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Empire’s Aftermath

Although the Cold War dominated the half-century after World War II, many of the regional struggles it overshadowed had effects that only later came into focus. The end of empires—formal and otherwise—that had brought order to much of the world since the late 19thcentury sparked vicious conflicts. Indigenous movements with their own local dynamics shaped events beyond the control of statesmen in distant capitals, who grappled with their own more immediate problems. Decolonization established a host of new independent states, many of which lacked the capacity to control their territories or sustain public order. Older countries recreated themselves with varying degrees of success through internal upheavals that reverberated across frontiers. Events that seemed peripheral to the developed world set the context for vexing challenges that dominate today’s headlines.

With Small Wars, Far Away Places, Michael Burleigh offers a penetrating and often sardonic narrative of the struggles that formed the world as we know it. Blending engaging character sketches and telling vignettes with geopolitical analysis, he presents the two decades after 1945 from a vantage point that provides illuminating perspective. Actions in those years set the path for later policies and established perceptions that are still hard to escape. The United States took on a new global role amidst the wreckage of World War II, but Americans failed at first to appreciate how fully total war had disordered the world. Leaders elsewhere had their own illusions about recovering positions their states’ resources no longer could sustain. Burleigh’s wide-ranging account brings out the relationship between political challenge and response, along with the difficulties in understanding very different societies from the outside.

Challenges came thick and fast even before 1945, although their implications only gradually became clear. Japan’s vicious campaigns in China had devastated a country already torn apart by civil war and economic collapse. Its early victories upset the foundations of European colonial rule in Southeast Asia. The eventual defeat and occupation of Japan then left a power vacuum in Korea, where local groups battled for control. European powers faced the difficult task of restoring control over their lost colonies with limited resources. British forces in Southeast Asia scrambled to hold a line until the Dutch and French could take responsibility, but nationalist movements in the colonies had changed the situation to make the pre-war status quo untenable. Amid this, the United States reluctantly abandoned its opposition to colonialism, largely for fear of weakening sympathetic allies in Europe. Dutch and French authorities considered the prestige and revenue of their empires vital to their postwar recovery, but their fortunes varied sharply. Washington forced the Dutch to give up Indonesia when nationalists there proved able and willing to suppress communism. France, however, won backing for a struggle in Indochina that became a bitter attritional war that ended in a failure and soon drew the United States into the European colonizer’s place.

As the Cold War escalated, the search for allies drew the United States and Soviet Union into situations they might otherwise have avoided. Stalin tended to be cautious, pushing at what he perceived to be open doors but withdrawing when facing opposition. Burleigh shows how allies and protégés turned superpower rivalry to their own ends: tails wagged dogs more often than not. Syngman Rhee leveraged American backing to punish Korean rivals and consolidate a regime that relied heavily on former collaborators with the Japanese. Minimal oversight coupled with limited American knowledge of Korea gave Rhee considerable scope. Burleigh cites him as an early case in which the United States relied upon a charismatic figure who spoke English—and played to American preoccupations—instead of indigenous movements with a wider popular base. Kim Il Sung, meanwhile, cleverly used Stalin’s permission to invade South Korea as an opening to establish a Communist regime under his own family’s authority. The brutal war he began prompted a major expansion in American—and British—military spending while committing the United States to holding back Communism across the Eurasian periphery.  Reality on the ground mattered less than the principle of thwarting aggression.


Mao Zedong’s 1949 victory over Nationalist opponents and subsequent alignment with the Soviet Union already had sparked an American debate over who lost China that begged the question of whether it had been Washington’s to lose. Recriminations supported a hard line that guided policy on Korea and Indochina. Indeed, events in China had spilled over borders to destabilize both those regions. The domino theory, which originated with the French, set a sharper edge on the containment strategy George Kennan had developed to limit Communist expansion in Europe. It also imposed a Cold War template of ideological rivalry onto situations where very different factors drove events.

European authority collapsed less precipitously in the Middle East than in Asia, but changes there raised the costs of empire as returns diminished. Britain’s prewar colonial secretary, Malcolm McDonald, had complained that while he had responsibility for 50 colonies, the Palestine mandate occupied more than half his time. Keeping peace between Jews and Arabs drew Britain into an embarrassing counterinsurgency effort that ended in unilateral withdrawal in 1948. Instead of a negotiated partition, Jews and Arabs fought to secure favorable boundaries. Israel won a Jewish homeland at the price of ongoing strife that enabled Arab nationalists and later Islamic radicals to bid for popular support with extremist rhetoric.

The low stakes for Britain in Palestine made disengagement the rational strategy, but different considerations applied to Iran. Britain’s stake in Iran’s petroleum industry dated from its early development to supply a fuel source when the Royal Navy switched from coal to oil, and it provided vital revenue for Iran during the postwar economic squeeze. When Mohammed Mossadeq nationalized the industry as prime minister and stirred popular agitation, a CIA-backed coup overthrew his government in 1953. An Anglo-American consortium restored something like the old status quo, but splitting revenue 50/50 with Iran along the model of Aramco’s contract with Saudi Arabia. The underlying tensions behind Mossadeq’s actions remained, however, and Shia clergy, who had kept their distance from him, took up the initiative.  Becoming an American protégé, the shah leveraged the dependent relationship with Washington to promote his own delusional ambitions of ruling a great power.

Burleigh takes a dim view of Britain’s imperial pretensions, which he paints as a waste of resources that should have been used to modernize industry at home. Rather than acting as Greeks to provide wisdom to America’s Rome, British leaders misread or mishandled situations as much as their counterparts in Washington or Paris, and perhaps with less excuse. Britain, however, paid a much lower price for its errors than France or the United States by avoiding prolonged, costly wars that embittered politics at home.  sep-issuethumb [1]

Algeria brought France to the brink of a military coup. The gap between an impoverished, alienated Muslim majority and the colonists who dominated the North African possession bred an escalating crisis that French authorities failed to manage. Withdrawal from a département of metropolitan France seemed unthinkable, especially after defeat in Vietnam, but Charles de Gaulle amputated what he considered a diseased limb to prevent further contagion.

Algeria’s nationalists then struggled among themselves without bringing their country either stability or economic development. There as elsewhere, decolonization rarely met aspirations. Expelling foreigners and their local collaborators seldom brought order or prosperity. Modernization projects, especially in Muslim societies, prompted a popular backlash that produced the now familiar struggles between Islamists and military regimes. Endemic corruption alienates populations from rulers.

Occasional victories mark exceptions that illustrate the general pattern after 1945. The United States defeated the Hukbalahap movement in the Philippines by reinforcing military operations with reform efforts that won the government in Manila popular support. Containing and suppressing an insurgency proved easier on islands than in other areas where guerrillas could shelter across borders. The social and political reforms faded as the crisis passed, however, and the Philippines reverted to the status quo—albeit without unrest that outsiders could exploit. The appearance of success provided an illusory model that Americans brought to Vietnam when they took over there from the defeated French. A policy aimed at defeating Communism by bringing Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society to the Mekong predictably ended in tears.

British victory in Malaya, often cited today as a guide to counterinsurgency, reflected that land’s particular circumstances. The Communist insurgency drew its manpower and support from an ethnic Chinese minority. Once the British established military control to contain the rebellion, police and intelligence work isolated guerillas and set them against each other. Psychological warfare and measures to integrate the Chinese into Malayan society reinforced targeted military operations that skillfully used mobility. The British operated from a position of military strength against a minority group unable to draw mass support. Replicating the outcome elsewhere under difference circumstances proved easier in theory than reality.

Small wars that roiled distant places over the 20 years after 1945 highlight the difficulty of maintaining political order amid deeper cultural and social upheavals. Understanding complex situations, particularly when they involved different cultures, presented difficulties Western leaders rarely overcame. Intervention all too often entailed a costly struggle or made outside powers the means to self-interested ends sought by local groups. Burleigh’s analysis underlines the limits of what outsiders can accomplish: seizing the golden hour of opportunity sometimes works to push events along a desired path, but all too often the chance never really existed. Better to forgo transformative ambitions or dreams of glory when most pressing burdens, after all, are typically found at home.

William Anthony Hay is a historian at Mississippi State University.

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17 Comments To "Empire’s Aftermath"

#1 Comment By Michael N Moore On September 18, 2013 @ 8:39 am

Good time frame to look at. It would be interesting to see how our military interests dovetailed with the international forays of US investment banks and multinational corporations. Do they follow the empire or does the empire follow them?

#2 Comment By Rossbach On September 18, 2013 @ 12:13 pm

Over the past century, US foreign policy has shown that it is possible to establish and maintain an Empire without actual colonies. Unfortunately, our model of imperialism has involved us in more – and bloodier – wars than those of our imperial predecessors. However the thing is done, empire is a very expensive undertaking.

#3 Comment By Richard Mehlinger Jr (@rmehlinger) On September 18, 2013 @ 2:40 pm

Correction to the caption on the photograph: That is almost certainly 1945, not 1955, since Pennsylvania was used for atomic testing after the war.

#4 Comment By James P/M/F/2 On September 18, 2013 @ 3:21 pm

Let’s take this comment from the article:

The end of empires—formal and otherwise—that had brought order to much of the world since the late 19thcentury sparked vicious conflicts.

What seemingly never gets asked is by what legal/moral/ethical right did the British/French and other Europeans impose their will and occupy those distant lands in the first place? They certainly didn’t go there to “civilize” those people. Bengal for example by any definition was already “civilized” when the British arrived. They went there to exploit the land and the people, extract as much as possible caring little if the people suffered in the process. Bengal is an excellent example. A once thriving civilization was reduced to a shadow of itself economically over the course of a few decades.

Or take the aftermath of Versaille in the middle east. The British put three groups together in one country that the Ottomans would never have done, all for one purpose, to exploit the resources which were not legally/morally/ethically theirs to exploit. Those resources belonged exclusively to the people living there. When the Arab villagers in “Iraq” did what Jefferson said they had every right to do, rebel, how did the British respond? They used left over poison gas, partly at the urging of Churchill the first use of WMD’s in the region. How do we justify this behavior?

Vietnam? Did not those “nationalists” have every right to finally tell the French to go home and stay home? By what right were they there in the first place? (Yes we “know” the incident they used to justify getting involved but it didn’t justify the wholesale occupation of the region.) Dominoes makes good pizza and is a fun game to play but the idea that Eisenhower had that they would fall all the way to New Delhi was absurd from the beginning.

We tend to see imperialism through the eyes of the imperialists, white man’s burden/world’s policeman/bringing civilization to the heathens all of it. We need to start seeing it through the eyes of those Iraqi villagers who were on the wrong end of the poison gas. We need to see it through the eyes of the Bengalis who saw their region taken over by people who had no legal right to be there. We complain about what happened after the colonizers left. Well just maybe the outcome would have been better if the imperialists hadn’t been there in the first place.

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 18, 2013 @ 6:09 pm

I am not sure this is all that new to me. I do think more conciseness would have been cleaner — this coming from a notoriously lousy writer. Laugh

But I think the analysis is correct. We failed to prepare our foreign leaders civilian and military to respond to the wane of colonialism and the empowerment of former colonies.

While I appreciate the island analysis on the Philippines, it does not explain our abject failure in our own waters in Jamaica, The Dominican Republic and especially Haiti.

#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 18, 2013 @ 6:12 pm

I do believe that empire can be a source of good and lots of it. The ability of empires to address natural and man made disasters with incredible resources has saved countless lives and thwarted hundreds of catastrophes, militarily, politically and humanitarian.

#7 Comment By Lipperlander On September 19, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

I am missing consideration of basic premise here: What is empire good for? Originally there was a benefit in form of the loot and the tribute. But looking at the post WWII situation, why would any nation be interested in dominating another people? Certainly the general population of the empire building nation does not benefit, just the opposite. Which makes it even more puzzling that a democracy like ours is engaged in such a fools errand. Could it be that Americans are not the rulers, but rather the exploited ones in this new form of empire?

#8 Comment By Michael N Moore On September 19, 2013 @ 1:23 pm


I think that the earlier empires, Rome, Spain, Portugal were basically started to locate and plunder valuable metals, etc. It is the British Empire that developed as an extension of the industrial revolution. With the rise of manufacturing British industry needed 2 things: access to raw materials and access to markets for their finished products. The new efficiencies of production demanded these things in huge measure. They also demanded protection for their overseas holdings and shipping lanes.

#9 Comment By Wile E. Quixote On September 19, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

I just ordered this from Amazon and am looking forward to reading it. Thanks for reviewing what looks to be a very interesting book and bringing it to my attention.

#10 Comment By Merle On September 20, 2013 @ 11:58 am

One thing unexpectedly positive about the increased awareness of perspectives outside our trusty, accustomed one is the realization that we have been so incredibly lucky to come to this point in the human civilization, despite numerous setbacks due to our omnipresent stupidity and ignorance. Yet, here we are, turning the critical gaze finally at our own mistakes and follies, being honest as in an AA gathering, rather than recklessly looking for the “enemy” other to conquer. The brain is evolved to deal with tackling “enemies” for scarce resources, developing strategies of conquest in baby steps as in chess.

The trickiest part of the human challenge isn’t the conquest itself, but what happens after checkmate, when your targeted enemy breaks down. As long as the enemy is human, there is the facade of control and to some level, certainty.

Imperialism is about prolonging the game and delaying the fear of the moment after. So the chess plays, to the detriment of individual ants. These are limitations of the species, I’m afraid.

#11 Comment By agorabum On September 20, 2013 @ 7:10 pm

@Lipperlander: Empire had at least some purpose in the past, but you are right that it does not in the post WWII era. America became involved primarily out of anti-communist fears, and the mistaken belief that to shirk from any engagement was equal to ‘another Munich.’
America was obviously exploited by the local elites; the South Vietnam generals grew rich off of aid while the US flailed around in the jungle. Of course, the Vietnamese peasant whose village the US burned didn’t do so well either.
But America wants the ability to project force across the globe, to defend the flow of capitalist commerce. The economic reasons for escorting tankers in the Gulf in the 80s and for ousting Saddam from Kuwait in ’91 were pretty clear. But aside from defensive actions, the US doesn’t do Empire; even look at Iraq: we toppled its government in 2003, let allies to Iran become president, didn’t take any oil, and didn’t even try to rig contracts for oil development in favor of US companies.

#12 Comment By Richard Parker On September 21, 2013 @ 3:09 am

James P/M/F/2 at 3:21 pm

Two thumbs up! The resistance of the American public to the proposed Syrian adventure is the best political news in this country in many years.

Churchill thought nothing of gassing and shooting the locals.

#13 Comment By JohnE_o On September 23, 2013 @ 9:08 pm

Lipperlander, look up “War is a Racket” by General Smedley Butler.

#14 Comment By Michael N Moore On September 24, 2013 @ 2:36 pm

I am reading “Israel in the Second Iraq War” by former CIA analyst Stephen C. Pelletiere, PhD. The book’s subtitle is “The Influence of Likud”.

The author shows how, more than anything else, the Iraq war was a product of the ideology of the Likud Party in Israel. Likud appears to have recycled hundred-year old British imperialist attitudes towards the Arabs (e.g. Born to be herded about by imperial powers like Israel/US). Pelletiere refers to the NeoCons more accurately as “Likudniks”.

In the argument over whether Halliburton and the Saudi’s or AIPAC kicked off the war Pelletiere provides a sophisticated analysis of the Likud-revived ideology of imperialism that germinated into the Iraq war and the proposed Syria/Iran war.

#15 Comment By Jim Blackwell On November 1, 2013 @ 10:09 am

An excellent over-view of what I am sure is an equally excellent book. Your overview captures the essential point that there is a certain amount of hubris of power that goes along with super-power status. And that is certainly true in a geo-political sense. And that hubris of power albeit with all good intentions about geo-political meddling in world affairs goes to the very center of the divergence of thought about geo-political and diplomatic strategy when it comes to engagement in the community of nations. On one hand is the school of thought that with super-power status like that achieved in the after-math of the second world war comes a quasi Noblesse-oblige super-power obligation to rid the world of tyranny, oppression, and dictatorial regimes. In other words it is essential that the entire world community be remade in western democratic principles. And the chief architect in that restructure must be the U.S. and our allies most of whom were either founded under those ideals. Or at a minimum metamorphosed to those ideals. Verses the other school of thought that it is not only dangerous but outright foolish and is detrimental to our own national self-interest for the U.S. or other western powers to meddle in every corner of the globe which necessitates that we meddle in the affairs of sovereign nations no matter how onerous any nations internal politics is. And that therefore if we take that course of action we ultimately end up struggling against not only the nationalistic aspirations of the local populous but also popular insurgencies that are intent on ridding themselves of what they view as outside occupational power oppression of those same nationalistic aspirations. Examples that pertain to the U.S. since the end of WWII being the decade and a half debacle of Vietnam, then Iraq, and now Afghanistan, along with the sub-set of U.S. involvement in Korea. The last paragraph of your over-view is a wonderful summation that captures the essence of the argument against foreign policy meddling, invasion, occupation, and nation-building.

#16 Comment By John Regina On November 30, 2013 @ 10:04 pm

In response to James P/M/F/2 post of 18 September 2013

I have read many time anti-Imperialist sentiments of this type and of which are almost always targeted at European Empires. However, I am always amazed how folks like James always gives the USA a pass. Is not the USA really the ultimate imperial power? The USA can be forgiven, somewhat, for the 13 colonies but was not the expansion of the USA done at the expense of the indigenous peoples and Mexico. This expansion would have also included Canada had the Canadians not defeated the 3 invasions. The Americans set out to commit genocide of the American Indians, fomented a phony excuse to start war with Mexico to rob it of over 1/2 its territory, doing the same thing to Spain in order to take Spain’s overseas possessions. The big difference is the USA wanted to eliminate the natives while the Europeans wanted to put them to work is this not so? Stop and think what Africa and Asia might look like today had the European colonial power followed the American model and eliminated the Africans and replaced them with their own people as immigrants for example the way the American Indian almost was. So I ask you James, did the Americans have a right to do what they did? and how would you redress that now?

#17 Comment By Donald On March 26, 2014 @ 10:11 pm

Richard Mehlinger Jr (@rmehlinger) is correct. I was there in ’55 and ’57. That is a photo from 1940s.