Sixty years ago, a whopping 17 former African colonies became independent nations. In commemoration, I’m doing a miniseries on decolonization on this blog. So far, you can read an overview over decolonization and a closer look at decolonization processes within a colony. Today, we’ll deal with decolonization in the international context of the Cold War. All too often, it is assumed that the anticolonial movements and newly independent states were mere pawns in the games of the superpowers. However, they had quite some agency of their own. As you rightly expect, we’ll look at how different board games deal with the complex relationship between the Cold War and decolonization.
Currents of History: Decolonization and the Cold War
Decolonization peaked in the decades after World War II. That coincided with the Cold War, but the process of decolonization had begun much earlier. Therefore, early anti-colonial movements usually fell outside of the ideological patterns of the Cold War. For example, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam drew inspiration from an eclectic mix of thinkers ranging from Marx and Lenin over Sun Yat-Sen and Gandhi to Thomas Jefferson. The superpowers also rarely got involved in decolonization until the mid-1950s: The USSR under Stalin was insulated and uninterested in the wider world, and the United States was torn between its anticolonial convictions and its alliance with the European colonial powers as well as an uneasiness in its relations with non-white countries mirroring the fraught domestic racial politics. Correspondingly, Africa as the epicenter of decolonization is not scored at all in the early stage of Cold War flagship game Twilight Struggle (Ananda Gupta/Jason Matthews, GMT Games).
Objects: Superpower Designs on the Decolonizing World
Both superpowers identified as anticolonialist. The US was itself born out of anticolonial struggle against Britain. The Soviet Union equated colonialism and capitalist imperialism and promised liberation from both. In addition to the two biggest players, the People’s Republic of China grew ever more active on the international stage and became a rival to both of them – and China presented itself as an ally untainted by the often racist paternalism of the white, industrialized US and USSR. Despite their ideological differences, the three countries had one thing in common: They were convinced that their respective political and economic model was the best thing that could happen to a decolonizing or newly independent state.
Consequently, they aimed to export their ideologies and their concepts of modernity and progress to the global South. Over time, the focus of these ideological exports often shifted: The United States dropped democratization as a major goal, prioritizing the integration into the global capitalist economy via economic development (an essentially contested concept).
Khrushchev’s USSR aimed for an anti-imperialist broad front which was not only to contain Marxist movements. His successor Brezhnev, however, was less interested in the variety of African and Asian anticolonial movements and post-colonial governments and insisted more rigidly on their ideological adherence as a precondition for – predominantly military – Soviet aid.
The main goal of China’s policy in the decolonization conflicts was to challenge Soviet leadership of the socialist camp. However, there was no coherent Chinese global South policy, as the domestic chaos of the Cultural Revolution spilled over into a chaotic foreign policy.
With these rivaling concepts for the global South, fierce competition ensued. That was in line with the agonal logic of the Cold War – just like in the space race or at the Olympics, leaving the other superpower uncontested in any area was inconceivable. As superpower détente shifted their confrontation away from Europe, these battlegrounds in the global South gained importance. At the same time, the superpower conflicts there (most notably those in Angola and Afghanistan) undermined détente. Twilight Struggle captures this relationship very nicely: There will be a battleground coup in a country of the global South at the beginning of most turns to make use of the relaxation of tensions (DEFCON) at turn end right before. And one of the most powerful cards depicting a détente event, ABM Treaty, is almost exclusively used to raise DEFCON and immediately lower it again with another such coup – the energies freed from the nuclear arms race are funnelled into a conflict in the global South right away!
In addition to their roles as recipients of ideology and battlegrounds, the newly independent countries worked as a scoreboard of the superpowers. The United States and Soviet Union fought for the alignment of countries regardless of their geostrategic value, as the adoption of a respective political and economic model by another country validated that model in the eyes of the world (at least, the superpowers thought so). As time passed, the superpowers tended to look at events in the global south more and more through the lens of the Cold War – which prevented them from true understanding of the local conditions. The „scoreboard“ metaphor already implies game-like logic – and, unsurprisingly, it is used in games (as in Twilight Struggle, where players aim to have a majority of countries (and battleground countries) in a region and thereby often race for additional supporting countries in Africa to score domination or deny it to their opponents. Suddenly, Kenya, a country to which no superpower had paid any attention before, becomes a valuable prize.
Subjects: Using the Cold War to One’s Own Purpose
While the local actors in decolonizing countries were less powerful than the superpowers, they were not less smart. And they had one invaluable advantage: They understood the Cold War much better than the superpowers understood local conditions. Thus, I present to you three cases in which local actors got way more out of their partnership with the superpowers than the other way round.
Algeria was technically not a colony, but an integral part of France. Therefore, France was committed to fight tooth and nails against the independence movement of the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale, Front of National Liberation). And, as the balance of power between a mighty industrialized country with a modern military and a rebel movement with a few amateur fighters looked grim for the FLN, its leader Hocine Aït Ahmed knew he could not win the localized matchup. Instead, he sought to internationalize it.
Ahmed identified the United States as his main target. If the US could be brought to restrain France, independence might be possible. Therefore, he made it clear that the future relationship between Algeria and the West would depend on how independence would have been achieved. He wanted to make the US think twice about simply siding with France – and so the FLN embarked on a major media campaign in which local operations were not planned for military success, but for PR use (e.g., coinciding with UN meetings).
Ahmed succeeded in finding new friends – he got most post-colonial countries to recognize the FLN as the rightful government of Algeria, gained hardline support from the Arab countries, and openly flirted with the eastern bloc. As the United States needed France – an initial thaw in superpower relations after Khrushchev’s accession to power had given way to new tensions – they gave in. And so did France. Worn out by the FLN’s endless string of media and diplomatic successes, France acceded to Algerian independence – even though the FLN did not control any larger or more populated part of Algeria.
Angola did not have the benefit of a single unified anticolonial movement. Instead, it had three: The FNLA (Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola, National Front of the Liberation of Angola) got a headstart when its leader Holden Roberto gained US support on a trip to Washington – by insinuating that the rival movement MPLA (Movimento Popular de Libertação de Angola, Popular Movement of the Liberation of Angola) was a Marxist organization. That, of course, shut American coffers to the MPLA, who tried their luck instead in the socialist camp, but initially did not get more than half-hearted support from Yugoslavia and East Germany. The MPLA’s fortunes improved once China began sending military advisers to the third movement UNITA (União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola, National Union for the Total Independence of Angola). The Soviets saw this as a threat to their leadership role in the socialist camp and threw their weight behind the MPLA.
When the Portuguese finally gave up on their colonies (it took a revolution in metropolitan Portugal for that), the free-for-all for power in Angola began. The FNLA was quickly sidelined, and so UNITA snatched up US support by virtue of fighting against the Soviet-supported MPLA (notwithstanding UNITA’s ties to China!). Another local actor joined the fray: White supremacist South Africa (tacitly supported by the US) invaded Angola from the south in support of black nativist UNITA and marched on Luanda. That put the Soviet Union in a bind – the Soviets did not want to let Angola fall to UNITA and the South Africans, but neither did they want to intervene themselves for fear of hurting détente with the United States. And so the mighty Soviet Union had to be saved by another small country: Castro’s Cuba stepped forward to send soldiers to fight with the MPLA (provided the Soviet Union would contribute the logistics and heavy weaponry). Now the tide turned, and the MPLA drove UNITA and the South Africans back. US president Ford wanted to counter that by stepping up US commitment, yet Congress would have none of it. Only a year after Nixon had resigned over Watergate and seven months after the evacuation of Saigon, most members of Congress were suspicious of executive power and weary of war. Thus, the spiral of escalation ended. Angola (Phil Kendall, Multi-Man Publishing) features a similar escalation: More and heavier weaponry is given to the players, who are thus lured into thinking that now they surely have everything they need for the one big push… just to be thwarted when their opponents get an even shinier piece of military hardware.
We’ve seen anticolonial movements use the superpowers for their advantage – but so could those who were sworn to uphold the dominance of a European minority over a native majority. As the US government’s stance on domestic race issues changed from the mid-fifties on, so did their foreign policy, which confirmed the right of colonized peoples to self-determination. However, the Communism card still trumped self-determination – and no one was more adroit in playing it than the white minority governments in the south of Africa.
Even an international pariah like white minority Rhodesia – which had unilaterally declared independence from Britain – could muster some support if anti-communist reflexes prevailed in London or Washington. The White Tribe (R. Ben Madison, White Dog Games) employs these shifts as random events – they are outside of the control of the Rhodesian player who has to adapt and make the best of them.
Rhodesia’s independent white-minority republic was short-lived (and The White Tribe is notoriously tough for the solo player in the shoes of the Prime Minister of Rhodesia). Another attempt at using the Cold War to further white minority rule was more successful: In the late 1940s, South Africa tightened the screws on its apartheid system of systematically disadvantaging the black population majority. At the same time, it cracked down on „anti-Communist“ activities – very much in keeping with the prevalent spirit in the United States at that time. In practice, any kind of activism for racial equality was labelled Communist and thus repressed by the South African government for the next forty years. It was only the end of the Cold War from the late 1980s on which removed the United States‘ traditional support for the South Africa’s brand of anti-Communism. South Africa’s conflict, like so many others kept alive by the logic of the Cold War and fuelled by its protagonists, was resolved in the early 90s with the transition to majority rule under the first black president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela – a man whose anti-apartheid activities during the Cold War had netted him a spot on a US government terrorist watchlist as late as 1988. He would remain on that list until 2008. Both the Cold War and decolonization have a long shadow.
The Big and the Small in the Cold War
The small, local actors were by no means the pawns of the superpowers. In fact, they often used the superpowers more to their advantage than the other way round. Nonetheless, superpower interventions in decolonization conflicts came at a price – it usually made them longer and bloodier. Thus, many conflicts which had been escalated during some point of the Cold War could only be resolved after it had ended.
And that’s a wrap for the decolonization miniseries! What’s your favorite board game about decolonization?
For short introductions on the relationship between decolonization and the Cold War see the respective chapters in the Cambridge History of the Cold War: Bradley, Mark Philip: Decolonization, the Global South, and the Cold War, 1919—1962, in: Leffler, Melvyn P./Westad, Odd Arne (Hgg.): The Cambridge History of the Cold War. Volume I. Origins, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge et al. 2013, p. 464—485, and Latham, Michael E.: The Cold War in the Third World, 1963—1975, in: Leffler, Melvyn P./Westad, Odd Arne (Hgg.): The Cambridge History of the Cold War. Volume II. Crises and Détente, Cambridge et al. 2010, p. 258—280.
The most insightful monograph on superpower competition in the global South is Westad, Odd Arne: The Global Cold War. Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2005.
On the FLN’s diplomedia strategy, see the excellent Connelly, Matthew: Rethinking the Cold War and Decolonization. The Grand Strategy of the Algerian War for Independence, in: International Journal of Middle East Studies, 33, 2, 2001, S. 221—245.