- In the Ruins of Empire: The Japanese Surrender and the Battle for Postwar Asia
When the self-styled Great Japanese Empire collapsed at the end of World War II, the vast territories seized by Japan during that conflict were left in a disordered state of turmoil and confusion. Large Japanese armies still remained in place in most of those areas, the former colonial powers that once possessed them were ill-prepared to resume their prewar hegemony, and the rising forces of nationalism were determined to oppose any reimposition of foreign control. The ruins of Japan's empire, as Ronald Spector aptly terms those troubled lands, were now afflicted by bloody, disruptive power struggles. The victorious allies, no longer united by a common goal, had conflicting objectives that rendered mutual cooperation difficult if not impossible. Nationalist movements, in turn, were equally split by feuding sects, factions, and traditional rivalries. And Japanese military units, while generally remaining passive, also chose to support one side or another, [End Page 1300] sometimes both. Further exacerbating this chaotic situation were poor communications, disruptive weather conditions, a breakdown in food supplies, and the usual amount of looting, greed, and corruption found under such conditions.
In this important but relatively short book (only 277 pages of actual text), Spector skillfully weaves all these disparate aspects into an integrated and coherent narrative. To do so he visited archives in Australia, England, France, Japan, Singapore, and the United States, consulting sources in several languages, corresponded with veterans, and read a large body of memoirs and secondary works.
His research revealed a mixed pattern of situations and events within the vast geographical area he surveyed. In Indochina, for example, the French sought vainly to restore their former control against powerful nationalist forces, themselves split into contending rival groups. The Dutch faced similar difficulties in the East Indies, notwithstanding the support of British and Australian troops. British forces also had their hands full in Malaya, where opposing Malayan and Chinese ethnic groups fought a brutal civil war. China was the scene of an even more devastating civil conflict between Nationalist and Communist forces, despite the best efforts of the United States initially to assist the former and then to mediate some sort of solution. Korea also saw American efforts frustrated, both by an inability to understand the Korean language and culture and by the growing Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. And Manchuria, finally, was devastated by marauding Russian forces that stripped it of almost all its physical resources and carried out the same sort of rape, murder, and looting that had characterized the Soviet occupation of eastern Germany barely a few months earlier.
Spector's description and analysis of all these tumultuous events is penetrating and comprehensive. His book largely supercedes Louis Allen's groundbreaking The End of the War in Asia (1979) and Peter Dennis's Troubled Days of Peace: Mountbatten and Southeast Asia Command, 1945– 1946 (1987), although both these earlier works include some material not addressed in In the Ruins of Empire. Spector, however, did far more research and consulted archival and other sources not available to previous authors. His careful study of what took place in the great territories surrendered by the Japanese is thus definitive and unlikely to be excelled.