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The Cold War and Decolonization

The Cold War and Decolonization

In 1918, American President Woodrow Wilson announced his Fourteen Points: a peace proposal to end World War I. One of the most famous points was the following statement:

National aspirations must be respected; peoples may now be dominated and governed only by their own consent. 'Self-determination' is not a mere phrase. It is an imperative principle of actions which statesmen will henceforth ignore at their peril."1

Self-determination was meant to address colonial claims. Wilson's critics later argued that his suggestions did not go far enough. Indeed, it was not until after the Second World War that European colonies truly began to gain political independence.

The Cold War and Decolonization, Wells Missionary Map Co. Africa. [?, 1908] Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/87692282/, StudySmarter.Wells Missionary Map Co. Africa. [?, 1908] Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/87692282/.

Setting the Stage for the Cold War and Decolonization

During the 20th Century, many former European colonies gained independence.

European Colonialism: Overview

Colonial conquest existed throughout history when large empires or stronger neighbors conquered smaller and weaker countries. Colonialism was not limited to Europe. However, starting from the 15th Century, it was mainly European powers that set across the world during the Age of Discovery and Conquest. The leading colonial powers with overseas colonies were:

  • Portugal;
  • Spain;
  • Britain;
  • France;
  • Netherlands;

And others. Meanwhile, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) controlled parts of southern Europe, such as the Balkans, the Caucasus, and the Middle East.

On the eve of the First World War, Britain was the largest empire of its time regarding territorial possessions and population size: roughly a quarter of the Earth's land surface and population, respectively. At one point or another, the British Empire had colonial possessions in Africa, Australia, North and South America, Asia, and the Middle East. The British did not formally incorporate some parts of the empire. For example, in the Middle East, Palestine was under British mandate until 1948.

Even the United States briefly possessed formal colonies, such as the Philippines, acquired from Spain after the Spanish-American War (1898).

Late 19th-early 20th Century

Some of the independent states of the 21st Century were part of larger imperial blocs in the 19th Century. As the empires weakened through wars and overextension, these countries gained independence.

In the 19th Century, Russia and the Ottoman Empire, and other great powers, engaged in several conflicts, including:

  • Russo-Turkish War (1828–29)
  • Crimean War (1853-1856)
  • Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878)

Gradually, the Ottoman Empire grew weaker. At the same time, Russia took on the role of a defender of its fellow Orthodox Christians in the Balkans and Caucasus. As a result of some of these conflicts, the following states gained independence from the Ottomans:

  • Greece (1821-1829)
  • Bulgaria (1878 autonomy; 1908 independence)
  • Romania (1878)
  • Montenegro (1878)
  • Serbia (1878)

World War I

World War I was the first major global conflict fought by over 30 countries on multiple fronts, including Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Some historians describe World War I as a war between all major European empires. One of the results of this event was the dissolution of three key empires: the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Russian Empires. New states formed in Europe in the aftermath, including:

  • Austria
  • Czechoslovakia
  • Estonia
  • Finland
  • Hungary
  • Poland

And others.

Decolonization: Definition

Decolonization is a process through which a former colony gains independence from a colonial empire or another type of powerful state.

Interwar Period

The first significant wave of decolonization occurred during the interwar period between the two world wars of the 20th Century.

Self-Determination

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson created his Fourteen Points to foster a framework for international peace. His concept of self-determination was to allow people around the world to choose their paths.

The Cold War and Decolonization, The mandate for Palestine, 1922-1923. Source: the British government, Wikipedia Commons (public domain), StudySmarter.

The mandate for Palestine, 1922-1923. Source: the British government, Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

League of Nations: Mandate System

The League of Nations, formed after World War I, became that very international peace organization.

The mandate system was one way in which the League of Nations pursued self-determination to a limited extent.

  • The goal of the mandate system was to provide partial autonomy to the former colonies. At the same time, the system did not grant independence to the states in question. For example, the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire left Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Palestine. The League of Nations treated their people paternalistically and did not believe they could govern themselves. For this reason, Britain received mandates over Iraq (until 1932) and Palestine (until 1948). France had ordered over Lebanon (until 1943) and Syria (until 1946). Some historians have criticized the Wilsonian concept of self-determination for not going far enough and for the League of Nations for treating non-Europeans in a racist way.

Ultimately, the League failed to prevent aggressive actions by several countries, including Italy, Japan, and Germany, in the 1930s. Consequently, it was dissolved and replaced with the United Nations in 1945.

The Cold War

The Cold War was a prolonged conflict between two powerful states, the United States, a self-described liberal democracy, and the Soviet Union, a socialist (Communist) country. The conflict began after the Second World War and ended in 1991. During the Cold War, the rivalry between these two countries split the world into two blocs of alliances.

At this time, the United States subscribed to the foreign policy of containment. This policy meant that the Americans challenged Communism and socialism around the globe. As the former colonies gained independence, the U.S. feared that they would join their rival's camp.

Causes of Decolonization

The causes of postwar decolonization were complex:

  • The French and British empires were weakened by the Second World War, not unlike the imperial dissolution after World War I.
  • The Japanese Empire dissolved due to losing World War II.
  • The United Nations pushed for decolonization.
  • The Soviet Union also pressured the Europeans to decolonize.
  • Nationalist movements sought to overthrow colonial rulers.

The Cold War and Decolonization 1945 - 1975

The first half of the Cold War was a crucial period for decolonization because several former colonies gained formal independence. However, many problems remained, including:

  • Economic inequalities between the Global North (such as western Europe and North America) and the Global South (the former colonies);
  • Wars linked to decolonization, such as the Vietnam War.
  • Ethnic and religious strife was caused by the establishment of borders that were not mindful of local specifics.

The Global South describes parts of Asia, and Africa, as well as Central and South America, to highlight the socio-economic inequalities, in part, derived from their colonial past. This term replaced the "Third World."

The Cold War and Decolonization, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India after that country gained independence, 1947. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain), StudySmarter.

Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India after that country, gained independence in 1947. Source: Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

The Cold War and Decolonization: Timeline

There are many examples of decolonized states after World War Two, including:

DateIndependent stateFormer colonial ruler
1945Vietnam (Southeast Asia)
  • France
1943Lebanon (Middle East)
1946Syria (Middle East)
1946The Philippines (Southeast Asia)
  • Spain
  • United States
1947India (South Asia)
  • Britain
1947Pakistan (South Asia)
  • Britain
1948Palestine and Israel (Middle East)
  • Ottoman Empire
  • Britain (British mandate)
1945-1949Indonesia (Southeast Asia)
  • Netherlands
1950The Democratic Republic of the Congo (Africa)
  • Belgium
1953Cambodia (Southeast Asia)
  • France
1953Laos (Southeast Asia)
  • France
1960Republic of Mali (Africa)
  • France
1960Burkina Faso (Africa)
  • France
1962Jamaica (Caribbean)
  • Britain
1966Cooperative Republic of Guyana (South America)
  • Britain
1975Angola (Africa)
  • Portugal
1981Belize (Central America)
  • Britain
1997Hong Kong (returned to China)
  • Britain

The Cold War and Decolonization: Examples

At times, decolonization was a violent process. The former empires did not want to let go of their colonies entirely. Also, the U.S. feared the spread of left-wing politics in the newly independent states rather than allowing them to choose their path. Finally, decolonization, at times, accompanied international power struggles. These issues led to:

  • Wars;
  • Societal instability and economic problems;
  • Political assassinations.

Such was the case with the Angolan Civil War (1975-2002). This African country was decolonized from Portugal, and the war involved the interests of the United States, Cuba, the Soviet Union, and South Africa.

Vietnam War

The Vietnam War (1955-1975) was a complex conflict with many participants that arose from Vietnam's (Indochina) independence from France. The U.S. gradually became more involved in this war: from sending military advisors to dropping more bombs on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia than all bombs used in the history of warfare at that time. The Americans wanted to prevent Vietnam from pursuing socialist politics for fear of that country falling into the Soviet camp. The two sides were:

  • South Vietnam (supported by the United States, South Korea, Australia, and others);
  • North Vietnam (supported by Viet Cong revolutionaries, North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union).

The Cold War and Decolonization, Viet Cong guerillas, 1966. Source: U.S. Army, Wikipedia Commons (public domain), StudySmarter.

Viet Cong guerillas, 1966. Source: U.S. Army, Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

Despite American military superiority, unable to win, the U.S. withdrew from the conflict through the Paris Peace Accords in 1973. Three years later, the two states united as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

Political Assassinations

LeaderCountryDetails
Patrice LumumbaThe Democratic Republic of the CongoPatrice Lumumba (1925-1961) was a key independence leader in Congo, Belgium's African colony. He became the first Prime Minister after Congo was decolonized and served as a source of hope for all of Africa.Lumumba pursued independent, left-wing politics and sought help from the Soviet Union. For this reason, in 1961, he was tortured and assassinated with the involvement of Belgium and the CIA. In 2022, the Belgian government returned his tooth to the Congolese people because that was all that remained after Lumumba's body was thrown into acid.
Thomas SankaraBurkina FasoThomas Sankara (1949-1987) was a revolutionary and a President of Burkina Faso in the 1980s. Many called him Africa's Che Guevara, a critical leader of the Latin American revolutionary. Sankara was a promising African statesman whose focus was self-sufficiency.In 1987, Sankara was assassinated by his political opponents. One of their grievances was Sankara's policies independent from France, Burkina Faso's former colonial ruler.

The Cold War and Decolonization, Patrice Lumumba, 1960. Source: Nationaal Archief, Wikipedia Commons (public domain), StudySmarter.

Patrice Lumumba, 1960. Source: Nationaal Archief, Wikipedia Commons (public domain).

Decolonization in the 21st Century

In the 21st Century, much remains to be done for the former colonies, such as addressing the socio-economic inequalities in the Global South. Furthermore, some members of the civil society in the former European colonies wanted to go further than their political independence attained earlier. They argue that the former empires had recorded their histories. Therefore, the ongoing process of decolonization needs to translate into defining their histories as a way of reclaiming their identities.

The Cold War and Decolonization - Key Takeaways

  • 20th-century decolonization was a process through which new countries emerged as European empires dissolved.
  • Decolonization began after World War I and grew stronger after World War II. Many countries in Asia, Africa, and Central and South America became independent.
  • Decolonization was complicated by the Cold War and the division of the world into the American and Soviet blocs. Sometimes, decolonization was accompanied by conflict and political in-fighting.
  • Present-day socio-economic inequalities are one of the many negative legacies of colonialism.

References

  1. Wilson, Woodrow, “Address to Congress on International Order,” (February 11, 1918), The American Presidency Project, UC Santa Barbara, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/address-congress-international-order accessed 22 August 2022.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Cold War and Decolonization

The Cold War made the process of decolonization more complicated. After the Second World War, many former European colonies gained independence, for instance, Syria, India, Pakistan, and Vietnam. However, because the Cold War divided the world into an American and Soviet sphere of influence, respectively, these newly independent countries joined one of the two camps, willingly or under pressure. 

Postwar decolonization shaped the postwar world in a number of ways. Some countries around the world gained formal independence, including Syria (1945) from France, the Philippines (1946) from the U.S., India (1947) and Pakistan (1947) from Britain, and many others. By gaining independence, these countries were able to pursue their own politics.


However, the world was effectively divided into two camps during the Cold War, the American bloc and the Soviet bloc, and many newly independent countries were pushed into one or the other. For instance, the U.S. pursued a global policy of containment fearing that the newly decolonized states would engage in left-wing politics rather than allowing them to pursue their own path. In some cases, the results were devastating, such as the Vietnam War (1955-1975).

In general, decolonization after World War I followed a similar pattern to that of the period after World War II. The First World War led to the dissolution of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian Empires which led to the establishment of independent states. For example, Saudi Arabia was founded in the early 1930s because it was no longer under Ottoman control. Similarly, the Second World War led to the decline of the British and French empires, which led to the independence of their former colonies or mandates. For example, Syria gained independence from France in 1945, and India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain in 1947. There were also nationalist movements in the colonies seeking independence. The Cold War complicated matters in the second half of the 20th century because it split the world into an American and Soviet sphere of influence. Newly independent countries were often pushed to join one or the other. At times, this situation led to conflict, such as Vietnam's independence from France which developed into the Vietnam War (1955-1975) after the Americans got involved in fear of the left-wing politics in that country.

There were several reasons for decolonization immediately after the Second World War. Some colonial powers, such as France and Britain, lost a significant amount of resources: France was occupied, whereas Britain fought in the war from the onset. Their status also declined.  For example, France and Britain lost their mandates over Syria and Palestine, respectively. Furthermore, the establishment of the United Nations pressured colonial powers to give up their rule and allow for the independence of their former colonies. The United Nations continued a process that began after World War I when U.S. President Woodrow Wilson advocated for the self-determination of nations around the world. Another parallel to the First World War was the dissolution of empires (Ottomans, Austro-Hungary, and Russia). 

The goal of decolonization was for the former colonies, especially European colonies, to achieve true sovereignty (independence). This sovereignty meant not only the establishment of independent states (political entities), but also control over one's own economic future and culture. 

Final The Cold War and Decolonization Quiz

Question

Which international organization pressured colonial empires to allow decolonization after 1945?

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Answer

United Nations

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Question

Which war led to the dissolution of the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, and Russian empires?

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Answer

World War I

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Question

Who proposed the idea of national self-determination?

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Answer

Woodrow Wilson

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Question

Romania, Montenegro, Greece, Bulgaria, and Serbia gained independence from which empire?

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Answer

Ottoman Empire

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Question

Which country had a mandate over Palestine until 1948?

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Answer

Britain

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Question

What was the American foreign policy during the Cold War called?

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Answer

Containment

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Question

When did India and Pakistan become independent from Britain?

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Answer

1947

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Question

Which African leader was assassinated with the involvement of the Belgian government?

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Answer

Patrice Lumumba

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Question

What is decolonization?

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Answer

20th-century decolonization was a process through which new countries emerged as colonial European empires dissolved. 

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Question

Which one was the biggest empire on the eve of WWI?

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Answer

British Empire

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Question

Which 20th-century decolonization process transformed into a prolonged international conflict?

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Answer

Vietnam War

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Question

Which European country controlled Indonesia until 1949?

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Answer

Netherlands

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