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date: 15 July 2018

Summary and Keywords

The decolonization of the European overseas empires had its intellectual roots early in the modern era, but its culmination occurred during the Cold War that loomed large in post-1945 international history. This culmination thus coincided with the American rise to superpower status and presented the United States with a dilemma. While philosophically sympathetic to the aspirations of anticolonial nationalist movements abroad, the United States’ vastly greater postwar global security burdens made it averse to the instability that decolonization might bring and that communists might exploit. This fear, and the need to share those burdens with European allies who were themselves still colonial landlords, led Washington to proceed cautiously. The three “waves” of the decolonization process—medium-sized in the late 1940s, large in the half-decade around 1960, and small in the mid-1970s—prompted the American use of a variety of tools and techniques to influence how it unfolded.

Prior to independence, this influence was usually channeled through the metropolitan authority then winding down. After independence, Washington continued and often expanded the use of these tools, in most cases on a bilateral basis. In some theaters, such as Korea, Vietnam, and the Congo, through the use of certain of these tools, notably covert espionage or overt military operations, Cold War dynamics enveloped, intensified, and repossessed local decolonization struggles. In most theaters, other tools, such as traditional or public diplomacy or economic or technical development aid, affixed the Cold War into the background as a local transition unfolded. In all cases, the overriding American imperative was to minimize instability and neutralize actors on the ground who could invite communist gains.

Keywords: decolonization, Cold War, anticolonialism, communism, containment, Wilsonianism, anti-imperialism, nationalism

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