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

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.

So the imperial ideal that long had been accepted as a legitimate political form - and that had animated great conquerors and roused the ambitions of adventurers, explorers, and traders - collapsed entirely in 1945. The liberal nationalism of 19th century Europe now reached East and South Asia. The formula was clear: one man, one vote; one nation, one state; and "citizens" in all their dignity, rather than "subjects" in their frightened subservience.

The old imperial order, to be sure, had brought railroads, certain public works, and Western education for the elite. And it generally enforced domestic peace - though also playing divide-and-rule politics.

But there was a fearsome psychological cost, which E. M. Forster, George Orwell, Paul Scott, and other novelists understood far better than the politicians did. Perhaps power corrupts, but imperial power undoubtedly corrupts absolutely, as Americans later discovered in Vietnam.

'Then you and I shall be friends'

This moral corruption distorted all relationships between those living in its shadow. "Down with the English, anyhow. Clear out, you fellows, double quick, I say!," shouts Dr. Aziz in E.M. Forster's "A Passage to India." "We shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then ... you and I shall be friends."

White men exercised power before 1945 essentially because they were white, and the end of imperial preservation justified force and threats, manipulation and deception. Black, brown, and yellow men suffered from a docility and self-hatred that occasionally exploded in rage. This led to riots, military intervention, mass arrests, and imprisonment, as white officials imposed their full power on "the lesser breeds without the law."

Americans were censorious, but only the most perceptive critics dared recognize the parallels between white supremacist rule over Calcutta and Harlem, Malaya and Georgia.

It was Martin Luther King Jr., with Gandhi as his guiding star, and other African-American thinkers, who grasped the similarities and drew the appropriate conclusions: In a world of mass communication, freedom was indivisible. What had been granted in Calcutta could not long be withheld in Birmingham.

Yes, 1945 brought us the horrors of atomic weapons. But it also brought the end of empire, and with it the opportunity of growth and change for a vast majority of the world population.

And those who wax nostalgic for the grand old imperial days, for incorruptible officials, and trains that ran on time should consider T.E. Lawrence's dictum: "It is better that they do it badly than that we do it well."

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