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Empire Headed for Extinction

Imperialism in Decline | Indonesia | Independence for India and Pakistan | Vietnam | The Algerian War | Independence south of the Sahara

Imperialism in Decline

From early civilization the world had known conquest and empire, but in a more global age and following two big world wars, empire as rule by one nation over other peoples was headed for extinction. The world changed with the defeat of Mussolini, Hitler and Japanese imperialism. Mussolini's idea of a renewed Roman empire and imperial grandeur was dead, as was respectability for his brand of fascism. Empire was a kind of authoritarianism that was also in decline and soon to be dead as acceptable politics, and dying with it was the racist justification for empire or for Hitler's kind of expansions.

Early during World War II, a myth about the invulnerability of colonial powers and visions of white supremacy had been seriously challenged in Asia. And during the war, the talk from the US about fighting a war for freedom and a people's right to self-determination were encouraging words for people who wanted freedom from colonial rule.

During the war, Britain promised eventual self-government for its colonies. Rebellion had erupted in India in 1942, and enhanced attempts at control by the British had engendered more hostility to British rule. Britain had been blamed for the Bengal famine of 1943, which claimed millions of lives, and by 1945 the question was when would Britain would give India its independence. In April 1945 the Labour government of Prime Minister Atlee took power, and in July he urged an end to delays. He wanted elections in India at once so that his government could convene with people who represented the wills of a broad base of the people of India. He wanted the Indians to establish a political assembly that would create for the people of India a constitution of their own making.

Britain had been chased out of its other colonies in Asia by the Japanese. In 1943, Burma declared independence under Japanese sponsorship, and the new government declared war against the Allies. At the close of the war, Britain wanted law and order and the development of institutions for self-government. There were groups with arms left over from the war hostile to the British, and it would be 1948 when Britain recognized Burma's independence. That would also be the year that Britain gave independence to Ceylon, to be known as Sri Lanka. On the Malay peninsula there was a communist insurgency and ethnic divisions that complicated matters, and independence would not come there, including Singapore, until the late 1950s.

Some would speak of Britain's need for raw materials from abroad after the war to rebuild its war-shattered economy. Nevertheless, freedom from British colonialism was coming in the late 1950s and 1960s for its African colonies, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya and Rhodesia.

Britain was also ruling in Palestine. It considered itself responsible for order there amid conflicting Arab and Jewish ambitions. But it wanted out and would leave that area in 1948.

French Colonialism

Another major colonial power was France. During the war the British let a French force enter the Syria-Lebanon region, and people there did not like it. A clash between the Syrians and the French erupted in Damascus in 1945, with French troops attacking the Syrian parliament building and French aircraft dropping bombs. But it was in vain. The Syrians defied the French and created their own army. In October 1945 Syria and Lebanon were accepted as members of the UN, and in April 1946 France and Britain agreed with the UN Security Council and withdrew their troops from what were now recognized as independent states.

What would prove to be a bigger problem for the French was Vietnam. There the communist organization called the Viet Minh had been organizing the country under the noses of a Japanese occupation. And as Japan was being defeated by the Allies, the Viet Minh established committees for independence from foreign rule. Under Viet Minh leadership a provisional government was established. It abolished forced labor (the corvée), and it began training local militia and giving to peasants lands that had been owned by the French. In mid-August, Japan surrendered to the US, and on August 25, the Viet Minh took control of Saigon. Vietnam's emperor, Bao Dai, who had been friendly with the Japanese, abdicated to the provisional government of the Viet Minh. On August 28 the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was announced. On September 2, the president of the provisional government, Ho Chi Minh, read the Declaration of Vietnamese Independence to a crowd of 500,000 gathered in Hanoi. And Ho Chi Minh appealed for recognition by the Allied powers.

The French now in power were thinking of their empire as part of the grandeur of France. Laos and Cambodia they saw as a part of their empire. The whole of Indochina they considered theirs. In the Pacific, east of Australia, were New Caledonia and Vanuatu. The French also ruled what was called French Polynesia, which was not attacked by the Japanese during the war and independence was not much of an issue. The French in 1946 would move toward greater integration by offering the people in French Polynesia the right to vote and French citizenship. French Citizenship would be offered the people of New Caledonia in 1953.

Madagascar was another French colony, and the French were popular there. In March 1947 an uprising against French rule occurred on the eastern side of the island. Support for the uprising spread quickly, the French losing control over a third of the island, with some Malagasians expecting help from the United States. It took more than a year for the French to regain control over the island, while as many as 11,000 Malagasians died in the fighting. The French executed 20 of the rebel military leaders, and 5,000 to 6,000 others are reported to have been tried and sentenced to penalties ranging from brief imprisonment to death.

The French ruled also in North Africa. From Tunisia in 1945 came calls for complete independence. In Algeria a small group of Muslim intellectuals had issued a manifesto back in 1943, calling for an end to Muslim assimilation with France and for an independent Algeria. On May 8, 1945, during the French celebration of Victory Day, in the Algerian city of Sétif, French police tried to stop a procession of Algerians carrying independence flags. The police fired on the demonstrators. A riot followed in which at least 22 died and 48 were wounded. The police action inspired the spread of disturbances to other towns across Algeria for several days, and according to official figures 1500 died – 15,000 according to Muslim figures. France's Communist newspaper, L'Humanité, joined in denouncing the Muslim riots. The Communists were still fixated on the struggle against fascism just ended and on the Communist Party's partnership with de Gaulle's provisional government. It denounced the Muslim rioters as would-be sympathizers of Hitler and the Nazis.

A brutal war for independence was in the making for Algeria, and French rule was challenged also in Morocco, where in 1944 a political party, the Istiqlal, drafted an independence manifesto. The French responded by arresting its leaders, accusing them of collaborating with the Germans. French troops fired on crowds demonstrating in the city of Fés. France's Moroccan subjects were outraged. France's colonial governor, supported by French economic interests and backed by most of Morocco's European colons, adamantly refused to consider reforms. Independence from French rule would not come until 1956. And meanwhile, the French were clinging to their colonies in West Africa and Equatorial Africa.

The United States

The United States was less of an imperial power than Britain or France. It was the first major power to free itself of colonial rule – back in the 1780s. Its impulse to imperialism had developed in the late 1800s and had ruled in the Philippines since early in the 1900s. But plans to give Filipinos independence had been in place since the Tydings-McDuffie Act during the Franklin Roosevelt administration back in April 1934, which gave the Filipinos self-government. The Japanese had driven the US out of the Philippines, and General MacArthur proclaimed the Philippines liberated from the Japanese in July 1945. A new president of the Philippines, Manuel Roxas, was elected in April 1946, and the Philippines became an independent republic on 4 July 1946, with Roxas its first president. A guerrilla movement in central Luzon had formed to fight the Japanese. Ideologically it was communist, and the movement stayed together to create what they hoped to be a socialist Philippines. In 1946 they started what became known as the Hukbalahps rebellion, an irritant for the new government.

Franklin Roosevelt is known for his hostility to colonialism and his desire that the UN put an end to imperialism, including annoying Churchill on the matter in their discussions toward the end of the war. The US had fought its way across the Pacific, and after the war it intended to stay in places. Under the Truman administration Guam and American Samoa remained US territories, without substantial complaint. The people of Guam had been brutalized by the Japanese, including subjection to forced labor, family separation, incarceration, execution, concentration camps and forced prostitution. The return of the US was seen as liberation.

Saipan was one of Japan's home islands and heavily populated by Japanese. Civilians numbering about 1,000 had committed suicide rather than accept conquest. Around 20,000 Japanese civilians perished during the battle that brought US forces to the island. The US lost 3,426 killed and 10,364 wounded taking the island. After the war, Saipan became part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, administered by the United States. It would become a place for the garment industry and the exploitation of cheap imported labor.

The US kept its control over the Marshall Islands and Midway Island while Australia and New Zealand took responsibility for other islands. There was no question of independence for the Hawaiian Islands. Integration with the United States would continue, with statehood for the Hawaiian Islands coming in 1959, welcomed by Hawaii's multi-ethnic citizens and opposed by some legislators from southern states who had race on their mind.

The urge to occupy and disarm the Japanese created one of the major problems that came after the war. The US had agreed with Stalin to divide and occupy Korea. The Korean resistance to Japanese rule was organized well enough to disarm the Japanese who were slow in withdrawing to Japan. But the US was not going to leave the Koreas free to work out their own political problems, to be increased with the coming of a Soviet occupation in the northern half of the Korean peninsula.

Other US territories included Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. In Puerto Rico there was a nationalist movement. There was hostility to US rule. Puerto Rico had been declared US Territory by the Jones Act in 1917, and US citizenship had been given to the Puerto Rican people. The growing of coffee beans had been a major part of its economy, and it had been a cheap source of sugar for the US until 1940, the year that Puerto Rico began as an export-processing zone for the assembly of finished manufactured products for U.S. firms. After the war a wave of Puerto Ricans migrating to the US in search of work began, and integration with the US diminished the nationalist movement, which had gained nothing in its turn to violence that included an attempt to assassinate President Truman in 1950. Conditions had not been as favorable of an independence movement in Puerto Rico as they had been for the people of Indonesia at the close of World War II.

The Dutch East Indies

The Dutch had been forced out of Indonesia by the Japanese, and after the war they wanted to return. An independent Indonesia had been declared on 17 August 1945, two days after Japan's surrender, and established government on the following day, Sukarno became the newly independent country's president, and the country was divided into eight provinces: Sumatra, Borneo, West Java, Central Java, East Java, Sulawesi, Maluku, and Sunda Kecil. On August 23 a Dutch force landed in what it saw as their Dutch East Indies, and bloody warfare would follow.


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