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 253).
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 Western allies.
“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 spark.”
“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 good.”
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 CIA past.
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 was telling.
“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.”
By Paul Lee