On 2 September 1945, on the US battleship Missouri, US General Douglas MacArthur concluded the formal surrender ceremony of the Pacific War by stating: “Let us pray that peace be now restored to the world, and that God will preserve it always.” When the guns of the Second World War fell silent in Asia, peace did not return to the peoples of East and Southeast Asia. Instead, as Ronald Spector details in his meticulous and informative military history of the postwar Far East, the region “erupted” as a result of decolonization, civil wars, and the broader Cold War. The region became a vast “bloodlands” in which nearly four million combatants and probably close to 20 million civilians died.
Spector is both a veteran of combat with the Marines in Vietnam and a respected historian who has authored seven books, including an acclaimed history of the Pacific War, Eagle Against the Sun. This new book, A Continent Erupts, focuses on four main postwar conflicts: China’s civil war, the Korean War, the first Indochina War, and the Indonesian War of Independence. Each conflict grew out of Imperial Japan’s aggression in the 1930s and the Second World War, and each conflict became subsumed in the global struggle between the West and communism. The lifting of the Japanese imperial yoke resulted in a postwar struggle for power between the old Western imperial powers and nationalist and communist forces within the region that evolved into a process of decolonization which was “accompanied by an extraordinary amount of violence, ranging from localized terrorism and communal massacres to large-scale insurgency to major military campaigns that rivaled in size, duration, and lethality some of the major battles of World War II.”
In China, fighting continued between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces, Mao Zedong’s communists, and individual warlords. The Nationalists were supported by the United States, while the communists eventually received aid from the Soviet Union. In the midst of this civil war, however, the US attempted to become mediators and urged Chiang and Mao to agree to a ceasefire and a coalition government. President Truman sent General George Marshall on this impossible task.
Spector describes the fierce fighting in Manchuria, the Huai plain (which Mao called “China’s Gettysburg”), and battles near Beijing and Tientsin. Spector calls these battles “bloody slugging matches”, which at times resembled the slaughters of the First World War. There were plenty of atrocities committed by both sides. Spector attributes the communists’ victory to better generals, a more disciplined and ideologically motivated army, and corruption within Chiang’s regime and army. At the same time, he downplays America’s ambivalent support of the Nationalists and the influence of pro-Mao sympathizers within Truman’s government. Chiang’s regime fled to Taiwan, Mao declared the People’s Republic of China, and Americans asked the question “Who lost China?”
From the moment he took power in Beijing, Mao was determined to seize Taiwan, and ordered his military to begin planning for an invasion. Spector notes that in October 1949, PLA units successfully seized the coastal city of Amoy, and then moved to assault the island of Kinmen where they were defeated by Taiwanese forces. In the spring of 1950, PLA forces seized Hainan. Mao planned to attack Taiwan that summer, but when north Korean forces invaded South Korea, the American Seventh Fleet positioned itself in the Taiwan Strait forcing Mao to call off the attack. After the armistice that ended the Korean War was signed, Mao renewed his efforts to seize Taiwan, resulting in the two Taiwan Strait crises of the 1950s.
Spector’s account of the war in Korea is fairly conventional, except for his discussion of what he calls the “first Korean War” that began in April 1948 and lasted until 1949 on the island of Cheju, located southwest of the Korean peninsula, and involved a leftist/communist uprising and guerrilla warfare against the US-backed government of Syngman Rhee. The rebellion and its suppression resulted in more than 25,000 casualties among a total population of 280,000 on the island. And in late 1949-early 1950, North and South Korean forces clashed along the 38th parallel.
With Stalin’s approval and Mao’s assistance, North Korea’s forces invaded the unprepared South in an effort to unite the entire peninsula under communist rule. Spector credits General Walton Walker, who had served with General Patton in World War II, with holding together the American and South Korean armies in the Pusan perimeter until MacArthur launched his daring and successful Inchon landing that changed the course of the war. Spector criticizes MacArthur’s conduct of the war leading up to and after China massively intervened in the fighting, but acknowledges that American forces suffered greater casualties after MacArthur was relieved of command and after armistice talks commenced. Indeed, North Korea and China eventually agreed to an armistice only after President Dwight Eisenhower threatened to unleash Chiang’s Nationalist forces against the communists and implied that he would use atomic weapons to win the war, two acts of “insubordination” for which MacArthur was fired.
Meanwhile, French forces returned to Indochina to reclaim France’s colonies there, leading to the first Indochina War and France’s ultimate defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The US supported France with military assistance but no troops—invoking the Domino Theory—while China aided Ho Chi Minh’s communist forces. And further south in Indonesia, Dutch forces battled with nationalists and communists on Java in a ferocious and atrocity-filled four-year guerrilla war that cost more than 200,000 lives.
Spector’s book is a reminder that for the peoples of East and Southeast Asia, the end of World War II did not bring peace, but rather more violence, continued suffering, and deadly struggles for independence that lasted at least another decade. Perhaps that is why the great French observer Raymond Aron called the 20th century “the century of total war”.