Britain’s retreat from empire was less traumatic and generally more pragmatic; the country quickly accepted that it could not hold on to India and that it must cut its losses in Palestine. Less impressive was Britain’s persistent attempt to shape events in the Middle East. Its position never recovered from the fiasco of the collusion with France and Israel to overthrow President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt in 1956 after he nationalized the Suez Canal. A more successful collusion in 1953, this time with the Americans, to overthrow Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh left Iranians always on the lookout for British conspiracies.
Meanwhile in Africa, deep racism and a pampered settler community created strong resistance to handing over government to a black majority that had hardly been prepared for the role. This led to one of the least glorious episodes in Britain’s postwar history: the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya. The writer John Gunther described Sir Evelyn Baring, the governor of Kenya, as refined and fastidious, but his Government House was “a stately island lost in time, drowned in forces nobody could comprehend.” By the end of the decade, British pragmatism had reasserted itself. The French struggle in Algeria served as a warning of the costs and consequences of intransigence. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan bravely acknowledged the “winds of change” to a stony-faced audience in South Africa.
All this was taking place against the backdrop of the Cold War. American hostility to colonialism, and contempt for European attempts to return to their paternalistic ways in 1945 as if they were saviors of Western civilization, gave way to the realpolitik of alliance once containment of Soviet expansionism began. After the “loss” of China to Mao Zedong in 1949 and then the North Korean invasion of South in 1950, the communist hand was seen in Washington behind all international mischief, including the anti-colonial campaigns.
In “Small Wars, Faraway Places,” British historian Michael Burleigh takes on the interaction between the two great geopolitical dramas of decolonization and the Cold War. The book contains a series of vivid, vigorous narratives, illuminated by telling snippets of information, compelling but rarely flattering portraits of the key characters and some trenchant judgments. Burleigh has little interest in grand theories and does not dwell on the deep, impersonal social and economic forces at work or the big ideas that gripped collective imaginations. Instead he concentrates on the choices made by flawed and fallible men (and in this book they are almost all men) in the turbulent two decades from 1945 to 1965.
The result is a curious mix. At his best, for example in the chapters on the small wars of his title — such as those in the Philippines, Algeria and Kenya — Burleigh brings to life forgotten events. He can be wonderfully scathing. The most durable imperialist in British politics, Lord Salisbury — the leading imperialist in the Conservative government from 1951 to ’57, improbably known as “Bobbety” — is recalled as having invented the phrase “too clever by half” to describe “the many people who were not as stupid as he.” Burleigh’s put-downs are equal-opportunity. Indian leader Jawaharlal Nehru comes over as a prig, and Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese radical, as hapless and unbalanced. Winston Churchill, returning as prime minister for a second time in the 1950s, appears as rambling and lachrymose, seeking excuses to avoid the retirement that was his due. John Kennedy is introduced under the heading “All Mouth and No Trousers” and compared unfavorably with Eisenhower.
Yet while never dull, in the end the book does not quite come together. It is not complete as an account of decolonization. There are no leavening examples of relatively peaceful withdrawals. The Portuguese are surprisingly absent, presumably because they hung on until the 1970s. At the same time the material on the Cold War is too compressed, and Burleigh has little new to add on Cuba and Vietnam.
One theme, illustrated by Vietnam, is that the Americans acquired the bad habits and learned the wrong lessons from the Europeans, believing, in their hubris, that their more liberal and enlightened imperialism would be better. The problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, he suggests, can be explained by the lingering influence of this hubris. For example, the Americans drew upon experience with counterinsurgency during the colonial wars for clever tactics without paying attention to the political contexts that shaped the tactical possibilities. Burleigh correctly points out in an excellent chapter on the Malayan emergency during the 1950s that, while this campaign may be known for the focus on the hearts and minds of the Malay population, one reason for the success was that the communist guerrillas were drawn from a limited, Chinese section of the population. But sometimes he stretches the parallels, making, for example, an extraordinarily tenuous link between Korean strongman Syngman Rhee and Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi.
Burleigh performs an important service in reminding us of the traumas of decolonization, but contrary to the subtitle, he does not show how this was really a “global insurrection” or quite explain how it made the modern world.
is a professor of war studies and vice principal at King’s College London and the author of “Strategy: A History,” due out in October.