Yet scarcely six months after his unequivocal declaration, capping Kissinger’s negotiations in the region, Ian Smith stunned his white countrymen—and a world audience—with a televised announcement that accepted the principle of majority rule in Rhodesia, to take effect within two years.
More surprising was how Kissinger had engineered Smith’s abrupt reversal. He spearheaded a shift in US policy away from quietly backing white minority governments and toward active support of black majority rule. He gained British support and delicately worked with leaders of both moderate and radical black African states. Kissinger ultimately persuaded a reluctant South Africa—that “citadel of apartheid” and crucial backer of Rhodesia—to apply powerful pressure to Rhodesia to abandon white minority rule within two years.
Remarkably, South Africa agreed to coerce its neighbor despite the plain fact that, if Rhodesia capitulated, anti-apartheid forces would—and later did—shift their main energies toward South Africa, the major remaining white-ruled state in the region.
In the course of writing a book that seeks lessons from Kissinger’s distinctive deal-making career, Nick Burns, Bob Mnookin, and I have pieced together the twists and turns of this neglected story, which Kissinger described as “by far the most complex” negotiation he had ever conducted. It involved challenging encounters such as recruiting a suspicious Julius Nyerere—Tanzanian President and leading figure in the “non-aligned movement” of developing countries—to help build a supportive African coalition to pressure the Rhodesians. In his uneasy alignment with the American Secretary of State, Nyerere wanted “the two greatest sources of power on our side: God and Kissinger.”
Kissinger’s power in this initiative, however, did not derive from military or economic sources, though his global standing was extremely high after his diplomatic successes negotiating the US-China opening, détente and arms control with the Soviets, and disengagement accords among Egypt, Israel, and Syria after their 1973 war. To induce South Africa—a vital military backer of Rhodesia and the sole conduit for much of Rhodesian trade—to pressure its regional ally, Kissinger shrewdly played on South Africa’s increasingly painful international isolation, its sanctions-weakened economy, as well as the rapidly mounting costs of its military operations in the region. Kissinger stressed how playing a visibly constructive role vis-à-vis Rhodesia promised to improve South Africa’s global image and reduce its military expenditures.
Perhaps most persuasively, Kissinger made the case that rapidly increasing guerilla activity in Rhodesia—where black Africans held a 22-1 edge over whites—would inevitably impose militant black majority rule on the country. If South Africa pressed Rhodesia now for a more rapid and peaceful transition to black majority rule, Kissinger argued, the odds of relatively moderate black leadership (under Joshua Nkomo) were much higher than if South Africa continued its present course.
At the final stage of this complex multi-party process, with a supportive US-UK-African coalition and his appeal to a range of South African interests, Kissinger induced John Vorster, South Africa’s Prime Minister, to compel Rhodesia to accept black majority rule within two years—or in Ian Smith’s words, to “throw us to the wolves.” Smith lamented that, at this point, he was “confronted by the one country in the world [South Africa] that controlled our lifeline . . . leaving us no alternative.”
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