How the World Changed


December 05, 1991|By RICHARD REEVES

LOS ANGELES. — Los Angeles--In a neglected corner on the second floor of the Communist Party museum in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam -- the capital French colonialists called Saigon -- there is a small poster printed in French. It is the order, issued by Governor General Jean Decoux on Sept. 22, 1940, telling French civil servants to return to their posts -- under the protection and command of the Japanese army.

What the Vietnamese saw on that date and again on Dec. 7, 1941, was not the titanic struggle we call World War II. Rather, they saw something that struck them as much more important. They saw white men on their knees, at the bayonet points of smaller, darker men, Asians who looked a lot like them.

The world changed in many ways on Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese made one of the great military misjudgments in history: attacking the United States. The most obvious consequence of that attack was that, within four years, Japan was crushed and the United States was the dominant nation in a new world. But there was a second great consequence: the end of the European colonialization of Asia.

What happened in Vietnam -- the bowing of the French to Japanese masters -- was happening all across the Asia that was governed by white men protected by small detachments of troops from Europe. In Singapore, with their cannons pointed the wrong way, toward the sea, the imperial and invincible British ran like rabbits when the Japanese army invaded by marching down the Malayan peninsula. The Japanese took Malaya and Indonesia and the Philippines, administered a bit more loosely by Americans insisting they were not colonialists, killing the white men and women or marching them off into concentration camps. It seemed they would take India, too, in time -- and Australia, when they got around to it.

The people of those countries suddenly saw that the white man was no different from them, just taller and lighter. Small bands of nationalists in a dozen Asian countries realized that revolution and independence were now inevitable. For men like Nehru and Ho Chi Minh, it was only a question of how long the global war would last and how they could use one side against the other.

The Allies were forced, finally, to deal with Ho and others -- sometimes having to release them from prison to organize resistance to Japanese rule, arming and training yesterday's adversaries to try to win today's war.

And, though the Europeans did not realize it, to train the natives for tomorrow's rebellion. The Japanese did the same thing. Young men in the Dutch East Indies, including President Suharto of the giant archipelago now called Indonesia, learned to be soldiers in the Japanese army, all the while planning to use those skills and their weapons to drive out the Dutch when this war ended -- which is exactly what they did in 1949.

The French, the Dutch and the British all tried to march back into Asia after the Japanese were defeated in August 1945. But Asia was different -- or Asians were. Sometimes the Europeans or their ambivalent allies, the Americans, were driven out after the bloodiest kinds of war; sometimes they left with heads high, flags snapping and trumpets sounding. ''The World Turned Upside Down,'' to use the name of the tune the British army band played on Oct. 19, 1781, after being defeated by American nationalists in Yorktown, Va.

The world was never the same after the British left Yorktown that day more than 200 years ago. ''America'' was on the map and one day Americans were just about running the world. And it was never the same after Dec. 7, 1941, which in the odd ways of history turned out to be the day Asians began winning their freedom from Europe -- and, conceivably, with a rebuilt Japan the most powerful of them all, will end up just about running the world one of these days.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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