The end of imperial Europe

Great Britain was the first to take note of the change, the effects of which it had already been able to measure in India. India became independent—with all the ensuing religious problems (Kashmir). As for France, defeated in 1940, it had intended to keep its empire in order to preserve its status. And in the immediate post-war period, repression was applied in the colonies with a severity that was every bit as cruel as that of the pre-war period: Sétif massacre in Algeria (1945), Madagascar (1947).

From the Indochina War to the Algerian War

The independence proclaimed by Hồ Chí Minh in August 1945 in Hanoi in the vacuum between the north occupied by Chinese nationalists and the south occupied by the British troops was not ratified. Reconquest began in 1946. The Việt Minh had already established, especially in north, organized political bases. The Vietnamese, although Communists, were also nationalists and were combating a foreign expeditionary corps. But times had changed.
Like the Chinese, the Việt Minh organized village militia, provincial militia, and regular units. The fact that they were fighting against foreigners, even if these had local allies, showed the national character of their struggle, and, with time, won over the support of an increasing part of the population.

Starting in 1950, backed by Communist China, which in October of the previous year had taken over, the Việt Minh began to carry out large-scale offensive operations. These would be very costly, but lessons would be learned from them, and the offensives, starting in 1953, were better prepared and made it possible to thwart the best colonial troops. The process was the same as in China: coordination of partisans with regular troops, and control and support of the population. The latter allowed the routing of logistics during the battle of Diên Biên Phu. The lessons of the war, on the French side, would not be learned until later.1

The Algerian War burst out shortly after the end of the Indochina War. Already in Tunisia and in Morocco, there had been unrest and, obviously, independence was moving in.
The Algerian Revolutionary Committee for Unity and Action (CRUA), founded by nine members who would become famous, went into action on November 1, 1954. This very small minority committee intended to engage in battle despite the reservations of the nationalist parties, including the one led by Ahmed Ben Messali Hadj. A series of terrorist attacks marked the beginning of the insurrection. These were passed off as banditry, but the following year, the turmoil spread and the very recently established National Liberation Front (FLN) was soon joined, in early 1956, by the other nationalist parties, moderate or not. A harsh power struggle arose between the FLN and Messali Hadj’s Algerian National Movement (MNA). There was an attempt to set up a coordination of the movements at the Soummam conference. In vain. Exclusions would follow, and the FLN became the only organization representing Algerian nationalism.

In France, “available” forces were called to arms. The war, starting in the summer of 1956, now involved the contingent, and mandatory draft would be extended from eighteen to twenty-seven months. The insurrectionary war was mostly waged in the Aurès Mountains and in Kabylie. The number of katibas (combat units) increased and required search and cordon operations. To isolate the rebellion, the authorities put up electrified lines in 1957 at the borders, east and west. In Algiers, paratroopers inflicted systematic repression intended to dismantle the FLN’s underground infrastructure. Blind terrorist attacks were responded to by torturing suspects.

Under pressure from the army, France’s Fourth Republic made way for the rise to power of General de Gaulle. Senior officers considered that they had learned the lessons of the Indochina War and sought to turn the insurrectionary-war techniques back against the insurrectionists and the population, which they attempted to rally to their cause. But a Muslim population with a lower status had no interest in rallying around the myth of French Algeria. Military initiative was snatched from the rebels in 1960, but in December that same year, the Algerian population held a massive demonstration in the capital for independence. As General de Gaulle had admitted the principle of self-determination, a small part of the army attempted a putsch (1961), which failed because of the president’s determination and the greater share of the army’s refusal to support this act of sedition.

The Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS) went underground and attempted to assassinate the president. Public opinion in mainland France was tired of the war and was won over by the slogan “Peace in Algeria.” The last few months of the war were chaotic (including on the mainland), between the FLN, the OAS, the army, and the intelligence agencies. The chaos engendered massive departure of the Algerian French, while the majority of Harkis, Muslim Algerian loyalists who had fought alongside the French army, were left stranded and out in the cold.

Won from the military point of view, the Algerian War was lost from the political point of view. For France, the Indochina War and the Algerian War were “retardant battles,” hence useless.

Less and less effective counterinsurgencies

The essence of what is called “decolonization,” that is, the emancipation movements, through violence or not, of the colonized peoples, ranges between 1945 and the early 1960s. The balance of these years is controversial, but over time, counterinsurgencies tended to fail, and most of all, the spirit of the times was changing, with: the Declaration of Human Rights in San Francisco (1948); the Bandung Conference, where recently independent countries, especially Asian, expressed their determination to take their full part in history (1955); the Suez Crisis (1956), where Great Britain and France were forced to give up their last imperial-type expedition, and so on. On the other hand, in the Philippines, the United States were victorious against a “Marxist-Leninist” guerrilla after having granted the country independence (1946), while the insurrection remained concentrated in the island of Luzon.2

In Greece, under English domination, the Communists, deprived of Yugoslavian sanctuary and logistics shortly after the break between Stalin and Tito (1948), were defeated. In Cyprus, forty thousand British troops did not succeed in crushing the few hundred men using terrorism under General Georgios Grivas. They nonetheless prevented the island’s union with Greece and ultimately brought a moderate Cypriot archbishop to power. In Kenya, a settlement colony, Great Britain repressed the Kikuyu insurrection, which was poorly organized, badly armed, and had no external support. Pacification was successfully achieved between 1952 and 1956.3 Finally, we know the reasons for the victories of counterinsurgency in Malaysia in historical circumstances that will never happen again.

The Chinese of Malaysia had fought against Japan without support from China, and they constituted, at least part of them, a Marxist-leaning movement based on a few hundred thousand “squatters,” that is, on the category least integrated into the Malayan economy and society. The Chinese community (thirty percent) was essentially made up of merchants and did not take part in the insurrection.

The first phase of the British counterinsurgency—based on good knowledge of the country since the mid-nineteenth century—was conducted with severity (1950-1951) and included: regrouping of the populations involved (the squatters) in highly supervised “strategic hamlets” intended to isolate the population from the insurrectionists; and collective punishment in the event of an infringement in order to push people into denunciation. In 1951, the guerrilla was at its height and even managed to assassinate the British representative in Malaysia.

The second phase was of a very different nature. The British sought to gain the sympathy of the regrouped populations by distributing land, improving their living conditions, and doing away with collective punishment. The idea was to win over people’s “hearts and minds.” At the very least, they won over people’s stomachs …

Isolated, the rebellion, estimated at eight thousand men with no external support or sanctuary, grew weak. Above all, in a country where seventy percent of the population was Muslim and the elites were conservative, the British had had the intelligence to promise independence as soon as the insurrection had been cut down. Which is what happened.
Where, since then, have there been such favorable conditions?

  1. Revue militaire d’orientation, March-April 1957 (articles by Ximenes, Tacheray, Hogard, and so on).
  2. William Pomeroy’s pathetic account ([1963], The Forest: A Personal Record of the Huk Guerrilla Struggle in the Philippines, International Publishers, New York) shows how poorly the Huks were organized.
  3. Kitson, Frank (1971), Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency and Peace-keeping, Faber and Faber, London.