War in the Colonies

War in the Colonies

World War II in the Colonies


Although the Second World War was a struggle between the Axis and the Allied Powers over the aggression of the former, it also involved the colonies of each. In this respect, WWII became indirectly about decolonization and imperialism, as each side sought to exploit anti-colonial feelings among peoples in the colonies of the other side. World War II laid bare the double standards and hypocrisy of those nations claiming to fight for freedom and sovereignty while struggling to maintain their own empires.


Learning Objective 

  • Explain the role of colonies in the Second World War, and assess the role of the war in the continued decolonization movements.  


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere: International organization established by the Japanese government to make the Japanese empire appear as a confederation of equal nations




Among the Allied and Axis Powers, the United Kingdom was the most concerned about its colonies during World War II, for economic and strategic reasons. The United Kingdom relied on dominions in the Commonwealth, such as Canada, for food, among other products. To protect the trade routes of its empire, Britain had to protect its colonial presence in Egypt, Gibraltar, and India, which were the keys to maintaining its access to the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean. Maintaining its colonial empire was also critical to the United Kingdom’s identity as a leading world power.

British colonial considerations influenced the conduct of the Allies war effort in Europe and Africa. The British and the U.S., partly on the insistence of the British government, chose to drive the Germans out of north Africa in 1942 before opening a second front in northern France. With the Germans expelled from north Africa in 1943 the British government then pushed for striking at the Germans through Italy, before opening a second front, which eventually occurred in 1944. A number of U.S. leaders would have preferred to open the second front in either 1942 or 1943, and they were displeased with the timetable for a second front being determined by British colonial interests. 


United States


The U.S. also had to wrestle with its own double standards of fighting to free peoples conquered by the Axis Powers while ignoring its own imperial past, including the conquest of northern Mexico in the 1846-7 war against that nation, and its acquisition of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines in the 1898 war against Spain, among other acquisitions during the nineteenth century, such as Hawaii. Although the U.S. government eventually admitted northern Mexico and Hawaii as states, the indigenous peoples of these states still face treatment as subject peoples today. While the Philippines secured national independence after World War II, Guam and Puerto Rico remain territories, without a number of rights that states enjoy. The Roosevelt Administration also had to ignore the discrimination against African Americans and Asian Americans by European Americans, as well as the fact that the United States had placed Americans of Japanese descent in concentration camps that they referred to as “internment camps.”  




Japan made the most explicit effort to appeal to colonies of the Allied Powers in Asia and the Pacific through its own imperial vehicle: the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The Japanese marketed this organization as a path to national independence for various peoples of Asia under Japanese auspices. It was actually a thinly veiled rhetorical cover for Japan’s expanding empire. First announced by the Japanese foreign minister in 1940, the Japanese government used it to attract the Asian colonies of Allied Powers, such as Australia, Burma, India, Malaya, New Guinea, New Zealand, the Philippines, and Thailand. The Co-Prosperity Sphere collapsed with Japan’s defeat.

The Japanese also sought to appeal more directly to the nationalist feelings of the peoples of the Western colonies in the Pacific and southeast Asia, including the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines, and Vietnam. Toward this end the Japanese tried to construct a supra-nationalism that would stretch across east and south Asia, that would develop under Japanese nationalism, and culminate with Japan as the dominant Asian power. 




The Nazis were also able to exploit the nationalist aspirations and resentment of various groups under Soviet control. A number of people in Estonia, Finland, Latvia, and Ukraine welcomed the Nazis as liberators, either because of their hatred of Joseph Stalin’s oppression and/or their own ideological inclinations, particularly opposition to Stalin’s brand of communism. 




Sub-Saharan Africa witnessed no significant engagements between the Allied and the Axis Powers in World War II. But activists for national independence for various African colonies saw the Second World War as an opportunity to renew their efforts. In January 1944 Free French leaders hosted a conference in Brazzaville, the capital of French Equatorial Africa, toward the end of satisfying the demands of nationalists in French Africa. Following the war most of the European colonies in Africa successfully pursued national independence. 

World War II accelerated and strengthened decolonization movements by further weakening the imperial powers, particularly Britain and France, and strengthening the resolve of indigenous nationalists in the colonies. Former colonies that secured their independence after WWII included Algeria, India, the Philippines, and Vietnam. A number of these nations had to do so through force, particularly against France and the United Kingdom, both ostensibly fighting to free peoples conquered by the Axis Powers.

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