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Colonies and the Peace

ISSUE:  Winter 1945

It is time that we brought into the open the whole question of post-war colonies, more particularly the disposition of the colonies set adrift by the war. In the first place, what is done about colonies after modern wars is an acid test of the kind of peace that is desired by the victors and the kind of world envisaged by them. In the second place, under cover of discreet silence there are already indications of maneuvers, feelers, and delicate manifestations of interest in colonies that are, to say the least, suspicious. We may find some day that without words, without negotiations, and by some kind of magnetic polarization everything has been settled with respect to colonies, and settled on the age-old plan that he has taken who can. And that will bode ill for the prospects of the brave adventure of fashioning a new world, a world free from the menace of war and subject to law in the relations between nations as in the relations between individuals. In the third place, colonies are one of the points of sensitiveness in Anglo-American relations. Rationally or irrationally, America’s trust in Great Britain and willingness to enter into international co-operation will vary inversely with the amount of territory added to Great Britain as a result of the war. A really Machiavellian Middle Western isolationist would not conduct whispering campaigns against British imperialism and Russian communism. He would advocate giving French and Italian colonies in Africa and Asia to Great Britain.

It is better, then, to bring the question into the open now, not in magniloquent, abstract generalities of the kind already too common in discussion of the post-war world, but in concretes—this place, this people, this Great Power. Colonialism as such, the whole institution of imperialism evolved over the last hundred years, cannot and should not be dealt with at this point. We cannot abolish imperialism at a clip, however clearly we can and should recognize that the empire-dependency relationship cannot long endure. Sooner or later that relationship will have to be transformed, preferably in stages varying with localities and peoples; but that cannot be undertaken in the immediate aftermath of a war whose upheavals will not have settled for years. What can and should be done now, however, is to lay down at once and unmistakably the rule that there shall be no colonial profiteering on this war, that there shall be no colonial spoils to the victors as after the last war.

This brings into question the colonies of our enemies and of our allies first overwhelmed by Germany and Japan, the French, Dutch, and Italian colonies in particular. Germany had no colonies and Japan’s have already been fairly well settled, with the exception of the mandated islands in the Pacific. What belonged to China goes back to China and Korea will be put on the way to independence, as pledged at the Cairo conference. It is with respect to the French, Dutch, and Italian colonies that we have still to decide, and it is with respect to them that there have been the most disquieting indications. They are the counterparts in this war of the German and Turkish colonies in the last war, those that were allotted to the victors as spoils of victory under the protective coloration of the so-called mandate system. They had better be watched now. The art and science of political camouflage have not retrogressed.

It is curious how non-committal we have all been about French possessions, for example—curious in light of how much has been said about other post-war questions. Officially and unofficially there has been debate concerning what to do about Germany or about Polish boundaries; there has been debate on whether the De Gaulle Committee is or is not representative of France and how France shall proceed to reconstitute a government. It has been said explicitly again and again that France will be sovereign and independent and free to choose its own form of government—in metropolitan France. But why the pointed silence about Indo-China, say, or French North Africa or, even more, about Dakar? Why would it not be possible to be equally explicit about any or all of them—unless there is in mental reservation a good reason for not being explicit?

It will be well to keep one’s eye on French Indo-China especially. In all that has been said and written about the post-war Far East there is a noteworthy air of judicial detachment about the future of Indo-China, as if it were newly discovered territory or a kind of political no man’s land. Certainly in the Far East French colonial territory is put in a category quite apart from other Occidental possessions, its disposition after the war to be governed by special considerations. Why? What political, historical, or moral difference is there between French colonialism in the East on the one hand and British and Dutch and American on the other? No doubt there will have to be a general re-examination of the whole Western territorial and political position in the Far East after the war, but why should France’s title alone come under question?

If the time has come to enunciate a new law of international society under which the native peoples of Southeastern Asia are to be emancipated to live their national lives in accordance with their own aspirations and desires, why should that law be valid for French Indo-China and not for British Burma and British Malaya and Dutch Java and Sumatra? What distinction is there between one and another in point of law, morals, politics, or the way in which they were acquired? Or, if international trusteeship of colonial areas is deemed necessary to prevent conflict in Southeastern Asia or elsewhere, as many seem now to believe, why should it be applied to French possessions alone and not to British and Dutch? Why the division between imperial sheep and goats? True, not very much can be said for French colonial rule in Indo-China. It has been backward, inefficient, indifferent to the welfare of the native people, and in spots hardly free from corruption. But not too much can be said for the colonial rule of other Powers in that part of the world or for colonial rule anywhere else for that matter. Everywhere the main criterion of colonial rule has been the power and profit of the ruler. In recent years the record of the Dutch and British in Southeastern Asia has been better than it was before and better than that of the French, but the difference is one of degree only.

That a basic readjustment will have to be made in colonial relations in the Far East is clear; that will be discussed later. But in all equity and political logic it should not be such as to penalize one empire alone. What is to be true for France must be true for all. And until all rule over Eastern lands is retroceded to the native peoples, there is no reason why France should be compelled to give up Indo-China—not even to what is called an international trusteeship but is in effect an Anglo-American condominium, for example, nor yet even to what is called an Indonesian Federation of Southeastern Asia, which would be in effect an Anglo-American-Dutch condominium.

The same principle holds in North Africa. In that hapless continent, too, there is not much difference between one empire and another in the way they gained colonies and in the nature and spirit of their rule over them. If the interests of peace demand that there be established an Arab Federation made up of areas and peoples now subject to European empires, let there be one. But let it include not only Morocco, Algeria, Tunis, Syria, and Lebanon, to which France has claim, but also those areas in which Great Britain has interest. In short, if there is to be a new higher law of imperialism, so much the better; but let it not be one whose incidence falls on France alone.

Nor is exception to be made for the Italian colonies in Africa. Unless Italy is to pass entirely as an independent state (which no one really proposes) there is no reason in logic or equity why it should be sheared of its colonies. Presumably Italy will be reconstituted as a democratic state or as much of a democratic state as it was when it was not deemed unfit for colonies. If so, it has as valid a claim for the return of its colonies as it had for their acquisition, as valid a claim for colonies as any Power has, a qualification that should be underlined. Italy should not be penalized in its colonial holdings unless all other empires in Africa are penalized in equal measure.

The guiding principle must be that the colonies of those countries that have temporarily gone down under the German and Japanese onslaught must not be cast into a pool into which the victors may dip for their share according to their relative power and influence. The cynical disparity between the Fourteen Points and the peace treaties after the last war, especially as far as the subject peoples were concerned, released violent nationalistic revolts among those peoples in the years that followed. If this time, when we say we are fighting for liberty as well as democracy, we end by rewarding ourselves with more subjects, taking them from our allies as well as our enemies, the effect will be even worse. It will be worse, not only because we have betrayed our professions but because nationalism has gone deeper in all dependent peoples in the last twenty-five years and, even more serious, many of those peoples are stronger than they were and therefore able to express their nationalism more forcefully. This is particularly true in the Far East. If certain measures are taken right after the war, as will be discussed later, the colonial peoples of that part of the world may be content to accept their present status at least for the present. They will at least wait to see what our intentions are, in what spirit we have emerged triumphant. If, for example, they see no change in the empire-colony relationship at all except that Indo-China has been taken away from France because that country was weak and given to another Power because it was strong, they will read in that only a greater cynicism than before. They will construe it as corroboration of the theory, already fairly widely held among them, that the white Powers are creatures of unbounded rapacity cloaked in hypocritical pretenses—precisely as the Japanese said in their propaganda. It will have been proved to them that the war presumably against tyranny was only a struggle for booty. They will be resolved to act accordingly. In India and China especially the effect will be ominous for the future. We may find that we have succeeded in uniting Asia in spite of ourselves but, unfortunately, against ourselves.

In America the effect will be even more ominous. As everybody knows, one of the powerful arguments of the extreme isolationists, overtly expressed before Pearl Harbor and whispered since, is that America is fighting to save the British Empire. If it turns out in the end that by the victory Great Britain has gained territory, as any redistribution of colonies must accrue to Great Britain’s territorial profit, the isolationists will cry vindication to themselves. They will do so openly and exultantly and with overtones of “we told you so,” and their cry will carry conviction. We shall be told that we were seduced once more by Great Britain, and in the general let-down that follows any war, in the general desire to find someone, somehow, to blame, we shall be disposed to believe it, a large proportion of us, if not the majority. And the revulsion from war, the reaction away from international participation of any kind, will quite likely be strong enough to prevent American co-operation and thus negate all hope of a post-war international order. Attempts to refute the isolationists with arguments drawn from history and based on the facts and logic of the international situation before the war and after will be vain. Those arguments will for the popular mind be abstract and remote against the one palpable fact: the most conspicuous result of a war against Fascism will be more colonies for England.

In this connection there arises another specific question affecting both the Far East and the United States—the future of Hongkong. It will be remembered that at the Cairo conference there was unusual definiteness with reference to the Far Eastern settlement. Japan was to be made to disgorge all its territorial conquests. Chinese sovereignty was to be restored, its lost territories to be returned to it. On one point only was there silence, an impressive, thunderous silence. That was Hongkong, the island off the South China coast that is Great Britain’s main stake in China and that commands the entrance to South China. Hongkong was left in suspense. That suspense should be broken. It should be broken by America. In the bluntest, most unequivocal terms, though not necessarily publicly, the American government should inform Mr. Churchill that he may not have become His Majesty’s first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire, but that Hongkong goes back to China. And on that the American government should be adamant, employing all its power and levers of influence to have its way.

In doing so America would be wholly within its moral and political right, even though Great Britain is the party directly at interest. On India, Burma, Malaya, Palestine, America cannot legitimately seek to impose its decision or even press for its way. It is not directly concerned. Anything that has to do with China is different. It must never be forgotten that America was drawn into this, the most terrible war in its history, over China. Over China tens of thousands of its young, probably hundreds of thousands before the end, are dying and its wealth is being poured out, to be redeemed by the deprivations of generations to come. And from the Far East America cannot wholly extricate itself. It has a moral right, then, to insist that the peace settlement in the Far East shall be such as to ensure that the conditions that brought on this war shall not be repeated. Essentially what brought on this war was rivalry for control over all or part of China, begun a hundred years ago and brought to a climax by Japan’s attempt at outright conquest. In that rivalry America was negatively involved, in the sense that while it did not aspire to hegemony over any part of China for itself, it refused to permit any other power to attain hegemony. The issue was brought to a head when China became strong enough to make positive efforts to recover its alienated territory. Japan took up the challenge and went to war in 1937 to subdue China once and for all. In doing so it gave a challenge in turn to America. America would not accede, Japan would not recede, and Pearl Harbor came.

As long as there is any infringement of China’s sovereignty, the same situation will repeat itself. It will no more submit to possession of its soil by any other Power now than before; on the contrary, of course, having come out of the war among the victors, it will press as hard for recovery of Hongkong or any other port held by any other Power as it did for recovery of Manchuria and North China from Japan. There will be turmoil in the Far East again—turmoil inviting participation by Britain’s rivals as much for the purpose of checking Great Britain as for the purpose of obtaining Chinese territory. New combinations of Powers will form or threaten to form. China will challenge again, and again the challenge will be taken up. There will be danger of culmination in war again. So long as there is danger of war in the Far East, America is in danger of war. America can have immunity from war in one way only. The old system in the Far East must be abrogated in its entirety. China must be left completely sovereign. There can be no loophole—not even the one at Hongkong. The insular areas off the continent of Asia have not bred international wars and will not; they are not of sufficient importance.

China has, and can again. For the American government not to insist now that the conditions be eliminated that cause it to do so, would be almost criminal negligence of its duty to the next generation of American young men. For its own safety, therefore, America must insist on the retrocession of Hongkong. On all other matters internal to the British Empire it has no right to press its own view or desires. On that one it has.

In the larger sense all that has been said so far is negative, but in the immediate instance the negative is all-important. It is imperative that weaker peoples shall no longer be the counters that pass with winning and losing in the game of power, and that there shall not set in a rankling cynicism among the weak and non-white and, among the strong and victorious, an embittered disillusionment, a sense of having been tricked—another sacrifice for high-sounding words and voracious deeds. It is imperative that this be prevented above all. If it is, much will have been gained toward a peace that will last.

In the long run, however, this is not enough. Injunction against redistribution of colonies to the advantage of the victors does not touch the fundamentals of the empire-colonial relationship, a relationship developed in a set of world circumstances that no longer obtains. In other words, the disparity in power between the white nations and the non-white is no longer as great as it was in the nineteenth century, nor is national consciousness confined to the Western or white nations. The relationship is artificial and therefore strained now. It will become more so. If the hope of an ordered world is to have reality, it must be dealt with sooner or later. As we have seen in the last twenty-five years, inertia brings its penalties. Acts of omission are as productive of consequences as acts of commission, even if the consequences are different. In the long-run approach, too, the problem must be dealt with in the concrete even if it can be generalized. Of abstractions about imperialism we have had too much already. And it can be dealt with concretely, for as a matter of practical action there are just four things we can do. The first is a universal emancipation of all colonies. The second is the internationalization of all colonies. The third is a simple return to the status before 1939—that is, each imperial Power keeps all the colonies it had before and governs them just as it did before. The fourth is the introduction at once of a succession of internal colonial reforms as a transition toward independence from the point of view of the colonies and withdrawal from the point of view of the empires—but definite, concrete measures, not general, high-sounding promises as of old.

For the first, there is not much to be said, for there is not the remotest possibility of its coming about. There is no indication that any great Power has been smitten by an early Christian passion for renunciation, least of all Great Britain, the principal colonial Power. There is also reason to doubt whether it would be practicable, whether it would not raise as many difficulties as it laid. It is simpler to acquire territorial possessions than to turn them loose again. The societies and cultures of the dominated peoples, once intact and self-sufficient, have been undermined by new influences. The indigenous economy has been disorganized, so that they can no longer live unto themselves. The Philippines are one example: severance from the United States will have to be graduated over twenty years. Malaya is another: through rubber and tin it has been inextricably tied to the world economy. Tribal organization has been shattered. Mores have been dissolved. Once able to govern themselves in accordance with their own environment, many if not most of the dependent peoples could no longer do so at once, since the environment has changed. They have been broken from their own world and are not yet adjusted to the new. They could not find themselves in the modern world, because they have not yet mastered its elementary terms. Economically, technologically, even politically, they have not yet attained the prerequisites to national survival in the machine age and the age of power politics with planetary range. To a large proportion of colonies, varying with their stage of cultural advancement and modernization, immediate emancipation would be a disservice. Exception should be made for the Philippines, Thailand, Korea (after a short interval), Ethiopia, and Syria and Lebanon. India, Burma, and Ceylon fall in a distinctive category, but it can be said with confidence that unless independence is extended to them in very short order, Great Britain will have to undergo a time of trial comparable with the two world wars. As a practical matter, however, immediate emancipation for all colonies can be dismissed. It will not happen, whatever the merits of the question may be.

The second course—internationalization of all colonies, with international administration and economic supervision—also is not very practical. It is the most commonly heard proposal, principally because the word international has become a kind of token in political discussion. It is the proposal for which most could be said, if the word were to be given reality. If internationalism were the ruling principle as between nations and international control of colonies only a subordinate function of an international organism, then it would be the most desirable solution for colonies at this stage. But as we know, there is not a remote chance for a genuine international government or international supervision in the near future. The most that can be hoped for is its application to restricted subjects and for limited purposes. But colonies cannot be one of the points of entry. They mean too much in power, prestige, and profit to be the first perquisites of sovereignty renounced by any country not weak enough to have to do so. Furthermore, internationalization, though ideal immediately, would be only a temporary solution. There is no reason whatever to believe that India, Java, the Chinese population of Hongkong, or Syria would be more contented with twenty or thirty masters in a collective mastery than with one. On the contrary, they might resist it more, since there would be less chance of winning independence from twenty than from one. There are good arguments to be made for internationalism as a world principle, but the one based on colonies is the weakest.

There is one area, an area of lesser importance, where internationalization might and should apply. This includes the Pacific islands which had been mandated to Japan and will be taken away from it. The ideal solution for them would be to put them under an international administrative board with equal rights of trade and communication for all. If this is not possible, they should be put under a condominium shared by the United States and either Australia or New Zealand. And if that is not possible, they must be divided between the United States and the Southern Dominions. The last is least desirable, mainly because it violates the principle that America should ask and get nothing for itself. This is the only ground on which America can take the position of insisting that others abstain from territorial profit to themselves. America has a congenital weakness for counseling sacrifice by others in the name of idealism, a weakness that has produced irritation in Europe before. In this case the counsel, justified by the merits of the issue, would come with better grace if America itself came off without advantage. And to that end some of the current expansive talk about American bases all over the world had better be allowed to dissipate in air.

The third course—a simple return to the status quo—will be tempting and it may very well be the one followed. If so, one can say with confidence now that the years following the war will be marked by a succession of colonial revolts in all parts of the world ranging in seriousness from sustained guerilla actions to full-scale wars. What happened after the first world war is a foretaste. It will be worse now, since nationalism has been driven deeper down in every colonial people and the circumstances of this war have been such as to foster it. Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, and Italy have all felt the sting of defeat and, what is more, humiliation. Furthermore, all the empires will emerge from this war weakened, an invitation to their subject peoples to revolt. Whatever Mr. Churchill may think and whether we like it or not, the nineteenth century has passed. It is not rationally conceivable that India, Burma, the Netherlands Indies, the different Arab countries, even some of the less advanced Africans will passively accept the lot that-has been theirs till now. From India to Nigeria there will be insist-once on more rights at the least, open mutiny at the most. To resume in the colonies where we were even ten years ago is to give the challenge to a succession of colonial wars of every order of magnitude. In the condition of physical and economic exhaustion in which we shall find ourselves, it is not certain that we shall win all of those wars. In short, to attempt to return to the status before 1939 .is to court disaster.

This leaves us with the fourth course—graduated progress to self-rule by a succession of transitional measures. This is less ambitious, less sweeping, and probably more practical. It would begin with the status quo 1939 as the point of departure and leave it quickly. It would mean immediate concessions to the natives in order to establish our good faith, manifest our intentions, and cut the ground from under native disaffection and organized resistance by anticipating grievances. It would mean immediate and definite measures for greater native self-government, a larger share in administration, a larger native representation in the upper administrative ranks, provision of facilities for training natives for government and administration. From this would follow a shifting of emphasis in the budget of each colony from expenditure for profitable return to expenditure for native welfare. More important, there would follow, too, a recasting of the fiscal policy of each colony so that regard for protection of the economic interests of the owning country gave way to regard for the welfare of the native people. Thus, the tariffs would not exclude cheap goods because they did not come from the owning country; they would permit the natives to buy where cheapest. In certain parts of the world the result might very well be that the country owning the colony would lose the market of the colony because it could not produce as cheaply as some other country nearby. Thus it would lose the perquisites of colonial possession and the main reason for keeping colonies, but this is as it must be as the alternative to exploitation, native discontent, native uprising.

The essence of the matter is anticipation and definiteness. A concession in time, which is a concession made in advance of demand, saves a much greater concession later, when it does no good. Made later, when feelings have been exacerbated and when it can no longer be avoided, it only invites more extreme demands. Then we have the kind of conflict from which neither side can recede any further and then there can be only open collision. The people of every colony from which white men were evicted by the Japanese, for example, will greet our return with one question in mind. In what mood and for what purpose do we come? To resume exactly where we were? If the indications are in the affirmative, trouble will begin at once. If, however, we come at once with a statement of conciliatory intentions, with a clear program of reforms in the native interest and looking to an increase in the native’s stature on his own soil, the fact will be disarming. There will at least be willingness to wait and see.

Definiteness is as important as timing. It will do no good to pronounce mellifluous and meaningless generalities of the old kind—”we hold these people in trust and will give them their freedom when they are fit for self-government.” There is no native in the deepest jungle who will be taken in by words of that sort any longer. Nothing can serve that is not specific. We shall have to say at once just how many natives we shall admit to such and such ranks of the civil service at such and such dates. We shall have local assemblies at such and such a date, with such and such proportions of the membership chosen by the natives in a free ballot, There will be a national assembly at a specific date, the proportion of freely elected native representatives rising at intervals fixed and specified. And the same with respect to a national council or cabinet, with respect to first autonomy and then independence. Conditions must be stipulated and dates fixed. There must not only be a promise but a pledge, with all the force of a contractual obligation, subject to revision only with the consent of both sides. If the first stages of the contract are fulfilled, good faith will be established, and, if later emergencies demand, consent will very likely be obtained to postponements.

The result will be eventual withdrawal, of course, the time varying with the political and cultural advancement of each colonial people. But to this it must come in any case. It can be drawn out over a period, in a graduated process carried forward in stages to ease the transition for both parties; or it can come with violence—temporarily suppressed perhaps after protracted warfare, only to be resumed again and again until the subject peoples are successful. But come it must, for that is the signification of the passing of time, of the change from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, and the new political contours marked by two world wars. We can make the process relatively painless to ourselves or, by attempting to reverse the course of time and deflect the forces of history, we can make it bitterly costly to ourselves. With sufficient foresight, action in time, and the wisdom to compromise gracefully where compromise is unavoidable, we can make it painless. But the first prerequisite is to prevent the gathering of colonial spoils in this war from enemy and ally alike. That ordinance of forbearance must be laid down by public opinion now and laid down unmistakably.


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