An epic slog through history


This doorstopper of a book focuses on American and Soviet rivalry in post-World War II Asia while providing an overview of dramatic developments in 14 nations across Asia over the past century or so. This is an ambitious agenda, one that proves too much for the author and, one might add, any weary reader who manages to plow through to the end.

EMPIRES AT WAR: A Short History of Modern Asia Since WWII, by Francis Pike. I.B. Taurus, 2009, 860 pp., $45 (hardcover)

Francis Pike does not shy from offering opinionated commentary about the figures and events we encounter through this epic slog. The central problem is that in covering so much time and territory, Pike sacrifices sustained analysis and skims across the surface in a breathless gallop through what amounts to a kaleidoscopic caricature of history.

Certainly, readers will learn a lot about Asia from this sprawling narrative, but the writing, often lively, is all a bit slapdash.

Problematically, the text is riddled with errors that raise doubts about how reliable a guide the author really is. For example, far too many names are mixed up and there is no consistency in how he renders Japanese names. He confuses Togo and Tojo, respectively the wartime foreign minister and prime minister, who had very different views.

And we find that Mohammed Hatta, a founding father of Indonesia, seems to have pursued a posthumous career in Japanese politics (his name mistakenly appears instead of that of Tsutomu Hata). Aung San Suu Kyi, barely mentioned in the text, is referred to as Aung San, the name of her father.

Pike renames the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo- Japanese war “the Treaty of New Hampshire.” Diplomatic history is not like horseshoes; close does not cut it.

He rechristens the Indonesian specialist Harold Crouch, referring to him as Bernard. It may be churlish to recount all these niggling errors, but there are so many that one begins to wonders if this is the work of a serious author in command of his material or a dabbling dilettante.

The author’s puerile preoccupation with the sexual proclivities of the leaders he profiles seems to tell more about his own fusty views than about the targets of his snide asides. Pike fumes, “Although debate rages as to whether Mountbatten had homosexual preferences, there is no doubting the debauchery of his wife Edwina, who was adulterous, a nymphomaniac and allegedly a bisexual.” Debate rages? Worse yet, Lady Mountbatten dabbled in socialism!

There is an extended rant vilifying Aung San, the iconic founding father of Burma. Pike portrays him as a murderous collaborator of the Japanese who betrayed the British. He huffily accuses, “While the priority for the British authorities was a period of stability to help Burma recover from the ravages of war which had decimated rice production, Aung and the nationalists sought an immediate grasp of power.” How very uppity of them!

In Pike’s view, had Aung San not been assassinated he would have established a “Nazi-style dictatorship.” Judicious assessment is not Pike’s strong suit. He is incensed by nationalists collaborating with the Japanese and vigorously denounces numerous instances of this “treachery,” but certainly there is more to this than the author cares to explain.

Staking out an unpopular revisionist position, Pike castigates the U.S. over the Vietnam War — not because of the disastrous consequences for the Vietnamese, but because the U.S. should have won and only lost because of poor strategy and weak leadership. In his rendering, the North Vietnamese were merely stooges of Moscow, a burlesque of a far more complex relationship. He also tries to resurrect the discredited “domino theory,” with scant success.

Given the focus on U.S.-Soviet rivalry, it is a pity that the Soviet invasion and denouement in Afghanistan is boiled down to seven pages, but this is the nature of the book. The final section, stuffed with canned insights, reads like the deadline was looming and the author had grown weary of his project.

Pike’s conclusion that good (U.S. and free markets) triumphed over evil (Soviet Union and communism) is merely pedestrian. His assertion that the U.S. managed to save Asia with “surprisingly little” intervention puts him on very thin ice, while the questions about free markets and U.S. influence raised by the global financial meltdown in 2008 go unexamined.