In This Review

In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia

In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia
By Ronald Spector
384 pp, Random House, 2007
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Forgotten Wars: Freedom and Revolution in Southern Asia

Forgotten Wars: Freedom and Revolution in Southern Asia
By Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper
704 pp, Harvard University Press, 2007
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These two books deal with the end of empire in Asia after World War II but from significantly different perspectives. Spector focuses on Japan's defeat, whereas Bayly and Harper concentrate on the collapse of the British colonial empire. In both cases, there was a disconnect between the war objectives of the victors and the political realities in the countries involved. The situation was further complicated by the stresses of the emerging Cold War. U.S. officials were troubled by the tenacity of Japanese soldiers during the war and, given such fanaticism, were uncertain whether the dropping of two atomic bombs would be enough to overcome the fighting spirit of the Japanese military. The Japanese scene was further complicated by uncertainty over the future role of the Japanese emperor. The story Spector has to tell is very much influenced by his heavy reliance on archival materials. He offers a vivid account of how different elements in Washington viewed postwar problems and their choices for action. The problems ranged from what the United States should do about the impending Chinese civil war to what it should do about Soviet moves into Manchuria and Korea. Washington clearly needed help, and hence Japan quickly moved from being the enemy to becoming a partner.

Bayly and Harper have a much richer clash of political actors to describe. The collapse of British imperial rule in Asia revolved initially around the politics of Indian independence. This set the stage for Burma's independence and then raised the issue of freedom for Malaya and Singapore. The authors are particularly good in their analysis of the problems of state building, on the one hand, and nation building, on the other. The ethnic diversity of the populations of South and Southeast Asia created problems of national identity, while those populations' experiences with colonial administrative rule made them highly appreciative of the advantages of controlling whatever state administrative structures might be available. The British treatment of the Asian leaders tended to give them dignity and the right to be seen as historically significant figures. A generation of nationalist leaders was thus produced.