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Historian Margaret MacMillan

She is professor of history at the University of Toronto and the author of the new book, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World, about the Peace Conference after World War I in which delegations from around the world convened to find an alternative to war. During the six months of the conference, new boundaries were drawn up in the Middle East. Out of that conference Iraq was born, and was for a time under British control. MacMillan's book, published under the title Peacemakers in England, was the winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize.


Other segments from the episode on April 28, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 28, 2003: Interview with Margaret MacMillan; Review of the documentary film "Amandla."


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Margaret MacMillan discusses the history of Iraq
following World War I

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

If you want to understand contemporary Iraq, you have to consider its past.
The country was created in the aftermath of World War I as part of the peace
treaty in which the victors divided up the land they conquered. The conquered
land included the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire, which stretched from
Turkey to Saudi Arabia and from Iraq to north Africa.

My guest, Margaret MacMillan, is the author of the book "Paris 1919: Six
Months That Changed the World." She's also the author of "Women of the Raj"
and "Canada and NATO." She's provost of Trinity College and professor of
history at the University of Toronto.

Before we talk about the history of Iraq, if we could just pull back and look
at the big picture for a second, what are some of the ways in which the world
was changed by the Paris peace talks of 1919?

Professor MARGARET MacMILLAN (Author, "Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed
the World"): Well, I think you're absolutely right to want to pull back,
because the creation of Iraq took place in a much wider context, and in fact,
it's not just the context of 1919. It's the context of the First World War,
the war of 1914 to 1918, and even further back the context of what was
happening to the Middle East in the 19th century and the years leading up to

So if I may, let me just say something briefly about that period before the
war even started, because what was happening, and the war was going to
accelerate this, is that the Ottoman Empire, that massive Turkish Ottoman
Empire, which was based around Istanbul but which had in its time included a
great deal of the Balkans, which still, before 1914, ruled over a great deal
of the Arab Middle East, that empire was declining. In fact, it was known to
other European powers as `the sick man of Europe' in the 19th century, and as
it declined, bits of it were breaking off. Peoples within it, like the Serbs
and the Albanians, were seizing the chance to make their own states and become

As it was declining, you had--as of course would almost inevitably happen, you
had outside powers looking at it with great interest to see what they could
pick up as the Ottoman Empire looked in the process of disintegrating. And so
before the First World War, you had Russia, for example, extremely interested
in the whole area because one of the long-standing Russian dreams was to get
its fleet out through the straits, which the Ottomans controlled, from the
Black Sea into the Mediterranean. You had the French very interested because
the French had historical and religious ties with parts of the Middle East.
You had the British extremely interested because the British had an empire in
the Far East, in the East, which included, of course, India, `the jewel in the
crown,' and the way that the British got out to India by the 19th century was
through the Suez Canal, which runs through Egypt, and so you had a number of
outside powers--Germany also very interested--looking at the Ottoman Empire,
beginning to get involved, beginning to acquire influence and beginning to
sort of stake out claims.

And so what the war does is really speed up that process of disintegration.
It encourages the various subject peoples of the Ottoman Turks--the Arabs, of
course--to feel that they might have their independence sooner rather than
later. By the time that war ends, the Ottoman Empire is, indeed, on the edge
of disintegration. The Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire have basically
gone. They have been occupied by largely British troops, and it looks quite
clear that they're not going to go back to the Ottoman Empire. And so by
1919, when the peace conference opens in Paris, you have a situation in the
Middle East which a lot of people are looking at with great interest.

GROSS: One more thing before we talk specifically about Iraq. Just give us a
sense of how the map of the Arab world was redrawn by the victors of World War

Prof. MacMILLAN: Well, the map of the Arab world actually had to be drawn,
because what the Arab world had largely been, those bits that were under the
Ottoman Empire--and that included present-day Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan
and Israel--there weren't borders within in. There weren't countries within
it. It was a collection of provinces that belonged to the Ottoman Empire.
And so when the powers met in Paris to decide what to do with the Arab
territories, which had been taken from the Ottoman Empire, they had to decide
what countries to make, and they literally just sat there around the maps and
said, `OK, you can have this bit, we'll take that bit,' and they created these
new countries.

GROSS: Now during World War I, the British had encouraged the Arabs to start
a nationalist movement and rise against the Ottoman Empire which controlled
the Arab world, to fight for Arab independence. What were the British reasons
for trying to organize this Arab nationalist movement?

Prof. MacMILLAN: Well, the British tried to organize an Arab nationalist
movement not, I think, because they were deeply sympathetic to the cause of
Arab nationalism. I mean, there were individual British like T.E. Lawrence,
Lawrence of Arabia, and Gertrude Bell, the extraordinary Englishwoman who
helped to create Iraq. I mean, they did care about Arab nationalism and they
cared about the Arab cause, but the British government really looked at the
Arab Middle East in terms of the war effort, and what the British government
was very, very worried about was that the Ottoman ruler, the sultan, who was
also caliph, which meant that he was also spiritual leader of the world's
Muslims, would declare a holy war against them, and that really sent shivers
down the spines of both the British and the French, because they had a great
many Muslim subjects in their empires, and if all those Muslims had heeded the
call for a holy war or jihad, which the sultan did, in fact, issue, then they
would have had real trouble. So that was one reason why they wanted to weaken
the Ottoman Empire as much as they could by encouraging the Arabs to revolt.

What the British were also very concerned about was that the Ottoman Empire
would attack into Egypt and disrupt the Suez Canal, and since that was
Britain's lifeline out to its colonies, including, of course, India, in the
East, that would have been very, very serious indeed for the British war
effort. And so when the British government encouraged an Arab revolt, it was
doing so very much in terms of something that would help the British war

GROSS: This is where T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, comes in. What was
his role in trying to create this nationalist movement, this Arab uprising?

Prof. MacMILLAN: Well, it depends on who you talk to. T.E. Lawrence himself
later on wrote his memoirs, and you would have thought from those that he
pretty well did it single-handed, and I think that's a bit of an exaggeration.
I mean, he was someone who had an immense sense of his own importance. His
role was a liaison officer, and he was sent by the British to work with the
leader of the Arab revolt, Prince Faisal. There was no ruling family in the
Arab world, but there was a very distinguished family, the Hashemite family,
who were traditionally guardians of the holy places in Mecca and were
descendants of the prophet himself, and so they had tremendous sort of
spiritual authority in the Muslim world, and Prince Faisal was the son of the
sharif of Mecca, and so he led the Arab revolt and Lawrence worked very, very
closely with him.

GROSS: What were some of the difficulties of starting a nationalist Arab
movement? Had there been an Arab identity before, or were the identities more

Prof. MacMILLAN: It's a very interesting question, and I think it's a
difficult one to answer. There had been an Arab identity in the past. I
mean, in the great glory days of the eighth and ninth centuries, there had
been an enormous Arab empire which had stretched, you know, across North
Africa and right across to the borders of Persia. And Arabs tended to
remember that. I mean, there was great pride in Arab civilization, but it
really was, I think, very difficult in 1919 to talk of a sort of international
Arab identity. Arabs tended to be very particularistic. They were attached
to their cities, to their tribes, to their own peoples. And in the case of
Egypt, certainly, you had peoples who, yes, were Arab, but were also Egyptian,
and the Egyptian identity, perhaps, was even more important than the Arab

GROSS: Do you know what Lawrence did to try to encourage Arabs to fight
against the Ottoman Empire?

Prof. MacMILLAN: Well, what Lawrence did was basically promote a policy that
the British were proposing. I mean, the Arabs rose up against the Ottoman
Empire because they'd been given a promise, and the promise was in the form of
letters from the British high commissioner in Cairo, Sir Henry McMahon, to the
sharif of Mecca, to Husayn, the father of Prince Faisal, who led the revolt.
And what the letters said in rather vague terms--and this was going to cause
trouble later on--that if the Arabs lead a revolt against the Turks, there
will be either an independent Arab state or independent Arab states. And so
the Arabs in the revolt--and by no means, all Arabs got involved, but a
significant number did. The Arabs who took part in the revolt had every
reason, I think, to feel that they had been promised Arab independence after
the war was over.

GROSS: Were the Arabs in Paris to make their case at the peace talks after
World War I?

Prof. MacMILLAN: Yes. Prince Faisal came to Paris as the representative of
the Arabs, or at least some of the Arabs. The authorities in Paris, the peace
makers, would not let him call himself the leader of all Arabs. He came
representing the Hejaz, the bit of what is today Saudi Arabia that his own
father ruled over, but he certainly spoke in the name of all Arabs. He
appeared before the most powerful part of the peace conference, the Supreme
Council, and looking very dramatic, wearing long white robes with a sort of
wonderful sword, and made a speech in Arabic, which Lawrence actually
translated for him. And the speech, as translated, said, you know, `We must
have an Arab independence. We must have our own kingdoms. We must restore
the past glories of the Arabs.' It is said by someone who was there, who
spoke Arabic, that Faisal was actually just reciting the Koran, and Lawrence
was extemporizing and basically presenting the Arab case, which might have
been true. I mean, Lawrence knew what the Arabs wanted. He and Faisal were
very close. And so Faisal really staked out a claim for independent Arab
states. There was not sympathy all around the table in Paris. Neither the
French or the British wanted to see all of the Arab Middle East under
independent Arab rulers.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Margaret MacMillan. She's the
author of the new book, "Paris 1919," about the peace treaty after World War
I, which changed the map of the world. Let's take a short break here, and
then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is historian Margaret MacMillan.
Her new book, "Paris 1919," is about the peace agreements made in Paris after
World War I that changed the map of the world.

As you were describing, the British promised the Arabs, during World War I,
that if the Arabs revolted against the Ottoman Empire that when the war was
over, you know, assuming that the British and their allies won, that the Arabs
could have their own state, their own independent state. But when the war was
over, that's not quite how it turned out. How did the British evaluate
whether to really follow through on this promise that they had made?

Prof. MacMILLAN: Well, what the British seemed to have been thinking--and,
you know, part of the trouble with the promises that were made was that the
British government had many different departments. And so the promise to the
Arabs really was made by people in Cairo. I mean, yes, they checked back with
London, but at the same time, the people in London were also dealing with
other aspects of the Middle East and doing other deals. What the British
seemed to have thought is that they would continue to control the bits of the
Middle East that they particularly wanted, but that they would have nominally
independent Arab rulers. And this was a pattern the British had used
elsewhere. They'd used a pattern, for example, of indirect rule in Africa,
where they had supported local African rulers who had ruled apparently
independently, but had basically taken advice from the British. And what the
British seemed to have thought, particularly those setting the overall policy
in London, is that they could find some nice Arab rulers who would rely on
British advice, follow what the British wanted to do, but would save the
British the trouble of ruling these areas directly themselves. And so I don't
think there was any intention on the part of the British, and certainly not on
the part of the French, to have genuinely independent Arab rulers. That was
not what they wanted.

GROSS: Now in your book, "Paris 1919," you quote Prime Minister Lloyd George,
and you say that he was intoxicated by the possibilities of the Middle East:
"a restored Hellenic world in Asia Minor, a nice Jewish civilization in
Palestine, protection for Suez and all the links to India, loyal and obedient
Arab states along the Fertile Crescent, protection for British oil supplies in
Persia." This is a quote from the prime minister, Lloyd George. What were
the possibilities the British saw for the Middle East? I mean, there was a
vision they had in mind.

Prof. MacMILLAN: Oh, yeah, yeah. I mean, the Middle East tended to
intoxicate outsiders. I mean, Napoleon had the same thing. I mean, he went
to Egypt in the beginning of the 1790s and then had these dreams of suddenly
being another Alexander the Great and building a great Asian empire. And I
think there was something about it. It was probably the history. You know,
it was so old and all these civilizations. I mean, this was fascinating. And
Lloyd George, like a lot of leaders at the time, had grown up on the Bible,
and so the whole idea of, you know, having some influence over the holy
places, I mean, this was also important. But really, when you got right down
to it, I mean, these were pleasant dreams. But what really drew the British
into the Middle East was their own interests, protecting Suez and the routes
out to India. They also thought that the new way of traveling by air was
going to be very important linking up India with Europe, and they were going
to need airfields going through the Middle East to get them out to India, and
so that was now going to be very important. And oil was becoming a factor.
The British navy had switched to burning oil just before the First World War,
and so secure sources of oil now became very important. Now there was oil in
Romania, and the British got some oil from there, and they got some from
Russia. But, of course, that wasn't going to be possible, at least for a
while, after the Russian Revolution of 1917. They had begun to develop the
oil in Iran, what in those days was called Persia, but they suspected--and a
couple of people had actually done some surveying. They suspected that in the
north of what became Iraq, in and around Mosul, there was a very good supply
of oil. And so really, for strategic reasons to do with India and oil, the
British were determined that they should have control over as much of the
Middle East as they wanted.

GROSS: Did the Arab nationalism that the British had helped create backfire
against the British when the British assumed control over parts of the Arab

Prof. MacMILLAN: Well, it's a very good question. And, yes, it did. I mean,
the Arabs had every reason to think that Britain and France had promised them
independence. And, in fact, just at the end of the war, Woodrow Wilson--of
course, the United States had entered the war in 1917. And Woodrow Wilson,
the American president, had made a lot of statements about national
self-determination, and these had resonated in the Middle East. I mean,
actually Lawrence and Faisal and various others sat around the campfires in
the desert and talked about Woodrow Wilson's promises of self-determination.
And just at the end of the war in November 1918, the British and French
actually issued a declaration saying how they had always really hoped that the
Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire would become independent and autonomous. And
so the British did a lot, and so did the French, to encourage the Arabs to
believe they were going to get their independence.

And the Arabs were becoming uneasy, because some of the secret deals that the
British and French had been making were now beginning to leak out. And they
became more than uneasy in 1919 and 1920, because the British and French made
it quite clear that even in the areas that were going to be nominally
independent, Syria in the case of the French and Iraq in the case of the
British, that the rulers were going to be handpicked by the British and the
French, and they were going to do what they were told. And you got a great
sense of betrayal in the Arab world, which has never really gone away. I
mean, you know, people do remember injustices that were done to them. And one
of the things that a lot of people in the Middle East remember is this promise
of independence, which was then snatched away from them.

GROSS: When you say that the independence was nominal, Iraq became a British
mandate under the League of Nations. What was the meaning of a mandate? What
was the difference between Iraq being a mandate or Iraq being, say, annexed by
the British?

Prof. MacMILLAN: Yeah. Well, mandates were given out by the new League of
Nations, which was formed, of course, very much at the prompting of Woodrow
Wilson, the American president. And what a mandate assumed was that some
nations were more developed than others and that the more developed nations
should take under their wing the less developed nations until those less
developed nations were ready to stand on their own feet. And the League gave
out mandates to rule over some of these less developed nations to countries
such as Britain and France. And so that's what a mandate meant. It was an
interesting idea, and it did actually introduce an element of responsibility
that the mandatory power, say Britain, did actually have a responsibility to
the mandated territory, and actually had to report annually to the League of
Nations on what it was actually doing there. So it is a step away from the
old style imperialism of the 19th century, and so the British adopted the
language of mandates, but really, when they talked among themselves, they
said, `Look, they can call it mandates, but basically it will be an
old-fashioned sort of colony.'

Or perhaps what was closer was something--there was always a thing they had in
between a colony, which you ruled directly and sort of took responsibility
for, and a protectorate. It was a wonderful 19th-century term where you
protected a smaller nation against whoever. And protectorates are rather
looser forms of imperial control. It wasn't like running a colony. A
protectorate, you generally left the local rulers in place, but you ran their
foreign policy, and you ran their defense policy. You made sure that no one
else came in and took them. And so what the British really, I think, were
thinking of in the case of Iraq, for example, was that a mandate would be very
much like a protectorate, that they would, in all important aspects, determine
the policy of the country they were protecting. And so when they set up the
state of Iraq, which was a British creation, they made sure that they would
control things like its foreign policy and defense policy.

GROSS: Now so the idea of a mandate was that this country wasn't ready to
rule itself yet, so there'd be a...

Prof. MacMILLAN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...transition, during which the British would accept some
responsibility for ruling and help the people who were leading Iraq. But it
implied that it was a transitional period. Was there a time table or any way

Prof. MacMILLAN: Well...

GROSS: ...determining when the British were supposed to end that relationship
and give Iraq its independence?

Prof. MacMILLAN: Well, there were various assumptions that were made. It was
assumed--it's interesting that all of the areas of the world that needed
mandates, or so it was assumed in 1919, were the non-European areas. In fact,
at one point, someone said to Woodrow Wilson, you know, `What about all these
peoples who are suddenly cast adrift in the center of Europe because the
Austro-Hungarian empire's disappeared?' And Wilson said, `No, no, no. We
can't have mandates for Europeans.' And so what's built into the whole notion
of mandates is that these are somehow inferior peoples in the non-European
parts of the world, but they did make distinctions between those peoples who
were closer to being ready for self-government, and the Arabs were counted
among those, and they were subjected to what was called an A-type of mandate,
where they would have a relative degree of self-government, and it was
expected that they would become independent, not in any clear--there was no
clear time line for this, but it was expected they'd become independent in a
generation or two. And the people who would decide whether they were ready
for independence would be the League of Nations, which, of course, was
dominated by European powers. And then there were other peoples in the South
Pacific, for example, or in Africa, who were felt to be much further away from
being able to rule themselves, and it was believed that the mandates over them
would last very much longer, and a lot more would have to be done for them.

GROSS: Margaret MacMillan is the author of "Paris 1919: Six Months That
Changed the World." She's provost of Trinity College and professor of history
at the University of Toronto. She'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: Music from the soundtrack of "Amandla," a documentary about protest
music in South Africa during the apartheid years. Coming up, Milo Miles has a
review, and we continue our conversation with historian Margaret MacMillan
about her book, "Paris 1919."

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GROSS: This is Fresh AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with historian Margaret
MacMillan, author of "Paris 1919," about the Paris Peace Treaty which redrew
the map of the world after World War I, creating many new countries, including
Iraq. The League of Nations also came out of the peace talks. The league
made Iraq a British mandate, giving the British authority to govern the new
country until it was ready to govern itself.

So Iraq became a mandate of the British, but the whole concept of Iraq was
created by the British, the borders were drawn by the British, and the borders
included many different groups with different allegiances: the Kurds, the
Shiites, the Sunnis, Christians, Jews. Did the British take that into
account, that there were a lot of different groups that would have to be held
together under the umbrella of one state?

Prof. MacMILLAN: There were some British who were very worried about it and
who felt they were creating something that wasn't going to work terribly well.
But, you know, when you think of the sort of people who were doing it, you
know, they had tremendous self-confidence. They thought they could manage it.
A very, very interesting woman, Gertrude Bell, who had traveled widely through
the Middle East before the First World War, knew the Arab world very well,
indeed, spoke Arabic and had a great many friends in Iraq. And she believed
that, you know, really the capacity of the British to help to shape things was
very large, and she thought the Arabs would listen. And I think she had some
reservations about what was being created in Iraq, but not all that much. And
she was, I think, in some ways quite typical.

I mean, there were people who complained. Kim Philby's father, the famous
British spy, St. John Philby, was working in Iraq at the end of the First
World War, and he did complain and he did say, `We're making a mess here,' and
he basically was fired and left the service.

GROSS: How were the borders of Iraq drawn up?

Prof. MacMILLAN: They were drawn to suit the British, and that really is the
long and short of it. What Iraq consisted of or came to consist of was three
former provinces of the Ottoman Empire. If you go from south to north, these
were Basra, Baghdad and Mosul. The truly Arab parts of Iraq are really the
parts south of Mosul. I mean, if you look at the population map, it's really
the Arabs are concentrated to the north of Baghdad and then further south, and
that would have made a workable Arab state. It still would have had
significant minorities such as Persians and Jews, but it would have been a
more predominantly Arab state.

But the British wanted to put Mosul in, which, of course, contained a great
many Kurds, partly because they didn't want the French to get it. France and
Britain were allies in the First World War and had been allies since the
beginning of the 20th century, but it was a very, very new friendship. They'd
spent a lot of their history fighting each other, and they really didn't trust
each other particularly when it came to places like the Middle East. The
British did not want the French to get Mosul. They didn't want to leave it
with Turkey; they didn't want, you know, a bigger Turkey than what there was.
And so the British took Mosul. There was some talk, very vaguely, of having
an independent Kurdistan, but in the end it was decided not to do that for
various reasons, and so they basically put Mosul into the mix with Baghdad and
Basra and drew a border around it and they called it Iraq, which means the
well-rooted or the well-founded country, which is ironic in view of what
happened later on.

GROSS: What did the British do to try to encourage a new identity, the
identity of Iraqis?

Prof. MacMILLAN: Well, I don't think they really did all that much to
encourage it. In fact, what the British seem to have done is really fostered
an Arab identity, and in particular a Sunni Arab identity in Iraq. The old
dominant classes in Iraq had been largely Sunni Arab, although the Sunni Arabs
were a minority in Iraq, and the British tended to rely on them. And to rule
over Iraq, they brought in an outsider. They brought in Faisal, actually, who
had led the Arab revolt in the desert with Lawrence, and Faisal became king of
Iraq. He did not have strong support in Iraq, didn't have strong roots, but
the British felt they owed him something, which, of course, they did.

One of the problems for Iraq has always been, and I think it's probably still
an issue today, is: Was Iraq part of a wider Arab world? And among a lot of
Arabs I think this is true, particularly of the Sunni Arabs, there really was
a longing for one great big Arab kingdom to, you know, resemble the great Arab
kingdom of the eighth and ninth century. And that's been a problem for Iraq,
because there have always been those in Iraq who said, `We're not just part of
a wider Arab world; there is something called Iraq. And that's a very
interesting idea, that Iraq is not Arab and not Sunni Arab and doesn't belong
to a wider Arab world, but Iraq is Iraq and Iraq is Iraq because it is
cosmopolitan, because it does have Kurds, because it does have Shias, because
it does have Persians. And there has always been a tension in Iraq, and
perhaps it's still even at the present, between those who look to a wider Arab
world and those who try and create an Iraqi citizenship.

GROSS: In 1920 the Iraqis rebelled against British rule. What incited that

Prof. MacMILLAN: I think the rebellion was incited by a number of things, and
it wasn't directed, I think, in any way particularly against British rule. I
think a lot of it was directed against any rule. A lot of the rebellion was
about not paying taxes. One of the things the British did, of course, was
hope that Iraq would pay for itself, and so the British military occupation
began to collect taxes in a rather efficient way, and that caused a great deal
of resentment. And so a number of the great tribal confederations up and down
the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rose up against the British, and Kurds
in the north rose up because they didn't want to be part of an Arab-dominated
country, and you got people in the south rising up again because they simply
didn't like what was happening.

So it wasn't really a coordinated move against the British. I think it was
just resistance to the imposition of an alien rule which was doing things that
people didn't like.

GROSS: What was the British response to the rebellion?

Prof. MacMILLAN: The British response to the rebellion was pretty ferocious,
actually. The British government was under real pressure to cut costs, and so
they didn't want to use troops if they didn't have to, and they were stretched
pretty thin at that point because they were dealing with real troubles in
Ireland and in India and in Egypt. And so what they tried to do was use new
technology, and the new technology that they had at hand were aircraft, and so
they used the Royal Air Force. I think it's the first time in history that an
air force was used primarily against civilian targets on the ground, and they
used the air force to strafe villages that were rebellious to bring them into
line. And at one point Winston Churchill, who was by then colonial secretary,
actually contemplated using some leftover stocks of poison gas from the First
World War. He didn't do that, but the British certainly did use their aerial

GROSS: So what were the results?

Prof. MacMILLAN: Well, the results were that the rebellions were put down and
Faisal did, indeed, become king, but it wasn't a happy country that the British
were ruling over. I mean, there were a lot of people who resented both the
British presence and Faisal. And Faisal, of course, was seen as someone the
British had put in there; he was seen as a British stooge. And there were all
sorts of--I mean, people who had had status under the old Ottoman Empire who
no longer had that status; there were disgruntled army officers, disgruntled
civil servants. There were religious leaders who regarded the British as
irreligious. There were Kurds in the north who didn't really much care for
the British rule.

And so the British found that what they had thought would be basically a
convenient way to run Iraq and they could run it on the cheap and it would be
easy was never as easy as they thought. What they also found was that Faisal,
who they had assumed would be so grateful to them that he would always do what
he was told, was, in fact, very difficult indeed. I mean, Faisal had his own
ideas. He was a very clever and a rather forceful man, and Faisal wanted to
be independent, so Faisal pushed and chafed against British dominance until
finally in 1932--I think it was 1932--the British had to sign a treaty giving
Iraq virtual independence.

GROSS: So in 1932, was the British leadership or the British public happy to
have ended that relationship with Iraq and happy to be free of that

Prof. MacMILLAN: Well, I think the--I mean, what happened to Britain during
the First World War is that economically its position in the world began to
weaken. I mean, it had been the leading economic power in the world before
1914, but it really was beginning what was to be a fairly slow process at
first of decline economically. And the British government was finding it
increasingly hard to pay for the empire. I mean, the empire was very big and
very expensive and bits of it didn't pay for themselves by any means. And, of
course, what Britain had done was take on even more responsibilities in the
Middle East in between the wars. And so the British government was constantly
scrambling. And the Treasury, the sort of arm of the British government which
looked after government spending, was constantly complaining and constantly
saying, `We just cannot afford this.'

And so the British, I think, were beginning to find that the burden of empire
was really too much for them. And remember, of course, that by 1932 the
Depression was in full swing, the British tax base was shrinking, there was
tremendous unemployment in Britain, and that was a problem as well. And I
think also by 1932 the whole attraction of empire was really beginning to
wane. You know, the whole enthusiasm for empire and the self-confidence which
had sustained the British when they had built and managed an empire in the
19th century was beginning to go; a lot of people beginning to say, `Is it
worth it?' A lot of them on the left, but not just on the left; on the right
as well.

GROSS: My guest is Margaret MacMillan, author of "Paris 1919: Six Months
That Changed the World." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is Margaret MacMillan. She's the author of "Paris 1919,"
about the Paris peace talks after World War I that changed the map of the

I'm sure you've been following the war in Iraq and its aftermath with great
interest. What are some of the lessons you think the United States and
England should learn from the history of Britain and Iraq in the teens and

Prof. MacMILLAN: Oh, you know, lessons of history are always tricky, but I
think they give us warning. And I think perhaps the parallel that might be
drawn or the one that the present administration of the United States might
want to be aware of is that the British thought when they set up the new state
of Iraq that it was going to be easy to manage, it was going to be cheap and
they weren't going to have much trouble with it. And it seems to me that the
present administration is perhaps assuming the same thing about Iraq today,
that they can run it pretty easily, they won't have to stay there very long,
that they can turn over to a functioning government which will, however,
remain friendly to the United States.

All the statements coming out of Washington today--you know, the sort of
statements that we'll only be there for perhaps 18 months, perhaps even
less--that seems to me to have an uncanny parallel with what the British were
saying; not in terms of time, but just in terms of ease--you know, `We can go
in, we can set up this country and then we can guide it more or less from a
distance.' And I think the British were going to find out that it was much
more difficult than they had thought, and I wonder if the present
administration may find that Iraq is more difficult to manage than they

GROSS: Iraq has always been held together either by the British or by a king
or by a dictator. There's really never been democracy in Iraq. If there is a
successful transition to democracy, are you reasonably confident that the
country would hold together or do you think that it would be factionalized,
that there might even be some kind of civil war or at least some kind of
bloody power play between different special interest groups within the

Prof. MacMILLAN: The danger, I think, in Iraq is that you will get civil war
or conflict between different groups vying for power, and Iraq has been
through a dreadful period which has left a lot of its population, I think,
brutalized. But, you know, I think there are signs of hope. Iraq has never
had a fully democratic government, but it did have in the past elements of
democracy, and there are levels of democracy. But what Iraq had in the past
was, at times a relatively free press, at times relatively free public
discussions; it did have political parties which debated with each other which
had different ideologies; it did have at times an orderly transition in

And what seems to me also encouraging is that you did have in the past, and I
think it's still there today, those Iraqis who say, `We are Iraqi. We're not
Shia. We're not Sunni. We're not Arab. We're not Persian. We're not Kurd.
We belong to this multicultural, multifaced state called Iraq.' And a lot of
Iraqi intellectuals, some of whom, alas, were killed by the Saddam Hussein
regime or were forced into exile, have written about this and have tried to
foster this. And it seems to me that those are hopeful signs, that there were
moments in Iraq's past when there were at least some of the elements of what
we think of as democracy and that there is some evidence, I think, that a
truly Iraqi citizenship can be built, that there's already the beginnings of

GROSS: I'm going to shift the subject a little bit. Leaders around the world
have made a connection between what's happening now in Iraq and the future of
the Israelis and Palestinians, and everyone seems to see some connection; the
disagreement is over exactly what the connection is and what the right thing
to do is. You trace that connection back to the Paris peace conference of
1919, which not only created the new nation of Iraq, it created Palestine, and
you think that the creation of Palestine was part of the larger betrayal that
Arabs felt when the Arab world was carved up. The British made promises to
Zionists and they made promises to Arabs, and those promises were
contradictory. Can you talk about that?

Prof. MacMILLAN: Yes. I think the historical connection between what's going
on in Israel today, between Jews and Arabs, is very important. That
historical connection to the wider Arab world is an important one, and it is
one that is very much present in the minds of many people in the Middle East,
and that's why we simply have to deal with it today.

The British during the First World War were, on the one hand, making this
quiet deal with the French to carve up much of the Middle East between their
two nations; they were also promising the Arabs independence. Now what that
meant exactly has remained a matter of some controversy ever since, but
promises were made, which the Arabs took seriously. But at the same time as
they were doing this, the British were also throwing their considerable
prestige--remember, Britain was the most powerful country in the world at this
point--their considerable prestige behind the idea of a Jewish homeland in

During the First World War the British government issued what came to be known
as the Balfour Declaration. It was a letter written by the British foreign
secretary, Arthur Balfour, to Lord Rothschild, who was a leading British Jew.
And the Balfour Declaration said that the British government look with favor
upon the establishment of a Jewish home in Palestine. And Palestine was a
province, a rather quiet and undeveloped province in those days, of the
Ottoman Empire, and so this was a promise made for when the Ottoman Empire
should have disappeared. The wording was very carefully done. It said
`home,' not `state' or not `nation.' But, in fact, everybody knew at the
time--the declaration was issued in 1917--at least in the know in London, that
this was the foundation of a future Jewish state. I mean, the Zionists, who
had been pushing for it, certainly took it to mean that, and so did newspapers
like the Times of London, I mean, when they had headlines saying Jewish State
Approved in Palestine.

Now where the Arabs come into this is the Arabs, not right at the time, but
later on, pretty soon after the war ended, said, `Wait a minute. Palestine is
ours. It's Arab.' And it was largely Arab. It was at least nine-tenths Arab
in population in those days. `It is surely part of the territory that we were
promised would be an independent Arab state. What are the British doing? You
know, they are taking what we thought was our territory and they're handing it
over as a homeland to people who come from outside,' which a lot of the Jews
did. And when you also got this sense of betrayal, that the Arabs felt they
had been promised independence and then didn't get it or didn't get true
independence, it not only resulted in the Arab world or many people in the
Arab world feeling resentful towards Britain and France before this act of
betrayal, but they came to focus on the Jewish presence, the growing Jewish
presence, in Palestine as a symbol right there at hand of that betrayal.

And as Palestinian Arabs, the local Arab population of Palestine, began to
react, in some cases with hostility, to the Jewish presence--there began to be
riots and the Palestinian Arabs themselves began to organize and to demand
their own rights--their cause became part of a cause in the wider Arab world.
And so really right from the end of the First World War you get this sense of
betrayal in the Arab world at the great Western powers of Britain and France
getting tied up with the growing Jewish presence in Palestine, and that's why
the conflict from that point onwards has not just been a conflict between Jews
and Arabs in Palestine or Jews and Arabs in what is today Israel; it's been a
conflict which has drawn in the attention of the wider Arab world because they
see it as, I think, still very much a symbol of the way in which--as they see
it, they've been pushed around and manipulated by outside powers.

GROSS: So that connection dates back to the early part of the 20th century.

Prof. MacMILLAN: Yeah. That connection dates back a long way. And, you
know, it's been used, of course, by Arab leaders. I mean, Saddam Hussein, who
really, I think, didn't care much about the fate of the Palestinian Arabs in
Israel, however, used it, used it as a way to rally support in the Arab world
for whatever it was he was up to. Nasser used to do the same thing in his
time. I mean, it was a bit like all African nations being able to condemn
apartheid in South Africa; it was the one thing they could agree on. And it
was often a way of rallying the support of their own people. And I think it's
been true in the Arab world. I mean, not all Arabs have been hostile to
Israel and not all Arab nations have refused to deal with Israel, but it has
tended to be the sort of thing and the fate of the Palestinian Arabs within
Israel has tended to be the sort of thing that plays out very well in the Arab

GROSS: When you started to write your book about the Paris peace talks of
1919 after World War I, did you have any idea how relevant the history was
going to be?

Prof. MacMILLAN: No. No. I started to research my book in the 1980s when
the Cold War was still on, and a lot of people thought it was rather a strange
interest. I mean, `Why would you care about a peace conference which happened
so long ago which seemed to have so little relevance for the modern world?'
And I think it's partly the ending of the Cold War has made the world a much
more turbulent and much more complicated place. We no longer have this great
bipolar struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States, and we have
more complicated struggles--partly the breakup of countries such as Yugoslavia
and Czechoslovakia--that have made people realize that how we got here is very
important and the histories of these parts of the world are very important,
and so much of it can be traced back to the Paris peace conference. I mean,
the Paris peace conference didn't cause the world's problems today, but in
many cases the threads go back there, and in many cases issues we're dealing
with today were being dealt with in Paris in 1919.

And so I think the timing--from my point of view, it's not been great timing
for the world, but the timing from the point of view of my book has been
fortunate, because I think people are now much more interested in the history.
And I think Iraq is the same. I mean, people, as you've been asking me, say,
`Well, how did Iraq come to be? Why has it been a country with such a
turbulent history? And why is the conflict between Jews and Arabs and Israel
somehow mixed in with all this?' And to understand the answers to those
questions you really have to go back. And if you go back, you end up at the
Paris peace conference of 1919.

GROSS: Margaret MacMillan, I thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. MacMILLAN: Thank you very much for inviting me. I enjoyed it.

GROSS: Margaret MacMillan is the author of "Paris 1919: Six Months That
Changed the World." She's provost of Trinity College and professor of history
at the University of Toronto.

Coming up, Milo Miles reviews "Amandla," the new documentary about black
protest music in South Africa during the apartheid era. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Documentary "Amandla" about South African protest music
during the apartheid years

The documentary "Amandla" and its soundtrack are both subtitled "A Revolution
in Four-Part Harmony." They describe how protest music functioned in the
black communities of South Africa during the apartheid years. Archival
footage as well as interviews with poets, social activists, deejays and famous
performers such as Miriam Makeba and Uusi Mahlasela put the old activist
anthems into context. Critic Milo Miles says the movie tells not just about
anti-apartheid songs in South Africa but protest music in general.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group #1: (Singing) Bring back Nelson Mandela. Bring him back
home to Soweto. I want to see him walking down the streets of South Africa
tomorrow. Bring back Nelson Mandela. Bring him back to home to Soweto. I
want to see him walking down the streets of South Africa. No more Pollsmoor.

MILO MILES reporting:

"Amandla," which means power, tells an undeniably inspirational story.
Although apartheid begins in sorrow and blood, it ends in triumph with the
return of Nelson Mandela and the fall of a racist system. Lee Hirsch's
documentary shows how there were songs for every step of the struggle. It's
history you can dance to.

Although I wish there was a little more background about the tradition of a
cappella vocal choirs in South Africa, "Amandla" gives fascinating information
about how protest songs worked in that country. Many South African tunes
have a joyous upbeat quality, so in the early days of apartheid in particular
there would be numbers with a happy sound overlaying angry, even murderous
content. The targets would not pay attention to the lyrics or even know the

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group #2: (Singing in foreign language)

MILO: There's also the suggestion that songs are not really finished until
they are performed by groups of people, taken into their lives and made
weapons of resistance; how the people use a song and relate to it makes it

Finally, "Amandla" shows how protest sounds changed with the times. As armed
resistance to apartheid and violent mass demonstrations became more common,
songs started sounding less like catchy pop tunes and more like old Zulu war

(Soundbite of clapping)

Unidentified Group #3: (Singing in foreign language)

MILO: The struggle against apartheid lasted more than 40 years. The movie's
description of songs changing and growing in the community reminded me of the
many recent articles about anthems, or the lack of them, either for or against
war in Iraq. Seems to me that in a world of instant wars we expect powerful
instant music responses, but the results may be more like instant coffee,
spindly and unsatisfying.

As "Amandla" suggests, political tension has to go on (technical difficulties)
sink into the bones before songs can emerge that will also sink into the
bones. Fast-changing situations and mixed feelings do not strong anthems

GROSS: Milo Miles is a contributor to Rolling Stone magazine. He's based in

Unidentified Group #4: (Singing a cappella in foreign language)


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

Unidentified Group #4: (Singing a cappella in foreign language)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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