Lecture: Post-war and Cold War
Churchill's words were, "What we have, we hold". Nevertheless, the post-war Labour government, and the British people, were ready for a change in the empire.
Not that they had a lot of choice. The world wars, which included active partipation of colonial peoples, had stimulated demands for independence. After World War I, many of the "Dominions" (new name for colonies) became nations of the British Commonwealth. This was true of Australia and Canada, for example. But the period between the wars saw no change of status for Asian or African holdings.
Indian independence movements had been going on for years. Mohandas Gandhi, an Indian lawyer educated in Britain, had fought Indian discrimination in South Africa as a young man. In India, Gandhi became the Mahatma, the spiritual father of the Indian people. He had led numerous acts of non-violent protest against the British. One example was the famous "salt march", where thousands had followed Gandhi to the sea to distill salt, in protest of the British salt tax. Many were killed, beaten, or imprisoned by the British, including Gandhi himself. In 1930, he was invited to Britain for the Round Table Conference. Winston Churchill, seeing Gandhi dressed in his usual loin-cloth speaking to a full-uniformed viceroy, said,
"It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the viceregal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor."During the second world war, Mohandas Gandhi (and 400 million Indian people) tried to bargain: independence in return for war participation. Indian troops were crucial to the Allied efforts against Japan in Asia and fascists in North Africa. But the British promised to arbitrate independence only after the war was over. As predicted by Gandhi's theory of "soul force", Indians were already winning the moral war; participation on the British side of World War II provided a way for the British to save face by "awarding" India independence.
After the war, there remained a crucial problem: the conflict between Hindus and Muslims in India. Both were represented in talks with Britain. Gandhi claimed to be neither Hindu nor Muslim, and fought desperately for Indian unity. Lord Mountbatten represented the British, and ultimately decided to partition India between Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. Thousands of refugees died in the tranfer of people between the new countries, and Gandhi was heartbroken. He was ultimately assassinated by a Hindu fanatic. But India was free. In 1948, Ceylon and Burma followed. In 1956, both India and Pakistan joined the Commonwealth.
In Asia following World War II, Britain restored control in Malaya and Singapore, granting them independence in 1957 and 1958, respectively. In the Mediterranean, Britain gave up the mandate to Palestine in 1947, making the territory a United Nations ward. As you've read, this led to the Arab-Israeli wars. In 1959, Cyprus became independent.
African colonies, too, saw independence from the Empire in the 1950s. The first was Ghana, the old British colony called the Gold Coast. Kwame Nkrumah's fight for independence became an example for all African nations dominated by European rulers. In 1960, Nigeria became independent, a nation of 35 million people. It would become the fourth largest nation in the early Commonwealth, after India, Pakistan, and Britain herself. Tanganyika, South Africa, and Kenya followed during the '60s.
Why did the British let their empire dissolve like this? First, it was obvious to everyone that after the destruction of the second world war, Britain could not remain a global power in the same way. There simply was not enough money to continue funding an empire. Encouraging former colonies to join the Commonwealth created favored trading relationships, and this had always been Britain's goal anyway. So long as all trading relationships were maintained, it was possible to consider that being relieved of political and financial responsibility for other peoples wasn't so bad.
Origins of the Cold War
Thus Britain had a new role to play in the world after the war. In April of 1945, the United Nations was founded in San Francisco. Its headquarters would become New York (partly, I've always believed, to ensure that the U.S. could never leave the U.N.). It was clear after the war that the U.S., with its atomic weapons, was the new world power: a superpower. In 1948, Churchill defined three roles for Britain in this new world:
1. head of the Commonwealth of Nations
But these roles seemed a heavy burden after the war. Britain had bombed-out cities, damaged infrastructure, a huge war debt, and no atomic weapons. And yet, Britain was important in defining the U.S.-U.S.S.R. stand-off that became the Cold War. Churchill himself had viewed the Soviet Union as a threat throughout the war, attempting to strategize in a way that limited Soviet power. After the war, as you read in his Iron Curtain speech, Churchill noted the demarcation between the Soviet and western spheres of influence in Europe.
As Churchill had predicted, Stalin had not let go of eastern Europe, saying "the present capitalist order makes peace impossible". Stalin needed eastern Europe as a buffer zone. As events progressed, it became hard for Britain to be a chief power in Europe at all. Right after the war, communists were being voted into power throughout Europe because of the post-war depression. The United States responded with the Marshall Plan, which bailed out the economies of western Europe, including Britain. In 1948, communists took over the government of Czechoslovakia, which was supposed to be on the western side of the curtain. In that same year, the Soviets blockaded Berlin (see below). In 1949, the unthinkable happened: the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb, years ahead of the predicted schedule. In that same year, China went communist after a civil war which had begun in the '30s. In response to these events, NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) was formed, in defiance of the U.N.'s rules against independent alliances (note how the North Atlantic Treaty itself is careful to say NATO will follow U.N. rules). The following year, the U.N. saw its first military action in Korea, where communist North Korea had tried to unify the country after its division by the U.N. Although the Soviet Union would have vetoed the Korean War action, they were boycotting Security Council meetings because the U.N. was refusing the admittance of the newly communist China. (Russia hasn't missed a meeting since.) By 1952, Britain had its own atomic bomb.
In her fervent desire to partner the United States, Britain had developed a Cold War policy of ignoring continental coalitions. In 1951, an attempt to form a European Defense Community among the western European countries failed. In the same year, an effort to form a tariff-free Coal and Iron Community was formed, but Britain refused to join. She also refused to join the European Economic Community, founded in 1957. But by the 1960s, it became obvious that Britain's economy could not stand without good continental relations. She would join the EEC, and is now an active member of the new European Union as well.
Symbolism of Berlin
Berlin quickly became the symbol of the Cold War between the "free west" and the "communist east".
Beginning in 1947, Marshall Plan money began arriving in West Berlin (that is, the American, French, and British sectors of the city). Stalin had convinced all eastern European countries, including East Germany, to refuse Marshall Plan money as an attempt of the west to buy what it could not win. So West Berlin began rebuilding, while East Berlin remained poor, since its connections were all with other war-damaged countries behind the Iron Curtain. By 1948, the prosperity of West Berlin had become a problem for the Soviet Union. People from East Berlin were moving to West Berlin. From there they could benefit from the economy or move out into western Europe by plane or train. It was like a hole in the Iron Curtain, and a constant psychological reminder of the prosperity of the west. Stalin decided to close this hole by blockading West Berlin. Hoping to prevent the start of World War III over this, the U.S. responded by airlifting in supplies for months. Finally the blockade was lifted.
But the problem was still there. By 1961, all of eastern Europe was suffering a "brain drain": the finest minds in science and technology were leaving for the west through Berlin. They were obtaining jobs at western European and American labs and universities, for better pay than they could get in the east. The Soviet Union helped East Germany build the Berlin Wall. Carefully contructed far into the eastern side to prevent conflict, the Wall was built around West Berlin. People from the east could no longer get through.
The Wall provided the setting for conflict between British and Soviet intelligence, and thus the setting for a grand tradition of Cold War spy novels. John Le Carre wrote his first novel in 1961, the year the Wall was built. He himself had been a spy, although he says nothing he writes is authentic. Up until 1989, when the Wall was torn down, spy novelists like Le Carre and Len Deighton set numerous scenes at Checkpoint Charlie, one of the guarded gates between East and West Berlin.
The interesting thing about these novels is that they outline not only distrust of the Soviet Union, but distrust of the British government as well. Often in British spy novels and movies, the Brit hero defies authority. James Bond is a good example of this.
Britain's post-war Labour government was both socialist and democratic; it was not Marxist. British history demonstrates a much greater distinction between socialism and Soviet-style communism than we have in the U.S. This is true throughout Europe. Since the Bolshevik Revolution, Americans have tended to see any type of socialism as connected to Soviet communism. This has blurred American perceptions of global politics. For example, in 1946, Josip Tito broke Yugoslavia out from behind the Iron Curtain and created an independent communist country. Despite the fact that Yugoslavia practiced a policy of non-alignment, Americans assumed it was under Soviet control because it was communist. In 1950, North Korean communism was assumed by the U.S. to be Soviet-controlled, although there was little evidence of that; it was much closer to Chinese communism. Chinese communism, despite the fact that it broke from Soviet communism philosophically and militarily during the 1940s, was also seen by America as being controlled by the U.S.S.R. The word socialism is still, to many Americans, synonymous with Soviet communism.
But in Britain, it was possible to have a socialist government, while keeping communists out of trade unions and the Labour Party. At the same time, the foreign policy was clearly anti-Soviet. The Labour government's participation in the Korean War, and the Cold War in general, led to inflation and a national deficit. Labour was then voted out. Many members of the public felt that domestic issues were crucial. In particular, there was fear that the welfare state promoted so vigorously by Labour was too costly, and the nationalized industries were run inefficiently. On the side of Labour, however, it should be pointed out that the debt was also the result of 3 billion pounds in war damage, and the necessity of getting loans from the U.S. and Canada to rebuild the economy. The Labour government devalued the pound, increasing credit to prevent unemployment. But goods were scarce, so for many years Brits continued with war-time style rationing. This is why Britain does not look like the American suburbs during the 1950s.
Anyway, the Tories were in power by 1951, and Britain did start to experience recovery. The Tory goal was partial socialism, but a higher standard of living. The Tories could not do away with socialist programs, as they might have liked, because there was no public support. Although they had won the election, overall 13.7 million people had voted Conservative, but 13.9 million had voted Labour. Since the Labour votes were concentrated in working-class districts, Labour had returned only 295 MPs to the Tories' 321 MPs. But clearly there was no "mandate from the people" to do away with Labour policies. The government had to retain socialism, and it did. Iron, steel and trucking were de-nationalized (privatized), and rationing was ended, but the welfare state was retained. Coal, railroads, electricity, gas, and airlines were nationalized. Medicine was socialized. Housing was built for the poor (more, actually, than had been constructed by the Labour government).
The Tories supported laissez-faire economics, but kept wages high and unemployment low by using inflation. The economy began to grow by 4% a year. Real wages, farming, production, and exports began to increase. Britain became an international trend-setter in turboprop and jet airplanes, the creation of nuclear power plants, new sporty vehicles, and chemical products. This trend continued until 1964, when the growth rate slowed in comparison to that of West Germany, France, and Japan. British exports were no longer as desirable on the global market. Labour was voted back in.
In the post-war era, the emphasis in modern British society was on freedom. This was particularly true for women. For some women, it meant the freedom to join the workforce in order to afford a comfortable suburban home and new amenities. For others, naturally, work was necessary in order to survive and raise a family. In 1947, only 1% of women in England had a higher education, 18% had jobs outside the home, abortion was illegal, and wages were low. By 1978, 50% of women ages 20-45 were employed, most were educated beyond the age of 15, abortion was legal, and divorce was OK for reason of marital breakdown. There was even an Equal Pay Act, enacted in 1970 although it was rarely enforced.
Sexuality was a controversial topic in post-war Britain. Though far from the Victorian standard, sanctioned relationships were marital and heterosexual. There was a fear that sexual freedom would lead to a decay of morality. An example of this, often cited, was the illegitimacy rate, which went from 4.7% in 1955 to 8.4% in 1970. This rate is, however, far below that of the 18th century, where it had approached 50%. And in fact, premarital sex tended to lead to marriage: 60% of first-born children during the 1960s were conceived before the wedding. But there was a new freedom to discuss and express sexuality during the post-war era, and this led to legal changes. In 1959, prostitution became legal as long as it was "off the street". In 1967, homosexual relations between adults was made legal. The 1960s also saw the end of state censorship of theatres, which led to nude shows and such showing up all over London. The fashions, such as the mini-skirt (created by Mary Quant of Carnaby Street) reflected the new sexuality, with increasing freedom of choice but a continued objectification of women.
Education also showed a marked change. The old methods of rote learning and beating students who were disrespectful were on their way out. Fingerpainting, an open curriculum, and experiential learning were "in", much to the chagrin of some parents. There was fear that these changes would provide a poor education, but a 1967 study found that 11-year-olds in 1964 could read as well as the 12.5-year-olds of 1948.
The last area of substantive change was criminal justice. The 1960s saw the emergence of a humane view of criminals and prisoners. In 1967, beatings were outlawed in reform schools. In 1967, capital punishment was outlawed. And in 1970, an increase in probation and paroles led to shorter prison sentences, without a corresponding increase in crime.
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