In the context of the Cold War, many struggles over decolonization were tied closely to the attitudes and involvement of the US and USSR. Vietnam provides perhaps the most iconic example. What was “really” a struggle for independence became a global conflict because of the socialist ideology espoused by the Viet MInh nationalists. Many leaders of formerly-colonized countries, however, rejected the idea that they had to choose sides in the Cold War and instead sought a truly independence course. The dream of many political elites in countries in the process of emerging from colonial domination was that former colonies around the world, but especially those in Africa and Asia, might create a new “superpower” through their alliance. The result was the birth of the Nonaligned Movement.
The beginning of the Nonaligned Movement was the Bandung Conference of 1955. In the Indonesian city of Bandung, leaders from countries in Africa, Asia, and South America met to discuss the possibility of forming a coalition that might push back against superpower dominance. This was the high point of the Pan-Africanism championed by Kwame Nkrumah described above, and in turn non-aligned countries earnestly hoped that their collective strength could compensate for their individual weakness vis-à-vis the superpowers. A French journalist at the conference created the term “third world” to describe the bloc of nations: neither the first world of the US and western Europe, nor the second world of the USSR and its satellites, but the allied bloc of former colonies.
While the somewhat utopian goal of a truly united third world proved as elusive as a United States of Africa, the real, meaningful effect of the conference (and the continued meetings of the nonaligned movement) was at the United Nations. The Nonaligned Movement ended up with over 100 member nations, wielding considerable power in the General Assembly of the UN and successfully directing policies and aid money to poorer nations. During the crucial decades of decolonization itself, the Nonaligned Movement also served as inspiration for millions around the world who sought not only independence for its own sake, but in the name of creating a more peaceful and prosperous world for all.
The irony of decolonization is that even as former European colonies were achieving formal political independence, millions of former colonized peoples were flocking to Europe for work. A postwar economic boom in Europe (described in the next chapter) created a huge market for labor, especially in fields of unskilled labor. Thus, Africans, Caribbeans, Asians, and people from the Middle East from former colonies all came in droves to work at jobs Europeans did not want, because those jobs still paid more than even skilled work did in the former colonies.
Initially, most immigrant laborers were single men, “guest workers” in the parlance of the time, who were expected to work for a time, send money home, then return to their places of origin. By the mid-1960s, however, families followed, demographically transforming the formerly almost all-white Europe into a genuinely multi-ethnic society. For the first time, many European societies grew ethnically and racially diverse, and within a few decades, a whole generation of non-white people were native-born citizens of European countries.
The result was an ongoing struggle over national and cultural identity. Particularly in places like Britain, France, and postwar West Germany, the official stance of governments and most people alike was that European culture was colorblind, and that anyone who culturally assimilated could be a productive part of society. The problem was that it was far easier to maintain that attitude before many people not born in Europe made their homes there; as soon as significant minority populations became residents of European countries, there was an explosion of anti-immigrant racism among whites. In addition, in cases like France, former colonists who had fled to the metropole were often hardened racists who openly called for exclusionary practices and laws. Europeans were forced to grapple with the idea of cultural and racial diversity in a way that was entirely new to them (in contrast to countries like the United States, which has always been highly racially diverse following the European invasions of the early modern period).
One group of British Marxist scholars, many of whom were immigrants or the children of immigrants, described this phenomenon as “the empire strikes back”: having seized most of the world’s territory by force, Europeans were now left with a legacy of racial and cultural diversity that many of them did not want. In turn, the universalist aspirations of “Western Civilization” were challenged as never before.
Image Citations (Wikimedia Commons):
Korean Refugees - Public Domain
Ho Chi Minh - Public Domain
Napalm Attack - Fair Use, Nick Ut / Associated Press
Partition - Public Domain
Algerian War Soldiers - Public Domain