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.  

In Asia and the Pacific, Japanese conquest opened the way for revolution. The Japanese overthrew colonial rule in the Dutch East Indies, empowered a native civil service to handle the quotidian business of running the country, and made themselves unpopular with a harsh and exploitative military regime. After 1945, the Dutch could not reestablish their rule. Wartime quasi-collaborators led by Sukarno successfully packaged themselves as national leaders of a new Indonesia. A defeated Japan lost Korea, which it had occupied for a half-century. The Soviet Union established a Communist regime in the North; the United States gave birth to a pro-American regime in the South.  

 Americans returned to the Philippines and inherited a peasant Huk rebellion that had originated in the resistance to Japan, had lived on to fight abusive landlords—and was, perhaps, unjustly tarred as Communist-inspired. Warring on an oceanic archipelago, the Huks were isolated from sources of reinforcement and resupply. Relentless and brutally disciplined, they were nonetheless quelled through a combination of tough anti-guerrilla tactics and a largely unfulfilled promise of reform personified by the charismatic but ill-fated Ramone Magsaysay.  


The epic struggle to evict European masters took shape in the Vietnamese sector of French Indochina, a colony about which Franklin Roosevelt seems to have felt as strongly as he did about Gambia. Here, the insurgency enjoyed all the ingredients for success. Its leader, Ho Chi Minh, was a dedicated Communist showered with material assistance and logistical support from Mao Zedong. Its armed force, the Viet Minh, was remorseless and endured appalling conditions:

The food consisted of cold rice, sometimes enlivened with pungent fish sauce .  .  . medical facilities were rudimentary, with men expected to “sweat out” bouts of endemic malaria, and quinine tablets, when they were available, were divided into therapeutically valueless ten parts. No time was wasted on badly wounded men and once, when a captured Algerian found his path obstructed by a dying Viet Minh, his guard ordered him to tread on him. .  .  . Cards, alcohol, sex and smoking were forbidden. Instead there were communal singing and endless political indoctrination sessions.   

The French never quite grasped the nature of the enemy, nor developed a viable strategy for coming to grips with him. They decided to lure the Viet Minh into a decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu, a narrow valley surrounded by commanding hills. It would, they believed, become a heavily fortified bastion, akin to Verdun in World War I, against which the enemy would destroy himself in one futile attack after another. French air superiority would establish a reliable resupply much as the road known as the Voie Sacrée had sustained Verdun. Instead, they found themselves in a death trap.

An American Foreign Service officer named Howard Simpson was moved to write a satiric doggerel lampooning the futility that ensued:


Camembert for the Colonel’s table,

Wine in abundance when we’re able. 

Indochina may be lost,

Our Colonel eats well despite the cost .  .  . 

.  .  . Parachute the escargot!

Follow them with old Bordeaux.

And on our graves near Dien Bien Phu

Inscribe these words, these very few,

‘They died for France, but more .  .  .

Their Colonel ate well throughout the war.’ 

The Americans, accepting the defense of an independent South Vietnam a decade later, would do little better. In the interval, the French would fight another losing effort to preserve the fiction that Algeria was an integral part of France. The British, after suffering the Suez debacle of 1956, and dealing with what the author considers an overhyped Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya, would find themselves forced to the sane conclusion that their African colonies were too costly to defend and best let go gracefully.  

The largest and most valuable of the colonial dominoes to fall was the Belgian Congo, a huge, resource-rich territory roughly equivalent in size to Western Europe. Ruled poorly by a militarily insignificant Belgium, this tribally diverse territory, unprepared for independence, became a case study in chaos. Burleigh capably navigates the complex disorder that ensued: a struggle for power that resulted in the assassination of Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba (“undoubtedly charismatic .  .  . a disorganized thinker but a gifted demagogue” opportunistically adopted as a Communist by the Soviet Union after his death); the Katanga secessionist movement; the lackluster efforts of a United Nations military force; the death of U.N. secretary general Dag Hammarskjöld in a plane crash. All the while, American CIA and Soviet KGB agents were attempting to bring their own man to power, or at least to block the aspirations of the other side.  

The United States prevailed, with the elevation of General Joseph Mobutu (who had been a sergeant in the old Belgian-officered Congolese army). Enthusiastically adopted by John F. Kennedy and a long succession of American presidents, Mobutu unified the new country, after a fashion; gave it an African name, Zaire; and ruled it “as a brutal kleptocracy” for more than four decades. He changed his own name to Mobutu Sese Seko, which translates as “the all-powerful warrior who because of his endurance and inflexible will to win goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake.” 

Burleigh comments: “ ‘Thief’ would be shorter.” He might also have noted that the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as it is now called, remains a chaotic, happy hunting ground for predatory militias.

Inevitably, Burleigh handles some cases more persuasively than others. In general, he is too prone to write off as dolts Western leaders facing intractable problems with limited resources, or to assume that somehow their personal peccadilloes affected their public performance. It is easy, for example, to make light of British foreign secretary  Ernest Bevin’s proletarian demeanor while losing sight of his moral fortitude. John F. Kennedy may have possessed the sexual morals of an alley cat, but the author’s account of the Cuban Missile Crisis belies the assertion that Kennedy “remains the benchmark aspired to by all who seek to use style to obscure their lack of substance.”   

Burleigh does not say as much as he might about the often-naïve reactions of Western liberals, all too easily persuaded that colonial insurgents represented the aspirations of “the people” rather than the graspings of well-organized factions motivated by ideology and/or the lure of power. Still, he makes it clear that neither side, in one dirty colonial war after another, had much claim to virtue. From time to time, he evokes a sense of world-weary irony.  

In general, the case studies here remind us of Winston Smith’s discovery, in Orwell’s 1984, that society is divided into three classes: the High, the Middle, and the Low. Periodically, the High loses its grip and is overthrown by the Middle, which enlists the Low on its side by pretending to be fighting for liberty and justice, before throwing the Low back to its old condition of servitude.

“The liberation-era pieties of Algeria’s ruling FLN seem pretty hollow to many unemployed Algerians under 25,” Burleigh writes, “particularly if they see the children of the governing elite driving around in Porsches.”

Alonzo L. Hamby, professor of history at Ohio University, is the author, most recently, of For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s