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Letting Go Is Hard to Do

One of modern history’s recurring themes—that of the desire for self-determination— appeared in Asia and Africa during the postwar years. The great empires of France and Britain were the last of their kind in the modern world and barely had been holding on to the last of their colonies.

Imperialism had always been predicated on the fact that Europeans simply were superior to the subjugated peoples of Africa and Asia. After the Second World War, opponents of imperialism often pointed out that Europe’s failures offered irrefutable evidence that Europe was no better than the rest of the world. Furthermore, most Europeans were more interested in rebuilding their homes than worrying about foreign colonies. Asian and African peoples, for their part, became fascinated with western ideals and demanded independence.

The imperial powers were faced with difficult decisions concerning their colonial empires. Aside from the major empires of the British and French, other imperial nations released their colonies. Included were the Japanese recognition of Korea, the recognition of Indonesian independence from the Netherlands, the recognition of Libyan independence from Italy, and the recognition of the independence of the Belgian Congo and Rwanda from Belgium.

From British Empire to British Commonwealth

When war broke out between Britain and Germany, the British government worked a deal with India whereby Indian independence could be achieved after the war in exchange for Indian assistance against Germany during the war. Socialists in Britain had long opposed imperialism and its costs in light of the costs of staging a war and rebuilding a war-torn Britain. The election of the Labour Party in 1945 helped reaffirm Britain’s commitment to Indian independence as well as the independence of other colonies.

In 1947, the British divided India into two states—India and the Muslim-dominated Pakistan. The independence excited India but the partition didn’t please everyone. The Kashmir region, for example, became a hot spot for violence because the region, left in India, had a high concentration of Muslims. As a result, the Indo-Paksitani War broke out shortly after India received its independence.

Would You Believe?

In 1960, the UN passed Resolution 1514, denouncing colonization and promoting the transfer of the power of self-determination to subjugated peoples.

The United Kingdom went on to recognize the independence of Burma in 1947, Palestine (which became Israel) in 1948, Sudan in 1956, Malaya and Ghana in 1957, and a host of other states in the 1960s including Jamaica, Kenya, Zambia, Cameroon, Rhodesia, Barbados, and Fiji. The empire that once sprawled across the entire world had released its colonies and accepted its status as a commonwealth rather than as an empire.

French Decolonization

In the late nineteenth century, France conquered Vietnam and eventually combined it with Cambodia and Laos to form French Indochina. After World War II, France tried to reestablish itself as a power in the region of Indochina. After the war, imperialism held much value for France, and in fact many French saw France’s profile in the postwar world as inextricably bound to its empire. However, the Communist Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) led the Viet Minh against the French. After a long and frustrating battle, the Viet Minh, supported by China and the Soviet Union, won the war in 1954. The result was the partition of Vietnam into Communist North Vietnam and free South Vietnam backed by the United States and Britain.

France jumped right into trouble with Algeria in 1954. Algeria desperately wanted independence, but France was determined not to lose another of its colonies. After a long, violent war with Algiers, France finally gave in and recognized Algerian independence in 1962. The Algerian crisis emphasized the problems of the French Fourth Republic. Its frequent turnover of leadership and constitutional problems repeatedly left France in the lurch. Dismayed, France turned to de Gaulle to save the day again.

Continental Quotes

“How can you govern a country with 246 varieties of cheese?"

—Charles de Gaulle on governing France

Charles de Gaulle returned and helped create France’s Fifth Republic. France hoped de Gaulle would put an end to the crisis in Algiers, but he didn’t. He did, however, help France grant independence to other states much more easily, states including the subSaharan African states of Guinea, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, Madagascar, and the Ivory Coast.

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