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READ: Political Decolonization, c.1945–1997

Between about 1945 and 1997, most of the colonies around the world became independent. This is a chronological account of that transformation.

Political Decolonization, c.1945-1997

By Trevor Getz

Between about 1945 and 1997, most of the colonies around the world became independent. This is a chronological account of that transformation.

Political decolonization

“Decolonization” is the political process by which colonies become independent, self-ruling countries. The word “decolonization” is used in other ways, but in this article, we are going to focus on the political process. We want to understand how, in the relatively narrow time between 1945 and 1997, most of the world’s colonies became independent, especially in Asia and Africa, as shown in the map below:

Large swaths of the world had been colonized by European states and Japan, before 1945. By Roke commonswiki. CC BY SA-3.0.

This article will give you a focused narrative of some key trends and turning points in the decolonization process. But fear not! Several other articles will help you understand the causes of these changes in individual colonies, especially the rise of nationalism as a political force within a given colony. Still other articles will help you better understand how these transformations were tied to global events and trends, like the Second World War and the Cold War. But here we will survey the changes through a chronological narrative.

In the wake of the Second World War

This story begins just prior to the end of the Second World War. In 1945 only a few colonies had successfully taken steps towards independence. Egypt had largely regained its ability to govern itself from the British Empire in 1922, for example, and Iraq had done the same a decade later. But these were exceptions. Indeed, going into the Second World War, the power of empires looked stronger than ever.

However, the chaos and conflict of the war changed this situation dramatically. First, some of the great empires were greatly weakened. Their connections to their colonies broke down, at least for a while. France, the Netherlands, and Belgium, for example, were conquered by Germany. This allowed a few colonies, like Lebanon (1943), to declare themselves independent during the war. Others, such as Syria (1946) became self-ruling immediately after the war. The former colonies of defeated powers like Japan and Italy also used the opportunity to become independent. Italian Libya (1946) and two Japanese-ruled colonies, Korea (1945) and Taiwan (1945), are some examples. Meanwhile, the United States finally granted the long-promised independence to the Philippines (1946), partly in recognition of the major contributions Filipino soldiers had made to the war effort.

Even though Britain was on the winning side of the war, the length and disruption of the fighting diminished its power as well. The major effort that India had put into the conflict and Britain’s failure to reward Indian soldiers and civilians certainly didn’t help Britain when it was over. But it did help the development of Indian nationalism. Under Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, a movement that imagined a secular or multi-religious free India gained momentum. This movement put enormous pressure on the British government through boycotts and non-violent protest campaigns, leading successfully to independence in 1948 – three years after the end of the war. However, not all inhabitants of the region embraced this vision. Many Muslims, led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, were wary of living in a Hindu-majority state. As a result, India became independent, but split into several countries, including Muslim-dominated Pakistan.

Mohandas K. Gandhi (right) and Mohammed Ali Jinnah (left) together in 1944. They would later clash over a vision for an independent India, and Jinnah would lead the movement for a separate Pakistan. Public domain.

That same year, Britain also lost its hold on the area known as Palestine. Here, Britain faced not one, but two movements for independence – one Arab and one Jewish. Both groups wanted independent states, but their populations were intermingled. A global debate emerged over whether there should be one independent state, or two. In 1947, Britain’s government recognized that they could not afford to fight these movements and agreed to hand the question over to the United Nations. In May 1948, Jewish leaders proclaimed the foundation of the state of Israel. A war immediately commenced. The armies of nearby Arab states—including newly-independent Syria and Lebanon—supported the Arab movement. As a result, here, as in India, independence resulted in two states rather than one.

Struggles against the French Empire

But Britain’s problems might seem minor compared to France, a nation struggling to hold on to its empire in the face of military and financial shortages and extremely strong nationalist movements. Two particular examples stand out. The first was the fight for independence in Indochina, and in particular the colony of Vietnam. Conquered from the French by Japan during the war, Vietnam’s resistance fighters had declared independence in 1945 as the war ended. Known as the Vietminh, they were led by Ho Chi Minh. He hoped that the United States would support their independence. Instead, France was allowed to recolonize the country. Its natural resources – rubber, tin, zinc, rice, and coffee – were vital to rebuilding the French economy. This only drove the Vietminh into a guerilla war. Their forces, with some material support from the Soviet Union and China, grew stronger in the 1950s. In 1954, they defeated a French force at Dien Bien Phu. This victory showed that their resistance was too strong to beat. France agreed to leave Vietnam and that year all of Indochina divided into four states: Laos, Cambodia, communist North Vietnam, and US-backed, non-communist South Vietnam.

The Vietnamese victory at Dien Bien Phu inspired anti-colonial figures elsewhere in the French Empire. This was especially true in Algeria, where the very same year a resistance movement began to fight a guerilla war against French forces. Algeria, in northern Africa, is much closer to France, and had many more European settlers than Vietnam did. This was one major reason the war was long and vicious. The Algerian resistance movement – the National Liberation Front (FLN, from the French Front de libération nationale) – suffered significant losses and largely lost the military campaign. However, they made it too expensive and difficult for the French to maintain their rule of the territory. In 1962, France agreed to Algerian independence. One of the leaders of the FLN, Ahmad Ben Bella, became the first President of an independent Algeria.

The “Winds of Change” in Africa

South of the Sahara Desert, new nationalist movements challenging colonial rule gathered speed. The earliest success was the Convention People’s Party, led by Kwame Nkrumah, in the British Gold Coast Colony. Nkrumah was a highly skilled political organizer. He studied in the United States, then returned to the Gold Coast to serve a group of men and women who were calling for a gradual end to British rule. Nkrumah, however, wanted a rapid transformation. Throughout the 1950s, he organized a mass movement that earned support across religious and ethnic groups, both in cities and in rural areas. The British arrested and imprisoned him, but this actually increased his popularity. Eventually, in the face of huge protests and pressure, the British gave up. In 1957, the colony became the independent state of Ghana, and Nkrumah became its first prime minister.

Slowly, much of West Africa became independent. In 1957, the French government asked all of its colonies to vote on their relationship to France. They offered to negotiate a better relationship with any colonies willing to stay in the French Empire. The colony of Guinea voted “no” and became independent almost immediately in 1958. The rest of French West Africa and much of the French Empire in Africa became independent two years later, in 1960. Known as the “year of Africa,” 1960 also saw independence movements succeed in two giant colonies: the Belgian Congo and British-ruled Nigeria.

But over in eastern and southern Africa, change was slower. One thing hindering the decolonization process was the presence of many European settlers in some of these colonies. In Kenya, the anti-colonial movement was forced underground by police and settler militias. The result was a long fight that included the violent Land and Freedom uprising (also known as Mau Mau) from 1952 to 1956. This uprising was put down, but the independence movement could not be stopped. A political party known as the Kenya Africa Union, which had not been closely involved in the uprising, largely led the struggle at this point. Its leader, Jomo Kenyatta, was imprisoned until 1961. After his release, he managed to negotiate a transfer of power, which finally took place in 1963. He became Kenya’s first prime minister.

Jomo Kenyatta, first Prime Minister of independent Kenya. From the Dutch National Archives, CC BY SA-3.0 NL.

Holdouts and outposts

In southern Africa, however, colonialism held out through the 1960s and into the 1970s. The Portuguese colonies in this region – Angola and Mozambique – descended into guerilla skirmishes and then outright war as the Portuguese rulers tried to hold on. Despite sending in tens of thousands of troops and despite support from the United States, France, and other countries, Portugal finally lost these wars in 1975. To the south, however, British settlers still held on to power in Rhodesia. But Britain did not support them. In 1960, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had recognized that colonialism was coming to an end. He made a famous speech in which he told Rhodesians and others to recognize that “winds of change” were coming to Africa. The Rhodesians, however, did not accept this, and they fought to contain a growing guerilla war. In 1979, they were finally forced to accept a negotiated settlement, which led to Rhodesia becoming the new country of Zimbabwe.

Colonies elsewhere in the world were also gradually gaining their independence. This included Pacific islands like Fiji and Tonga (1971) and Vanuatu (1980) as well small Caribbean territories like Dominica (1978), Antigua (1981), and Saint Kitts and Nevis (1983). Anti-colonial movements on the Arabian Peninsula also hastened the British retreat there, creating the independent state of South Yemen in 1967. Four years later, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar became independent as well.

Typically, the end of the twentieth century rush of “decolonization” is pegged to the British handover of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997. Arguably, however, there are still colonies in the world today. In fact, some Hong Kong protests against PRC rule claim that the small but populous region is being treated as a colony today! But the major political transformation of the world into independent nation-states is over, at least for now. There may be other kinds of “decolonization” still to come.

Author bio

Trevor Getz is Professor of African History at San Francisco State University. He has written eleven books on African and world history, including Abina and the Important Men. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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