Decolonization, Civil War, and Massacre in Postwar Asia review

By Bob Newland

Post World War Two was a time of great change throughout the world.  Following the defeat of Fascism in Europe and Japanese imperialism in the far east, many peoples sought long awaited independence for their countries.

This promise was enshrined in the United Nations Charter and seemed to be fulfilled when the US granted independence to the Philippines in 1946 albeit in return for the accommodation of military bases. However, the message did not seem to get through to the British, Dutch and the French who sought to re-establish their colonial power.

In Asia, the imperialist powers were determined to hold on to their colonies and along with the United states (US) to takeback control of those from which they were displaced by Japan. Massive military power was used for this purpose along with funding, arming and political support for local dictators seen as a bulwark against communism.

This book examines a number of those bloody conflicts in great detail. It looks at the process of decolonisation as well as efforts aimed to prevent it. The author focusses largely on military history and argues that the conflicts in China, Indonesia, Vietnam, Korea and Malaya were not simply a product of the Cold War but that their outcome ‘forever changed the shape of Asia and the world as we know it today’. 

Spector argues that the seeds of these changes had been created by Japan’s wartime takeover of  South-East Asia. After the war,  the US, despite rapid demobilisation of  its military, established itself firmly in Japan and South Korea, established military bases in China and re-established its pre-war Pacific bases.

Liberation struggles erupted throughout South-East Asia including Vietnam, Korea and Indonesia. Spector recounts how the British released the former French Colonial army in Vietnam and re-armed Japanese troops to fight against the ‘Communists who amazingly were also trained and supported by Japanese soldiers. French colonisation came to an end after their catastrophic defeat at Dien Bien Phu by Ho Chi Minh’s National Liberation Army.  

In Indonesia the Dutch were in no position to regain control of their former colony and the Japanese facilitated the return of Sukarno who declared independence on 14th August 1944. The British, unhappy at this, assisted the re-establishment of Dutch control. By 1945 this had turned to all out military conflict between British and Indonesian forces. One fascinating fact that comes out is that again, Japanese troops fought on both sides. Indonesian independence did not finally come until 1949.

Spectre explores the complex position in China and constantly changing Western policies. Chinese Nationalists had fought against the Japanese invasion alongside the Communists, supporting unification of the country and destruction of the power of local warlords. However, the cost of the war effort, failure to provide pensions for returning troops and widespread corruption led to massively increased support for the Communists. What followed is examined at great length including the post-war negotiations between the various forces, civil war and ultimately the victory of the Communists over the Nationalists. 

While there can be debate about the importance of local and international considerations in many of the stories of postwar South-East Asia, the Korean War is firmly seen in a Cold War context. Of course as the book catalogues, it was not that cold with Chinese, Soviet, US and other western countries committing troops and military resources in vast numbers. Spector explores the reasons why Stalin and Kim Il Sung mistakenly believed that the US would not intervene. Details also emerge as to why Mao Zedong decided to commit Chinese forces.

The book concludes by emphasising that in the ten years following World War Two, most of the colonies in the region had gained their independence. Of course, Vietnam and Korea remained divided and the region was to face ongoing and bloody conflicts in Vietnam, Burma and Indonesia.

Overall, this is a fascinating read with great detail on many interesting and significant events which Spector believes were key to creating the present political and economic framework. While I do not agree with all of his conclusions and would challenge some of his characterisations of the motives and drivers of US policy in particular, Spectre provides an amazing account of the detail, both military and political, of the struggles that formed post-war Asia.

A Continent Erupts – Decolonization, Civil War, and Massacre in Postwar Asia, 1945-1955 Ronald H. Spector published by W.W. Norton and Company.

Bob Newland is a Liberation member

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