Recommended Book: In The Ruins of Empire, Ronald Spector

My apologies for not recommending a new book sooner, but blame it on a hectic few weeks in Japanese politics.

This book, though, is well worth reading. A sequel of sorts to Eagle Against the Sun, his account of the Pacific War, Ronald Spector outdoes his earlier effort in providing a comprehensive record of the bloody aftermath of the war in In the Ruins of Empire, a subject that may be as important for understanding Asia today as the war itself.

Spector, a professor of history at George Washington University, focuses on the aftermath of the war in Korea, China, Indochina, and Indonesia and the problems of reconstructing the domestic political orders faced by the US and its allies throughout the region (while trying to get stranded Japanese forces back to Japan).

There are a few points that struck me as particularly relevant. First, the US in 1945 was wholly unprepared for life as a superpower. Responsibility for postwar Asia — China especially — fell into Washington’s lap, and for the most part the US government failed to forge a postwar settlement for the region. It was not for want of talent, at least on the spot; indeed, Spector is full of praise for individual OSS agents, military officers, and diplomats who worked with local political leaders and allied counterparts to set up new regimes. The fault, to Spector, was in Washington and other allied capitals, where senior leaders were inept in the face of considerable uncertainty. As he writes in the book’s concluding paragraph, “The most deleterious effects of the Allied military presence developed not through blunders or misjudgments of those charged with carrying out the occupations, but when the highest levels of government acted indecisively, had mistaken notions or no notion at all about what was actually happening on the scene, and neglected or ignored reports from the field.”

In the first months following the war, the US had no plans for Korea or Indochina, and its plans for China amounted to little more than pushing for a ceasefire between the Guomintang and the Communists, even as it assisted in moving Chiang’s forces to northern China and providing Chiang with arms. The strategic vacuum in the early months of the postwar period made it all the more likely that US Asia policy would be viewed solely through the prism of anti-communism as the cold war unfolded. The consequences for US policy in Indochina, Korea, and China up to the present day require no further explanation.

If Washington suffered from a failure of imagination in its postwar Asia policy, the policies of Britain, France, and the Netherlands were almost impervious to the reality on the ground, especially the latter two. It was absurd to think that France and the Netherlands, broken nations reemerging from German occupation, could reassert imperial control over distant colonies whose peoples saw the mystique of the empires crumble as the imperialists were in turn conquered and whose national consciousnesses emerged during the war (not unlike the national movements that followed in the wake of Napoleon’s conquests in Europe). The Dutch, lacking sufficient force to reassert control over Indonesia, actually had to rely on the British to do much of their fighting for them. Despite the fact that their empires were on the edge of oblivion, the European empires were determined to restore their empires to their former glory. They failed to appreciate both the political awakening among Asian peoples and their own attenuated statures.

A final interesting thread that ran throughout the book is the variegated roles played by stranded Japanese forces throughout Asia. While waiting to be repatriated to Japan, Japanese forces were present on all sides of the conflicts in the immediate aftermath of the war — in some cases helping to preserve order for the allied powers, in others working with opposition movements.

Spector’s book ultimately provides an excellent reminder that history is messier than the textbooks would have us believe. Wars don’t end when peace treaties are signed. Especially for wars in the modern period, the end of war presents a whole new set of challenges for the restoration of political and economic order (not to mention the lingering remnants of wartime hatred, which result at least in part from the need to mobilize whole populations and mar postwar relations between former adversaries).

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