Commentary Magazine


Book Review: In the Ruins of Empire

More than six decades after the end of World War II, Asia continues to grapple with the legacy of war. Unlike in Europe, where countries have attempted to create a new set of norms and institutions designed to link them ever more closely together, Asia in many ways seems stuck in history, revisiting old wounds and squabbling over the same territory. In his compelling new history of the aftermath of war in the Pacific, In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia (Random House, $27.95), Ronald Spector argues that the region’s future was largely determined in the year after the Japanese surrender, and was doomed primarily by the misguided and unrealistic attempts of the victorious Western allies to impose order on the chaos unleashed by Japan’s surrender and abandonment of its occupied territories. Washington spent much of the cold war dealing with the resulting instability.

Certainly in comparison to Europe, postwar Asia seemed almost incomprehensibly complex. Moreover, as Washington grappled with creating a pax Americana, Asia appeared less strategically important than Europe, in part because nothing like the specter of all-out conflagration hung over the region, and in part due to the absence of ethnic connection to the Atlantic world. And yet at the same time, while the cold war certainly affected Asia, causing extensive destruction in Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the region’s nations were spared Europe’s draining twilight struggle.

American and European policymakers found themselves at odds over what to do with Asia almost as soon as the Japanese surrendered. For Americans, the basic template they applied to Europe—liberalism versus Communism—quickly dominated their thinking. The potential loss of China was contrasted with the success of a democratizing Japan, while naked aggression by North Korea against the South in 1950 would be repulsed as the front line in the struggle against Communism in Asia. The British, French, and Dutch tenuously sought to recreate their prewar spheres of influence and control. Both the Americans and Europeans, however, found themselves enmeshed in the quicksand of the numerous liberation movements, revived ethnic conflicts, and simple power struggles that erupted throughout the region, from Indonesia to the Korean peninsula.

Best known for his classic one-volume history of the Pacific War, Eagle Against the Sun, Spector here turns his gaze on the confused conditions prevailing immediately after Tokyo’s surrender in August 1945. Noting that the traditional historical narrative assumes that the end of war meant the end of fighting and the spontaneous regeneration of order, Spector argues that the post-World War II “peace” in Asia was the continuation of war under another name (with, in some cases, fiercer fighting than during the war). His book, inasmuch as it tells this story, neatly complements John Dower’s Embracing Defeat, which tells a similarly revisionist tale of the U.S. occupation of Japan. Both works give primary importance to the mistakes, failures, and naiveté of the so-called victorious powers; both assert that domestic players and local conditions truly created postwar Asia.

The central dynamic in Spector’s story is the disintegration of empire—that of wartime Japan, and the feeble attempts at reconstituting the empires of prewar Europe. The Japanese had erected an ideological scaffolding of colonial liberation over their wartime occupation of most of Asia. They justified their brutal control over China and Korea with the goal of creating a new Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. The conditions the Japanese had faced quickly transferred to the victors. In some areas of Japanese control, such as in China, occupation overlay an existing condition of civil war. In Indochina, Japanese troops fought rebels, like Ho Chi Minh, who were experienced in combating European powers. The pre-1937 dynamics continued into the postwar period, and were realized fully in China: stabilizing Chiang Kai-shek became Washington’s primary Asian policy. Spector’s first three chapters cover well-trodden ground, emphasizing the incompatibility of America’s attempt to act as an honest broker between the Nationalists and Mao Zedong’s Communists with its effort to secure Chiang’s victory. (Not even the great George Marshall could square that circle.)

That, indeed, is the leitmotif of Spector’s book: the basic inability of the Allied powers to adjust to the realities on the ground. Wishful thinking and good intentions proved no match for unleashed nationalist passions, as Spector’s subsequent chapters show. In Malaya, for example, the British attempt to reassert control lasted less than a year, until April 1946. The ineffective British Military Administration proved helpless in the face of intense ethnic strife between Chinese and Malays, in which Communists and mystical Islamic movements all contributed to chaos and bloodletting. Nor were the Allies above using their erstwhile enemies, the Japanese, thousands of whom were enrolled to fight rebels and Communists; for these soldiers, too, the end of war did not bring about the end of fighting. Spector condemns in particular the French and Dutch (as well as the rapacious Soviets), whose violent and stubborn attempts to reconstitute prewar empires in Indochina and Indonesia, respectively, led to widespread atrocities and scuttled any possibility of reaching some type of negotiated settlements among the parties. The particular tragedy of Vietnam, where the anti-colonial animus of the Americans was subordinated to supporting a European ally, underscores Spector’s analysis of the irreconcilable tensions in U.S. Asian policy.

What also emerges with crystal clarity from Spector’s account is the importance of personalities. Bucking the trend among professional academics, Spector shows that individuals count, and in some cases were the deciding elements in the paths their countries took. Not only well-known figures such as Mao and Ho, but equally important leaders in Indonesia and Korea, who frustrated European and American plans, and labored to realize their own visions.

Given the rich history of post-1947 Asia, one might be dissatisfied with the limited chronological scope of Spector’s book. The pivotal events in the region all happened after 1947, and none of them was foreordained. In that respect, it is impossible to judge whether Spector’s assertion—that the vacuum of the immediate postwar months set the path for the following decades—is accurate or overstated. Moreover, strained comparisons between postwar Asia and postwar Iraq, which read like afterthoughts, fail as attempts to make the book somehow more timely or relevant. As his fluid prose and thorough archival research show, telling the story of the battle for postwar Asia needs no justification.

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