In the late 1970s, about four hundred white American men, mostly Vietnam veterans, traveled to Rhodesia and Angola to fight as mercenaries. Convinced that the US government was too weak to counter the spread of communism in southern Africa, they took matters into their own hands. By picking up arms, these men hoped to continue their wartime crusade against America’s enemies abroad while reclaiming the economic and social power they believed they had lost to African Americans, women, and other groups at home.
The rise of the Right is usually told as a domestic tale. But the story of US mercenaries in Africa shows that right-wing Americans were also part of a larger international anticommunist mobilization that spanned the Cold War era. Drawing upon arguments pressed by US conservative leaders, they enacted a shadow foreign policy that linked overseas conflicts to domestic struggles, leaving legacies that resonate today.
Although most US mercenaries had a marginal impact on the wars in Rhodesia and Angola, the circulation of violence — both real and imagined — between the United States and southern Africa helped radicalize domestic paramilitary groups in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And the ideas and impulses that animated these American mercenaries helped generate new forms of privatized warfare.
“We Can’t Afford to Lose Any Other Countries”
The Americans who took up arms in Africa in the 1970s looked out on the world and saw the Soviet Union and its allies on the march, making great strides towards world domination. In the former Portuguese colony of Angola, which gained independence in 1975, the Cuban- and Soviet-supported Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola (MPLA) had seized power from rival nationalist guerrillas, igniting civil war. In Rhodesia, a white-supremacist state that broke from the British Empire in 1965, two guerrilla armies, supported by the Soviet Union and China, were pushing the government to the brink of collapse.
Rhodesia’s war was especially concerning. Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith famously called his country the “ultimate bastion against communism on the African continent,” and many leading US conservatives agreed. William F. Buckley had even helped organize a propaganda campaign known as the Friends of Rhodesian Independence, which worked hand in hand with the Rhodesian government to popularize Rhodesia’s cause in the United States. But nothing seemed to work. The growing war — coupled with US, British, and UN sanctions — imperiled Rhodesia’s future. If it fell, then communists would take over, as in Angola.
That alone troubled right-wing Americans. But perhaps even more disconcerting was the response of the US government, especially the CIA, which had been hamstrung by a series of scandals and investigations that rocked the intelligence community in the mid-1970s. The state appeared both unable and unwilling to reverse the spread of communism in Africa. When the CIA had mounted a covert action against Angola’s Marxists in late 1975, Democrats in Congress shut it down within a few months. “The West isn’t doing its job,” one American mercenary lamented. “The US especially isn’t doing its duty. If they’re too scared to fight the Communists, then people like me have to act independently. I consider it my duty to fight in Rhodesia. After Vietnam and Angola, we can’t afford to lose any other countries.”
The notion that American men had a “duty” to fight in southern Africa had obvious racist and paternalist undertones, and white mercenaries from the United States did not shy away from making them explicit. Speaking about apartheid-like Rhodesia, one US mercenary explained that “what we have here is an ideal core of white people who are able to raise the standard of living among the Africans. Without us, conditions will decline rapidly.”
Those convictions overlapped with concerns about life at home. The economic troubles of the late 1970s had created a large pool of combat veterans with few prospects for stable and rewarding employment. Oil embargoes, energy crises, inflation, stagnation, and deindustrialization all threatened ex-soldiers with joblessness. One commentator summed it up: “The Vietnam War has left the US with the largest number of unemployed combat-trained soldiers in the world . . . I foresee most of the new mercenaries coming from here in the next few years.”
The Route to Africa
A growing paramilitary subculture in the United States — centered on gun shows, training camps, films, books, and magazines — guided Americans to Rhodesia and Angola. At the heart of that subculture was the magazine Soldier of Fortune. Created in 1975 by Lt. Col. Robert K. Brown, an Army Reservist and special operations veteran who had fought in Vietnam, the magazine functioned as an ad-hoc labor market for aspiring soldiers-for-hire. Its back pages brimmed with job-seeking ads from anonymous men hoping to find adventure and fortune abroad. At the same time, the magazine glamorized the mercenary life in lengthy articles about Africa’s most notorious soldiers of fortune, “Mad” Mike Hoare and Bob Denard, which promised independence, risk, and reward with a bit of hard-drinking and womanizing on the side.
Beyond sensationalist stories and classified ads, Soldier of Fortune offered practical advice for disgruntled, right-wing Americans who wanted to fight in southern Africa. In a series of articles, the recruiting officer for the Rhodesian Army, Major Nick Lamprecht, advised Soldier of Fortune’s readers on how they could join his country’s forces. It was not an easy job, Lamprecht cautioned, nor a particularly well-paying one. But it did give disillusioned US veterans the chance to remake their lives in a new land. “Rhodesia has many things to offer,” Lamprecht said. “Good Rhodesian beer, a friendly populace, and what I would describe as a free and easy, unhurried way of life, lots of wide open spaces.” It was a place where one could “Be a Man among Men,” as the official recruitment poster urged Americans.
The Rhodesian government expected those Americans who joined its army to settle there as citizens, part of its attempt to rebuild its dwindling European-descended population after years of “white flight.” Yet the path to Rhodesia was circuitous. Americans first had to write to the Rhodesian Army, which vetted their applications, weeded out the “phonies,” and then sent recruiting packets to those deemed fit for service. After that the Rhodesian government paid for their airfare and other travel expenses. Once the recruits completed basic training, they joined the army as conscripts.
As a matter of routine, Lamprecht stressed that this was not mercenary work but instead formal enlistment. “Everyone joins our army under the same conditions and for three years. All are regular soldiers. All receive the same pay, the same type of equipment. There is no difference between an American joining the Rhodesian Army than there would be if a Rhodesian joined the US Army,” he claimed.
The Life of a Mercenary
The Americans who fought in Rhodesia shared a few common experiences. Many were single or divorced. The majority were underemployed or unemployed. Most were familiar with weapons, often through service in the military or, less often, the police. Few, though, were hardened combat veterans, and their martial abilities varied widely.
Some, such as L. H. “Mike” Williams and Michael Pierce, two US Army veterans who joined the Rhodesian Army in 1975 and 1978, respectively, were skilled soldiers who rose quickly through the ranks, gaining reputations as effective if ruthless warriors. Others were not so successful. The realities of guerrilla warfare quickly disabused all but the most dedicated mercenaries of their combat fantasies. As one reporter noted in 1979, “The majority found the routine too rough to last more than a few months. The desertion rate among American citizens who have joined the Rhodesian Army over the past two years is estimated to run about 80 percent.”
Deserters were the lucky ones. The unfortunate and foolhardy died. One was John Alan Coey, a medic from the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio who served with the Rhodesian Light Infantry. When he was killed by guerrillas in July 1975, Soldier of Fortune published a posthumous essay celebrating his courage and sacrifice. It quoted Coey on his time in combat:
Since coming to Rhodesia, I have often heard people remark that it’s “inevitable” for this country and all of southern Africa to follow the “winds of change” and go the same way as other former colonies to the north. This is rubbish and only indicates a lack of fighting spirit, guts, and the will to rule a civilization built by better men.
Americans fared even worse in Angola, where the racial politics were not as clear as in Rhodesia. Unlike the Rhodesian Army, which was fighting for a white-dominated state, the Angolan guerrillas battling the Marxist MPLA regime were almost entirely composed of black Africans seeking nationhood — hardly a cause that inspired many white right-wing Americans. Practical difficulties also played a part. The guerrillas lacked official offices, and since they had been relegated to remote parts of the country by late 1976, it took considerable effort and luck to find them.
Hopefuls also had to deal with con artists who boasted of lucrative opportunities and then failed to deliver. David Bufkin was one. A crop duster from California who transformed himself into a self-styled mercenary recruiter in the mid-1970s, Bufkin published ads in local newspapers and Soldier of Fortune seeking a hundred soldiers-for-hire to fight in Angola. He claimed he had a CIA contract worth $80,000, and a few dozen Americans contacted him, offering their services. Yet Bufkin’s operation was mostly a ploy. His supposed CIA contract did not exist. As one disgruntled mercenary later recalled, “Bufkin obviously had no funds available. He operated out of motels. He had no office. Potential recruits had to pay their own travel expenses. It was definitely a shoestring operation.”
Still, Bufkin managed to get a few American mercenaries to Angola. Those who made it to the guerrillas’ camps joined a withering effort to repel the powerful offensives of the MPLA government and the tens of thousands of Cuban soldiers that supported it. As in Rhodesia, they were unable to shape the course of the war in any meaningful way. A few, like George Bacon, an ex-CIA officer who had served in Vietnam, were quickly killed in combat. After his death in February 1976, one of his friends lamented that Bacon “went over there and found a half-a-dozen men trying to stop a Cuban armada. It was stupid and he should have just got out.”
Other Americans followed similar paths and met similar fates. Daniel Gearhart, a Vietnam veteran from Maryland besieged with financial debts, had responded to one of Bufkin’s ads in Soldier of Fortune against his wife’s wishes. When he arrived in Angola, he found his comrades were poorly trained and equipped, and exhausted after years of fighting. In April 1976, government forces captured him along with several other American and British mercenaries. A military tribunal sentenced him to death. His wife and family begged the Ford administration to intervene, but the MPLA government could not be swayed. Gearhart was a “highly dangerous character,” officials said. On July 10, 1976, soldiers executed Gearhart and four British mercenaries.
Gearhart’s highly publicized execution produced a string of allegations that the CIA was actually running these mercenary campaigns in Africa. Congress decided to investigate. Although officials could not pin down the exact number of American mercenaries fighting in Africa — there could be as few as ten in Angola and as many as four hundred in Rhodesia — they did make it clear that the United States government was not recruiting or paying these men. It was largely unfolding through private channels, about which American policymakers knew precious little.
The War at Home
While American mercenaries had little effect on the wars in southern Africa, they left an imprint on the US as they returned home and brought their combat experiences into a burgeoning right-wing paramilitary movement. For those who had fought in southern Africa — or more often fantasized about it — the dissolution of Rhodesia after 1978 foretold a frightening future that might befall the United States. Many believed that communists, liberals, African Americans, Jews, and foreigners — or some combination of those groups — were trying to establish a totalitarian state in which guns would be illegal, religion outlawed, and racial mixing compulsory.
Those ideas circulated throughout an underground press and formed the plot of the hugely popular right-wing novel The Turner Diaries. Published in 1978 as Rhodesia collapsed, the book tells the story of white American “patriots” who launch a guerrilla war against a totalitarian state known as the System, which had allowed African Americans and Jews to take over the country. Advertised alongside articles about Rhodesia and Angola in Soldier of Fortune and other paramilitary periodicals, The Turner Diaries refracted the wars in southern Africa into a tale of revanchist domestic terrorism.
Galvanized by that narrative, a growing number of Americans joined armed right-wing groups in Michigan, Montana, Missouri, and elsewhere in the late 1970s and 1980s. They hoarded supplies, shot their weapons, and talked of the apocalyptic struggle to come. Although most just played war in the woods, a few enacted their martial fantasies, mostly with dismal results. By the early 1990s, a dispersed yet coherent movement uniting Klansmen, tax protesters, white separatists, and others spanned the country. Many were plotting or engaged in violent actions.
In this world, stories about Rhodesia and the armed Americans who tried to save it lived on. They served as paramilitary parables, urging Americans to take up arms against domestic enemies — above all, African Americans. One recent example highlights the continuing pull of Rhodesia on the far-right imagination. On June 17, 2016, Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans in a Charleston, South Carolina church. His aim was to start a race war. Before launching his assault, he published his white supremacist manifesto on a website. Its title? “The Last Rhodesian.”
Americans’ mercenary sojourns in southern Africa didn’t just register at home. They also shaped US military interventions in the Reagan era and afterwards. In the 1980s, veterans of the Rhodesian and Angolan conflicts joined paramilitary campaigns to support the Reagan administration’s proxy wars on three continents.
Sometimes, as in El Salvador, they trained with and fought alongside state security forces battling leftist guerrillas. More often, they cast their lot with anticommunist guerrillas in Nicaragua, Angola, and Afghanistan. The administration encouraged these missions, at times allowing American civilians to set up shop on US military bases and brief US officials about their activities. Despite that collaboration those who organized paramilitary campaigns in the Reagan era resisted the mercenary label, much as they had in Rhodesia and Angola. “Don’t call us mercenaries,” insisted one. They were “simply private citizens who wanted to fight communism.”
Although the Iran-Contra scandal curtailed most of these paramilitary efforts, the notion that private citizens could and should wage war in lieu of the state propelled the rise of private military firms (PMFs) in the 1990s and 2000s. In many ways, PMFs harnessed the strain of martial manhood that had guided the mercenary schemes of the late 1970s — hard men fighting covert wars with little or no government involvement — and directed it towards more profitable ends.
But whereas mercenary campaigns in Rhodesia and Angola had been haphazard affairs, managed by a loose network of like-minded individuals and undertaken without clear profit motives, PMFs grew into sizable corporations with hundreds of employees serving lucrative contracts in several countries at the same time. They raked in billions of dollars, often with little oversight or accountability. Once mercenaries had decamped to fulfill quixotic dreams. Now they fueled a hyper-efficient, privatized war machine.