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British Imperial Revival in the Early Cold War: The Malayan ‘Emergency’ 1948-60

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As we gain perspective on a summer of global protest, it is clear that the traditional narrative of British colonial history is being questioned by the public at large. The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in July represents a direct challenge to conventional histories of the beginnings of the British empire in the seventeenth century. But what of the end of empire?

Following the Second World War Britain declined as a world power, dwarfed by the bi-polar superpower colossi of the United States and the USSR and hamstrung by the inexorable disappearance of her imperial possessions. The sun of Empire, we are told, set across the world.[1]

From this perspective, British power and influence declined in relative terms. However, as recent research based on the ever-increasing release of official records has shown, this interpretation misses crucial discontinuities in the historical record. Recent scholarship by John Newsinger argues that Clement Attlee’s Labour government was as much a resurgent colonial warfare state as a domestic welfare state in the immediate postwar years.[2] Anne Deighton argues that Britain’s role in ideological battlegrounds of the nascent Cold War is demonstrably greater than traditional interpretations have suggested.[3] 

One concrete example of postwar Britain as a colonial Cold Warrior state is the Malayan Emergency of 1948-60. The conflict has been described by Malaysian-born anthropologist Yao Souchou as ‘a small, distant war’ not for its inconsequentiality in global affairs, but for its relegation to the side-lines of the historiography of the Cold War.[4] Bringing the conflict to the forefront of our attention, I believe, challenges the broad narrative of postwar ‘decline’ and demonstrates the continued international influence of the British state in the post-war period.

The ‘Emergency’ was the longest conflict fought by British forces in the twentieth century. With the aim of achieving national independence, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) fought a bitter campaign of insurgency against the British colonial government of Malaya and its local and Commonwealth allies. Despite their determined (and British-supported) resistance to wartime Japanese occupation, the MCP were ultimately defeated. More than just a decisive victory for the British empire, the campaign in Malaya was in fact the only conclusive military success by the Western powers in the entirety of the Cold War period.[5]

THE BRITISH ARMY IN MALAYA, 1957 (HU 51581) Men of the 48th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, in action against a terrorist hide-out near Segri Sembilan, Malaya. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM. Used on an IWM non-commercial licence. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205216100 [Accessed 22 November 2020]

Because of its abundant tin and rubber resources, Malaya, according to the British Colonial Sectary, was ‘by far the most important source of dollars in the Colonial Empire’.[6] With the British economy profoundly weakened by the loss of the former Indian territories, further capitulation in Asia was simply not acceptable. Although Marshall Plan aid chiefly funded Britain’s extensive (and expensive) programmes of urban revival and welfare reforms, a direct consequence of the economic recovery of ‘the West’ was the continuation of European colonialism for another two decades.[7]

The release of classified Foreign Office files has expanded our understanding of Britain’s propaganda machine in the early Cold War period. The intent of the Information Research Department (IRD) to promote Britain as a socialist ‘Third Force’ in world politics via its attacks on the Soviet Union and Communism is only now being adequately explored.[8] These offensive tactics were mirrored by a defensive approach to events in Malaya. Repeating the rhetoric used to describe the Jewish Irgun and Lehi in Palestine, British state propaganda relied on the dual euphemism of the ‘banditry’ of Malayan Communist rebels and the ‘emergency’ of their anti-colonial independence war in international representations of the conflict.[9]

The conflict was presented as arising from an international communist movement. It was done so with nuance: too strong a line could further align the Malayan Chinese ethnic group with the MCP; the opposite could have given the impression that the British were crushing a true nationalist movement. After the proclamation of American anti-colonial policy in the 1947 Truman Doctrine, the chief aim of British propaganda was to ‘manipulate the American colossus’ into thinking that political and economic support of an archaic colonial regime was ‘the corollary of [Communist] containment’.[10] To this, end, as the war continued, international British propaganda utilised the carefully chosen term ‘Communist terrorists’ in their representations of the MCP.[11]

In terms of national propaganda, a great deal of scholarly attention is often given to the figure of Sir Gerald Templer. Serving as Director of Operations and High Commissioner of Malaya from 1951 to 1954, his view that ‘the answer [to defeating the insurgency] lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle but in the hearts and minds of the [Malayan] people’ has dominated conventional historical analysis of the conflict.[12] A defining component of contemporary ‘cultural Cold War’ strategies, we must remain wary of attributing the ‘hearts and minds’ metaphor too much importance in Britain’s victory over the MCP. Indeed, the position of Templer as a semi-mythic figure in the historiography of the conflict simultaneously empowers the actions of the Western elite and obscures the reality of the counter-insurgency tactics the British utilised throughout the conflict.

THE MALAYAN EMERGENCY 1948-1960 (D 87947) Men of 22 Special Air Service Regiment practice carrying a casualty to a waiting helicopter during a training exercise in a jungle clearing at Ulu Langat, near Kuala Lumpur. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM. Used on an IWM non-commercial licence. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205212427 [Accessed 20 November 2020]

Based on racially motivated colonial attitudes exemplified by events of the 1948 Batang Kali massacre, Bennett argues that mass arrests, deportation and destruction of property corresponded to a deliberate British campaign of ‘counter-terror’.[13] The forced re-settlement of over 500,000 Malayans in ‘New Villages’ with the ostensible aim of removing Communist influence were in fact little more than concentration camps built to keep the rural Chinese population under strict surveillance and control.[14] The tactics employed by the British state against the MCP demonstrated a resolve to maintain dominance of the colonial periphery by often brutal means.

A colonial attitude of imperial retrenchment, implemented through and influencing a nascent Cold War framework, saw Malaya as a continued source of colonial power for the British state. Britain successfully re-imposed colonial order by armed intervention, protecting its markets and control of natural resources essential to economic recovery. An extensive and influential network of regional intelligence informed international and national propaganda strategies to manipulate public opinion with the objective of the furtherance of British colonial Cold War objectives. Brutal and systematic detention, deportation and violence facilitated the crushing of the MCP revolt.

The summer of 2020 has shown the power of challenging traditionally idolised historical figures from the beginnings of the British empire. Similarly, a revisionist interpretation of the Malayan Emergency makes it clear that in postwar South-East Asia, there was no gracefully setting sun.

Liam Raine is an MA Modern History student at the University of Sheffield, currently researching the metaphorical structures of the Cold War. This blog piece is based on an essay written in submission for the module HST674 ‘International Relations and the Early Cold War in Britain’. For those interested in the longer research project, please contact Liam at liamandrewraine@gmail.com.


Cover image: A Malayan guide passes tracking information to the British sergeant of an infantry patrol during the Malayan Emergency. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum, © IWM. Used on an IWM non-commercial licence. https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205212424 [Accessed 22 November 2020].

[1] L. James, ‘Part Five: The Setting Sun’ in The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (New York, 2006), pp. 523-622.

[2] J. Newsinger, ‘War, Empire and the Attlee government 1945-51’, Race & Class, 60.1 (2018), pp. 61-67.

[3] A. Deighton, ‘Britain and the Cold War’ in M. Leffler and O. A. Westad (eds), The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume 1: Origins (New York, 2010), pp. 112-32.

[4] S. Yao, The Malayan Emergency: Essays on a small, distant war (Copenhagen, 2016).

[5] B. Z. Keo, ‘A small, distant war?’, History Compass 17.3 (2019), pp. 1-2.

[6] Memo, by Colonial Secretary, 1 July 1948, C.P. (48) 171, CAB 129/25.

[7] W. I. Hitchcock, ‘The Marshall Plan and the creation of the West’ in M. Leffler and O. A. Westad (eds), The Cambridge History of the Cold War, Volume 1: Origins (New York, 2010), p. 162; O. A. Westad, The Cold War: A World History (New York, 2017), p. 265.

[8] H. Wilford, ‘The Information Research Department: Britain’s secret Cold War weapon revealed’, Review of International Studies 24.3 (1998), pp. 353-69.

[9] S. L. Carruthers, Winning Hearts and Minds (Leicester, 1995).

[10] J. Darwin, ‘Diplomacy and decolonization’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 28.3 (2000), p. 16.

[11] P. Deery, ‘The terminology of terrorism: Malaya, 1948-1952’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 34.2 (2003), pp. 241-47.

[12] R. Clutterbuck, The long, long war (London, 1967), p. 3; R. Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency (London, 1966).

[13] H. Bennett, ‘“A very salutary effect”’, Journal of Strategic Studies 32.3 (2009), pp. 415-44.

[14] T.-P. Tan, ‘Like a concentration camp, lah’: Chinese grassroots experience of the Emergency and New Villages in British Colonial Malaya’, Chinese Southern Diaspora Studies 3 (2009), pp.216-28.

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A ‘Mirror’ up to Society: The Daily Mirror and British Public Opinion of the H-bomb, 1954-1958

1024px-_Ivy_Mike__atmospheric_nuclear_test_-_November_1952_-_Flickr_-_The_Official_CTBTO_Photostream

The rise of populism and subsequent ‘crisis of democracy’ in recent years has led to discussions regarding the detrimental effects of fake news and media-friendly politics. Within this narrative, ordinary citizens are portrayed as passive bystanders manipulated by a highly mediatized political culture.

However, this need not always be the case. Indeed, from the late 1950s, newspapers became increasingly preoccupied with providing a platform through which ‘ordinary’ citizens’ perceptions of democracy could be articulated. These ‘voices’ were then utilised by newspapers in their construction of new forms of political reporting, consequently redefining public opinion as a less elitist category that was accessible to a broader demographic.

The Daily Mirror provides a particularly good example. Initiated by its change of ownership in the 1930s, in order to appeal to their new, working-class readership, the Mirror became increasingly focused on providing an outlet through which their constructions of the ‘voice of the people’ could be articulated. This was particularly the case with the hydrogen bomb (H-bomb).

In April 1954, the Mirror published a double-page spread on the new H-bomb. Alongside the Mirror’sfirst depiction of ‘The Monster’, the public were invited to respond to two questions regarding their opinion on H-bomb testing.[1] The H-bomb enquiry revealed that 92% of participants were in favour of a suspension of the test explosions.[2] The Mirror then used the results from the public polls to inform its own discourse.[3]

William Connor (Cassandra), a columnist at the Mirror known for his anti-establishment rhetoric, was commissioned to write an article reflecting public distaste for the bomb.He used graphic and emotive language to present the H-bomb as an apocalyptic threat. Children dear, I’m afraid it’s those grown-ups again’, Cassandra wrote before going on to explain the bomb in a patronising manner, as if talking to a child.[4]

As a newspaper’s intention is not to alienate its readership, we can assume that this article was written as an ‘in-joke’ between the Mirror and its readers as, at least from what the public poll had revealed, both shared the same opinion of the bomb.

On the 2nd March 1955, the Mirror published an article revealing that Britain had ‘started to make the H-Bomb.[5] In contrast to the apocalyptic account of horror depicted in 1954, by March 1955, the H-bomb became a part of daily life. We see the normalisation of the H-bomb not only in the Mirror’s reporting style, but also within the ‘voice of the people’ constructed in their Live Letters newspaper segment.

‘I read some time ago that if an atom bomb were dropped in the polar regions, the ice barrier would be broken and that this would allow a warm current to flow round Britain and so give us a tropical climate. If this is so, why do we not have the atomic tests there instead of in Australia and this reap the benefit in climate?’[6]

Instead of a sense of horror, we see a blasé approach to the H-bomb – the implication being that the public accepted the necessity of the H-bomb and desired to make the best of a bad situation.

By 1957, the Mirror’s coverage of the H-Bomb changed again. Whereas previously the H-bomb was presented as either apocalyptic or everyday, by 1957 the apocalyptic had become the everyday.[7] This was also echoed in the nature of public opinion the newspaper published.

‘After constantly reading about the horrible hydrogen bomb, I wish that someone would invent another bomb – the H for Happiness bomb’ wrote one reader.[8]

 The following week, another member of the public wrote a response:

‘I suggest that everybody in this world today could, if he wished, explode his own miniature bomb… In this day and age, however, I have found that any act of kindness… is taken for a sign of weakness’.[9]

These sentiments were echoed in another letter entitled ‘If Angels Weep’:

‘I have my own theory about the rainy weather we’ve been having… Could it be that the angels are weeping now – not from laughter, but with bitter tears for us poor so-and-so’s who could be so happy but are being led on to the brink of misery and destruction by the big ‘eads?’[10]

On top of a clear sense of sadness and an acknowledgement that it was a part of everyday life, there is also a sense of disappointment in their political leaders and an acceptance of the inevitability that the H-bomb would bring destruction and misery to Britain – a far cry from seeing the H-bomb as an opportunity to improve the British climate.

Through analysis of the Mirror’s shifting communicative practices and constructions of the ‘voice of the people’, it is reasonable to suggest that the way people related to the H-bomb changed over time. Tracing shifts such as these will allow us to enrich current study of popular opinion conveyed through mass media by historically contextualising the current, presentist narrative of a ‘crisis in democracy’.

By accessing the mediated perceptions of ‘ordinary’ people through analysis of the outlets that constructed their voices in the public sphere, we can move away from the top-down approach that dominates the study of postwar political culture whilst critically reflecting on the role new media plays in shaping our current political climate.

These concerns will be explored in the ‘Voice of the People’ project, which aims to put the voices of the ordinary citizen centre stage in the discussion of postwar political culture, by deconstructing the ways in which journalists brought the ‘voice of the people’ into the public sphere. From this, we will be able to provide insight into the changing notions of public opinion, whilst tracing the impact that has upon both journalistic and political culture.

Jamie Jenkins is a PhD student at Radboud University working on the Voices of the People project. Her research investigates how the media constructed popular expectations of democracy in Great Britain between the end of the Second World War and the 1980s. She tweets @jenkinsleejamie


Cover image: Photo of ‘Ivy Mike’ (yield 10.4 mt) – an atmospheric nuclear test conducted by the U.S. at Enewetak Atoll on 1 November 1952. It was the world’s first successful hydrogen bomb.

[1] ‘The Monster’, Daily Mirror, April 2nd 1954, p.1.

[2] ‘The People’s Verdict – Churchill Must Act’, Daily Mirror, 5th April 1954, p. 1

[3] M. Conboy, ‘How The War Made the Mirror’, Media History: Newspapers, War and Society 23.3-4 (2017), p. 455.

[4] Cassandra, ‘A child’s guide to the bomb’, Daily Mirror, 6th April 1954, p. 9

[5] ‘Churchill: Another ‘Farewell’ Performance’, Daily Mirror, Wednesday 2nd March 1955 pp.1-3.

[6] ‘Live Letters’, Daily Mirror, 15th November 1956, p. 18.

[7] This personalisation of the H-bomb was a common theme within Mirror articles at the time. This was reiterated by their frequent use of a map of the UK depicting the scale of the potential destruction. The public were able to visualise the impact of the H-bomb on a national level, whilst also placing themselves as individuals on the map. Therefore, by 1957 the public was no longer relating to the bomb as a potential threat, but rather as an actuality.

[8] ‘Live Letters’, Daily Mirror, 24th February 1958, p. 14.

[9] ‘Live Letters’, Daily Mirror, 6th March 1958, p. 18

[10] ‘Live Letters’ Daily Mirror, 10th October, p. 18.

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