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Britain’s Cold War

Expanding the definition of the Cold War, particularly as a multifarious imperial contest which began with the Russian Revolution, has met firm resistance from the resilient general consensus of Western scholars that ‘the cold war is a post-World War II phenomenon, beginning at some point between 1945 and 1947’ when ‘an essentially bipolar world’ emerged, ‘in which the United states and the soviet Union confronted one another more or less right around the Eurasian land mass’.15 Even scholars who have widened the geographic scope to the ‘global Cold War’ have still focused on ‘how the mightiest powers of the late twentieth century—the United States and the Soviet Union—repeatedly intervened in processes of change in Africa, Asia, and Latin America’.16

While the likes of Odd Arne Westad, Niall Ferguson, and others have de-centred the narrative from Washington and Moscow, the US remains a defining parameter of the Cold War. Thus while The Oxford Handbook of the Cold War, published in 2013, includes a chapter on Britain, one of its main assertions is that Britain was ‘an active’ but certainly secondary ‘participant’ and ‘an important, albeit waning, cold war power’.17 This US-centric-plus-Britain interpretation thrives despite the fact that, as Anne Deighton has observed, ‘the protection of a favourable balance of power and the containment of the Soviet Union’—the two central factors of this traditional understanding of the Cold War—‘were initially British phenomena’.18

Deighton as well as Michael L. Dockrill, John Kent, Peter Weiler, and John W. Young were the originators of the still burgeoning movement of British revisionism. They have asserted that Britain’s Cold War diplomacy, whether in terms of a ‘Western union’ with or a ‘third way’ apart from the US, was meant to secure Britain’s great power status, not replace it.19 A number of scholars have identified British (let alone later Anglo-American) Cold War propaganda efforts in the Soviet bloc, in the form of the Foreign Office’s Information Research Department, Cultural Relations Department, Russia Committee, and the BBC Russia Service.20

Frank Heinlein has subsequently described ‘liberal colonial policy’ and decolonization as London’s response to the Soviets ‘courting “disappointed nationalism”’.21 Antony Best has identified an Anglo-Soviet ‘“cold war” of sorts’ over imperial ambitions in China and East Asia during the interwar years, which in part drew ‘the Cold War battle-lines that would mar the Third World after 1945’.22 British revisionists have thus demonstrated that Britain’s imperialism and imperial interests in large part defined British foreign and domestic policy and profoundly affected Cold War geopolitics.

British revisionism has focused on high politics, that is, on how having and defending an empire featured in Cold War foreign policy at the very highest levels of policy-making. This book looks to expand this revisionist approach, by taking a closer look at the empire side of the equation, specifically how British policy-makers conceptualized and attempted to fight the Cold War in and regarding the colonies. In Cyprus and Hong Kong, policy-makers’ determination and efforts to resist communists’ political and social advances while fostering local support for British colonial rule revealed the pervasiveness of the Cold War conflict as well as its social, cultural, economic, political, and military interconnections with imperialism.

Imperialism in its broadest sense is ‘the attempt to impose one state’s predominance over other societies by assimilating them to its political, cultural and[/or] economic system’. Its structure and function has historically varied between and within empires, depending on a great number of factors. One mechanism of imperialism is colonialism, which this book will define as direct and formal political control over another society. However, crucial to our broader understanding of the Cold War, there are other mechanisms of imperialism, including economic dependence, political and defence entanglements, cultural homogenization, and ideological imposition.23 Such modes of imperialism seldom operated in isolation; they interacted (not to mention with other social and economic forces), depending on the interests, actions, and interactions of the colonizer and colonized.

With their various forms, methods, and players, empires tended to be ‘fractured, informal, and indirect’.24 The realities of policy-making are often oversimplified in Cold War literature by a reliance on high policy and a ‘great men’ approach, which ignores the ways in which Cold War fears, imperial goals, colonial populations, and the everyday interacted. In the British example, imperial policy was debated, developed, and implemented by a wide array of colonial personnel (from the secretary of state in London to the district commissioner in the colony), with very few issues reaching the Cabinet, and with input from (and sometimes conflict with) other government departments (e.g. the Foreign Office and the Treasury), the diplomatic corps, and non-governmental organizations (e.g. the British Trades Union Congress).25

This complicated system of policy-makers, civil servants, private individuals, and colonial governments produced copious amounts of debate and paperwork, much of which has only recently become available at the National Archives of the United Kingdom. While including Cabinet, personal, and colonial government papers, this book primarily utilizes Colonial Office files. These documents have not yet been examined within the framework of British revisionism and offer new sources of information on how the British fought the Cold War. Moreover, Colonial Office files offer a near-complete picture of the decision-making process. It is not uncommon for a Colonial Office file to contain: correspondence between it and the colonial governments; documentary evidence, such as seized communist documents, correspondence from colonial leaders, and local newspaper clippings, forwarded by the colonial governments; related correspondence between it, the Foreign Office, British consulates overseas, and British security and intelligence agencies; information on Cabinet deliberations; references for other files which Colonial Office officials considered to be relevant, such as on lessons learned in the Malayan Emergency; and extensive minutes from relevant civil servants of every rank as well as government ministers attached to the Colonial Office, including the secretary of state.

These files therefore reveal the meeting place of the Cabinet’s high politics, the Colonial Office’s high imperial politics, and the colonial government’s local colonial politics. These files also provide insights into the motivations, perceptions, priorities, and intentions of British policymakers, as they discussed, justified, and disagreed about the appropriate course of action. However, as this book argues, while there was often considerable variance between and within the colonial governments and London—not to mention between Hong Kong and Cyprus—there were some important consistencies, particularly regarding the interrelationship between ‘the politics of force’ and the politics of culture.26 These consistencies, despite such contextual differences and despite varied outcomes, reveal a coherent understanding in the British official mind of who the enemy was, what constituted the battlefields, and the necessity, for the sake of British interests however defined, of winning those battles.

Cultural politics formed a significant portion of British Cold War colonial policy. As Susan Carruthers has observed, the British government during the Cold War was convinced that the Soviets had initiated an expansionist campaign, especially regarding the British Empire, ‘competing not only for physical but also for psychological territory—“men’s minds”’.27 ‘Men’s minds’—or ‘hearts and minds’, to put it in its imperial terminology—were essential to British colonial strategies, especially in the attempt to redirect colonial nationalist energies and to guide (slowly) the state formation of colonies into independent countries willing to enter the Commonwealth of Nations, thereby retaining some British influence. Thus British colonial strategies and policymaking in Hong Kong and Cyprus, where two powerful communist parties were hard at work, aimed to meet the communists on psychological, social, and cultural battlegrounds, such as trade unionism and education. Ultimately, while successful in avoiding communist takeovers, British colonial policy-makers struggled to find a constructive response to Soviet cultural imperialism. The British tended to rely on repressive legislation, police monitoring, and violence, while communists, especially pro-communist non-governmental organizations (NGOs) , offered an attractive vision of pro-nationalism and anti-colonialism to the colonies’ nationalists, youth, workers, and women.

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