The Magazine

Turned Upside Down

The end of World War II meant the end of empires.

Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By ALONZO L. HAMBY
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Franklin D. Roosevelt, meeting with his son Elliott at the beginning of the Casablanca conference in January 1943, went out of his way to voice his revulsion at the ugliness of British imperialism by referring to his transit through the tiny British colony of Gambia:  

Dirt. Disease. Very high mortality rate. .  .  . Life expectancy—you’d never guess what it is. Twenty-six years. These people are treated worse than livestock. Their cattle live longer!  

Roosevelt had known nothing of Gambia before the trip. His personal exposure was limited to what he saw as his motorcade took him from the airport of its capital to the harbor, where he transferred to a waiting U.S. Navy cruiser for a night’s sleep before flying on to Casablanca. The statistics someone had provided to him were, no doubt, correct; but they begged the question of whether Gambians had been better off before British incursions during the reign of Queen Victoria painted much of the map of Africa pink. (Gambia would become independent in 1965. Forty-eight years later, it remains desperately impoverished.)  

It likely never occurred to FDR that his determination to penetrate Britain’s imperial-preference trading bloc amounted to a species of economic imperialism. Or that the United States, for a decade under his leadership, had practiced empire with a “Good Neighbor” policy that maintained a firm hegemonic grip on the Caribbean basin by supporting one ruthless oligarchic dictatorship after another, most notably that of the Somozas in Nicaragua.  

The United States had come late to the game of formal empire, picking off only a few acquisitions at the end of the 19th century. Encumbered by a liberal perspective, U.S. leaders had already scheduled the Philippines for independence before the beginning of World War II, although they clearly expected to continue as a dominant force there. Roosevelt, in fact, assumed that America, as a matter of course, would be a major international power after the war. Imperial status in some guise was inevitable.  

The distinguished historian Michael Burleigh, in this ambitious, if somewhat uneven, book, lays out the way in which World War II left Europeans, primarily the British and the French, too enfeebled to defend their empires. The concomitant Cold War competition with the Soviet Union made the United States an heir to their failures. The most conspicuous, and costly, legacy would be Vietnam.  

Burleigh is interested primarily in Third World uprisings. He tells us rather quickly about the 1956 Hungarian revolt and accompanying unrest in Poland, but, in general, has little to say about the most successful of postwar imperial ventures, the Soviet assumption of control over Eastern Europe. Aside from providing air support in the Korean War, and some military hardware in both Korea and Vietnam, the Soviet Union was content to let Mao Zedong’s China bear the brunt of anti-imperial engagement in East and Southeast Asia while attempting to woo larger former imperial possessions like India and Indonesia with trade and aid deals.  

The author takes us through a global array of colonial uprisings while giving due attention to the politics of the affected great powers that either abetted or sought to quell them. The domino theory, he shows us, appeared very early in the game and was sold as the “ten-pin theory” by the French general Jean de Lattre de Tassigny: 

Tonkin is the key to Southeast Asia. If Southeast Asia is lost, India will burn like a match, and there will be no barrier to the advance of Communism before Suez and Africa. If the Muslim world were thus engulfed, the Muslims in North Africa would soon fall into line and Europe itself would be outflanked.

As they developed, the Third World insurgencies were self-limiting.  Some of their leaders were faithful Communists, and most envisioned themselves as radicals. To one extent or another, they embodied not Marxist universalism but the struggles of racially or ethnically distinct native elites to seize power from Europeans. (It is one of the merits of this book that it makes this important point without once subjecting its readers to “subaltern theory.”) At times, they were rooted in peasant revolts against exploitation. Local Communists trained in revolution, and receiving varying degrees of support from Moscow or Bejing, frequently participated and attempted to gain control.