My Weekly Reader 4 September 2022.

            Ronald H. Spector (1943-  ) got a BA from Johns Hopkins, then a commission in the Marines and a trip to Vietnam, then a PhD in History from Yale, and then a series of teaching jobs.  He is the author of a trilogy of works that survey twenty years of violent struggle in the Western Pacific and East Asia.[1]  If Spector’s books have a single defining characteristic it is his ability to clearly explain the multiple and highly-complex factors shaping events. 

            In Asia, earlier developments had been over-run by what people call the “Second World War, 1939-1945” without those developments having been resolved.  Western imperialism in India, Indonesia, Malaya, Indo-China, China, and the Philippines had inspired nationalist resistance movements.[2]  Japanese imperialism had brought Chinese and Koreans under Japanese rule.  Within China, a civil war had raged between the Kuomintang (KMT) government and the Communists.  China and Japan had been formally at war since 1937.  Japanese military triumphs in 1941 and 1942 dealt a death blow to the self-confident assumption of White superiority which under-pinned Western rule.  From December 1941 to August 1945, the United States and Britain waged a highly destructive war against Japan in tropic Hell-holes and on vast oceans.  The simultaneous war in Europe left Britain, France, and the Netherlands exhausted.[3] 

            All the conflicts that had been suppressed by the World War blazed up anew.  The Chinese civil war re-ignited as soon as the Japanese surrendered.  Colonial revolts in French Indo-China and the Dutch East Indies came hot on the heels of the attempt by the imperial powers to reassert their control.  The Dutch threw in the towel pretty quickly (1948), but ethnic Chinese in Malaya launched their own revolt against British rule under Communist direction (1948).  Farther east, the French fought for Indo-China, first with the Americans dragging on their coat-tails and then with the Americans shoving them forward until the defeat at Dien Bien Phu (1954).  All these were guerrilla wars.[4]  Conventional wars began.  The Chinese civil war ended in a Communist victory (1949).  In 1950 fighting broke out on the Korean peninsula.  First the Americans, then the Chinese joined battle.    

            These wars shaped East Asia for the second half of the Twentieth Century.  After the Korean War ended in a truce (1953), the Chinese and the Americans were deadly enemies for the next twenty years.  New nations were born, either hoping to steer clear of the Sino-American confrontation or to benefit from it.  The Viet Minh and the Malayan rebels relied upon China for arms; South Korea, Taiwan, and the South Vietnam created by the partition of French Indo-China tied their security to the Americans.  Here Professor Spector closes a circle.  He is also the author of the first volume of the Army’s official history of the Vietnam War: Advice and Support, The Early Years, 1941-1960 (1983). 


[1] Eagle Against the Sun: The American War with Japan (1984); In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia (2007); and now A Continent Erupts: Decolonization, Civil War, and Massacre in Postwar Asia, 1945-1955 (2022). 

[2] In 1936, the United States decided that the Philippine adventure had been a bad idea.  It declared that it would grant independence on 4 July 1946, while meanwhile setting up a Philippine government to handle domestic matters.  The Americans hauled down the stars-and-stripes on the promised day. 

[3] And, to varying degrees, with a bad taste in their mouths about racism and imperialism.  It’s difficult to fight a war against Nazism, then turn around and say “But our racist imperialism is different.”  Difficult, but not impossible. 

[4] Much of what is known about counter-insurgency warfare was learned in these wars. 

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