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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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