Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
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Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.
Most people these days are proud to fly their country's flag. At international sporting events, you'll often see all sorts of flags being flown by proud citizens of the participating countries. Perhaps you've even heard the term most people use to describe this form of pride: nationalism.
Well, you may be surprised to learn that, historically speaking, nationalism is a relatively new phenomenon. Indeed, nationalism had its greatest impact on international events in the 20th century, when the fervent nationalism of countries like Germany and Italy led to aggressive foreign policy and global warfare. At the same time, that same type of domestic nationalism led to independence movements in many of Western Europe's colonies in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.
The growth of nationalism among native peoples in European colonies in Asia and Africa often played an enormous role in the process of decolonization. Indeed, without the growth of nationalist movements in colonies themselves, it was highly unlikely that colonial powers would unilaterally surrender their colonies. These nationalist movements necessarily varied from colony to colony.
Often they arose first from a group of educated intellectuals within the colony, often including individuals that had been educated in the colonizing country. For example, Mahatma Gandhi, the greatest hero of India's independence movement, was educated at University College in London while England held colonies in India. After growth in intellectual circles, nationalist movements generally spread outward to all sectors of colonial society, as members of the movement disseminated the message and informed their compatriots of the often imbalanced nature of colonial economics and the detrimental effect colonialism had on the society and culture of the colonized people. As movements grew, nationalists often rallied around symbols and ideas, which they could easily identify as their own, in essence asserting their cultural independence from the colonizers even before they could assert independence politically. Though characteristics of nationalist movements certainly varied across the spectrum of colonies in Asia and Africa, many movements exhibited at least some of these characteristics.
However, even with a strong nationalist movement, many of these nations lacked the resources to fight their powerful European overlords. While these movements could generally not look to the international community for military help, they did receive diplomatic help. Indeed, international organizations like the United Nations and countries like the United States increasingly became proponents of national self-determination in the post-WWII era. The theory behind national self-determination stated that the citizens of individual countries and colonies should largely be left to their own devices to decide which form of government was best for themselves. This often led to international pressure upon European states to peacefully sever control of their colonies when those colonies began clamoring for independence.
Decolonization in South Asia was a long process. Facets of Indian society had been peacefully fighting for Indian independence from Great Britain since the 19th century. For example, the foremost organization calling for Indian independence, the Indian National Congress, was created in 1885. As a result, the movement for independence was likely farther along in India by WWII than in any other country. Non-violent organizers, like Mahatma Gandhi, had mobilized large portions of society, and several violent suppressions of protests by British officials, such as the Amritsar Massacre in 1919, had turned popular sentiment against the colonizers.
Recognizing both domestic Indian cries for independence and worldwide anti-colonial sentiment, British Prime Minister Clement Attlee realized maintaining peaceful British control over India would be impossible, and he agreed to grant the expansive territory its independence. Before doing so, however, Attlee and the British government partitioned the colony into two states: India for the Hindus and Pakistan for the Muslims. This resulted in the mass migration of millions of Hindus and Muslims, who suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of the border. The partition did not end the violence in the region either, as the two countries fought over the border region of Kashmir, which still remains a contentious territory today.
Whereas India managed to avoid a major military struggle, in Southeast Asia, the world's largest archipelago, Indonesia, required several years of war to free themselves from Dutch control. Ironically, the Dutch did not even have control of Indonesia at the end of World War II. Indeed, Japan had controlled most of the Dutch colonial archipelago during WWII, and two days after the Japanese surrendered, Indonesia declared its independence from Japan and from their erstwhile Dutch colonizers on April 17, 1945.
The Netherlands had no intention of surrendering their colony easily but were in a tough position: their country and military were devastated by the German occupation during WWII, and despite making claims to Indonesia, the Netherlands had little resources or means to physically retake control of the archipelago. As a result, the British forces under Admiral Mountbatten attempted to hold the territory in the name of the Netherlands. However, nationalists maintained Indonesian independence, and fighting occurred in October 1945 between British forces and Indonesian nationalists who largely equipped themselves with abandoned Japanese equipment.
Not wanting to fight someone else's war, the British crafted an agreement between the Netherlands and the Indonesian nationalists in November 1946 that effectively split the archipelago between the two parties. Neither side was very happy with the agreement, and in July 1947, the Netherlands invaded the rest of the archipelago. By December 1948, the Netherlands had regained control of nearly the entire country and even captured Indonesia's president and vice-president. Despite the setbacks, Indonesian nationalists continued to make guerrilla strikes on soft Dutch targets.
Indeed, Indonesia might still be a Dutch colony today if not for the ensuing international intervention. The harsh tactics used by the Dutch military aroused the ire of the UN Security Council, in particular the United States. Newly independent Asian countries, like India, also vocally supported Indonesian nationalists in the international arena. In January 1949, the UN Security Council passed a resolution requiring the Netherlands to reinstall the Indonesian government. In the face of international sanctions, the Netherlands reluctantly agreed to relinquish control of Indonesia in July 1950, and by December, the Indonesian nationalist government was recognized internationally as the sovereign government of Indonesia.
The other hotspot of decolonization in Asia was Vietnam. The Vietnamese had been clamoring for independence from the French since before WWII. After WWII, armed conflict routinely broke out between Vietnamese guerrillas and French forces. In the 1950s, the United States began tacitly supporting the French and later the democratic South Vietnamese government in order to hinder the spread of communism. Meanwhile, the communist north, led by Ho Chi Minh, was secretly being supported by the Soviet Union and China.
After a U.S. naval vessel was attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, the United States began bombing North Vietnam and sent troops to the former French colony the following year. After nearly a decade of fierce and internationally controversial violence, the United States withdrew its troops in 1973, and the North Vietnamese united the country under the communist government when it took the southern capital, Saigon, in 1975. The country remains united under its communist government today.
The decolonization of South and Southeast Asia varied according to local circumstances. In India, non-violent protest and major demonstrations of civil disobedience, often led by Mahatma Gandhi, led to the eventually peaceful separation of India and Pakistan from Great Britain. In Indonesia and Vietnam, both countries had to fight for independence - Indonesia from the Dutch, and the Vietnamese from both its French colonizers and later the United States. In all, however, strong nationalist movements grew before the calls for independence began. Additionally, all were aided by international pressure on the colonizers to allow the principle of national self-determination to run its course.
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Back To CourseAP European History: Exam Prep
27 chapters | 244 lessons