BURMA has fallen. Japan now holds a land wedge that threatens to split India and China apart entirely. By her successes in the Philippines she also has tightened her grip over communications in her home waters and along the coast of China. With courage and ingenuity, the United Nations can still improvise and maintain new communications with China -- certainly by air and probably also by land. President Roosevelt's promise to continue to get supplies to the armies of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek can be carried out. Nevertheless it is clear that the fall of Burma has ended a phase of the war. In the new phase that will replace it the United Nations must overhaul their grand strategy and examine anew the concepts on which they base their coördination of land, sea and air power, of areas of industrial production, of lines of supply, and of actual fighting fronts.

In this new phase the political factor will determine the effectiveness of all other factors. Up till now, the undermining weakness of the United Nations, in the Pacific theater, has been that they have been fighting a makeshift war. There has been some confused discussion of the relative importance of the Eastern war and the Western war; but there has been no clear definition of what the war is about. Obviously, only men who know what a war is about can fight it successfully. Even if we restrict our war aims so narrowly as to speak only of a war of survival, it is necessary to know what is to survive.

First and foremost, this is a war about Asia. If the Axis nations were to win, there would be drastic revisions of the structure of power in Europe and America; but they would find their richest loot in Asia. This is as true in terms of the power to rule as it is in terms of raw materials. The core of Fascism is the dogma of master-men and subject-men; and nowhere can a few thousands of masters rule so many millions of subjects as in Asia, if Fascism can once establish there its deadly technique of conquest and subjugation.

It is equally true that Asia will be the litmus paper that reveals the nature of the world order brought about by a victory of the United Nations. For the very reason that the United Nations represent on the whole the democratic world cause, and yet them selves are not equally democratic in all respects, victory will face them with the responsibility of determining the degree of democracy that is to prevail over the world as a whole. The first step in discharging this responsibility -- a step which cannot be evaded -- involves a decision on the status of not one but several Asiatic countries. The consequences of victory will spread like ripples over Europe, America, Africa and the rest of the world; but Asia will be the main center from which the ripples widen out.

This political question is the real issue at the heart of the controversy over the relative strategic importance of the Eastern war and the Western war. As far as purely military values and decisions are concerned, no alarm would be created in Asia if the United Nations decided, in full and equal military consultation, to concentrate first on the defeat of Hitler. What causes in Asia an uneasiness which is already growing into fear, and from fear could easily be fanned into panic, is the unspoken suggestion that the political result of leaving Asia in abeyance in order to win a victory over Hitler would eventually be a peace dictated to Asia, in its main lines, by Europe and America.


In discussing the character of the war rather than war aims we start logically with the loss of the Philippines, Malaya, the Netherlands Indies, and Burma, and the unresisted overrunning of French Indo-China and Thailand. These losses represent a phase. What is the next phase or the phase after next? Is it to be a reconquest of these territories from the Japanese, or is it to come about as a liberation from the Japanese?

The Japanese have proclaimed the liberation of Asia -- an Asia for the Asiatics. Their propaganda, in spite of their spectacular victories, has had as yet no great effect. Indeed, this propaganda has probably had more effect in Britain and America than it has had in Asia, and was probably intended more for us than for the colonial peoples. The Japanese know very well that Britain and America are shot through with racial prejudices, even though we have not organized these prejudices with the sinister cruelty in which the Fascists are so efficient. They hope, therefore, that this propaganda, supposedly directed at the Asiatics, will alarm and divide us. The Asiatics, on the other hand, know very well that this propaganda is a screen behind which the Japanese intend to establish themselves as a new master race. They also know that Japanese imperialism is harsher than that of Britain, America, Holland or France. For this reason most of the peoples whom the Japanese have overrun have submitted in an attitude of "non-violent non-coöperation" akin to that of India, though not politically organized as in India by the genius of a Gandhi and therefore on the whole ineffective. They have felt that the imperialisms which were being destroyed were milder than the new imperialism which was being imposed upon them; but they have not felt that the difference was great enough to fight about.

This is why only two Asiatic peoples have fought -- the Chinese and the Filipinos. Neither of them was defending the established order of a foreign imperialism. China has not only been defending her own soil. She has also been fighting to attain full equality with other nations and to restore her full sovereignty, which for a hundred years has been impaired by treaties giving special privileges and private footholds in China to a number of foreign nations. The Filipinos have fought because they are the only colonial people whose future emancipation has been promised to them, not in vague terms premised on an unspecified future ability to rule themselves, but unequivocally and on an agreed date. They are thus the only colonial people whose troops have been armed and trained to defend a tangible hope of liberty, not the colonial rule of an alien sovereign.

Parenthetically, it is true that Thailand, the only free country in Asia except China, did not fight for its freedom. This raises a question of a kind to which there is never a simple answer. Thailand did not fight; but neither did Denmark, another free country. Part of the answer is that it is hard for a weak and small country to fight for its freedom unless the danger has been recognized in advance and the decision made to go down fighting. Perhaps more important, in the case of Thailand, is the fact that her nominal freedom had in fact always been a patronized freedom under the benevolent supervision of Britain and France, and that government, under this undeclared protectorate, was exercised by a small and corrupt clique. There is evidence that this clique had decided in advance to break away from the vague protection of countries whose colonial prestige had weakened rapidly in the dubious years of appeasement, and to court Japan as a new overlord. Instead of strengthening the national morale, they themselves undermined it by attacking the Chinese in Thailand.

The unwillingness of the Asiatic colonies to fight for Western imperialism against Japanese imperialism has been widely recognized and understood in America, and in Britain too. Probably few people have as yet thought as far as the next phase. Yet there is a crucial decision that must be taken before this phase opens. The United Nations are determined to drive Japan back. If those of the United Nations that are colonial Powers attempt to set foot again in their lost colonies as conquerors or reconquerors, what will the effect be? The danger is that the propaganda of Asia for the Asiatics, which has been only weakly and unevenly effective while Japan has been advancing, may suddenly become very powerful if Japan can present herself as the defender of colonial Asia against white reconquest.

Moreover, the ranks of the United Nations, which have closed up tightly while they stand on the defensive, may begin to break as they turn from defense to counter-attack. Among them, Russia makes no distinction whatever between the citizenship of Asiatics and the citizenship of Europeans; and while there may be disagreements of one kind or another between the Soviet Government and the many peoples of the Soviet Union, the nationality principle is one of the strongest links uniting "the régime" and the people. The formulation of the Soviet nationality principle has been an integral part of the Bolshevik program from before the beginning of the Soviet revolution; and the development of it has been the personal work of Stalin himself. As for China, there is no doubt whatever that the restoration of colonial empire in Asia would alarm the whole nation. It is not that China seeks to take new territories and peoples under her protection, or to succeed to the former status of Japan in Asia. Far from it: for China, the problem is one of the trend of world development as a whole. China cannot but feel uneasy and threatened if the world as a whole is to show an evolution toward a new imperialism. For China, it is imperative to do away with the last vestiges of the partial imperial control which has hampered her for a hundred years; she can feel secure only if the environment of her new equality shows a general devolution away from imperialism.

There has not yet been time, either in China or elsewhere in Asia, to outline in clear detail the vision of the future. The future of the colonial world is in fact a complex of interpenetrating problems. Nevertheless, one thing is already taken for granted in China and the rest of Asia which has perhaps not yet been so decidedly taken for granted in the Western democracies: colonies lost in battle by countries unable to defend them and unwilling to grant them the full right of self-defense can never be subjected or returned to the status quo of December 7, 1941. Beyond that the alternatives are much more vague. It can hardly be assumed that it would be right or advantageous either to the subject peoples or to the peoples who formerly ruled to grant sudden and unequivocal independence to every lost colony. Probably the general alternative to the restoration of imperialism is the adoption of a new standard of values graduated by an absolute time-scale of emancipation and not by the subjective and relative scale of "fitness for self-government." Such a standard might well be called that of the Philippines as distinguished from that of India or the Netherlands Indies.


Whatever the aspect from which an attempt is made to survey these questions, it becomes clear at once that China is the political focus of all Asia. Only twenty years ago any European or American who asserted that the Chinese were politically competent and morally entitled to govern themselves with no restraint from the privileged Treaty Powers was assumed by other Americans and Europeans to be either a Communist or an irresponsible of the kind called "visionary." Lest it should be thought that I claim any greater foresight for myself, I should add that fifteen years ago, in the first political article that I ever published, I undertook to prove that in the first place imperialism is inherent in human society and that in the second place the Chinese are as imperialistic as anybody else; also that "since the Revolution, as is well-known, the Chinese have shown unity in only one thing -- their attitude toward the foreigner. In domestic matters disintegration has proceeded rapidly." This article showed no comprehension whatever of the "transvaluation of values" that had just been brought about by the Northern Expedition, the rendition to China of the British Concession at Hankow, and the beginning of national unification under the Kuomintang.[i]

Today, China has become one of the Big Four of the United Nations. Chiang Kai-shek, who step by step against the stubborn reluctance of the Treaty Powers had to win the right to speak for the whole of China, has undisputedly become the symbol of the aspirations of hundreds of millions of people beyond the frontiers of China. America and Britain have given a pledge to negotiate afresh, immediately after the war, the treaties which govern the international relations of China and infringe upon her sovereignty; and if the wisdom of this pledge is questioned, the only doubt is whether it would not have been more statesmanlike to abrogate the whole structure of extraterritoriality, at once and unconditionally.

Obviously, the effects of such great and rapid changes as these radiate far beyond China, a fact which illustrates once more the extent to which the present war, all over the world, is a war about Asia. China has long stood at one end of a scale of values. It was a country that was not a colony, although many countries held in it privileges and rights of a colonial character. Below it were ranged the "enlightened colonialisms" of the Philippines and the Netherlands Indies; the vast bulk of India, combining many of the most enlightened and the least liberal phenomena of imperial rule and colonial subjection; the mandated colonial areas; and colonial systems of every intermediate ranking. In a scale of values of this kind, every interval is sensitive to changes in every other interval. Although China stands at the very end of the colonial scale, and not fully within it, a fall in the standing of China would instantly bring about a hardening of the imperial system everywhere. Similarly a rise in the standing of China is instantly followed by a loosening of imperial prestige throughout the colonial world, and by movements which range from demands for immediate emancipation to ones for increased representation and for visible advances toward ultimate self-government.

Nor are these effects confined to the colonial world. The modern status of China dates from the first of the Unequal Treaties, in 1842. The modern status of India dates from the disestablishment of the East India Company and the assumption of full control by the British Government in 1858. These dates, like the "year of revolutions" in Europe in 1848, represent the settling down of the world to what was regarded as a permanent order, after a give-and-take process of adopting and modifying the ideas which had emanated from the American and French Revolutions. We have therefore been living for a round century in a world in which the colonial system has formed an integrated part of the dominant democratic system; colonies have never been, as many people tend to assume, extraneous annexes of the democratic system in Western Europe and North America. That this integrated world order of subject peoples and free peoples was regarded as morally proper is well symbolized by the fact that China, after being attacked, defeated, and forced to sign a treaty which impaired her own sovereignty, had to pay an indemnity to the country which had inflicted the treaty on her. Similarly India, after attempting to throw off British rule in the great rebellion known as the Sepoy Mutiny, had the cost of the mutiny charged to her own public debt.

Because of the small economic weight of our visible colonial possessions as compared with our enormous home resources and production, we Americans habitually think that we are little concerned with the colonial factor in the existing world order. We deceive ourselves. The financial indemnity paid by China to Britain under the Nanking Treaty of 1842 was only twelve million Chinese dollars to cover the cost of the British expedition, in addition to six million dollars to cover the cost of opium destroyed by the Chinese. In order to pay this indemnity, however, China had to consent to a customs system and tariffs under foreign control -- which determined the economic structure and development of China for a century. Under the most-favored-nation clause America could have obtained territorial concessions in China, but never did; she did, however, enjoy all the other advantages of the treaty system. Similarly the assignment of the cost of suppressing the Indian Mutiny to the Indian public debt was part of the economic framework and political system fixing the place of India in the world. In India as in China, America participated as one of the favored nations in a world order of which the colonial system formed an integral part.


If, then, the changing status of China means a profound change in the colonial system, it means also a change in the very nature of the world order that has existed a hundred years. What system is to follow it? We know that democracy will be one of the test factors in what the future holds for us. We need, I think, to take two bearings on democracy, in order to form an idea of what it is and the direction in which it is tending to develop. First, what is the nature of democracy in general? Second, what is the nature of democracy in China?

The pedigree which traces the descent of modern democracy from the Greek city states is in a measure academic. The democracy of today dates from the American Revolution, which was largely responsible for the fact that France became a republic and Britain a democratic monarchy. The democratic tradition in Germany, Italy and the rest of Western Europe stems more from the French Revolution than directly from the American, and the Latin American republics also derive partly from the European tradition. However, the American Revolution was only one parent of modern democracy; the other was the industrial revolution.

Because of North America's virgin resources and vast, almost uninhabited territories, the industrial revolution was less of a revolution here than in Europe, and more of a purely creative phenomenon. There was much less in the way of vested interests to destroy. Without the Civil War we should hardly know that the United States had had to destroy an old society in order to confirm the security of a new one.[ii] In Europe, on the other hand, the industrial revolution was just as revolutionary as the political revolution, both in its destructive and its creative functions.

Now it is a commonplace of economic history that colonial profits "threw the switch" that energized the industrial revolution in Europe. The colonial system which appeared in the middle of the nineteenth century to be settling down as part of a permanent world order had originated at about the same time as the industrial revolution. The latter part of the eighteenth century, in which the industrial revolution began to gather momentum, was the very period in which the exploitation of colonies was passing from a stage that often resembled plunder to a stage of more steady, large-scale enterprise.

Thus the liberation of the common people in Western Europe, and the destruction or weakening in various degrees of aristocracy, feudalism and monarchism actually went hand in hand with the reduction of the colonial peoples to a permanent subjugation. There is even a general correspondence between the chronology of political democracy in Europe, the degree of industrialization, and the degree of efficiency in collecting colonial revenue. In the same way there is a correspondence between the way in which the spread of both political democracy and colonial empire tended to slow down and "get stuck" after a general world balance had been struck between the two. Both political democracy and industrialization failed to penetrate deeply or spread evenly in countries like Portugal and Spain, whose colonial exploitation was inefficient, or countries like Austria-Hungary and Tsarist Russia, where a cumbersome feudalistic "internal imperialism" took the place of external colonies. By the end of the nineteenth century colonial conquest had also slowed down; it penetrated countries like Ethiopia, Thailand and China, but failed to subdue them completely.

We have now come upon the direct link between questions of democracy in China and elsewhere. Under a variety of impulses too complex to be treated here, the fermentation of both political democracy and industrial revolution began to work in China. The first political victory came forty years ago, with the overthrow of the Manchu empire; but China, lying at the edge of the colonial world, had from the beginning to contend against colonial limitations on both her political and her industrial development. Each forward step taken by China has therefore increased both the economic and the political pressure to revise a world system in which, for a hundred years, political democracy has been reserved for certain nations and integrated with an economic and political imperialism which those nations imposed on other parts of the world.

The issue not only between China and Japan but between China and the democracies narrows down to this long-established balance and integration between imperialism and democracy. Far too few people yet realize that this balance is bound to be destroyed just as much by the renewed geographical spread of democracy as it would be by the renewed geographical spread of imperialism. We have faced the challenge of the attempt by Germany, Italy and Japan to destroy the balance by spreading the area of imperialism; we have not yet fully faced the implications of democratic victory. These implications are easier to define in a country like Britain, which is visibly and demonstrably one of the most democratic democracies and simultaneously the mistress of the largest colonial empire in the world. They are less obvious in America, because our visible empire is much smaller; but they are no less important, for America is the greatest single power in a world in which democratic self-government and undemocratic imperial government have so long been integrated on a world scale, although separated into sharply marked compartments on a local scale. We are indirectly partners in the world imperial system, in spite of our small imperial holdings and of the way in which we have tried to get out of them, as in the Philippines.

China's resistance to Japan coincides with the line of cleavage between the democratic and the undemocratic aspects of our world. In the first place, China is not yet even a democracy. Her aspirations affect the balance of the world because she is trying to become a democracy. The society of China has long had many democratic characteristics; but according to the elementary textbook definitions, she is not a modern political democracy. She has neither free speech, free press, free right of assemblage nor a wide franchise. All of these things are inherent or expressed in the teachings of Sun Yat-sen and the political program of the Kuomintang as it has developed under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek; but none of them can be attained until the threat of imperial conquest has been defeated.

The attempt by Japan first to control China indirectly and then to conquer her outright is as much a war to prevent the spread of democracy as China's war of resistance is a war to spread democracy. That is why Japanese aggression has been a world issue, and not merely a local issue, from the day of the invasion of the Northeastern Provinces on September 18, 1931. And that is why the speeches of the Generalissimo have been studded both with arguments to convince the two greatest democracies that they could not evade world issues by trying to treat them as local issues, and with appeals to the Chinese people to live up to their responsibility to the world as well as to their own country.

Russia lay beyond reach of this challenge, not only because she demonstrated from the first her determination to resist encroachment, but because, since she was without imperial possessions and trade interests based on them, Japan's peculiar pressure could not operate against her. America and Britain hesitated, and finally were caught, because the duality of our interests made it hard for us to decide which front was more important, the imperial or the democratic. At first it looked as though we might save most of our private democratic preserves by concessions at the expense of "distant countries which we hardly know," and at the same time retain most of our imperial scope of action. Hence the concessions we made not only to Japan but to Hitler and the whole Fascist Axis, including Franco. The failure of these manœuvres only increased the pressure on our democratic front, until finally we stood on that front and fought -- for survival. That survival implies the destruction of the old dualism between empire and democracy.

Here again China is the determinant, for the paradoxical reason that she is not a democracy. The very fact that she is creating a new democracy, not defending an old vested-interest democracy, focuses on her the attention of all peoples that do not have democracy. It also accounts for her own extraordinary fighting morale. The briefest historical comparison shows that the great periods have been those in which men saw the chance to create something new; in which, to paraphrase and amplify Browning, they could see something almost within their reach today which might actually be brought within their grasp tomorrow.

One-half of mankind lives between the Red Sea and the Yellow Sea. That half of mankind does not have democracy. Include Africa, and more than half mankind and half the world are involved. Among that half of mankind, culture and philosophy and religion are old. None of these old and valuable things can be adjusted to the machines of the twentieth century and combined with political freedom except through democracy.

The fundamental issue cannot be evaded. We cannot survive by defending the past; we must fight for the future. The survival of democracy demands the spread of democracy, and the spread of democracy means the end of imperialism, the end of the integrated imperialism-and-democracy to which we have so long been accustomed. When we failed to see what the issue was in 1931, the Chinese decided it for us in 1937. By fighting the Eastern end of the Axis to a standstill, they threw the Western end of the Axis against Britain and France in 1939. By fighting Hitler to a standstill, the British threw Hitler against Russia in 1941. By again fighting Hitler to a standstill, the Russians again threw the Eastern end of the Axis into action, this time against Britain, America and the Netherlands Empire. The final issue is now joined: it is the whole Axis against all the democracies. Mr. Wallace phrased it well in his recent speech, recalling the decision which Lincoln faced and took: the world can no longer survive half democratic and half colonial, half subject and half free.

[i] "The Chinese as a Dominant Race," Journal of the Central Asian Society, London, 1928.

[ii] Incidentally, the Civil War, and the allocation of the Negroes to an anomalous ranking in which they are legally citizens but at the same time economically and socially an unprivileged and depressed class, may be called the American equivalent of the settling down of the colonial order.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • OWEN LATTIMORE, Political Adviser to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek; Director of the Walter Hines Page School of International Relations, the Johns Hopkins University; author of "Manchuria, Cradle of Conflict," "Mongol Journeys" and other works
  • More By Owen Lattimore