Small Wars, Far Away Places: The Genesis of the Modern World - 1945-65
By Michael Burleigh (Macmillian 588pp £25)
The twenty years after the end of the Second World War were in their way as terrifying as the conflict itself. They contained a comparable threat to the world order: the defeat of fascism was followed by the ascendancy of communism. The period also saw the shift of global power away from Europe, where it had historically resided, towards America. By the 1960s the Americans had established a hegemony rivalled only by the Soviet Union - which was still a fair way behind. The great prewar power, Britain, was bankrupt but only gradually understanding its impotence. Within a few months of the Second World War ending, the Cold War had begun. America's monopoly on the nuclear deterrent lasted only briefly, as spies gave the Soviets the necessary secrets to make their own bomb by 1949. With the nations of Europe determined not to go to war with each other again, the new superpower and its enemy sought instead to fight by proxy in the Far East, Africa and even the Caribbean. These are the stories, among others, that Michael Burleigh tells in this superb, scholarly, insightful and often witty account of conflicts between 1945 and 1965.
Burleigh does not try to deal with the whole world, but chooses episodes in which he has a special interest, and which illustrate the main theme of his work: how America ended up, by the completion of Eisenhower's presidency, as what in 1066 and All That is called 'Top Nation'. This was the culmination of a policy of Woodrow Wilson that had underpinned the American approach to the Versailles conference in 1919: the destruction of European imperial power. The Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns and Ottomans had all gone; the unfinished business was the British Empire, which proved unsustainable after 1945. As Burleigh records, the Americans were quite clear from the moment they entered the Second World War in December 1941 that their war aims did not include the salvation and prolongation of the British Empire. And, even before Indian independence in 1947, America was behaving as though it would brook no contradiction in the world, extending its reach through both allies and clients. This was partly because it saw itself as the only natural bulwark against the spread of communism and partly because it had become accustomed, since Wilson's day, of aspiring to the position of top dog. The hubris that this mindset created is well illustrated by Burleigh, as America intervened in the Philippines, Cuba and Vietnam with increasingly depressing results.
Britain's abdication of power is shown to be the direct result of being broke. Before 1947, the country had already signalled to its main ally that it could no longer afford to fulfil the role expected of it in the Middle East. It was keen to get out of Palestine as quickly as possible, but that lesson seems to have been forgotten by the Conservative government of the 1950s, which went back into the region with disastrous consequences. Burleigh quite correctly depicts the Suez debacle of November 1956 as the moment when reality overtook Britain and its rulers finally realised it had become a bit-part player. Its attempts to fight the Malayan insurgency held back the tide for a time, but soon white planters were driven out to safer shores. The maintenance of African colonies was possible only on the basis of racist brutality, such as at Hola camp in Kenya, where in 1959 guards beat Mau Mau detainees to death, something that preceded Macmillan's 'winds of change' speech by a few months.
Britain was not, however, the only empire to come undone during these years. So too did France's, first in Indochina in the face of Chinese-backed communists, then in Algeria against nationalists. Only de Gaulle, the last man to surrender a square centimetre of French territory, saw the impossibility of maintaining his country's presence in North Africa. By ambiguity, duplicity and downright betrayal of his principles - and of the Harkis who had loyally served France - he extricated his country from a bloodbath. Algeria, like so many former British colonies, continued to savage itself for decades afterwards, but at least France could seek to wash its hands of that. Further south in Africa the Belgians and the Portuguese were equally brutal and inept, not least in their knack of enabling Soviet influence to gain a foothold all over Africa through Marxist guerrilla organisations, often with less than enlightening results.
America benefited from this haemorrhage of European power even more than the Soviet Union. Although its relationship with individual European countries would never be quite that of master and servant - not until Tony Blair's day, at least - the growth of American might, as the last European colonies were being wound down, reminded all concerned who the masters really were now. With that sensibility came an unfortunate arrogance. Burleigh is particularly sharp in his comparative depictions of Eisenhower and his successor, Kennedy: the former a man of great experience at command and with no desire to grandstand, the latter a construct of his appalling father, whose way into politics was bought by family money. Eisenhower is shown as a man who moved slowly and with wisdom while America built its power in the 1950s. He never lost the soldier's appreciation of which wars could be won, and therefore safely fought. He also had the realism to grasp that Britain was posturing (with Churchill as posturer-in-chief) in the 1950s by presenting itself as a world power and, even when that delusion had gone, by claiming it deserved a 'special' place in international relations with America. Ike was unsentimental in his attitude and dismissed the notion accordingly, almost with a tone of pity.
Burleigh is a fine and concise writer, but nowhere in this book does he excel himself more than in his short pen-portrait of Kennedy, a moral sink incapable of taking anything seriously other than whichever woman he was pursuing at the time. Together with his unlovely brother Bobby, assassinated five years after him, Kennedy blundered into the Bay of Pigs fiasco and only escaped the Cuban Missile Crisis intact by the happy accident of Khrushchev's incompetence and the Soviet leader's difficult relationship with Fidel Castro. Yet it was Lyndon Johnson who perpetrated the ultimate blunder of American arrogance, with his heavy commitment of fighting forces to Vietnam. Harry Truman, who was still alive at the time, could have told him categorically about the headaches the Korean War had given him, and the relief after America extricated itself. But Johnson believed in America's divine mission to fight the communist menace, and never imagined his country would suffer the humiliation that the French had endured a decade previously with the shocking defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Michael Burleigh's magnificent book ends before Vietnam became America's literal and moral graveyard: not the least reason to hope for a successor volume is to read his interpretation of how that story played out.
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Simon Heffer's intellectual and social history of mid-19th century Britain, High Minds, will be published by Random House this autumn.