph ParrottDepartment of History, Ohio State University


The United States never sought to build an empire in Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries, as did European nations from Britain to Portugal. However, economic, ideological, and cultural affinities gradually encouraged the development of relations with the southern third of the continent (the modern Anglophone nations of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, the former Portuguese colonies of Mozambique and Angola, and a number of smaller states). With official ties limited for decades, missionaries and business concerns built a small but influential American presence mostly in the growing European settler states. This state of affairs made the United State an important trading partner during the 20th century, but it also reinforced the idea of a white Christian civilizing mission as justification for the domination of black peoples. The United States served as a comparison point for the construction of legal systems of racial segregation in southern Africa, even as it became more politically involved in the region as part of its ideological competition with the Soviet Union.

As Europe’s empires dissolved after World War II, official ties to white settler states such as South Africa, Angola, and Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe) brought the United States into conflict with mounting demands for decolonization, self-determination, and racial equality—both international and domestic. Southern Africa illustrated the gap between a Cold War strategy predicated on Euro-American preponderance and national traditions of liberty and democracy, eliciting protests from civil and human rights groups that culminated in the successful anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s. Though still a region of low priority at the beginning of the 21st century, American involvement in southern Africa evolved to emphasize the pursuit of social and economic improvement through democracy promotion, emergency relief, and health aid—albeit with mixed results. The history of U.S. relations with southern Africa therefore illustrates the transformation of trans-Atlantic racial ideologies and politics over the last 150 years, first in the construction of white supremacist governance and later in the eventual rejection of this model.


  • 20th Century: Post-1945
  • Foreign Relations and Foreign Policy
  • Political History

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