From when America bombs countries to save them to why the French presidential candidates are arguing about their colonial history, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
The American foreign-policy establishment is fond of punishing those who threaten to use weapons of mass destruction against innocents. For CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria, all it took was a Tomahawk missile strike on the Syrian air base suspected of sending jets to bomb the rebel-held village of Khan Sheikhoun with sarin gas to make Donald Trump “presidential.” The New Yorker’sRyan Lizza questioned neither the moral nor the strategic purpose of strike, only its legality. Former Obama staffers like Anne-Marie Slaughter struck positive notes in response, grateful that some message, any message, had finally been delivered to Bashar al-Assad. Nicholas Kristof and David Brooks both praised the country for standing up for the taboo against chemical weapons that arose among European nations after World War I.
Since the 1960s, categorical opposition to weapons of mass destruction—biological, chemical, and nuclear—has been a hallmark of American foreign-policy thinking. John F. Kennedy recast the American president as a protective father to the world. So when reports noted that images of “young children and babies being gassed” reportedly moved Trump to action in Syria, they were echoing a long tradition, one that has both helped to justify international cooperation to combat the most terrible weapons of war, and given license to presidents to strike out in humanity’s name. [continue reading]
“Africa for the Africans!” The cry exploded from Marcus Garvey’s mouth and echoed throughout Liberty Hall, the building on Harlem’s West 128th Street where the Jamaican Pan-Africanist presided over meetings of his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). It soon reached UNIA members in Norfolk who read a transcript of the speech in the Negro World, the official organ of the UNIA. As they met at their meeting hall in coastal Virginia, black sailors and migrant laborers carried the message to similar port cities in the United States, Central America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Millions more of those colonized and Jim Crowed people subsequently embraced and spread what Garvey called “the cause of Africa for the Africans—that is, that the Negro peoples of the world should concentrate upon the object of building up for themselves a great nation in Africa.” By the 1920s, his cry—“Africa for the Africans!”—reverberated throughout the world.
It was only fitting then that historian Robert A. Hill used his keynote lecture at last year’s Global Garveyism Symposium to trace the unexpected origins as well as the echoes of that Pan-Africanist clarion call. Before an audience of scholars, students, and community activists gathered for the first major academic conference on Garveyism to take place in the United States, Hill, the editor-in-chief of The Marcus Garvey and Universal Improvement Association Papers, demonstrated that Garvey was relatively late in using “Africa for the Africans.” His talk followed the phrase back to British abolitionists of the mid-nineteenth century and Garvey’s Pan-Africanist forbearers before ending with its mid-twentieth century usages, especially among African nationalists who grappled with the implications of its origins in Western culture and thought. The keynote, with its impressive chronological and geographical scope, set the perfect tone for the symposium. It acknowledged Garvey’s significance while confirming that his anti-colonial and emancipatory politics—in fact, his literal language of black liberation—had deep historical roots and global routes leading to all corners of the black world. It also raised a question: what would a similar genealogy of “Haiti for the Haitians” tell historians? [continue reading]
UK Vote 100
The 1918 Representation of the People Act, which enfranchised some British women over 30, had a broader impact beyond the British Isles. In commemorating the centenary of this Act, it will be important to acknowledge some of the broader geographical legacies of this suffrage victory. Many British suffragettes and suffragists had, for example, invoked India during their campaigns and turned their attention more directly towards India after 1918. Until India gained independence from Britain in 1947, matters of the Indian women’s franchise were decided in the House of Commons. There were two significant Acts of Parliament on this issue in 1919 and 1935.
The 1919 Government of India Act enlarged and reformed the legislatures in India and enfranchised Indian men who owned a certain amount of property. Despite campaigns led by Indian women, and also British campaigners, Indian women were explicitly excluded from the new franchise. In the autumn of 1919, Indian suffragists Sarojini Naidu, Herabai Tata, and Mithan Tata, arranged meetings in the House of Commons and met with and lobbied British MPs, but were unsuccessful in persuading the government to intervene on this matter. [continue reading]
War on the Rocks
Trying to understand the military behavior of nations has been a hobby of Western academics, beginning with the great geopoliticians of former centuries, such as Nicholas Spykman, Sir Halford Mackinder, and Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan. Simply, the argument is that geography demanded that insular and coastal nations such as England, Japan, and the Netherlands develop strong navies to support their national economic and political interests. Conversely, Germany, the Turkish Republic, and the Roman Empire were required to use their formidable land armies to defend and expand their territories. Russia stands out as a one-off. Situated squarely on the borders of Eastern Europe and central Asia, she endured numerous land assaults, and, accordingly built large defensive and offensive land armies. However, in fits and starts, she has also assembled naval forces equal to or greater than most of her presumptive adversaries. Why does Russia, a traditional land power, engage in such counterintuitive and unique behavior? Do recent international events shed light on Russia’s future naval activities?
When Tsar Peter the Great embarked on building a navy 330 years ago, he did so to defend the homeland from Swedish and Turkish enemies, north and south, while at the same time buying Russia a seat at the “great power” diplomatic table. Serendipitously, his navy did enable him to expand Russian boundaries and give him access to the world’s oceans. A second noteworthy Russian foray into the sea was at the height of the Cold War when Soviet Adm. Gorshkov planned and built a naval force that rivalled American supremacy at sea. His submarines alone (385) outnumbered those of the NATO Alliance and they regularly patrolled off the American Atlantic and Pacific coasts until the fall of the Soviet Union. On the surface of the oceans, it was commonplace for U.S. warships visiting exotic ports around the world to be joined by their Soviet counterparts throughout the Cold War. [continue reading]
When the French presidential elections begin on April 23, the world will be watching closely. Polls are tightening up, but Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Front (FN) Party, seems likely to get through to the second, runoff ballot on May 10. Will the xenophobic populism that brought Brexit to the U.K. and Donald Trump to the White House claim the Elysée Palace, too?
Le Pen’s expected advance has been one of the few constants in a campaign marked by surprising, dispiriting twists. To a historian of French colonialism like me, one of the most revealing is the renewed debate over the memory and teaching of the colonial past. The candidates’ positions on this issue can be seen as a revealing barometer of French attitudes toward immigration, race and multiculturalism today. [continue reading]