Tears, Fire, and Blood: No Premature Independence, 1941–1951

The following is an excerpt from James H. Meriwether’s Tears, Fire, and Blood: The United States and the Decolonization of Africa. In the mid-twentieth century, the struggle against colonial rule fundamentally reshaped the world and the lives of the majority of the world’s population. Decolonization, Black and Brown freedom movements, the establishment of the United Nations and NATO, an exploding Cold War, a burgeoning world human rights movement, all became part of the dramatic events that swept through Africa at a furious pace, with fifty nations gaining independence in roughly fifty years. Meanwhile, the United States emerged as the most powerful and influential nation in the world, with the ability—politically, economically, militarily—and principles to help or hinder the transformation of the African continent.  

Tears, Fire, and Blood offers a sweeping history of how the United States responded to decolonization in Africa. James H. Meriwether explores how Washington, grappling with national security interests and racial prejudices, veered between strengthening African nationalist movements seeking majority rule and independence and bolstering anticommunist European allies seeking to maintain white rule. Meriwether’s Tears, Fire, and Blood was featured recently on our Universal Human Rights Month reading list.

The delegates to the Fifth Pan-African Congress believe in peace. How could it be otherwise when for centuries the African peoples have been victims of violence and slavery? Yet if the Western world is still determined to rule mankind by force, then Africans, as a last resort, may have to appeal to force in the effort to achieve Freedom, even if force destroys them and the world. . . . We will fight in every way we can for freedom, democracy, and social betterment.

Manchester Fifth Pan-African Congress, 1945

The breaking up of the colonial systems and the gradual withdrawing of the colonial powers from these areas has faced the US itself with the problem of filling the gap left by their withdrawal. The US stand on the colonial issue and economic nationalism will have a major effect on the attitudes of these colonial and former colonial areas.

CIA, September 1948

As 1941 dawned, maps of Africa showed a continent almost devoid of inde- pendent territory, and even those areas did not appear to have unfettered sovereignty. Liberia, although independent since 1847, was ruled by a tiny Americo-Liberian elite and remained strongly under the influence of the United States. Egypt, independent since 1922, still had British military forces and political influence, even after the 1936 Anglo-Egyptian Treaty formally ended British occupation. South Africa, unified and self-governing since 1910, was under white minority rule and nominally still under the British monarchy. Mostly the map showed vast European colonial empires, includ- ing an Italian East Africa that included an occupied Ethiopia. Yet the trans- formation of Africa was already underway. Within months the map changed, restoring Ethiopia as Emperor Haile Selassie triumphantly returned to Ad- dis Ababa after a five-year absence. Within fifty years, European empires would be wiped entirely from the map of Africa.

Broad historical currents were creating conditions for sweeping change. By the time the United States entered World War II later that year, Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt had already had conversations about the place of colonies in a postwar world. As the war ended, discussions about the future of colonial areas took on added immediacy in the context of a rapidly changing world. By then, the United States had moved into a domi- nant position, and colonial empires had become highly vulnerable to change. Of course Washington could not single-handedly determine their fates, but the vulnerability of its European allies gave America profound leverage.

That very vulnerability, however, made exercising leverage a risk in a world where communism seemed to be on the march. American interests in pursuing new markets and commercial opportunities clashed with arguments that European allies needed African colonies in their own postwar rebuilding efforts. Ideals of self-determination collided with seemingly safe harbors of European rule. The Truman administration chose what seemed the more secure route: to support European allies in their efforts to main- tain their empires. The decision did not come without dissent and division, but it came, despite historic threads of anticolonialism and ideological com- mitments to freedom and democracy. Fear of communism was a prominent factor in the decision to support allies and their quest to keep their colonies. But domestic considerations, including prevailing racial views that Africans were better off under white rule weighed heavily. Indeed, the in- ternational intertwining of anticommunism and white supremacy became pronounced. Policymakers in Washington believed the continent was highly stable under the rule of European allies, with the State Department deter- mining as late as 1948 that there was “no need” for a formal position on all of French West Africa, for example, “since neither international nor local political developments pose serious problems in the area.” Europeans seem- ingly were in Africa to stay for the time being.

While U.S. officials sought to shore up allies in Europe against the threat they increasingly perceived from the Soviet Union, colonialism not commu- nism was the issue at hand for Africans. Nationalism and the push to end colonial rule was on the rise, with the Manchester Pan-African Congress in 1945 bringing voices from Africa and the diaspora together in a foundational moment of this growing movement. Condemning colonial economic exploi- tation and seeking steps toward political self-determination, the delegates’ “Challenge to the Colonial Powers” declared their belief in peace as well as their willingness to wage war. Kwame Nkrumah, speaking at a session chaired by W. E. B. Du Bois, indicted imperialism and called for strong and vigorous action to end it. At the same time, on the continent soldiers re- turning from the war carried with them perspectives for change. “Perhaps most important, I had become conscious of myself as a Kenya African, one among millions whose destinies were still in the hands of foreigners, yet also one who could see the need and the possibility of changing that situa- tion,” recalled Waruhiu Itote, whose nom de guerre for the Kenya Land and Freedom Army became General China.

Africans such as Nkrumah and Itote pursued various paths toward the goal of independence. By the end of 1951, an imprisoned Nkrumah had been elected leader of government business in the Gold Coast (Ghana), and Itote had moved toward insurgency. Libya had become the first postwar state in Africa to gain independence. U.S. officials worked to define Washington’s position. Pulled toward politically and financially supporting European al- lies and colonial powers but still verbally supporting eventual independence for African nations, U.S. officials embarked on a so-called middle path. But it was becoming a bipolar world, and Washington was drawn to the pole of continuing white rule, even as some in America, particularly in Americans, advocated greater support for African independence.

James H. Meriwether is professor of history at California State University, Channel Islands, and author of Proudly We Can Be Africans: Black Americans and Africa, 1936–1961