Courtesy Reuters

The American Quarter-Century in Asia

As a European, and particularly as a Briton, I had the unusual good fortune to come first to Asia by way of America. The African and Indian friendships formed during college days at Oxford whetted my appetite for an understanding of the non-white world, but only when I arrived at Berkeley for a postgraduate year did I enter the life of the Chinese, the Japanese, the Filipinos, the Indonesians-who were there by the score, sharing with me the experience of being a foreign student in the United States.

And then I sailed on the Oregon Mail for Yokohama in 1953 with a cargo of military supplies for the Korean front, wheat for the Asian market, an earnest missionary and three cheerful Mennonite relief workers going to serve as noncombatants in Korea. It was my first exposure to the contradictions in U.S. policy toward Asia.

The Asia which I began to observe two decades ago was a post-colonial Asia already swept off its feet by the American presence. Technically the occupation of Japan had just ended, but its visual reminders, in the form of the paraphernalia of the U.S. military, were still strong. It was, I suppose, the high point of the American postwar "empire" in Asia, when every inquiry ended at the U.S. Embassy and every foreign visitor was presumed to hunger for hamburgers and french fries.

Only later did the pre-Americans (the French, Dutch, Germans, British-and their extensions, the Australians) begin to return to their earlier haunts, reminding Asians that the United States was not the only other country in the world. Only later did the Asians begin to extricate themselves from the mire of postwar poverty and chaos, to see Americans not as gods dropped from another planet but merely as rather better-off fellow-humans. And now the American era is over.

I have watched it flow and ebb away from three distinct vantage-points. The first was in 1953, when I traversed Asia from Yokohama to Bombay on a

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