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This article re-examined Louis Mountbatten and decolonization. Mountbatten’s career intersects with that of British imperial decline at a number of points. Most famously, he was, of course, the last Viceroy and the architect of partition of India. His appointment to that post had been largely the result of his handling of the resurgent nationalist movements of south east Asia during his time as Supreme Commander at South East Asia Command (SEAC). After its completion, he returned to the Navy, rising to Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean, in which capacity he encountered the struggle for enosis in Cyprus, and more directly, Dom Mintoff’s pursuit of Maltese independence. As First Sea Lord, he clashed with Anthony Eden over the political unwisdom of the Suez expedition of October 1956. As Chief of the Defence Staff, it fell to him to handle the reorganisation of Britain’s defences, with its profound implications for Britain’s ability to intervene in post-imperial crises east of Suez.

Such extensive involvement in these momentous events has, of course, made Mountbatten a highly controversial figure in the history of decolonisation. Taken at his own estimation, his leadership was decisive in ensuring that British decolonisation was characterised by judicious and well-planned efficiency. In planning his own funeral, Mountbatten left instructions that if the Prime Minister should wish to say a few words, he or she should say that ‘his personal leadership, as long ago as 1945, had set the line on which the British Empire changed itself into the Commonwealth of sovereign states’.

Needless to say, this rosy picture has been greeted with considerable scepticism, especially among Conservatives, many of whom, among Mountbatten’s contemporaries regarded him as a baleful and destructive influence responsible for hasty, ill-considered and treacherous scuttles.

These two perspectives share one common feature: they both take it as axiomatic that Mountbatten’s part in the history of decolonisation was decisive, whether for good or ill. The focus of this article is to test this assumption against the evidence of Mountbatten’s time at SEAC. I begin by tracing the development of Mountbatten’s ideas on anti-colonial nationalism in the reoccupation of Ceylon, Burma and Malaya. In the second half of the paper, in examining the role of SEAC in the reoccupation of French Indo-China and Dutch Indonesia, I aim to place Mountbatten’s contribution in a comparative perspective. My conclusion is that Mountbatten’s ideas, though significant, owed a good deal to a set of peculiar circumstances that not all military leaders have enjoyed.

In the reoccupation of South-East Asia, Mountbatten continually stressed the need to meet political aspirations through constitutional advance and social progress. Most controversially, in Burma he decided to recognise and rearm the Anti-Fascist Organisation of Aung San. Aung San was leader of the Burma National Army (BNA), established by the Japanese in 1942, but which had switched sides as its sponsors suffered military defeat and failed to deliver their initial promises. Indeed, Mountbatten clearly intended that Aung San should be recognised as a national leader even once it became apparent that the rapid collapse of the Japanese Army had made his military support less valuable. He blocked attempts by Burmese Civil Affairs officers to charge Aung San with war crimes, worked hard to incorporate his forces into the Burmese Army and asked the civilian Governor to provide a guarantee that his representatives would be included in the advisory council that was to be set up when civil government was restored. He saw Aung San’s organisation as the ‘politically active’ element in the situation and gave it all the backing he could, despite the opposition of the local British civilian officials.

The dispute between Mountbatten and the officials should not be regarded as a clash between die-hards and liberals. It was about the correct approach to be taken to an unprecedented and tricky task: the reoccupation of former colonial territories, after ignominious military defeat, at a time when the Japanese remained undefeated and the fundamental purposes of colonial policy were being questioned as never before. Some favoured the initial show of force, before political negotiations were started. This enabled the incoming colonial administration to negotiate from a position of strength. This technique – the so-called tache d’huile – was successfully adopted both by Leclerc in Indo-China after the departure of SEAC, and by Templar during the Malayan Emergency. But it was expensive and politically controversial with Britain’s American allies.

The other model of colonial reoccupation reversed the stages. It consisted of getting ahead of the nationalists, in granting political concessions before they became unavoidable, thereby keeping the initiative, sustaining the moderates and undercutting the radicals. Such a strategy depended, however, upon two prerequisites. First, a clear distinction had to be made between moderates and radicals, a diagnosis that newly arrived soldiers working with out-of-date political intelligence were not in a good position to make. Secondly, to retain the initiative, it was vital that the occupying forces retain a near-monopoly of the use of force. Once armed, nationalist groups were bound to use their new-found strength to dominate their own communities and to present the British with the prospect of departure or a drawn-out civil war.

At all events, it is hard not to conclude that Mountbatten’s strategy was at best only a partial success. Given the rapid collapse of the Japanese forces, the value of the BNA as a military ally had proved less significant than Mountbatten had been led to believe, a fact he was forced to acknowledge in a late attempt to cut it down to size. Indeed, the vast bulk of Aung San’s forces were never absorbed into the Burmese Army, for Aung San proved unwilling, or unable, to make so great a concession to the occupying forces. Nor did it prove possible to recover the arms distributed to them. Rather the BNA, or the Patriotic Burma Forces (PBF), as it was renamed, was deployed as a political army to silence its political opponents and extort campaign funds. Thus although Mountbatten had hoped to see the AFPFL break into a number of parties, it simply grew in strength. When Mountbatten attempted to crack down on Aung San, it was too late.

The question of whether Mountbatten’s strategy was correct is a very hard one to resolve, dependent as it is upon counterfactuals and the benefit of hindsight. That Aung San was victorious in the subsequent elections may be taken, as it was by Mountbatten himself, as a triumphant vindication of his decision to recognise him. Similarly, supporters of Mountbatten have laid much stress upon the fact that he enjoyed a co-operative relationship with Aung San. But to critics, this is scarcely surprising if Aung San owed part of his influence to Mountbatten’s sponsorship.

Burma proved the model for Mountbatten’s strategy in Malaya too. He called for early elections and the abrogation of the treaties Britain had made before the war with the sultans. He also demanded permission to rearm the Malayan Anti-Japanese Resistance Movement (AJUF), and give it the task of keeping order in the country districts were there were no Japanese. But far from rising to fight on behalf of the British, as Mountbatten believed, the AJUF was dominated by Chinese Communist guerrillas dedicated to the overthrow not merely of Japanese, but of all foreign influence. It later formed the basis of the Malayan Communist Party’s force, which the British dedicated twelve years to repressing. In the event, the reoccupation of Malaya was a comparatively smooth process, and Mountbatten’s attempts to influence policy towards nationalist movements relatively insignificant. That its eventual decolonisation worked in British economic and strategic interests, however, owed almost everything to the ability of Mountbattten’s successors to build a working alliance with the Malay community based on putting down the Communist forces Mountbatten had been keen to arm.

Mountbatten’s preference, in short, was for political concessions to win over the ‘politically active’ elements and paternalistic socio-economic policies to secure the support of colonised peoples. He tended to regard all nationalist movements as united peoples struggling to be free and was often unaware of the subtle conflicts of interest and ideology which divided them. The problem with this was that it was precisely upon these divisions that the ability of the British to influence the process of decolonisation rested. By exploiting the apprehension of those anxious not to be left behind in the struggle for succession, such as traditional elites fearful that their property and position would be swept away in social disorder, or regional leaders afraid that independence would mean the seizure and entrenchment of power by a single tribe, community or religious group, and by adjusting the details of constitutional plans, especially the conditions of the franchise and representation, to favour those prepared to accept progress on British terms, colonial officials could often frustrate the attempts of their opponents to weld the disparate classes of colonial societies into an effective anticolonial alliance. In neglecting these subtleties, Mountbatten deprived himself of what had hitherto been the most powerful weapon in the colonial armoury.

Mountbatten also tended to present problems to his superiors in quite stark terms. In his cables to the Chiefs of Staff, he would often set out two or three possible courses of action: repression or negotiations; suppression or co-operation. The Hobson’s choice was, of course, to be offered most starkly by Mountbatten as Viceroy of India.

When we turn our attention to Mountbatten’s activities in the reoccupation of The Netherlands East Indies (NEI) and French Indo-China, a further dimension to the question appears. Mountbatten’s directive instructed him to reoccupy no more of French Indo-China and the NEI than was necessary to disarm the Japanese, repatriate Allied prisoners and preserve law and order until power was duly transferred to their former colonial masters. But in each case, the local commanders found themselves dragged into conflicts between European settlers and nationalists.

In Indo-China, Mountbatten’s local commander, Douglas Gracey was caught between the newly declared government of Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh and the returning French. He energetically pursued a policy of tying himself to the French re-occupation and – in a touch that would have been quite uncharacteristic of Mountbatten – refusing to talk to the Viet Minh. But though it has been the subject of much speculation, Gracey’s attitude towards colonial nationalism made little difference. Both sides had their hands tied: the French officials by Paris’ refusal to go beyond its own modest proposals and the Viet Minh by the suspicion of its radical supporters that it might trade the principle of sovereignty.

As in Indo-China, SEAC troops arrived in Java some weeks after the Japanese surrender to find a functioning, well entrenched nationalist government, led in this case by Sukarno and Hatta, backed by military forces determined to resist the return of their former colonial rulers. The local commander, Philip Christison, found his troops drawn into the conflict between the Dutch settlers, the Dutch military forces and the Republican provisional government.

Mountbatten found it `heartbreaking’ to have to leave the political negotiations in Indo-China and NEI to the French and Dutch. ‘I can assure you’, he wrote to Tom Driberg, `that if I was left as free a hand in French Indo-China and the Netherlands East Indies as I was left in Burma, I could solve both these problems by the same methods.’ But though Mountbatten frequently lectured his French and Dutch colleagues on the need to deal with Asian nationalists, basing his arguments on the success he believed he had achieved with Aung San in Burma , the analogy was far from perfect.

In the first place, the French and Dutch were in a much weaker military position than the British had been in Burma and Malaya. By the time the British took control of Rangoon, the Japanese were in headlong retreat. But in the cases of Indo-China and the NEI, they had remained in place, encouraging the nationalist movements against the return of European colonial powers. Where the British had fought their way across Burma and enjoyed an extensive military presence there, which gave them the ability to negotiate with the nationalists from a relative position of strength, the French possessed only small, underequipped and ill-trained forces in the SEAC theatre, while the Dutch were almost wholly reliant upon the United States for training and equipment.

Secondly, in the period of anarchy between Japanese defeat and the arrival of SEAC, nationalist groups had gained a much greater ascendancy in French Indo-China and the NEI than they had managed in Malaya or Burma.

Thirdly, the nationalist groups which the French and Dutch military faced were less politically acceptable than their counterparts to the British in Burma, Malaya and Ceylon. While the Japanese remained undefeated, Mountbatten could argue to his political superiors that operational necessity dictated unpalatable concessions. Parallel arguments could not be made by the Dutch or French commanders. Sukarno had collaborated with, not fought against, the Japanese, who had in any case surrendered by the time SEAC arrived in Java, so there was no military reason to enlist his support. It was therefore impossible for Dutch commanders to argue, as had Mountbatten to his political superiors over Aung San, that he had ‘worked his passage home’ and was therefore entitled to political concessions. In the case of Indo-China, there were other complications. Not only was Ho Chi Minh a former Comintern agent, a fact which caused great anxiety in France, but his soldiers possessed a much more radical leftist programme than Aung San. This made repression more likely partly because recognition of a Communist succession in Indo-China was considered politically unacceptable by the French government, anxious about political opponents at home, and also increasingly to the United States, which might otherwise have acted as a restraining influence on the French.

Fourthly, there was no tradition of constitutional progress on which to build. This marked a further contrast with the British position. In Ceylon, constitutional progress had been set firmly on a course to independence when, in 1938, cabinet government had been put in place. The familiar promise that Burma would enjoy no less privileged treatment than India and the new intentions stated in the White Paper of May 1945 gave Mountbatten a political direction to follow. In Malaya, the War Cabinet had a plan of advance in readiness, which though unannounced until January 1946, had been privately known to Mountbatten since May 1944. The arrival in office of Attlee’s Labour government, with its tradition of sympathy for colonial freedom, made the destination of British policy even clearer. In the French and Dutch cases, however, political promises were much more qualified, and rested on shaky domestic consensuses. Whatever Mountbatten’s liberal instincts, they owed much of their influence to the fact that they were in tune with the policy of his political masters. There was much less scope for French and Dutch commanders to push policy in a different direction.

Moreover, in the Netherlands, as in France, the question of the treatment of Asian nationalists was inextricably bound up with the treatment of collaborators at home. The newly-installed `liberation’ governments in Paris and the Hague could not easily countenance negotiations with anti-colonial collaborators in the east at the same time as they prosecuted those who had collaborated at home, particularly if those negotiations were at the expense of loyalists who had fought to protect Dutch interests and suffered years of imprisonment at the hands of the Japanese. Here again there was no British parallel.

A final, and perhaps key, variable in the reoccupation was the position of expatriate settlers. In Java, there was a substantial population of recently released exiles and expatriates, whose fears that SEAC would not help them drove them to band together for strength. In French Indo-China, there was a similar population in Saigon. Commanders on the spot were well aware that the settler population constituted a liability. But in the absence of other troops they were obliged to use them. All in all, the British military, never so deeply engaged in the practice of colonial rule and without the complication of fellow countrymen and women in danger, were less likely to identify with settler groups or with the preservation of a specifically colonial form of international influence.

Much of the case for Mountbatten’s liberalism rests upon contrasts between his actions and beliefs and those of his French and Dutch counterparts. Certainly the French and Dutch forces contained their share of diehards. But they also had liberal-minded soldiers. In Mountbatten’s shoes, these men might well have followed a similar line. But the constraints that they faced made it all but impossible for a liberal policy to be employed. They lacked the advantages that Mountbatten enjoyed which enabled him to countenance political concessions to South-East Asian nationalists. In particular, he possessed reliable troops unaffected by ties of loyalty to expatriate settlers, and clear political instructions. To see how significant these advantages were, we have only to imagine how much harder it would have been for Mountbatten to follow his chosen course had he been forced to rely upon an army of disaffected Burmese planters, or had he arrived in Malaya to find the Malayan Communist Party ensconced in power, or had he encountered the former Indian National Congress leader Subhas Chandra Bose, whose Indian National Army had fought with the Japanese during the war, and who, unlike Aung San, had failed to switch sides.

The trajectories of the European decolonisations in Asia were greatly divergent, ranging from smooth and orderly transfers of power to intense racial wars. The contributions of European military forces were correspondingly varied. While acknowledging that the perceptions and prejudices of military leaders played a significant part in determining their course, and that it is therefore important to characterise them accurately, it has been argued here that – however enlightened – they were but a single factor in more complex equations.

publication

The chapter was published in Chris Woolgar (ed.), Mountbatten on the Record (1997). You can find copies of the book here.

IMAGE CREDITS: DR JOHN MURRAY, THE ENTRANCE TO THE TAJ MAHAL IN AGRA, THE EAST SIDE OF THE TAJ MAHAL IN AGRA, AKBAR’S PALACE, AGRA, LOOKING TOWARDS TO JUMNA, THE FRONT OF AKBAR’S PALACE, THE DIWAN-I-KHAS (HALL OF PRIVATE AUDIENCE) IN AGRA, AND A GHAUT AT BINDRABUND FROM PHOTOGRAPHIC VIEWS IN AGRA AND ITS VICINITY (1855) / DR JOHN MURRAY, THE PEARL MOSQUE (c.1856) THE RED MOSQUE, AGRA (1856) AND AGRA (c.1856) / DR JOHN MURRAY, NAQQAR KHANA AND LAHORE GATE IN DELHI, FROM VIEWS IN DELHI, CAWNPORE, ALLAHABAD AND BENARES (1858) / DR JOHN MURRAY, THE ARSENAL AND THE PEARL MOSQUE, AGRA (1858) / DR JOHN MURRAY, THE GREAT PANORAMA OF THE TAJ MAHAL (1858) / DR JOHN MURRAY, UNKNOWN SUBJECT FROM PICTURESQUE VIEWS IN THE NORTH-WESTERN PROVINCES OF INDIA (1859) / LINNAEUS TRIPE, THE TEPPA-KULAM (1858) / ANON., THE GOLDEN TEMPLE, AMRITSAR (1858) / SAMUEL BOURNE, CHATTAR MANZIL PALACE, LUCKNOW FROM ALBUM OF INDIAN VIEWS (1864) / SAMUEL BOURNE (ATTRIB.), MOTI MASJID (PEARL MOSQUE), THE RED FORT, LAL KILA, DELHI (1863-64) / SAMUEL BOURNE, GATE OF THE HUSAINABAD, LUCKNOW (1864-66) / ANON., LAHORE: GATE OF JAMU MASJID MOSQUE (c.1865) / NICHOLAS BROS, THE QUTB SHAHI TOMBS. GOLCONDA (1870s) AND SERINGAPATAM: MAUSOLEUM ERECTED OVER TIPPOO SULTAN AND HAYDER ALI (c.1870s) / BOURNE AND SHEPHERD, THE CHANDRA MAHAL OR MOON PALACE, JAIPUR, FROM AN ALBUM OF MISCELLANEOUS VIEWS IN INDIA (1870) / BOURNE AND SHEPHERD, MARBLE GHAT AT RAJNAGAR, CHITTUR PALACE OF BHIM AND PADMANI AND UDAYPUR: THE WATER PALACE, FROM PHOTOGRAPHS OF ARCHITECTURE AND SCENERY IN GUJARAT AND RAJPUTANA (1874) / BOURNE AND SHEPHERD, MAN MANDIR PALACE, GWALIOR, FROM THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF INDIA (1883) / LOUIS ROUSSELET, MAUSOLEUM OF THE EMPEROR HOOMAYOON, DELHI AND MAUSOLEUM OF RAJAH BUKTAWUR, ULWUR, FROM L’INDE DES RAJAHS: VOYAGE DANS L’INDE CENTRALE ET DANS LES PRÉSIDENCES DE BOMBAY ET DU BENGALE (1875) / ANON., INDIAN TEXTILE DESIGNS, HAND-DRAWN, LACQUER-PAINTED AND NUMBERED DESIGNS FROM A TEXTILE SAMPLE BOOK BOUGHT IN MUMBAI, INDIA.