The U.S. response to the Burundi Genocide of 1972

Jordan D. Taylor, James Madison University


On 29 April, a group of Hutu fighters crossed into Burundi from neighboring Tanzania, attacking Tutsis in the southern towns of Rumonge and Nyanza-Lac. At the same time, a smaller group of Hutus attempted to seize a military garrison located on the outskirts of Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital. Amid this ethnically charged environment, Burundi’s Tutsi-dominated government responded not only with a counteroffensive against the attackers, but also launched a violent campaign of reprisals against Burundi’s Hutu majority population. Though the genocidal nature of the reprisals had become apparent to the U.S. Embassy as early as 26 May, the U.S. State Department maintained the position that both U.S. interests and leverage in Burundi were minimal. However, in 1972, the U.S. bought upwards of eighty percent of Burundi’s coffee crop. This presented the U.S. with a unique form of economic leverage. The U.S. decided to respond with humanitarian relief, but attempted to avoid appearing pro-Hutu in an effort to ward off charges of U.S. imperialism. Behind the scenes, the State Department sought to engage the Organization of African Unity and United Nations in order to pressure the Burundi government to stop the killings. During the fall of 1972, Nixon surprisingly took interest in what had happened in Burundi and began expressing his displeasure with State’s “weak” response. He demanded the U.S. minimize relations with Burundi and planned to condemn the Burundi “genocide” in an upcoming vote in the World Bank. Despite Nixon's demands for stronger action on Burundi, no discussion of a “coffee option” ever crossed Nixon’s desk.