Doctor Peter Lowe: Historian of the Asia-Pacific


Peter Lowe was a distinguished international historian of the 20th century Asia-Pacific, the author of six major books covering half a century of developments in East Asia and Britain's reactions to them. He combed the archives of many countries, focusing on the period from 1911 when Britain – and the British Empire – were forces to be reckoned with, to the 1960s, when Britain had to limit her overseas interests. His careful scholarship over four decades was firmly founded on an admirable attention to primary sources.

Peter Lowe was born in Cardiff in 1941. He was educated at University College, Cardiff and proceeded to graduate work in history. His thesis – understood to be the first doctorate in history awarded by the University of Wales, Cardiff – was ultimately published as Great Britain and Japan, 1911-15 (1969).

He was appointed to the history department of Manchester University in 1965, and there he spent his entire academic career. He was a caring and diligent teacher on a broad range of subjects, supervising a large number of graduate students and supporting colleagues through the staff association. After undertaking intricate archival research on the later 1930s, he published a major study, Great Britain and the origins of the Pacific War: a study of British policy in East Asia, 1937-41 (1977). For a wider public he produced a more general survey Britain in the Far East: a survey from 1819 to the present (1981).

His researches moved forward into the wartime and post-war period. He wrote about Japan in the period of the allied occupation, and offered important sketches of General Douglas MacArthur and Britain's envoy, Sir Alvary Gascoigne. But the focus of his research broadened. He published The Origins of the Korean War (1986) and followed this up in 2000 with a book on the politico-military conduct of the Korean War itself. One reviewer wrote that "his objectivity and breadth on a highly controversial topic was generally recognised by American historians as providing an important counterpoint to the more narrow America-centric accounts of some authors."

Long active in the field of Japanese studies, Lowe was for some years secretary of the British Association for Japan Studies and was elected president in 1985. He was a member of the Japan Society and a frequent contributor to its publications. He cooperated in preparing one of the Society's publications, British Envoys in Japan, 1859-1972 (2004) which was dedicated to him in recognition of his "labour for many years on the history of Anglo-Japanese diplomatic relations".

Lowe was intrigued, he tells us, by analysing the vast issues bequeathed by the Asia-Pacific war. This is reflected in his next work, which concentrated on the triangle of north-east Asian powers, Containing the Cold War in East Asia: British Policies towards Japan, China and Korea, 1948-53 (1997). The problem was not only her delicate relationship with these three but also the brittle link with the US, with whom serious differences emerged in this region. The book ended with the preparations for the Geneva Conference, which he described as "the last occasion when Britain stood her ground against the United States".

He retired in 2004 as Reader in History and was appointed Honorary Senior Research Fellow. In his final work, Contending with Nationalism and Communism: British policy towards Southeast Asia, 1945-65 (2009) he widened his topic geographically to south-east Asia and discussed decolonisation. He had already edited a book of studies on the Vietnam War; now he turned to Britain's problems in handling the twin issues of nationalism and communism with her diminished international strength and the role she played in the creation of Malaysia. It was part of the process of Britain reducing her commitments and gradually withdrawing from east of Suez.

In retirement Peter moved to Poole, where he was able to indulge his passion for walking on the south coast and his deep interest in opera and ballet. His love of classical music, which had grown through his devotion to the Hallé Orchestra, continued through the Bournemouth Chamber Music Society, whose chairman he became. He also followed up his Mancunian efforts for the Liberal Democratic party in the new environment of Dorset. Peter Lowe was industrious, generous, sociable, a born conversationalist. His friends had expected him to enjoy years of fruitful retirement, hoping he might add another volume to his prolific output, but he died after a short illness.

Ian Nish

Peter Lowe, international historian: born Cardiff 8 April 1941; died Poole 19 January 2012.