Resistance to foreign rule by colonized peoples runs as far back as ancient history. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, anticolonialism began to take shape as an element of Western political discourse. Enlightenment thought, with its emphasis on self-determination and mutual obligations between the government and the governed, gave rise to a liberal strand of anticolonialism that underpinned the American Revolution. In later years, Marxism inspired a more radical form of anticolonialism. The Russian Vladimir I. Lenin gave that view its fullest articulation in the early twentieth century, describing colonialism as a by-product of capitalism and calling for its destruction through communist revolution.
Both the liberal and radical variants gained strength following World War I. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson made self-determination a central part of his plan to establish a new global order rooted in democracy, free trade, and collective security. Meanwhile, nationalist leaders of colonial territories, frustrated by the unwillingness of the European powers to cede control, increasingly concluded that they could achieve their liberation only through protest, confrontation, and war. Anticolonial agitation gained considerable momentum during the interwar years even as European empires reached their greatest geographical extent.
World War II marked a major turning point by opening new opportunities for the expression of anticolonialism. In part, the war itself played a role by severely weakening the European colonial powers. German victories over France and the Netherlands, combined with Japanese occupation of French, Dutch, and British territories in the Far East, disrupted or destroyed colonial administrations and emboldened nationalists by crushing the myth of colonial invincibility. Nationalists stepped into the vacuum and asserted themselves with unprecedented power and conviction.
In part, too, World War II sparked a surge of anticolonialism by pulling the United States into the forefront of international politics. Even before it joined the fighting, Washington revived old Wilsonian rhetoric and placed decolonization high among Allied war aims. At their meeting at Placentia Bay, Newfoundland, in August 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt convinced British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to sign the Atlantic Charter, which pledged respect for "the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live." During the war, Roosevelt demanded steps toward the gradual dissolution of European empires, especially in South and Southeast Asia, and the establishment of a new world system based on self-determination and free trade.
Following the war, U.S. policymakers recognized powerful incentives to stick to the course of gradual anticolonialism charted by Roosevelt. Given the apparent inevitability of decolonization around the globe, it made good sense to position the United States on the side of nationalists who would one day control vast resources crucial to the U.S. economy. The emergence of the Soviet Union as a rival beyond the European theater only heightened Washington's concern about maintaining friendly relations with nationalists in the developing world.
These anxieties were offset, however, by another dynamic that led the United States to back away from its avowed anticolonial principles in the first decade of the Cold War. While American leaders understood the desirability of cultivating partnerships in the developing world, they set a higher priority on the need to form robust coalitions among industrial nations to resist Soviet aggression. In this effort, Washington's partners were precisely those countries that controlled colonial empires. Anxious to bolster Britain, France, and other colonial powers as alliance partners, the United States soft-pedaled its anticolonial agenda, advocating compromise solutions that stopped short of full independence for colonial territories. Such halfway solutions disappointed nationalist leaders, who often came to view the United States as a force of repression more than one of liberation.
Historians have suggested other reasons for America's failure to translate anticolonial ideals into support for developing-world nationalism during the Cold War. Diplomatic historian William Appleman Williams argued that U.S. declarations of anticolonialism masked Americans' own ambitions to control the destiny of other parts of the world in order to serve American interests. Since the nineteenth century, Williams argued, the United States had sought to replace autarkic colonial relationships with the so-called open door, the notion of equal economic opportunity for all nations. While Americans congratulated themselves on the liberality of this agenda, in practice it often drove Washington to forge partnerships with authoritarian regimes willing to serve American interests rather than those of their own people.
Historian Michael H. Hunt stresses not economic but rather ideological limits on American anticolonialism. Surveying two centuries of American history, Hunt contends that U.S. support for decolonization abroad had always been tightly circumscribed by a racist skepticism about the abilities of non-European peoples to govern themselves and by a deep-seated fear of radicalism, which Americans often judged to be a likely consequence of giving free rein to the nationalist passions of foreign peoples.
Whatever the cause of American behavior, Washington showed little consistency in coping with colonial problems during the Cold War. In the late 1940s, Washington risked its relationship with the Dutch government by exerting pressure on The Hague to concede independence to Indonesia. More famously, in 1956 President Dwight D. Eisenhower used economic coercion to force the traditional colonial powers in the Middle East, Britain, and France to back down when they attempted to reassert control over the Suez Canal. At other times, however, the United States set its alliance obligations well ahead of its anticolonial ideals and distanced itself from colonial repression. In the 1970s, for example, Washington supplied military aid to Portugal despite knowledge that the Lisbon government would use that aid to suppress anticolonial agitation in Angola, Mozambique, and other Portuguese territories in Africa.
Communist propaganda routinely pointed out American hypocrisy and denounced the United States as the heir to the repressive practices of its European partners. But the Soviet Union had itself been slow to champion anticolonialism after
World War II. Under Josef Stalin, Moscow backed away from Vladimir Lenin's earlier anticolonial enthusiasm and concentrated on European problems. In the 1950s and especially the 1960s, however, new Soviet leaders revalidated Lenin's interest in anticolonial revolution and sought closer relationships with developing-world nationalists. The Soviets and their allies gave political and economic support to Egypt, Indonesia, India, North Vietnam, and other young states. In the 1960s and 1970s, Moscow increasingly supported anticolonial movements in Africa.
Soviet enthusiasm for anticolonialism during the 1960s partly reflected pressure from the People's Republic of China (PRC), which repeatedly accused Moscow of halfhearted efforts to spread communist revolution. The PRC also launched rival efforts of its own to support anticolonial struggles in Asia and Africa. Ever since their 1949 triumph in the Chinese Civil War, PRC leaders had viewed their country's revolution as a model for other oppressed peoples around the world. For a decade thereafter, however, Beijing avoided a bold independent role in developing world affairs, insisting that Moscow was the leader of world communism. Only with the Sino-Soviet split in the early 1960s did China loudly proclaim its dedication to promoting anticolonial revolution. China sent matériel and other supplies to help sustain Left-leaning regimes and liberation movements in Africa, but its most spectacular efforts came in Southeast Asia, where North Vietnam and later Cambodia benefited from massive amounts of Chinese aid.
Soviet and Chinese efforts to position themselves as champions of anticolonialism achieved success in parts of Asia and Africa, where statist economic models and revolutionary politics held strong appeal. Over the long term, however, the communist powers were no more successful than the United States in seizing the high ground of anticolonialism. Just as in the American case, the Soviet and Chinese governments often proclaimed their hostility to European imperialism even as they established domineering relationships with postcolonial states, carried out under the banner of anticolonialism. Late in the Cold War, the Soviet Union and China propped up repressive political regimes in desperately poor states such as Cambodia, Cuba, Vietnam, Ethiopia, and Angola. On the communist side as on the capitalist side, developing-world nations may have been the biggest losers in the Cold War.
Mark Atwood Lawrence
Chen, Jian. Mao's China and the Cold War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.; Crockatt, Richard. The Fifty Years' War: The United States and the Soviet Union in World Politics, 1941–1991. New York: Routledge, 1995.; Hunt, Michael H. Ideology and U.S. Foreign Policy. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.; Williams, William Appleman. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. New York: Norton, 1988.