An unidentified British officer observed in late 1945 that “all the blood spilt in Java since the Japanese occupation will never be known.” But some of the worst was still to come. When the Japanese formally laid down their arms in mid-August 1945, the entire continent of Asia immediately became shrouded in a thick fog of peace, its new geopolitics distinguished more by confusion, mixed signals and lost opportunities than by wise diplomacy. And as new alliances took shape around old enmities, chaos, mayhem and anarchy engulfed the region. A generation of new wars followed. The questions at the time were many. Who would be liberated? Dutch and French colonials from the Japanese, or Indonesians and Vietnamese from the Dutch and the French? Would Korea find its own role? Would the Soviets control Manchuria? Under whose flag would China unite? Everything was up for grabs.
Friends and foes became hard to distinguish. Before they could be repatriated, some idealistic Japanese soldiers — and not a few who feared indictment for war crimes — deserted the Imperial Army and stayed behind to battle for Indonesian independence. Others fought alongside the Vietminh against the French and the British in Vietnam, while those still wearing the Imperial chrysanthemum stood guard — fully armed and with bayonets fixed — when United States forces landed at Inchon to begin the occupation of Korea. Many of Chiang Kai-shek’s generals, having attended the Japanese military academy, used Japanese troops to fight the Communists. The Japanese patrolled rail lines and broke a Communist-led strike in Shanghai and that as late as November 1946, 80,000 or more Japanese troops were operating under Chiang’s command.
Often the victors were simply clueless, trying to govern with limited intelligence as they groped around in the dark. Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru once mocked the United States occupation in Japan for “its generally happy ignorance of the amount of requisite knowledge it lacked.” And Japan was the country American officials knew best! Despite the services of a very competent O.S.S. (the forerunner of the C.I.A.), the United States was remarkably ignorant of the region. Armed only with “a few pages on Korea” from a 1905 travel guidebook, for example, and with no knowledge of the language, American occupation forces hired former Japanese occupiers and suspected Korean collaborators to explain life on the peninsula to them. A confused United States proconsul in Seoul declared to a stunned Korean populace that the Japanese would continue to govern the country. It took months to undo the damage. In fact contemporary Asia is a region where the tectonic plates of geopolitics have never stopped shifting, one that continues to feel the impact of decisions made in 1945 and roads not taken.