Book Review: The Last Thousand Days Of The British Empire

The Last Thousand Days Of The British Empire:  Churchill, Roosevelt, And The Birth of The Pax Americana, by Peter Clarke

This book spends a great deal of its effort trying to demonstrate that it was not Atlee and his government of feckless socialists that were to blame for the collapse of the British Empire in India and Palestine after World War II.  The book attempts to push this back to the choices made by Winston Churchill, but even here it appears that Churchill had limited room to work with and that he was trying to paper over divisions with the Americans in particular and punch above his weight and that even during his time as prime minister after 1940 that Great Britain was already moribund as a world empire.  Can we blame Churchill for the defeat of the British in Southeast Asia and the loss of Hong Kong and Singapore?  Can we blame him for the defeats of Norway and France that left Britain to fight alone against the Nazis for so long that the resources of the empire were drawn down to such an extent?  Who is to blame for such things?  It would be tempting to blame earlier leaders as well as the fickleness of the British people that threw Churchill overboard because of their desire for “free” goodies of socialism that ended up wrecking the British culture as well as economy or the earlier popular folly that prevented Britain from being able to adequately prepare for war.

This book is about 500 pages long and it is divided into four parts.  The first part of the book is the briefest, and it provides, after a list of illustrations, maps, and preface, a one-chapter summary of the British war effort and concerns about the imperial future between 1941 and 1944.  It is my belief that this is not enough context to recognize the moribund nature of British imperialism, in that it seeks to blame Churchill rather than Atlee for the fall of the British empire and this is not just or accurate.  After that there are five chapters that cover various false summits–false summits in two senses, both in being dishonest agreements like in Quebec (1) and Yalta (6), but also in the way that they were false peaks that made one think that one had finished the war when they had not, as was the case with the Battle of the Bulge (4) and the failures at Arnhem (3).  The author then turns his attention to hollow victories (III) that show the effects of World War II in four chapters that discuss altered war plans (7), the death of FDR (8), American views of Justice (9) and the problems of Potsdam (10).  Finally, the book ends with four chapters that show the postwar liquidation of the British Empire (IV), looking at the betrayal of British hopes (11), the costs of victory (12), thoughts of sabotage (13) and the British scuttling in India and Israel (14).

Although this book is not quite the historical tour de force that the author thinks it is, this book is still worthwhile in the way it chronicles the self-deception practiced by British leaders and the deliberate obfuscation practiced by lots of parties in order to seek the goals that they wanted from World War II.  Like many books do, this book demonstrates the hypocrisy of America’s efforts at imperialism without self-recognition even while being hostile towards British behaviors towards India that were not so different from the way that the US treated the black population that contributed to armies and taxation without having full civil rights.  The book does not go far enough back to grasp the origins of British imperial decline, which occurred really during the period before World War II, but it does at least manage to show that British leaders were frequently blind to the realities under which they worked until the end of the empire took them by surprise and led to lots of unpleasant recriminations and blaming.  One suspects that this is a common problem with empires.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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