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Ends of empire: 'The USA profited little and lost much from its misconceived liberal imperialism'

The historian Michael Burleigh's new work is more a polemical essay than a work of scholarship, but it describes how the start of the Cold War interacted with the end of the European empires in ways that still affect us.

Small Wars, Far Away Places: The Genesis of the Modern World 1945-65

Michael Burleigh



Like 1918 and 1989, 1945 was one of the hinge years of the 20th century, marking the end of one era and the beginning of another. The Second World War claimed 70 million lives worldwide. The United States emerged as the richest industrial power in the world, but facing a formidable foe in the Soviet Union. The reconstruction of Europe would see the continent devolve into divided camps; but peace, however brittle, prevailed.

Elsewhere – in Asia, the Middle East and Africa – it was a different story. The outposts of European empires – Dutch, British and French – would be irrevocably transformed by violent national liberation struggles that were in turn drawn into the ever-shifting currents of superpower rivalry.

In Asia, the coming of the Second World War overlaid a complex series of national independence movements that convulsed India, Burma, Malaya and Indonesia. Whatever savage depredations the Japanese army had inflicted on other Asian nations, the Japanese thrust across the Far East acted as a solvent and a catalyst: it forever destroyed the credibility of European power, and stoked the movements that would eventually overthrow the western empires. Asia would become a hot theatre during the Cold War.

In his bracing and irreverent Small Wars, Far Away Places: The Genesis of the Modern World, the historian Michael Burleigh details how these struggles in Asia and elsewhere unfolded over the 20-year period between 1945 and 1965. Unspooling like an old Pathé newsreel, Burleigh’s book briskly cuts from one trouble spot on the globe to another: Palestine and the birth of Israel; the Korean Peninsula, where the unresolved 1950-1953 war is an ever-present source of instability (just ask new US Secretary of State John Kerry); Suez and Hungary; Tehran, where US and British agents worked  to oust the outspoken Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh; insurgencies in Malaya and Indo-China; and the ugly end of empire in Algeria and Kenya, where the widespread use of torture and repression made a mockery of the civilising mission that was allegedly the hallmark of European-style imperialism.

He offers up pointed pen-portraits of a gallery of figures of the era: Chinese leader Mao Zedong, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Congolese independence leader Patrice Lumumba, and Kenyan prime minister Jomo Kenyatta; US presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower and John F Kennedy; French president Charles De Gaulle and British prime minister Harold Macmillan; as well as shadowy cold warriors such as American Colonel Edward Lansdale, who battled guerillas in the Philippines, helped South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem rise to power – some say that Lansdale was the model for Alden Pyle, Graham Greene’s “quiet American” – and schemed to overthrow Castro.

Burleigh handles his business with brisk and dash, but subtlety is not one of his virtues. In scholarship, Small Wars, Far Away Places reveals no archival wonders; it is more a polemical essay that draws on recent secondary literature (much of it excellent, it should be said) rather than an original work of historical scholarship.

The author writes with a cut-throat, Fleet Street crackle. Churchill “did global strategy rather than free dentures”. He describes Macmillan as “the droopy-eyed premier with the languid manner and the bons mots”. Burleigh is pitiless about John F Kennedy, “who remains the benchmark aspired to by all those who seek to use style to obscure their lack of substance”. (Bobby, “his elder brother’s rat-catching terrier”, gets it no easier.) He is mordant on the Kennedy administration’s anti-Castro skulduggery, and all but blames the Vietnam War on JFK.

This is a work of considerable range (Burleigh says in his introduction that he “reluctantly decided to cut lengthy sections on Angola, Mozambique and South Africa”), but there is a hit-and-run quality to some of the chapters; the book suffers from a kind of narrative overstretch. Yet at his best, Burleigh pointedly illustrates that liberal empires almost always resort to illiberal measures to extend, protect and promote their power.

He dismisses the notion that the British were more enlightened imperialists than their European rivals. “One way in which the British liked to highlight the virtues of their empire was to denigrate those of everyone else as cruel and despotic. In reality they burned or buried their own files on atrocities committed in the colonies in the bowels of the Foreign Office, much as the Italian ministry of defence did with documentation regarding colonial Ethiopia and Libya. Leaving aside whatever responsibility adheres to Britain for the bloody partitions in India and Palestine, its activities elsewhere contributed to the restorations it purported to deplore.”

British policymakers propounded their own version of a “domino theory more usually applied to the Americans” in the 1940s as they sought to hold the line against anti-colonial movements. Mused one Foreign Office hand: “Any such attempt to abrogate French rule in Indochina cannot fail to react on the position of other nations holding possessions in the Far East, eg the Dutch and ourselves.” British forces (with the help of surrendered Japanese troops, who were coerced into service) helped to restore French rule in Indochina in 1945. The consequences of such measures would be felt for decades as first France, and then the United States, tried to quash the Viet Minh.

In Indonesia, British Empire forces engaged in a bloody operation – at Surabaya, British troops fought in what is still one of their biggest engagements, and the last where Indian soldiers were deployed in combat, since the end of the Second World War – to maintain Dutch supremacy, which would be shortlived. Indonesia emerged an independent nation in 1949 after the US threatened to withdraw Marshall Plan funding from the Netherlands. The British fought a successful war against communist insurgents in Malaya by forcibly resettling populations in strategic hamlets, tactics the US would later adapt in Vietnam. (The Japanese used similar measures in the lands it occupied during the Second World War.) Burleigh questions the  usefulness of the “hearts and minds” campaign used to win over the populace. During the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, policy makers clucked endlessly over the supposed lessons to be drawn from Malaya for today’s campaigns in faraway places. “Using counterinsurgency campaigns as paradigms for contemporary practice also involves ignoring their less savoury aspects,” Burleigh writes. Success in Malaya, he suggests, was more a function of brute force. In Kenya, repressive tactics culminated in a repugnant apotheosis as colonial authorities put down the Mau Mau rebellion.

“If anything induced the British to pack up and go,” Burleigh writes of Britain’s departure from its former East African settlement, “it was the moral disaster that it had inflicted on itself, a disaster British politicians systematically covered up until 2012 by destroying or doctoring the written records of the former colony.”

For the author, one of the most salient developments of the postwar world was how the United States overcame its “antipathy to empire” to carry on in the wake of the demise of French and British imperialism. Anti-communism underpinned much of this expansion. It was a trap. “Unlike the British, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese empires, the USA profited little and lost much from its misconceived adoption of liberal imperialism. For the Europeans, it was an alibi adopted to prolong their imperial delusions; the ‘best and the brightest’ of the American liberal establishment were confident they could do it better, and in that hubris lay their own and their nation’s tragedy.”

Two decades before the escalation of the US campaign in Vietnam, Walter Lippmann, the influential foreign affairs columnist, wrote presciently that the Soviet Union would move against its capitalist rival “disorganising states that are already disorganised, by disuniting peoples that are already torn with civil strife, and by inciting their discontent, which is already very great”. In reaction, the US would resort to “recruiting, subsidising and supporting a heterogeneous army of satellites, clients, dependents and puppets”. US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt vowed that he was not fighting to restore empire in the Far East and elsewhere, but the advent of the Cold War, and the emergence of the US as a global power, radically redirected Washington’s priorities. As Burleigh shows, small wars can have very big consequences.

Matthew Price’s writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.


Updated: May 9, 2013 04:00 AM