13 months that shook the world

Jonathan Fenby looks conflicts far from the Cold War battle lines

The World Today Published 7 June 2018 Updated 25 January 2019 2 minute READ

Arab League soldiers fire on Jewish Haganah fighters from East Jerusalem in March 1948

Arab League soldiers fire on Jewish Haganah fighters from East Jerusalem in March 1948

The later 1940s are remembered primarily as the time when the Cold War came to dominate international affairs. Between June 1947 and June 1948, the Marshall Plan was implemented, Stalin formed Cominform to impose discipline on European communist parties, the communists took over in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet blockade of the western zones of Berlin led to a year-long airlift.

Even before the USSR acquired atomic weapons and raised the threat of mutual annihilation, the East-West division embodied by the Iron Curtain through the middle of Europe seemed to be the great determinant of international affairs for a world still emerging from the traumas of war.

Looked at through a wider lens, however, the period takes on a very different aspect. We think of our world as being particularly complex but 13 months between the summers of 1947 and 1948 saw the unrolling of events elsewhere on a grand scale. It was there, in India and Pakistan, China, Southeast Asia, the Middle East and other regions far from Europe, that the wider post-war world was forged.

As George Marshall was making the speech at Harvard on June 5, 1947, outlining his recovery plan for Europe, the British government was commissioning Cyril Radcliffe, a lawyer, to determine the frontiers between the two parts of the Indian Raj that were to gain independence two months later.

Communal violence had already shown its destructive power in Calcutta, the Bengal Delta and Bihar, and spread to Punjab in the spring with mass killings among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs as the calendars distributed to his staff by the last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, marked the passing of the days to independence and partition on August 15.

At the same time, a UN commission made up of delegates from 11 nations chosen for their neutrality was touring Palestine to collect evidence on which to decide whether to recommend partition between Jews and Arabs. As the UN representatives toured the British mandated territory which the Attlee government was intent on quitting as soon as possible, a communist force of 100,000 men crossed the Yellow River 4,000 miles to the east to open a new front in China’s long-running civil war while other elements of the People’s Liberation Army advanced in Manchuria.

A year later, India and Pakistan were sovereign nations at war in Kashmir after the huge population movement across the frontiers drawn by Radcliffe and the accompanying swath of death and destruction. The state of Israel had been proclaimed and Arab armies had attacked the new country. In neither case did the confrontation between the United States and the USSR play a role of any importance.

Despite the wish expressed by Stalin to ‘unleash a movement of liberation’ to help bring down capitalism, nationalism rather than Soviet-directed Marxism was the prime driver in the anti-colonial movements of the time, as in Indonesia where the Dutch launched a campaign against the republican government formed at the end of the war with the Japanese. In Madagascar, where French repression of a revolt took tens of thousands of lives, and in riots for self-determination in the Gold Coast, as Ghana was then known, communism was absent.

Even where they followed Moscow’s creed, nationalism was, at this stage, the prime source of appeal for leaders such as Ho Chi Minh.

The Malayan insurgency that led to the declaration of a state of emergency by Britain in June 1948, was, indeed, led by communists but they operated outside the control of the Kremlin.

The Cold War division of Europe was replicated in the Korean peninsula but in Asia’s biggest battle for power Mao Zedong’s communism was always tinged with Chinese characteristics that led him to ignore advice from Moscow.

In South Africa, nationalism took another form among the white electorate with the victory of a government dedicated to enforcing apartheid. In Latin America, communism was weak even as conservative forces gained strength in Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Venezuela.

So, while the Cold War became the dominant theme as it spread across the globe in the 1950s, it is worth remembering how other major sources shaped the geopolitics of the early post-war world in ways that forged the global context to this day, nearly three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. To understand the nature of the regime running China, the roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict or the continuing tension between India and Pakistan, one needs to go back to a time when the world was remaking itself in a crucible of global change.