Russia’s attack on Ukraine comes eighty years after another dark moment for the West: the fall of Singapore to Imperial Japanese forces on February 14, 1942. Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor the previous December and its campaign through the Philippines, Indochina, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies turned the European conflict that had begun in Poland in September 1939 into a world war. On all fronts, the West was unprepared.

The fall of Singapore, the “Gibraltar of the East,” marked a new nadir in Britain’s wartime fortunes, and it had strategic and psychological consequences. Churchill saw Singapore as the lynchpin of British power and prestige in the Far East. “It is the will of the cabinet,” he wrote just a week before General Arthur Percival’s unconditional surrender, “to defend it to the last.” The problem was that this “fortress” was no fortress. Proper landward defenses had never been prepared, and its “moat,” the Jahore Strait, was easily bridged. Water supplies were vulnerable. The Americans at Corregidor held out for four months, the British at Singapore barely a week. Spoke the king’s rueful first minister after it was over: “I ought to have known.”

What ought he have known? Churchill’s unyielding words and will got his country through the Blitz and staved off surrender. But underinvestment in defense is dangerous, and in 1940, the British on the home front had been lucky. Brave words must be accompanied by at least a few assets better than your adversary’s. During the summer and fall of 1940, Britain had Spitfire planes, radar technology, and Bletchley Park code-breakers in addition to Churchill’s speeches. In 1942, the assets were not at hand in the Far East. The “impenetrable” jungle of the Malay peninsula proved no barrier to fast-moving Japanese troops on bicycles. The sinking of the capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse proved that sea power without air power had become worthless. Numerical superiority on the ground (Commonwealth forces numbered over eighty thousand, Japanese about thirty thousand) proved no match for superior generalship. As for Britain’s new allies, the Americans were reeling from their own losses in Hawaii and the Philippines. The loss of Singapore effectively knocked Britain out of the Pacific war, which quickly became a largely all-American show. Later, after the tide had turned, the Royal Navy, at Churchill’s behest, dispatched a substantial fleet to the Pacific to fight alongside the Americans, but it represented a forlorn hope for the old empire. When the British returned to Singapore in 1945 after Japan’s general surrender, it would not be for long. The war had shifted the world and Britain’s place of primacy within it. The Old Lion roared a while longer, but with the humiliation of Singapore, and the scuttle from India five years later, the imperial chapter of British history was set to close.

We tend to think of the British Empire as a Victorian thing, but it actually reached its apogee between the two world wars. By the late Thirties, however, it was nearing its sunset. A large and contentious literature addresses the question of the beneficence or malignity of empire, with those in favor of malignity recently having the upper hand. What matters here is to remember something that, however unacceptable to us now, was once commonplace: the general sense that the Empire represented a benign extension to the world of British concepts of law and liberty—a stab, anyway, at a stable, peaceful world order. Or so had many British taught themselves to believe and convinced some of their colonial subjects too. Because it seemed the best, or at least the best thing then on offer, it also looked lasting. This was the greater delusion. By the interwar years, when a quarter of the globe still was British pink, empire had become a happy habit, with fortresses like Singapore symbols of its potency and permanence.

That of course was only the view from the inside. To adversaries who saw the world best ordered in a different way than Britain, her empire rested on sand. In the West’s political divisions and cultural decadence, in its neglected defenses and aversion to war, aggressor nations spotted advantage and sooner or later took it. A comforting architecture of world order, thought permanent or at least highly durable, collapsed overnight. 

Failures of strategic vision and high policy, blameworthy though they were in the run-up to the British Empire’s end, should not cause us to forget the countless acts of bravery and heroism in the defense of Singapore by thousands of ordinary Commonwealth soldiers—British, Australian, Indian, and Malay—who found themselves at the point of the spear and saw close-up, in the prospect of Japanese conquest, something darker by far than the British Empire. Their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of all those forced to surrender and suffer unspeakable conditions in captivity, though in vain, was not delusional. The lasting sadness is that, with better preparation and constancy at the top, it should never have been required of them. Whatever later might be said about the sins of empire, these men acquitted themselves courageously in its cause. They were not the last to find themselves in such a position. Folly always has a price. Innocents pay it first. 

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