On 21 March 1946, the British Colonial Office received a message sent on behalf of the secretary of state for foreign affairs, Ernest Bevin. The letter was brief:
I am directed by Mr. Secretary Bevin to state that in view of the Soviet Government’s present policy of representing itself as the champion of colonial peoples throughout the world, and in view of the many criticisms of this country and the British Empire now being made in the Soviet press and in foreign language broadcasts from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, he would like to be kept informed of the extent to which such Soviet propaganda lines are reproduced in the press of the Colonies and of the reactions which such statements provoke.
I am therefore to enquire whether the Secretary of State for the Colonies could provide him with periodical surveys of the available information on the subject.
I am, Sir, Your obedient Servant,
R. M. A. Hankey1
Less than two months later, a similar letter was sent from the Colonial Office to fifty-six colonies, protectorates, and mandated territories of the British Empire.
From South America, the British Guiana government responded that ‘George Padmore, negro communist’ was spreading ‘extremely anti-British
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C. Sutton, Britain’s Cold War in Cyprus and Hong Kong, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-33491-2_1
and racial articles from London’.2 From the Middle East, the high commissioner of Palestine noted increasing interest in Soviet propaganda, which labelled British policy ‘double-faced’ and ‘divide and rule’.3 From South Asia, ‘[h]ot headed students’ and ‘ignorant followers’, the governor of Ceylon reported, ‘find in the [Trotskyite Lanka] Sama Samajist Party the most violent expression of anti-British, anti-Imperialist, and anti-Capitalist views’.4 From an archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean, some 570 miles from the nearest land (North Carolina) and 3,300 miles from the United Kingdom (UK), the governor of Bermuda quoted a recent newspaper article which read: ‘Russia’s great military strength lies in the “secret” of indestructible friendship and fraternal co-operation among all the 178 different races and peoples inhabiting the U.S.S.R. [Union of Soviet Socialist Republics]’. This was juxtaposed with the headline that ‘Natives made to Wear Dog Collars’ in certain British territories.5
Of all Britain’s colonies, perhaps the two which experienced the most action in Britain’s early Cold War (aside from the well-studied hot war in Malaya)—the two with the most cause to reply to the Colonial Office’s request for information on communist propaganda and activities—were Cyprus and Hong Kong. From an island in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, which was considered to be crucial for airstrikes against the soft underbelly of the Soviet Union as well as for the maintenance of British influence in the Middle East, the governor of Cyprus responded to the Colonial Office’s 1946 despatch that, in addition to a left-wing press ‘impregnated with ideas of the communist faith’, Soviet films and newsreels were selling out theatres.6 The tenacious Cypriot communist party, the Progressive Party of Working People (AKEL)—one of the best organized and most effective communist parties of the British Empire—sold Soviet literature, marched with Soviet flags, and held public meetings under images of Joseph Stalin. While their support for enosis (a Greek-Cypriot nationalist movement calling for the ‘union’ of Cyprus with Greece) was more political than genuinely nationalistic—especially when they believed the Greek Civil War was going to swing in their comrades’ favour—their most consistent message was ‘down with British imperialism’.
Hong Kong, meanwhile, became the home not only of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) propaganda machine for the outside world, but also of the China branch of the Soviets’ All-Union Society for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries (VOKS), which was responsible for producing and distributing Soviet propaganda and coordinating cultural exchanges between the USSR and foreign countries.7 From Hong Kong,
VOKS produced or imported Chinese- and English-language literature, including Pravda, Moscow News, World Student News, and works by and on Stalin, Lenin, and other Soviet leaders.8 Along with printed material, Soviet films were also common in Hong Kong, often screened to working- class audiences, whose supposed susceptibility to such indoctrination was widely recognized. The governor warned that the Soviet films ‘are extremely good technically, and are skilful propaganda for the U.S.S.R.’.9 This concern was echoed in the British Foreign Office, rather ironically, by the now infamous Guy Burgess, an intelligence expert and Soviet spy.10 Ultimately, however, for British policy-makers, it was the constant (albeit overstated) threat of war with the People’s Republic of China (PRC)— including the United States (US) antagonistic activities in and around the colony—that made Hong Kong the ‘Berlin of the East’.11
These accounts were not simply examples of the Cold War intruding into imperial spaces, nor were they merely individual cases of colonial nationalists taking advantage of global politics to further their cause for independence. Rather, they were integral parts of a global Cold War that, I argue, is more helpfully understood, in John Kent’s words, as a ‘clash between rival imperialisms’. In this contest, the Soviet Union’s own brand of imperialism—a neo-colonialism which, outside its borders, was non-political in its control, transnational in its reach, and anti-colonial in its message—challenged and often bewildered those resisting communist expansionism, especially those administering formal colonial empires.12
The Cold War, which has traditionally been reduced to Soviet-American nuclear arms and space races and proxy wars, was in reality much more ubiquitous and far-reaching. With the breakdown of Allied cooperation in 1945-1946 marking the return and escalation of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union, significant fighting took place across the British Empire, especially in Cyprus and Hong Kong, over relatively benign cultural processes, such as high school geography lessons, the British monarch’s birthday celebrations, and one’s cigarette brand of choice. In comparison with the Vietnam War and mutual assured destruction, such things paled into insignificance; however, when we define the Cold War by its most extreme manifestations and between (what eventually became) its two largest rivals, we actually lose sight of the pervasiveness as well as the complexity of the conflict.
Britain’s empire—from its political administration to its cultural projections—was deeply interconnected to British policy-makers’ long-standing resistance against Soviet territorial and ideological expansionism. By identifying British colonial policies as not simply a case study of British imperialism but also as a clear example of the Cold War in action, this book seeks to expand on Kent’s ‘clash between rival imperialisms’, specifically by identifying the interconnections between local colonial policies and how the British attempted to fight the Cold War.13 I use ‘fight’ in a ‘cold’ sense; fighting this particular war was less about conventional warfare with soldiers and bombs (although this was certainly part of it) than it was about mostly bloodless battles over transformative ideologies, personal identities, and national prestige.
Fighting the Cold War meant undermining the enemy’s form of imperialism and ideology while projecting the superiority of, in this case, Britain’s social democracy and by extension, its ‘progressive’ colonialism. British propaganda through the British Broadcasting Company’s ( BBC) Russia Service or the Foreign Office generally sought to illustrate the want and repression of living under communism to East Germans, Eastern Europeans, and Chinese citizens, by comparing them to the freedoms and liberties enjoyed by British subjects. For Britain, however, the possession of a formal colonial empire, which was inherently undemocratic, racist, and repressive, posed perhaps the greatest threat to its assertion of great power in a Cold War of rival imperialisms. As we will see in the examples of Cyprus and Hong Kong, British policy-makers sought to reform their colonial rule, as one official put it, in order to offer ‘something more dynamic, more appealing and better than Communism itself’.14 Colonial failures, however, such as racist laws, suppression of dissent, and violent resistance, were therefore also Cold War failures.
This, then, is a book about one (under-studied) side in this multifaceted conflict, with its focus on British official perceptions and policymaking. The roles of and impact on colonial populations—let alone the US, Soviet Union, and PRC—are considered mostly through this British official lens (although to what extent this reflected reality is an area in need of further study). Specifically, this book compares two case studies of how British officials in Whitehall, Hong Kong, Cyprus, and elsewhere imagined, planned, and executed their (cold) war efforts.
Many of these British policy-makers believed that they were defending Britain’s imperial process and great power prestige from the perceived communist threat on a number of imperial/cultural battlefields, from trade unionism to education to public rituals. Such cultural warfare is not new for Cold War historians; however, the structure and implicit nature of the British colonial system grants us unprecedented access to it, while also serving to de-centre further the Cold War from its traditional US-centric focus.
Across the empire, the British perceived communist threats, both real and imagined, of local and foreign origins, and from ardent ideologues to so-called fellow travellers. The aim of this book is not to extrapolate British policies and their outcomes from two colonial examples, but instead to identify and compare key themes and recurrent questions in British colonial policy-making during the Cold War, specifically of who was the enemy and how to defeat them. Along with Malaya, Hong Kong and Cyprus faced the largest, best-organized communist movements operating in the British Empire; unlike Malaya, the communists in Hong Kong and Cyprus did not take up arms against the colonial state. British tactics in the hot war in Malaya have received considerable scholarly attention; this book is instead interested in Britain’s cold wars and soft (and not so soft) approaches to fighting rival imperialisms and communist challengers in and regarding colonial territories.