By the end of the nineteenth century, the pattern of colonial domination in Southeast Asia had been firmly established. The British exercised control over Burma, Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei; the Dutch over the Netherlands East Indies, the present-day state of the Republic of Indonesia, the French over Indochina, consisting of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and the Americans over the Philippines; and Portugal over Timor Leste. Only Thailand managed to retain its independence.

While World War I did nothing to change this order, initial Japanese victory and subsequent occupation during the Pacific War left in its wake militant and confident nationalist movements in much of Southeast Asia. The Americans, having committed to the independence of the Philippines even before the outbreak of the Pacific War, did not face the problem of post-war colonial revolt in their own colony. The British similarly, after initial hesitation, proceeded to grant independence to Burma in 1948 and undertook to prepare Malaya and Singapore for self-government and ultimately granted independence in 1957. The lesser politically advanced states of North Borneo and Sarawak on Borneo were later merged with the Federation of Malaya to form the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. The French and the Dutch, however, proved to be less flexible and proceeded to embark upon wars of colonial re-conquest. The Dutch ultimately granted Indonesia independence in 1950 while the French left Vietnam in 1956, after suffering military defeat at the hand of the Vietminh in 1954.

The United States, which emerged as the world’s leading military and economic power during the postwar period, played an important and determining role in influencing the outcomes of the decolonizing processes both in Indonesia and Vietnam. The American threat to cut off Marshall Plan aid to the Netherlands in the spring of 1949 did as much as any other single factor to force the Dutch to grant independence to Indonesia. Significantly, however, at the very time the United States was pressing the Dutch to relinquish sovereignty over Indonesia, it was opposed to the colonial revolt in Vietnam. Indeed, the United States ultimately took over the war from French and in 1964 committed its ground troops in Vietnam.

This study examines the American approach toward Southeast Asia during and immediately after the Pacific War, focusing specifically on Indonesia and Vietnam. The principal concern of the study is to explain the United States’ policy toward Southeast Asian nationalist revolts immediately after the Pacific War within the larger overall objectives of American diplomacy. The first chapter discusses the American attempt during the war years to modify the prewar colonial order. The following two chapters examine the American responses to colonial revolts in Indonesia and Vietnam immediately after the war. Why did the United States respond differently to the two situations?

The study takes 1941 as the logical starting point and 1950 as the end point. While it is true that the Japanese had occupied French Indochina in 1940, the Asia-Pacific War did not start in Southeast Asia until 1941 when the Japanese launched the invasion of British Southeast Asia and the Netherlands East Indies, precipitating the British and the Dutch to declare war on Japan. The Japanese invasion also marked the dramatic ouster of the white colonialists from their respective Southeast Asian colonies, in effect marking the beginning of the end of colonial rule in the region. The American war-time preparation for the post-colonial world was predicated upon this belief that the status quo ante could not be restored, as was indeed the case in Indonesia and Vietnam. Although the French were not ousted from Vietnam until 1956, the underlying principles of the American responses toward colonial revolts in post-war Southeast Asia were already clearly established by 1950.

The scope of the inquiry is necessarily limited. It is primarily a study of American diplomacy. Accordingly, it focuses mainly on American attitudes and policies, drawing primarily upon American documentary sources. The main documentary references are the Foreign Relations of the United States series and, in the case of Vietnam, supplemented by the Pentagon Papers.  No claim is made to provide bi-national perspectives.

I wish to thank the reviewers at the Institute of Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore at the College of Law, Government and International Studies, Universiti Utara Malaysia for corrections and useful suggestions which strengthened this manuscript. Whatever errors that are here are solely mine.

Richard Mason

Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia

Bangi, Selangor


December 2013

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