End of Empire offers a day-by-day presentation of events in the hundred days between 5th August 1945, when the decision to bomb Hiroshima was made, and 12th November 1945. The bulk of it is laid out after the fashion of a newspaper front page for each date: one paragraph items with headlines, in two columns, with captioned black and white photographs, all in the present tense. Interspersed with this are some ninety mini-essays on broader topics, by specialists, mostly one and a half to two pages long.
As the title suggests, there is an emphasis on decolonisation and thus on the smaller states. There is nothing directly on India at all, though the Indian National Army and its leader Bose do feature, as does the use of Indian troops by the British and the role of Indians in Indochina. With China, the focus is on foreign relations rather than on the impending civil war: negotiations with the British over Hong Kong and with the Soviet Union over Mongolia and Manchuria, for example. And with Japan, there is solid coverage of the atomic bombs, the last kamikaze attack, and the creation of the new constitution, but no attempt at a full treatment of the American occupation. Also prominent is the post-surrender role of both Japanese forces and individual Japanese throughout the region, taking a variety of stances in different places: "Japanese deserters in Vietnam" includes the (novel to me) detail that "As of 20 April 1946, an estimated 49,000 Japanese deserters/dissidents remained in Tonkin (northern Vietnam)".
So the focus is on Southeast Asia, perhaps with relatively less on the Philippines, and on the often neglected Northeast, on Mongolia, Manchuria and Korea. Decisions about the nascent Indonesian Republic's political form and geographical scope (with no attempt to incorporate Malaysia or West Papua). The career of Bao Dai and the failure of the brief Vietnamese imperial revival. Thai attempts to put their alliance with Japan behind them and avoid concessions over the Thai-Indochina border. Mountbatten and Dorman-Smith's radically different relationships with Burmese leader Aung San. The fate of millions of Japanese civilians in Manchuria and Korea. The Malayan Communist Party's decision not to oppose the British return. And so on and so forth.
Some examples of how this works with the layout. A long 9 September "entry" contains five news items: "Japanese surrender in Seoul sparks outcry" (because General Hodge instructs Japanese officials to remain in their posts), "Mongol unification dream persists" (despite the clear division of Outer and Inner Mongolia implied by the Sino-Soviet treaty), "Japanese formally surrender to China in Nanking", "Chinese occupy northern Indochina" and "French repulsed in central Laos". Along with this are three mini-essays. "From colonial elite to defeated national: the first 100 days" draws on the diaries of Japanese public health lecturer Tanaka Masashi to explore his reconsideration of personal and national identity following his repatriation from Seoul. "Surrender in Nanking" describes both the formal ceremony and the surprisingly smooth handover of control from Japanese troops to the Nationalists. And "The Chinese Army in northern Vietnam" looks at both the practical details of the presence of around 100,000 soldiers and its political significance, preventing the French taking military action against the newly proclaimed Democratic Republic of Vietnam. This is followed by a single page "10 September" chapter with just three news items: "Inner Mongolia republic declared", "Position of Japanese in Indonesia uncertain", and "British push for Kuala Lumpur".
The primary focus is political and military, but there are glimpses at both social change and individual experiences. "Banana money: Malaya's wartime currency" looks at how the Japanese currency worked and at the complexities of returning to the old currency. "Mabel's life goes on" is about the everyday life of a Eurasian woman in Singapore during and at the end of the Japanese occupation. "Looking for Din after the war" describes British anthropologist Ivor Evans' search for his Malay collaborator. And so forth.
I have always been somewhat skeptical of books with artificial scopes and attempts at fancy layouts. Here, however, there are enough connections across the region to sustain coherence: we can see protagonists in different countries facing similar, sometimes common problems and challenges — in, for example, the repatriation or resettlement of prisoners-of-war and internees and refugees — and some of the constraints and forces spanned most of the region — most notably the decisions of the Potsdam Conference and MacArthur's General Order No. 1, instructing the Japanese on how and who to surrender to. And there are glimpses at how communications within the region worked, and at "the uncertainty and lack of information" experienced by both leaders and ordinary people at the time.
The temporal cut-off is more of a problem, and the start and end dates are clearly fairly arbitrary. Many stories have only just started when the hundred days are up, and the implications of some of the events and decisions will take decades to become apparent. An eleven page "Aftermath" looks at the situation one thousand days on, in August 1948, and that helps provide some kind of closure, but End of Empire may work best for readers who already have at least a general familiarity with the subsequent history of the region. At the other end, a thirty page introduction provides general background and brief "preludes" for each country. There is no attempt here to recapitulate the Second World War, but rather to introduce events that might not be familiar (such as the May 1939 Nomonhan War, where a combined Soviet-Mongolian army defeated the Japanese) and more broadly "the historical context of Japanese imperialism laid over a deeper history of Western colonialism".
The layout works unexpectedly well. The progression of daily news stories gives a feel for the broad course of key events and their timing. And the mini-essays are diverse, if not scatter-shot, but cover the major topics and delve into more specialised areas in a good length. The period is far from terra incognita for me, but I still found a fair bit that was new, and noted down some other books and historians to keep an eye out for. The essays pass what I call the "Wikipedia test", in that treatments of similar length and quality are not, in most cases, available online. (The obvious exception to this is that End of Empire is itself available in its entirety on a web site, which also has extras such as more extensive photo galleries and "special editions" with just the news for individual countries. I still rather like the printed book, however, and its index is mostly better than the online search.) My one real complaint is that there are too few maps: there were quite a few places where I would have liked more cartographic detail.
It should appeal to a broad audience but, syllabuses permitting, End of Empire would also be an excellent starting point for an introductory university course or possibly for a high school history module. The Second World War looms hugely in the English-speaking world, but few children are taught and few adults know much about the effects it and its immediate aftermath had on Asia, especially in some of the less prominent countries.
- External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
- buy from Wordery
- details at NIAS Press
- information from the authors
- Related reviews:
- Robert Cribb - Historical Atlas of Indonesia
- Robert Cribb - Historical Dictionary of Indonesia
- Robert Cribb - Digital Atlas of Indonesian History
- David P. Chandler - Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Indonesia: Essays in Honour of Professor J.D. Legge
- Robert Cribb - The Indonesian Killings 1965-1966: Studies from Java and Bali
- books about Southeast Asia + Southeast Asian history
- books about World War II