Selling Empire: Colonial Propaganda and Global Politics in the Era of Decolonization

Friday, January 5, 2018: 1:30 PM
Diplomat Ballroom (Omni Shoreham)
Jessica Pearson, Macalester College
After 1945 colonial governments, who were sensitive both to pressure from within their territories as well as to changing tides of international public opinion regarding imperial governance, embarked on momentous programs of imperial reform. Recent historical scholarship, such as work by Frederick Cooper on the creation of the French Union, has illuminated the ways that such reforms were negotiated between representatives of those colonial governments and their constituents in their overseas territories. But if reformed models of colonial governance needed to be “sold” to inhabitants of colonial territories, they also needed to be packaged for the broader global community at large. Politicians and bureaucrats working in the colonial and diplomatic sectors of the French, British, and Belgian governments, were uncomfortably aware of the negative press that decades of colonial rule had generated in the US, the Soviet Union, Latin America, and the Middle East. Their offices closely tracked foreign press regarding happenings in their overseas empires and as the United Nations expanded its reach into those empires after 1945, they found themselves committing more and more resources to imperial public relations. This paper draws on archival research from the French and British diplomatic archives and published Belgian source material to explore the ways that the French, British, and Belgian governments attempted to “sell” their reformed postwar visions of empire to the international community after the Second World War, both by emphasizing their accomplishments and by highlighting the post-colonial successes of other, independent countries in the Global South. It also explores the way that the African-American press grappled with questions of empire and racial inequality in European colonies and the ways that colonial governments in Europe attempted to combat that negative press by exposing racial injustices in the United States.
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