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. 
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.