Portrait photo of history professor Jessica Chapman
By Greg Shook

After searching unsuccessfully for an accessible book to support her course Decolonization and the Cold War, history professor Jessica Chapman wrote one herself.

“Astonishingly well written.” A “masterful new synthesis.” “Lively.” And “deeply informed.” Those are just a few of the descriptors authors and scholars are using in their reviews of Remaking the World: Decolonization and the Cold War, history professor Jessica Chapman’s new book published by the University Press of Kentucky.

The book arose out of Chapman’s course Decolonization and the Cold War, which she began teaching in 2008. Until recently, historians have studied the two topics as parallel phenomena. The Cold War was primarily a European event, a tug-of-war between the Soviet-led Eastern bloc and the U.S.-led Western bloc. Decolonization, meanwhile, unfolded in more than 50 countries, primarily on the African, Asian and American continents, that declared their independence between 1945 and 1965.

Chapman’s course explores the interplay between the two—how the Cold War shaped the emerging nation-states and how the process of decolonization affected the global superpowers.

“There was a total reconfiguration of the international system that all parties involved conceived of and entered in different ways,” Chapman says. “Anticolonial activists thought of it as overturning the hegemony of the Global North and challenging racial epistemologies and systems of power that were in place. The United States saw it as a democratic revolution, while the Soviet Union saw it as a move toward the inevitable communist utopia. And so they all have these kinds of revolutionary paradigms with which they approached the transformation of the world that intersected and butted up against each other in really complex ways.”

Over the years of teaching the course, Chapman says she “struggled tremendously with finding readings that were appropriate for an undergraduate class.”

There were “giant tomes that would tackle the big picture of the Cold War and decolonization in lengthy, excruciating detail that were really hard for students to engage with,” she says. And there were “highly specific research articles that would take up one small element of things that students would struggle to contextualize.”

Students were “excited by the subject matter but also deeply confused and kind of frustrated by what they had to wade through,” Chapman adds.

So she set out to write something digestible. Remaking the World focuses on six countries—Angola, the Congo, Egypt, India, Iran and Vietnam—that cast a wide geographic net and represent all the major colonial powers.

Chapman says she also chose cases where there were “significant turning points in the Cold War. There was something profoundly unique about each of the cases that I write about, distinctions and particularities inherent in them that we can understand better if we look at how the Cold War acted upon them and how they influenced the Cold War process. Fundamentally, they were parts of longer-term processes in very particular national stories that need to be understood in their own right.”

Chapman, whose book Cauldron of Resistance: Ngo Dinh Diem, The United States and 1950s Southern Vietnam was published by Cornell University Press in 2013, is now delving into a book project about the political, economic and cultural significance of Kenya’s running industry. With a New Directions Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, she has pursued training in the field of anthropology to support the research.

In the meantime, Remaking the World continues to receive praise. Says University of Minnesota Duluth history professor Scott Laderman, “Remaking the World is a perfect classroom book. …Chapman’s astute analysis is certain to benefit students and more established scholars alike.”