Chapter 11

Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me: The End of Empires

In This Chapter

bulletPulling down the curtain on British India

bulletSetting up the state of Israel

bulletFacing defeat in French Indo-China and Algeria

After the Second World War, the Europeans reverted to their role of ruling their mighty empires, but this proved to be more difficult in some places than they expected (Chapter 7 has the details on Europe’s empires). Within a few years, they were packing up their pith helmets, hauling down their flags, and heading home. What had happened to the Age of Empire? This chapter explains.


All of the events in this chapter were happening while the Cold War was getting under way (Chapter 10 outlines the Cold War). The Americans and the Russians were on the lookout for any sign that these new states might join their side in their great stand-off. Since the colonial powers were all western Europeans, the Americans were scared that the new states might turn to the Soviet Union along my-enemy’s-enemy-is-my-friend lines. This possibility had not escaped the Russians’ notice either.

Sunset for the British Empire

Although the British liked to talk as if their empire would go on forever (that old ‘Empire on which the sun never sets’ idea), the signs of wobble were visible even before the Second World War. Nationalist movements in Asia and Africa were demanding independence, and the Brits were having to resort to force to keep them quiet. Two other countries – the United States and Japan – also wanted the Brits to clear out of the empire business, but for very different reasons.

The Americans liked to think of themselves as a colonised people who’d freed themselves from an evil empire back in the eighteenth century (actually, they’d been the ones colonising the natives’ lands, but let it pass). President Franklin Roosevelt in particular disliked empires and didn’t want Churchill or anyone else imagining that the Second World War was being fought so the Europeans could get them back again. In 1941 he and Churchill drew up the Atlantic Charter, which said the war was about establishing the freedom of people everywhere. Churchill hoped that this freedom would only apply to the European countries the Germans had conquered; but Roosevelt was serious: he wanted the war to see an end to Europe’s age of empire.

The Japanese were great believers in empires; unfortunately they wanted them all to be ruled from Japan. However, they pretended that they wanted to drive the Europeans out so that Asian peoples could rule themselves, and some Asian nationalists, like the Indian nationalist leader Subhas Chandra Bose, did come over and join the Japanese side in the war (see the sidebar ‘The cosy myth of Chandra Bose’ for more on this particular Japanese ally). The Japanese even called the areas they conquered the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere to make it sound like an Asian free trade area, instead of the zone of ruthless Japanese exploitation it actually was.

Perhaps the most significant sign that Europe’s days of empire were numbered wasn’t guerrilla activity by nationalist groups but the British General Election of 1945. To the stunned amazement of the rest of the world, the British turfed Winston Churchill out of 10 Downing Street and elected the Labour Party instead. Churchill was an old imperialist – as a young man he had fought for Queen Victoria in India and Africa – and he was determined to keep the British empire going. The Labour Party also wanted to keep the empire and they tried to make it more economically viable, though their schemes mostly didn’t work. But they were committed to making one enormously important and symbolic concession: They were going to grant independence to Britain’s biggest, most populous, and most important overseas possession: India.

The masters humbled

Imperialism was always heavily based on image: The Europeans were the masters and the colonised people were their servants. Criticising European rule seemed pointless if you thought that Europeans were somehow naturally superior to other people. That’s why the sight of European troops surrendering to the Japanese – an Asian people – in Hong Kong and Singapore during the Second World War had such an impact. Suddenly, the European masters didn’t seem so big any more, and once that sort of image has been broken, it can never be entirely mended. Even worse, though, was the way the Japanese treated their prisoners. They starved, beat, and tortured them and used them as slave labour. To Asians, the sight of white Europeans in loin cloths working as coolies for the Japanese was an eye-opener. The image didn’t necessarily make them pro-Japanese, but it did show that the Europeans weren’t some sort of super-race: They were ordinary human beings like anyone else. No empire can survive long when people know that about their masters.

India’s night of freedom

Ever since the British ordered troops to fire on an unarmed crowd at Amritsar in 1919, the Indian nationalist movement had been growing stronger (see Chapter 7 to discover more about what the nationalists were doing before the war). Although the British hadn’t granted India independence – and hadn’t said they would, either – they had started allowing Indians to sit on provincial governments and even on the Viceroy’s Council. And, of course, they had negotiated at the top level with the leaders of the Indian National Congress. That sooner or later the British would pack up and go home seemed obvious.

When the war broke out, Gandhi launched a new campaign calling on the British to ‘Quit India!’ Congress organised marches and rallies and the British, who were incensed that Congress was taking advantage of the war in this way, rounded up the Congress leaders and locked them up. In 1943 Lord Wavell became Viceroy of India. Wavell didn’t think locking people up was any way to settle India’s future, so he released the Congress leaders and took them into his own Council. But Wavell still needed to know if the British government was planning to hold on to India or pull out. He couldn’t get any sort of decision out of Churchill but he did get one from Attlee, though it wasn’t quite what he wanted to hear: Attlee sacked Wavell and appointed Lord Mountbatten instead. Mountbatten got the job of bringing Britain’s long rule in India to an end.

The tragedy of partition

Mountbatten’s brief was to pull Britain out of India by the summer of 1948. That deadline didn’t leave much time to work out the most thorny problem: What to do about India’s Muslims.

Gandhi and Congress had simply campaigned for independence, but the more likely it looked that the British would go, the more worried India’s Muslims became. The leader of the Muslim League, Muhammed Ali Jinnah, said that Muslims didn’t want to become a minority group within a huge Hindu state; he demanded a separate Muslim state, to be called Pakistan. This situation made the arrangements for granting India its independence very difficult:

bulletMuslims lived in towns and villages all over India. How could they be separated into two separate states? Plus the two areas where Muslims were in a majority were in north-west and north-east India, over a thousand miles apart. And thousands of Hindus lived in both areas too.

bulletThe Congress leaders didn’t accept the case for a separate Muslim state. They thought Jinnah was just stirring up trouble. For his part, Jinnah refused to compromise and insisted on getting Pakistan. That Mountbatten didn’t like Jinnah much and found getting on with the Hindu leaders, Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, much easier didn’t help.

bulletHindus and Muslims were staging violent riots, killing thousands. Some six thousand people were killed in three days of Hindu–Muslim violence in the ‘Great Calcutta Killings’ of 1946. The politicians were going to have to sort out their differences fast before even more people were killed.

Gandhi was so upset by the idea of dividing India into Hindu and Muslim states that he pulled out of the negotiations. Reluctantly, Nehru persuaded Congress to accept partition. Mountbatten had come up with a cock-eyed scheme for dividing India into a huge federation of separate states which managed to anger everyone, but once it was clear that partition couldn’t be avoided, he too accepted the idea. He also suddenly announced that Britain would be pulling out not in 1948 but in a few months’ time – in August 1947. The British Raj would have to be dismantled in double-quick time.


Historians still argue about why Mountbatten brought the date of Indian independence forward, and their work isn’t made any easier by the fact that Mountbatten himself was such an unreliable witness, always maintaining that he knew exactly what he was doing and everyone else was wrong. He liked to claim that he made the decision on the spur of the moment, in answer to a question from a reporter (though if that response is true, it’s nothing to be proud of). In fact, at the time, bringing the date forward wasn’t seen as that big a deal: The Indian leaders thought that if the British were going they might as well go quickly, and no one wanted some sort of interim period between the British going and the Indians taking over. Some people blame Mountbatten for the carnage that followed, though passions were so inflamed in India in 1947 that putting the blame on one man doesn’t really make sense.

After the decision of partition was settled and the pull-out date moved forward, the most urgent issue to work out was where the border would run between India and Pakistan. A British lawyer called Sir Cyril Radcliffe, who’d never been to India before, was given this task of defining the border. Inevitably, both sides claimed he’d given the other too much. Two Indian states, Bengal and Punjab, had to be partitioned between the new countries. Some two million people who found themselves living on the ‘wrong’ side of the border were going to have to pack up, leave their homes, and start a new life in the other state, and they resented it bitterly.


The cosy myth of Chandra Bose

Subhas Chandra Bose was a prominent member of the India National Congress, and even became its president until Gandhi outmanoeuvred him and got him thrown out. Bose hated the British (and he didn’t much like Gandhi either), and in 1941 he headed to Berlin to team up with Hitler and his Japanese allies. He recruited disillusioned Indian soldiers in Japanese prisoner of war camps into a new Indian National Army (INA), which operated alongside the Japanese army, though it was so disorganised and ill- disciplined the Japanese very wisely kept it to menial and support roles. The INA joined in the failed Japanese attack on British India in 1944 and the following year Chandra Bose was killed in an air crash. End of story, you might think.

Wrong. Modern India much prefers Chandra Bose to Gandhi as a national hero. Chandra Bose statues and Chandra Bose Streets appear all over India and Indian children learn how he escaped from British arrest, led the INA to victory, and will return one day to lead India again. The awkward truth is that he wasn’t actually under arrest when he slipped off to Germany, and he led the INA to defeat, but who wants the history to spoil their national myths?

Stand-off in Kashmir


One particularly thorny problem was the beautiful mountain kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir, on the border of India and Pakistan. The people were mostly Muslim and wanted to join Pakistan, but their ruler, Hari Singh, was a Hindu. He tried to sit on the fence, not joining either state, but that just inflamed the situation. Mountbatten persuaded him to agree to join India and Indian troops immediately moved in to occupy the country, but Pakistan protested that Hari Singh had signed under duress and that the Indians were occupying the country illegally. The dispute continues to this day, and on a number of occasions has brought the two countries to the brink of war.

Partition – and massacre

On 15 August 1947, Britain ended two hundred years of rule and handed power over to the two new independent states, India and Pakistan. ‘At the stroke of the midnight hour,’ said Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, ‘when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.’ Almost immediately, however, the killings started again.

Faced with having to uproot themselves and move sometimes hundreds of miles from their homes, communities in Punjab and Bengal which had lived together for centuries suddenly turned on each other. Hindus and Sikhs slaughtered Muslims, Muslims slaughtered Hindus and Sikhs. Columns of refugees attacked each other and in the worst cases armed gangs attacked trains carrying refugees, systematically slaughtering anyone of the ‘wrong’ group. Some 200,000 people were slaughtered that year in Punjab alone.

The final irony

In January 1948 one Hindu group decided to take revenge by killing the man they thought had betrayed India by allowing it to be partitioned. A young man walked up to Gandhi as he was on his way in to prayers and shot him. It was a cruel fate for a man who’d always spoken against violence, and even more so since he was the one nationalist leader who couldn’t accept partition. But then, fanatical young men with guns tend not to think too carefully before pulling the trigger.

Palestine pull-out

Palestine was an even more thorny problem than India (see previous section). The area had been part of the Turkish empire until the British drove the Turks out during the First World War (see Chapter 3). After the war much of the region was taken over by the League of Nations and divided into separate mandates which were entrusted to Britain and France. Palestine went to Britain (see Chapters 3 and 7 for more about the wheeling and dealing over the Middle East). The Palestinians weren’t particularly keen to be ruled by the British, but they were even less keen when boatloads of Jewish refugees started arriving, claiming Palestine was their promised land from the Bible. The British had tried to limit the number of Jewish immigrants and had also tried to keep the two groups apart, but each side turned to violence and was prepared to shoot at any British troops who came between them.

The legacy of the Second World War

As the Nazis began rounding up Europe’s Jews into ghettos, more and more Jewish people applied desperately for permission to settle in Palestine, but the British maintained strict immigration controls. When the war ended, however, big questions began to be asked about Britain’s policy in Palestine:

bulletWhat should be done with the people liberated from concentration camps? Images from camps like Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz shocked the world and created a huge wave of sympathy for Jewish people.

bulletWhere can Jewish people go if they can’t go back home? When Jewish people returned home from the concentration camps, especially in Poland and Russia, they often found their neighbours were still hostile to them. Some survivors were murdered.

The new Labour Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was a tough old trade unionist. He didn’t take kindly to being hassled or bullied. Bevin’s problem was that the louder Jewish people demanded the right to settle in Palestine, the louder the Palestinians complained that they were being swamped by these incomers and that their land was being taken off them. In 1946 Bevin tried to contain the situation by announcing a complete halt to all Jewish immigration into Palestine, and when US President Truman appealed to the British to rescind the decision, the British told him to mind his own business.

Jewish terrorism

Bevin’s tough stance meant that Jewish groups simply turned to terrorism. Three main Jewish groups carried on the armed struggle against the British:

bulletIrgun Zvai Leumi, or ‘Irgun’ for short. Led by Gideon Paglin and Menachem Begin. Irgun claimed responsibility for over 200 acts of terrorism against British and Arab targets.


Menachem Begin later went into politics and in 1977 became prime minister of Israel, where he took a very tough line against Palestinian terrorism. Perhaps you need to be a former terrorist yourself to know how best to fight terrorism.

bulletThe Stern Gang, named after its founder, Avraham Stern. Rivals of Irgun and just as ruthless.

bulletHaganah, a Jewish army-in-waiting, with ranks and military organisation. Irgun and the Stern Gang hated it, and Haganah spent as much time fighting them as it spent fighting the British.

The political voice of the Jewish people was the Jewish Agency, led by David Ben-Gurion. The Council put pressure on the British to lift the ban on immigration while at the same time calling on Irgun and the Stern Gang to stop their attacks. This call was not heeded:

bulletJuly 1946: Irgun blows up the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, home to British military headquarters. This huge attack, which killed 91 people, badly damaged their cause in the eyes of world public opinion.

bulletMarch 1947: Britain imposes martial law. In response, the Stern Gang blows up a British barracks outside Tel Aviv.

bulletJuly 1947: Jewish terrorists kidnap, torture, and hang two British army sergeants. This event merely hardens British public attitudes towards the Jewish groups.

bulletJuly 1947: Pitched battle scenes at Haganah’s ship, Exodus. The ship was carrying 5,000 Jewish immigrants from Europe. The British raided the ship and in the fighting that followed, three immigrants were killed. The rest were taken to Cyprus and interned.

Israel – a new state

The British were fed up with the Palestine mandate and desperate to pass the problem to someone else. In 1947 they handed the mandate back to the United Nations, which had taken over from the old League of Nations, and went home. The UN decided that Palestine would have to be partitioned, with a Palestinian state and a new Jewish state, to be called Israel, to be launched the following year. All happy now? Not a bit of it.

The Arabs were incensed that the Jewish immigrants were not just going to stay, but were going to get a huge area of land for their own state. As far as the Arabs were concerned, that land was Palestinian and that was how it should stay. Moreover, by 1948 the Arabs had their own independent states (see the section ‘Suez – Two Empires Humiliated ‘) and felt more than strong enough to take on some flimsy new state made up of refugees from Europe. So when David Ben-Gurion formally declared the State of Israel with its Star of David flag in May 1948, everyone watched to see how the Arabs would react. Easy: They attacked.

bulletArab forces from Palestine, Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq attack Israel. And on its independence day, too.

bulletArab forces push into the south and east of Palestine and into the Old City area of Jerusalem. But then the Israeli army – which is what Haganah had become – stop them.

bulletThe United Nations gets both sides to agree to a truce and sends Swedish Count Bernadotte to make sure they keep to it. The Stern Gang assassinate Count Bernadotte.

bulletIsrael forces the Arabs back on all fronts. The Israelis take over more land and declare West Jerusalem (the new part but without the historic Old City) their capital city.

Lack of effective planning and coordination, poor logistics and supplies, and competing ambitions of the different Arab nations all contributed to the outcome. The Arabs had to go home and lick their wounds.

Thousands of Arabs packed their bags and cleared out during the events of 1947–8. They took refuge in camps set up hurriedly in neighbouring Arab states, like Jordan and Lebanon. They dreamed of one day returning to their homes in Palestine. These Palestinian refugee camps became major centres of resistance to the Israelis.

Pirates of the Caribbean – go home!

Britain was also busy granting independence to its Caribbean possessions.

bulletJamaica: Serious rioting had broken out against British rule in 1938, but Jamaicans, like the people of Britain’s other Caribbean colonies, had rallied to the ‘Mother Country’s’ side during the war. In 1944 Jamaicans got the vote and in 1953 Britain granted Jamaica self-government.

bulletAntigua: Antiguans got the vote in 1951 and finally won full independence in 1967.

bulletTrinidad and Tobago: Won their independence in 1962.

bulletBarbados: Became independent in 1966.

The Caribbean states set up a short-lived West Indies Federation, but then changed their minds and decided to join the British Commonwealth, which was rapidly replacing the old British empire. Some states, like Bermuda, remained tied to Britain and British law still applied. In particular, the Privy Council in London remained the final court of appeal for legal cases in many of Britain’s former Caribbean colonies. This situation caused tension when Britain abolished the death penalty in 1964 because many Caribbean states resented the way a group of foreign judges sitting in London commuted death sentences passed in Caribbean courts to life imprisonment.

The new Caribbean states were often extremely poor, and despite independence many of their citizens decided to look for work abroad. British firms such as London Transport were advertising for people to work for them, usually doing low-paid jobs. Still, such employment was better than nothing and many West Indians had happy memories of being well received in Britain during the war. The first big group of Caribbean immigrants arrived in 1948 on the SS Empire Windrush. They found that many white Britons were hostile and suspicious of these new immigrants with their different skin colour.


One of the most important legacies of the Europeans’ empires has been the ethnic mix in modern Western societies and the racial and religious tensions they have so often had to deal with. People tended to emigrate to the country which had been their colonial ruler, so Indians, West Indians, Pakistanis, and Hong Kong Chinese went to live in Britain, Algerians and Vietnamese settled in France, Indonesians in the Netherlands, and so on. In the 1960s and 1970s this emigration often produced serious racial tension and violence, especially as extreme racist political groups sprung up in European countries. Only as new generations grew up during the 1980s and 1990s did the different ethnic cultures begin to assimilate more, though by then religious issues between Muslim and Western cultures were becoming more problematic.

Don’t forget Africa

The British did not intend simply to abandon their empire. They had no plans to hand Hong Kong over to China, Gibraltar to Spain, or the Falkland Islands to Argentina, even though all three countries claimed them. The British were also hoping that they would be able to stay in their colonies in Africa at least for another generation. The British were only too aware that they’d done little to develop their African colonies’ education systems or economies, so they wanted to invest more money in Africa before they started granting the Africans independence. Unfortunately, these investment schemes didn’t work: One scheme to plant thousands of tons of groundnuts (that’s peanuts to you and me) in East Africa proved a costly failure: No one had bothered to check whether or not groundnuts were really suited to East African conditions (they’re not, in case you think you spy a money-winner).

Meanwhile, the British had counted without a big growth in African nationalism. Many Africans had studied in England and had been attracted to the idea of pan-Africanism, the idea that all Africans should be brothers and sisters and should set up a sort of united African state or federation of states. One of the most important of these leaders was Kwame Nkrumah, who came from the area of West Africa the British called the Gold Coast. Nkrumah formed the Convention People’s Party which campaigned for the British to clear out, and in 1957 they finally decided to go. The new state was to be called Ghana, and it was the first time Europeans had granted full independence to a ‘black’ (that is, south of the Sahara) African state.


One of the guests at Ghana’s independence celebrations was another black man making a name for himself as a fighter for freedom. Dr Martin Luther King was travelling the world after winning his famous fight against racial segregation on America’s buses. He took tremendous encouragement from the sight of black people throwing off white power and setting up their own government. (See Chapter 15 for more about Martin Luther King.)

Elsewhere in British Africa things were turning very nasty. A vicious war broke out in Kenya where a nationalist group called the Mau Mau was fighting both against the British and against its African tribal rivals. The violence lasted until 1960, by which time the British had virtually decided the time had come to get out of Africa entirely. Chapter 12 takes a closer look at events in Africa.


The people of Malaya had fought alongside the British against the Japanese and they expected Britain to give them independence in return. Matters were complicated by the fact that Chinese settlers had set up a communist movement to force the British out and take over the country. The British didn’t want Malaya to become communist (and they valued Malaya’s natural resources, too) and the Malays didn’t want the Chinese running the place, so together they fought a long campaign against the Chinese guerrillas. The British made use of helicopters and special jungle warfare training, so that by 1957 the country was secure enough to gain its independence. In 1963 it was expanded further to form the modern state of Malaysia.


Some people contrasted the British success in Malaya with the failure of the Americans in Vietnam. But although they were both fighting communists in the jungle, the similarities between the two wars stopped there. The Brits had recent experience in jungle warfare during the Second World War and – crucially – had the local population on their side; this was not the case in Vietnam. See Chapters 14 and 15 for more about the impact of Vietnam.

Taking French Leave

Like the British empire, the other European empires were also drawing to a close, and some of them didn’t like it one bit. The French in particular found adjusting to the new situation so soon after their traumatic experiences during the Second World War very difficult.

What exactly is the Commonwealth?

The Europeans were keen to retain links with their former colonies and the Commonwealth (originally termed the ‘British Commonwealth’, but the British bit was dropped in case it sounded too imperialistic) was Britain’s attempt. To join you usually had to have been a British colony, though in recent years some former French and Belgian colonies have applied to join. For many leaders of Commonwealth countries a spell in a British jail seemed to be a necessary qualification too. At first the British seem to have hoped that the Commonwealth would be a sort of third superpower balancing the Americans and the Russians, but that situation was never going to happen: The Commonwealth wasn’t anything like politically or economically powerful enough and its members had too many differences between them. The Commonwealth did, however, act as a trading area, though Britain had to drop out of that when it joined the European Common Market in 1973. The Commonwealth set itself up to act as a guardian of human rights: It expelled South Africa and imposed sanctions on it in protest against the apartheid system. Unfortunately, many other Commonwealth countries were just as oppressive as South Africa. On the other hand, as a friendly group of nations who all have historic links with Britain, and therefore with each other, the Commonwealth somehow still seems to work.

Zut alors! Does anyone know which side we’re on?

Events in Europe during the Second World War effectively broke Europe’s empires in the east. When the Germans conquered Holland, for example, the Dutch East Indies could expect no help from home when the Japanese attacked them, as they did in 1941. The situation was more complicated for the French colonies because they had a government at home but it was collaborating with the Germans and fighting the Allies (see Chapter 9 for more about the situation in wartime France). Did this position mean that French colonies were at war with the Allies too? In 1940 the British decided to take no chances and destroyed the French fleet at Oran in Algeria to stop it joining the Germans. This provoked massive anti-English outrage in France, which delighted the Germans and more than made up for not getting the ships.

One man who tried to persuade the French colonies to change sides and fight the Germans (or to stay on the same side, depending on which way you looked at it) was General Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle had held a junior position in the French cabinet just before France fell. When he escaped to London in 1940, he used that position as the basis for saying that he and his Free French movement were the true government of France, but no one listened to him, not even the Allies. So he decided to find some French territory that would accept his authority.

De Gaulle hit on French West Africa, modern-day Senegal, where the local people had been demonstrating in support of him and against the Vichy regime in France. In September 1940 de Gaulle arrived off Dakar, the capital, with a combined British and Free French force. But instead of welcoming him, the French troops in Dakar opened fire and de Gaulle was forced to retreat. Two years later, the Americans landed in French North Africa. They too hoped the French would help them, but again the French opened fire, though this time they couldn’t turn the invaders back. Meanwhile, over in French Indo-China, the Japanese were demanding that the French allow them to take over, and the French were giving in without firing a shot.

De Gaulle had more luck in Syria. The pro-Vichy colonial government tried to hold out, but in 1941 the British and Free French invaded and took the colony over. De Gaulle now had his political base on French territory.


All these twists and turns made moving back into their colonies at the end of the war very difficult for the French. The people of Indo-China, for example, felt the French had betrayed them by handing them over to the Japanese. France had managed to fight on the losing side not once but twice – against the Germans in 1940 and against the Allies later; the only people who emerged with any credit from the war were the French resistance fighters. This situation was all very encouraging for anyone thinking of resisting French colonial rule after the war.

At first, the French seemed to be getting into the spirit of setting their colonies free. Back in 1926 they had formed Lebanon out of Syrian land and in 1944 they made it independent. Two years later they did the same for Syria. But the French had no intention of pulling out of their two most prestigious possessions – Indo-China and Algeria.

Indo-China: The rocky road to Dien Bien Phu

The French colony of Indo-China was made up of Annam and Tonkin in the north and Cochin-China, based around Saigon, in the south (these are all within modern-day Vietnam), as well as the ancient kingdoms of Cambodia and Laos. The French settlers had lived a very comfortable life while most of the population worked in the fields, but Indo-China had a nationalist movement that staged a major uprising against the French in 1930 and kept up a campaign of bombings and raids. Two of its members were a history teacher called Vo Nguyen Giap and a former primary schoolteacher (and one-time washer-upper in a London hotel!) called Nguyen Tat Than, better known by his codename ‘He Who Enlightens’ – Ho Chi Minh.

Ho and Giap both became members of the Communist Party. Like many people in Indo-China, they felt angry when the French meekly handed the whole area over to the Japanese in 1941 (see the preceding section to find out why the French did this) and they seized the chance to start up an anti-Japanese resistance movement. They called this movement the ‘League for Vietnamese Independence’, or Viet Minh for short.

A land divided

The Viet Minh kept up a strong resistance against the Japanese and in 1945 it declared a Vietnamese Republic under Ho Chi Minh. The victorious Allies had other ideas. The Potsdam Conference divided Vietnam in two: The Chinese were to occupy the north, which suited Ho since the Chinese recognised his republic, and the British were to occupy the south, which didn’t suit him at all as the British didn’t. The British soon handed over to the French who were determined to hold on to the south, come what may. They even offered to let Ho have the north, Cambodia and Laos, but he said he wanted all of Vietnam, north and south. So in 1946 the French launched a bombing raid on the north and sparked the war.

What did the Americans think?

The Americans weren’t involved in the fighting but they were following events in Indo-China very carefully. Although they didn’t like empires, they wanted the French to win, because they thought if they didn’t the whole of Indo-China would fall to the communists. When China became communist in 1949, the Americans were even more anxious for a French victory.


The Korean War and the war in Indo-China (they were happening at the same time) were the first wars that saw extensive use of an exciting piece of new technology – the helicopter. Helicopters could drop troops just where they were needed and didn’t need big airstrips. Plus, you didn’t need to risk life and limb in a parachute jump. Helicopters could also ferry the wounded away from the battle zone straight to medical bases far behind the front. Helicopters certainly changed the way wars could be fought but, as the French and Americans both found, they couldn’t win wars on their own. (You can find out more about helicopters in Chapter 22.)

The final battle – for the moment at any rate

The French were trying to conquer North Vietnam and sent some of their ablest generals to do it, but they proved no match for the Viet Minh. General Giap was able to use his experience against the Japanese to keep up the pressure on the French. By 1954 he had the French surrounded in a hill-top fortress at Dien Bien Phu. The French held out desperately, but in the end they had to surrender. The French government decided to sue for peace.

The two sides worked out a peace deal in Geneva but no one was entirely happy with it. The French agreed to pull out and go home and the Viet Minh were left in charge of North Vietnam. But the country was still to be divided, this time between two independent states, North Vietnam (capital: Hanoi) and South Vietnam (capital: Saigon). Ho Chi Minh still claimed the whole of Vietnam, however, and he started looking for opportunities to destabilise the government in Saigon. South Vietnam would need some strong friends and it found them in America. (See Chapters 14 and 15 for more about what happened next in Vietnam.)

Algérie Française?

The French had conquered Algeria, just across the Mediterranean from France’s southern coast, back in the nineteenth century and it had become almost as important to them as India was to the British. Thousands of French people settled there, where they were known as ‘pieds noirs’ (black feet) from the black boots the original soldiers wore. So attached did the French feel that in 1882 they incorporated Algeria as part of France (though the Arab population didn’t enjoy the same rights as ordinary French people) rather than keep it as a colony. To many French people, losing Algeria resembled losing a limb or a vital organ. Algerians, on the whole, did not share this view.

Blood for blood

Algeria’s war for independence began with a terrible outburst of violence in the town of Sétif on VE (Victory in Europe) Day, 9 May 1945. What was meant to be a victory parade for the end of the war in Europe turned into a march by Algerian nationalists telling the French to go home. Someone fired a shot and the marchers pulled out guns and knives, killing every European they could find. The killings went on for five days, in the towns and outlying farms. In total, 103 Europeans were killed and many of their bodies were mutilated. That outcome was bad enough, but it was nothing compared with the reprisals the French took.

French armed forces toured the area, shooting people as they went; the French air force dive bombed Arab villages; French settlers lynched Arabs in prison and any others they could find. Inevitably, people argue over the exact figures, but some 6,000 people at least were killed.


For many Algerians, especially Algerian army units coming home after the war, the massacres of 1945 killed their faith in the French and turned them into fierce nationalists.

The Algerian nationalist movement was the FLN (Front pour la Libération Nationale), led by Ahmed Ben Bella. After the 1945 killings the FLN was wary of challenging the French, but in 1955 it came back on the scene:

bullet1955: FLN systematically massacre French settlers at Philippeville. In reprisal, French troops massacre Arabs. Algeria is engulfed in violence.

bullet1956: FLN launches terrorist attacks in cafes and milk bars across Algiers. Crack French paratroopers arrive under General Massu. They use torture.

bullet1957: FLN calls general strike in Algiers, but paratroops break it up. Paratroops defeat FLN and take control of Algiers.

bullet1958: Controversy over Algeria brings down the French government.

Third world – third way?

By the mid-1950s more and more new countries were emerging after getting rid of their colonial rulers. One of them, President Sukarno of Indonesia, thought these countries might usefully act together. Sukarno had played a leading role in Indonesian nationalist movements against the Dutch before the war. In 1941 the Japanese invaded Indonesia, but instead of simply saying ‘Right, lads, new enemy!’ as so many other nationalist leaders had done, Sukarno played a rather more clever game, helping the nationalists but also working closely with the Japanese. He managed to manoeuvre himself into a position where he could declare Indonesia independent in 1945, at the end of the war. The Dutch fought hard to defeat him, but in 1949 they had to withdraw. For this victory over the European colonialists Sukarno became an Asian hero.

In 1955 President Sukarno had the idea of getting all the new states just emerging from colonial rule to meet together. He invited them all to a big conference at Bandung in Indonesia where they could work out common ground and form a powerful new third force in world politics. The idea was that these countries, which people were beginning to talk of as the third world, should form a huge non-aligned movement, not linked to either side in the Cold War, and would tell these superpowers and their lackeys where they could get off. (Ideas about what the first two worlds were differed according to whom you spoke to. They were either the two sides in the Cold War or else ‘Old World’ Europe and ‘New World’ America.)

Twenty-nine countries came to Bandung, mostly from Africa and Asia (delegates also came from Cyprus and from the American Civil Rights movement). They had fun comparing their experiences in different colonial prison regimes over the canapés, but when they got down to business, problems soon emerged. For one thing, claiming the movement was non-aligned when communist China was represented was a bit difficult, and claiming it was unified when its two biggest members, China and India, were rapidly falling out with each other (Chapter 14 will explain why) was even harder.

The conference members agreed that colonialism should go and called on the Europeans to clear out of their remaining colonies, but once you’d said that you’d said everything. These countries simply didn’t have enough in common with each other, except that they’d all been ruled by white Europeans. Each country had its own ideas about what it wanted to do now they’d gone. Some of these countries did try to revive the Bandung idea at later conferences, but none of these had the impact of the original one, and even that didn’t have much impact in the long term.

General de Gaulle’s hour of triumph

Both sides in Algeria wanted General de Gaulle to take over in France. Each side thought he supported them. Under the terms of France’s new constitution, de Gaulle became president in 1958 with much greater powers than his predecessors. He soon crossed over to Algeria to find out exactly what was happening. The Muslims welcomed him, but so did the settlers, especially when he addressed a huge crowd of them with the words ‘Je vous ai compris!’ (I have understood you!). De Gaulle had understood all right: He’d understood that it was impossible for France to hold onto Algeria and as soon as he got back to Paris he opened negotiations with the FLN.

The settlers’ revenge: The OAS

The settlers were furious with de Gaulle and thought he’d betrayed them. They were right: He had. Four army commanders in Algiers decided to stage a coup, seize control in Algeria, and then cross over to France to overturn de Gaulle, but the president appeared on television to appeal to the French to remain calm and he poured scorn on the rebel generals. The coup collapsed and the generals were arrested. All except one: General Raoul Salan.


Two pieces of technology came into their own in the Algerian war. One was television, which de Gaulle used very effectively to speak to ordinary French and Algerians and establish his own authority. The other was the transistor radio. During the confused days of the generals’ coup, people tuned into their radios on the street, standing round listening to find out the latest news. For the first time people could keep up with major events as they happened.

Salan hit back at de Gaulle by setting up a terrorist organisation, the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS) to assassinate Arabs, French liberals, and de Gaulle. (This is the group featured in the film The Day of the Jackal.) They missed de Gaulle, but they killed plenty of others: Over 500 in February 1962 alone. Even the pieds noirs turned against the OAS, however, when one of its bombs caught a little girl of four by mistake and blinded her. In 1962 General Salan was arrested and the OAS folded.

In 1962 France finally recognised Algeria as an independent state under the FLN leader, Ben Bella. Three years later Ben Bella was overthrown in a coup.

Suez – Two Empires Humiliated

The British and French liked to think they were still great powers in the world and that, even when they’d hauled down their flags and gone home, somehow they still controlled what happened in their former colonies. The Suez affair finally showed them that those days were over.

Egypt – an independent-ish country

The British and French were interested in Egypt mainly because of the Suez Canal. It was one of the world’s most important waterways, and it belonged to the private Suez Canal Company, which had its headquarters in Paris and whose principal shareholders were the British and French governments. The British, who had conquered Egypt back in the 1880s, set Egypt up as an independent kingdom in 1922, but they kept troops in the canal zone and they maintained their influence in Cairo. Egypt was an important British base in the Second World War and the scene of the Battle of El Alamein, Britain’s favourite wartime victory over the Germans.

In 1936 King Farouk came to the throne. He was a fat, corrupt playboy, who lived for pleasure and didn’t care who knew it. In 1952 officers of the Egyptian army staged a military coup and got rid of him. Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser then took over and became head of state in 1954.

Nasser realised that Egypt was a poor country with few natural resources beyond the all-important River Nile. He drew up plans to build a massive hydro-electric dam on the Nile at Aswan, and planned to borrow the money from the Americans. But when Nasser negotiated a deal with the communist government of Czechoslovakia (and everyone knew this was really a front for the Soviet Union), the Americans pulled out (the Czech deal made the Americans wonder whether Nasser was quite as pro-Western as he claimed). So Nasser looked round for another source of revenue. His eyes fell on the Suez Canal.

Take your hands off my canal!

The Suez Canal made money from the tolls ships paid to go through it; controlling such an important waterway also made the British and French feel they were still world powers. Nasser had already approached the British in 1953 about the troops they had stationed in the canal zone and suggested that perhaps they might go home. ‘My men will look after the canal for you, honest,’ he reassured the British. They pulled their troops out and shortly afterwards Nasser seized the canal.

Nasser’s action caused a storm of controversy in Britain and France. The British prime minister, Anthony Eden, was determined not to take losing the canal lying down. He compared Nasser’s regime to ‘fascist governments’ and said the situation was just like the 1930s all over again and if he wasn’t stopped a third world war would break out and the world would end and then they’d be sorry. Even the British queen thought Eden should go and lie down, but many British people were strongly behind him. And then the French received a very interesting call. From Israel.

I have a cunning plan . . .

The Israelis had been looking for a chance to hit at Egypt, their number one enemy ever since the 1948 war (see the earlier section ‘Israel – a new state’). In secret, they proposed a plan to the British and French:

bulletIsrael attacks the Egyptians. Don’t worry about the pretext – we’ll think of something.

bulletBritain and France call for a ceasefire. Don’t worry – the Egyptians won’t agree to one.

bulletBritain and France send troops in to ‘protect’ the Suez Canal. Don’t worry – we’ll make sure we don’t harm it.

bulletBritain and France keep their troops there to protect the Suez Canal. Don’t worry – no one will suspect a thing.

Enactment of the plan was agreed for October 1956. At first the plan seemed to work. Fighting started between the Israelis and Egyptians and the British and French threw up their hands in horror at this outbreak of fisticuffs before airlifting in thousands of their own troops to take control of the canal. The fighting was going their way on the ground too. But then the politicians weighed in.

The Russians denounced the Anglo–French invasion, which was only to be expected. What the British and French hadn’t expected was that the Americans would turn against them. President Eisenhower, no great admirer of European imperialism at the best of times, was outraged that they should have started such a major action without consulting the US; he thought they were entirely in the wrong anyway. Eisenhower turned the screws on the Europeans: He put pressure on the pound sterling, causing it to lose value like water running through a sieve, and said he’d only stop if they pulled their troops out. So the British and French pulled their troops out.


The Suez affair was a disaster for the Europeans. It managed to make them look simultaneously aggressive and weak, and when news of the secret deal with the Israelis eventually came out, it made them look untrustworthy and devious too. The whole affair revealed how low the European powers had fallen and how completely they now depended on the Americans.

Eden, who had genuinely been ill during the crisis, resigned. Nasser became an Arab hero and immediately turned to the Soviet Union for financial help for the Aswan Dam. Oh, and he kept hold of the canal, too.

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