The Magazine

Turned Upside Down

The end of World War II meant the end of empires.

Oct 21, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 07 • By ALONZO L. HAMBY
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In Asia and the Pacific, Japanese conquest opened the way for revolution. The Japanese overthrew colonial rule in the Dutch East Indies, empowered a native civil service to handle the quotidian business of running the country, and made themselves unpopular with a harsh and exploitative military regime. After 1945, the Dutch could not reestablish their rule. Wartime quasi-collaborators led by Sukarno successfully packaged themselves as national leaders of a new Indonesia. A defeated Japan lost Korea, which it had occupied for a half-century. The Soviet Union established a Communist regime in the North; the United States gave birth to a pro-American regime in the South.  

 Americans returned to the Philippines and inherited a peasant Huk rebellion that had originated in the resistance to Japan, had lived on to fight abusive landlords—and was, perhaps, unjustly tarred as Communist-inspired. Warring on an oceanic archipelago, the Huks were isolated from sources of reinforcement and resupply. Relentless and brutally disciplined, they were nonetheless quelled through a combination of tough anti-guerrilla tactics and a largely unfulfilled promise of reform personified by the charismatic but ill-fated Ramone Magsaysay.  


The epic struggle to evict European masters took shape in the Vietnamese sector of French Indochina, a colony about which Franklin Roosevelt seems to have felt as strongly as he did about Gambia. Here, the insurgency enjoyed all the ingredients for success. Its leader, Ho Chi Minh, was a dedicated Communist showered with material assistance and logistical support from Mao Zedong. Its armed force, the Viet Minh, was remorseless and endured appalling conditions:

The food consisted of cold rice, sometimes enlivened with pungent fish sauce .  .  . medical facilities were rudimentary, with men expected to “sweat out” bouts of endemic malaria, and quinine tablets, when they were available, were divided into therapeutically valueless ten parts. No time was wasted on badly wounded men and once, when a captured Algerian found his path obstructed by a dying Viet Minh, his guard ordered him to tread on him. .  .  . Cards, alcohol, sex and smoking were forbidden. Instead there were communal singing and endless political indoctrination sessions.   

The French never quite grasped the nature of the enemy, nor developed a viable strategy for coming to grips with him. They decided to lure the Viet Minh into a decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu, a narrow valley surrounded by commanding hills. It would, they believed, become a heavily fortified bastion, akin to Verdun in World War I, against which the enemy would destroy himself in one futile attack after another. French air superiority would establish a reliable resupply much as the road known as the Voie Sacrée had sustained Verdun. Instead, they found themselves in a death trap.

An American Foreign Service officer named Howard Simpson was moved to write a satiric doggerel lampooning the futility that ensued:


Camembert for the Colonel’s table,

Wine in abundance when we’re able. 

Indochina may be lost,

Our Colonel eats well despite the cost .  .  . 

.  .  . Parachute the escargot!

Follow them with old Bordeaux.

And on our graves near Dien Bien Phu

Inscribe these words, these very few,

‘They died for France, but more .  .  .

Their Colonel ate well throughout the war.’ 

The Americans, accepting the defense of an independent South Vietnam a decade later, would do little better. In the interval, the French would fight another losing effort to preserve the fiction that Algeria was an integral part of France. The British, after suffering the Suez debacle of 1956, and dealing with what the author considers an overhyped Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya, would find themselves forced to the sane conclusion that their African colonies were too costly to defend and best let go gracefully.