A CONTINENT ERUPTS: Decolonization, Civil War, and Massacre in Postwar Asia, 1945-1955, by Ronald H. Spector
Early on the morning of Sept. 2, 1945, Gen. Douglas MacArthur boarded the battleship U.S.S. Missouri to preside over the ceremony marking the Japanese surrender in World War II. Among the representatives of the nine Allied nations was a group of defeated colonial officials. Lt. Gen. Arthur Percival, who had surrendered Malaya to the Japanese, was there. So was General Philippe Leclerc, “a hero of the European war, who had been recently dispatched to try to pick up the pieces in French Indochina.” The presence of these men, according to Ronald H. Spector’s marvelous new book, “A Continent Erupts,” may have been MacArthur’s way of “emphasizing the complete negation of Japan’s earlier military triumphs.” But it could also have been his way of “signifying the determination of the dispossessed imperial powers to reclaim their colonial real estate.”
Which was it? In the decade after Japan’s high-flying ambitions to dominate the Asian continent crashed and burned, East and Southeast Asia became the most violent region of the globe. As nationalist wars erupted in Indochina and Indonesia, China and Korea became engulfed in violent, internecine conflicts. An estimated 2,500,000 combatants died in the Chinese Civil War, about 800,000 in the Korean War, about 400,000 in the French Indochina War, and at least 50,000 in the Indonesian War of Independence. Among civilians, up to 16 million in China, 5 million in Korea, and 300,000 in Indonesia perished.
But as Spector’s book reveals, the sources of this bloody mayhem were complex. Far from being the result of “the struggle against white supremacy” as the old colonial powers attempted to reclaim their former empires, the wars of liberation in the first decades after 1945 took on the character of civil wars.
The peoples of formerly occupied territories held vastly different visions about their postcolonial future, which also helps to explain the savagery of much of the fighting. Friends and foes became hard to distinguish.
Even the defeated Japanese became part of the mix. A significant number cooperated with the nationalists to battle for Indonesian independence, providing arms, ammunition and tactical training. Others fought alongside the Vietminh against the French and the British in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh often welcomed Japanese help if it meant neutralizing his Vietnamese opponents.
And after waging a brutal war against the Japanese for eight long years, Chiang Kai-shek cut secret deals with Japan in 1945-46 and actually engaged some Japanese troops against the Chinese communists — the same communists who had also fought to resist Japan between 1937 and 1945.
Meanwhile, a significant number of Korean Christians became fierce anti-communists following their persecution by fellow Koreans in the Soviet-occupied northern zone after the peninsula was divided in 1945. These ardent anti-communists fled south and worked alongside the Americans to help lead the bloody suppression campaigns of leftist insurgents during the initial battles of the “first” Korean War (1948-50).
Spector, an emeritus professor of history and international relations at George Washington University, does an excellent job of bringing alive this unruly and complicated story of postwar Asia. He is also wary of the view that the violence was a matter of Cold War proxies. “It might be more accurate to say that the Cold War did not spread to Asia; it was invited in.” All sides sought the material support of the United States and the Soviet Union while neither superpower desired the escalation of these internal conflicts into a global war.
While the politics of the region gradually stabilized, the legacy of this violent history continues to be felt in what are now the two most dangerous flash points in the Asia-Pacific region: the Taiwan Strait and the Korean peninsula. Spector’s gripping book reveals the underlying motivations of these civil wars. In doing so, he helps us to understand why the legacy of these conflicts is still with us today.
Sheila Miyoshi Jager teaches East Asian history at Oberlin College and is the author of the forthcoming “The Other Great Game: The Opening of Korea and the Birth of Modern East Asia.”
A CONTINENT ERUPTS: Decolonization, Civil War, and Massacre in Postwar Asia, 1945-1955, by Ronald H. Spector | Illustrated | 538 pp. | W.W. Norton & Company | $40