Grabs for Empire Cast Shadows Over Peace
Today the Monitor continues a year-long series of articles that examine World War II and its aftermath
WASHINGTON — Few issues ruffled President Franklin Roosevelt's liberal sensibilities more than the evils of colonialism perpetrated by his European Allies.
"Don't think for a moment that Americans would be dying tonight if it had not been for the short-sighted greed of the French, the British, and the Dutch," the disgruntled American president told one of his sons en route to a wartime meeting with Winston Churchill.
Roosevelt notwithstanding, the guns had hardly fallen silent in the Pacific before the European powers scrambled to reclaim their old Far Eastern empires, lost temporarily to the Japanese warlords. In the process, they triggered violent anticolonial struggles that shattered the postwar peace from Indonesia to Vietnam.
In Europe, meanwhile, where the defeat of Germany robbed the wartime alliance of Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union of its essential glue, there were other hints that the war to redeem the world from fascism would be followed by new crises - crises made infinitely more dangerous by the advent of nuclear weapons.
"In the Far East as in Europe, the circumstances of Axis defeat set the stage for intensified friction between the wartime East-West Allies," wrote the late American historian John Snell.
The most serious harbinger of postwar problems occurred in Poland, the nation that was the alpha and omega of World War II. It was the invasion of Poland by Hitler in 1939 that started World War II. It was disagreements over Poland that soured Allied unity at the end of the war and touched off the cold war.
The stage for trouble over Poland was set even before the fighting ended in Europe.
Britain had entered the war to save Poland from German aggression and (like the US) was determined that Poland would not fall victim to a new aggressor after the war. The Soviet Union had entered the war when Germany used Poland as a corridor for invasion and was determined that Poland would have a postwar government controlled by Moscow.
Poland was "not only a question of honor, but of security," Soviet leader Joseph Stalin instructed Churchill and Roosevelt at the Yalta conference, in February 1945.
During the war, the US and Britain backed a London-based, anti-Soviet Polish government in exile, while Russia backed a communist-controlled provisional government in Poland.
Violating Yalta agreement on Poland
At Yalta, the Big Three leaders attempted to reconcile their differences by agreeing that the Warsaw provisional government would be reorganized after the war to include democratic leaders from inside Poland and from the London exile government. That government, in turn, would hold free elections at the "earliest possible" moment after the liberation of Poland from Nazi control.
But hopes of avoiding a confrontation were quickly dashed. By mid-March - just a month after Yalta - Soviet leaders were taking steps to turn Poland into a satellite state.
"Stalin can't be trusted," a disillusioned Roosevelt told a relative shortly before his death on April 12.
The last hopes for resolving the Polish issue evaporated nine days later when Moscow signed a treaty of mutual assistance with the provisional government in Warsaw. The treaty directly violated the Yalta accords and symbolized Stalin's determination to prevent the establishment of an independent Poland.
Opening salvos of the cold war
The opening verbal salvos of the cold war were traded on April 23 at a White House meeting between Truman and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov. An angry Truman pressed for progress on the Polish question, insisting that the US would not recognize any Polish government that did not hold free elections.
"I have never been talked to like that in my life," Molotov protested, according to Truman's recounting of the meeting.
"Carry out your agreements and you won't get talked to like that," a testy Truman rejoined.
In the end, the free elections promised Poland were never held. By 1947, the pro-Western members of the Polish cabinet were squeezed out, and Poland fell under communist rule for four decades.
"The worst wartime fears of the London Poles and the Western Allies had come true," notes another American historian.
Secret agreement on Indochina
The darkest cloud in Asia at the end of World War II hung over Indochina, a French colony since the 1880s.
Japan's overthrow of a French Vichy government in Indochina late in the war - and later, Japan's defeat - provided a significant opening for a Vietnamese independence movement called the Viet Minh. Its leader was a charismatic nationalist named Ho Chi Minh, who mistakenly assumed that the Allies were serious when they talked about the ideal of postwar self-determination.
On Sept 2, 1945, the day Japan formally surrendered to the US, Ho declared Vietnam's independence. The problem was that independence was at odds with a secret agreement made two months earlier by Churchill and Truman at a conference in Potsdam, Germany.
Under its terms, Chinese troops would occupy northern Vietnam, and British troops would occupy southern Vietnam.
As Truman biographer David McCullough writes, the agreement allowed little opportunity for either the unification or independence of Vietnam and ample opportunity for the return of the French. But in the midst of more pressing concerns, McCullough notes, the decision "did not seem overly important" to Truman.
By late September, British forces were assisting the return and rearmament of French troops, which quickly regained control over Laos and Cambodia. But in Vietnam, French forces encountered resistance from the Viet Minh guerrillas. By December 1946, after a brief period of strained cooperation, the two sides were at war.
Under Roosevelt, the US had opposed the reassertion of French colonial rule in Indochina. But the advance of communism in Asia after the war, repeated French allegations that Ho's activities were being directed from Moscow, and the triumph of communist forces in China in 1949 prompted a change in US policy.
French forces were decisively beaten in Vietnam in 1954. But by then the stage was set for the US to take up the cause. After a 1954 peace conference in Geneva divided the country along the 17th parallel, the US sent troops to the south in an ultimately futile effort to prevent the unification of Vietnam under communist rule.
In 1975 the last of hundreds of thousands of US soldiers were withdrawn from Vietnam, ending a bloody, 30-year postscript to World War II in Asia.