Pecking Orders

Empires in the Balance: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies to April 1942

by H.P. Willmott
Naval Institute Press, 512 pp., $24.95

From Conquest to Collapse: European Empires from 1815 to 1960

by V.G. Kiernan
Pantheon, 285 pp., $16.50

The Pattern of Imperialism: The United States, Great Britain, and the Late-Industrializing World Since 1815

by Tony Smith
Cambridge University Press, 308 pp., $34.50; $10.95 (paper)

Are empires coming back into fashion? The chief result of the Second World War, the defeat of Hitler obviously excepted, was the dissolution of the European colonial empires. This need not have been a necessary outcome. Indeed, after the First World War, the European colonial empires actually grew in size. Self-determination had then been proclaimed a war aim—when the Allies got around to deciding what their war aims were—but it was a self-determination for Europeans only; and then chiefly for those peoples who had been subjects of the defeated German and Austrian empires.

Beyond Europe, the British, the French, and the late-flowering Italian empires added considerably to their size, chiefly through the medium of the League of Nations mandates. The German colonies in Africa went to Britain, which also took the mandate over the former Turkish province of Palestine. France confirmed its long-held interest in the Levant by taking the mandates over Syria and Lebanon. The Italians, needing only sacro egoismo as justification, consolidated their possession of the formerly Turkish islands in the eastern Mediterranean and the territory of Libya. Even Japan, whose calculated intervention against the German enclave in north China had made it an ally of the victorious powers, succeeded in sweeping up some unconsidered Pacific islands; the significance of those additions was not to be made manifest until 1941.

After the Second World War, the trend was entirely in the opposite direction. Thanks to Japan’s whirlwind victories in the Pacific in 1941 and early 1942, European empires were actually much smaller in 1945 than they had been in the last years of peace. The British, as combatant victors, were able to re-enter their lost colonies at the moment of Japanese defeat. But the French and the Dutch, occupied during the war by Japan’s ally, Germany, were to take months over the repossession of Indo-china and the East Indies. Repossession, indeed, was to require a hard fight—in the French case, a fight that was to last eight years and end in partial defeat.

Of course the apparent re-creation of European empires was illusory. Britain was morally committed to the granting of independence to India, an act fulfilled by August 1947. And, with India gone, the logic of the British empire east of the Suez was destroyed. The French and Dutch colonies in the Far East were also cast into isolation by Indian independence, which would probably have necessitated their abandonment even without the rebellion that eventually won them their freedom. Once the dissolution of the Asian colonies—largely an achievement of the Japanese, however indirectly—was under way, the will to empire elsewhere among the European powers was progressively sapped. Africa, the last wholly colonized of the continents, began to fall to the “wind of change” in 1957.

The phrase was Macmillan’s, and the wind he unleashed blew away one African colony after another—first Britain’s, then Belgium’s, then those of the French, whose second postwar fight—to retain their North African territories, so heavily settled by whites—made them more reluctant…

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