Zanzibar is a small group of islands off the coast of East Africa. Before and during World War II, it was a British crown colony, administered by Englishmen, with Arab merchants and African workers. Its economy was primarily based on the clove trade, which took off during the war, when the spice-exporting Dutch and British East Indies were cut off from Europe by the Japanese. After the war, the natives were already mobilized as a cultural entity, calling themselves “Shirazi.” A harvest disaster in 1948, coupled with labor unrest in Dar Es Salaam and Mombasa on the mainland of Africa, inspired the African workers to strike against their poor living and working conditions.

In 1956, the Arabs and African peasants in Zanzibar joined forces to form the Zanzibar Nationalist Party, led by a charismatic Arab named Babu. During the early 1960's, the ZNP sponsored scholarships for students to go to Moscow, Peking, and Cairo. This, coupled with increasing evidence of Cuban influence (for instance, Spanish-language posters decrying American imperialism), made the United States increasingly suspicious of Communist involvement in Zanzibar's politics.

These fears came to life after Zanzibar's revolution in 1964. The revolution itself took only three hours, and was carried out by a ZNP guerilla army supplied and trained by Cuba. American and British diplomats were booted out of Zanzibar, while the PRC, East Germany, and the Soviet Union were quick to establish embassies. A few days after the revolution, the Soviets were already offering military aid, while the American-backed emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was offering Ethiopian air support to Zanzibar.

Zanzibar's independence lasted for less than two months before it signed an act of union with the neighboring state of Tanganyika, forming the country now known as Tanzania. Like Zanzibar, Tanganyika had success with uniting its people along racial lines in the interest of stopping imperialism. Tanzania's leader, Julius Nyerere, was opposed to alignment with the major blocs, but continued to take foreign aid from the Soviet Union and Cuba. China was Nyerere's largest overall benefactor in terms of foreign aid. His strong stand on racism also led Tanzania to suspend its diplomatic relations with the colonizing governments of Britain, Portugal, and South Africa. He also opposed the Vietnam War and the American holding of Puerto Rico. Overall, even though Tanzania was not formally aligned with the Communist world, it was clear to both sides that it would not lean toward the West under any circumstances.

Only in 1999 were the details of America's stance on the Zanzibar revolution released to the public, as part of the declassification of U.S. State Department documents from the Johnson administration. On 7 February 1964, the State Department prepared a report for President Johnson that stated:

The crux of the Zanzibar matter is to prevent its takeover by the Communists. The new regime is an uneasy coalition of African nationalist and pro-Communist elements, each struggling for power. We are gravely concerned that the role of the nationalists may be deteriorating.

The elements of preventing a Communist takeover include:

1. Elimination or control of "Field Marshal" Okello and armed thugs, who represent a continuing threat to order and stability.

2. Development of an independent nationalist government probably built around President Karume, leader of the Afro-Shirazis.

3. Political containment of any pro-Communist force, including Babu and Hanga, if they are unwilling to work with Karume. Babu and Hanga have had strong ties with Peiping and Moscow. Nevertheless Nyerere believes in the showdown they are African nationalists who can be and must be worked with. This is questionable.

4. Support and strengthening of Nyerere in Tanganyika and Kenyatta in Kenya.

...The U.K. has a military capability in the area to disarm Okello and his followers and to maintain order. It would do this on its own initiative if British nationals were endangered. Otherwise, understandably, it would desire a written GOZ request from Karume. Only the British can act militarily with adequate effectiveness.

...Every effort must be made to induce the British to take effective action. Since any definitive U.S. action would be based on the extent and type of action by the British, alternative measures the U.S. might take diplomatically, covertly or through economic or technical assistance would best be considered in light of the British program.

Despite the short-term stability which the U.K. military presence probably will insure, basic problems will remain, making British disengagement extremely difficult. Dependable African security forces cannot quickly be developed. At the same time, East Africa's leaders will be under mounting domestic pressure to seek early U.K. withdrawal. Domestic and general African pressures could lead to a British withdrawal before internal security forces have been adequately strengthened. (Foreign Relations of the United States 1964-68, p. 610-611)

While the United States and Britain ultimately did not go as far as the State Department foresaw, Zanzibar still had a lasting effect on American policy in Africa. Until the revolution, America was limited to supporting and following the Anglo-French lead: after the revolution, America was forced to take an active role in African politics, especially along the oil vein in the east, and this eventually led to the Carter Doctrine and the current American presence in the Middle East.

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