Wars of National Liberation: Part 1-American Revolution to World War Two
What is a “War of National Liberation?" The precise definition can be argued, but we can say that a war of national liberation is a military conflict in which a distinct ethnic, religious, or national group fights a war against an outside power that maintains political and military control of that group’s territory. Ok, so what does THAT mean? Let’s look at some examples from history.
For centuries, Ireland was ruled by an outside power, (England/British Empire). The Irish were a people distinct from their rulers. They originally spoke their own language (Gaelic), most were Catholic or non-Anglican Protestants like the Presbyterians (the British Monarch is officially the head of the Protestant Anglican Church-i.e. neither Catholic nor Presbyterian). Despite the existence of an Irish parliament, the central government in London had veto power over Irish law and policy. Many ethnic Irish sought independence from Britain, and, over the centuries, had unsuccessfully rebelled against the British (1798, 1803 1848, 1867, 1916, among many others) culminating in the successful Irish War of Independence (1919-1922) in which the Irish Republic gained independence from Britain.
In this example, a distinct people (the Irish) were officially part of (political and military control) the British Empire (an outside power). After many unsuccessful acts of rebellion, the Irish managed to fight a military conflict that ended with the birth of a new nation. Thus, a War of National Liberation.
In many ways, the concept of wars of national liberation can trace its origins to the American War of Independence (1775-1783 against Britain), and the French Revolution (1789). The Americans defeated the outside power that controlled them, and set up a new nation with a set of ideals and laws that inspired many others, including the French, to seek republican (as opposed to monarchical or royal) governments. Another way of looking at these wars of national liberation is to think of them by terms like “colonial war," or “anti-colonial war." In the American example, the British territories in America were literally referred to as the “Thirteen Colonies," and the Americans felt they were being treated as colonial subjects, and not as Englishmen (in terms of politics, economics, military occupation, and respect). Thus, the American colonists began to see themselves as a people distinct from their English origins.
The French Revolution, while not a war of liberation against an outside power, did have to defend itself from non-republican outside powers (including the British, Austrians, Prussians, and others) who sought to re-impose a monarchy on France. This led to a series of conflicts called the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1802). One result of these wars, was the exportation of French revolutionary ideals to other countries, where royalist governments were replaced by republican forms of government.
However, for the purposes of our examination of national liberation wars, one conflict in particular bears examination. The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), was a true war of national liberation, in which the black slaves of the French colony of Saint Domingue engaged in a long, but ultimately successful war against their colonial rulers to form the independent nation of Haiti. Other wars of national liberation directly related to the ideals of the American and French revolutions, and also directly connected to the chaos that engulfed Europe at this time (due to the French Revolutionary Wars and the wars of Napoleon), were the Wars of Liberation in the Spanish American colonies from New Spain (now Mexico) to Central America, and South America from Spanish rule.
From this point on, until the period after World War Two (ending in 1945), many occupied or subject peoples threw off the long-time control of the outside or foreign powers that controlled them, from the Greeks gaining independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s, to the Cubans (with a lot of American help) becoming independent from Spain in 1898.
Following World War One (ending in 1918), many new nations became independent, but other areas of the world which were ruled by foreign powers merely changed colonial rulers (The German colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, and the Ottoman lands in the Arab Middle East).
While Europe continued to engage in conflict that pitted republicans vs. royalists, both major and minor European powers engaged in a race to conquer significant portions of Africa, Asia, the Pacific, and, especially after World War One, the Middle East. These newly conquered areas were turned into colonies to be exploited for their natural resources, including their manpower, and treated politically as virtual slaves in many instances. This, despite the growing liberalism and republicanism in Europe itself. Other nations, notably the United States and Japan, also sought to acquire outside territories and colonies.
The U.S., engaged in continental expansion at the expense of the native tribes and neighbors (Mexico), began to look overseas, taking control of Hawaii in the 1890s, and gaining her own colonies (Philippines, Puerto Rico), in the wake of the Spanish-American War. Japan, in this period, also grew at the expense of other, taking control of Formosa (modern Taiwan) and Korea. Japan also gained Pacific islands and parts of China during World War One from the old German colonies.
Which brings us to the modern concept of “Wars of National Liberation." By end of World War One, most of Africa, nearly the entire Arabic portion of the Middle East, and most of Asia (except China and Japan), and most Pacific Islands were ruled by Europe, the U.S., or Japan as colonies of one sort or another.
Fast forward to the aftermath of World War Two, and we see the main European colonial powers either defeated (Italy), or exhausted from years of war (Britain) , and, in some cases, German occupation themselves (France, Belgium, Netherlands). Add to that the fact that many of their Asian and Pacific colonies had been occupied by the Japanese during the war, and we get a recipe that promotes many Wars of National Liberation among these colonies from 1946 (the start of the Vietnamese/Indochinese war) to 1975 (the end of Portugal’s African empire). Of course, nothing happens in a vacuum, and the multitude of anti-colonial movements in what would come to be called the Third World, also intersected with the Cold War, pan-Arab nationalism, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the rise of Islamic militancy.
In our next post, we will look at the post-World War Two Wars of National Liberation and how they converged and interacted with those aforementioned post-war conflicts and ideologies and how they shaped the world of today.