Decolonization and the Cold War


The last century was the time of the greatest terror in human history. There were the most horrific totalitarian regimes, two World Wars, many local conflicts, and the bloodiest civil wars. However, it was also the time of the greatest relief. After a series of catastrophic decisions and self-destructive actions, the European empires started to crumble, and the colonized nations gradually began to fight for their independence. The most active liberation movements were in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia (Hanhimäki and Westad 348). Historians and sociologists call the events that occurred during the period from the 40s to the 70s decolonization (Wenzel 449). At the same time, the new world leaders, the United States (US) and the Soviet Union (USSR), realized that decolonization was an effective tool for gaining new allies and sabotaging the enemy alliance in the Cold War. Therefore, one can assume that decolonization is a historical phenomenon that originated from the colonized nations’ natural aspiration to be independent and later was used as a tool of a geopolitical confrontation between the two greatest ideological and military opponents.

Defining the Phenomena

What the Cold War Is

Before proceeding to the discussion about the intersection of decolonization with the Cold War, it is useful to clarify what these two historical and sociocultural phenomena mean. Researchers note that “after World War II, the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its satellite states began a decades-long struggle for supremacy known as the Cold War” (“The Cold War”). The uniqueness of this geopolitical conflict lies in the fact that there was no single battle between both sides’ military forces. Instead, “the two superpowers continually antagonized each other through political maneuvering, military coalitions, espionage, propaganda, arms buildups, economic aid, and proxy wars between other nations” (“The Cold War”). Officially, the conflict between the two alliances ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc at the end of the last century. However, nowadays, similar political and socioeconomic patterns that took place in the recent past can be noticed.

What Decolonization Is

It can be said that decolonization and the Cold War are as inseparable in terms of historical concepts as decolonization and World War II. Decolonization is the dismantlement of European empires due to political, economic, and social reasons after World War II (Hanhimäki and Westad 347). It is also the principle of non-interference in the process of formerly colonized nations’ self-determination (Hanhimäki and Westad 492). In terms of culture, decolonization is the identification and analysis of colonizers’ cultural patterns in native cultures, restoration of traditions, and redefinition of the identity of colonized nations. As one can see, both of these phenomena took place in the same historical period. Moreover, both of these phenomena occurred globally. It partially proves the intersectionality of decolonization and the Cold War. These facts are insufficient to assert complete intersectionality. Further, a detailed analysis of both historical processes will be presented.

The Cold War and Decolonization in Africa

Decolonization of Africa and Events Associated With It

After World War II, almost all European countries that were the flagships of global politics were devastated and exhausted. This, the United States’ emphasis on anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism in the international discourse, and the growing military power of the colonized nations forced the European states to grant independence to the colonies. Some former empires, such as Great Britain, did it voluntarily. Others, Like France, did so only after being defeated in a war of independence. The reason why the former colonies have demanded and fought for their sovereignty is sincere and straightforward. According to Hanhimäki and Westad, it was the desire “to see Africa free and independent” (354). However, the newly formed states quickly became objects of interest for the United States and the USSR. They saw them as allies, sources of resources, logistics hubs, and sites for military bases and nuclear weapons. By contacting and supporting the formerly colonized nations in their struggle and development, both conflicting sides realized that decolonization was an effective war tactic in the modern world.

Cold War Comes to Africa after Decolonization

A striking example of such mutually beneficial contacts of superpowers with decolonized countries is the Soviet-Algerian relationship. Right after the Algerian War, “the Soviet Union set up a number of agreements on trade, education, and technological assistance with the new states in the Third World,” one of them was Algeria (Hanhimäki and Westad 369). The US also took part in the early development of the newly formed African states. Hanhimäki and Westad note that “the Kennedy Administration supported the army in Congo, led by General Joseph Mobutu” (365). The decolonization act that most closely resembles geopolitical tactics is the supply of weapons and military experts to African Independence Movements fighting against inner colonizers in conflicts in South Africa.

The Cold War and Second Decolonization of Latin America

Latin America, Parallel Battleground

World War II destroyed the old global leaders and gave rise to new ones who immediately started a war of political and economic attrition. Latin America was one of the major ideological battlegrounds between the US and the USSR in the post-war world. Nicholson notes that before the Soviet interference in the region, many countries, namely “Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama,” were under US influence for a long time. The USSR leaders became interested in Latin America because of their relative proximity to North America and their ability to reach this US border by land. The military intervention was logistically very complex, so the Soviets resorted to the tactics of decolonization through revolution, to which their capitalist opponent responded similarly. This period in Latin America is an example of how decolonization was used to expand influence by the Cold War actors.

Decolonization as a Military Tactic

In addition to the interests of the flagship of socialism and communism, decolonization intentions were naturally cultivated in South American societies. The primary driver of it was the US imperialistic character of foreign policy. According to Hanhimäki and Westad, “the multi-faceted exploitation was carried out with intelligence, with shrewdness, with the precision of clockwork, with ‘scientific’ coldness, with harshness and with great arrogance” (384). Thoughts of decolonization were often accompanied by communist ideas that Marxist philosophy could offer to the developing societies (Hanhimäki and Westad 386). Hanhimäki and Westad note that Nixon attributed this to the fact that South American leaders lacked experience in government and international politics (386). The unfavorable socioeconomic state of people in these countries is another reason. Consequently, a situation developed in Latin America when the USSR’s foreign policy plans coincided with local societies’ interests. It led to eliminating US imperialist influence in countries such as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, which can be considered acts of decolonization. The US organized a number of counter-revolutionary measures in response.


This work explores in detail the intersection of decolonization and the Cold War. To be more precise, this paper proves that decolonization is a historical event that originated from the colonized nations’ natural aspiration to be sovereign and then was applied as a geopolitical tactic by the US and USSR in the Cold War. The decolonization of Africa and the participation of the two main actors of the Cold War in the subsequent events of the newly formed states show that the two historical phenomena are intersectional. The USSR’s interference in South American states’ internal politics proves the second part of the thesis that decolonization began to be used as a geopolitical tactic during the confrontation.

The last decade has shown that the Cold War is not over. One can see that tensions are growing between the US and China, the US and Russia. It means that the possibility of new major conflicts is high in the future. History is the best textbook for politicians and sociologists on how to prevent and avoid wars. Therefore, such types of research are essential in terms of education and scientific discourse. Intersectionality in history and historiography can reveal many new facts, interconnections, and correlations between many events of which people think they know everything. Future research should focus on the intersectionality of events such as the Arab Spring and the rise of nationalist sentiment in Eastern Europe.

Works Cited

Hanhimäki, Jussi M., and Odd Arne Westad, editors. The Cold War: A History in Documents and Eyewitness Accounts. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Nicholson, Kailyn. “Brutal History of U.S. Intervention in Latin America.” Socialist Alternative, 2019, Web.

“The Cold War.” JFK Library, Web.

Wenzel, Jennifer. “Decolonization.” A Companion to Critical and Cultural Theory, edited by Imre Szeman, Sarah Blacker, and Justin Sully, 2017, pp. 449-464.

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