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READ: Unit 8 Overview — End of Empire and Cold War

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. How did the Second World War shift the focus of the global story you’ve learned so far?
  2. Why were some conflicts during this period described in different ways (Cold War struggles vs. decolonization) depending on one’s perspective?
  3. How was the Cold War an ideological struggle?
  4. What changes in the world today came about as a result of political independence and decolonization, according to the author?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. How did the events of the Cold War and/or decolonization affect people in your family?
  2. How do the ideological differences between the Soviet Union and the United States relate to the frame of communities? How do they relate to production and distribution?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Unit 8: End of Empire & Cold War

Photo of a young Korean girl carrying a baby boy on her back. Behind them is a military tank.
By Trevor Getz
The United States and the Soviet Union rose as global superpowers as empires crumbled in the face of resistance. The two trends worked together to shape the late twentieth century.
Throughout this course, Europe has seemed to be the center of much of the action that made up the global story. This continent is so tiny and so connected to the giant landmass of Asia that some people don't even think of it as a continent of its own. Yet Europe hosted the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and was a focus of the political ideas that brought about the liberal political revolutions of the long nineteenth century. Its nation-states created most of the vast empires that ruled much of the world well into the twentieth century. Europe was center stage in the First World War, and it was one of two major areas of conflict in the Second World War. We can't make this point too strongly: important events were happening everywhere during this period. Yet, it certainly seems that Europe played an outsized role during this era.
That may be true, but the end of the Second World War changed that imbalance. While Europe remained important, the focus of world events shifted elsewhere. The major European states had been devastated by six years of conflict and massive death tolls due to both war and genocide. So maybe it's no surprise that the two great powers that emerged from the conflict, the United States and the Soviet Union, were both located outside of the region (or, in the case of the Soviet Union, mostly outside). China, a rising power, was even farther away. And if European leaders were hoping to use the profits of their colonies to buy their way back to power, as some had done after the First World War, they would be disappointed. The people living in their colonies throughout Asia, the Caribbean, Africa, and the Pacific were now ready and able to end colonial rule in their own lands.
Historians typically describe the events of the half-century or so after the Second World War ended in 1945 through two separate processes. The first was the Cold War, in which the United States and the Soviet Union led rival coalitions—politically active alliances—that confronted each other on every continent and ocean of the planet. The second was decolonization, as the people of colonies everywhere sought to gain independence and create their own nation-states. To some degree, we can see that these were different trends with different motives. The Cold War was a struggle over military and economic supremacy, whereas decolonization was a struggle for political independence and sovereignty. Then again, bees and flowers are also two different things, but it's pretty hard to study one while ignoring the other.
Photo of four communist revolutionaries from Cuba. From left to right: Raul Castro, Vilma Espin Guillois, Jorge Risquet, and Jose Nivaldo Causse.
Communist Cuban Revolutionaries Raúl Castro, Vilma Espín Guillois, Jorge Risquet and José Nivaldo Causse in 1957. The Cuban Revolution was both a campaign against informal colonialism and a major Cold War confrontation. Public domain.
It turns out that many of the events of this period involved both of these conflicts. Whether they were described as Cold War struggles or decolonization depended on your perspective. If you had been a colonial subject in Africa, for example, your attempts to create your own country would feel like a decolonization struggle. From this perspective, calling for US or Soviet help was just a way to get the support you needed. The same events, viewed from the United States or the Soviet Union, could look quite different. For the leaders of these superpowers, supporting an independence movement, or opposing it, could feel more like a strategic move in their Cold War rivalry.
Thus, while the Cold War and the decolonization process are often studied separately, in this unit, we ask how studying them together gives us a different and possibly more illuminated understanding of this era.

Understanding the Cold War

We begin this unit by looking closely at the Cold War. To some, the conflict looked like just another clash of titans. Two rising, immense superpowers confronting each other in the hope of dominating global politics for their own interests. At the same time, the Cold War was a real ideological struggle. The United States said it championed both the political freedom that democracy promised and economic freedom in the form of the capitalist system. The Soviet Union said it was fighting for the rights of workers and for economic equality, in the form of communism and socialism. Both countries felt that they had the better system, and both found allies and supporters in many places.
Photo of the women’s section of the Algerian National Army of Liberation standing at attention with their arms fixed at their sides. Each woman is dressed in a military uniform that consists of cargo pants, jackets, belts, and a neck scarf.
Members of a women’s section of the Algerian nationalist move- ment the FLN (National Army of Liberation), at a rally supporting independence. © Central Press/Getty Images
Not everyone picked sides in the struggle. Some countries and people tried to be neutral. But because groups around the world found that they agreed with one side more, much of the world was drawn into this conflict. With two superpowers at odds, smaller countries and groups found it convenient—even wise—to ally with one side. As a result, a timeline of the Cold War can look like it jumps from crisis to crisis around the world, from Central Europe in the 1940s, to Korea and then Cuba in the 1950s, to Vietnam in the 1960s, Latin America and Africa soon after. Finally, in 1989, the communist side of the struggle began to break up for a variety of reasons. Communism finally ended in the Soviet Union soon after, bringing the Cold War to an end.
To understand these events, and how they are connected in a bigger story, we consider the perspectives of people who saw them as one long struggle, especially in the United States and the Soviet Union. But we also try to look at many events from the perspectives of those who experienced and participated in them as individual episodes. People in East Asia probably lived a very different Cold War than those in the Caribbean or any other part of the world, for example. Looking at these different perspectives helps us to understand better what was really going on.

Understanding the end of empire

After looking closely at the Cold War, we investigate decolonization, a term that describes the process by which colonies became independent nation-states and great global empires came to an end. Of course, it's not like everything changed. We can still see some legacies of empire in the world today. But political independence did bring about changes in the way the world was organized—in global economies, in migration patterns, and in daily life.
If we were to study each one of the dozens and dozens of struggles for independence, finishing this unit would take longer than the Cold War. So instead, we'll begin by describing the broader global pattern of decolonization, and why it happened in this era. It is also important to examine how these patterns were different in some parts of the world. We look at India, where decades of resistance to British rule suddenly came together in a massive movement for independence in 1948. The result was not one but several newly independent countries. We also focus on the Middle East, where competing interests after the war led to tensions that continue to shape the region today. We also explore events in South Africa, where the descendants of European settlers held on to political power—and the overtly racist system called apartheid—decades after other parts of Africa became independent. Finally, we look at the role of women in independence movements around the world, and how their role and experience in these movements differed from men.

Understanding how they were entangled

Throughout each of these two parts of this unit, the stories we explore are never strictly decolonization stories or strictly Cold War stories. Whether we are looking at events in China, or Iran, or Cuba, we are almost always looking at events that were, simultaneously, struggles for independence and Cold War conflicts. It's up to you to use the evidence in the unit to work out for yourself how these two big trends were tangled together in the complicated stories of different regions, and in the global story for this era. You may also begin to consider how these events, many of which took place in your grandparents' and parents' lifetimes, have had an impact on the world you live in today. We will make some of those connections clearer in the last unit of the course, as well.
Author bio
Trevor Getz is Professor of African and world History at San Francisco State University. He has written or edited eleven books, including the award-winning graphic history Abina and the Important Men, and co-produced several prize-winning documentaries. 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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