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Pearl Harbor and America’s Colonial Legacy

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December 7, 1941. Asian colonial power attacks U.S. colonial outposts in Hawaii and Philippines. Next 74 years sees no awareness by Americans that racist colonialism of Japan and racist colonialism of the United States have a lot in common.

Now, that’s being flippant. And yes, the Japanese occupation of the Philippines was exceptionally brutal. But there’s plenty of truth in it. No event since the Civil War has seen so much conscious memory-making as World War II and other than the Holocaust, no moment is more significant to that memory-making than Pearl Harbor. Neither the Hawaiians nor the Filipinos had asked to be part of the United States. Hawaii already had an important place in the American imagination by 1941 because of how Hawaiian culture, in an exoticized form that largely erased Hawaiian agency, had influenced American popular culture, both as a tropical paradise and also in music. But let’s remember that Hawaii had an independent government that was overthrown by American sugar interests, even after Grover Cleveland refused to annex the islands. Then William McKinley happily annexed them. And while Hawaii became a state in 1959, it was not a state in 1941. It was an occupied land attacked by another power who also sought to be an occupied conqueror.

It’s very interesting to me how little this history has played into our memory of World War II, especially given two other factors. First, the war is largely played up in memory, and was talked of this way at the time, of democracy defeating tyranny. Which, fair enough, but of course the Hawaiians had no say in this democracy. Second is that Americans have done a decent job of acknowledging their own hypocrisy in this formulation in other ways. Specifically, the placement of Japanese-Americans in concentration camps (the use of internment camps as the description depoliticizes what was going on compared to the Nazis and is wrong. They were concentration camps. They weren’t death camps but they were effectively the same idea of rounding up internal enemies based on race) has become part of our acknowledged national shame. To a lesser extent, our treatment of African-Americans during World War II is on the edges of this memory, particularly the need for the March on Washington movement to force open hiring black people on defense contracts. But the reality of Hawaii and the Philippines? Nowhere to be found.

Of course, the Philippines are far less central to American memory than Hawaii, except for the Bataan Death March. But not only was the Philippines an occupied power, that occupation had been exceptionally brutal in the years after 1898, which was well within the living memory of the people of the Philippines. Over 250,000 Filpinos died in the war after 1898, including from starvation and disease. The U.S. troops committed war crimes, depredations against dead bodies, massive rapes, shooting people into mass graves, and other horrifying things. Moreover, the primary reason the Filipinos were on the road to independence in 1941 was that the U.S. decided that giving up colonialism was more palatable than allowing Filipinos into California to work on the farms and where there were plenty of examples of interracial sex going on and infuriating white California, the same Californians oh so happy to steal the Japanese-Americans’ land and businesses in early 1942. The Tydings-McDuffie Act was the result. Here’s a good summary of the situation. An excerpt:

Moral panics about interracial sex and political subversion soon spurred public action most visibly manifested in a series of race riots and vigilante campaigns targeting Filipino immigrants on the West Coast in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Violence and acrimony directed at the “invaders” attracted national media attention and eventually prompted Congress to hold hearings on the “Filipino problem.” The nativist lobby used the platform to press its case for exclusion, soliciting support from Southern Congressional representatives, drawing comparisons between Filipino and African-American men’s alleged ardor for white women. Legislation aimed at restricting Filipino immigration stalled again, with the Philippines status as a US possession remaining the chief sticking point.

Nativist leaders quickly adopted a new strategy, embracing the cause of Philippine independence in the early 1930s. Once the Philippines was granted its sovereignty, they reasoned, Filipinos would no longer be exempt from restrictive immigration quotas. While there had long been a vocal base of support in Congress for Philippine independence, it was opposed by powerful constituencies in the federal government who viewed the archipelago as a valuable geo-strategic asset.

The nativist lobby entered into a makeshift coalition with two other important groups pushing for independence. The first was Midwestern agricultural interests, concerned about the importation of inexpensive Philippine products that entered the US duty-free because of the colonial status of the islands. Domestic sugar beet growers feared competition from cheap Philippine cane sugar, and dairy farmers saw coconut oil (formerly a key ingredient in margarine) as hurting the demand for butter. Their political agenda ran parallel to that of the nativists, except they advocated independence as a way to restrict the free entry of Philippine goods, rather than Filipino labor.

This is all part of the World War II story as well as our brave troops attacked by the Japanese. Yet it’s remarkable how not only is the fact that these were colonial outposts but that the story of Pearl Harbor is a lily white story, even though plenty of Hawaiians, not to mention the huge numbers of Japanese migrants that were living in Hawaii, were part of the story on December 7, 1941 as well. All in all, our memories of Pearl Harbor are not complete memories. Nearly 75 years on, we need to acknowledge and come to terms with our own racist history in this central event to our public memory.

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