The Retreat from Imperialism

The twentieth century world was shaped by two events: The Cold War and the end of European overseas empires. More than ninety new nations emerged from former colonies which were viewed by the two superpowers, the United States and the U.S.S.R. as either allies or opponents in the cold war. The new nations were often confronted with the demand that they choose between capitalism and communism. This demand compromised their independence at times and new nations often worried about upsetting the global balance of the nuclear standoff. Even so, the people of new nations strived to create a national identity; to balance their traditions against demands for development. Although freedom was accomplished rather directly, the search for peace remained elusive.

Independence in Asia: Unlike the Dutch and French, who insisted on tight imperial control, Britain realized it could not rule in Asia without the cooperation of colonial peoples. They also had established methods of decolonization which had been used in Canada. With the movement for independence in India, the jewel of the British Empire, it was only a matter of time until the entire Empire would terminate.

Britain had instituted a number of reforms in India as a result of the efforts of Mohandas K. Gandhi and the India Congress Party. The trend seemed toward home rule; but this trend ceased with World War II and the Prime Ministership of Sir Winston Churchill, who despised Gandhi and vowed never "to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire." Churchill was voted out of office after the war, however, and the new Labor government was more sympathetic to Indian problems. The devastation of the war had been such that Britain could no longer afford the costs of its empire in India.

Problems awaited because of India’s Muslim minority. The leader of the Muslim League, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, had insisted on a separate Muslim nation, once stating "The only solution to India’s problem is Pakistan." His position was opposed by Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru who urged all Indians to act and feel as one nation. They hoped to promote nationalism over communalism, in which religion was stressed over national unity. In August, 1946 while negotiations were underway with the British for Indian independence, the Muslim League called for a Day of Direct Action. The result the Great Calcutta Killing, in which rioting and fighting between Hindus and Muslims led to 6,000 deaths.

Ultimately, Pakistan was established as a separate nation and both India and Pakistan were declared independent on August 15, 1947. Gandhi did not attend independence celebrations; declared it "vivisection" (a term used to describe cutting up a human body); and predicted that "rivers of blood" would flow as a result of the partition. His prediction came true as ten million Muslims and Hindus migrated to one or the other state. Almost one million people died in violence associated with the migrations. Gandhi underwent a hunger strike to end the violence. He had long advocated nonviolent resistance as the only proper form of resistance. Sadly, on January 30, 1948 he was assassinated by a Hindu extremist.

War broke out in 1947 over the province of Kashmir, claimed by both India and Pakistan. Pakistan sought assistance from the United States and the Soviets accordingly courted India; however Nehru, India’s new leader, successfully managed to maintain neutrality. Despite their differences, Pakistan and India maintained close ties to Britain, becoming Dominion members of the British Commonwealth of Nations, and adopting English as their first official language.

Nehru became an impassioned defender of nonalignment. At a conference at Bandung, Indonesia, he stated in a speech:

Nonalignment does not mean passivity of mind or action, lack of faith or conviction. It does not mean submission to what we consider evil. It is a positive and dynamic approach to such problems that confront us. We believe that each country has not only the right to freedom but also to decide its own policy and way of life. Only thus can true freedom flourish and people grow according to their own genius.

The Bandung conference in April, 1955 was comprised of twenty three Asian and African nations who met to discuss a "third path," that is an alternative other than choosing between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The conference also stressed the struggle against colonialism and racism. The Bandung Conference was soon followed by the Nonaligned Movement, which held meetings where members could discuss matters of common interest and hopefully maintain formal neutrality. The movement suffered fractures, as members often allied with one of the two superpowers. Examples: The Philippines aligned with the U.S. and Cuba with the U.S.S.R. Even so, many states managed to maintain independence and neutrality in the Cold War.

Unlike India, Vietnam found itself deeply embroiled in the Cold War. The Japanese conquest of Vietnam in World War II had ended French rule there. Toward the end of the year, Ho Chi Minh, a Vietnamese nationalist, had ousted the Japanese, and issued the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, based on the American Declaration of Independence. The French fought to take back their territory, and engaged in a brutal bombing campaign of cities in the North. However, Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap waged a guerilla campaign in the countryside. The Viet Minh, Vietnamese communists, were supported by Communist China which sent aid and arms to fight the French. The French were defeated at Dienbienphu in 1954. The peace conference in Vienna in 1954 divided Vietnam at the seventeenth parallel. North Vietnam would be communist and ruled by Ho Chi Minh; South Vietnam would be noncommunist. Ho’s communism and alignment with the Chinese and Soviets led the U.S. to support the South Vietnamese government. In violation of the Geneva Agreements, (which required elections which would have brought Ho to power) South Vietnamese leaders with U.S. support avoided elections and formed a government which would stop the spread of Communism. The first president of the Republic of Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, did not enjoy popular support, although the U.S. continued to support him. The result was guerilla warfare in the South.

The American President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had supported the South Vietnamese government as part of his Domino theory: that if any portion of Asia not already communist were to fall into communist hands, the balance of Asia would fall like dominoes.

In 1960, Vietnamese Nationalists formed the National Liberation Front, comprised primarily of South Vietnamese, which fought for freedom from South Vietnamese rule. The movement received weapons and support from North Vietnam, which in turn received help and support from the Soviet Union and China. The communists began gaining grown and in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson ordered a bombing campaign against North Vietnam and sent U.S. ground troops to fight with the South Vietnamese. Ultimately, the war became a stalemate, and the U.S. was forced to withdraw.

In Southwest Asia, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan became independent after World War II. The vast oil reserves of the region meant that it would quickly become a pawn in the Cold War and Palestine became front and center in the dispute.

Britain had gained a mandate of Palestine in the Great War, and had made conflicting promises thereafter to the Arabs and Jews of the region. In the Balfour Declaration of 1917, Britain had committed itself to the support of a homeland for Jews in Palestine. The Declaration was largely due to the efforts of Zionists, Jews in Europe who were dedicated to combating anti-Semitism and who hoped to establish a Jewish homeland in the area of their origin. The Allies had supported the Declaration at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919.

Britain was forced to allow the migration of the Jews; but also had to protect the political and economic interests of the Arabs in the region. It failed to do so miserably. The Muslim Arabs considered the Jews as interlopers and violence broke out several times. As Arab states gained freedom from imperial rule after World War II, they developed a pan-Arab nationalism which opposed the formation of a Jewish state in the region. The Jews intensified their efforts to establish that homeland largely as a result of the Nazi Holocaust. In 1947, the British threw in the towel, and stated they would withdraw from Palestine and turn it over to the United Nations. The result was the division of Palestine into two nations, created with the support of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Arabs inside and outside Palestine were not happy, and civil war broke out in late 1947. In May, 1948, Palestinian Jews proclaimed the Independent State of Israel which provoked one of many wars between Arabs and Jews in the region. Jordan, Syria, and Iraq declared war on Israel to support the Palestinian Arabs. The Israeli army defeated them roundly, and gained substantially more territory for Israel than would have been granted under the United Nations Mandate. A truce was signed in 1949 by which Jerusalem and the Jordan River Valley were divided between Israel and Jordan. Many Arabs fled to areas outside Israeli control, and Arab hatred of the Israelis intensified.

Egyptian military forces under Gamal Abdel Nasser staged a coup in July 1952 which ended the monarchy of King Farouk of Egypt. Nasser named himself Prime Minister and worked to make Egypt the standard of pan-Arab nationalism. Like Nehru in India, Nasser believed that cold war politics was simply another form of Imperialism and attempted a policy of nonalignment also. He was shrewd enough to secure promises of aid from the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. As part of his plan to rid Palestine and Egypt of imperial control, he planned to destroy Israel. He nationalized the Suez Canal, which had previously been under British control, and used the revenue from fees on the canal to construct a massive dam on Nile River at Aswan. British, French and Israeli forces combined to retake the Canal; but both the U.S. (which had not been consulted) as did the U.S.S.R. The Soviets soon appeared as the champions of Arab nationalism. The opposing forces had to withdraw, and Nasser gained tremendous prestige. He did not succeed in destroying Israel, however. A series of intermittent wars broke out and the cold war powers often were confused by developments there. Both sides needed oil from the Arab lands. Ultimately the U.S. and its allies in Europe divided over the Palestinian question.

Decolonization in Africa: Decolonization in Africa did not come easily. Tribal, ethnic, linguistic and religious differences which colonial rulers had exploited presented a challenge to African leaders with the advent of independence.

France granted Independence to Morocco and Tunisia in 1956 and to thirteen other colonies in 1960 which became known as "the Year of Africa." At the same time, it resisted independence for Algeria and fought a bloody war there. The situation there was complicated because two million Frenchmen had settled in the area, and demanded that the French government defend their cause. Native Algerians, however, increasingly demanded independence and freedom from white domination. The Algerian War of liberation began in 1954 during which the National Liberation Front (FLN) used guerrilla tactics. The war became bloody and ugly, with native Algerians fighting on both sides. When the war ended in 1962, Algeria was independent, but at the cost of thousands of lives.

Nationalism also flourished in sub-Saharan Africa before and after World War II. Movements were begun, particularly in French controlled west Africa to promote Negritude. ("Blackness.") The movement called for the revival of African tradition and cultures. Churches often provided avenues for anti-colonial protest and workers strikes protested labor practices, including low wages. Imperial powers had long assumed that sub-Saharan Africans were incapable of self government. There were also many white settlers in African colonies which further complicated decolonization. Eventually, however, independence was realized. It came at different times and was peaceful in some areas but violent in others. Ghana became independent in 1957; Angola in 1975, and Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, in 1980. Many African nations adopted traditional cultural names different from those imposed on them by European imperialists.

Ghana achieved its independence in 1957 under the leadership of Kwame Nkrumah. He became a spokesman for pan-African unity. However, independence at times was won at the cost of blood. There, conflict between white settlers and members of the Kikuyu tribe was often violent. The whites saw the struggle as one by radicals bent on a racial struggle for primacy. Said one white settler: "Why the hell can’t we fight these apes and worry about the survivors later?" Members of the nationalist movements were branded by the British as Mau Mau subversives or communists. The fight really was due to British treatment of the native peoples. Earlier, white settlers had forced them onto "reservations" and kept the most fertile land for themselves. The British refused to distinguish between violent and nonviolent protests and also refused to see it as a movement toward nationalism. They used artillery, troops and bombers to crush rebel forces led by Jomo Kenyatta. The conflict cost the lives of 12,000 Africans and 100 Europeans. Eventually, with repeated fighting, Kenya was able to negotiate its independence in December, 1963.

Long-Term Struggles in the Post Colonial Era: Developing nations in south, southeast and east Asia adopted some form of authoritarian or militarist political system with the exceptions of Japan and India. Many of them adopted Communist or socialist systems. Among them, China was reunified by Mao Zedong for the first time since the collapse of the Qing dynasty. In 1958, he instituted the Great Leap Forward to increase industrial production. To do so, he collectivized all land (a la Stalin) as well as all businesses and industrial enterprises. Private ownership was banned. It proved to be a miserable failure; in fact many called it the "Giant Step Backward." Agricultural production did not meet quotas, and with a series of bad harvests, the result was one of the worst (and deadliest) famines in history. Mao blamed sparrows for eating too much grain and ordered peasants to kill them. The result was there were no birds to eat the insects which finished destroying the harvest. Between 1959 and 1962, estimates are that twenty million Chinese died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition.

In 1966, Mao tried once more to ignite the revolutionary spirit in China with the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. He targeted anyone whom he considered "revisionist." Including intellectuals, teachers, etc. who might be considered to possess "bourgeois" values. Members of the Communist Party elite were also targeted. He used the Red Guards, youthful zealots empowered to cleanse Chinese society of those opposed to Mao’s rule to beat and kill opponents. Others were jailed or sent to corrective labor camps. In the end, the Cultural Revolution cost China years of stable development and gutted its educational system. It did not dissipate until Mao’s death in 1976. Healing the nation was left to Mao’s successor: Deng Xiaoping.

Deng was a colleague of Mao’s but suffered under the Cultural Revolution. A radical faction tried to maintain the Cultural Revolution after Mao’s death, but failed, and Deng came to power in 1981. The 1980’s are often called "Deng’s Revolution," and represent a time when Mao’s policy to Chinese self-sufficiency and isolation was moderated. Relations with the U.S. had begun to normalize as early as the 1970’s, and Deng now moved China into the international trading and financial system.

Deng allowed foreign capitalist influences in China—the very thing which Mao had detested. He allowed many Chinese students to study in foreign universities to rebuild the professional and intellectual elite needed for modern development. Many of these students returned having been exposed to democracy in the West. The situation was further complicated as they returned to China at a time when Communist governments in Eastern Europe were collapsing like dominoes. The students staged pro-Democracy rallies and protest marches in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. Deng, wary of revolutionary movements after his experiences in the Cultural Revolution, had them put down in a bloody show of force. A number of students were killed, and others were imprisoned. His show of force in crushing the movement led to criticism from many developed nations. Shortly afterward, Hong Kong, which had been under British administration for 150 years, reverted to China in 1997. As China moved towards involvement in a global economy, it faced growing problems of how to gain the benefits of interaction with capitalist nations and at the same time preserve its ideology and authoritarian political system.

India, unlike many of its Asian neighbors, managed to retain a democratic governmental system with free elections and a free press which frequently criticized the government. Jawaharlal Nehru led the government until his death when he was succeeded by his daughter, Indira Gandhi. (No relation to Mohandas.) Ms. Gandhi instituted a "green revolution" to increase agricultural yields; however her agricultural policies aided wealthier farmers while poor farmers fell deeper into debt and poverty. That, together with dissatisfaction with the Gandhi government, led to demonstrations. Mrs. Gandhi declared a national emergency to stop the opposition; and suspended democratic processes. She pushed forward birth control policies, but rather than using incentives, her government used repressive measures, including involuntary sterilization. When she finally allowed elections in 1977, she was voted out of office because of her abrogation of democracy; but returned to power in 1980. She once again had problems keeping India together in the face of religious, ethnic, and secessionist movements.

Among the problems she faced were the Sikhs, a religious minority (less than two percent of the population) and an offshoot of Hinduism who refused to compromise with other groups. When they refused to negotiate with Gandhi’s government, she ordered the Indian Army to attack the sacred Golden Temple at Amristar, where Sikh extremists were houses. In retaliation, she was assassinated in 1984 by two of her Sikh bodyguards who had been hired for their martial skills. She was succeeded by her son, Rajiv Gandhi, who offered reconciliation to the Sikhs. He left office in 1989 involuntarily, and attempted to regain it, but was himself assassinated by a bomber in 199l.

Arab nationalism developed in the Muslim states of southwest Asia and north Africa after World War II. Although there were dreams of a pan-Arab state, it never materialized even though the people shared a common language and religion. Various Arab states were caught up in the Cold War, with some states allied with the U.S. and others with the Soviets. As Israel became a staunch ally of the United States, many Arab states allied themselves with the Soviets in response. War broke out between Israel and Egypt in 1973, the Yom Kippur War, named for the Jewish holiday on which fighting broke out. Israel soundly defeated Egypt, and its new President, Anwar Sadat, who had commenced the war, renounced his relationship with the Soviets and negotiated a peace treaty with Israel. He was assassinated in 1981 by those who opposed his policies, and other Arab organizations, such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization, headed by Yassar Arafat, worked to isolate Egypt. Several peace treaties were signed with Israel; but peace was and remains elusive.

At the heart of the movement for Arab solidarity was Islamism, a desire to reassert Islamic values in Muslim politics. Followers of the movement blamed economic and political problems in the Arab world on its adoption of Western practices, particularly those of Europe and America. The result was disillusionment and even anger toward the U.S. and Europe. The solution to the Islamists was to return to traditional Islamic identity, values, and power. Although most have attempted to bring about change by peaceful means, a small group of extremists have become convinced that Islam is under siege; and have used the concept of jihad to legitimize terrorist attacks and revolution. To them jihad is the right to defend Islam and Islamic values from unjust attack.

A prime example of this type revolution is Iran. The nation was ruled by Shah Reza Pahlavi in 1953, and was supported by the United States. Vast sums of money came into the country by virtue of oil sales. However, the shah developed opposition, particularly from Shia Muslims because his regime was largely secular. In 1979, the shah fled the country, and power was claimed by the Islamist movement under the direction of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. That revolution soon took on a strongly anti-American position, partly because the shah had been allowed to travel to the U.S. for medical treatment. Americans at the U.S. embassy were seized in retaliation, and held hostage for almost two years. Iranian leaders shut down American bases and confiscated American owned companies. Iran’s "in your face" attitude toward the U.S. inspired other Muslims to take terrorist actions; however Iran’s Islamism did not lead to new solidarity in the Muslim world; rather it became the minority sect of Shia Islam. Iraq, its neighbor, took advantage of the situation to attack Iran. Iraq had built a powerful war machine under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The ensuing Iran-Iraq War lasted nine years and claimed the lives of over one million soldiers. After that war, Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, causing the first Gulf War (1991) in which American forces together with Arab and Muslim support, forced Hussein back across the line. The division of Islam in the area became even more pronounced.

Problems also beset Latin America, particularly Mexico and central America. The Mexican constitution of 1917 had declared the government as the owner of the subsoil, and that it had the right to redistribute the land to farmers and peasants. Over 45,000,000 acres were returned by 1940. Mexico still wavered in its ability to keep U.S. interests from controlling the area.

Argentina, which was too far South for intervention by the U.S., became a leader against U.S. and European intervention. There were problems, however. In 1946 Juan Peron became President and called for industrialization and protection of the economy from foreign control. His popularity was largely the work of his wife Evita, who not only appeared to be stunningly beautiful, but ministered to the poor and downtrodden with her own hands. She often provided medical and dental care, even wedding clothes for those who could not afford them. When she died in 1952 of uterine cancer at age 33, she was mourned as "Santa Evita." After Peron himself was evicted, Argentina came under the control of a series of harsh dictators who waged a "dirty war" against suspected subversives.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the hope of freedom soon faded into grim reality. European imperialist powers had carved completely artificial political lines which did not correspond to ethnic or economic divisions. When freedom was granted, it was difficult to achieve national unity as there were numerous conflicts between tribes within states. Poverty only exacerbated the situation. In many instances, independent governments soon were overthrown my military dictators.

In 1963 the Organization of African Unity (OAU) was formed. It held political borders to be inviolable in order to prevent border disputes and promoted African unity. Sadly, unity was not to be. African nations have been unable to avoid internal conflicts. Politic often involved into dictatorial rule, many times at the hands of a military dictator.

In South Africa, a substantial white minority managed to resist black majority rule for some time. Blacks remained dispossessed of property and denied the franchise. Thus, in South Africa the struggle was against internal colonialism rather than against a foreign power. White domination there was the result of an economy which was stronger than anywhere else on the continent because of the extraction of minerals (primarily gold and diamonds as well as coal) and industrial development. Industrial development provided jobs for blacks and with it came calls for serious political reform. The predominantly white Afrikaner National Party which came to power in 1948 responded by imposing new laws to control the black population: a system known as apartheid, meaning "separateness." This system institutionalized racial segregation. Eighty seven percent of South African territory was designated as territory for whites only. Nonwhites were classified into several groups: "colored," meaning mixed race; Indians; and "Bantu," meaning black Africans. The Bantu were divided into tribal affiliations such as Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, etc. The idea was to keep blacks in a position of political, social, and economic subordination.

Apartheid only added impetus to black resistance to white rule. The African National Congress, founded in 1912, became increasingly active. Its goals challenged white rule, and the government declared its members communists. Among those leaders was Nelson Mandela. In 1960, the "year of Africa," protests increased, and on March 21, white police killed sixty black demonstrators at Sharpesville. The white government then banned black organizations. When newly freed nations in Asia and Africa called for UN sanctions against South Africa, it declared itself a republic and withdrew from the British Commonwealth of Nations. IN 1963, Mandela and other ANC leaders were sentenced to life in prison. The result was renewed activism and a black consciousness movement.

In 1989, F.W. DeKlerk became president of South Africa and apartheid began to unravel. DeKlerk freed Mandela in 1990 and legalized the ANC. A new constitution was created in 1994 and elections were held open to all races. Mandela became the first president of South Africa.

Political stability was not forthcoming in other parts of Africa. The former Belgian Congo, renamed Zaire in 1971, and later the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997 is a case in point. Its first prime minister, Patrice Lamumba, a Maoist Marxist, was assassinated in a military coup. Power was seized by Mobutu Sese Seku with the support of the United States. He ruled Zaire as a dictator and used his power to amass a personal fortune for himself and friends but ruined Zaire’s economy. They were referred to by one observer as the "Vampire Elite." In 1997 he was ousted by Laurent Kabila who changed the nation’s name to the DRC, and awarded himself vast personal power as president and head of the military. He too was killed in January 2001 in a failed coup supported by the leaders of Uganda and Rwanda.

Today, Africa has ten percent of the world’s population and only one percent of its industrial development. The population of sub-Saharan Africa continues to grow at a rate of 2 to 3 percent per year. Only seven African nations had per capita incomes of $1000.00 or more. Africa is rich in natural resources and agricultural products; but does not have the capital, technology, foreign markets or management to exploit its wealth.