Thursday, September 17, 2015

When asking "Who are we?," what about white supremacy?

In American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity, historian Christian G. Appy (more here) highlights how post-World War II racial romanticism about a benevolent role for the United States in Asia prepared us for our war in Vietnam.

As President John F. Kennedy chose to stumble ever further into a secret war, he waxed eloquent on the metaphor that the U.S. was "godparent" to "little Vietnam."

It was an appealing image -- flattering to every generous impulse of a great and wealthy nation ... We would only be doing what was right and necessary, fulfilling the obligation of a parent to a child.

We were set up for this patronizing lie by a couple of decades of popular culture in which, if not demonic Japs or Chinese Communists, Asians were sweet little yellow men. Novelist James Michener became the "king of best selling writers about the Pacific" and the film and sound track of South Pacific fed U.S. white people's fond belief that, whatever we might be doing to domestic "Negros," we were capable of warm and friendly relations the slant-eyed sort of Those People.

This artifact from the movie is hard to watch now -- but it sure catches the assurance of superior white virtue that pervaded our culture in the 1950s:
We so wanted to believe that we meant so well ...

2 comments:

Rain Trueax said...

And is arising again as some believe it, like McCarthyism, should never have left :(. I tend to believe it's not just us. It's any human culture that reaches a certain level of power. Maybe it's a quality that has made humans grow in strength but also the limitation that destroys us time and again.

Hattie said...

This sure takes me back. Did you read "The Quiet American?" And "A Bright Shining Lie?"
That's a good insight that patronizing attitudes toward Asians were factors in our dealings with Asians. First you patronize and then you demonize. Kind of like with Mexicans now.

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