Op-ed: My Story about the making of “End of Empire”book review
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- Op-ed: My Story about the making of “End of Empire” - June 9, 2016
It has been published! End of Empire: 100 days in 1945 that changed Asia and the world is a beautifully written, eminently researched, and spectacularly illustrated volume that engages a simple proposition:
That the imperial era was coming to an end was apparent, for Axis and Allied powers alike.
How the era would end, and what would replace it,
was profoundly affected by events between August and November 1945.
The volume has received wonderful reviews from military historians and academics alike. When I invited American Military News to review the book, they suggested instead that I explain how the volume came into existence. They might as well have asked, what’s it like to herd cats? In the space of a few months, nearly 100 scholars from around the world came together to make this book a reality. Here’s the story.
In February 2015, NIAS Press Editor-in-Chief Gerald Jackson suggested that we produce a ‘really good’ volume on the end of the war in the Pacific. He noted that Europeans devote far more attention to, well, the war in Europe (the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies is located in Copenhagen), and Americans think the war ended with (and exclusively because of) a pair of atom bombs.
Further, the question ‘what happened next?’ is rarely explored. End of Empire would seek to fill that gap. The project would combine the best of modern social media with the best of traditional publishing. Gerald and I shook hands and we got to work.
Making a plan
The basic outlines were agreed immediately: End of Empire would be mainly chronological and entirely written by experts. The basic presentation would be illustrated by brief ‘vignettes’ on specific but under-examined aspects of the period, personal reminiscences, maps and photographs. A Pan-Asian book would be the project’s flagship, supported by spinoff country studies and a webpage www.EndOfEmpire.ASIA, which would be a rolling festival of each day’s events.
It is one thing to say, ‘100 world-class scholars will contribute to the book’ and another to make it happen. Three things made it happen. First, in twenty years as publisher, Gerald has developed goodwill among many people who would be on our Dream Team. Second, our academic editors, Robert Cribb, Li Narangoa and David Chandler, lent their immense authority and influence to the project. Finally, when I invited the scholars, my emails were clear and serious, but also absurd and sometimes a tad audacious. Something in all of that struck a chord, and our country-teams were assembled by mid-April.
Crafting a chronology
It turns out that our chronology format is even more valuable than we had realized. Rather than simple one-line entries (eg. 6 September, Chinese communist forces enter Manchuria), our scholars were tasked with providing enough detail to make each event ‘interesting’. Our version of the same event reads:
6 September, Chinese Communist Forces enter Mukden. The first units of the Eighth Route Army enter Mukden and receive captured Japanese military equipment from the Soviets. The CCP strategy now becomes to strengthen its position in the north and remain on the defensive in the south. More troops under the command of Lin Piao enter Manchuria and establish themselves in rural areas.
By insisting on an extra layer of information, we brought out scholarly differences of emphasis and interpretation. My challenge was convincing our scholars to take this extra step. Unlike my first communications, I chose to be more delicate. Hopefully, my tone was in line with the tone I sought to produce in the chronology. I don’t know if that really is the explanation, but I am thrilled with the result.
The value of vignettes
The book includes 80 two-page discussions of a variety of topics. Some are large, but misunderstood, like General Order No. 1 (the fundamental plan for which ally would go where, and what they would do). Others remind the reader of how Big Events affected the day-to-day life of ordinary people: for example, Mabel de Souza, a Singapore waitress who (literally) served first British, then Japanese, then British colonial masters again. As an editorial choice, vignette authors were invited to write on their own authority. Sometimes, the authorities disagreed to an extent that compromise was impossible. Our choice, in these few instances, was to present multiple sides to stories. For example, ‘something’ happened in Saigon between 23–25 September 1945. We offer two views regarding just what happened, and why it matters. You can read them here and here.
Additional materials and participants
Response to the webpage Bernd Wunsch and I created was tremendous from the moment it came online in early August. Not only did we have more visitors than expected; several people stepped forward and volunteered materials. A tiny subset of these – namely Herb Friedman, Lynne Joiner, and Peter Chen – provided materials in time to be included in the printed volume. I have never been happier for a production delay.
Designing a book
As with good writing, the challenge of good book design is to make the design invisible. The ideas should jump from the page as if paper and ink were the most natural form of human communication. Gerald Jackson decided to take personal responsibility for this task. A typical book design can be typeset in about a month. End of Empire kept Gerald busy for fully three months, including weekends. Every page is a work of art.
The design demanded photographs – lots of them – both to illustrate events and to ‘balance’ the pages. Much of this task fell to me. Finding a photograph that is (a) informative; (b) authentic; and (c) not copyright protected turned out to be a challenge. 395 photographs made it into the book; the collection of possibilities runs to well over 1000, all of which can be seen at www.EndOf.Empire.ASIA.
In short, End of Empire is the most exhilarating, exhausting, rewarding, and – dare I say – FUN project I have ever been a part of. Without the active collaboration of scores of people, the book, website, and Facebook page would never have seen the light of day. I’m proud to be one of those people.
End of Empire is distributed in the United States by University of Hawaii Press. It can be ordered through your local bookstore or any online retailer.
NIAS Press is a scholarly publishing house that focuses on innovative research about modern Asia.
David Stuligross (PhD 2001, Political Science, Berkeley) was South Asia Editor at Asian Survey. He has published and taught on environmental politics, ethnic politics, and international relations. He has consulted for the United States and Indian governments on the same subjects.