Would that it were so simple. The Allies’ inclusion of the Soviet Union—“a dictatorship as absolute as any dictatorship in the world,” Franklin D. Roosevelt once called it—muddied the waters. But the other chief Allies weren’t exactly liberal democracies, either. Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United States, and (depending on how you view Tibet and Mongolia) China were all empires. Together, they held, by my count, more than 600 million people—more than a quarter of the world—in colonial bondage.
This fact wasn’t incidental; empire was central to the causes and course of the war. Yet the colonial dimensions of World War II aren’t usually stressed. The most popular books and films present it as Churchill did, as a dramatic confrontation between liberty-loving nations and merciless tyrants. In the United States, it’s remembered still as the “good war,” the vanquishing of evil by the Greatest Generation.
That understanding works—sort of—when war stories focus on Adolf Hitler’s invasions of sovereign states in Europe. It falters, however, when they center on the Pacific. There, the Japanese targeted colonies, seizing them under the banner of “Asia for the Asiatics.” The Allies beat Japan back, but only to return Burma to the British and Indonesia to the Dutch—Asia for the Europeans.