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Colonialism’s last stand: Review by Christopher Silvester

Sunday 19 May 2013

How independence struggles played out against the cold war

Small Wars, Far Away Places: The Genesis of the Modern World, 1945-1965, by Michael Burleigh, Macmillan, RRP£25, 592 pages

What happened to Europe’s empires and how America emerged as the world’s policeman during the first two decades of the cold war form the subject of Michael Burleigh’s new history, in which he professes to maintain a neutral posture among imperial nostalgists and national liberation pietists. “This book will not please those who wish for a reaffirmation of their simple dogmas,” he writes in his introduction. So at times he seems to sympathise with some charismatic revolutionary leaders, at other times with US presidents seeking to make sense of a new world order. Burleigh is an equal-opportunity moralist, not an ideologue, and he stalks his prey with feline grace.

Occasionally there are flashes of the leavening scorn that informs his Daily Mail blog essays about terrorism and UK foreign policy. He reminds us that the French admiral, Georges Thierry d’Argenlieu, a reactionary Catholic who oversaw the restoration of French rule in what would become southern Vietnam, was described by a member of his staff as having “one of the greatest minds of the twelfth century”; and that when President John F Kennedy put his brother Bobby, then US attorney-general, in charge of the CIA’s operational division, this “created the paradox of the top law officer in the country directing an organization whose activities were legal only on rare occasions”. Kenya’s Jomo Kenyatta and Algeria’s Ahmed Ben Bella are favoured by the author, though Fidel Castro is not, and Israeli militarism is tolerated because it “testifies to what it means to live in a neighbourhood of fanatics and maniacs”.

Tiring of Chiang Kai-shek’s corrupt court in China, Washington misread Mao Zedong’s followers as “honest agrarian socialists” who might be “persuaded to become a loyal opposition within a democratic framework”, while British colonial secretary Malcolm MacDonald misread the Viet Minh as “nationalists who had only turned to the Communists for want of an alternative”.

The success stories for the resisters of communism were Malaya and the Philippines. In Malaya a “State of Emergency” was declared, the wording carefully chosen by the British rubber planters because their “London-based insurers would not pay out in the case of civil wars” but “would cover losses due to civil disorders and riots”. Burleigh questions the mythology that the Emergency was won through the benign hearts-and-minds administration of General Gerald Templer as high commissioner, suggesting that victory might instead have resulted from “prior establishment of population and spatial dominance through military force”. However, a successful British policy in Malaya was not repeated in Kenya or Cyprus, because nobody had thought to summarise its salient points in a form that was accessible to later planners.

In the Philippines, the Americans defeated the Huk guerrillas with a few deft strokes, namely by giving the Philippine army modern weapons and supporting them with air power. But unlike rebels in French Indochina and Algeria, the Philippine Huks had no rear area, across a border, to which they could repair between bouts.

Shortly before he was himself assassinated, JFK engineered the assassinations of South Vietnam’s president Ngo Dinh Diem and his spy-chief brother, Nhu, without giving due consideration to their replacements. Unlike JFK, President Lyndon Johnson, initially at least, had the right instincts about Vietnam. The prospect of “getting into another Korea ... just worries the hell out of me”, he told his national security adviser. But once he had escalated into war with North Vietnam, he cleaved to supporting the honour of the serving soldier. “Not for the last time, personalizing wars in this way as a ‘blood sacrifice’ by boy soldiers ensured that they continued,” Burleigh comments ruefully.

This is a story of personalities as much as one of geopolitical shifts, and Burleigh is a master of bringing it alive with sharp character insights. The US’s postwar ambassador to China, Patrick Hurley, was “a drunken idiot given to Choctaw war cries”; the fanatical Israeli freedom-fighter Menachem Begin “regarded the British as Nazis with better manners”; Stalin, whose agents crept into many countries, is likened to a burglar who “tried every door, hoping to find one unlocked”.

The big surprise of the book is how little time Burleigh has for the notion that the British were better imperialists than other European nations. They liked to denigrate other empires as “cruel and despotic”, he says, when “in reality they burned or buried their own files on atrocities committed in the colonies in the bowels of the Foreign Office”. Britain vacated Kenya, he argues, because its counter-terrorism policy and suppression of the Mau Mau was a “moral disaster it had inflicted on itself”. Burleigh is certainly no left-winger, but will this healthily sceptical assessment of our late imperial role find its way into education secretary Michael Gove’s new national history curriculum, which is intended to celebrate the glories of our island story? I suspect not.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013.

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