THE PRAYER had been said. The songs had been sung, extolling the virtues of America the beautiful, God's favored land, a land filled with his grace. Hands over hearts, the assembled had pledged allegiance, eyes set on the flag: red and white stripes, and white stars-the blue background a deepening night sky, revealing ever more stars, a growing constellation, a universe expanding. The lyrics, the melodies, the pastor's voice, his supplications. They intertwined. God country faith growth. A poetry of patriotism.
Violet prepared to be honored. She readied herself, in her seat among the others, sharing their anticipation. But she shared little else with them. Her life was markedly different, her achievement consequently all the greater. Each student walked across the stage, first one then the next, taking something from the top of the stack, an engraved certificate identical to all-except for the name of the recipient. Many looked up into the audience, into the beaming faces of proud parents. The parents clapped and waved. Near the end of the line, one of the few Japanese Americans in the group of white teenagers, Violet instead looked up at Mr. and Mrs. Stuart.
From sea to shining sea, young Americans were graduating, venturing out into a world of opportunity. Diminished opportunity it seemed in the spring of 1934, even here in California. Displaced persons, known by their state of origin, continued to roll into town in dilapidated cars and trucks, Okies, Arkies, and others. Like Violet, some had arrived by ship, over the waters of the second of the shining seas, from what was called the Far East to the American West. These movements-people in search of work, in search of a decent livelihood-were reflected in the very names in the graduation program. Near the end of the list was the name Yamane.
At age seventeen, after years of intensive study and after a fidgety wait this afternoon-the M's and S's especially long-Violet Yamane, the Hawaiian-born daughter of Japanese immigrants, stepped carefully toward the principal, shook his hand, and accepted her diploma. Second perhaps only to her birth certificate, which had declared her F, a female, and U.S., a citizen, this piece of paper marked her. A person with promise, in a land of promise. Enhanced prospects. Possibilities. With purpose, Violet strode off the stage, past the podium, past that potent symbol of nationalism, the star-spangled banner. She made her way around the crowd and, with the Stuarts, walked across the broad green expanse. For the last time, Violet walked off the grounds of Fresno's Theodore Roosevelt High School.
The little girl who loved nature-a collector of flowers, a writer of poems-was now an adult. Unpinning her colorful corsage, Violet Yamane pondered her future direction. The people around her wanted her to succeed. Today suggested that she already had, at least thus far in life. As she had proven, she was determined, motivated: the stuff of high school speeches. She had goals, aims, aspirations: the bywords of graduation exercises. But how should someone properly measure success? How to evaluate its forms? It was a careful calculus. At what point did ambition-a healthy desire to improve oneself, one's circumstances-give way to greed? When did the pursuit of dreams, the inclination to better the world around, yield to a crass striving? Under what conditions would bonds of family and friendship be sacrificed? When would one's supporters, the cheerleaders of success, be left behind? Did moving up have to mean moving away? How should a young person look beyond her self in order to account for the needs of others? In exploring these questions, what beliefs, what value systems, should be consulted?
These same questions could be applied to a maturing American nation and its youthful empire overseas, the lands on which its flag would be planted afresh. Did expansionism, the movement into new territories, the incorporation of new realms, represent the crux of collective betterment? Or was it the epitome of excess acquisitiveness? Did it reveal a raw craving for power? Did faith in the Almighty-and the sense of a divine calling to minister abroad-spring from higher-level, spiritual imperatives? Or was it a convenient rationalization for a ruthless earthly avarice, as with the seizing of the sugary-sweet Hawaiian Islands for American business interests? From the cane fields of Hawaii to the strawberry fields of California, across the varied populations subsumed within the American empire, who would be excluded, restricted from this expanding universe?
Violet Yamane's experience suggests that the United States exerts contradictory influences on its chosen members. Its economic order supposedly rewards get-up-and-go. But that forward march of progress is predicated upon a number of leave-takings, the severing of ties to those things most optimistically associated with the best of America: family, faith, community. Literally and metaphorically, ancestral forebears such as Violet's own parents, the Yamanes-oddly absent on the big day-are given up for adoptive kith and kin, as with the Stuarts. Old ways are shed with the taking up of a new faith, a new people. Hard work is intended to move you out of one group and into another. It is meant to lift you up from the masses and into "the classes," into an elite. And yet ideas of America simultaneously seem to cherish a broad middle class, an equally situated, contented citizenry.
As Fresno High School's namesake, Theodore Roosevelt, once declared, "Everything is un-American that tends either to government by a plutocracy, or government by a mob." Fearing mobs-fearing, in particular, empowered groups of discontented workers, at home and overseas, campaigning for better conditions-late nineteenth-century business and political leaders had branded them un-American. That popular turn-of-the-century critic Mark Twain, however, equated Roosevelt and his Republican Party with plutocracy, with sovereign rule by the wealthy, for the wealthy. And immigrant workers, too, began to insist that it was these sorts of rulers, this sort of rule, that was truly un-American. During the first few decades of the twentieth century, the so-called American century, expansive and competing visions of Americanness would emerge. Some, such as Teddy Roosevelt, would have a greater say than others, a greater role in restricting the options for others. Violet Yamane would have to make a life for herself and those she cared about within and occasionally without those limits.
There is a fundamental contradiction in the U.S. relationship to empire: Over the span of roughly one hundred years, a once-aggrieved colonial people came to embrace a massive program of imperial expansion and domination all their own. In the late eighteenth century, American colonists of European descent had rebelled against imperial rule, with slogans lofty-life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness-and somewhat more materialistic: no taxation without representation. Staving off competing "explorers" and settlers of Dutch, French, German, and Spanish origin, and participating in a genocide of Native American tribal people whose land they stole, the British invaders and their descendants had come to see North America as home and England as the oppressor. By the late nineteenth century, with mounting force, the United States vied with these selfsame European powers for control of other parts of the Americas and, farther west, the Asia-Pacific region-a staggering level of avarice and acquisitiveness matched only by the mother country. For British leaders had designs on the entire earth and the sun too, tracking its movements with scientific precision-from zero longitude and zero hour at Greenwich-across the newfangled time zones of its worldly possessions. The sun would never set, they hoped, on this empire.
In America Theodore Roosevelt often led the charge, but his presidential predecessor, William McKinley, played a less-noted but no-less-crucial role in expansionism. McKinley perfected a religious rhetoric of righteousness that would resonate in foreign policy for at least another century. McKinley believed in God. Indeed, he believed, as many American presidents have, that God spoke to him directly. Never mind a separation of church and state, McKinley needed advice on his latest imperial theft, a group of Pacific islands known as the Philippines, and he looked much higher than his cabinet. As he told a gathering of religious figures, he got down on his knees many a night and prayed for God to give him guidance in the matter. One night God answered, in astonishing detail. The Philippines could not be returned to the previous imperial overlords, Spain, for "that would be cowardly and dishonorable." They could not be turned over to "our commercial rivals" France or Germany, for "that would be bad business and discreditable." They certainly couldn't be left alone, for-as McKinley and many white supremacists saw it-Filipinos were "unfit for self-government" and would surely descend into "misrule" and "anarchy." Thus, "there was nothing left for us to do but to take them all and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them, and by God's grace do the very best we could by them, as our fellow men for whom Christ also died. And then I went to bed and went to sleep and slept soundly."
With phrases such as "manifest destiny," "divine mission," and "holy purpose" in the air, white Americans might have found it easy to believe that Christianization was more a key objective than an after-the-fact rationalization of conquest. While McKinley occasionally deigned to describe Filipinos as "fellow men," his policies suggested he viewed them as less than human. As respected historian Robert Wiebe puts it, "The government's officials, along with a great many Americans, shared [a] certain predilection [that] separated the world into two parts. Above lay the civilized powers, principally Europe and the United States; below fell the subjects of their imperialism in Asia, Africa, and Latin America." As Wiebe elaborates, "This segregation involved much more than an allocation of status. Basically it concerned intrinsic worth and inherent capacities and carried with it a clear moral differential, one that not only attributed meager sensibilities to the barbarian but also freed advanced nations to deal with him by a code they would never have dreamed of applying to each other." An American moral code-always in the works, never fully, finally agreed-was under hot debate, leaving many to question the nature of barbarism, as well as its principal perpetrator. With characteristic sarcasm, Mark Twain reflected upon the U.S. military's engagement with the proponents of Philippine independence, whom we might call freedom fighters: "We have pacified some thousands of the islanders and buried them; destroyed their fields; burned their villages, and turned their widows and orphans out-of-doors; furnished heartbreak by exile to some dozens of disagreeable patriots; subjugated the remaining tens of millions by Benevolent Assimilation, which is the pious new name of the musket." And so, Twain concluded with reference to the U.S. slaughter of half a million Filipinos, "by these Providences of God-and the phrase is the government's, not mine-we are a World Power."
World powers such as Great Britain and the United States indeed divided the world into two parts. They did so in a number of ways, allowing religious thought and medical reasoning to bleed into one another. Of relatively recent cultural invention, the notion of race was elaborated such that whites were distinguished from black and brown people and, related to that, the civilized from the primitive. Clunky instruments for measuring bodily features-the width of one's nose, the breadth of one's forehead-and convoluted graphs for tabulating intellectual capabilities purportedly proved that the former were keyed to the latter, yielding what recent theorists have referred to as scientific racism. Another category of human difference, handedness-whether one was right- or left-handed-likewise was said by respected reformers to expose other human traits and deficiencies at the level of broad cultural groups. In a series of interlinking dualistic arguments, right-handedness was said to be linked to the more complex, functionally superior left hemisphere of the brain, which was somehow linked to the Northern Hemisphere of the earth; and those suspect lefties-associated since medieval times with the devil-were supposedly shown to predominate in the "less civilized" lands below the equator. Thus, it was only logical-in this realm of illogic-that the nations of the North, namely, the United States and Western Europe, should rule over those people and places that their scientists literally and figuratively had placed at the bottom of their maps.
In a world of flux and change, ambiguity and uncertainty, many found desperately needed comfort and stability by sectioning off their fellow human beings with easy dichotomies of us and them, right and wrong, good and evil. In ever more complicated modern societies, with ethical dilemmas and interpersonal conflicts painted in the subtlest shades of gray, some demanded absolutes-a simpler, more readily comprehensible, black-and-white world. It's no accident, suggests the historian of literacy Tamara Plakins Thornton, that around this very time, during the late nineteenth century, when the left-handed were severely punished and forced to comport to a right-handed (or occasionally ambidextrous) ideal, a new breed of sexologists began to classify the great bewildering array of human erotic desires, acts, and identities into a pat, tidy twosome: heterosexual versus homosexual.
Fearful of effete men and strong women, Teddy Roosevelt came to power on the heels of his imperial military heroics and in the face of a growing political radicalism at home. He was catapulted into elective office amidst tales of his Rough Riders' exploits in Cuba-cowboy-and-Indian-style, shoot-'em-up narratives, updated for the island context. Roosevelt's own account, published in 1900, necessarily had to dismiss the importance of two black regiments of regulars in the San Juan heights, as Americans who had aided colonial aggression but ostensibly shared the inferior racial qualities of the colonized-all of them, in the parlance of the times, the "white man's burden." Meanwhile, African American activists along with Americans of European ancestry-northern and western, and increasingly southern and eastern-violently clashed over the rule of law and the ethics of political and financial governance.
For a time a much-maligned and much-misunderstood group commanded headlines, the bane of presidents and pundits. Far from advocating chaos or disorder, anarchists believed in voluntary cooperation and free association, especially at the local level, distrusting big government and big business. Many, like Emma Goldman, also promoted principles of free love and birth control as a counter to the inequities of marriage and the sexual double standard for women. The metaphorical black-and-white world, they suggested, also split humanity up into men versus women-the latter almost always losing out, shortchanged as a result. Indeed, related to all these dichotomies, these stark societal binaries, was the crucial economic distinction between the haves and the have-nots, the anarchists pointed out. Usually proponents of socialism, anarchists supported workers' ownership of the means of production, and they decried capitalist profiteering as greedy, malevolent, evil. Some brought a revolutionary fervor to the struggle, as when Goldman's lover Alexander Berkman shot and stabbed industrialist Henry Clay Frick-not as an act of individual retribution but as a larger blow for workers' rights and economic justice.
Excerpted from CONCENTRATION CAMPS ON THE HOME FRONTby JOHN HOWARD Copyright © 2008 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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