End of Empire100 days in 1945 that changed Asia and the world.

  • F
  • T
  • End of Empire Aftermation: 1000 days

    On 13 November 1945, 100 tumultuous days had passed since the dropping of the atomic bomb at Hiroshima. One thousand days later, on 9 August 1948, the forces that had been set in train by Japan’s defeat and surrender continued to shape the face of Asia.

    On 9 August 1948, the first ceremony took place in Nagasaki to commemorate the dropping of the world’s second atomic bomb exactly three years earlier. Japanese people in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and elsewhere had previously gathered to commemorate the destruction caused by the bombs. The Nagasaki commemoration in 1948, however, was the first to be authorized by the American occupation authorities. Colonel Victor Delnore, commander of the American occupation forces in the city, addressed the ceremony, telling the audience that the bomb had brought home to all the fact that war caused only ‘misery and suffering’. From the suffering of the victims, he said, would come a new desire for peace. He promised the partnership of the American people with the Japanese in that aspiration.

    Delnore’s message reflected a deep transformation that was under way in the United States policy towards Japan. When General Douglas MacArthur arrived in Tokyo as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, American intentions had been to consolidate victory over Japan and to ensure that the country would never again be a military threat by disempowering the old militarist elites and dismantling Japan’s industrial capacity. The Occupation took immediate steps to begin a program of democratization and social reform, with the clear intention that democratic Japan would not become a great power.

    In consultation with anti-militarist forces within Japan, the United States sponsored a new constitution under which Japan renounced its sovereign right to wage war. By 1948, however, U.S. strategic planners had put the Second World War behind them and saw Japan increasingly as a Cold War ally. Under what was known as the ‘reverse course’, the occupation authorities ended their attempt to dismantle Japan’s industrial capacity and reversed the extensive purges of politicians and officials associated with the wartime regime.

    Four months before 9 August 1948, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, set up to try Japan’s military, political and diplomatic leaders for war crimes and crimes against peace, had finished hearing all evidence and retired to consider its verdict. Its judgment, released on 12 November 1948, sentenced the wartime prime minister Tōjō Hideki and six others to death, but the occupation authorities had already decided not to proceed with further trials. The hope of several of the Western allies that Japan would be required to pay financial reparations for the wartime damage it had inflicted also began to fade as the U.S. put increasing emphasis on Japan’s economic recovery.

    Conditions in Japan the immediately after the surrender had been very difficult. Food was in short supply, malnutrition was rife and basic goods were hard to get. By 1948, conditions was somewhat better, but Japanese society had had to absorb millions of returnees from its wartime colonial empire. Around 6.6 million Japanese had been living outside Japan at the time of the surrender, with military personnel and civilians in roughly equal numbers. Military repatriation was largely complete by early 1948 and most civilians had returned by the end of the following year.

    The peace treaty to end the war formally would not be signed until April 1952, but already Japan had lost control of all territories it had acquired after 1873. Not only did it lose the territories it had conquered and occupied after 1931, but it also surrendered authority over its older colonies of Korea, Taiwan and Sakhalin. In addition, Okinawa and the Ryukyu archipelago came under long-term U.S. occupation and reverted to Japan only in 1972. The status of Japan’s authority over several small islands remained uncertain.

    Across the strait in Korea, preparations were under way in Seoul for the declaration of a new state, the Republic of Korea (ROK), on 15 August 1948. This state, headed by the elderly nationalist Syngman Rhee, controlled only the southern half of the Korean peninsula. This zone had been allocated to U.S. forces at the end of the war for the purpose of accepting the Japanese surrender, whereas the north had been assigned to Soviet forces. Neither occupying power had intended at first for Korea to be divided. Rather, they each hoped to have predominant influence over the peninsula as a whole. Gradually, however, the two zones consolidated into separate administrations, with each occupying power sponsoring politicians who were willing to align with its interests.

    In April 1948, forces in the south brutally suppressed a left-wing movement on the island of Cheju. Forces in the north targeted landlords and other social groups considered to be conservative. Three weeks after the founding of the ROK, on 9 September 1948, Soviet forces sponsored the foundation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the North, with its capital in Pyongyang. Like Rhee, DPRK leader Kim Il-sung had spent years in exile. With Soviet support, however, he was able to gain ascendance over other leftist leaders. By 1949, he had begun to develop a cult of personality, calling himself the ‘Great Leader’. Both republics claimed sovereignty over the entire Korean peninsula and, as their respective sponsoring forces, the U.S. and the USSR, withdrew their troops, each side began to fear that the other would attempt to seize the remainder of the peninsula by armed force. Escalating mistrust would lead to the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950.

    By August 1948, Korea’s Manchurian hinterland was largely in the hands of the Chinese communists, with only three cities – Mukden (Shenyang), Changchun and Chinchou (Jinzhou) – held by forces of the Chinese government under KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek. Japan’s client state of Manchukuo had collapsed in 1945 and its territory had been occupied by Soviet forces. Both the KMT forces and those of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had sought to establish control over the region. Officially the Soviet Union recognized the KMT government, but on the ground Soviet forces often gave support to the Communists. The CCP forces were able to control most of the countryside by May 1946 when Soviet forces withdrew, taking with them much equipment from Japanese factories. The Soviets retained control of Port Arthur and Dairen, which imperial Russia had previously been forced to surrender to Japan in 1905.

    To the west, the Mongolian People’s Republic remained firmly within the Soviet camp. Mongolian forces had fought the Japanese army only for brief periods – at Khalkhin-Gol in 1939 and again in Manchuria in August 1945 – but the war years had been difficult for the Mongolian economy  as the Soviets diverted resources to the war effort in Europe. After the war, however, the Soviet economy had begun to recover and assistance to the Mongolian authorities began to flow once again. In 1948 the ruling Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party thus launched an ambitious five-year plan to expand both herding and industry. Although nominally independent, the MPR under Choibalsan was closely integrated in Soviet military and economic policies.

    The international standing of the communist regime became more secure in January 1946, after China’s KMT government recognized Mongolian sovereignty in Outer Mongolia in exchange for a Soviet promise to acknowledge Chinese sovereignty in Manchuria, Inner Mongolia and Sinkiang. This arrangement consolidated the MPR’s independent status, but at the cost of entrenching the division between Inner and Outer Mongolia. The MPR nonetheless was unable to obtain membership of the United Nations because its application was blocked by China after border clashes between Mongolian and Chinese forces between June 1947 and July 1948.

    In August 1948, the leading cadres of the Chinese Communist Party in Inner Mongolia were meeting in distant Harbin to respond to a political crisis. In the aftermath of Japan’s defeat, the CCP had mobilized effectively to win the allegiance of many Inner Mongols by stressing its commitment to Mongol autonomy. This policy set the Communists apart from the assimilationist KMT. In May 1947, the CCP had announced the creation of an Inner Mongolian Autonomous Government covering large areas of eastern Inner Mongolia and Hulunbuir. Communist land reform programmes, however, favoured Chinese cultivators over Mongol landowners and soon led to resentment. Stringent policies against ‘herdlords’, that is Mongols owning large numbers of livestock, led to the wholesale slaughter of animals and a drastic reduction in the number of livestock in Inner Mongolia. The cadres meeting in Harbin agreed that Inner Mongolia would henceforth be treated differently from the rest of China, and the separate character of Mongol society would be allowed to continue.

    More than 1.5 million Japanese had been living in Manchuria in August 1945. Only a few could escape to Japan ahead of the Soviet occupation. The remainder lived in refugee camps in cities and towns along the railway lines. Food was short, many children died of malnutrition and countless women were raped by Soviet soldiers. About 179,000 Japanese civilians in Manchuria died before repatriation to Japan was competed in 1948.

    By August 1948 much of northern China was also in CCP hands or contested by communist guerrilla forces. CCP forces were also active in the mountains of the far south, while the northwest was dominated by warlords of the Ma family, who offered only vague loyalty to the KMT. Civil war between the KMT and the CCP had broken out in earnest  in July 1946, following the failure of a U.S. mission to the country under General George C. Marshall in late 1945. Marshall had sought to develop an economic and political model for post-war reconstruction and attempted to broker an agreement between the rival Chinese forces but was unsuccessful.

    The KMT insisted on first nationalizing the army, which would have reduced the CCP’s capacity to fight, whereas the CCP insisted that political reform should come first. Although the KMT government conducted numerous trials of Chinese accused of collaborating with Japanese authorities during the war, the KMT itself received significant assistance in its struggle against the communists from Japanese officers and troops who stayed behind in China after the surrender. In April 1948, the National Assembly in Nanking re-elected Chiang Kai-shek as Chinese president, but the generalissimo’s power, even within the KMT, rested on an increasingly narrow base.

    Despite substantial U.S. military aid for the ROC, there were growing doubts as to whether the KMT could ever restore its authority over the whole of China. The KMT regime was widely seen as immensely corrupt, while its careless management of the economy led to runaway inflation that eroded its support among the middle classes who might have been its natural constituency. The costs of fighting the civil war consumed around 80% of the state budget, leaving little money for services or other benefits to the community.

    Increasingly, from 1947, the KMT had begun to use the island of Taiwan as a relatively secure base. The administration of the island was in the hands of mainlanders, rather than Taiwanese, and resentment of what was seen as high-handed and incompetent administration led to a major uprising on 28 February 1947. The rebellion was brutally suppressed, an estimated 18,000–30,000 rebels being killed. In late 1948, the fall of the last KMT strongholds in Manchuria precipitated a rapid collapse of ROC resistance to the communists on the mainland. By mid-1949, the CCP was in control of most of the country; on 1 October 1949, CCP leader Mao Tse-tung addressed a crowd in Tiananmen Square in Peking to declare the People’s Republic of China. During the final months of 1949, Chiang and around two million mainlanders retreated to Taiwan, though Chiang still claimed to be president of the whole of China.

    Whereas the future for the Chinese communists appeared promising in August 1948, the Vietnamese communists were on the defensive. Three years earlier, conditions had seemed to favour them. The nationalist-communist leader Ho Chi Minh used the interregnum following Japan’s surrender to declare independence and to begin establishing a Viet Minh government, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), in September 1945. By incorporating non-communist nationalists, he created a broad coalition that seemed likely to be able to consolidate Vietnam’s independence, at least in the north. The Chinese forces who entered northern Vietnam five weeks later to accept the Japanese surrender were rapacious, but they opposed French attempts to recover authority and recognized Ho’s government as legitimate. In March 1946, however, Ho agreed to a French proposal to recognize the DRV as a unit within a larger Indochinese Federation, prior to the reunification of the north and south (which had been re-occupied by France with British help).

    As Chinese troops withdrew, French forces took their place. Conflict with the DRV soon began and French forces drove the DRV from most of the larger cities and towns. Meanwhile, especially in the south, French authorities had begun to construct a cooperative relationship with less radical nationalists, including the former emperor, Bao Dai. In June 1948, these groups agreed to the creation of a State of Vietnam, which would have autonomy within the French Union.

    In response, a congress of communist cadres in August 1948 decided on a radical path: rather than broadening the coalition of 1945 to compete with the French, they chose a closer alignment with the international communist movement and a programme of radical land reform in the territories they controlled. In doing so, they created a sharp line between themselves and nationalists who were willing to accommodate with France. Not until the CCP victory in China in late 1949, however, did this strategy begin to bear fruit. With new access to Chinese military support, the Vietnamese communists laid the groundwork for guerrilla war that eventually led to the French defeat.

    The withdrawal of token Chinese forces from Laos in March 1946 enabled French forces to return and drive the Lao Issara government into exile. In line with their efforts to construct a moderate coalition in Vietnam, French authorities in Laos then constituted the territory as a kingdom, with the former  king of Luang Phrabang as constitutional monarch. Elections were held in April 1947, but politics lay in the hands of around twenty interconnected elite families.

    It was clear that the future of Laos would be hostage to developments elsewhere in Indochina. Cambodia, too, was fragile. Under King Sihanouk the former protectorate obtained formal autonomy in January 1946, and national elections were held in September, resulting in an absolute majority for the moderate nationalist Democratic Party. In the countryside, however, a variety of armed groups fought under the general name Khmer Issarak (‘Free Khmer’), some of them sponsored by conservative Thai forces and others with Vietnamese communist connections. (Read Cribb and Li’s pan-Asian aftermath by clicking the link below)

    Thai support for the anti-communist Khmer Issarak reflected the return to power in April 1948 of Thailand’s wartime leader, Phibun Songkhram. Compromised by his wartime collaboration with Japan, Phibun had been displaced by leaders more sympathetic to the West. In January 1946 the conservative Khuang Aphaiwong won national elections to become the country’s first elected prime minister. Within weeks, however, his government lost a vote of confidence in parliament and he was replaced by the progressive Pridi Panomyong. Pridi successfully negotiated a post-war settlement that treated Thailand as a victim of Japanese aggression, rather than as a Japanese ally. This policy eased Thailand’s entry into the United Nations.

    The price for this rehabilitation included restoring to France the territories that Thailand had recovered from Laos and Cambodia in 1940–41, but the country was not required to pay reparations or give up any territory it had held before that war. Pridi’s standing, however, was compromised by the mysterious killing of young King Ananda Mahidol in July 1946. He was forced to resign and in November 1947 the army seized power. Phibun’s accession marked the start of a long series of anti-communist military-backed regimes closely aligned with the United States.

    Whereas Thailand had firmly reoriented to a pro-Western stance by 1948, Burma was increasingly isolated. The country had become independent on 4 January 1948 as the Union of Burma, which incorporated  Burma Proper (dominated by ethnic Burmese), the hill regions of the Shan, the Kachin and the Chin, which had been administratively separate during the British period, and the small Karen-ni states, which remained formally outside British Burma. This Union was the outcome of an agreement between minority leaders and the Burmese leader Aung San at Panglong in the Shan States in February 1947.

    It failed, however, to reconcile the complex and conflicting interests of the many large ethnic groups in Burma, especially in regions such as the Irrawaddy Delta and northern Tenasserim, where different ethnic groups were closely intermingled. The potential unifying power of Aung San, moreover, was lost when he was assassinated, along with much of his cabinet, in July 1947. Accordingly, one of his associates, U Nu, became the first prime minister of independent Burma, but he faced immediate rebellion by separate communist-oriented groups known as White Flags, Red Flags and the Revolutionary Burma Army. Ethnic tension quickly grew, too, especially amongst the Karen ethnic group and in Arakan. Minority dissension encouraged the central government to rely increasingly on ethnic Burmese forces, which exacerbated the alienation of the minorities.

    Revolution had broken out in Malaya under the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). The party had been strong in the wartime Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army, but had agreed to disarm at the end of the war and to concentrate on political and trade union activity. The party saw some possibility for growth in the  framework of the Malayan Union, created on 1 April 1946. The Union was still a colony, but was intended as a future independent state with full citizenship rights for all residents, including the substantial Chinese and Indian communities (which together would form a majority of the population). This arrangement aroused alarm amongst the Malay elite, who feared that the established commercial dominance and generally better education of the Chinese would marginalize them in the proposed state.

    A campaign by the newly created United Malays National Organization (UMNO) persuaded the British authorities to abandon the Union in favour of a new federation of Malaya, which was inaugurated in January 1948. In the federation, Malays were recognized as having primacy as ‘sons of the soil’ (bumiputra) and significant powers were restored to the Malay sultans. These developments encouraged the MCP to adopt a more radical strategy under a new leader, Chin Peng. The party initiated guerrilla attacks in the countryside, prompting a British crackdown. In July 1948, British authorities formally declared a state of emergency, giving themselves sweeping powers of arrest and summary trial. The subsequent jungle war between British forces and the MCP led to enormous disruption in Malayan society, as well as the honing of British counter-guerrilla strategy. The insurgency was effectively defeated by the time of Malayan independence in 1957.

    The island of Singapore was excluded from the British-sponsored political changes in Malaya, partly because of the continuing importance of the British naval base, partly because its inclusion would have given Chinese an overall majority in the prospective state. In March 1948, the British authorities held general elections on the island, but only 2% of the population was eligible to vote and only six of 22 seats in the Legislative Council were elected. The MCP was also strong in Singapore, and colonial authorities used the draconian Internal Security Act to maintain control. Limited self-government did not come to the island until 1955.

    In August 1948, the Indonesian national revolution was in dire straits. For nearly two years after the independence declaration, the new state had been in control of much of the most populous islands of Java and Sumatra. In late 1946, on the eve of the departure of British forces, Republican leaders had reached an agreement with the Netherlands to accept a federation with Dutch-controlled Borneo and eastern Indonesia as a mechanism for a peaceful transition to internationally recognized independence. After the British departure, however, relations between the Indonesian and Dutch sides quickly soured and in July 1947 Dutch forces attacked the Republic, seizing large areas. The Republic lost more than half its territory on Java.

    Political tensions mounted, and the old antagonisms among Islamic, communist and liberal ideas of Indonesia’s identity resurged. In May 1948, after the rump Republic had signed another agreement with the Netherlands accepting a more restrictive federal solution, S.M. Kartosuwirjo declared an Islamic Republic of Indonesia in the hills of West Java; in Central Java the Indonesian Communist Party, like its Vietnamese counterparts, adopted a more radical stance and came increasingly into conflict with the government and with conservative military forces. In September 1948, the party was drawn into a rebellion that spread from the town of Madiun to much of East Java. After brutalities on both sides, the rebellion was suppressed and its leaders killed.

    Hoping that these events signalled the death throes of the Republic, the Dutch authorities launched a second military campaign in December. Although they seized the remaining Republican territory in Java and captured the cabinet, they were unable to cope with widespread non-cooperation and guerrilla resistance. The Netherlands also lost the support of the United States, which feared that Dutch rule would only encourage Indonesians to turn to communism. The Dutch military successes soon turned into a political and diplomatic defeat and they were forced to concede independence at the end of 1949, though they retained the territory of West New Guinea, claiming that it was ethnically distinct from Indonesia.

    The Philippines had received its independence amicably from the United States in 1946, albeit at the cost of permitting American bases to remain in the country and of giving American citizens economic rights comparable to those of Filipinos. The new President Manuel Roxas addressed the independence celebrations with the words , ‘Our safest course … is in the glistening wake of America, whose sure advance with mighty prow breaks for smaller craft the waves of fear.’ Roxas had been wartime advisor to the Japanese-sponsored Philippines government of José Laurel, and in 1947 he pardoned leaders who had been imprisoned for collaboration with Japan.

    As in Malaya, communists had played a major role in local resistance to Japanese occupation. Immediately after the war, the Philippine communists hoped to make headway democratically and they demobilized their army, the Hukbalahap. Government repression and their own impatience to come to power, however, soon drove them back into rebellion. When Roxas died unexpectedly in April 1948, his successor, Elpidio Quirino, who was considered strongly anti-collaborationist, sought a rapprochement with the Hukbalahap, promising social reforms. Quirino’s administration, however, was dominated by members of the old elite, who blocked most efforts at reform. A U.S. report in 1950 concluded that the standard of living of most people was ‘lower than before the war’.

    The end of the Second World War in August 1945 marked the start of a new period of turmoil in Asia. The Japanese surrender, taking place while Japanese troops were still in place in Korea and in large areas of China and Southeast Asia, created a partial vacuum of power and authority. Forces from the pre-war order – the colonial powers in Southeast Asia and the Kuomintang in China – rushed to fill the vacuum, but forces aspiring to change also moved fast. Both nationalists and communists (the two were by no means separate or distinct categories) seized the initiative in many regions. American forces took charge in Japan and sought to transform Japanese society.

    The Japanese surrender thus triggered a new set of conflicts. The tasks of bringing the war to an end – accepting the Japanese surrender, repatriating Japanese settlers and military personnel, and dealing with collaborators and war criminals – intertwined with new conflicts arising from decolonization and the onset of the Cold War. The hundred days that followed the surrender formed a crucial moment that set the trajectory towards victory, defeat or compromise for the competing forces. The thousand days that ensued saw this trajectory carried through. Even today, more than 25,000 days after Japan’s surrender, echoes of 1945 can still be heard throughout the region.

    Robert Cribb and Li Narangoa are both Professors of History at Australian National University


    Share This: