In This Review

A Continent Erupts: Decolonization, Civil War, and Massacre in Postwar Asia, 1945–1955
A Continent Erupts: Decolonization, Civil War, and Massacre in Postwar Asia, 1945–1955
By Ronald H. Spector
Norton, 2022, 560 pp.

After the Japanese surrender in World War II in August 1945, European powers reclaimed their former colonies in Asia, failing to appreciate how much their return would be resented and resisted. The world is still living with the consequences of this complacency and the violent conflicts it triggered. In this compelling account, Spector combines meticulous research with lively writing to describe these extraordinary bloody conflicts, as the Dutch struggled to hold on to Indonesia, the French to Indochina, and the British, more successfully, to Malaya. The United States became involved in Asia to check the growth of communism (especially in the wake of Mao Zedong’s victory over the nationalists in China in 1949), culminating in the decision to defend South Korea from the North’s invasion in the summer of 1950. Washington viewed matters through a Cold War lens, neglecting the strong anticolonial currents rippling through the upheavals of the time. By 1955, the end of Spector’s period of investigation, most of the old colonies had won their independence, and the Korean War was over with the seemingly indelible partition of the peninsula.