Once the Japanese occupation ended in southeast Asia, the major Western colonial powers found that they could not revert to the prewar status quo. The United States had granted the Philippines independence in 1946. In 1949 the Dutch had to recognize the independence of the Netherlands East Indies as the republic of Indonesia, with a population of 100 million people.
South Korea had also attempted constitutional government in the Western manner but ran into serious difficulties. After the disruptive Korean War of the early 1950s, the government of Syngman Rhee (1875-1965), South Korean president since 1948, came under mounting criticism for corruption and arbitrary actions.
The People’s Republic of China, the most populous country in the world (in 1994, with an estimated population of 1,190,431,000, the only nation with more than a billion people), remained important in Western economic and political calculations and also relatively isolated.
After years of upheaval, with massive purges during the cultural revolution in 1965, the nation’s leadership appeared to realize that it had done untold damage to China’s educational system, to its industrial capacity, and even to the revolutionary principles it espoused.
The occupation of Japan was wholly American. Despite some strong opposition from American opinion, the emperor was left on this throne, deprived of his divine status, and subjected to the close control of the forces of occupation.
When the American occupation ended in 1952, the Japanese had made a promising start on a democracy of the Western type. Their economy grew so rapidly that it overtook France and West Germany, to rank third in the world after the Untied States and the Soviet Union.
During World War II the Japanese had seized Western possessions in the Far East and had initially defeated Western armies, ending the myth of Western supremacy.
Even though Japan was defeated in the end, Western prestige did not recover. Everyone knew that the French and Dutch had not really won, that British power had been seriously weakened. The only real victors in the war were the United States and the Soviet Union, each in its way anti-colonial.
The collapse of repressive regimes was unexpected and sudden. In April 1989 an accord between factions in Poland had promised free elections, and in August the first non-communist head of an Eastern bloc nation was elected prime minister.