5.15 Independence Movements and Decolonization

Postwar Conflict


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, we will concentrate 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.

"Emergency Trains Crowded with Hindu Refugees." 1947 – 1952.
“Emergency Trains Crowded with Hindu Refugees.” 1947 – 1952. Wikimedia. February 28, 2014.


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PPSC HIS 1320: Western Civilization: 1650-Present by Wayne Artis, Sarah Clay, and Kim Fujikawa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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