The nature of the United States government’s attempts—and failure— to get sufficient relief to starving Biafrans at the end of the Nigerian civil war provides perhaps the first real view of how the carefully constructed foreign policy machinery of the Nixon Administration works in a crisis. A great many human lives were involved. No one can say how many, but a series of medical surveys within the former Biafran enclave in eastern Nigeria report the highest starvation rates recorded in human history, and no substantial alleviation since the end of the war in January.

Responsible medical experts say that at least two million Biafrans died during the war, and that many thousands more have died since Biafra collapsed on January 11. Estimates of deaths since the war ended range from 20,000 to more than 100,000. State Department officials are reluctant to discuss this. As one put it, although “there are gaps in the population [e.g. the starvation took its greatest toll among the elderly and children] . . . there are figures about death and malnutrition which, given the standards in that area, are not terribly excessive.” “No sources,” said another, “have reported any mass graves, or buzzards circling.”

The central issue which divided the policy-makers was what actions the United States should take to get the Nigerian government to deliver or permit the delivery by others of sufficient food into the former rebel enclave. There were divisions within the State Department and, more intensely, between the State Department and the White House. When the State Department eventually concluded that not enough was being done, the American Embassy in Lagos resisted. The matter is not yet settled. By mid-April, despite the continuing evidence of widespread starvation in eastern Nigeria, the supply of special relief food in the area was becoming depleted. Relief deliveries were diminishing. Washington and the embassy in Lagos were in disagreement over whether special preparations should be made for the approaching rainy season.

All of this has been very embarrassing to the policy-makers here. Although a number of them agreed to talk about it, none of them would be quoted (this is not unusual in the area of foreign policy) . Among other things, the State Department has been hoist on its own optimistic statements at the end of the war. The sensitivities were exacerbated by an article in the Forum, published by the liberal young Republican Ripon Society, accusing the State Department in effect of sabotaging presidential policy on Biafra. The article even spurred an abortive inquiry into the affair by Clark Mollenhoff, President Nixon’s special White House investigator. But Mollenhoff’s investigation was apparently begun on his own initiative, and was turned off by the White House. The Ripon article overrepresented the extent to which the President had a policy, and to which the State Department did, or is capable of doing, anything so deliberate as to subvert one. Nevertheless, it was enterprising journalism which struck raw nerves.

Bungling Biafran relief

Most foreign policies proceed from certain perceived truths—Vietnam is a domino, Greece is the southern flank of NATO, Communism is monolithic—and so has the policy on Nigeria. Until the early 1960s, American diplomacy virtually ignored the “dark continent.” What the diplomats knew, they had largely learned in the European (colonial) foreign offices. As a number of African countries gained independence, the United States adjusted to the new realities by raising Africa’s bureaucratic status in the State Department and financing “institutes” of African study. The new perceived truths were that Africa was vitally important, a battlefield in the cold war; that if we were not very astute in our diplomacy and aid, the Russians would get it; and that the only way to prevent tribal chaos was through maintenance of the nationstates the colonial powers had left behind. As other new African nations began to come apart, Nigeria—the most populous African nation, its three regions united, holding elections—was considered the “jewel of the continent.” Therefore, the secession of Biafra in 1967, following the massacre in Nigeria of some 30,000 Ibos and the return of the Ibos to the eastern region, was a blow. The institutional bias at the State Department, and certainly in the embassy in Lagos, continued to be that there should be “one Nigeria.”

Officially, the United States remained neutral, although it did refuse to recognize the Biafran regime while maintaining recognition of the Nigerian federal government. There was some support of relief efforts on both sides. In 1967, the Johnson Administration made a key decision to refuse to sell arms to the Nigerian government. Meanwhile, the British and the Russians were aiding the federal government, and the French were aiding the Biafrans. What with the troubles over Vietnam, and the outcry in Congress when the United States so much as sent three transport planes to the Congo in 1967, the Administration was just not going to get involved in the Nigerian civil war.

Although Africa had its moment of chic during the early 1960s, it still is not taken all that seriously. When Secretary of State William P. Rogers took a tour of Africa early this year, the joke around Washington was that it was because there was nowhere else he could go. Lyndon Johnson, it is said, used to get Nigeria’s problems confused with Rhodesia’s, When an African expert comes to a meeting, his colleagues find it amusing to pretend to beat drums. Related to this, unpleasant as it is to say, was a form of racism: according to several witnesses, a kind of bureaucratic detachment about tragedy in Africa, and an assumption that Africans do not share our value for human life. In this case, these feelings were exacerbated by the blatant public relations use the Biafrans made of the starvation issue during the war. It is fair to ask if our relief policies would have been the same if the Biafrans were Belgians. One key State Department official talked to me for an hour and a half about the Nigerian story and never mentioned as one of the “factors" or “perspectives” that people were dying.

The Biafran rebellion attracted tlie sympathies of a strange amalgam of left and right in this country—New Leftists and Strom Thurmond and Edward M. Kennedy and Fulton Lewis III—and of relief organizations and the Catholic Church. There were various ways that the sympathizers saw it: the Ibos were Christians, mostly Catholics, besieged by Muslims; they were blacks striving for self-determination; they were shaking off the artificial impositions of the colonial powers. The Biafrans had, moreover, a superb sense of public relations, and excellent American contacts. For whatever reason, Richard Nixon, the candidate for President, issued two statements on Biafra. “This is not the time to stand on ceremony or go through channels or to observe the diplomatic niceties,” he said. “While America is not the world’s policeman, let us at least act as the world’s conscience in this matter of life and death for millions .... I urge President Johnson to give to this problem all the time and attention and imagination and energy he can muster.”

Who knew?

Following his inauguration, the President adopted what in current terminology might be called a fairly “high profile” on Biafran relief. He appointed a special relief coordinator, Clyde Ferguson, a black Republican and former dean of the Howard University Law School. Mrs. Nixon, who does not generally go in for such things, was photographed collecting food for Biafra on the steps of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A special office for Nigeria was established in the State Department. Yet despite all these arrangements, when Biafra fell, the United States government was divided over what to do, and unready to do it.

There was difficulty in knowing what was happening in the Biafran enclave, and natural skepticism about the starvation issue. But there was also information within the government indicating how bad things might be.

On December 15, Ferguson briefed private relief groups on some of this information. He told them, according to a memorandum of the meeting, that the situation in Biafra had “deteriorated seriously,” and that “over 50 percent of the population is in need of special food assistance.” He said that in former rebel areas already taken over by the federal government “delays in re-establishing relief distributions after ‘liberation’ were almost disastrous. For Biafra, a delay in food distribution ot 20/30 days would be catastrophic . . . would bring about mortality on a colossal scale. Air drops, helicopter lifts, and use of river traffic to the maximum would need to be expeditiously organized.”

There had also been a report submitted to the State Department in November by a team headed by Dr. Karl Western, of the Public Health Service’s highly respected Communicable Disease Center in Atlanta, that a third of the Biafran population was starving. The report said that 34 percent of the Biafrans were suffering from edema, a late and advanced stage of starvation. This situation existed despite the airlift that continued throughout the war, and the private relief efforts inside Biafra. At that point, 2000 tons of food a week were reaching Biafra. Dr. Western said that this was the minimum necessary to take care of the population most severely in need. It had to be assumed, as Ferguson said, that there would be an interruption of relief efforts at the end of the war. Dr. Western therefore found that things were indeed worse than had been thought, either by the United States government or by the Nigerians. He also estimated that the Biafran population was substantially lower than the Biafrans and their supporters claimed. Ferguson concluded, as he put it in a State Department memorandum, that “public release of either of these conclusions will undoubtedly have serious political repercussions.” Release of the starvation statistics would have angered the Nigerians, and release of the population statistics would have angered the Biafrans.

Neither Undersecretary of State Elliot Richardson, who was monitoring Nigerian policy at the State Department, nor, at the National Security Council staff at the White House, Roger Morris, Henry Kissinger’s assistant for African affairs, was aware of Dr. Western’s report. They did not find out about it until several weeks later, after Biafra had fallen. There are various versions of who was to blame for this communications failure. The point is that it happened.

The divisions between the White House and the State Department over what the United States’s role should be began around the time of the collapse. When Biafra fell, the White House announced that the President had placed on alert, for relief purposes, transport planes and helicopters, and was donating $10 million. This was done on White House initiative. The contingency planning that the State Department was doing for several months appears to have amounted to discussions about the effects of an overrun of Biafra, and of the possibilities of sending in observers in that event. There were discussions of the need for trucks to deliver food, but trucks were not obtained until several days after Biafra fell, at which point, according to one relief official, the White House was prodding the agencies, and even making calls to locate trucks. There had been some discussion of pre-positioning helicopters near the enclave, to fly in food, but Secretary Rogers vetoed that. He was never deeply involved in the Nigerian issue, but to the extent he did participate, his position, according to several State Department sources, was that this was a Nigerian problem, and should be left to them. In this, Rogers was being consistent with his general view that the United States must learn to involve itself less in the affairs of others.

To the State Department, the central facts were that Nigeria was a sovereign nation, and that others could not supply relief unless the Nigerians agreed. Therefore, the prevailing view was that it was important to avoid making statements that would embarrass the Nigerians, or to press them so hard that they became angered, perhaps to the point of rejecting all relief help. This view was shared by the embassy in Lagos, which was anxious, in the manner of embassies, to maintain good relations with the existing government.

This difference was fought out, as such issues usually are, in seemingly minor bureaucratic skirmishes over such things as the wording of cables, and the tone of statements to the press. State, for example, drafted a cable instructing our representatives in Lagos to emphasize that the helicopters and planes were only on standby, and that the $10 million had only been made available because British Prime Minister Harold Wilson had told President Nixon that there was concern over the relief effort. The White House rewrote the cable, deleting the apologetic tone and emphasizing the President’s concern that the Nigerians speed relief. It is in such ways that the United States government’s posture in a crisis can be determined.

Similarly, after Biafra collapsed, one State Department official told the press, “I think the relief situation is in pretty good shape . . . we don’t even know that the need will develop” for assistance. “We must avoid,” said Undersecretary Richardson in a speech to editors, “an approach to the situation which could be counterproductive by appearing to exhibit a lack of confidence either in the sincerity or the capacity of the Nigerian government . . . this rules out conspicuous and dramatic gestures.” Ron Ziegler, the White House press officer, stressed the relief action taken by the President. “The President,” he said, wants to make sure . . . that everything is being done to deal with the rebel problem and that the problem as it exists is not understated.”

Getting caught

Shortly after the collapse of Biafra, Dr. Western submitted a memorandum to the State Department stating that to meet the disrupted situation and to begin to restore the population to health, a minimum of 3500 tons and a maximum of 20,000 tons a week must reach the enclave. The Agency for International Development, which was managing the relief effort for the State Department, and the Nigerian government, had been planning on a maximum of 2000 tons a week. This was the highest level that had been reached during the war, when Dr. Western had found one third of the population to be starving. With the end of the war, the relief flights had ceased, the relief workers in Biafra had been expelled or had fled, and the distribution system had broken down. As one official said, “We were using as a planning figure the tonnages at which they were starving to death.”

On January 15, a few days after Biafra fell, there was an interagency meeting at which the government addressed the questions of how much postwar relief to push for, and how to persuade the Nigerians to agree. Roger Morris of Kissinger’s staff had been alerted to the existence of the Western report only two days earlier, by a low-ranking State Department employee who was distressed that its implications were not being taken into account in the relief planning. Representing the White House at the interagency meeting, Morris argued that planning should proceed on the basis of Western’s findings. He urged that there he accelerated production of special high-protein food for the relief effort, and that helicopters be offered to UNICEF, which had good relations with the Nigerian government. Most important, he argued, was that the Western report findings and the subsequent recommendations for increased tonnages should be given to the Nigerian government as soon as possible, at the highest levels, and with the greatest urgency. He reasoned that it would be preferable on several grounds, ranging from diplomatic effectiveness to morality, from the Nigerians point of view as well as that of the United States, to admit and plan for the worst. If Western was right, there was still time, now, for the Nigerians to blame the former Biafran leaders for conditions there, and for everyone to avoid getting caught in a lie. The Nigerians should be told, he argued, that if they persisted in minimizing the conditions in Biafra, and the conditions did turn out to be a good deal worse, the Nigerians would suffer in the world’s eyes, and the United States government would be obliged, based on its own domestic imperatives, to take actions that would offend them. Therefore, the best way to maintain a good relationship with the Nigerians was to level with them—early. How, otherwise, the argument went, could we ever account for not having told them the truth about how things were in Biafra, as urgently as possible?

But the weight of opinion was against the White House proposals, and the decision of the meeting was to defer action on them. The planning would continue on the old basis. If things did turn out to be worse, that problem could be dealt with when it came up. The reports from Nigeria were that things were proceeding well. There had been no massacres, as some had expected. General Yakubu Gowon, the Nigerian chief of state, had pledged that there would be no retributions, and that there would be relief. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs David Newsom I had seen General Gowon right after the collapse of Biafra, and reported that Gowon insisted that relief be carried out by Nigerians. Gowon also said that he would not hesitate to accept help after the requirements for relief had been determined.

Another reason for delay, in Washington’s view, was that no State Department observers had been to eastern Nigeria since the end of the war. The American embassy was reluctant to send its own, out of deference to Nigerian sensibilities. Western, it was argued at the interagency meeting, was only one observer, and his figures were only “estimates.” The AID representatives argued that the 2000 tons being planned would be sufficient. Morris, the White House representative, lacked the bureaucratic status to prevail at the meeting: he may have been representing Kissinger, but he was not Kissinger, and it was not entirely clear to the State Department to what extent he was speaking for Kissinger, or expressing his own views. Moreover, as they saw it, Morris was young (thirtytwo) , and inexperienced in the nuances of diplomacy. In any event, the State Department prevailed, not by any means so overt as disobeying or even overruling the White House, but by the more classic technique of postponement.

Over the next week, however, a number of developments changed the State Department’s view of the situation. On January 19, Dr. Western and some of his colleagues came to Washington on other business and went by to brief some State Department officials, some think at White House suggestion, The doctors said that one and a half million Biafrans were in urgent need of emergency assistance, that thousands had already died since the collapse, and that they would stake their professional reputations on what they were saying. “It was the first time we’d had an oral briefing on Dr. Western’s figures,” said a State Department official later. “It clarified some of the questions.” After the briefing, the State Department cabled the embassy in Lagos that estimates of the need for food were “at variance,” and henceforth to plan for a substantially higher level of relief: 10,000 tons a week.

On January 20, the press was allowed into the enclave for the first time, and reported a very bad situation. The State Department cabled its representatives in Lagos that it was deeply concerned over the disparity between embassy statements and the “lurid” press reports of chaos, starvation, and violence. At the same time, a State Department representative who had reached the enclave cabled back confirmation of the press reports. “A disaster of major proportions appears to be developing here,” he said. “At least one million people are in acute need now, and the situation grows worse daily. . . . Problem particularly explosive because press have seen just enough during recent escorted visit to realize how inadequate relief effort is.”

Another interagency meeting was convened on January 21, and it adopted most of the proposals that had been deferred almost a week earlier. Ten days had passed since the collapse of Biafra. The embassy in Lagos was instructed to bring the Western report to the attention of the Nigerian government. Two days later, the embassy sent word back that the report was given to the Ministry of Health by an AID doctor who, it added, could not be expected to support its findings. The embassy said that it believed another survey was necessary. This transmittal of the report—routine, at low levels, with no sense of urgency—was not what Washington had in mind. The ambassador, William Trueheart, reported that despite Washington’s instructions he did not believe that 10,000 tons a week was necessary, and that he could not be expected to convince the Nigerians of the revised, higher need. He argued that the problem needed more study, and that there was a better chance of getting the Nigerians to act if they were not “nudged.”

Not for everybody

Representatives of Richardson’s staff and the National Security Council were sent to Lagos to try to bring the embassy around. One of Dr. Western’s associates, going to Nigeria on other business, was asked to brief the ambassador. On January 26, two months after the Western report was in hand, two weeks after relief distribution had all but ceased, Trueheart, having been briefed by the doctor, sent Washington a new sort of message. His cable, if it were not for the backdrop of human suffering, would have the makings of a Terry-Thomas movie. What follows is a paraphrase of what it said in part:






The Nigerians, inevitably, did not appreciate the Americans’ newfound alarm. They assumed, with some validity, that the United States government was reacting to press reports, and to criticism from the sidelines. Ambassador Trueheart was now unable to get to General Gowon with his message. Not until early February, acting on reports from some of its own observers, did the Nigerian government agree to accelerate the relief program.

The State Department is reluctant to discuss how much relief has actually been delivered. Yet official reports indicate that very little food— estimates are from 200 to 900 tons— reached the former Biafran enclave during the weeks after the collapse until the end of January. Since then, the Nigerians have yet to deliver as much as 5000 tons a week, half the amount that the State Department finally recommended. No one was sure what had become of the trucks. By early April, with the relief effort diminishing, the government was divided over the necessity of preparing for the rainy season. Some in Washington and the embassy in Lagos argued that the drenching rains on recently repaired roads would present no new relief problems, that, as one put it, “Life will go on.” “Not for everybody,” responded one State Department relief official at an interagency meeting. Ambassador Trueheart was called to Washington to be urged to greater action by the embassy.

Despite State Department assurances that all had gone well, the bureaucracy that had dealt with the Nigerian relief problem was reorganized and restaffed. On the seventh floor, Elliot Richardson’s staff was compiling a history of the relief story to see what could be learned from it. It was thinking about how to ensure that the Undersecretary gets better information, and, as so often in the past, trying to figure out how to convey in a cable that “We really mean this.”

And medical reports continued to come in. A report in February by Dr. George Latham, a professor of nutrition at Cornell, found the same edema rates as had Dr. Western three months earlier, and pointed out that the prevalence of several hunger-related diseases was far greater than before the war, contrary to the statement by a State Department official about “the standards in that area.” He also warned that “the lay public and even the physicians’ view of mass starvation as the presence of large numbers of dead bodies in the streets and in villages is a false one.” His report was not made public, and only parts of it were given to the Nigerian government. Another survey, conducted jointly by the Nigerians and Americans in February, confirmed the severe starvation predicted by Dr. Western. As late as March and early April, American doctors returning from advisory work for the Nigerian Red Cross reported that there still had been little overall improvement in the nutritional condition of the population.

Where was Kissinger?

The Nigerian story tells a great deal about foreign-policy-making in the Nixon Administration, both in terms of the machinery, and of the people who are trying to make it work. It is an example of a state of affairs that worries a number of observers: the structure is now so elaborate, and the layers of authority so many, and the procedures so formal, that there are even greater risks than usual that important information won’t get through, nor policies be carried out. Since the Administration made very few appointments from the outside to key State Department jobs, the Department is, more than it has been in some time, influenced by the traditionalists. Policy questions can be affected by State’s resentment of the unprecedented White House control of foreign policy, and the White House’s feeling that the Department is unresponsive. The National Security Council staff is large and has begun to turn into a bureaucracy itself.

A major question is where the President and Henry Kissinger were through all of this. It appears that Kissinger was informed of the controversy in detail, and was deeply concerned, and backed his staff in its efforts to change State Department policy. But Kissinger is one of the busiest men in Washington, and he had other wars, literal and bureaucratic, to fight. Any official must decide his priorities, the issues on which he chooses to spend his capital, and the Nigerian case was not as important to him as were some others. Moreover, Kissinger’s relationship with Richardson appears to have been an important factor. Because of the power that Kissinger has accrued, and because of Rogers’ own relaxed approach to his job, the Secretary of State has become a largely irrelevant figure in the making of foreign policy. The relationship between Kissinger and Rogers is, from several accounts, strained. The axis of power and policy runs from Kissinger to Undersecretary Richardson, a cool, bright, and able man who is Kissinger’s close friend. The two men have lunch once a week, and talk on the telephone several times a day. Richardson had charge of Nigerian policy, and Kissinger has confidence in him. Finally, the form in which the issue came up was incompatible with Kissinger’s chosen role: he is the foreign policy conceptualizer, the grand strategist; this was an operational issue of a rather mundane sort—malnutrition statistics, trucks, food tonnages.

It is also to be presumed from all of the evidence that Kissinger did inform the President of the controversy. Yet the issue was most intense while the President was preoccupied with his State of the Union message, and it is not known with what particular urgency the problem was raised with him. The President is generally inaccessible, and the members of the National Security Council Staff who have direct knowledge of an issue do not, as did their predecessors in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, see the President to discuss it with him. During the entire episode, the President held one meeting on the Nigerian problem. It took place on January 20, the day before the bad reports began to come in. It was attended by Rogers, Ferguson, David Newsom and Kissinger. According to reliable sources, the President was given the impression that although the situation was unclear, relief was proceeding; the State Department representatives emphasized the sensitivities of the Nigerians about relief, and the importance of maintaining good relations with General Gowon. In any event, nothing that happened during or after the meeting gave the State Department any indication of presidential dissatisfaction with the way it was carrying out Nigerian relief policy.

In many ways, the Nigerian episode is like Rashomon, the Japanese story that repeats the same plot several times through the eyes of different characters:

To the White House, the bureaucracy once more had the priorities wrong, and was showing a lack of imagination and initiative. An anguishing problem was being dealt with in a detached way. The State Department was relying, as it frequently does, on reports that confirmed its preconceptions and wishes.

To the embassy in Lagos, the central necessity was the maintenance of long-range relationships with the Nigerian federal government. Washington could not understand how delicate the embassy’s job was, or how complicated were Nigeria’s internal politics. The Russians, moreover, were capitalizing on their aid to the Nigerian government during the war.

To the State Department, there was reason to sympathize with the embassy, for the State Department’s primary mission is diplomacy (not relief). The White House announcement of the President’s actions at the time of Biafra’s collapse, I was told at State, was “counterproductive.” “You must keep in mind,” a State Department man cautioned, “that the White House was being political about this.” There is also the feeling at State that in this, as in other areas of foreign policy, things would have gone more smoothly if public opinion hadn’t gotten in the way. In the lower echelons, there was frustration at the number of layers of authority, and at what were seen to be misinformed judgments at the top. The White House, as they saw it, was too removed from the realities, and Richardson had to respond to it. “They have authority without responsibility,” said one State Department man. In some parts of State and in the Agency for International Development, there was also the view that the White House, in its isolation and ignorance—“They don’t know all those funny names out in the country,” said a State man—was unduly influenced by the physicians and nutritionists. One State official remarked that “nutritionists are always talking about the ideal and asking the impossible.” It is thought that the nutritionists such as Jean Mayer of Harvard, who has been putting pressure on State, have been too political, too cooperative with such Administration critics as Senators Edward Kennedy and Charles Goodell.

AID relief officials, who had been dealing with refugees and hunger since World War II, saw hysteria and meddling on the part of outsiders. “Some people here were looking at this as an isolated instance,” said one AID official. “The doctors went beyond their discipline in saying how much food should be gotten in. That’s my profession.” It was suggested that the furor over the Western report arose because the doctors saw it “as a chance to put the Communicable Disease Center in the limelight.”

The debate continues over whether it would have made any difference if the United States government had tried earlier and harder to get more food to the Biafrans. There is of course the possibility that it would have made no difference; that this is another case of America as “Prometheus Bound.”But that is not the point. Nor is it very relevant whether the doctors were right or wrong, whether the Biafran officials were responsible for the condition of their population, or whether anyone was being “political.”

The central issue is how this government responded in a crisis, when there was information available that indicated a human tragedy of sul> stantial magnitude. It chose to ignore the unpalatable facts. Its communication system failed. It was not ready to act. In a moment of uncertainty, when there were moral as well as practical reasons to anticipate the worst, the instinctive bureaucratic response was to defend what it was doing and hope that everything would turn out all right. The President, who had the ultimate responsibility, did not choose to intervene in the bureaucratic struggle. A matter of life and death in another continent was transfigured into an issue of institutional rivalry in Washington. When a consensus finally developed in Washington, there was trouble in getting the policy executed in the field. And even now, there is a reluctance to face, or admit, the facts. It must he emphasized that all those involved in this particular issue approached it intending to do something about the starvation. In terms of the human lives involved, that is what makes what happened so hard to accept.