Davenport, America in the Asian Century

A Conference on agriculture and research skills at the East-West Centre, University of Hawai’i in Manoa

Written by Sarah Miller-Davenport.

During the Cold War, the United States’ government cared very much what people in Asia thought of America, and of Americans. As part of U.S. efforts to ensure that these decolonizing nations modeled their political and economic systems on American principles, the U.S. sought to project an image of itself as a nation that understood and embraced people of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds. But people in the decolonizing world did not blithely accept America’s message of benevolence, especially in the face of U.S. armed intervention in societies that rejected American development models. Such actions appeared to many in the decolonizing world to be a continuation of European colonialism and its attendant racial hierarchies. Resistance to American power in the decolonizing world forced the U.S. government to seek new ways of communicating its intentions. With nationalist leaders in Asia and elsewhere in the decolonizing world calling for an end to foreign domination and with the Soviets accusing the United States of perpetuating racism at home and abroad, the U.S. needed to prove that it believed in racial and cultural equality.

To both demonstrate America’s goodwill in Asia and tutor Asian students in the ways of modern capitalist development, the U.S. in the 1960s turned to Hawai‘i, America’s 50th state and, in the words of Washington Senator Henry Jackson, America’s “diplomatic state.” Hawai‘i today may conjure an image of a tropical vacationland where visitors travel to escape the world’s problems. Indeed, this was a fantasy that shaped representations of Hawai‘i before and after Hawai‘i statehood in 1959. But many policymakers at this time also saw Hawai‘i not only as an escape, but as a place that had in fact solved the problems plaguing international relations during the mid-20th century.

Hawai‘i, with its majority Asian population and apparent social harmony, was celebrated as an exemplar for successful intercultural communications, one that could be expanded to help forge “mutual understanding” between Americans and Asians more broadly—a project that would, in turn, help to ease the way for modernization in Asia. At the same time, because the U.S. had elevated multiracial Hawai‘i to a fully equal part of the nation, the new state seemed to offer an antidote to accusations of American racism and cultural chauvinism. Against the background of the Cold War rivalry for the allegiance of the Global South, Hawai‘i was now to serve as an exemplar of America’s commitment to self-rule and racial tolerance, and as living proof of the universality of American ideals. Hawai‘i was also viewed, paradoxically, as a place whose difference from the rest of the U.S.—its Asian-inflected culture and seeming lack of racism—made it appear to be the ideal meeting ground between Americans and Asians.

This utopian imagining of Hawai‘i was institutionalized through a campaign to establish the archipelago as a center for international cultural exchange, where people from Asia could be trained in American economic and cultural practices and foreign ways could be demystified for Americans. The most visible manifestations of this effort were the East-West Center— an international educational exchange and graduate program at the University of Hawai‘i—and Hawai‘i’s designation as a site for Peace Corps training.

Hawai‘i, though far from the center of power in Washington, thus became a wellspring of ideas for the newly ambitious foreign policymaking of the 1960s. As America’s so-called “bridge to Asia,” Hawai‘i helped formulate new strategies for securing U.S. cultural and economic influence in the decolonizing world. In particular, it became a center for advancing the theories and practices of the new field of intercultural communication. But the bringing together of Americans and Asians in Hawai‘i did not always go as planned. Such encounters often revealed the cultural chauvinism of the Americans who orchestrated them, despite their claims that such encounters were intended to prove otherwise. Ingrained beliefs in American superiority undermined the stated mission of cultural exchange. Meanwhile, intercultural communications practices developed in Hawai‘i were used to facilitate American military interventions in Asia, which belied the message of benevolence the U.S. sought to project. By focusing on the cultural exchange programs in cold war Hawai‘i, the tensions and contradictions that characterised America’s larger expansionist project in Asia come into sharp relief.

Sarah Miller-Davenport is a lecturer in 20th century U.S. history at the University of Sheffield. Her current manuscript, ‘Gateway State: Hawai’i Statehood and Global Decolonization in American Culture, 1945-1978’, under review at Princeton University Press, explores how and why Hawai’i was constructed as a racial paradise and centre for intercultural exchange in the mid-20th century. Her work has also appeared in the Journal of American History and The Historical Journal. Her JAH article, “‘Their Blood Shall not Be Shed in Vain’: American Evangelical Missionaries and the Search for God and Country in post-World War II Asia,” won the 2014 Bernath article prize from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. Sarah received her PhD from the University of Chicago in 2014. This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue series on America in the ‘Asian Century’, a symposium joint-funded by the Department of American & Canadian Studies, and the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham. Image Credit:  CC/ East-West Centre.


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