War's End Gave Asia a Future without Empire When Japanese Aggression and Western Colonialism Faded, the Way Was Paved for Civil Rights Movements Worldwide

Article excerpt

AS the great moral and ethical debate continues about dropping the atomic bomb, it is too easy to forget the other vital changes that 1945 brought for East Asia and the world as a whole.

Japanese imperialism was crushed, its ideas discredited, and its leaders punished. Since 1895, the world had watched seven wars of Japanese expansion as a nation driven by fear, racist arrogance, and ambition kept East Asia in turmoil.

The fear stemmed from Russia to the north, the United States on the east, and the British empire in the south; and fear of the vulnerability inherent in crowded cities, a shaky defensive perimeter, and a skimpy base in raw materials.

Mixed with these fears, Japan harbored ambitions of carving an empire out of a weak, divided China. The Japanese had had no place at the table when Europe sliced up East Asia in the 19th century. They resented getting nothing but Taiwan and Korea, and being warned that the Chinese heartland was off-limits. This was America's doing, the work of both conservatives who feared Japan's ultimate goals (Hawaii? California?) and liberals who respected Chinese civilization and increasingly saw Japan as a maniacal outlaw.

Defeat in 1945 forced Japan's new leaders to accept the reality of American power and to enter the Western world community. No more fantasies of racial superiority. No more dreams of restructuring Asia in Japan's favor. Japan accepted the essential Western hallmarks: economic growth; a peaceful and cooperative but anti-Soviet foreign policy; and a more or less democratic political system.

But even as Japanese hyper-nationalism was being defeated, nationalism elsewhere in East Asia was erupting. The old British, French, and Dutch empires - which had ruled hundreds of millions of people for centuries in that great arc from Karachi through Calcutta and Singapore to Jakarta and Hanoi - were swept away soon after. The Americans peacefully left the Philippines in 1946, as the British did with India and Burma in 1947, and Malaysia in 1963. The Dutch, however, were forced out of Indonesia in 1949, and the French lost Vietnam in 1954.

The old empires had been based on a gigantic, racist sleight-of-hand; the alleged superiority of the white race. A handful of officials and troops (in Indochina, France had fewer than 20,000 soldiers) carried out this deception. But independence movements, based on democratic or Marxists models, had been undermining the imperial order.

Further, the Japanese smashed the old order's brittle crust in an amazing blitzkrieg in 1941 to 1942, sweeping away 300,000 Allied troops while losing a mere 15,000 of their own. Though outnumbered 2 to 1, the Japanese captured Singapore in just 70 days. …