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The United Nations and the End of Colonialism 1946 -1965

Even before the Korean War, the United Nations had proved that it could take effective action to control serious conflicts. It first took such action in the conflict over Palestine.

During World War I, the British had ousted the Turks from Palestine. When the war was over, the League of Nations placed that land under the authority of Britain. The British then issued the famous Balfour Declaration, which promised the Jewish people that Palestine would someday become their homeland, but the Arabs of Palestine and the surrounding countries strongly objected to this and year after year passed without the British making good their promise. During and after World War II, Britain refused to allow Jewish refugees from Europe to enter Palestine. In 1946 Jewish terrorists began to stage raids against the British army and a year later Britain turned the Palestine problem over to the United Nations.

The General Assembly set up a special committee to investigate the situation and make recommendations and several months later the committee delivered its report. It recommended that Palestine be divided into two independent states, one Arab and one Jewish. Although the Arabs, who formed a majority of the people in Palestine, said they would never allow the existence of a Jewish state, the General Assembly approved the committee’s report. Britain was expected to carry out and enforce the recommendations. Instead, the British suddenly left Palestine in the spring of 1948 and war broke out between the Arabs and the Jews.

The Palestinian Arabs were supported by troops from the surrounding countries of Jordan, Syria, Iraq and Egypt, but the Jewish army, which included many hardened veterans of World War II, won battle after battle. With every victory, the Jews added to the territory originally granted them by the United Nations special committee. Most of the Palestinian Arabs fled the country during the fighting and their land, too, was taken over by the Jews.


On May 14, 1948, the Jews of Palestine established a new nation, which they named Israel. It was soon recognized by the United States and the Soviet Union and its future seemed secure. Meanwhile, the United Nations had sent in a mediator to work out a settlement between the Arabs and the Jews. He was Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden, a member of the royal family and an internationally-known philanthropist. His efforts first appeared to be successful and he arranged a cease-fire that went into effect on July 18, 1948.

Two months later, however, he was assassinated by Jewish terrorists, who felt that he favoured the Arabs because he had ordered the Jews to return the territory they had seized in the war. Ralph Bunche, an American, took Bernadotte’s place and by January of 1949 he had worked out an armistice acceptable to both sides. The war ended and a year later Bunche was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Although the United Nations had brought peace to the Holy Land, the Arab nations remained technically at war with Israel. To make matters worse, the hundreds of thousands of Arabs who had fled Palestine were confined to special camps set up and supported by the United Nations. These refugees had nowhere else to go; Israel would not allow them to return and the Arab countries did not want them.

The action of the United Nations in Palestine established its authority as an international body; its authority was still further increased in the Korean War. During that war, however, a change took place that shifted some important powers from the Security Council to the General Assembly. The change began on June 25, 1950, when the United States called the Security Council into an emergency session to deal with North Korea’s attack on South Korea. The Russian delegate did not appear; he had walked out on another United Nations meeting several weeks before to protest the failure to admit Communist China. Since no Russian delegate took part in the session on Korea, the Russians could not veto the Security Council’s resolution to use armed force against Communist North Korea. A Russian veto would have proved a serious obstacle to such action by the United Nations.


To avoid a veto in any similar situation in the future, “United States government called for a change in the United Nations Charter. At the General Assembly meeting late in 1950, the United States proposed that when an act of aggression is committed and the Security Council cannot agree on what measures to take, the case could be brought before the General Assembly. No veto could be exercised in the General Assembly, where any important measure could be passed by a two-thirds majority. The “Uniting for Peace Resolution,” as the proposal was called, won the support of many nations and it was enacted by the General Assembly in November, 1950.

At this time, delegates of sixty countries sat in the General Assembly. Only three of these countries were African — Liberia, Ethiopia and South Africa; only nine were of the Middle East — Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and Yemen; only seven were Asian; only seven were Asian — Afghanistan, Burma, Nationalist China, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Thailand. The remaining forty-one countries were either European or American. A large majority of the member nations were involved in the cold war between the East and the West.

It soon became clear, however, that things would be different in the future. Most of the nations that would be admitted to the United Nations would not be European and they would support neither side in the cold war. From 1950 to 1955, many countries applied for admittance, but differences between the United States and the Soviet Union prevented them from entering. Then in 1955, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed that no nation would be denied admittance because of its politics. Sixteen countries immediately entered the United Nations — Albania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Rumania from Eastern Europe; Austria, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain from elsewhere in Europe; and Cambodia, Ceylon, Jordan, Laos, Libya and Nepal from Asia and Africa.

After 1955, no more European countries, except the tiny islands of Cyprus and Malta, would enter the United Nations. The new members would be Asian and African nations that had been freed from colonial rule. This reflected the fact that the old empires were falling apart; by 1955, Britain, France and the Netherlands had already given up their possessions in Asia.


Britain and the Netherlands gave up their Asian holdings with relatively little violence. France, on the other hand, was forced out only after a long struggle. Since the end of World War II, a Communist-led guerrilla force in Indo-china had been battling an enormous army of French Legionnaires. In 1954, after losing the strategic city of Dienbienphu, the French concluded that it would be useless for them to continue fighting. A peace agreement was arranged at an international conference held in Geneva. Indochina was broken up into its three original countries — Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Vietnam in turn was divided into two separate states, the Communist North and the non-Communist south. Laos and Cambodia were admitted to the United Nations.

Having retreated from Asia, Britain and France made one more attempt to assert their imperialist power — and the attempt failed. It took place in Egypt, where, in 1953, the corrupt government of King Farouk had been overthrown and replaced by a republic headed by young military officers. Their leader was Colonel Gamal Abdal Nasser, who became president of Egypt in 1956. Actually, however, he was the dictator of the country and controlled the only political party that was allowed to exist. He soon used his power.

Nasser distributed the estates of the large landowners and aristocrats to the Egyptian peasants, who were among the poorest and most exploited on earth. He began to reform the army, the school system and almost every other institution in Egypt. At the same time, he tried to set himself up as the leader of all the Middle Eastern and African countries against the “imperialist West.” In addition, he promised again and again that he would take revenge on Israel. He organized bands of terrorists who stole into Israel and killed farmers, destroyed cattle, crops and blew up pipelines.

Nasser’s dispute with Britain and France arose in the summer of 1956. The Western powers, including the United States, had promised to lend Egypt money to build a great dam across the upper Nile River, near the ancient city of Aswan. In July, the United States and Britain withdrew their offers, because Egypt was receiving heavy shipments of arms from the Soviet Union. To get back at the West, Nasser took over the Suez Canal, which had been operated by a private Western corporation. Western Europe depended on the canal for its supply of oil from the Middle Eastern countries. Now Nasser could keep the oil tankers from using the canal and seriously injure the economy of Europe.

In the early fall, Britain, France and Israel decided to act together and attack Egypt. The object was to overthrow Nasser. For Britain and France, his removal would mean freeing the Suez Canal and securing their economies; for Israel, it would mean the end of the Egyptian raids. The Israelis launched the attack on October 29, 1956. They quickly advanced across the Sinai desert‚ capturing thousands of prisoners and came within sight of the Suez Canal. Two days later, British and French planes bombed Egyptian military bases and dropped airborne troops upon the cities of Alexandria and Suez.

The attack would have soon succeeded in ousting Nasser — if it had not aroused the opposition of the rest of the world. The Communist powers, the small nations that had recently been freed from colonial rule, even the United States, the closest friend of Britain and France — all opposed the attack. Russia’s threat to send “volunteers” to Egypt to fight the “imperialist aggressors” brought a warning from the United States and there was danger of a full-scale war. Every country in the world, except for the three invading nations, agreed on one thing — the invaders must leave Egyptian soil at once.

Britain and France gave in and by November their troops had left Egypt. The Israelis, however, refused to leave certain parts of Egypt which they had occupied. They said they would not allow Egyptian terrorists to stage raids on their country, nor would they allow Egypt to prevent Israeli ships from coming through the Gulf of Aqaba. The Israelis finally yielded when a United Nations force was sent to the border areas between Egypt and Israel. The terrorist raids stopped and Israeli ships were given free passage from the Persian Gulf to their ports on the Red Sea.

After the failure of Britain and France in the Suez conflict, nothing could halt the break-up of the Western empires. Only in Africa was colonial rule still widespread and in 1956 France granted independence to its two North African protectorates, Tunisia and Morocco. These ancient Arab nations, which had long been struggling for freedom, were politically advanced. The situation in “Black Africa,” however, was quite different.

Black Africa is the huge tropical and semi-tropical region that begins just below the Sahara Desert and extends southward into the cool plains of Rhodesia and South Africa. Inhabited by Negro tribes, it had been divided among the British, the French, the Belgians and the Portuguese.

By 1957, Britain had decided that it would grant independence to its colonies in Black Africa. That same year it gave independence to Ghana, which had once been known as the Gold Coast and was one of the most advanced of the African Negro nations. Ghana’s admission to the United Nations in 1957 marked an important point in the history of Africa and the world, for it was clear that within a few years other African nations would also be members of the United Nations. In 1960, Nigeria, the largest country in Africa, won independence and joined the United Nations, to be followed by Uganda in 1962, Tanganyika and Zanzibar (later combined into one nation called Tanzania) in 1963 and Malawi (once known as Nyasaland) and Zambia (once known as Northern Rhodesia) in 1964.

Britain’s most difficult problem in Africa arose in Kenya. Situated in the rich grasslands and forests of East Africa, Kenya had been heavily settled by English farmers, who dominated the country. In 1952, a secret native organization, the Mau Mau, began to terrorize the white settlers and the Negroes who worked for them. By 1956, after several years of fighting, the British army succeeded in wiping out the Mau Mau, but the Kenyans wanted to be free and they soon began to hold open demonstrations against British rule. They gradually won the right to representation in the government and in 1963, after working out a compromise with the white settlers, they won independence. By 1965, Britain’s only colony in Africa was Southern Rhodesia, where the white minority was especially strong and stubbornly clung to its power. Even here, however, it appeared to be only a matter of time until the Africans would win their freedom.

Like Britain, France, too, decided that it would have to give up its African colonies. France’s immense African empire, larger in size than the United States, was divided into two parts. One was French Equatorial Africa, which included the Central African Republic, Chad, the Republic of the Congo and Gabon. The other part was French West Africa, which included Dahomey, Guinea, the Ivory Coast, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Senegal and Upper Volta. In 1958, these countries, with Togo and Malagasy (also known as Madagascar), were formed into an association called the French Community. The French Community offered them independence whenever they wanted it. Guinea wanted it at once and in 1958 joined the United Nations. Soon after, all the countries of the French Community became independent and joined the United Nations.

Only one African possession — Algeria remained in the hands of the French and it proved to be the most troublesome of all. Algeria had a population of eight million Arabs and about a million Frenchmen and it was the Frenchmen who held all of the country’s political power and most of its wealth. In the nineteenth century, the French government in Paris made Algeria a part of France, rather than a mere colony, but Algeria was separated from France by the Mediterranean Sea and had an entirely different civilization. The Algerian people never considered themselves Frenchmen and by the early 1950’s they were demanding that the rule of Algeria be turned over to them. Their slogan was “Algérie pour ler Algériens” – “Algeria for the Algerians.” The French settlers, who were called colons, were bitterly opposed to independence and they had the French army to back them.

France sent in hundreds of thousands of troops to put down the Algerians and by 1956 a full-scale war was under way. It cost France an enormous sum of money and the lives of many men and even so, the independence movement kept growing. As the Algerians continued to fight for freedom, the generals of the French army became more and more impatient. They accused their government of not doing enough to crush the rebels. Furthermore, French military men had always distrusted democracy and now they saw their chance to destroy it. In May of 1958, the French government in Paris was removed from office and General Charles de Gaulle, who had rallied the French against the Germans in World II, became premier.

The generals had brought de Gaulle to power and they expected him to carry out their policies. They believed he would soon make himself dictator and would stop at nothing to defeat the Algerians. To their amazement, they found that de Gaulle had other intentions. He saw no good in permanently maintaining a huge army in the mountains of Algeria. He said that France would never attain greatness — or grandeur, as he put it in French — if it went on pouring its wealth into a useless war. Gradually he won over the French people to his point of view and they began to accept the idea of Algerian independence.

The generals and the colons felt that they had been betrayed, that de Gaulle had deceived them. They rose up against him, established their own government in Algeria and even threatened to drop airborne troops on Paris. When this “generals’ revolt” failed, some officers vowed to assassinate de Gaulle and made several attempts on his life. They, too, failed and in 1962 Algeria was given independence. De Gaulle called home the French army and many of the colons packed up and moved to France. Algeria belonged to the Algerians and the French African empire had completely disappeared.

Meanwhile, Belgium was also giving up its empire. In 1960 it suddenly pulled out of the Congo, which entered the United Nations along with Rwanda and Burundi (once known as Ruanda-Urundi), which was granted independence that same year. The Belgians had been particularly harsh and cruel — and in the nearly eighty years of their rule had done nothing to prepare the Congolese for self-government. The result was that their departure was followed by chaos, intrigue and civil war and the Congo would be a place of trouble for years to come.

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