Wednesday, June 02, 2021

May 1942: The end of empires

By the end of May 1942 the Japanese military had completed their conquest of the Asian colonies of France, Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States. Although Japan was eventually defeated, the Western powers could not re-establish their hold over their former colonies.

A colonial officer in Burma neatly summed up the issue.

The old unquestioning confidence had gone – on both sides. We had been driven out of Burma. The Burmans had seen this happen. In the trite phrase, things could never be the same again.
Successful empires depend on a combination of power, competence, and inertia to maintain their sway over their subjects. The Japanese victories demonstrated that European power and competence were illusory. Vichy France acceded to Japan without a struggle. Britain fought but still suffered repeated, humiliating defeats. The Netherlands existed only as a government-in-exile whose last vestige of independent power – their navy-- now rested at the bottom of the Java Sea. The US Navy was powerless to save the Philippines.

Correlli Barnett called war “the great auditor of institutions”. Nearly all the institutions of the colonial powers failed their audit in the spring of 1942.  

Richard Frank is unsparing in cataloging the egregious failures of the British in the Far East. The military and colonial administrators took bad situations and turned them into catastrophes. What few bright spots he points to were not the Apollonian experts who were tasked with running the colonies: these failed at nearly every juncture. Instead, the only organizations were groups like the Burma Forest Department and the Assam Tea Planter Association.

In Assam, the Indian Authorities proved ineffective. Filling the desperate breach was the Assam Tea Planters Association, towering heroes of the whole tragedy. An elite group of thoroughly practical men, mostly of Scottish origins, dominated this organization. They were accustomed not to polo and gin drinking on the veranda, but to hard practical organizational work demanding an early rise and a full day's effort. They mobilized and deployed 60,000 workers on criticl roads to support the military effort until they encountered the humanitarian disaster. They proceeded to round up the ragged, starved trekkers and assemble them in transient and redception camps the government failed to establish

Without their efforts thousands more would have died.


When do disasters become catastrophes?