EARLIER this year G. Mennen Williams died. ``Soapy,'' as he was known, was appointed assistant secretary of state for Africa by President John F. Kennedy; his death recalls the American euphoria toward newly independent Africa in those years. When Mr. Williams, former governor of Michigan, took up his task in 1961, Africa was in the throes of decolonization. Charismatic leaders - Nkrumah, Tour'e, Kaunda, Nyerere, Kenyatta, Ahidjo, among others - were emerging on the world scene. The Organization of African Unity was formed and generated expectations of a continent working together for its common goals.
United States opposition to colonialism, and progress on its own civil rights problems, were seen by Americans as positive links to African aspirations. Dynamic leadership in the US black community sought to focus attention on Africa. President Kennedy, in particular, was seen as one who recognized the importance of emerging Africa. Special efforts were made to adapt aid programs and the new Peace Corps to meet the needs of Africa.
Williams threw himself enthusiastically into the task of establishing the US as an important player in the African scene. He traveled frequently to Africa, visiting villages, dancing with Africans, and conveying a warm and genuine interest. In Washington, he pushed for official visits from African heads of state.
Some issues were beyond the capacity of Williams and the Kennedy administration to resolve. In the Portuguese colonies the US faced the impossible choice between a NATO ally and nationalist aspirations - a dilemma that opened the way for Soviet opportunities in Angola and Mozambique. US influence on South Africa remained elusive.
But the euphoria toward Africa was not destined to last. Post-independence problems overcame the early enthusiasm. The heady rhetoric of nationalism could not resolve serious economic problems. Except for France, the former colonial powers shared less and less of their resources with their former colonies.
The boundaries of the new African states, drawn by the European powers with little attention to ethnic divisions, created tensions and weakened the internal cohesion of states. The internal structures, often formed in emulation of European systems, were rarely strong enough to deal adequately with mounting political and economic problems. Many states were confronted with frequent and sometimes violent changes in government.
The prevalence of authoritarian styles of leadership in Africa turned away Americans who had hoped for more-democratic forms. Internal rivalries and conflicts that created human rights problems caused further erosion in the sympathy for African nations. The problems were, over the years, compounded by natural disasters, primarily resulting from recurring droughts.
In the early 1970s, Congress limited US development aid to 10 African countries. In addition, overall levels of aid to African nations fell. Except for private voluntary agencies, the attention of organizations, both black and white, in the US tended to focus more on South Africa and the problem of apartheid. In the conservative camp, attention was concentrated on areas of conflict involving Soviet surrogates.
Yet the intervening years since the days of ``Soapy'' Williams have seen positive developments. Many of the 52 independent countries are viable economically and free of oppressive regimes internally. Soviet involvement remains confined to those states where early opportunities were created for them by US dilemmas or outmoded regimes. Dramatic improvements have reversed tyranny in countries such as Guinea. Internal reconciliation is taking place in Zimbabwe. Leaders in most countries have turned away from rhetoric to face seriously and realistically their economic problems.
Williams, in the early 1960s, saw Africa as important to the US. As with others at the time, he may have carried expectations insufficiently based on a recognition of the problems facing the continent. Yet, by his personal efforts and his slogan, ``Africa for the Africans,'' he opened the way for important relationships with black Africa. He recognized the significance of the continent's historic ties with the US, the deep symbolism of the continent for Afro-Americans, and the benefits to the US of an adequate response to Africa's needs. These American interests, which ``Soapy'' helped identify and establish, remain today.
David D. Newsom, currently at Georgetown University, succeeded G. Mennen Williams as assistant secretary for African affairs in 1969.