13.2: Independence Movements and Colonization

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Despite the enormous pressure exerted by the superpowers, some independence movements did manage to avoid becoming a proxy conflict within the Cold War. For the most part, the simplest way in which an independence movement might avoid superpower involvement was to steer clear of communist rhetoric. From Asia to Latin America, independence movements and rebel groups that adopted communist ideology were targeted by the US, whereas those that avoided it rarely drew the ire of either superpower. It was possible for a country to fight for its independence and still stay in the good graces of the USSR (as with Egypt) without openly embracing communism, whereas it was impossible for a country to embrace socialism and stay out of the crosshairs of the US thanks to the Truman Doctrine, which committed the United States to armed intervention in the case of a communist-backed uprising.

Thus, while there were only a handful of true proxy wars over the course of the Cold War, there were dozens of successful movements of independence. As quickly as European empires had grown in the second half of the nineteenth century, they collapsed in the decades following World War II in a phenomenon known as decolonization. Nearly the entire continent of Africa was independent of European power by the end of the 1960s, whereas almost all of it was still part of European empires during World War II. Likewise, European possessions in Asia all but vanished in the postwar era.

Given the rapidity with which the empires collapsed it is tempting to imagine that the European states simply acknowledged the moral bankruptcy of imperialism after World War II and peacefully relinquished their possessions. Instead, however, decolonization was often as bloody and inhumane as had been the establishment of empire in the first place. In some cases, such as Dutch control of Indonesia and French sovereignty in Indochina, European powers clung desperately to colonies in the name of retaining their geopolitical relevance. In others, such as the British in Kenya and the French in Algeria, large numbers of white settlers refused to be “abandoned” by the European metropole, leading to sometimes staggering levels of violence. That being noted, there were also major (soon to be former) colonies that achieved independence without the need for violent insurrection against their imperial masters. (Note: given the very large number of countries that achieved independence during the period of decolonization, this chapter concentrates on some of the particularly consequential cases in terms of their geopolitical impact at the time and since).

The case of India is iconic in that regard. Long the "jewel in the crown of the British empire," India was both an economic powerhouse and a massive symbol of British prestige. By World War II, however, the Indian National Congress had agitated for independence for almost sixty years. An astonishing 2.5 million Indian troops served the British Empire during World War II despite the growth in nationalist sentiment, but returned after victory in Europe was achieved to find a social and political system still designed to keep Indians from positions of importance in the Indian administration. Peaceful protests before the war grew in intensity during it, and in the aftermath (in part because of the financial devastation of the war), a critical mass of British politicians finally conceded that India would have be granted independence in the near future. The British state established the date of independence as July 18, 1947.

The British government, however, made it clear that the actual logistics of independence and of organizing a new government were to be left to the Indians. A conflict exploded between the Indian Muslim League and the Hindu-dominated Congress Party, with the former demanding an independent Muslim state; the British came to support the idea and finally the Congress Party conceded to it despite the vociferous resistance of the independence leader Mahatma Gandhi. When independence became a reality, India was divided between a non-contiguous Muslim state, Pakistan, and a majority-Hindu state, India.

This event is referred to as "The Partition" of India. Millions of Muslims were driven from India and millions of Hindus and Sikhs were driven from Pakistan; countless acts of violence accompanied the expulsion of both Muslims and Hindus from what had been their homes. Hundreds of thousands, and possibly more than a million, people died, and the states of Pakistan and India remain at loggerheads to the present. Gandhi himself, who bitterly opposed the Partition, was murdered by a Hindu extremist in 1948.

Religious (and ethnic) divides within former colonies were not unique to India. Many countries that sought independence were products of imperialism in the first place - the “national” borders of states like Iraq, Ghana, and Rwanda had been arbitrarily created by the imperial powers decades earlier with complete disregard for the religious and ethnic differences of the people who lived within the borders. In the Iraqi example, both Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christian Arabs (the Assyrians, many of whom claim a direct line of descent from ancient Assyria), different Arab ethnicities, and Kurds all lived side-by-side. That diversity did not guarantee violent conflict, of course, but when circumstances arose that inspired conflict, violence could, and often did, result.

The current ongoing crisis of Israel – Palestine is both a result of arbitrary borders drawn up by former imperial powers as well as a unique case of a nationalist movement achieving its goals for a ethnic-religious homeland. The British had held the “mandate” (political governorship) of the territory of Palestine before WWII, having seized it after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Thousands of European Jews had been immigrating to Palestine since around the turn of the century, fleeing anti-Semitism in Europe and hoping to create a Jewish state as part of the Zionist movement founded during the Dreyfus Affair in France.

During World War I, the British had both promised to support the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine while also assuring various Arab leaders that Britain would aid them in creating independent states in the aftermath of the Ottoman Empire’s expected demise. Even the official British declaration that offered support for a Jewish homeland – the Balfour Declaration of 1917 – specifically included language that promised the Arabs of Palestine (both Muslim and Christian) support in ensuring their own “civil and religious rights.” In other words, the dominant European power in the area at the time, and the one that was to directly rule it from 1920 – 1947, tried to appease both sides with sometimes vague assurances.

After World War I, however, the British established control over a large swath of territory that included the future state of Israel, frustrating Arab hopes for their own independence. Between 1918 and 1939, the Jewish population of Palestine went from roughly 60,000 to 650,000 as Jews attracted to Zionism moved to the area. The entire period was replete with riots and growing hostility between the Arab and Jewish populations, with the British trying (and generally failing) to keep the peace.

After World War II, the British proved unable and unwilling to try to manage the volatile region, turning the territory over to the newly-created United Nations in April of 1947. The UN’s plan to divide the territory into two states – one for Arabs and one for Jews – was rejected by all of the countries in the region, and Israel’s creation as a formal state in May of 1948 saw nine months of war between the Jews of the newly-created state of Israel and a coalition of the surrounding Arab states: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, along with small numbers of volunteers from other Arab countries. Israel consistently fielded larger, better-trained and better-equipped armies in the ensuing war, as the Arab states were in their infancy as well, and Jewish settlers in Palestine had spent years organizing their own militias. When the dust settled, there were nearly a million Palestinian refugees and a state that promised to be the center of conflict in the region for decades to come.

Since the creation of Israel, there have been three more full-scale regional wars: the 1956 Suez War (noted above in the discussion of Egypt), which had no lasting consequences besides adding fuel to future conflicts, the Six-Day War of 1967, that resulted in great territorial gains for Israel, and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 that undid some of those gains. In addition to the actual wars, there have been ongoing explosions of violence between Palestinians and Israelis that continue to the present.

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