Churchill on the Far East in The Second World War
Hiding the History of the `Special Relationship’
Basingstoke:Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
Hardcover. xiii+265 p. ISBN 978-1137363947. £60
Reviewed by Greg Kennedy
King’s College London
Why have historians not recognised the importance of the Far East when analysing and studying the Second World War is the main question posed here. The answer is supposedly because the most “dominant influence” on the study of the Second World War for the last sixty years has been Winston Churchill’s history of that event. Therefore, because Churchill did not focus on the Far Eastern aspects of that conflict, subsequent historians have failed to appreciate its significance as well. Following the same analytical and methodological shortcomings of the historians Cat Wilson wants to interrogate about that condition, the answer is to be found in the study of The Great Man, Winston S. Churchill. Immediately then, as far as originality and complexity of analysis is concerned, we are left to ask: really? After eighty years of progress in the art of historical analysis, in particular in the study of war in all its guises, from origins to outcomes, this is what a 21st-century British Ph.D. has to offer: the field is inadequate in understanding the place of the Far East in the Second World War and it was all because of Winston Churchill. One can only ask how this un-question was allowed to pass through the various process of a Ph.D. to completion.
No serious authors of the Second World War have considered Churchill’s musing to be history for over fifty years. Scholars interested in Churchill may have, but that is another category. British historians, of a certain age, class and political flavour have been the greatest supporters of the constantly eroded Great Man approach to events surrounding the war, but they have grown less relevant and less influential to the fields of military history, international history, naval history, intelligence history, to name just a few, and have congregated in a small and shallow pool in the political history of the Second World War sea. And that is as it should be given the nature of the copious amount of archival research done around the world by Canadian, American, Australian, Indian, European and Latin American scholars. As far as International History goes, which this work makes some claim to be related to, Zara Steiner’s two-volume survey of that literature shows the limits of such an approach. Interestingly, given claims by this work to have studied British foreign and defence policy, Steiner’s unsurpassed study is not among the works cited in the bibliography, But that is not a surprise given how incomplete and erratic the research base for the monograph is overall concerning secondary sources. Therefore, as for the book being a work that has an authoritative command of the necessary historiography, methodology and theoretical constructs required for dealing with such a question as posited, it is not credible from a research point of view.
The reason that Churchill did not publish on the Far East is that he knew, or cared, very little about it. Despite public and private utterances to the contrary, when one weighs up his policies, and discussions that surrounded those through various individual and departmental lenses, it is very clear that the man was almost completely ignorant of cultural, geographic, economic, military, fiscal, or even commercial aspects of the Asia-Pacific region and the British system of Imperial Defence relating to it. He worked from a visceral and emotional reaction to the region, formed largely from the values of a racism tinged with imperial and white supremacist imperatives. There was little of “strategic” worth in his understanding of the region. Wilson struggles to try and put this across in the chapters on empire, Japan and India, but cannot square the circle between the need for Churchill to be the central figure of her story and the man being endowed with such ignorance and understanding of how the Far East connected the British Empire to not just Japan, but the Soviet Union, the United States and numerous smaller imperial states. Therefore, the analysis provided is as unconvincing and sporadic as the chronological hopscotch that occurs within the chapters as threads and themes are pursued without due historical care or regard to events, time, and other actors.
The reason for Churchill’s historical narrative not dealing with the Far East, and his desire to place the blame for war coming to that region on the Americans, was the Tory phobia of having to admit to a dependence on American power. American power was the main arbiter of the balance of power in that region from 1936 onwards. Once the war in Europe broke out all that Whitehall could do was work for a continued and greater American presence and influence in the Far East to protect British interests and participate in a coordinated economic warfare scheme aimed at keeping Japan mired in operations in China and deterred from using sea power in the south against British, Dutch and American strategic interests. As the empire was stripped bare to deal with the crisis in Europe, that dependency meant that in both theatres America was ascending to a dominant position in any strategic partnership with Great Britain. As the war progressed, Britain’s contribution in the Far East was limited and militarily inconsequential to the outcome in most regards, failing to recover significantly from the strategic embarrassment of the rapid loss of Hong Kong and Singapore, all realities that Churchill at the time and in his historical interpretations was loath to acknowledge. The sending of the British Pacific Fleet, which Wilson does not deal with in any significant way, was a political act, as was the preparation for forces to assist with the invasion of Japan. British officials, regional politicians and the people of the Asia-Pacific region knew who had provided the lion’s share of the military and economic power for the war in the Far East, and it had not been the tattered, ragged British lion. America’s dominance in the region was not a function of just the war: it had been a reality far longer than that and this transfer of power, the passing of the Trident had had little to no Churchillian influence in it whatsoever. What place did such a reality have in a history aimed at bestowing the concept of strategic genius, saviour of the English-speaking world, on to the author?
Serious scholars of British International, Imperial or Military history of the inter-war and Second World war period will gain little from opening their pursues to purchase this book. Its thesis is unoriginal, its research limited and its lack of context and clarity regarding the overall strategic condition of the British Empire and Winston Churchill’s interpretation of the Far East’s place in that Imperial Defence system severely limit the utility and impact of the work.
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