In a new book, author and historian Ronald H. Spector (author of the 1985 classic In the Ruins of Empire Eagle , Against the Sun: The American War with Japan) focuses on a blind spot in military history: the bitter, multifaceted struggles that broke out when the Japanese empire collapsed after World War II. Four million Japanese were caught by surprise in the vast arc of countries from Manchuria to Burma, Many of them were armed, including military units that had never been defeated. Within months of Emperor Hirohito’s surrender, simmering power struggles came to a boil in China, Manchuria, Korea, Indochina, Malaya and Indonesia—conflicts that would reshape postwar Asia.
Why was there so much fighting after the Japanese surrender in 1945?
World War II in the Pacific had not settled everything. The one thing it settled was the quarrel between the United States and Japan. But the collapse of the Japanese empire opened up all kinds of possibilities for national movements and ethnic groups to assert themselves, to dust off their old struggles for power and go at it again.
What got you interested in this moment in history?
I discovered that there were hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers and technicians who had stayed on in China and participated in the Chinese civil war. There were other Japanese who stayed behind and helped the Vietminh fight the French, and still other Japanese whom the British and French had obliged to fight the Vietnamese.
Were those individual or unit choices?
In the case of China, you had whole units just switching sides, going over to the Nationalists, and there were individuals in China who went over to the Communists. In other countries it was almost always individuals who decided to help one side or the other.
Were there any successful occupations in Asia after the war?
One that was closest to being a success was in Malaya, which is now Malaysia and Singapore. Almost all the people there wanted to see the British come back, as they had not been real happy with the Japanese.
Most of the other occupations were failures?
You could say from the Soviet point of view that if their main objective was to steal everything movable in Manchuria and Northern Korea, they did pretty well. In Manchuria they alienated even the Chinese Communists, who complained that the Russians were making it much harder for them and were behaving in a disgraceful way.
Did that have anything to do with why the Soviets agreed to enter the war?
They wanted to establish their influence in Manchuria and to be players in East Asia. They also wanted to become the dominant power in China—not actually to take over China, but they wanted China to be dependent on them, and they wanted a friendly China. They also wanted to forestall any American or British influence in East Asia.
So the Cold War in Asia began in 1945?
That is certainly true of China to some extent. The Russians wanted to move in and replace the Japanese in Northern Korea and in China. They were very worried about the Japanese. There was one document from the Russian foreign office that basically says, “We should ensure that the Japanese never ever have any presence in Korea.”
Why were the Soviets allied with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists rather than Mao’s Communists?
The Soviet reading of the situation was that Chiang was going to be in power for years and years if he did win the civil war. Also, in the Yalta agreements at the very end of the war and in their own negotiations with China, the Soviets secured very favorable terms for themselves. The Chinese basically gave them back all the privileges they had in 1905. In return, the Chinese government said, “Well, if we’re going to recognize all your legitimate rights, then you have to recognize us, because we are the ones making this agreement with you.” The treaty meant, de facto, that Chiang was the legitimate government.
Did that have an effect on the Cold War in Asia?
The Russians were disappointed because they didn’t get the influence in the Nationalist government that they had hoped for, because of their heavy-handed behavior. But it didn’t really matter, because then the Chinese Communists came to power.
Are there lessons here to be learned about occupations?
Yes, occupying a country is much more complicated than people think. There are cultural and political factors that are not usually visible at the outset. In South Korea the reason that the United States was able to do as well as it did was that a group of South Korean leaders was willing to throw in their lot with the Americans, because that helped them achieve their own political aims. At the same time in North Korea, you had North Koreans throwing in with the Soviets because the Soviets were willing to back them. Sometimes you can make these deals, but a lot of times you can’t, and the presence of the occupying force just makes things worse.
Why did the United States stay in China so long after the war?
The basic U.S. aim was to prevent a civil war in China, because we didn’t believe that Chiang Kai-shek could really win. American generals knew a lot about the character of Chiang’s government and his generals. They didn’t think that they were going to win a protracted civil war. On the other hand, they didn’t think the Communists were going to win as quickly as they did. What the United States was concerned about was that a long civil war would wreck China and destabilize Asia for years.
In the 1950s people moaned, “Who lost China?” Was that a real issue?
The argument was that if the United States had not tried to settle the civil war and had just let Chiang Kai-shek alone, he would have crushed the Communists. I think that’s extremely unlikely. Chiang was getting all the assistance he needed from the United States. He had enormous superiority in weapons and equipment over the Communists. The Americans were his transportation core, his intelligence, his maintenance shop. Americans basically provided all that to the Chinese Nationalists.
But it still didn’t help?
It didn’t, and a lot of the equipment and weapons ended up with the Chinese Communists, who used them against the United States in Korea.
When the U.S. left Korea in 1949, it didn’t expect to be back there in a year. Was the war that broke out in 1950 something new?
Some people have argued, “Well they had this big series of guerrilla wars going on in South Korea, and some of them were quite bloody, so the 1950 invasion is another phase of this long civil war.” But most people would argue that this was a whole new development: A conventional invasion using a large army with conventional troops right across an internationally recognized boundary is a lot different from having a guerrilla outbreak in two or three provinces.
Did the postwar conflicts in Indochina foreshadow the Vietnam War?
Yes. First of all, the Vietminh—the ancestors, so to speak, of the Viet Cong— learned about organization and tactics and strategy from their experience in that first war. Also, that first war gave them confidence that they could prevail against a far stronger military power. It also left this feeling of bitterness on the part the North Vietnamese, because they felt they had won the war against the French, liberated the whole country, and they deserved to have a united, independent Vietnam under their leadership. They felt that nearly half of it was tricked away from them by the great powers at Geneva in 1954. So they were much less willing to make any deals afterward.
Did these postwar conflicts represent the end of colonialism?
In a sense it’s the death throes of colonialism, but more important, it’s the birth of modern East and Southeast Asia. The lines that were drawn and the sides that people took continue into the present.
Are any of the old conflicts still unresolved?
There are unresolved issues in some countries that remain so bitter that you don’t want to bring them up with anybody from that country. There’s a question of Korean collaboration with the Japanese during the war. Who was a collaborator? Who wasn’t? Many Koreans who worked for the Japanese later became important officials in South Korea, and some in North Korea, too. In Indonesia there was a great deal of bloodletting that went on for years among different ethnic groups. A lot of Chinese were murdered or persecuted or driven off. There’s a lot of this kind of legacy of bloodshed that was swept under the carpet. There are all sorts of things still simmering.
Originally published in the June 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.