Roundtable Review of Martin Thomas’s ‘Fight or Flight’

Thomas Fight or Flight

Roundtable Review, cross-posted from H-Diplo

Martin Thomas.  Fight or Flight: Britain, France, and their Roads from EmpireOxford:  Oxford University Press, 2014.  ISBN:  978-0-19-969827-1 (hardback, £25.00).



Introduction by Christopher Goscha, Université du Québec à Montréal

One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era. By day it pursues its enemies. It is cunning and ruthless, it sends its bloodhounds everywhere. By night it feeds on images of disaster: the sack of cites, the rape of populations, pyramids of bones, acres of desolation.

-J.M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians[1]

In his Nobel prize-winning novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, J.M. Coetzee masterfully describes how the agents and members of empire struggle incessantly against the imperial state’s demise by creating a constant state of fear against barbarian attack. It is not enough to rule. The imperial state needs an enemy. It then marches the army into the borderlands to attack the nomads before they can descend upon the empire. The deployment of the army, the use of torture, and the suspension of rule of law are necessary evils. The preservation of civilization and of the white race depends on it. Empire simply cannot fathom its own end. And yet, throughout his novel, Coetzee has his borderland administrator remind us that all empires must one day perish. Imperial time, the Magistrate whispers ever so seditiously in our unsuspecting ears, is not universal: “We have been here more than a hundred years, we have reclaimed land from the desert and built irrigation works and planted fields and built solid homes and put a wall around our town, but they still think of us as visitors, transients.” Driven almost mad by the failed military campaign against the barbarians he has come to admire, the Magistrate finally admits that he “wanted to live outside the history that Empire imposes on its subjects, even its lost subjects. I never wished it for the barbarians that they should have the history of Empire laid upon them.”[2] Our tortured colonial administrator had dared to imagine decolonization from the inside.

In the comparative study under review here, Fight or Flight, the talented and prolific British historian Martin Thomas provides an in-depth account of how and why the French and the British tried to hold on to their empires against all odds but in the end had to let go. Sometimes, Thomas tells us, the colonizers chose to cut their losses and get out in order to focus on other parts of the empire. It was a question of preservation. On other occasions, Thomas counters, they went to war to hold on to their prize possessions. In both cases, it –what we now call decolonization – was a messy, complicated, unpredictable, and terribly bloody business. There was no roadmap for ending empires because, at least in the immediate wake of World War II, neither the French nor the British decision-makers could fathom that imperial time was perhaps not universal.[3]

Nor could they imagine that the ‘barbarians’ were thinking of historical time in different terms and were willing to fight to force that change upon their colonizers. While Thomas’s comparison turns on the French and British imperial endgames, he successfully weaves in the stories of the Africans and Asians. For many colonial nationalists, Thomas reminds us, decolonization did not magically begin in the wake of World War II; but emerged in many colonial minds as the only response to failed reformist promises. Nicholas White is right to suggest that Thomas is on to something big by suggesting that the colonial crisis that coalesced in the 1930s was as important as anything that came after ‘1945.’ Some chose communism, like Ho Chi Minh, the future father of Vietnam, and Thomas shows how that pre-WWII communist connection would differentiate the French war of decolonization in Indochina from other ‘fight experiences’ in French Algeria and British Malaya.

All three reviewers praise Thomas for the breathtaking erudition with which he compares the French and British endgames. He deftly takes us into high-level cabinet debates, explains the politics and failures of colonial reformism, and shows how decolonization and the Cold War intermeshed in complex ways. Thomas invites us at the same time to venture down below, explaining many of the socio-economic and even cultural forces that were at work from Indochina to Algeria by way of Malaysia and Rhodesia. Demographics, health, and labor issues all find their places in Thomas’s account of the roads leading from empire. Nor does Thomas avoid the question of colonial violence, our reviewers tell us, treating it in a coolheaded yet honest manner. When the French and the British resolved to ‘fight,’ the costs in terms of Afro-Asian suffering and death was mindboggling.

All three reviewers agree on the importance of Thomas’s book in the historiography of decolonization and international history. Robert Aldrich praises Thomas for showing the extent to which ‘fight or flight’ makes it clear that there was no “clear exit strategy from empire.” He applauds Thomas’s attention to the specific dynamics of each colonial situation, especially less-known ones such as in Madagascar, Cyprus, and Malaya. Other reviewers share that sentiment. Equally impressive for Aldrich is Thomas’s ability to compare in new ways the violent endgames in French Indochina and British Indochina, though for Aldrich there is no doubt that “there was less bloodletting in the British experience than in the murderous wars in French Indochina and Algeria, but there are still stains on the record.” If I have read Thomas correctly, he actually wants to say the opposite – that there was some sort of parity in the violence used by the French and British. Like Coetzee, Aldrich puts his finger on a third ‘f’ in explaining imperial decline, that of  ‘fear’ – the colonial fear of “the specter of decline,” the settler fear of “violence and death” and the fear of colonial populations debarking in the metropolis. On the latter note, Aldrich suggests that Thomas should have paid more attention to the emergence of new media like the radio and television as a way of moving beyond the decision-makers in Paris and London. Unlike the media of the nineteenth century, the twentieth century’s television and radio brought Ho Chi Minh and postcolonial India’s Jawaharlal Nehru into French and British sitting rooms and humanized them in unprecedented ways.

White likewise finds much to praise in Thomas’s book, most notably the success the author achieves in comparing and contrasting the two imperial experiences. While there were differences in the Franco-British endgames, White salutes Thomas for putting to rest the myth that the British were somehow different or even better than the French when it came to managing the imperial endgame. Like Aldrich, White agrees with Thomas that, whatever their differences, the French and the British travelled down parallel roads to decolonization. And White agrees too that there was no user’s guide for decolonization. It was a messy process, marked more by contingency than any sort of grand strategy. Like Aldrich, White suggest that the use of the term ‘flight’ comes with problems, however, because decolonization for the French and the British did not end in the early 1960s with Algeria for the French or Rhodesia for the British. The use of flight, White writes, “suggests a definite end point and no turning back. But often this was not how the British conceived of their withdrawals from New Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, or Lagos. It was hoped that there would be ongoing constructive engagement as a prop to British global influence …” To make their point, both Aldrich and White provide interesting suggestions about similarities and very real differences in ‘fight’ and ‘flight’ strategies in Franco-British experiences after the 1960s (Aldrich’s counterexample of New Caledonia and White’s point about the Attlee government’s attempt to keep India in the Commonwealth are thought-provoking.). Unlike Aldrich, White accepts Thomas’s conclusion that “French violence was not that exceptional either when compared with Britain’s dirty war in Malaya.”

Andrew Williams wholeheartedly agrees with White on this last point and concludes the roundtable with a strong endorsement of Thomas’s slaying of the myth of ‘bad French colonialists’ and ‘good British decolonizers.’ With the 2011-2012 revelations of British torture clearly in mind,[4] Williams agrees with Thomas’s effort to set the levels of colonial violence between the French and the British at the same level. And like the other reviewers, Williams salutes Thomas for underlining the commonalities instead of the differences between the French and British endgames. For him, Thomas has rendered students of British imperial history an invaluable service by taking the French and their colonial policies so seriously.

Students of French imperial history, I would also venture to say, will learn much about the British side from Thomas’s Fight or Flight. And perhaps most importantly for readers of H-Diplo, Thomas has done us a major favor by providing a detailed but highly readable comparative account of French and British decolonization, one that connects decolonization not just to the Cold War and international relations, but also to global changes in demographics, migration, social change, and human rights and law. Moreover, if scholars plaster the word ‘empire’ on almost anything and everything today, often without serious theoretical reflection or sustained knowledge of their subject,[5] Thomas moves us solidly forwards in terms of understanding how empires end as historical phenomena in messy and unpredictable ways, as much for the colonizers as for the colonized. It is a complicated story, necessarily full of names, dates, and places; but it is also clearly written, well-organized and a jargon-free. General readers and students can dip in to the book at certain chapters to glean precise information while the specialists will gain much from staying the course. Indeed, those who take the time to read Martin Thomas’s book carefully might just come away understanding a bit better that “one thought” Coetzee’s mad colonial administrator saw at the heart of the “submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.”


Martin Thomas is Professor of European Imperial History and Director of the Centre for War, State, and Society at the University of Exeter. He has written extensively on colonial politics and patterns of dissent, including Empires of Intelligence: Security Services and Colonial Control after 1914 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007) and, with Bob Moore and L.J. Butler, Crises of Empire. Decolonization and Europe’s Imperial States, 1918-1975 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2008).

Christopher Goscha is Professor of International Relations, Université du Québec à Montréal. His most recent publication is Vietnam: Un Etat né de la guerre (Vietnam, A State of War, 1945-1954), Paris, Armand  Colin, 2011. He is presently writing a comparative book on kingship in the French colonial empire and finishing the Penguin History of Vietnam, which will appear in late 2015.

Robert Aldrich (BA Emory University, MA, Ph.D. Brandeis University) is Professor of European History at the University of Sydney.  He has published widely on the history of colonialism, especially on the French overseas empire.  Most recently, he has co-edited, with Kirsten McKenzie, The Routledge History of Western Empires (2014), and his Cultural Encounters and Homoeroticism in Sri Lanka: Sex and Serendipity will be published by Routledge later this year.  He is currently working on a study of the deposition and exile of indigenous rulers by French and colonial authorities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities and of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

Nicholas J. White is Professor of Imperial & Commonwealth History in the School of Humanities & Social Science at Liverpool John Moores University.  He received his Ph.D. from the University of London. His previous publications include Business, Government, and the End of Empire: Malaya, 1942-57. Oxford University Press, 1996; British Business in Post-Colonial Malaysia, 1957-70: ‘neo-colonialism’ or ‘disengagement’? Routledge, 2004; and, Decolonisation: the British experience since 1945. 2nd edition, Routledge, 2014.  His current research interests are in the localisation of foreign firms in Malaysia in the 1970s and 1980s, the decline of the British merchant marine, and the impact of decolonisation on the international port city of Liverpool.

Andrew Williams has a Dr ès Sciences Politiques from the University of Geneva. He is Professor of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. His most recent books include: (with Amelia Hadfield and Simon Rofe) International History and International Relations (Routledge, 2012); Liberalism and War: The Victors and the Vanquished (Routledge, 2006) and (Failed Imagination? New World Orders of the Twentieth Century (Manchester University Press, 2nd edition 2007); France, Britain and the United States in the 20th Century: 1900 – 1940 (Palgrave MacMillan, 2014). He is now working on a subsequent volume covering the years 1940 – 1990.

[continue reading]