35. World War I changed the British Empire by aligning Great Britain with the United States and the independence of the Irish Free State.
Following the First World War, the world order changed dramatically. The United States Navy grew exponentially during the war and its main focus was on Japanese adventurism in the Pacific. Great Britain, formerly allied with Japan, shifted to align itself with American interests. The Naval treaty negotiations during the 1920s allowed the US Navy and the Royal Navy to reach parity. One of the first pieces of the British Empire, Ireland, rose in revolt, which ended in 1921 with the creation of the Irish Free State. Within the empire, rumblings for independence shook its core, particularly in India and Egypt. The latter was granted independence in 1922, though British troops remained in the Canal Zone.
36. Iraq was declared a British mandate in 1921 and the Empire installed an Iraqi King.
In the aftermath of World War I, the territories of North Africa and the Mideast were in turmoil. Armed insurgency in modern Iraq by nationalists who wanted to remove British control of the region, led to concessions by the British, who essentially installed Faisal ibn Husayn as King of Iraq, confident that he was controllable. British forces remained in Iraq, and British troops created, trained, and armed an Iraqi army. In 1930, a second treaty was negotiated which established mutual defense between the British Empire and the Kingdom of Iraq. In 1932, Iraq became fully independent, remaining so until the 1958 revolution.
37. The Empire’s cracks were revealed by the Japanese attacks in 1941 and 1942.
With Great Britain fully engaged with the Germans in 1941, the Japanese struck at points of the Empire in the Pacific, including Hong Kong, Burma, and Singapore, threatening India, Australia, and New Zealand. Both Australia and New Zealand became more aligned with American policy and strategy in the Pacific War. Indian troops fought against the Japanese in the China-Burma-India Theater, under British command. But the main thrust across the Pacific was under American control, supported by the Australians and New Zealanders. The war revealed that Great Britain, even with its powerful navy, could no longer defend the entire British Empire.
38. The Empire declined quickly following World War II.
When World War II ended, the United States was the only power equipped with the atomic bomb, and the European continent was dominated by the armies of the United States and the Soviet Union. The Royal Navy was dwarfed by the US Navy, especially in the area of more modern ships. Great Britain was saved from complete financial collapse only through an emergency loan from the American government (the British paid the final installment on the loan in 2006). America’s goal in the developing Cold War was the containment of communism, and supported maintaining the British Empire only so far as it contributed to that achieving that aim.
39. Churchill’s defeat in 1945 meant the Empire was doomed.
When Clement Attlee and the Labour Party prevailed in the British elections in 1945, the greatest defender of the British Empire, Winston Churchill, fell from power. The Labour government believed that Great Britain could no longer afford the Empire nor defend it from insurrection within or aggression from without. Pressures in India reached the point that all out civil war was threatened, and the last British Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, set the date for Indian independence as August 15, 1947. The partitioning of the subcontinent created the independent states of Pakistan and India, displaced millions along religious lines, and led to decades of strife, poverty, and famine.
In 2002, the remaining 14 territories over which Great Britain held sovereignty were named the British Overseas Territories. Several of them remain disputed. Spain has claimed Gibraltar for over two centuries, and the British fought a war in the 1980s over disputes with Argentina over the Falkland Islands. The legacy of the British Empire and its dissolution includes ongoing factional and religious strife in the Mideast, the India-Pakistani border, and in South America. Similar problems exist in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and other areas where white settlers entered into conflicts with indigenous peoples. The British Empire spread the parliamentary system around the globe (though not in America or most of Africa), and the Commonwealth of Nations claims 52 nations as members, former colonies and protectorates of the Empire upon which, it was said, the sun never sets.
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