The experiences of World War II dramatically shifted the fortunes of many anticolonial movements in the imperial world. Even more than World War I, the war played a critical role in inspiring independence movements and in fostering radical change in the international system. The coming of war in the Pacific, especially the initial defeat of Western imperial powers by the Japanese, had a strong and immediate psychological effect on colonial peoples in Asia. Japanese occupation of much of Southeast Asia also dislodged the region’s British, French, and Dutch rulers and revealed the tenuous nature of European control. As the war came to a close and the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the victorious powers, anticolonial actors sought to harness American and Soviet wartime commitments to a postcolonial future. In the power vacuum at the time of the Japanese defeat in August 1945, anticolonial forces in the global South moved to assert their independence. Aung San’s efforts to create a provisional independent government in Burma, Sukarno’s establishment of an Indonesian republic, and Ho Chi Minh’s proclamation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in the summer and fall of 1945 were among the earliest manifestations of the impending wave of decolonization. In British India, sustained negotiations between Indian anticolonial leaders and British imperial agents began in 1945 about the terms of independence, discussions complicated by the increasing schism within Indian nationalism between Hindus and Muslims. At the same time, anticolonial actors in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Jordan put pressure on Great Britain and France to relinquish their control in the Middle East. The most radical of these challenges to colonial order brought with them a commitment not only to independence, but also to the construction of postcolonial states that would
Transform the political, social, and economic prospects of their urban and rural citizens.
Although the experiences of Latin American nations are usually separated analytically from these events, the sharp challenge to repressive regimes in the region from 1944 to 1946 and the calls for far-reaching societal restructuring paralleled these efforts to break away from the colonial order in Asia and the Middle East. In 1944, only five Latin American states - Colombia, Costa Rica, Chile, Uruguay, and Mexico - could call themselves even nominal democracies. In three short years, dictatorships throughout the region fell as popular democratizing forces were mobilized. In 1946, only El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and the Dominican Republic continued to be ruled by dictators. In the rest of the region, social democratic populist and progressive movements came to power, supported by vocal and muscular labor unions as well as Communist Parties whose ties to the Soviet Union before the 1940s had been muted during the wartime period. Like anticolonial leaders in Asia and the Middle East, Latin American actors were emboldened by World War II to attempt to effect change by drawing upon strong liberal and socialist political traditions that predated the war itself.735
These early struggles to transform colonial and illiberal states emerged against the acceleration of transnational discourses of human rights, antiimperialism, and racial solidarities during and after World War II. The year 1945 marked major international conferences of colonized peoples as well as deliberations at the San Francisco Conference over the place of the colonized world in the United Nations Charter. The fifth Pan-African Congress that met in Manchester, England, in October 1945 brought together Africans, including the future leaders ofalmost all ofdecolonized British Africa, as well as African-American and Afro-Caribbean delegates. The congress condemned imperial economic exploitation, but focused on political independence in the African context, calling colonial freedom "the first step toward and necessary prerequisite to complete social, economic and political emancipation."736
Anticolonial leaders were a visible presence at the San Francisco Conference in June 1945 and sought language in the UN Charter that would directly advance the immediate prospects for colonial independence. While the charter fell short of guaranteeing self-determination for the colonial world, its guarantees of human rights, and the full elaboration of these rights in
The drafting of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, provided a powerful new vocabulary for making anticolonial claims and imagining the new postcolonial world. The Universal Declaration and its promises of political, economic, and social rights were the product in large measure of the work of social democrats from Latin America as well as delegates from newly independent Lebanon, India, and the Philippines. Neither the charter nor the declaration included enforcement mechanisms, but they provided another source of legitimacy for efforts of colonized peoples to remake colonial societies and to gain the sympathy of world opinion.
These transnational aspirations were quickly tested in an international environment hostile to the rhetorical promises ofdecolonization. The transfer of political authority from the colonizers to the colonized was sometimes peaceful but often collapsed into protracted violence in the immediate postwar period. If Nehru marked the moment of Indian independence in August 1947 by claiming at "the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom,"737 the subcontinent was quickly fragmented by the partition of India and Pakistan and consumed by the religious and sectarian violence that followed in its wake. The proclamations of independence by anticolonial elites in Southeast Asia were greeted by imperial powers unwilling to give up their colonial possessions. Both the Dutch and the French sought to reclaim their empires in protracted wars beginning in 1946, with Dutch forces attacking Sukarno’s Indonesian republic and the French challenging Ho Chi Minh’s DRV. The British too sought to maintain their control of Malaya and Singapore as well as their territories in Africa and the Middle East.
In the fast-moving and chaotic environment that marked the first wave of decolonization in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the coming of the Cold War in the global South was an almost unimagined contingency for anticolonial and imperial actors as well as for the Soviets and Americans themselves. Preoccupied with events in Europe - the occupation of Germany, the reconstruction of Western Europe, the fate of Eastern Europe, and the Greek Civil War - Soviet and American policymakers initially saw decolonization as peripheral to their growing rivalry and antagonism. More concerned by the contours of his postwar relationship with the Western allies, Stalin offered little significant material support to the most important
Communist-led movements in this early period. Despite wartime Soviet interest in establishing friendly regimes in Kurdistan and Iranian Azerbaijan, Stalin withdrew his forces from Iran in May 1946 after significant American pressure and kept his distance from the Iranian Communist party, the Tudeh. In China, Stalin insisted that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maintain an alliance with Jiang Jieshi’s Guomindang (GMD). He did not provide vigorous military or material support for the CCP in its ensuing civil war with the GMD. Given Stalin’s distrust of what he saw as Ho Chi Minh’s bourgeois nationalist proclivities and the lower priority he ascribed to developments in the colonial world, he provided almost no material assistance to the Vietnamese in their war against the French and only muted rhetorical support of their anti-imperial cause.738
The United States was also initially slow to cast events in the global South in Cold War terms. US policymakers increasingly recognized the radical nature of many movements for independence, and did not like it. But they remained wary of giving overt support to British, French, and Dutch efforts to maintain their empires in the postwar period. American policy favored anticolonialism of a kind, but one in which racialized perceptions of backward non-Western peoples undercut support for immediate independence. A 1947 cable by Secretary of State George Marshall about Vietnam illustrates this larger American dilemma over its response to decolonization. While Marshall acknowledged that the United States had "fully recognized France’s sovereign position" in Indochina, he could not understand "the continued existence of an outmoded colonial outlook" and the inability of the French to recognize the realities of a postcolonial future. Equally concerned by what he perceived as Ho Chi Minh’s Communist connections, Marshall argued that it "should be obvious that we are not interested in seeing colonial empire administrations supplanted by a philosophy emanating from and controlled by the Kremlin." Confounded by the perceived impossibilities of choosing between a radical political regime and an archaic colonial one, Marshall could offer no clear American policy toward the French war in Vietnam.739
The character of diplomatic initiatives undertaken by Ho Chi Minh’s DRV illuminates the fluid possibilities of this period and the marginality of the Cold War to it. In the face of unsuccessful efforts to win support from the Soviet
Union and the United States, the DRV hoped to capitalize on widespread professions of moral support from nationalist leaders in India and Southeast Asia. Through its diplomatic mission in Bangkok and later in Rangoon, the Vietnamese state tried to establish closer ties with Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, India, and the Philippines as well as more informal ties with radical nationalists in Malaya. Vietnamese diplomats were active in the 1947 Asian Relations Conference in India and participated in the establishment of the Southeast Asia League which aimed to formalize networks of nationalist regional cooperation. Although these efforts brought few immediate material rewards, they served to foster ties of nationalism and anticolonialism in the region that facilitated the organization of clandestine networks to obtain arms and military supplies and that provided a platform to mobilize international sympathy for their war against the French.