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Review by David Beechey

Small Wars, Faraway Places: The Genesis of the Modern World 1945 – 1965 by Michael Burleigh, New York & London: Macmillan, 2013, ISBN 13: 978-0230752320, 592 pp., 25 UKP (hardback).

[Editor’s note:  The book will be published in September 2013 in the United States as Small Wars, Faraway Places: Global Insurrection and the Making of the Modern World, 1945-1965, pre-publication prices are $23.60 (Amazon hardcover), $20.39 (paper), $19.99 (Kindle).]    

This book likely will not go down too well with those Americans who do not like to think of the United States as Imperialistic or even as a colonial power. That is what Michael Burleigh believes America has become “amid the debris of its nation-building efforts in South Vietnam” and that it is an “infinitely more successful imperial power” than those that it has replaced. It is made clear in the Introduction that the book is focused on the two “seminal decades of the Cold War” and that the conclusions that are drawn would be obscured if the global story were extended into the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Michael Burleigh admits that he has only included the countries that interest him and even then he has had to miss out lengthy sections on Angola, Mozambique and South Africa despite months that he says that he spent researching them. There are a number of lesser “small wars” that he does not mention that are also excluded. The inclusion of all of the post Second World War struggles for Independence would have made a very large work indeed. The focus of the book is on episodes which define his main theme which is the decline of global power and influence centred in Europe ( in particular Great Britain ) and the rise of the United States and the transitional period in between.

There are many concurrent themes to the book and they include an account of American Foreign Policy in the early Cold War years, counter-insurgency tactics and the decline and failure of European colonialism, although there are a couple of success stories notably Korea and Malaya. The small wars that are covered are Palestine, India, Korea, Iran, the Malayan Emergency, Hungary, Suez, Algeria, Mau Mau in Kenya, the Congo, the Cuban missile crisis, and the early years of Vietnam. It is a difficult task to meld these together in a coherent narrative but I believe that has been achieved mainly because of Burleigh’s brilliant writing in which the complex political situations leading up to all of these crises are succinctly described, but also by his clever way of showing that many of the “players” were present in successive theatres and that figures well known today have “walk on parts.”  An example of this is that Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf, the father of General Schwarzkopf, led the training of the Iranian Gendarmerie in the 1940’s and then returned employed by the CIA in 1953 to help engineer the coup that to this day resonates in Iran.

Burleigh has a hearty dislike of American politicians and their penny-pinching ways with the State Department and quotes Congressmen complaining about “money being frittered away on increased booze allowance for cookie pushers.” This does not sit well with Burleigh and he comments “actually foreign service officers often worked in dangerous places, where the air they breathed and the water they drank could kill them, not to speak of the air travel.” The U.S. Foreign Service does come under some fire and he is highly critical of the clashes over policy between different bureaus of the U.S. Foreign Service in the 1940s and 1950s. The State Department was, according to Burleigh, “bitterly divided between Europeanists – supporting Britain, France and the Netherlands and the Asianists although Harry Truman enabled the Europeanists to bury the Asianists’ argument.” Some Ambassadors he dislikes intensely, particularly Patrick Hurley, the U.S. Ambassador to China in the 1940’s, who is described as a “drunken idiot given to Choctaw war cries and who called Mao Zedung, MooseDung.”

The changing policy of America towards colonialism is charted from the early days of the Second World War, when the U.S. made it clear that it was not prepared to shore up and prolong Britain’s Empire, until the Korean War when America realised that strategically the British, French and Dutch Empires were of some considerable significance although by then it was too late to do much about it. The ignorant, cynical and heavy-handed approach of the CIA is well documented and described. Burleigh’s view of the Philippine Insurgency and the role of Edward Lansdale (whose “story is so extraordinary and paradigmatic that he is almost a signature theme for much of this book”) is described in some detail and how Ambassador Spruance tried to side line Lansdale but failed. Interestingly Burleigh does not state whether he believes Spruance was right to try to stop Lansdale and I find that strange because he is forthright about most of the personalities. He clearly likes, for example, Field Marshal Gerald Templar who completed the Malayan problem satisfactorily and Lieutenant General Erskine who finally sorted out the problems in Kenya mainly by threatening the white settlers with declaring martial law but more importantly by “making it a priority to seek the moral high ground.” Lansdale then surfaces in Vietnam where many thought that he was the prototype for The Quiet American and he exerted considerable pressure in Hollywood so much so that he strongly influenced the movie reversing the roles that Graham Greene had written.

Eisenhower is shown as a man to be respected and who moved slowly and with wisdom and with no desire to “grandstand” but Burleigh does not think much of Kennedy who he clearly despises as a “moral sink” incapable of taking anything seriously except for whichever woman he was chasing at the time.

There are so many interesting and pithy comments that it is difficult to pick out any one but I think that this description of Suez is one of the best, “In a pattern grimly familiar from the resort to pseudo-legalism by more recent British governments Britain declared Egypt to be in breach of International Law.” This was Prime Minister Eden’s response to Egypt’s nationalising the Suez Canal and became a justification for the bizarre alliance between Britain and France and, secretly, Israel. Interestingly. Eisenhower ordered sanctions against Israel, which caused them to call a ceasefire!  Suez was, for Britain and France anyway, an example of how times had changed and is the occasion when America for the first time openly wielded its power against them, forcing them to withdraw. The result was that France chose to ally itself with Israel and Britain sought membership of the EU. Britain’s considerable influence with the Arabs was lost and has never recovered fully. Churchill who was still alive was “more than willing to subordinate Britain to the new realities of U.S. power whereas Eden deeply resented America’s late entry into two world wars and the huge profit that they made from them and their brutal cut off of financial aid [to the UK] in 1946.” At the time Eden was addicted to various prescription drugs and this was unknown to the British public to whom he had the aura of a film star. Today it is inconceivable that could happen mainly because of the strong investigative Press but also because of the televised Question Time in the House of Commons.

The basic lesson taught to the reader by Michael Burleigh is that the colonial powers made a terrible mess of things with the exception of “The Malayan Emergency” which was so called because the British never called it a war. To do so would have taken away insurance coverage for the colonial planters. This is, in my view, the most interesting part of the book probably because it is a “small war” that the UK won with reasonably clean hands unlike most of the others. The worst “small war”, being the Belgian Congo, and the terrible murder of Patrice Lumumba at the hands of the CIA. In Malaya the British combated the insurgency by using “old fashioned Special Branch police officers with their intuitive ‘nose’ for villainy and they are the real but unsung heroes of every war the British have fought with insurgents and terrorists, not least in Northern Ireland and in the present against Islamists.” According to Burleigh, David Patreaus incorporated the lessons of Malaya into current U.S. counter-insurgency theory.

Very few people or countries come out of this book with their reputations intact. The catalogue of deceit, corruption, murder, and downright dislike of the democratic process is quite clear. U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson once gave the game away and said “if you truly had a democracy and did what people wanted, you’d go wrong every time.” Michael Burleigh does not have much time for the British either and his description of the Kenyan colonial administration sounds almost like something out of P.G. Wodehouse, except that the dreadful treatment of suspected Mau Mau is described as the  “Kenyan concentration camps bear comparison with the worst.” Records were deliberately destroyed and what are remaining were only found under Britain’s “Freedom of Information Act” by lawyers acting for survivors suing the British Government a couple of years ago.

Do not for a moment think that because Michael Burleigh is British that the British come out best. I quote, “until subsequent events in Southern Iraq disabused them of the conceit the British liked to congratulate themselves on their expertise in a softly-softly, hearts and minds approach and were inclined to sneer at the more robust ‘cowboy’ approach of the Americans.”

The readers of American Diplomacy will know most of these events but because of the depth of research and the sheer size of the book there will be much information that is not.
As you might expect in a work as ambitious as this there are a few errors. One example that I noticed was that “Americans adopted waterboarding in the Philippines as routine employment of torture which they learnt from the Apache.” Really?

I have one major criticism and that is that there is little about the economics of colonies and why they were worth keeping. There is the comment that Britain owed India £1,321 million by the end of the war which was a part of the colossal £3,355 million post-war debt much of it owed to the US and that in 1949 the Anglo Iranian Oil Company (now BP) made a profit of £28 million and gave the Iranian government £1 million. Apart from assertions about America’s imperialist ambitions there is little discussion or evidence of neither the growth of those ambitions nor any detail of how important the addition of those ex-colonial markets would be to the U.S.

If you want a well-written précis of many of the post war colonial wars filled with anecdotes and witticisms then this is the book for you. This is not a “popular” history but a serious work written with style and panache and much of it resonates today. There are lessons here, as always in history and the most obvious one to me, being British, is that by “punching above one’s weight then you can end up hitting yourself on the chin” which is exactly what Britain continually tried to do after the Second World War with less than satisfactory results. The other lesson from this book: politicians never seem to learn.End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy

David Beechey
David Beechey

David Beechey was born in North Wales in 1942 but thinks of himself as British first and Welsh second. He obtained a degree in Civil Engineering and then a Diploma in Management Studies followed by becoming a Fellow of the British Institute of Management. He formed his own contracting company in 1979 and specialized in the building of bullion vaults and cash-in-transit centers and has expertise in their security. He still works in the business. He has maintained a serious interest in Political Science since winning the Current Affairs Prize in the last year at his College. His interests range from sailing, gardening, military history, reading, to classical music and the theatre. He has travelled widely and has flown over a million miles to the United States where he has a particular interest in the American West. He is currently completing a novel set in Arizona in 1942. He lives with his wife in Lancashire, UK.

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