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The Impact of the Second World War on Decolonisation

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The Second World War impacted the global balance of power to a degree that was unparalleled in human history. The empires that had ruled the world for at least the prior two centuries were left so decimated that they were forced to cede their colonial possessions as well as their status as global superpowers. Germany and Japan were completely stripped of their empires as a result of their defeat in the war. France and England, the two surviving European empires, saw an almost instant decline in their geopolitical influence and imperial possessions. The Second World War contributed to the replacement of France and England as world leaders by the United States and the Soviet Union. Decolonization left a power vacuum in many newly decolonised countries that was quickly filled by the Soviet Union and the United States, as they competed for influence and the spread of their political ideologies (communism vs. Liberal Democracy). The British and French empires were almost completely dismantled, with small island territories and institutions such as the British Commonwealth serving as the only remaining living relics of colonial power. The Second World War bred international condemnation of imperial ventures by emerging global superpowers such as the United States and organisations such as the United Nations, a significant decline in domestic and colonial popular support for empire by virtue of heightened social awareness, as well as the economic and military decline of the British and French states; resulting in the dismantlement of the British and French empires and their subsequent demise as global superpowers. 
The Second World War’s decimation the British Economy reduced Britain’s ability to maintain control over its imperial territories and contributed to the dismantlement of the British empire. The war took a massive toll on the British economy, as tens of billions of dollars were diverted to military spending in order to fight the expanding Axis powers. British military expenditure surged from $18.82 billion in 1938 to $80.42 billion in 1939. In 1945, the British government spent $135.31 billion. As a proportion of gross domestic product, military spending peaked at 52% of GDP in 1945. In other words, the post war British economy was a disaster. The national debt had reached 238% of GDP in 1947 after the conclusion of the war, by contrast, the national debt in 1940 was around 110% of GDP2. The British Pound was also in bad condition. While sterling was worth approximately $4 in 1938, it had been devalued to $2.80 by 1949. The post war depression that Britain experienced in the late 1940’s significantly lowered its power at the global negotiating table. While Britain had formerly enjoyed a virtual monopoly over trade with its colonies in the years before the Second World War, this commercial advantage later was later wiped out by a series of international agreements headed by the United States. The Ottawa conference of 1932 provided Britain with “favourable consideration in the allocation of public contracts, indirect subsidies to shipping, and preferential access to the capital market.”. Britain’s lack of influence led to agreements such as the 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which began to remove the advantageous trade relationship that Britain had with its colonies and protectorates. This was perhaps the most significant economic change that the British and other European empires faced. Suddenly, the mercantilist system that had so benefited the Imperial system by sending all wealth to the mother country was no longer in effect. Britain’s negotiating position was so weak that it was forced to accept an interest rate of 2% for a loan of $3.75 billion dollars. By contrast, the British, led by John Maynard Keynes, entered the loan negotiations with a proposal for a $5 billion loan with no interest.6 Even before the onset of the Second World War, the British Empire was an incredibly expensive venture. This expense would prove impossible to maintain after the war. The yearly cost of maintaining British military presence in “India would thus require £125 million and in the Middle East another £75 million, for a total cost of £200 million or $800 million, in one year alone.” 6 This amounted to near a quarter of the Anglo-American loan. With the massive debt accumulated by the war effort and the general depression in the British economy, the empire became impossible to maintain, leading to its subsequent dismantlement. 
France also experienced significant economic decline after the conclusion of the Second World War, which contributed to its empire’s ensuing break up. France massively increased its spending after the onset of the war, with its military expenditure rising from $10.43 billion in 1939 to $57.49 billion in 1940.1 The French Franc was significantly devalued under the Bretton Woods system: first in 1945 when it was priced at 119.1 francs per USD, and then again in 1949 when it was priced at 350 francs per USD.  Unlike Britain, France was successfully invaded and occupied in 1940, and therefore experienced unparalleled destruction. France was bombed by both the Axis and Allied powers during the German invasion of France and its Allied recapture after the Normandy Invasion. French cities were turned to rubble, fields and factories were destroyed, and infrastructure was decimated. France, along with Britain, was a major benefactor of the American Marshall plan, which provided approximately $13 billion dollars for the rebuilding of European economies. This put France at the mercy of American interests and contributed to France’s inability to retain its colonial possessions. France was also required to concede its imperial trade advantages, as the 1947 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) forced it to lower tariffs and liberalise the economies of its territories.5 The economic toll of the Second World war, caused by a massive increase in military expenditure as well as the destruction of French cities, manufacturing, and infrastructure, contributed greatly to France’s inability to preserve its colonial possessions, leading to the ensuing break up of its empire.
The economic depression that plagued Britain and France left both countries unable to maintain their empires and defend them from nationalist revolutions. British India was the first major colony to gain independence as a result of the Second World War. India had been steadily resisting British rule since before the first Government of India Act in 1919. Indian resistance increased during the Salt March of 1930, and it had become clear that independence was an inevitability despite the concessions of the 1935 second Government of India Act. By the time the Quit India movement had reached full swing, Britain was unable to maintain its control over the massive territory. In 1947, the Indian Independence Act was signed, granting independence to the separate nations of India and Pakistan. This marked a key moment in British decolonisation, as it ceded rule over its largest territory (the jewel in the crown of its empire).

From 1946 in Vietnam, the First Indochina war raged between the French and the communist Viet Minh resistance forces. This conflict was incredibly violent and quickly evolved from a fight between the French and a small insurgency into a full blown war between two well supplied armies. The Indochina war was unique in that it became a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union, as they funded and armed opposite sides in the conflict. The war ended with the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu on the 7th of May 1954, with the relinquishing control over the region. Vietnam was temporarily divided between the Communists in the North and the State of Vietnam in the South as a result of the 1954 Geneva conference. French presence in the region was quickly replaced by that of the American Military, which launched a campaign to fight the guerilla forces of the Viet Cong which ultimately resulted in the famed Vietnam War. The French withdrawal and American entrance into the conflict demonstrate the decline of French influence on the world stage, and the emergence of the United States’ role as a global superpower. Both Indian and Vietnamese independence marked the first steps in the rapid wave of decolonisation that would follow in the decades after the end of the Second World War and the decline of France and Britain as global powers. 
International pressure from the United States and governmental organisations such as the newly founded United Nations, as well as heightened social awareness both in the European nations and their colonies made it significantly more difficult for France and Britain to justify fighting for their foreign possessions. The hypocrisy of the British and French empires became clear after they signed onto the Atlantic Charter of 1941. The Charter outlined the objectives of the allied forces in the Second World War for the future of the world, including a commitment to “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live”. This promise of self determination for all states contrasted greatly with British and French attempts to re establish control over their colonial territories. This hypocrisy was not missed by the colonial independence movements. Gandhi cited the Atlantic Charter as justification for Indian independence, and the populations of both the colonies and their mother countries grew tired of unjustified attempts by European states to re establish their empires. The tide of public opinion and international pressure against French and British colonialism culminated during the Suez Crisis, which arguably opened the floodgates for the rapid wave of decolonisation that followed. The Suez crisis began after Egyptian president Nasser announced the nationalisation of the Suez canal which had been under joint French and British control since its construction in 1859. The role of the canal had recently undergone a massive transformation. The canal had turned into “the highway not of empire, but of oil.”–”By 1955, petroleum accounted for half of the canal’s traffic, and, in turn, two thirds of Europe’s oil passed
through it”.  France and Britain, desperate to retain ownership of the canal which allowed for the control of valuable oil shipments, decided to launch a secretly coordinated full scale invasion of the region with the help of their Israeli allies. On October 29th 1956, Israeli forces invaded the Sinai peninsula, advancing within 10 miles of the canal. French and British paratrooper forces landed on the 5th of November, supported by the landing of British commandos a few days later. The invasion was a success from a military point of view but was met with international and domestic condemnation. It was also observed that the joint British and French actions were in direct conflict with the right to self determination that was highlighted in the Atlantic Charter. The Labor opposition party organised nation-wide rallies, the most notorious of which occurred in London’s Trafalgar Square were protesters chanted “Law not war!”.20 

International condemnation was similarly stern. The Swedish Ambassador to Britain wrote in a letter to a British conservative MP: “I don’t think there is any part of the world where the sympathies for England are greater than in Scandinavia. But Scandinavian opinion has never been more shocked by a British government’s action—not even by the British-German Naval Agreement of 1935—than by the Suez intervention.”.  International pressure from the United Nations, headed by the United States, ultimately led to a ceasefire and the eventual withdrawal of French and British troops from the region. The British were partly forced into this ceasefire by American threats to the British economy. Eisenhower threatened to sell British government bonds and refuse to loan Britain the billion dollars that its economy required. The failure of the joint French and British invasion of the Suez canal demonstrated that both countries were no longer able to conduct the imperial ventures of the past, and that they were now at the mercy of popular opinion, as well as global superpowers such as the United States and international organisations such as the United Nations. 
It can be argued that the First World War, was the true cause of European decolonisation in the 20th century, not the second. Both the British and the French economies suffered severe depressions as a result of the Great War, including enormous debts and high unemployment. Britain experienced a massive decrease in its share of global exports. By the mid 1920’s, Britain, once the world’s largest exporter of manufactured goods before the First World War, saw its yearly exports reduced to 75% of their 1913 level. But the flaw in this argument rests with the fact that both France and Britain actually expanded their empires as a result of the Treaty of Versailles in the Aftermath of the Great War. France gained former Ottoman territories in Lebanon and Syria as well as the German colonies of Togo and Cameroon, while Britain actually reached the peak of its territorial possessions in 1922. The Treaty of Versailles granted Britain control of the former Ottoman and German territories of Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq, as well as Cameroon, Togoland, and Tanganyika. British dominions also increased their territories. South Africa gained modern day Namibia, Australia acquired New Guinea, and New Zealand gained Western Samoa. The British Empire gained an incredible 1,800,000 miles of territory, and 13 million new subjects. It was at the conclusion of the First World War that the saying “The sun never sets on the British Empire” became most applicable. While the First World War undeniably weakened the British and French economies, the territorial expansion that both empires experienced rules it out as the cause of decolonisation in the second half of the 20th century. It was the Second World War which administered the cardinal blow that rendered the French and British empires unable to maintain and defend their colonial possessions. 
The expeditious wave of decolonisation that swept over the British and French empires after the Second World War shaped the geography of the contemporary world, creating many of the modern nation states and borders that can be seen on the map to this day. A combination of international pressure, heightened social awareness in Britain, France, and their colonies, as well as the weakening of their armies and economies as a result of the Second World War lead to their decline as global powers, inability to fight off colonial revolutions, and the subsequent dismantlement of their empires. Britain and France’s withdrawal from their colonial possessions ended the age of old territorial empires and marked the end of Western European supremacy on the world’s geopolitical stage. A century that was initially shaped by a struggle between European powers for global territorial acquisition concluded with a battle between two emerging world leaders with competing political ideologies. Two new global superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, took the reins in international affairs and influenced world politics for the remainder of the 20th century.


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