Empires at War: A Short History of Modern Asia since World War II by Francis Pike - review by John Keay

John Keay

The East Rises

Empires at War: A Short History of Modern Asia since World War II


I B Tauris 755pp £27.50

Francis Pike claims that the idea for this book came to him in 1984 while approaching Hiroshima aboard a ferry. In the ship’s saloon the film Tora! Tora! Tora! was being shown, and when his fellow passengers, all of them Japanese, took undisguised delight in its footage of the bombing of the American fleet in Pearl Harbor, Pike found himself ‘astounded … shocked’. He went on deck, watched the sun set, and resolved that ‘a book that adequately explained how modern Asia had come into being’ was sorely needed. The juxtaposition of Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima struck him as provocative rather than ironic; likewise the Japanese cheers as another American warship was blown to smithereens on screen. The book would set the record straight. Its writing seems to have become his mission and, having completed it a quarter of a century later, he remains wedded to its twin contentions: that Washington’s Asian adventures were a logical and desirable continuation of its earlier westward penetration of North America and the Pacific, and that the resultant triumph in Asia of what Pike calls ‘Anglo-Saxon values’ (property rights, democratic freedoms, accountable government and the global market) was altogether a good thing. This is history with an agenda. 

The book’s subtitle, ‘A Short History of Modern Asia since World War II’, is misleading. The timeframe is in fact longer, beginning well before the Second World War, and the geographical context narrower, being restricted to South, South-East and East Asia (so no Middle East, Central Asia, etc);

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

RLF - March

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter