Chapter 27 The Era of Decolonization

On August 14, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru welcomed the birth of Indian independence, in words that resonated for other peoples seeking freedom from colonial rule:


"Long years ago we made a tryst [appointment] with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of the nation, long suppressed, finds utterance. . . .

     At the dawn of history India started on her unending quest, and trackless centuries are filled with her striving and the grandeur of her successes and failures. Through good and ill fortune alike she has never lost sight of that quest or forgotten the ideals which gave her strength. We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again. The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us.[1]


India's achievement of independence was but the first act in a political drama that remade the face of Asia and Africa in the years after World War II. In 1945 most of the countries of the two continents were still controlled by foreigners; within a generation nearly all governed their own destiny.

In addition to marking a major watershed in the history of Europe, World War II was also a watershed in the West’s relations with the rest of the world. The war itself had contributed to the growing pressure for decolonization—the withdrawal of the colonial powers from their colonies and spheres of influence. As in World War I, once again the colonial peoples had observed Westerners killing each other and had themselves participated in the process. Moreover, the fall of Singapore to the Japanese had exploded the myth of Western military and technological superiority once and for all. Not least, for many colonial peoples, the Allies themselves had seemed to promise self-determination for all peoples after the war in the Atlantic Charter.

As the Western colonial powers emerged from the war exhausted and financially bankrupt, a new generation of nationalist leaders in Asia and Africa demanded independence and an end to colonialism. Astonishingly, perhaps, in the two decades following the war the European colonial powers generally granted such demands with relatively little substantial resistance. Decolonization, however, did not necessarily mean a reduction in the overall power and influence of Western civilization in the rest of the world.

Although the new nations might be politically independent technically, they continued to live in the shadow of two great worldviews that had emerged in Europe since the 16th century – worldviews that reflected two opposing responses to the implications and problems raised by the West’s experience of the Scientific Revolution and the era of industrialization and modernization it had precipitated.  The mostly Western-educated indigenous nationalists of Asia and Africa were themselves largely products of one or other of these intellectual and ideological European worldviews – liberal democracy and capitalism in the West versus totalitarianism and communism in the East. In the years before World War II, many western-educated nationalist leaders had found the Marxist-Leninist argument that imperialism was an inescapable function of capitalism as a useful ideological tool in their struggles for independence. As the new leaders confronted the problems of independence against the background of the Cold War, the greater efficiency of the capitalist market-oriented economic model, and the consequent continuing Western economic dominance of the global economy, soon gave rise to charges of “neocolonialism.”