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
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
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. …