Introduction to The End of Colonialism (1960–1988)

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Introduction to The End of Colonialism (1960–1988)

Two world wars and a crippling economic depression within thirty years left European society exhausted and its military forces depleted. Western Europe recovered economically but could no longer maintain the colonial structures through which it had exerted global power. After World War II nationalist movements for self-determination won victories worldwide, and the world’s political map rapidly transformed as former colonies and protectorates became independent states. The United Nations, co-founded by 51 countries in 1945, grew to 144 member states by 1975.

Some countries, such as the island nations of the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, achieved a peaceful transition to self-government. In much of Africa, however, freedom arrived through armed struggle. Algeria gained independence after eight bitter years of war with France. Many African nationalist leaders, such as Jomo Kenyatta (c. 1894–1978) of Kenya and Patrice Lumumba (1925–1961) of the Congo, were jailed for their activities. The tide was turning toward independence, however, and between 1955 and 1965, most of the African continent escaped colonialism’s chains.

Political liberation, sadly, was only the first hurdle in Africa’s recovery from centuries of foreign interference. The new nations faced daunting problems: revenue shortages, external debt, disputes over borders drawn by the colonial powers, inexperience with governing, ethnic conflicts, civil wars, and famine. A number of leaders turned dictatorial and assassinated their opponents. Some corrupt authorities amassed personal fortunes while neglecting their responsibilities. Political stability and economic development continued to elude much of sub-Saharan Africa into the twenty-first century, while the AIDS pandemic ravaged the continent.

As colonialism collapsed in these decades, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union shaped the evolving world picture. Many newly independent states embraced the free markets and democratic institutions promoted by the United States. Others adopted the communist worldview of the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China, emulating their model of one-party rule with a state-directed economy. In Vietnam Communist forces led by Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969) defeated the French, then the Americans, in a thirty-year war costing three million lives. In neighboring Cambodia, the Maoist Khmer Rouge rebels, led by the infamous Pol Pot (1928–1998), took power in 1975. More than one million Cambodians went to their deaths before a Vietnamese invasion ousted the oppressive Khmer Rouge in 1979.

Conflict continued to brew in the Middle East, due to the displacement of Palestinians by the formation of Israel. Israel defeated Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq in the Six-Day War of 1967, seizing and occupying territories that remained under dispute into the twenty-first century. Egypt and Syria started the next Arab-Israeli war in 1973, on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. This time, the oil-producing Arab states imposed an embargo on the United States and Israel’s other supporters. The “oil shock” drove up the price of petroleum on world markets, revealing to the industrial West the dangers of dependence on foreign energy sources.

An Islamic revolution in Iran drove the country’s autocratic, Western-backed leadership from power in 1979. Iran’s new leader, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900?–1989), symbolized the face of Islamic confrontation with the West. Iran’s revolution also fractured its relations with the secular government of Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein (1937–2006), and the two Persian Gulf nations warred from 1980 to 1988. The United States quietly armed both sides of the conflict, then backed Hussein more openly. The support would be short-lived.

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Introduction to The End of Colonialism (1960–1988)

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Introduction to The End of Colonialism (1960–1988)