By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Explain the reasons for Soviet intervention in Warsaw Pact nations in the 1950s and 1960s
- Describe U.S. efforts to contain the spread of communism in Latin America and Asia
- Explain the cause of the Sino-Soviet split
- Discuss decolonization movements in Africa
The potential for conflict between the United States and the forces of communism was not limited to East Asia. Although this part of the world held the greatest risk of strife, and indeed several proxy wars were fought there in the decades following World War II, the contest between the United States and the Soviet Union spread to all parts of the globe.
Tensions in Europe
Joseph Stalin died in 1953. He was replaced as leader of the Soviet Union, briefly by Georgy Malenkov and then by Nikita Khrushchev. Khrushchev was as ardent an opponent of the Western Bloc as Stalin had ever been, bragging at one meeting that communism would “bury” capitalism, but he also favored a new attitude toward the United States and a new direction for the Soviet Union. In February 1956, at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, Khrushchev denounced the late Stalin and accused him of crimes against the Soviet people. He then embarked on an aggressive process of de-Stalinization, changing Stalin-era policies such as censorship of the arts, releasing many whom Stalin had jailed for political reasons, dissolving the special tribunals that had convicted them, removing Stalin’s name from public buildings, and taking monuments to him down.
In the Eastern Bloc countries, this signaled the beginning of a political thaw. In June 1956, workers in the Polish city of Poznan rioted to protest food shortages and poor housing along with other grievances. In the autumn, protests began in other cities as well. They had a distinctly nationalistic character and called for such changes as the expulsion of the Soviet army from Poland and the removal of Russian language classes from Polish schools’ curricula. In October, Władysław Gomułka, who called for governmental reforms, was made the leader of the Polish Communist Party and thus the leader of Poland.
Alarmed by the possibility of reforms that might remove Poland from the Eastern Bloc, Khrushchev mobilized Soviet troops in Poland and marched them toward Warsaw even as he flew there in person. After Gomułka assured Khrushchev that he had no intention of ending communism or Poland’s relationship with the Soviet Union, Khrushchev agreed that reforms could take place. Accordingly, the collectivization of Polish agriculture was ended, Soviet advisers were sent home, political prisoners were released, and greater freedom was given to the Roman Catholic Church.
The success of the Poles inspired others. On October 23, 1956, students marched through the streets of Budapest, Hungary, demanding among other things the removal of Stalinist symbols, improvements in wages, economic reforms, and the removal of Soviet troops from the country. The State Security Police opened fire on students who gathered outside the main radio station to read their demands on the air, and several were killed. An uprising began, with angry citizens fighting both the police and Soviet troops. As protesters attacked the parliament building, Ernő Gerő, the head of the ruling Hungarian Working People’s Party and leader of the country, fled along with his prime minister, András Hegedüs. Imre Nagy, a reformer, took office as prime minister. Unlike Gomułka, Nagy did not wish to institute internal reforms while otherwise remaining loyal to Moscow. On October 28, he called for a cease-fire, dissolved the State Security Police, and demanded that Soviet troops leave Budapest. On November 1, Nagy announced that Hungary was no longer a member of the Warsaw Pact and would remain neutral in international affairs.
Three days later, Soviet forces entered Hungary to join those the USSR had been on the point of withdrawing until Nagy’s announcement. Khrushchev may have feared that Nagy’s declaration of Hungarian neutrality threatened the security of the Soviet Union. He may also have wished to demonstrate his resolve to more conservative communists and to the leaders of the other Soviet states. Some argue that the Western Bloc’s failure to intervene emboldened him. The uprising came to an end on November 10 after about 2,500 Hungarians had been killed, and the communist government was reestablished under János Kádár. Approximately twenty thousand Hungarians were arrested and another 200,000 fled the country. Soviet troops were permanently stationed in Hungary, and Nagy was tried and executed in 1958.
The United States did not become involved in the events in Hungary, a decision Khrushchev later mocked. However, despite not wishing a confrontation with the Soviets, the United States soon found it could not ignore Khrushchev’s ultimatum regarding Berlin. In 1958 and again in 1961, Khrushchev demanded that Britain, France, and the United States leave West Berlin, demands that went unheeded. The capitalist part of the old German capital was a thorn in Khrushchev’s side. Not only did its prosperity arouse discontent among the residents of the communist eastern districts, but the openness allowed there enabled many people from East Germany—and elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc—to escape to freedom.
On the evening of August 12–13, 1961, East German troops erected a barbed wire fence to divide the western part of Berlin from the eastern. In the days that followed, cement walls went up as well to stop the free passage from east to west. On October 22, a dispute erupted between the United States and the Soviet Union regarding the free passage of U.S. government employees between East and West Berlin. The United States maintained that, in keeping with agreements reached at Potsdam at the end of World War II, members of the Allies could travel freely throughout Berlin. To test the Soviets’ commitment to abide by this agreement, the U.S. began to send cars carrying U.S. officials across the dividing line to see if they would be stopped. If they were, U.S. troops, sometimes riding in tanks, then accompanied them across.
On October 27, the USSR responded by sending some of its own tanks to the entrance to East Berlin. U.S. and Soviet tanks aimed their guns at one another. A fight was narrowly averted when Kennedy and Khrushchev agreed to remove their tanks at the same time.
The Berlin Wall separated the residents of East and West Berlin from 1961 until it was destroyed in 1989. While it stood, it provided a canvas for the people of West Berlin to record their whims and fantasies as well as political messages. This website shows photographs of the Berlin Wall and its art six months before it was torn down.
Tensions flared in Europe yet again in 1968 when Czechoslovakia, like Poland and Hungary before it, sought to loosen its ties to the Soviet Union. Early in the year, the country’s conservative leader Antonín Novotný was replaced by Alexander Dubček. Dubček instituted economic reforms and ended government censorship. As Czechs called for even greater reforms, the Soviet Union became alarmed, as it had in Poland and Hungary in 1956. Fearing that changes in Czechoslovakia would stimulate calls for reform elsewhere in the Eastern Bloc or in the Soviet republics themselves—and confident the United States would not intervene, just as it had failed to do before—the new Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev ordered an invasion of Czechoslovakia on August 20, 1968. By early 1969, resistance had largely disappeared, and the Soviet Union replaced Dubček with the conservative Gustáv Husák, who reversed Dubček’s reforms. Censorship was restored, and government control increased again. For the Soviets, this was a successful application of the Brezhnev Doctrine, the pledge to assist communist governments in danger of being overthrown.
Tensions in Latin America
In the 1930s and 1940s, the United States had exercised a “Good Neighbor Policy” toward other nations of the Western Hemisphere, refraining from intervening in their affairs. The desire to contain communist expansion, however, led Washington to take a much more interventionist approach in Latin America and the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1944, an uprising in Guatemala ousted the military dictator Jorge Ubico, who had held power since 1931. Philosophy professor Juan José Arévalo became the country’s first democratically elected president in 1945. He was succeeded in office in 1951 by Jacobo Árbenz, who began a program of land reform in the desperately poor country. Árbenz also legalized the Guatemalan Party of Labor, a communist labor union. In the eyes of the United States, Guatemala seemed to be drifting toward communism (Figure 14.16).
This view of the matter was encouraged by the United Fruit Company, a U.S. company that owned plantations throughout Central America, where it grew bananas for the American market. As the single largest landowner in Guatemala, United Fruit was resistant to any forces that might limit its access to land. Thus, Árbenz’s land redistribution plans threatened its interests, and his support for the Guatemalan Party of Labor also promised to undermine the company’s control over its employees.
United Fruit convinced first the Truman administration and then the Eisenhower administration to remove Árbenz from power. Eisenhower was a strong anti-communist, as were his secretary of state John Foster Dulles and the head of the CIA Allen Dulles, John’s brother. The Dulles brothers were also closely connected to the United Fruit Company. In 1954, forces led by Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas but armed and trained by the CIA removed Árbenz from power. Upon taking office, Armas instituted a military dictatorship, outlawed the political opposition, and began to attack the power of the unions.
It is unlikely that Árbenz sought to place Guatemala within the Eastern Bloc. Soviet influence was active elsewhere in Latin America, however. In 1952, Fulgencio Batista seized power in Cuba in a military coup. Batista, who was financially supported by the U.S. government, held tight control over the island nation and used secret police to silence his opponents, often by means of torture and murder. He wielded his political power to protect the interests of wealthy Cubans and large landowners, among whom were many U.S. executives who controlled Cuba’s sugar industry.
Opposition to Batista was led by a young lawyer and activist named Fidel Castro and his brother Raul. When Fidel Castro failed to remove Batista from power legally by challenging the constitutionality of Batista’s seizure of power, he and his brother began to organize members of Cuba’s disgruntled working class. The revolution against Batista began on July 26, 1953, with unsuccessful attacks on military bases in Santiago and Bayamo that culminated in the capture of the Castro brothers. Released from prison two years later, they retreated to Mexico where they joined other Cuban exiles and a young Argentine named Ernesto “Che” Guevara to train and plot their return to Cuba.
In 1956, Fidel Castro and his followers returned to Cuba and led the 26th of July Movement (named for their first failed attempt to topple Batista’s government) in attacks on the Cuban government. After two years of fighting, Castro’s rebels were successful, and on December 31, 1958, Fulgencio Batista fled to the Dominican Republic. On January 2, 1959, the military commander guarding Havana ordered his soldiers to lay down their weapons, and the revolutionaries entered the capital in triumph (Figure 14.17).
At first the United States recognized Cuba’s new government. Fidel Castro was interviewed on the popular American television program The Ed Sullivan Show a few days after his forces proved victorious, and Castro himself visited the United States to request aid in developing his country. In an address before the United Nations, he placed Cuba in the non-aligned camp; when asked, he insisted he was not a communist.
Despite these protestations, Castro worried the U.S. government. He began a program of land reform and forbade foreign ownership of land. He appointed communists, including Che Guevara, to important government positions. In August 1960, he began to nationalize foreign companies in Cuba, including many owned by U.S. citizens. Many wealthy and middle-class Cubans left the country; a large number relocated to the United States, only about ninety miles away. The United States, now convinced of Castro’s communist leanings, imposed economic sanctions on Cuba. If the island were allowed to become communist, Washington feared, communism would spread elsewhere in Latin America. Denied U.S. assistance, Castro turned to the Soviet Union for help.
The United States was reluctant to take aggressive action against Cuba for fear of moving Castro closer to the Soviets. However, the CIA trained Cuban exiles in Florida who had formed the Democratic Revolutionary Front. Their goal was to launch an invasion of Cuba that, they believed, would spark a popular uprising and the overthrow of the Castro government. By assisting the Democratic Revolutionary Front, the United States hoped to achieve the goal of defeating Castro without committing American troops.
On the night of April 17, 1961, the long-awaited Bay of Pigs invasion began, named for the spot where the invaders were to come ashore. It ended in disaster. Although they quickly overcame a local militia force, the invaders could not hold out against the Cuban Army, anticipated air support from the United States failed to materialize, and the invaders surrendered three days later. The United States was humiliated, and far from weakening Castro, its aggressive actions may actually have increased support for the revolution and strengthened nationalistic fervor among the Cuban people. The failed invasion also led Castro to seek protection from the Soviet Union.
Cuba had been of little interest to the Soviets until now. But by protecting it from U.S. threats, the Soviet Union stood to gain increased status in the region while also thwarting its Cold War rival. Indeed, failure to protect Cuba, Khrushchev feared, would send a message to other revolutionaries in Latin America that the Soviets were unable to protect them from U.S. aggression too. Accordingly, in 1962, the Soviet Union armed Cuba with nuclear missiles, and the construction of missile launch facilities on the island began that summer.
Photographs taken by a U-2 surveillance plane alerted the U.S. government to the presence of the missiles, aimed at the United States. After convening the National Security Council in October 1962, President Kennedy weighed his options. Although the U.S. military suggested an invasion of Cuba, he feared that would lead the Soviets to attack Berlin in retaliation. He could not allow the Soviet action to go unchallenged, however; to do so would make the United States—and Kennedy personally—seem weak.
On October 22, Kennedy ordered the navy to form a blockade around Cuba to intercept Soviet ships delivering additional missiles. He informed the world of this “quarantine,” avoiding the word “blockade” because under international law a blockade could be considered an act of war. U.S. forces around the world were placed on high alert, and U.S. planes flew low over Cuba in preparation for a potential invasion, the only option for removing the missiles if the Soviets did not back down. On the island below, Soviet technicians continued the missiles’ installation (Figure 14.18).
The world held its breath. For ten days people pondered the possibility of nuclear war as the incident, which came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, dragged on. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev refused to retreat. A number of incidents occurred that might each have begun a nuclear conflict. A U-2 spy plane flying over Cuba to monitor the missile installation was shot down and its pilot killed, but Kennedy refrained from acting. Another U-2 mistakenly flew over the Soviet Union’s east coast, causing Soviet fighters to take off to intercept it, which in turn led U.S. fighters to take flight. The U.S. Navy dropped a depth charge on a Soviet submarine. The submarine had been maintaining radio silence and was unaware of the events taking place on the surface. Believing a war had started, two of the three officers on board wanted to launch a nuclear warhead, but the third officer, whose consent was needed, refused to allow them to do so.
Earlier that year, the United States had placed missiles in Turkey. Khrushchev was angered, but now he offered Kennedy a way out of the Cuban stalemate: if the missiles in Turkey were removed, those in Cuba would be too. Kennedy accepted the offer. The dismantling of the Cuban missiles began, and on November 2, 1962, Kennedy informed the world of Soviet compliance. On November 20, the blockade ended; in April 1963, the United States removed its missiles from Turkey, though over the protests of the Turkish government.
Following the standoff, a direct telephone hotline was established between Washington and Moscow to enable instant communications between the leaders of the two rival nations. The dangers of nuclear war did not necessarily diminish, however. Thwarted in their attempt to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, the Soviets focused on the development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, which could strike the United States from Europe. The United States also continued to develop its weaponry.
In China, Mao Zedong had criticized the Soviets for being insufficiently supportive of socialist revolution around the world. So Khrushchev’s willingness to back down when confronted by the United States and to seemingly abandon Cuba gave credence to Mao’s claims. It also improved Mao’s position within the Chinese Communist Party. He had found himself locked in a struggle with other CCP members, who favored closer relations with the Soviet Union because of the economic and technological expertise it could provide. The humiliation of the Soviets now weakened the position of those members, such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. Conversely, Khrushchev’s power was seriously damaged by the Cuban Missile Crisis, and two years later he was forced from office.
Although the United States achieved its goal of removing Soviet missiles from Cuba, Castro’s government nevertheless remained in power. Communist parties were also strong in other parts of Latin America. In 1961, Rafael Trujillo, the anti-communist dictator of the Dominican Republic, was assassinated and replaced by the liberal reformer Juan Bosch, who was himself overthrown by the Dominican army in 1963. On April 24, 1965, liberal Dominican army officers rose up in revolt in an attempt to return Bosch to power. Four days later, twenty-two thousand U.S. troops invaded in order to prevent a communist takeover, as President Lyndon Johnson claimed. They placed a conservative government in power.
In Chile, Salvador Allende, the candidate of a socialist-communist coalition party called Popular Unity, was elected president in three consecutive presidential elections in 1958, 1964, and 1970. The CIA worked with the Chilean army to engineer a coup, and in September 1973, Allende and thousands of his supporters were killed. The leader of the coup General Agosto Pinochet became Chile’s president and ruled as a dictator until 1990. The CIA also trained and funded the right-wing Contras to fight against the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which came to power in Nicaragua after overthrowing the dictatorial president Anastasio Somoza Debayle. The Sandinistas received support from the Soviet Union and Cuba.
Tensions in Asia
Though its interventions in Latin America were confounded by Castro’s Cuba and popular support for communist parties in other Central and South American countries, the United States continued to try to prevent the spread of communism, notably in Southeast Asia.
Escalation in Vietnam
In the summer of 1963, South Vietnamese generals, disgusted by the corruption of Ngo Dinh Diem’s regime and realizing his unpopularity was hampering their fight against North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, assassinated Diem and his brother Nhu. Though greeted with jubilation by most South Vietnamese, the killings did not lead to the creation of a democratic government. The country was afterward governed by a succession of leaders; none were effective or earned the loyalty of the population. All were maintained in power by the United States, which proved willing to support any politician promising to take a hard line against communism and continue the war against North Vietnam.
The U.S. role in the Vietnam War intensified in 1964. In early August, U.S. ships stationed in the Gulf of Tonkin off the coast of North Vietnam reported they had come under attack. A crew member on duty believed he saw signs of a North Vietnamese torpedo strike on his sonar. Despite the fact that there was no other evidence to support the claim and the incident most likely did not take place, Congress passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on August 7, 1964. The resolution gave President Lyndon Johnson permission to retaliate against North Vietnamese attacks and to act first to defend U.S. lives.
The situation in Vietnam swiftly escalated. In 1965, Johnson committed U.S. ground forces and began the bombing of the North. Troops from other nations, including Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, and South Korea, assisted in the fighting. The guerrilla war fought by the Viet Cong confounded U.S. troops, who came to see every Vietnamese peasant as a potential enemy. They relocated South Vietnamese farmers and burned their villages in an attempt to deny their opponents sources of support.
In early 1968, however, a series of coordinated Viet Cong attacks that struck cities and military installations throughout South Vietnam during the lunar new year holiday of Tet called into question the success of the U.S. efforts. Although North Vietnamese officials later admitted the Viet Cong had suffered serious losses during the Tet Offensive, in the immediate aftermath it seemed as though the United States and South Vietnam were no closer to defeating North Vietnam than they had ever been. Many in the United States had already begun to question the military’s involvement in Vietnam and to call for the withdrawal of troops. Their opposition grew even more intense following the revelation in 1969 that U.S. troops had massacred unarmed peasants in the village of My Lai the year before.
By the early 1970s, the United States was seeking a way to escape the situation in Vietnam. President Richard Nixon did not wish to simply withdraw, however. Instead, a peace agreement would have to be reached. North Vietnam had been reluctant to negotiate on U.S. terms, but damage to the relationship between two of its supporters, China and the Soviet Union, had threatened to isolate it and made it more amenable to seeking peace.
The Sino-Soviet Split
China and the Soviet Union had once been firm allies. The Soviet Union had supported the Chinese Communist Party since its founding and had signed the Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance in 1950. It had given China both money and valuable technical assistance as the latter sought to build its industrial capacity. However, because Mao had greatly admired Stalin, he disapproved of Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of him. He also believed that as China’s leader since 1949, he had “seniority” over Khrushchev, in power only since 1953. In Mao’s eyes, he himself, not Khrushchev, should be the leader of world communism.
The “Sino-Soviet split” widened when Khrushchev, fearing Mao’s insistence on attacking Taiwan might provoke war with the United States, refused to provide China with nuclear weapons. Khrushchev’s actions were representative of Mao’s chief criticism of the Soviet Union after the death of Stalin. The Soviets, Mao believed, had become too comfortable as leaders of the communist world and were no longer willing to risk confrontation with the United States or other imperialist powers if this would jeopardize their position. The USSR was doing too little, in the eyes of China, to support decolonization struggles in Africa and Asia and wars of independence. Indeed, far from being anti-imperialist, the Soviets had created their own empire in Europe. Other issues contributed to the rift. In the clash between India and China in 1962, for example, the USSR supported India; in 1969, Soviet and Chinese forces clashed in a dispute over their shared border. In the late 1960s, China cut back its financing of North Vietnam’s war against the South, and North Vietnam turned to the Soviet Union to fill the gap.
The United States was eager to capitalize on the Sino-Soviet split in hopes of securing several advantages. In 1972 Nixon visited China, the first sitting U.S. president to do so, and met with Mao. This effort to improve U.S. relations with China threatened to isolate the Soviet Union, so in turn the Soviets agreed to hold a Moscow Summit meeting between Brezhnev and Nixon in May 1972. The United States then used the Soviet desire for closer relations to exert pressure on North Vietnam. In March 1972, after the North launched an offensive against the South, Nixon threatened to call off the Moscow Summit if the Soviets did not force North Vietnam to the peace table.
In the end, the United States’ efforts to extricate itself from the war were successful. At the peace talks in Paris, North Vietnam and the United States agreed to the U.S. withdrawal from South Vietnam in 1973. The war continued until 1975, however, when North Vietnam defeated South Vietnam, and the country was reunified under a communist government. All told, the war had cost the lives of more than one million people.
Genocide in Cambodia
Although peace came to Vietnam in 1975, in neighboring Cambodia a nightmare was just beginning. Throughout much of the war in Vietnam, Cambodia had been neutral. In 1970, however, its ruler Prince Sihanouk was deposed by one of his generals, Lon Nol, who favored the United States. Sihanouk then allied himself with the Cambodian communist group, the Khmer Rouge. In 1975, after years of fighting, the Khmer Rouge overthrew the government of Lon Nol.
Under the rule of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader and an admirer of Mao Zedong, Cambodia embarked on a program to rebuild itself as the perfect communist state. The Khmer Rouge seized private property and forced city dwellers to relocate to the countryside. The population was made to labor in work camps and on collective farms, and some died as a result of disease and starvation. Those who were unable to work were killed. The Khmer Rouge also carried out a deliberate campaign of extermination against professionals, intellectuals (which could mean anyone who wore glasses), Christians, Muslims, Buddhist monks, and people of Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese ancestry. By the time the killing ended with the invasion of Cambodia by Vietnam in 1978, some three million people, approximately one-quarter of Cambodia’s population, had died.
Although Southeast Asia remained mired in violence and turmoil, in the West there were new hopes for peace as the Cold War showed signs of thawing. At the 1972 Moscow Summit, the United States and the USSR signed the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaty (SALT), a mutual agreement to restrict the development of antiballistic missiles meant to destroy incoming warheads, thus rendering useless the defense strategy of mutually assured destruction. This marked the beginning of a period of détente, a relaxation of tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union that included trade agreements and additional arms-reduction talks. In 1975, the United States and the Soviet Union, along with Canada and all the countries of Europe, except for Albania, signed the Helsinki Accords. The United States and its allies pledged to respect the borders of Eastern Bloc countries and to refrain from intervening in their internal affairs. The Soviet Union promised to respect human rights.
Decolonization in Africa in the Shadow of the Cold War
Like the Vietnamese, the peoples of Africa also wished to shake off Western control following World War II. The Atlantic Charter, a 1941 agreement by the United Kingdom and the United States regarding their shared goals for the postwar world, had promised self-determination for all, and African countries wanted to make this a reality. In October 1945, the Fifth Pan-African Congress assembled in Manchester, England. Delegates from Europe’s African colonies as well as from the Caribbean, the United States, India, Sri Lanka, and Central America called for an end to colonialism.
European colonial powers were not of the same mind. Following the devastation of World War II, some regarded the natural resources and markets of African colonies essential to rebuilding their damaged economies. For example, the new constitution granted to Britain’s colony of Gold Coast (Ghana) in 1946 reflected the desire of the United Kingdom, like other colonial powers, to retain control over its African possessions. Although Africans were given additional opportunities to elect the members of a Legislative Council, the council had only advisory capacity. All real power was held by the colony’s appointed governor.
In August 1947, Ghanaians formed the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC), which called on the United Kingdom to make the colony self-governing. Among the founding members of the UGCC was Kwame Nkrumah. In January 1948, Nkrumah and another member of the UGCC addressed a group of Ghanaian ex-service members. Like many in the Gold Coast, they were angry over the government’s failure to address problems such as unemployment and inflation and planned to petition the governor. When riots broke out in the colony a few days later, the government blamed the UGCC and arrested several of its members, including Nkrumah. In 1949, Nkrumah founded his own political party, the Convention People’s Party, and in January 1950 he called on his followers to begin a general strike to force the British to allow the drafting of a new constitution. He was jailed again and was in prison when he was elected to office in 1951, in the first election in Africa in which universal suffrage was allowed. Nkrumah became Ghana’s prime minister, and on March 6, 1957, Ghana received its independence.
Following Ghana, other British colonies also won their independence. In 1944, the Kenya African Union (KAU) was founded to call for Kenya’s liberation from British rule, and in 1947 Jomo Kenyatta assumed its leadership. The United Kingdom was unwilling to grant independence to Kenya, a colony in which many Whites owned profitable coffee plantations and controlled more land than did Black Africans. In 1952, a group called the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, popularly known as the Mau Mau, began to fight for independence.
The Mau Mau, a nationalist movement among the Kikuyu people, espoused violence as a means to their goal. To spread fear, they attacked civilians, both White and Black, burning people to death or killing them with machetes. Africans who remained loyal to the British government were targeted. In response, the United Kingdom banned all Kenyan political parties, including the KAU that did not advocate violence, and struck back at the Mau Mau. Thousands were sent to internment camps. Entire villages were forcibly resettled in new areas, ostensibly to protect them from the Mau Mau. Innocent civilians were killed by forces employed by the British government. By 1956, the uprising had largely been brought to an end. In 1960, the United Kingdom began talks to discuss Kenyan independence, which was granted in 1963. Kenyatta became the country’s prime minister.
Violence in Kenya
Kenya was one of many British colonies that sought independence following World War II. There, as in other places in Africa, people were divided over the best means to achieve it. Some, like Kenyan leader Jomo Kenyatta, proposed a peaceful solution. Others, like the members of the Mau Mau, endorsed violence. The attitudes of the two sides are contrasted in the following speech Kenyatta gave in 1952 and in a Mau Mau oath from the same period.
I want you to know the purpose of K.A.U. [Kenya African Union]. It is the biggest purpose the African has. It involves every African in Kenya and it is their mouthpiece which asks for freedom. K.A.U. is you and you are the K.A.U. If we unite now, each and every one of us, and each tribe to another, we will cause the implementation in this country of that which the European calls democracy. True democracy has no colour distinction. It does not choose between black and white . . . . We are not worried that other races are here with us in our country, but we insist that we are the leaders here, and what we want we insist we get. We want our cattle to get fat on our land so that our children grow up in prosperity; we do not want that fat removed to feed others. . . .
Our country today is in a bad state for its land is full of fools—and fools in a country delay the independence of its people. K.A.U. seeks to remedy this situation and I tell you now it despises thieving, robbery and murder for these practices ruin our country. I say this because if one man steals, or two men steal, there are people sitting close by lapping up information, who say the whole tribe is bad because a theft has been committed. Those people are wrecking our chances of advancement. They will prevent us getting freedom. If I have my own way, let me tell you I would butcher the criminal, and there are more criminals than one in more senses than one. . . .
K.A.U. is not a fighting union that uses fists and weapons. If any of you here think that force is good, I do not agree with you. I do not want people to accuse us falsely—that we steal and that we are Mau Mau. I pray to you that we join hands for freedom and freedom means abolishing criminality.
—Jomo Kenyatta, “Speech at the African Union Meeting”
I swear before God and before the people who are here that
I have today become a soldier of Gikuyu and Mumbi and I will from now onwards fight the real fight for the land and freedom of our country till we get it or till my last drop of blood. Today I have set my first step as a warrior and I will never retreat.
And if I ever retreat
May this soil and all its products be a curse upon me!
If ever I am called to accompany a raid or bring in the head of an enemy, I shall obey and never give lame excuses. . . .
I will never spy or inform on my people, and if ever sent to spy on our enemies I will always report the truth. . . .
I will never reveal a raid or crime committed to any person who has not taken the Ngero Oath and will steal firearms wherever possible. . . .
I will never leave a member in difficulty without trying to help him. . . .
I will obey the orders of my leaders at all times without any argument or complaint and will never fail to give them any money or goods taken in a raid and will never hide any pillages or take them for myself. . . .
I will never sell land to any white man. And if I sell:
May this soil and all its products be a curse upon me!
— Donald L. Barnett and Karari Njama, “The Mau Mau Warrior Oath”
- What parts of the Mau Mau oath would Jomo Kenyatta dislike? Are there parts he might be willing to take himself?
- Why does Kenyatta reject the tactics of the Mau Mau?
Nationalism and the desire for independence were powerful in the colonies of other European countries as well. Some imperial powers attempted moderate changes at first. In 1946, for example, France proposed sweeping reforms for its African colonies. It ended forced labor and racially discriminatory practices and allowed for a degree of self-rule. It did not offer independence, but that was what France’s African subjects most wanted and fought for. From 1947 to 1949, the Malagasy Revolt raged in Madagascar, costing thousands of lives. Violence brought an end to colonialism in Cameroon in 1957 as well. In Algeria, warfare lasted from 1954 to 1962, when France granted independence, and more than one million people of European descent departed the country.
In the Belgian Congo (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Cold War tensions contributed to the violence. When in 1960 Belgium promised the Congolese independence in thirty years, nationalist groups such as the Congolese National Movement and the Alliance of Bakongo responded that they wanted it immediately. Black Congolese held protests that often ended in riots, and they refused to pay taxes. Alarmed, many White residents started citizens’ militias and attacked Black residents. Realizing the strength of the nationalist protest, the government of Belgium agreed to grant Congo its independence on June 30, 1960.
This did not end the violence, however. When Émile Janssens, the White commander of the Force Publique, the Belgian Congo’s security force, made clear to Black troops a few days after independence that White officers would remain in charge, soldiers mutinied. Patrice Lamumba, the leader of the Congolese National Movement who had been elected prime minister, replaced Janssens with a Black commander of the renamed National Congolese Army and promoted Black soldiers. This was not enough to end the mutiny, however. White people were attacked across the country, and Belgian forces invaded to protect them.
In the midst of the chaos, Congo’s mineral-rich southern province of Katanga seceded and proclaimed its independence. Lamumba appealed to the UN, which had sent peacekeeping forces to restore order, to end Katanga’s secession. The UN refused, however, claiming secession was an internal political matter with which it should not interfere. Lamumba then asked the United States for help, but his request was denied. Finally, he turned to the Soviet Union, which provided weapons and military advisers. Lamumba’s acceptance of Soviet support branded him a communist in Western eyes. Taking advantage of the chaos, Colonel Joseph-Désiré Mobutu (Mobutu Sese Seko), the new head of the security force, put Lamumba under house arrest and placed Joseph Kasa-Vubu, the leader of the Alliance of Bakongo, in charge of the government. Lamumba was subsequently killed by Katangese troops with the knowledge and support of the CIA, which provided both money and weapons to Mobutu and Kasa-Vubu.
British politicians, observing the strength of nationalist fervor not only in Kenya but also in other colonies, and fearing more violence like that experienced in Congo, moved quickly to liberate British colonies in Africa, the Caribbean, and Asia. In 1960, Harold Macmillan, the British prime minister, visited Africa and delivered a speech called “The Wind of Change.” The wind of change was sweeping Africa, Macmillan declared, and the time of liberation had come, even though White Britons might not want it.
Unlike Britain, France, and Belgium, Portugal steadfastly refused to relinquish its colonies. The nationalistic, quasi-fascist government of the Second Portuguese Republic that had first come to power in 1933 regarded them as part of Portugal and considered Portugal to be a guarantor of order and civilization in Africa. A variety of independence movements sprang up in Angola, Portuguese Guinea (now called Guinea-Bissau), and Mozambique, just as they did elsewhere in Africa. Some groups sought to establish self-government along the lines of Western democracies, while others favored the creation of a communist system. In Angola, Portuguese troops battled the National Liberation Front (FNLA), a largely rural organization comprising Bakongo people, the Marxist People’s Movement of Liberation of Angola (MPLA), a largely urban group, and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), a rural group made up principally of Ovimbundu people. In Mozambique, the Marxist Mozambique Liberation Front fought for independence. The African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, another Marxist organization, led the liberation struggle in Guinea-Bissau.
The Cold War intruded upon the battle in the Portuguese colonies. The Soviet Union, China, Romania, Cuba, and Yugoslavia all provided aid to the various independence groups. The United States did not because Portugal was a fellow NATO member. In 1974, leftist military officers in Portugal overthrew the government of the Second Portuguese Republic and established a democratic government. The new government ended the war with the African colonies by granting independence to Angola, Guinea-Bissau, and Mozambique along with Cape Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe, islands off the African coast. Independence did not bring an end to the violence, however. In 1975, civil war broke in Angola for control of the country. The United States provided support for UNITA and FNLA in their struggle against the MPLA.
Violence also erupted in the former British colony of Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe). Rejecting the British government’s plans for majority rule in its former colonies, White residents, unwilling to submit to a government controlled by Black Rhodesians, proclaimed independence from the United Kingdom in 1965 with Ian Smith as prime minister, a move that Britain opposed. Civil war broke out between the White government and two Black nationalist groups, the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) led by Joshua Nkomo, and the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) led by Robert Mugabe. The Soviet Union lent support to ZAPU, and China to ZANU. Eventually an agreement was reached among all three parties, and the United Kingdom officially recognized Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980. Robert Mugabe became prime minister, and thousands of Nkomo’s followers were tortured, imprisoned, or killed until he and Mugabe combined their political parties in 1987.
Similar to the situation in Rhodesia, Black Africans in South Africa struggled for independence not against a European power but against White Africans. In 1909, the British Cape Colony, Natal, and the Boer republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State had been combined to form a self-governing dominion within the British Empire. Only the White minority had been allowed to rule, however, and the contest for power had been between Whites of British and Afrikaner (Dutch) descent. Laws denied Black Africans the right to vote and prevented them from laying claim to most of the country’s land. They were denied the right to live in some parts of the country, and many were forcibly removed to “homelands” apart from Whites. In 1948, discriminatory practices and racial segregation were formalized in a system called apartheid. In 1950, South Africa’s legislature passed the Suppression of Communism Act, which banned not only the anti-apartheid South African Communist Party but also any actions to end racially discriminatory practices. Thus, when in 1960 the United Kingdom allowed South Africans to vote on whether to remain a dominion, the majority of the population could not participate. In 1961, South Africa officially became a republic, but the true liberation movement was still underway.
From its very beginning, groups such as the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) had fought apartheid, with peaceful protest at first. However, following the killing of peaceful protesters in the Black township of Sharpeville and the banning of the ANC and PAC, both in 1960, anti-apartheid activists began to employ sabotage and attacks on police and military targets, along with more peaceful tactics like strikes. In 1976, protests erupted in Black townships against a new law requiring Black African students to learn Afrikaans (the language spoken by South Africa’s Dutch colonizers). In the township of Soweto, the police opened fire on schoolchildren, killing more than one hundred. Over the course of decades, thousands of activists were arrested and imprisoned, including Nelson Mandela, a leader of the ANC, and many were executed. By the 1980s, however, continued opposition to apartheid, economic sanctions imposed by foreign countries, boycotts of South African businesses, and international condemnation had begun to have an effect. In 1991, South Africa officially ended the policy of apartheid; in 1994, the first elections were held in which all South Africans could vote regardless of race. The ANC swept to victory, and the new National Assembly elected Nelson Mandela president.