How did Cold War rivalries affect European decolonization?

Cold War and European decolonization were global processes that largely overlapped in time. The interrelationships between them were complex. To achieve better analytical clarity, let me begin with some definitions. I take Cold War to be the “bipolar conflict between the United States and the U.S.S.R.” (20-3). European decolonization refers to Europe’s “withdrawing from its formal, territorial claims overseas.” (Note 1) This latter definition excludes the widespread phenomena of spheres of influence, client states, military occupation and nationalistic secessions – and covers “in the main … Africa, the Middle East …, and Asia.” (Note 1) In this essay, I argue that while Cold War was not a primary cause of European decolonization, United States’ Cold War strategies and actions did produce a conducive environment for European state’s withdrawal, and U.S. (together with its European allies) tended to suppress independence movements in colonies where there were local militarized Communist groups that might ally with the Soviet Union. For evidence for these arguments, I will limit my examples to the period between 1946 and 1976.


Cold War was not a primary cause of European decolonization, in the counterfactual sense that if the two superpowers emerging from WWII stayed friendly, the withdrawal of European imperial powers from their colonies were still likely to happen. To understand why this might be, it is useful to review why European powers obtained colonies in the first place. Elsewhere (Note 2), I have identified asymmetry of military strength between imperial powers and colonies, need of markets and raw materials for industrialization, intra-empire competition, and nationalist ideologies as the four primary sources of European colonization. As a result of WWII, three of these four conditions were significantly weakened. The war itself weakened the fiscal-military strengths of European states, while the spread of technology, guerilla warfare, and anti-axis militarized organizations in the colonies all served to reduce the asymmetry of military power. For example, five Portuguese colonies obtained independence after the Portuguese state collapsed in the mid-70s. (EWH 863) During WWII, imperial western European states had become secondary, subordinate powers to the United States, thus reducing the need and intensity of competition among them. Lastly, war-time mobilization against Nazism and Japanese war-time success in toppling European colonial authorities in Southeast Asia both served to undermine ideologies around Europeans’ racial superiority. (22-2) The change in these three conditions were the results of WWII, but not of the Cold War.


Nevertheless, economic reasons for imperial powers to hold on to colonies intensified. “They need the colonies to help fund the rebuilding effort after the war.” (22-2) “Nowhere did European empires withdraw from their colonial spaces willingly.” (22-1) This was the area where United States’ strategies and actions produced a conducive environment for European states’ withdrawal. Which European states were involved in the process of decolonization? Primarily Britain and France, but also the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Portugal. (Note 3) This area of western Europe, together with their colonies, (eventually) belonged to the United States’ (rather than Soviet’s) sphere of influence. United States’ massive lending and aid to rebuild the economies of this part of Europe through the Marshall Plan was explicitly part of its strategy to contain Soviet’s expansion. (21-2) These support – together with other economic arrangements such as the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT, 1947, cf. 21-3) – enabled phenomenal economic revival and growth in western European states in the two decades after WWII, and gave U.S. the power to persuade them to agree to decolonization. The case of Franco’s Spain was instructive. Spain was not among the winning Allies in WWII, and was banned from entry into the United Nations in 1946. In 1950-1953, Spain moved towards becoming an ally of the United States: received Marshall Plan loan, entered the United Nations, gave U.S. the rights to establish military bases. “During the 1950s, Spain experienced some economic growth.” And then in 1956, “Spain terminated its Moroccan protectorate.” (EWH 861) In other cases, the European states withdrew territorial claims after explicit intervention by the United States. “In Syria and Lebanon, French attempts in 1945 to reverse wartime agreements giving independence to the two countries met with nationalist opposition. Under pressure from the United States, Great Britain, and the United Nations, French troops were withdrawn in 1946.” (EWH 812) For the Dutch in Indonesia, “once Sukarno had suppressed the communists, the Americans pressurized the Dutch into a settlement” in 1949. (Note 4)


This last example illustrates how United States’ Cold War strategies changed the process of decolonization in a specific instance. As described in Kennan’s Telegram (1946), United States’ primary objectives in the Cold War was to contain Soviet's expansion. (20-4) Where there were no significant threats of take-over by local militarized Communist groups that might ally with U.S.S.R. or China, the United States or its allies did not necessarily use force to suppress decolonization, even in very populous colonies such as India, Nigeria, or South Africa. In Malaya, British suppressed an ethnic Chinese communist revolt between 1948-1955 before agreeing to independence in 1957. (EWH 812) In the hasty withdrawal of Belgium from Zaire, the assassination of the Maoist Marxist Prime Minister Lumumba by a local rival would lead to “one of the most brutal proxy wars of the Cold War.” (Note 5) Vietnam was the most tortuous case of decolonization, where local communists drove out the French in 1954, only to face direct confrontation with the United States in 1959-1976. (22-6) Despite these examples, it helps to observe that not all European military suppression of decolonization movements were motivated by Cold War objectives; for example, the French in Algeria and the British in Kenya were primarily motivated by the protection of white settlers’ interests.


In summary, this essay affirmed that Cold War helped facilitate European decolonization, and affected some specific processes of decolonization. United States’ Marshall Plan helped western European states with post-WWII economic reconstruction, thereby relieving them of the need to hold on to their colonies. United States’ diplomacy (e.g. with Spain), intervention (e.g. French in Syria / Lebanon) or support (e.g. French in Vietnam) changed specific processes of decolonization. In addition, I have also argued that Cold War was neither a primary cause of the fact of decolonization (many causes had its roots in WWII instead), nor was it the only major factor affecting decolonization processes (e.g. among other factors, presence of white settlers in colonies played important roles too).


Works cited:

(20-3) refers to Lecture 20, Segment 3 in the course. Other references to the course Lectures follow the same format.

Note 1: See Professor Adelman’s post dated Dec 17 in the forum thread:

Note 2: My earlier essay written as Assignment 5:

(EWH 863) refers p.863 of The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth Edition, edited by Peter Stearns, 2001, Houghton Mifflin. Other references to this work follow the same format.

Note 3: Germany lost all its colonies after WWI. Soviet Union did not establish formal overseas colonies. Italy is also excluded as after losing the war it was in no position to claim colonial territories (despite its eventual joint trusteeship with Britain in Somalia).

Note 4: p.836, World History: A New Perspectives, by Clive Ponting, 2000, Pimlico.

Note 5: Cf. (22-5) and p.666, Traditions & Encounters: A Brief Global History, by Jerry H. Bentley et al., 2008, reprinted by Peking University Press authorized by McGraw Hills.

Comments: 1 (Discussion closed)
  • #1

    lawpark (Sunday, 13 January 2013 21:37)

    self → Could have added the reference that decolonization happened earlier - e.g. many cases happened between WWI and WWII, thereby reinforcing the point that Cold War itself did not drive the fact of decolonization.