“We knew how to oppose and destroy. But then we were suddenly confronted with the necessity of giving content to our independence.”
-President Soekarno. Bandung , Indonesia 1955
When asked about the Cold War, many Americans will think of Soviet Battalions in orderly march and McCarthy era red scares, subterfuge, and espionage. Nearly half a century of history finds itself defined by two monolithic ideologies. The Allied victory in WWII laid the foundations for dualistic political dogma on either side of the iron curtain. The war left many of the old world powers in ruin. Colonial ideology would find no refuge in the fervent zealotry of the Soviet proletariat, nor in the westerners cry for liberty and independence. Regardless of their practical application, the ideological dogmatism’s of the new powers gave no shelter to the colonial age.
Centuries of colonial expansion saw western nations plant their flag on nearly every coast. An innumerable number of cultures, religions, peoples, and civilizations shared in this experience. Colonial nations and trade companies dominated island nations across the east Indies. Nineteenth century expansionism saw European powers scramble to carve up and subdue Africa. The Indian Subcontinent found itself methodically governed by the British Raj. With the fall of Ottoman power, Arab nations in the middle east tasted independence but for a brief moment, before being delivered into the hands of colonial mandate. The Far East saw its wealth siphoned off by intimidation and a slew of unequal treaties such as that of Nanjing. All this formed an acute awareness of racialism and colonization, shared by a vast variety of peoples with deep seeded cultural and religious roots.
The seeds for Bandung were sewn at earlier conferences such as the Bogor Conference in 1949(also in Indonesia). A second conference at Bogor in late 1954 set the plans for a large international conference of Asian and African states who felt their voice in the U.N. and on the world stage had been stifled by the great powers. Had they been given a greater voice within the U.N. their may have been no need for the conference. In many ways the Bandung Conference was not an attempt to create a grand military alliance of Asian-African states in the style of NATO. Nor was it a rebuke of the U.N. or international cooperation with the west. In many ways it was a statement, a way to get a better seat at the table where many could argue it really counted. The agenda for discussion at the conference was more about cooperation, relationships. and grievances. They remained more in the ideological realm and points of political contention were deliberately avoided as the tone of the conference was one of discussion, friendliness and support rather than treaty signing and official positioning. In mid-April 1955, representatives from 29 nations of Asia and Africa, representing nearly a third of the human population gathered together to discuss their past, their future, and the rapidly dividing world in which they lived.
So where does American Empire come into all of this? With a few exclusions, the United States in the 1950’s was by no means practicing the kind of land grabbing, minority government establishing imperialism that had become a staple of European empire. This conference, while discussing the still fresh wounds of the old era had a keen understanding that the world was being split apart by two opposing forces. The kind of U.S. Imperialism that was emerging was one of blocs. The Indonesian President Soekarno in his speech discusses the kind of New Imperialism that America and others were practicing, it was one of economic hegemony and selective support to undermine third world self determination. As the wealthiest and most powerful nation on the planet the U.S. was creating a capitalist hegemony, quickly filling in the vacuum left behind by many of the old world powers. Many of the neutralists understood that in a way many nations were being force to decide. Opening up to the western capitalist nations (headed by the U.S. as many saw it) would mean making an enemy of the communists and vice versa. Many of these nations who had so recently been given the power to choose their own path felt they were being put between a rock and a hard place. While many Americans worried that the conference would amount to an international bashing of the west, the truth was far more nuanced. These nations had a variety of values, and many such as Indonesia and Pakistan were in fact great allies of the U.S. and their political ideology. This was a great moment for post colonial peoples, yet lumping all these people together as a single entity is a mistake. Despite the calls for unity one cannot forget many of these nations were infact enemies. War between India and Pakistan, two of the host nations would break out in the years following the conference.
Conference at Bandung, Indonesia. April 18th – 24th, 1955
– Host Nations
- Indonesia – President Soekarno (The First Secretary General of Asia-Africa conference was Ruslan Abdulgani of Indonesia)
- India – Prime Minister Nehru
- Pakistan (Bangladesh was East Pakistan at the time) – Prime Minister Bogra
- Ceylon (Modern Day Sri Lanka) – Prime Minister Kotelawala
- Burma (Modern Day Myanmar) – Prime Minister U Nu
– Countries in attendance
- Peoples Republic of China (Nationalist China was not invited to the conference)
- Democratic Republic of Vietnam
- State of Vietnam
- Gold Coast (Modern Day Ghana)
- Saudi Arabia
Some Countries on either of the two continents were not invited. While no specific reasons were given, the exclusion of a nation such as Israel seemed quite clear as many of the Arab nations in attendance saw it as an antagonistic and colonial entity. Nationalist China was also excluded likely on similar grounds due to Communist China’s attendance. While Australia and New Zealand had attended smaller conferences of a similar nature in the past, they were seen as parts of a distinct continent outside of Asia. When looking at the map of countries in attendance, it is clear that large portions of Asia and Africa were not in attendance. What was the reason for this?
It is important to keep in mind that even in 1955 many colonial entities still existed. The Belgian Congo dominated a large swath of central Africa, and still stands as a shameful reminder of just how inhumane occupations in Africa could be. Algeria was in a desperate struggle for their independence from the French, they were among one of the most heated topics discussed at the conference. It would be seven long years before they could establish their own nation in 1962. South Africa would also remain a beacon of old world racialism and oppression until 1993. Lastly, another ‘colonial’ entity as many saw it cast a dense shadow over the conferences discussion of colonial and imperialism. The Soviet Union not only encompassed eastern Europe, but also dominated a great deal of central Asia and the Caucuses from Kazakhstan to Tajikistan and Dagestan. This would be a point of contention during the conference as many considered this Soviet domination to be not too dissimilar from the other colonial entities discussed. This also placed China in a very tough position, being pressed for a clear statement regarding their support or rejection of Soviet imperialism.
* Some questions to keep in mind while reading primary sources
- How did the political backdrop of the 1950’s effect the deliberations during the conference?
- What was the goal or intention of the conference?
- Did the nations involved intend to compete with or circumvent the U.N. or to send a message?
- How did individual nation’s needs and intention effect and play into the conference?
- What brought these incredibly diverse political, cultural, and religious states together? What connected them and what separated them?
- Attempt to empathies with the emotions and feelings of these newly free and independent nations as the conference was more about discussion and granting one another the cultural understanding they never received from their colonizers.
- In what ways did the conference and its discussion of racialism speak to African-Americans? Why was it that the two prominent Americans in attendance were both of African descent?
- Did the final communique of the conference make any bold or effective statements, or was it more a ten point closing remark from a variety of nations that while bound together by historical experience, could not see eye to eye on points of true contention.
- How did the Chinese representative navigate his tough position and how could his statements be perceived by those nations in attendance and U.S. politicians?
- What did it mean for these nations to come together as leaders within their own spheres and not in Europe or the U.S. as they had for the U.N.?
- How justified were fears of Communist influence and expansion?
An Official Guide to the Asia-Africa Conference (1955) from the Indonesian National Archives
This source will be a great help for those looking to understand how the Asia-Africa conference came together. Filled with incredible pictures and a concise point by point account for the conferences origins, structure, and execution. The conference is a great source of pride for the Indonesian people and their national archive has taken great care in documenting its history.
The Asia-Africa Conference at Bandung and U.S. Academia
To understand how such a conference was received by Americans it helps to look at academic sources. Guy J. Pauker was given a grant by the International Studies department of MIT to research and write about the Asia-Africa Conference. Written only a few months following the conference, he gives a surprisingly well balanced account of its deliberations, intentions, and its repercussions. As an outsider looking in, he makes some interesting and well thought out ideas about some of the conferences most heated debates. This will give one a great overall understanding of the conference from a very academic and American viewpoint.
Speeches given at the Bandung Conference
-President Soekarno of Indonesia was a major player during the conference. Having only fully gained their independence six years earlier in 1949 the Indonesians were strong proponents of unity in the face of great power imperialism and hegemony. Soekarno’s opening remarks during the conference contained both the spirit of the conference, as well as the history and potential threats the nations faced. Hosting both the Bogor and Bandung conferences was a bold move my President Soekarno. Not only did it aid in bolstering the local economy, it granted Indonesia an honorable seat on the world stage. The President faced a great deal of domestic troubles, from Islamic militants to Communist guerillas; some of whom where hiding in the very mountains surrounding the conferences location. That along with the growing pains and economic difficulties of developing nations put a lot on Soekarno’s plate. Hosting the conference helped to quell a great deal of those domestic issues and gave the Indonesian people a feeling of national pride and unity. When reading Soekarno’s speech really allow yourself to feel some of the emotions he harkens too. These were the feelings many post colonial nations had running through their minds. The conference was mainly about sharing these feelings and discussing their place and future; it was about giving voice to concerns and not necessarily establishing immediate provisions or solutions.
– Next is a speech given by John Kotelawala, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). Another of the host nations, the Island nation of Lanka had a great deal of experience with colonialism. From the Portuguese to the Dutch and the English, many of the old world powers sought after this strategically placed Island overlooking India ocean water ways. They had faced political, economic, and some particularly contentious religious colonization.
– Following that we have the leader of a nation with unique experiences in regard to U.S. Imperialism. Having been annexed by the U.S., the Philippines had experienced first hand the kind of hypocrisy many accused the states of. Carlos Romulo speaks with great passion about the place in which many of these nations found themselves. Take note particularly of his discussion on economics and the modern age. Romulo had a great deal of wisdom when looking at the shifting tide of international relationships. He stresses the need for economic inter-dependence and the prevention of foreign ownership of indigenous wealth and resources. In a wonderfully stated section he discusses the unique challenges of the newly emerging nations. Stating that they had not emerged as nations in the 18th or 19th centuries; but well into the 20th where modern technology and globalization had already penetrated all corners of the globe. Romulo felt that the nations needed to have some form of true economic solidarity as no nation could truly flourish independently by their own will. Keep in mind the Phillipino’s past history with the U.S. as you read his statements.
-Chou En-Lai, the CCP foreign minister represented China at the conference. He was probably the most talked about and controversial figure in attendance En-Lai had the difficult task of both promoting China and its system on the international stage along with quelling fears of Communist intentions. Keep in mind while reading that regardless of perceived underhandedness or pressure, what was En-Lai saying to the nations in attendance? How did he balance promotion and consolation in his statement?
En-Lai asked to make these supplementary statements following speeches made by other attendants. Many had brought up China’s relationship with the Soviet Union and whether or not they would disavow Soviet imperialism in eastern Europe. Many also wondered about Chinese intentions regarding their own expansion, and whether or not they would attempt expansion as the Soviets had. Another important point was the state of Chinese nationals in other nations, where their loyalties would lie and how China would deal with the many communists groups emerging throughout the developing world. Take note of En-Lai’s supportive and unifying language, try and understand how he managed to gain a great deal of acclaim among the delegates.
– Prime Minister Nehru of India was a staunch neutralist. He attempted to keep peace during the conference and tried to avoid having the conference devolve into arguments on specific places, issues, and events. Instead he sought to garner a spirit of mutual respect and neutrality at the conference. India, like China would emerge as one of the worlds largest nations, a true founder of a great and ancient civilization. The Indian Subcontinent faced many challenges, religious fighting between Hindus and Muslims was a real problem in the region. Pakistan and India found themselves in an arms race, where the possibility of war was and is just beneath the surface. China would also fight against India as contentions arose on its northern borders and in Tibet, as well as China’s deep military alliance with Pakistan. Sri Lanka would also face a great deal of strife with India. Men like Nehru were too few and far between as many politicians in the subcontinent continued to stoke fears and hatred that existed since the establishment of the Delhi Sultanates. Keep in mind both Nehru’s neutralist beliefs and India’s unique experience under the British Raj.
U.S. State Department Telegram, April 29 1955
– So how does the U.S. fit into all of this discussion? Here we have a telegram from the U.S. Embassy in Indonesia to The State Department. Take note of the hyperbolic language used in regard to any statement even remotely supportive of communism and Red China. Even in regards to the five pillars of peaceful coexistence agreed upon and espoused by attending nations during the conference. As many in the State Department saw it, agreeing to such points would in some way or another be supportive of Red China. Non specific statements regarding a nations territorial integrity are expanded to mean whole hearted support of a Chinese takeover in Taiwan. This telegram is really revealing when thinking about the foreign policy and understanding of The Bandung Conference among those in U.S. Government. This source more than any other relates to the topic of American Empire and the role the U.S. took up during the Cold War. Ask yourself whether or not the fears espoused in the telegram are legitimate.
Indian Council of World Affairs pamphlet on the conference
– The Indian nation played a major role in planning and bringing the conference together. Much of the English language information and translations about the conference was distributed by India. This pamphlet gives us a well detailed summary of events leading up to the conference. Helping us better understand why the conference was put together and what goals those who put it together had in mind. Economic cooperation among the developing world, and leveraging their collective voice to match those of the tremendously wealthy western nations. There are also a number of specific examples that concerned the Asian African nations. Topics such as the status of dependent peoples in regions where colonial entities still maintained a degree of power, caught in a limbo between independence and dependence. It also discusses the ways in which some western nations use their own values and judgment’s to dictate right and wrong in the domestic affairs of others. Understanding that what works in the west may not work in the rest of the world was an important point raised by the Asian and African nations. Ask yourself how the understanding of an insider nations may differ from that of an outsider nation looking in.
Richard Wright, A Poets Journey
– Richard Wright, an African American, was among the few Americans that attended the conference. Considered to be among the best authors produced by America in the 20th century; Wright garnered acclaim for his many works concerning race relations and the plight of African Americans, particularly in the south. Some of his most acclaimed works include Black Boy, Uncle Tom’s Children, Native Son, The Color Curtain, and The Outsider. Here we will look at his writings in The Color Curtain, a wonderfully written account of his journey and experiances at the Asia-Africa Conference. In this first section Wright explores the role of race and religion at the conference. Deeply religious nations of Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians all gathered together in Bandung. Keep in mind just how diverse and different this group was from one another, and how Wright interpreted these differences and similarities.
– Next Wright explores the role of communism at the conference. His unique interactions with people and delegates from all over the world gives us thoughtful insight into how communism was perceived. Coming from the U.S. where Communism had become shorthand for bad governance and authoritarianism, Wright seems to understand the dogmatism espoused by American and Soviet alike. Keep this in mind as your read this portion of Wrights writings.
– Wright then discusses what he calls racial shame at Bandung. Centuries of colonial rule had ingrained certain forms of self hate and deprecation. Racial shame and colonial symbolism permeated deep into the cultures that were colonized. For example, in India today we still see the great effect the British had over the minds of the Indian people. Judges in court and educated men wear western suits and dress keep up with western fashions. This has become a symbol of the elite and dressing in such a manner separates them from the ‘commoners’. Traditional Indian dress has not evolved or changed, it has not been able to carry the kind of power and symbolism of a western suit. Wright was going to the conference as a black man from a nation where segregation and hate were the norm and widely accept by the population. Wright had written about lynching in the south where he was from. He had a keen understanding of racialism and the ways in which it permeated throughout the world. Keep in mind Wrights own background and the history of race in America as you read this portion. In his writing Wright also gives us an incredible example of how colonialism shaped the relationship between indigenous peoples and European colonizers. The pamphlet given to Belgian colonialists in the Congo gives great insight into how powerful the ways in which we communicate can be. Understanding how the only phrases the Belgians would learn in the native tongue involved punishment, accusation, interrogation, and command. There were no examples of how to ask someone about their day, about their family, or simply courteous phrases two human being might exchange. It all centered around maintaining power and avoiding familiarity. These kinds of pamphlets exposing the nature of colonialism were spread throughout the conference, maintaining the sentiment of decolonization and foreign control.
– Finally, we have Wrights integration of the Western Worlds place at Bandung. Understanding the lack of interest many Americans and westerners showed in the conference. While others seeing it as somewhat of a slight against them is important. Note his discussion on the few Americans who did attend the conference, many of whom were African Americans. Blacks in America had a unique appreciation for what the conference was attempting to do. They saw it as an opportunity for people of color to finally gather in their own domains of power, separate from the western world.
U.S. Newspapers and The Asia- Africa Conference
When attempting to understand the significance of the Asia-Africa conference in the U.S. it helps to explore news media, at the time dominated by newspapers. What effect did the conference have on the American conscious and understanding of the third world?
– First we have a series of articles from the New York Times, Washington Post and The Atlanta Daily World. All of these share a similar theme. Concerns over Soviet propaganda aimed at the developing worlds grew greater following the conference. Americans feared the kind of connection many of these marginalized people felt with communist ideas about the proletariat and persecution. Seeing the Soviets as peddlers of lies, they worried that the developing world could be mislead into their arms. It is true that the Soviets began to greatly increase their propaganda in Asia and Africa following the conference to better align themselves with the concerns raised. Soviet imperialism in eastern Europe was a point of great contention during the deliberations and they quickly learnt the value of dispelling such fears. Many felt it was “only a matter of time” before the Asia-Africa nations “fell prey” to communism. How justified are these concerns?
– As we have seen African Americans took a keen interest in the conference. Here we have several articles written by African American journalists. Lewis Lautner was an influential black journalist of his era. Having written several articles on the conference he takes a unique approach. While one can feel his enthusiasm for the conglomeration of colored peoples, he also espouses the need for African-Americans to take more of a leading role in American foreign politics. Feeling that many of these nations would feel a closer connection to an African American face representing the states. The New Journal and Guide was the largest African American paper in the country. The Afro-American was another such news paper. Many of these articles call for black Americans to promote democracy and capitalism when abroad, to make others understand that the U.S. and its beliefs are not only represented by white faces. In these articles, particularly from the Cleveland Post we see that not all journalists were falling prey to the fears of communist expansion. Many with a more in depth understanding of the conference knew that there was by no means consensus on the communist question. Many of the nations in attendance were infact fiercly anti communist and pro capitalist democracy. Keep in mind the racial history of America while reading these articles.
Adam Clayton Powell and U.S. Government representation at the Bandung Conference
– Adam Clayton Powell was among the first of Americans of African descent to be elected into the Congress. Powell was from Harlem and had a deep understanding of racialism and the issues facing black Americans. Despite many recommending against it, Powell decided to travel to Indonesia and observe the conference in an unofficial capacity. Here we have a congressional discussion with Powell following his return from the conference. Much of what is discussed involves the role of Communism at the conference and the vulnerability many nations had towards it. Powell was rather different than Wright in his attendance. As a U.S. politician he focused more on the ways in which the U.S. could promote itself to these nations. He had many ideas on how Americans could ingratiate themselves with these newly formed countries. Think about the kinds of questions Congress asked Representative Powell and where their primary concerns were. (the discussion of Bandung begins half way down the third column of the first page)
The Final Communique of the Asia-Africa Conference at Bandung 1955
– Finally, we have the fruits bourn from a week of deliberations by the many nations at Bandung. This communique espouses the values of neutrality, economic cooperation, and multilateral support among developing nations. Notice that much of the language is vague, and far more ideological than practical. Also notice the way in which the U.N. is talked about here. Again we must remember that these nations were in no way disavowing the United Nations. They were instead gathering together to discuss problems they felt were overlooked and under represented within the U.N. In a way many hoped still to become significant members of the U.N. and understood its importance within the modern world. Read this final communique carefully and keep in mind the incredible divisions and differences of culture, religion, and politics amongst the attendant nations. Ask yourself how significant a statement is this final communication of the conference? How does it reflect the thoughts and ideas put forth by so many?
“each country has not only the right to freedom but also to decide its own policy and way of life” – Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Bandung Conference 1955
The Modern Non-Aligned Movement consists of 120 member states and 15 observer states. It includes nations that make up well over three fourths of the human population. Established in 1961 during the height of the Cold War its aim was to keep developing nations from falling prey to and joining the great power blocs of the era. The Non-Aligned movement is not a formal organization or treatied alliance, more a collective of states that believe in cooperation, non-intervention, and activism on behalf of developing nations on the international stage. The seed for the movement began in the early fifties during the Bogor, Colombo, and most importantly Bandung Conferences. A major hurdle for the movement came with the fall of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War. Its purpose became a bit foggy as the great power blocs were not longer so clear cut. The movement continues to espouse its ideals of unity, mutual respect, cooperation, and keeping great powers in check. The organization has criticized actions such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq as unjust and imperialist. One of the movements most recent activisms is attempting to create greater transparency in the U.N.; ensuring balance and preventing the improper or un equal use of the U.N. by major powers.
The organizations great diversity and belief in respect for leadership and cultural governance in all its forms is reflected in the movements Secretary Generals. Having had militaristic and authoritarian leaders such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and Suharto of Indonesia. As well as having pro democracy and anti racism activists such as Nelson Mandela. Perhaps a shocking fact to those in the west, the last two Secretary Generals have been from Iran such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and currently President Hassan Rouhani. The 16th and most recent summit of the movement was held in 2012 at the Iranian capital of Tehran. The 17th summit is planned to take place in Venezuela. This is something to consider when thinking about the 1955 conference in Bandung. What does multilateral cooperation mean? Must the enemies of the U.S. be considered the enemies of the world? Is it ok too accept and respect the ways in which other peoples want to live their lives? Does freedom of choice only mean freedom to live by European standards?
– Some great secondary sources about the Bandung Conference, Non-Alignment, and the role of third world countries during the Cold War
- Jansen, G.H. Nonalignment and the Afro-Asian States. New York: Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, 1966
- Romulo, Carlos P. The Meaning of Bandung. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956
- Tan, See Sang, Bandung Revisited: The Legacy of the 1955 Asian-African Conference for International Order. Singapore: The NUS Press, 2008
- Lee, Christopher J. Making a World after Empire: The Bandung Moment and Its Political Afterlives. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2010
- Keweku, Ampiah.. The Political and Moral Imperatives of the Bandung Conference of 1955: The Reactions of the US, UK and Japan. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers Inc., 2007
- Willets, Peter. Non-Aligned movement: The Origins of a Third World Alliance. London: Pinter Publishers, 1983
- Westad, Odd Arne. The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007
- Miskovic, Natasa and Fischer-Tine, Harald and Boskovska, Nada. The Non-Aligned Movement and the Cold War: Delhi – Bandung – Belgrade. London: Routledge Publisher, 2014
*A few topics and events that may help scratch the surface when exploring and attempting to understand colonialism and decolonization in these regions.
– Indian Subcontinent
- British East India Company
- Anglo-Maratha Wars
- The Indian Rebellion of 1857
- The British Raj
- 1947 Partition
- The Muslim League
- First Indian Congress
- Soviet-Afghan War
- The “Opium” Wars
- The Boxer Rebellion
- The Treaty of Nanjing
- Decline of the Qing Dynasty
- Treaty of Tientsin
- Japanese Occupation of Manchuria
- “The Scramble for Africa”
- Leopold and the Belgian Congo
- The 1884 Berlin Conference
- “New Imperialism”
- Belgian Congo
- Algerian Revolution
- Italo-Abysinnian wars
- Apartheid South Africa
– East Indies and Indochina
- Sino-French War
- Franco-Siamese War
- Dutch East India Company
- Spanish-American war and annexation of the Phillipines
- French and British Interlude in the East Indies
- Indonesian National Revolution
- Anglo-Siamese treaty of 1909
- French Indochina
– The Middle East
- The Arab Revolt of 1916
- Fall of the Ottoman Empire
- The Sykes-Picot Agreement
- The British Mandate
- The French Mandate
- Anglo-Soviet Invasion of Iran
- Anglo-Iraqi War
- U.S. Invasion of Iraq
- Establishment of Israel