American Empire: A Global History



The Cold War is popularly portrayed as a stand off between Soviet style Communism and Western Democracy. Most of the world, however, experienced it as an openly violent confrontation between European imperial powers and Communist-backed colonial nationalists. Indeed, as A.G. Hopkins recounts in American Empire: A Global History, Europe did not give up imperialism in the 19th century; in fact it did not end direct imperial control until the 1960s, when it had become absolutely infeasible to retain its colonies.

This was especially true for Britain and France. WWII had ravaged their economies, and their plan to rebuild involved economically stripping their colonies for wealth in order to pay back their creditors both at home and abroad. This policy required immense U.S. financial and political support to get the program off the ground, and fortunately for them, while the U.S. was naturally inclined to look askance at imperial expansion, they were more than willing to lend a helping hand if it meant bolstering a united defense against the Soviets. However, the conflict with the Soviet Union was being cast as an ideological struggle between democracy and communism, and this required the western democracies to figure out how to square their proposed imperial policy with their defense of democratic sovereignty. Europe’s economic planners believed that they could achieve popular colonial support for imperial expansion if they also instituted an expanded internal improvement and welfare system.

To garner democratic support from their colonies France began a massive welfare program “which was responsible for investing more capital (in real terms) in French Africa between 1947 and 1959 than had been invested during the previous sixty-five years” (Hopkins, American Empire, p. 478). Britain also followed suite by massively increasing its Colonial Development and Welfare Act of 1940, which included a “package of reforms featuring increased development expenditure, greater political participation, and improved welfare programs. The policy had broad political support and was designed to strengthen the empire, not to dispose of it” (p. 489).

Colonized nationalists took this supposedly increased generosity as an opportunity to push for independence, and the movement quickly spread throughout the empires. “India had led the way in the 1920s and 1930s; Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa followed in the 1940s. Protest ceased to be confined to sporadic, single-issue politics attached to particular regions or occupations, and was directed instead into permanent parties with aspirations for independence“ (p. 479).

However Britain was not at all on the same page, and tensions quickly began to appear as the Treasury won out over the Colonial Office in the struggle between getting the post-war empire back onto a firm financial footing, and the need to placate colonial peoples through the imperial welfare system. The British government’s first aim was to breathe life into the mother country regardless of the expense to the colonies. “We could scarcely have done better” Britain’s chief economic advisor proudly declared in 1954, “if we had intended to exploit the Colonies” (p. 482). “Even as he wrote, however, the political costs of the exercise which stoked resentment in the colonies, were rising to levels that would soon be beyond control” (p. 482).

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