Frank and Lois Green Schwoerer ’49 Annual History Lecture: Elizabeth Schmidt on the Cold War and Decolonization in Africa

Trang Le '17

Assistant Features Editor

On April 2, Professor Elizabeth Schmidt gave a talk at Smith titled “Cold War and Decolonization in Africa: The Uneasy Meeting of East, West and North in the Global South.”

Schmidt is a professor of history at Loyola University Maryland. She received her Ph.D. in African history, master’s degrees in African history and comparative world history and certificate in African studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Schmidt specializes in African history, pre-colonial to present, as well as African women’s history in late colonial Southern Africa and late colonial West Africa with an emphasis on Guinea’s politics.

Schmidt’s talk featured arguments from her most recent book: Foreign Intervention in Africa, from the Cold War to the War on Terror, which chronicles the foreign, political and extra-continental interventions in Africa during the Cold War, the decolonization period, the periods of state collapse and the “global war on terror.” She presented three cases: the disjuncture between groups that one might think would be allies, the case study on Egypt and the Suez Canal and the case study on Guinea’s vote for independence.

Schmidt mentioned the disagreement between France, West Germany, Portugal and the United States on decolonization policy and the concern over power balance during this critical period. She drew attention to the interconnection between decolonization in Africa and the Cold War, a period characterized by economic rivalry and military friction between the United States and the Soviet Union. In resistance to the United States’ encroachment on Africa, France was in favor of Portugal’s resistance to decolonization. Portugal was pursuing a pragmatic and flexible foreign policy and stayed sympathetic with western values as long as their interests in the Third World remained unthreatened. With Lisbon’s stance on its colonial policy, Washington started a debate on guaranteeing support for either Portugal or moderate African nationalists. While the United States pursued contradictory foreign policies torn between strong ties to European allies and concern over communist expansion, France and West Germany searched for a “progressive autonomy” of the western countries from the United States by its disposition towards Portugal.

Schmidt then outlined Egypt’s fundamental issue regarding its emphasis on decolonization when members refused to take sides in the Cold War under the rule of President Abdel Nasser. Nasser’s presidency was characterized by the nationalization of the Suez Canal followed by the Suez crisis, in which Israel, France and Britain joined forces to regain western control and oust Nasser. 

Egypt’s inclination towards the Soviet Union ended when Sadat switched sides to the United States, expelling Soviet advisors in 1972. Like Cuba in 1959, Egypt transferred loyalty from one superpower to another in the midst of the Cold War conflict, and, gradually, the United States replaced the Soviets as Egypt’s main military supplier.

In the last case, Schmidt touched on the stance of the independence vote in the Republic of Guinea. Infused by her trip to Guinea as a Fulbright teacher and scholar in 1990 and 1991, her two books “Mobilizing the Masses: Gender, Ethnicity, and Class in the Nationalist Movement in Guinea, 1939-1958” and “Cold War and Decolonization in Guinea, 1946-1958” “established [Schmidt] as one of the preeminent historians of the decolonization process in the West African nation of Guinea,” according to Phillip A. Cantrell from Longwood University. “Schmidt disengages this period of Guinea’s history from the elitist focus of past histories and reconnects it to the Guinean people at the grassroots level,” continued Cantrell.

“It is essential to put history in national context,” said Schmidt.  Her research resulted in a more complete, inclusive and engaging report of this pivotal moment in Guinea’s modern history. Enriched by unexamined archival records and oral interviews with grassroots activists, Schmidt demonstrated how activists on the local level, instead of Great Power influences, were driving forces in the face of high-level Cold War politics.