What to do with Japan, by Wilfrid Fleisher

August 20, 2012 at 17:38 (Asian History, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Second World War, Twentieth Century, War) (, , )

What to do, indeed, with a book bearing such a deliciously arrogant and condescending title? There is something brash and daring about it: the refusal to wonder if anything might be done, but the decision what shall be done. As a piece of history in itself, What to do with Japan is a fascinating prospect, written as an opinion piece by a journalist from the New York Herald Tribune some time in 1945. But it is shocking just how prescient Fleisher’s insights into the allied nations’ looming post-war ordeal actually are. It is remarkable how sage and levelheaded he remains, with no emotional outbursts and few racially-motivated generalisations on the “yellow race”. Even when he does make cultural judgements, they are as much reflections on the Western mindset as they are descriptions of a foreigner. “We know them to be fanatical and vindictive…” he begins, setting the stage for a book in which what America (and the rest of the world) ‘knows’ ought perhaps to be re-evaluated.

“If we expect to be welcomed back in Asia with open arms as liberators, we may experience some rude shocks unless we are prepared to return with a new philosophy…we assume, perhaps too readily, that the conquered peoples are yearning to rid themselves of their Japanese masters and to welcome the return of the occidental Powers.”

-What to do with Japan

Starkly prophetic are his insights into the difficulty of managing a post-colonial world, and of occupying a foreign country in the modern era. From predicting grave trouble between Russia and China in the decades ahead, to warning that any American occupation of Japan must have a clear exit strategy and a roadmap towards responsible self-government, there are entire paragraphs that would not look out of place if they were transposed sixty years into the future.

There are moments where Fleisher makes inaccurate predictions, but these are none the less interesting for their errancy.  He utterly fails to predict the Cold War, and it is deeply interesting and even a little humbling to hear him use the words ‘united nations’ as an adjective and a noun more than as an organisation, several times evoking the sincere belief that the nations of the world would have general consensus throughout the rest of the century, only pausing to solve occasional disputes.

An interesting and manageably brief little book, that stands out from its competition by virtue of the tact, humility and conciliatory nature with which it is written. It is truly rare to find so much good sense packed into such an unassuming form.


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Chiang Kai-Shek, by Jonathan Fenby

April 3, 2011 at 20:07 (Asian History, Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Twentieth Century, War) (, , , , , )


A remarkably coherent and deeply focused look at Chiang, and a surprisingly comprehensive study of China through the first several decades of the last century. Fenby spends a judicious amount of time devoted to the background of China, including the Warlord Period; the life, philosophies and influence of Sun Yat-Sen; foreign activity in China (from the Western Concessions and the eventual meddling of the League of Nations all the way down to petty despots carving out miniature fiefdoms). While Chiang does not appear on the scene for some time, Fenby dedicates enough time to make his reader feel intimately acquainted with the country Chiang took over, without sacrificing anything in the way of either quantity or quality in his study of the Generalissimo himself.

Considering the vast scope that Fenby allows himself, it is surprising he has the stamina to stay on track and (regardless of cliffhanging international events) bring things back to Chiang without doing any disservice to the communication of the big picture. Perhaps it is simply Fenby’s good fortune that Chiang was so often at the centre of the key events – or, like Tehran and Yalta, then at least wishing he was at the centre. Whether through good fortune or skilled writing, the end result is a startlingly hollistic view of the early twentieth century, and while (as always) a grounding in the politics of the time is invaluable, this book almost precludes the need for familiarity with its subjects.

When considering the outright hostile contempt present in the subtitle–China’s Generalissimo and the nation he lost–it would be entirely natural to expect this book to be riddled through with lingering sentiments regarding the ‘yellow devil’ and his innate inability to carry out his own manifest destiny, and the crying shame it was that the good old boys of Western Europe and the Americas were not able to pull his chestnuts out of the fire in time (the latter a phrase that Chiang, of all people, frequently uses!). Fortunately, this book seems to be refreshingly free of condescension, and if Chiang and Mao (not to mention the warlords) are painted as belligerent, stupid and arrogant men at times, then the same treatment is given to the depressingly mad Patrick Hurley, or the tired old George Marshall, or the senselessly squabbling Stilwell and Chennault. It is a tragicomic mix of megalomaniacs and tyrants, of fools and slaves, of greed and mass murder; but one feels that (whatever this account’s actual failings) Fenby has certainly gone to some effort to depict his chosen slice of history fairly.

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The Lost Executioner, by Nic Dunlop

February 8, 2011 at 14:47 (Asian History, Biography, Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Twentieth Century, War) (, , , , )


Dunlop does not add anything new to the body of history that details the vile Khmer Rouge regime, but his memoir-style account has the advantage of hindsight, and the benefit of being written decades after the end of Pol Pot. This only adds to the weight of his often-shocking revelations that even after the genocide, the rule of the Khmer Rouge continued in the refugee camps, finding their way back into the shattered nation with the aid of Cambodia’s sinister patriarch Prince Sihanouk, through the incompetence of the UN, the collusion of China and Thailand, and the arrogance of the USA.

Nic Dunlop goes to no effort to hide his open scorn and hatred towards both the principle agents of genocide (and their unwitting dupes), painting them as two-dimensional monsters, and occasionally appearing to blame and to an extent demonise the entire Khmer race. The author’s scorn for America is perhaps deserved, but provides for some rather subjective and vitriolic declarations on his part.

It is easy to wonder, after reading this book, if Dunlop’s intensely personal encounters with people and events in Cambodia have not unduly coloured his account. His searing and merciless indictments against some of the most ruthless men of history are puzzling when compared with the his warmth and unashamed friendship with cold-blooded murderers, and despite his background as a journalist, he is seldom objective, occasionally apologetic and frequently venemous. Yet these contradictions perhaps bring the whole tale into some sort of balance, painting a picture of a nation gone mad, summing up rather chillingly a nation in which murderers live side by side with the children of their victims. This is not ahistory of a political party, or a social event. It is a personal diary, and a man’s struggle to understand a people tearing itself apart in an inexplicable masochistic rage. It tells the story emotionally. How else could this story be told?

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Genghis Khan: His Life and Legacy, by Paul Ratchnevsky

February 1, 2011 at 02:28 (Asian History, Biography, Book Reviews, Historical, Mediocre Books) (, , , )


Ratchnevsky is a prosaic writer, but he is certainly thorough. He is not the most interesting man to read, and he wastes little time with his own opinions. This is dry history, but he quotes promiscuously from many writers (contemporary to his subject and modern) who are all much more lively than he. His study on the life of Genghis Khan is complete and well thought out, and he is absolutely focused on his subject. Where necessity dictates a digression, there he will digress. Where he needs to venture further afield and take stock of the Mongol’s legacy, he will duly venture as far as he must, though not a step further. Few readers will find cause for complaint, or question the thoroughness of his coverage. The photographs included have (for the most part) no bearing or relevance on the subject, but shoddy photographs are not a cause for panning a history book.

Despite this thorough and complete look at the Khan, it was a little disappointing to find so little about Kubilai Khan, or Timur Lane. Ratchnevsky is not to be blamed for omitting characters decades removed from his subject, but he might own a little guilt for treating his subject a little too myopically. As far as he promises, there he delivers. Everything about Genghis Khan is present – Ratchnevsky missed nothing – and yet his history is a little hollow, a little bland and perhaps somewhat too academic, without the flair or personality of some more engaging writers. For those sick of sensationalism in their history, this will be a breath of fresh air; for those looking for a quick reference book, this will do nicely. For those looking to immerse themselves in the tarry air of the yurt, the hot breath of the horse and the chilly reaches of the steppe, this book will be a massive disappointment.

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