Decolonization Documents

Following the Second World War, the very large British and French empires and a number of smaller empires with fewer formal colonies (Japan, United States, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal) began breaking apart, the colonies' populations arguing and fighting for independence. Within three decades (by 1975), dozens and dozens of new countries had self-government of one sort or another in Asia, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa. Among the most notable among relatively peaceful cases were the gigantic India (1947) and Ghana (1957), the first of the new sub-Saharan African independent states. The 1960s saw a particularly rapid pace of decolonization, the decade of the "Winds of Change." Many colonial populations had to go to war to free themselves, including Algeria (1962) in a war against France that left hundreds of thousands dead and probably three million displaced refugees. We will look at two cases of decolonization below, Vietnam (1975) and the (Belgian) Congo (1960). The first was probably the deadliest of the anti-colonial struggles, possibly taking four million lives over three decades, and an exceedingly lengthy process. The case of the Congo took place in a much shorter timeframe, but also witnessed a sharp burst of violence that involved metropolitan attempts to hang onto power or establish neo-colonial relationships. Note how both cases tied into Cold War issues.

Documents from Vietnam's Independence

French "Indochina" had been part of the French empire since the middle of the nineteenth century. During the First World War Vietnamese soldiers and workers were shipped to Greece and France. Independently, a young nationalist man who went by the name Nguyen Ai Quoc [Ai Quoc means "loves his country"] had also arrived in the metropole after being expelled from a Vietnamese-French school in 1911 for nationalist activities. He would later take the name Ho Chi Minh ("he who enlightens"). Nguyen/Ho had sailed away from his home by working as a laborer on a ship, spent time in the United States and England, and arrived in France by 1917.

As the Versailles Conference was sorting out the end of the First World War, Nguyen/Ho attempted to add a list of Vietnamese grievances to the peace settlement.

Letter of Nguyen Ai Quoc to the American Secretary of State
Paris, 18 June, 1919

To his Excellency, the Secretary of State of the Republic of the United States, Delegate to the Peace Conference'


We take the liberty of submitting to you the accompanying memorandum setting forth the claims of the Annamite [central Vietnamese] people on the occasion of the Allied victory.

We count on your great kindness to honor our appeal by your support whenever the opportunity arises.

We beg your Excellency graciously to accept the expression of our profound respect.

Revendications du Peuple Annamite [Claims of the Annamite People]

Since the victory of the Allies, all the subject peoples are frantic with hope at prospect of an era of right and justice which should begin for them by virtue of the formal and solemn engagements, made before the whole world by the various powers of the entente in the struggle of civilization against barbarism. 

While waiting for the principle of national self-determination to pass from ideal to reality through the effective recognition of the sacred right of all peoples to decide their own destiny, the inhabitants of the ancient Empire of Annam, at the present time French Indochina, present to the noble Governments of the entente in general and in particular to the honorable French Government the following humble claims:

(1) General amnesty for all the native people who have been condemned for political activity. 
(2) Reform of Indochinese justice by granting to the native population the same judicial guarantees as the Europeans have, and the total suppression of the special courts which are the instruments of terrorization and oppression against the most responsible elements of the Annamite people. 
(3) Freedom of press and speech. 
(4) Freedom of association and assembly 
(5) Freedom to emigrate and to travel abroad. 
(6) Freedom of education, and creation in every province of technical and professional schools for the native population. 
(7) Replacement of the regime of arbitrary decrees by a regime of law. 
(8) A permanent delegation of native people elected to attend the French parliament in order to keep the latter informed of their needs.
The Annamite people, in presenting these claims, count on the worldwide justice of all the Powers, and rely in particular on the goodwill of the noble French people who hold our destiny in their hands and who, as France is a republic, have taken us under their protection. In requesting the protection of the French people, the people of Annam, far from feeling humiliated, on the contrary consider themselves honored, because they know that the French people stand for liberty and justice and will never renounce their sublime ideal of universal brotherhood. Consequently, in giving heed to the voice of the oppressed, the French people will be doing their duty to France and to humanity.

Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh)

Ho Chi Minh, The Path Which Led Me to Leninism (1960)

After World War I, I made my living in Paris, now as a retoucher at a photographer's, now as a painter of "Chinese antiquities" (made in France!). I would distribute leaflets denouncing the crimes committed by the French colonialists in Vietnam.

At that time, I supported the October Revolution only instinctively, not yet grasping all its historic importance. I loved and admired Lenin because he was a great patriot who liberated his compatriots; until then, I had read none of his books.

The reason for my joining the French Socialist Party was that these "ladies and gentlemen"- as I called my comrades at that moment--had shown their sympathy toward me, toward the struggle of the oppressed peoples. But I understood neither what was a party, a trade-union, nor what was Socialism nor Communism. 

Heated discussions were then taking place in the branches of the Socialist Party, about the question whether the Socialist Party should remain in the Second International, should a Second-and-a-half International be founded or should the Socialist Party join Lenin's Third International? I attended the meetings regularly, twice or three times a week and attentively listened to the discussion. First, I could not understand thoroughly. Why were the discussions so heated? Either with the Second, Second-and-a-half or Third International, the revolution could be waged. What was the use of arguing then? As for the First International, what had become of it?

What I wanted most to know--and this precisely was not debated in the meetings--was: Which International sides with the peoples of colonial countries? I raised the question--the most important in my opinion--in a meeting. Some comrades answered: It is the Third, not the Second International. And a comrade gave me Lenin's "Thesis on the National and Colonial Questions" published by l'Humanite' to read.

There were political terms difficult to understand in this thesis. But by dint of reading it again and again, finally I could grasp the main part of it. What emotion, enthusiasm, clear-sightedness, and confidence it instilled in me! I was overjoyed to tears. Though sitting alone in my room, I shouted aloud as if addressing large crowds: "Dear martyrs, compatriots! This is what we need, this is what we need, this is the path to our liberation!" 

After that, I had entire confidence in Lenin, in the Third International. Formerly, during the meetings of the Party branch, I had only listened to the discussion; I had a vague belief that all were logical, and could not differentiate as to who were right and who were wrong. But from then on, I also plunged into the debates and discussed with fervor. Though I was still lacking French words to express all my thoughts, I smashed the allegations attacking Lenin and the Third International with no less vigor. My only argument was: "If you do not condemn colonialism, if you do not side with colonial people, what kind of revolution are you waging?" 

Not only did I take part in the meetings of my own Party branch, but I also went to other Party branches to lay down "my position." Now I must tell again that Comrades Marcel Cachin, Vaillant Couturier, MonmoussÈau, and many others helped me to broaden my knowledge. Finally, at the Tours Congress, I voted with them for our joining the Third International.

At first, patriotism, not yet Communism, led me to have confidence in Lenin, in the Third International. Step by step, along the struggle, by studying Marxism Leninism parallel with participation in practical activities, I gradually came upon the fact that only Socialism and Communism can liberate the oppressed nations and the working people throughout the world from slavery.

There is a legend, in our country as well as in China, on the miraculous "Book of the Wise." When facing great difficulties, one opens it and finds a way out. Leninism is not only a miraculous "Book of the Wise," a compass for us Vietnamese revolutionaries and people; it is also the radiant sun illuminating our path to final victory, to Socialism and Communism.

The Vietnamese were not awarded at seat at the diplomatic table. Within a year Nguyen/Ho had helped to found the French Communist Party, then moved to the Soviet Union to study what seemed to be a successful Communist revolution in 1925. By 1927, he was working with Communists in China (themselves trying to build their own state amongst the warlords), and in 1930--from Hong Kong, a British colony--declared the founding of the Indochinese Communist Party.

Program for the Communists of Indochina (1930)

Workers peasants, soldiers, youth, pupils! Oppressed and exploited compatriots! The Communist Party of Indochina is founded. It is the party of the working class. It will help the proletarian class lead the revolution in order to struggle for all the oppressed and exploited people. From now on we must pin the Party, help it and follow it in order to implement the following slogans: 

1. To overthrow French imperialism, feudalism, and the reactionary Vietnamese capitalist class.
2.. To make Indochina completely independent.
3. To establish a worker­peasant and soldier government.
4. To confiscate the banks and other enterprises belonging to the imperialists and put them under the control of the worker­peasant and soldier government.
5. To confiscate all of the plantations and property belonging to the imperialists and the Vietnamese reactionary capitalist class and distribute them to poor peasants.
6. To implement the eight­hour working day.
7. To abolish public loans and poll tax. To waive unjust taxes hitting the poor people.
8. To bring back all freedom to the masses.
9. To carry out universal education.
10. To implement equality between man and woman.

Nguyen Ai Quoc (Ho Chi Minh)

Nguyen/Ho was arrested by the British, escaped and returned to the Soviet Union. When Japan invaded China, he returned there, and then in 1941 finally returned to Vietnam, which by that time had also been occupied by Japan. French colonial officials, now under the direction of the puppet government of Nazi-occupied France, worked alongside the new invaders, helping to organize the economy to export war materiel and rice to Japan, at the price of the starvation of over a million Vietnamese. Ho and other members of the Indochinese Communists declared the creation of the Viet Minh, the Vietnamese League for Independence, and began a rather successful guerrilla war against the double colonial occupation, gaining enough territory in the north that they even received some aid from the United States. When Japan surrendered to the United States to end the Second World War, the Viet Minh captured dozens of cities, and declared their own independence.

Ho Chi Minh, "Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vienam" (1945)

All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.

The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: "All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights"....

Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.

In the field of politics, they have deprived our people of every democratic liberty. They have enforced inhuman laws; they have set up three distinct political regimes in the North, the Center, and the South of Vietnam in order to wreck our national unity… They have built more prisons than schools.… In the field of economics, they have fleeced us to the backbone, impoverished our people, and devastated our land….

[During World War II] our people were subjected to the double yoke of the French and the Japanese. Their sufferings and miseries increased…more than two million of our fellow citizens died from starvation….

After the Japanese had surrendered to the Allies, our whole people rose to regain our national sovereignty and to found the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The truth is that we have wrested our independence from the Japanese and not from the French…. For these reasons, we, members of the Provisional Government, representing the whole Vietnamese people, declare that from now on we break off all relations of a colonial character with France....

The whole Vietnamese people, animated by a common purpose, are determined to fight to the bitter end against any attempt by the French colonialists to reconquer their country. We are convinced that the Allied nations… have acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Vietnam.

A people who have courageously opposed French domination for more than eight years, a people who have fought side by side with the Allies against the Fascists during these last years, such a people must be free and independent….The entire Vietnamese people are determined to mobilize all their physical and mental strength, to sacrifice their lives and property in order to safeguard their independence and liberty.

The Allied powers then decided to occupy Vietnam, bringing British troops and Sepoys to occupy the south, and over 100,000 anti-Communist Chinese into the north. Even French troops were shipped from elsewhere. The Viet Minh set up elections in northern Vietnam, Ho being elected president, who then included Catholic Vietnamese politicans in his cabinet. The new government argued "Better to sniff a bit of French shit briefly than eat Chinese shit for the rest of our lives," and arranged for an immediate Chinese withdrawal and then French withdrawal in five years, and a political unification of the territory that would later be labeled Vietnam.

The metropolitan French government decided to refuse the deal, trying to regain some of their national pride that had been wounded by being conquered by the Germans, and in 1946 a skirmish between the French and Viet Minh forces elevated into open warfare, starting a conflict that would last for three decades in one form or another. In the first phase, the French would be defeated and surrender in 1954. When the promised elections never materialized a civil war began (1956-64), and then the United States got fully involved to stop the spread of Communism, and would not totally withdraw until 1975. Approximately four million Vietnamese died in the conflict between 1940 and 1975, the landscape was heavily environmentally damaged by American action, and the violence spiraled outward to include the other colonies of French Indochina (Laos and Cambodia, where an even more devastating tragedy was carried out by a new Communist state on its own popluation).


Documents on Congo's Independence

In 1955, the Belgians were convinced that Congo would remain a colony for decades more. In 1959, however, extensive rioting in the dependency forced the Belgians to begin the process of decolonization; one of the leaders of the anti-colonial demonstrations, Patrice Lumumba, was arrested and jailed for "failing to calm" protesting Congolese. By February, a process was agreed upon to achieve the Congo's official independence by June 30, 1960. A May election resulted in Lumumba's party winning about a quarter of the parliament; twelve other parties split the remaining seats, but Lumumba was elected to serve as Prime Minister. A large number of Belgian officers and officials remained in the territory. They fully expected to continue the existing economic relationship (Belgian control of copper mining profits), even if the Congolese were in charge. Lumumba gave the following speech on independence day:

Lumumba's Independence Day Speech (1960)

Men and women of the Congo,

Victorious fighters for independence, today victorious, I greet you in the name of the Congolese Government. All of you, my friends, who have fought tirelessly at our sides, I ask you to make this June 30, 1960, an illustrious date that you will keep indelibly engraved in your hearts, a date of significance of which you will teach to your children, so that they will make known to their sons and to their grandchildren the glorious history of our fight for liberty.

For this independence of the Congo, even as it is celebrated today with Belgium, a friendly country with whom we deal as equal to equal, no Congolese worthy of the name will ever be able to forget that is was by fighting that it has been won [applause], a day-to-day fight, an ardent and idealistic fight, a fight in which we were spared neither privation nor suffering, and for which we gave our strength and our blood.

We are proud of this struggle, of tears, of fire, and of blood, to the depths of our being, for it was a noble and just struggle, and indispensable to put an end to the humiliating slavery which was imposed upon us by force. This was our fate for eighty years of a colonial regime; our wounds are too fresh and too painful still for us to drive them from our memory. We have known harassing work, exacted in exchange for salaries which did not permit us to eat enough to drive away hunger, or to clothe ourselves, or to house ourselves decently, or to raise our children as creatures dear to us.

We have known ironies, insults, blows that we endured morning, noon, and evening, because we are Negroes. Who will forget that to a black one said "tu", certainly not as to a friend, but because the more honorable "vous" was reserved for whites alone?

We have seen our lands seized in the name of allegedly legal laws which in fact recognized only that might is right. We have seen that the law was not the same for a white and for a black, accommodating for the first, cruel and inhuman for the other. We have witnessed atrocious sufferings of those condemned for their political opinions or religious beliefs; exiled in their own country, their fate truly worse than death itself. We have seen that in the towns there were magnificent houses for the whites and crumbling shanties for the blacks, that a black was not admitted in the motion-picture houses, in the restaurants, in the stores of the Europeans; that a black traveled in the holds, at the feet of the whites in their luxury cabins.

Who will ever forget the massacres where so many of our brothers perished, the cells into which those who refused to submit to a regime of oppression and exploitation were thrown [applause]?

All that, my brothers, we have endured.

But we, whom the vote of your elected representatives have given the right to direct our dear country, we who have suffered in our body and in our heart from colonial oppression, we tell you very loud, all that is henceforth ended. The Republic of the Congo has been proclaimed, and our country is now in the hands of its own children.Together, my brothers, my sisters, we are going to begin a new struggle, a sublime struggle, which will lead our country to peace, prosperity, and greatness.

Together, we are going to establish social justice and make sure everyone has just remuneration for his labor [applause].

We are going to show the world what the black man can do when he works in freedom, and we are going to make of the Congo the center of the sun's radiance for all of Africa.

We are going to keep watch over the lands of our country so that they truly profit her children. We are going to restore ancient laws and make new ones which will be just and noble.

We are going to put an end to suppression of free thought and see to it that all our citizens enjoy to the full the fundamental liberties foreseen in the Declaration of the Rights of Man [applause].

We are going to do away with all discrimination of every variety and assure for each and all the position to which human dignity, work, and dedication entitles him.

We are going to rule not by the peace of guns and bayonets but by a peace of the heart and the will [applause].

And for all that, dear fellow countrymen, be sure that we will count not only on our enormous strength and immense riches but on the assistance of numerous foreign countries whose collaboration we will accept if it is offered freely and with no attempt to impose on us an alien culture of no matter what nature [applause].

In this domain, Belgium, at last accepting the flow of history, has not tried to oppose our independence and is ready to give us their aid and their friendship, and a treaty has just been signed between our two countries, equal and independent. On our side, while we stay vigilant, we shall respect our obligations, given freely.

Thus, in the interior and the exterior, the new Congo, our dear Republic that my government will create, will be a rich, free, and prosperous country. But so that we will reach this aim without delay, I ask all of you, legislators and citizens, to help me with all your strength.

I ask all of you to forget your tribal quarrels. They exhaust us. They risk making us despised abroad.

I ask the parliamentary minority to help my Government through a constructive opposition and to limit themselves strictly to legal and democratic channels.

I ask all of you not to shrink before any sacrifice in order to achieve the success of our huge undertaking.

In conclusion, I ask you unconditionally to respect the life and the property of your fellow citizens and of foreigners living in our country. If the conduct of these foreigners leaves something to be desired, our justice will be prompt in expelling them from the territory of the Republic; if, on the contrary, their conduct is good, they must be left in peace, for they also are working for our country's prosperity.

The Congo's independence marks a decisive step towards the liberation of the entire African continent [applause].

Sire, Excellencies, Mesdames, Messieurs, my dear fellow countrymen, my brothers of race, my brothers of struggle-- this is what I wanted to tell you in the name of the Government on this magnificent day of our complete independence.

Our government, strong, national, popular, will be the health of our country.

I call on all Congolese citizens, men, women and children, to set themselves resolutely to the task of creating a prosperous national economy which will assure our economic independence.

Glory to the fighters for national liberation!

Long live independence and African unity!

Long live the independent and sovereign Congo!

Various Congolese factions began to assert themselves against the new government. In July, Congolese soldiers mutinied against their inferior pay (compared to the still-in-charge white officers); 6 Belgians were killed in the conflict and the Belgian metropolitan government sent paratroops to the Congo from home. Lumumba denounced this infringement of sovereignty. A few days later, the province of Katanga, led by Moise Tshombe (working closely with Belgian mining company officials of Union Miniere) declared itself independent from the Congo. Lumumba requested military assistance from the United Nations (to protect 'national territory of the Congo' against Belgian intervention and the rebels in Katanga). Shortly thereafter, Lumumba also cabled the chairman of the USSR, Nikita Khrushchev, asking the Soviet Union to watch over this new imperialism. Lumumba disagreed with the plans of UN secretary general Dag Hammerskjold, who cut off some UN support for the new government, and Lumumba officially asked the Soviet Union for assistance.

When UN troops arrived (3500), the Belgians requested that they be used to investigate Congolese 'atrocities' against Belgians. Lumumba countered that the Belgians must withdraw all soldiers. Tshombe publically announced that UN troops were not welcome in Katanga; his army comprised foreign mercenaries (mostly European).

The United States government got involved:

Cable from the CIA Station Officer in the Congo capital, Leopoldville/Kinshasa, August 18, 1960:

The State Department approved, but when given the go ahead, the CIA attempts to get Joseph Kasavubu (the Congo Defense Secretary and President) to assassinate Lumumba was turned down. The head of the CIA, Allen Dulles, wrote back 26 August, 1960:


Beyond working with the Katangan army, the Belgian government secretly funded 50 million francs to undermine Lumumba's government, paying oppositional parties, funding radio campaigns, and hiring covert agents on the ground. The province of Kasai also declared its own independence in August 1960. The Belgian consulate asked Kasavubu to dismiss Lumumba. (Kasavubu did so in September, but Lumumba refused to step down, and declared Kasavubu fired.) The Belgians had several plans to get rid of Lumumba: "Operation-L" which was supposed to feed Lumumba poisoned medicine; a hired Greek hit-man; kidnapping him and transporting him to Katanga. After cooking up a virus in CIA labs, an American operative secretly brought the "toxic biological agent" into the country, to try to get Lumumba to consume it.

Joseph Mobutu, commander of the army still loyal to the Congo, arrested Lumumba 10 October, using the exact words of a Belgian charge, once the Belgian government had promised military and technical support for his soldiers. Lumumba was imprisoned, but CIA agents continued to worry about him:



At the beginning of 1961, Lumumba was transported to Katanga, where Katangan officials and police executed him. Four Belgians were present at his death.

The Cold War conflict continued, as the United Nations eventually supported Tshombe as prime minister of the Congo in 1964. Rebellions continued against the central government, whoever was in charge. In a Cold War twist, Cuban-American exiles (who had fled Cuba on Castro's takeover) served as CIA pilots to help put down a rebellion in the eastern Congo, a rebellion that more than a hundred veterans of the Cuban revolution fought alongside, including Che Guevara. (Laurent Kabila--who would re-emerge politically in the 1990s--was one of the leaders of this "Simba" rebellion.) Soviet and Chinese support of this rebellion was limited mostly to words, but some weapons were smuggled into their hands. The United States ended up backing Joseph Mobutu in the long run, after he seized power himself in 1965, establishing a dictatorship that would survive until 1997. By 1967, most of the rebellions in the Congo were quashed.