This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History


Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From creating colonial Portugal in Africa to how the CIA learned to rock, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Creating colonial Portugal in Africa

Claudia Castelo
Africa is a Country

The aftermath of the Second World War witnessed a crescendo of anti-colonial sentiment across the world. This prompted European imperial powers in Africa to seek ways to reform colonial structures in such a manner as to legitimize continued imperial rule. To this end, Belgian, British, French, and Portuguese colonies mobilized and deployed knowledge, planning and public funding in unprecedented ways.

Portugal, which had a lengthy history of colonial occupation in Africa, took a particularly uncompromising stance in the 1950s and 1960s. As other empires disintegrated or introduced forms of power sharing, it sought to strengthen its imperial grip. A key element of its strategy was rhetorical—it sought to deny that the empire existed at all. In the early 1950s, the terms “empire” and “colonies” were replaced with “Portuguese overseas” and “overseas provinces” in Portuguese constitutional law. The imperial state now sought to project the idea of a multi-continental and multiracial country, rather than an empire, to justify Portuguese permanence in Africa. In concert with this rhetorical strategy, Portugal initiated a drive to encourage white settlement in Angola and Mozambique. Between 1940 and 1960 the European population of Angola rose from 44,000 to 170,000, while in Mozambique it rose from 27,000 to 97,000. [continue reading]

Palace letters: Australian high court allows release of Queen’s secret correspondence before Whitlam dismissal

Christopher Knaus and Naaman Zhou

The historian Jenny Hocking has won a landmark high court case in her bid to secure sensitive correspondence between the Queen and former Australian governor general Sir John Kerr about the dismissal of Gough Whitlam. The high court on Friday ruled that the commonwealth was wrong to withhold the so-called “palace letters”, a series of more than 200 exchanges between the Queen, her private secretary and Kerr, the then-governor general, in the lead-up to the 1975 dismissal of Whitlam, the then-Australian prime minister.

Hocking is now calling on the National Archives of Australia to immediately release the 211 letters, saying the public deserves to know the full history of the greatest political and constitutional crisis in Australia’s history. “It’s terrific news,” Hocking told the Guardian. “It’s such important news for history, for our nation, because these really are critical documents in our history. “To have them closed to us, not even through our own laws or regulations, but because of an embargo by the Queen, that has just been a really terrible situation.” [continue reading]

Confronting Reactionaries: Black Support for The Progressive Party During the Cold War

Denise Lynn
Black Perspectives

During the Cold War, progressive voices were being drowned out by the drumbeat of war, as military and political relations between the United States and the Soviet Union rapidly deteriorated. Progressives were afraid of the escalating conflict and the ever-growing commitment to militarism. Many feared that military buildup and containment would commit the United States to endless war, a fear that materialized in the United States’ major engagements in nearly every year since 1950. As anti-communism, a ubiquitous element in American politics since the end of the Civil War, moved to the forefront, it defined foreign and domestic policy to the peril of the American left. At the beginning, as the Cold War rhetoric escalated, Henry Wallace, former Franklin Roosevelt Vice President and Truman’s Secretary of Commerce, warned Americans that conflict with the Soviet Union would jeopardize the New Deal and lead to war.

In 1946, Wallace was frustrated with Truman and went on a speaking tour denouncing anti-communist rhetoric. This did not endear him to Truman who forced Wallace to resign. That same year a new organization, the Progressive Citizens of America, was founded, and by 1947 it asked Wallace to run as the candidate for a third-party, a progressive party, that would become the voice for a growing but controversial anti-anti-communism. The Progressive Party campaign behind Henry Wallace in 1948 benefited from a multiracial coalition of progressives and leftists who shared few goals in common, but one common denominator was the desire to stem the tide of war for the sake of civil rights at home, and self-determination for the growing number of decolonized states. [continue reading]

The Auschwitz doctor who couldn’t ‘do no harm’

Rachel E. Gross
BBC Future

On 15 April 1945, Dr Gisella Perl delivered a crying, screaming baby. As for all of her other deliveries in the last year, the Hungarian gynaecologist had no tools, no anaesthetics and no assistance. The mother, a young Polish woman named Marusa, was feverish and weak. But there was one major difference: unlike the others, this baby would live. As Marusa pushed through the last stages of labour, the two women heard a shout of liberation go up. Trumpets sounded, and British soldiers began storming the barbed-wire fences of Bergen-Belsen. To Perl, Marusa’s final scream sounded “almost jubilant”.

But as Marusa held the newborn in her arms, her condition began to worsen. Her face and lips grew pale, and blood coursed out between her legs. Perl knew she needed to operate, but she had no instruments. Outside the barracks, she ran into a high-ranking British soldier and begged for antiseptic and water – luxuries she had been working without. “Half an hour later I had the water, the disinfectant, and could wash my hands and perform the operation, not as a helpless prisoner, but as a doctor,” she would recall in her 1948 memoir I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz.[continue reading]

How the CIA Learned to Rock

Jeet Heer

James Jesus Angleton, chief of CIA counterintelligence from 1954 to 1975, was nicknamed “the Poet.” Before he was a spy, he had literary aspirations. As an undergraduate at Yale, he wrote verse and, more impressively, coedited the literary journal Furioso, which published poets like E.E. Cummings, Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams.

Angleton was an aesthete turned tormentor. The two facets of his personality were combined in disturbing ways. His literary sensibility was nurtured on the close reading taught by the New Criticism, with William Empson’s classic Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930) being an especially formative influence. Empson taught Angleton that no line of poetry had just one meaning, that the job of the reader was to squeeze out every ambiguity and hidden implication. Angleton notoriously applied this methodology to the interrogation of Soviet defectors, never taking them at face value but constantly pressuring them to reveal their covert intentions, always postulating that they might be double agents, and sometimes torturing them. [continue reading]