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Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American-East Asian Relations at the End of the Century

Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American-East Asian Relations at the End of the Century

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In a work that synthesizes crucial developments in international relations at the close of the twentieth century, Bruce Cumings—a leading historian of contemporary East Asia—provides a nuanced understanding of how the United States has loomed over the modern history and culture of East Asia. By offering correctives to widely held yet largely inaccurate assessments of the affairs of this region, Parallax Visions shows how relations between the United States, Japan, Vietnam, North and South Korea, China, and Taiwan have been structured by their perceptions and misperceptions of each other.

Using information based on thirty years of research, Cumings offers a new perspective on a wide range of issues that originated with the cold war—with particular focus on the possibly inappropriate collaboration between universities, foundations, and intelligence agencies. Seeking to explode the presuppositions that Americans usually bring to the understanding of our relations with East Asia, the study ranges over much of the history of the twentieth century in East Asian–American relations—Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Korean War, and more recent difficulties in U.S. relations with China and Japan. Cumings also rebuts U.S. media coverage of North Korea’s nuclear diplomacy in the 1990s and examines how experiences of colonialism and postcolonialism have had varying effects on economic development in each of these countries. Positing that the central defining experience of twentieth-century East Asia has been its entanglement first with British and Japanese imperialism, and then with the United States, Cumings ends with a discussion of how the situation could change over the next century as the economic and political global clout of the United States declines.

Illuminating the sometimes self-deluded ideology of cold war America, Parallax Visions will engage historians, political scientists, and students and scholars of comparative politics and social theory, as well as readers interested in questions of modernity and the role of the United States in shaping the destinies of modernizing societies in Asia.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822329244
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 07/23/2002
Series: Asia-Pacific: Culture, Politics, and Society Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Bruce Cumings is Norman and Edna Freehling Professor of History at the University of Chicago. He has won numerous awards and is the author of the acclaimed books Korea’s Place in the Sun, War and Television, and The Origins of the Korean War. Cumings writes regularly for The Nation, the Atlantic Monthly, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times Book Review.

Read an Excerpt

Parallax Visions

Making Sense of American-East Asian Relations

By Bruce Cumings

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9746-5


Archaeology, Descent, Emergence: American Mythology and East Asian Reality

This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.—Walter Benjamin

In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.—Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno

The breakdown of [the Enlightenment] project provided the historical background against which the predicaments of our own culture can become intelligible.—Alasdair MacIntyre

It is simply not true that capitalism as a historical system has represented progress over the various historical systems that it destroyed and transformed. Even as I write this, I feel the tremor that accompanies the sense of blasphemy.—Immanuel Wallerstein

How does it happen that serious people continue to believe in progress, in the face of massive evidence that might have been expected to refute the idea of progress once and for all?—Christopher Lasch

Setting aside an apocalyptic awakening of the neighboring San Andreas Fault, it is all too easy to envision Los Angeles reproducing itself endlessly across the desert with the assistance of pilfered water, cheap immigrant labor, Asian capital, and desperate homebuyers willing to trade lifetimes on the freeway in exchange for $500,000 "dream homes" in the middle of Death Valley.

Is this the world-historic victory of Capitalism that everyone is talking about? —Mike Davis

It is one thing for Walter Benjamin in 1940 to fear a storm blowing in from Paradise as the Nazis marched through Europe. And it is one thing for Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, aware by 1944 of the ultimate catastrophe of Nazi power, to conjure an Enlightenment project gone mad. But it is quite another thing for American intellectuals, from neo-Marxists to petit bourgeois populists to Benedictine Catholics, to author influential books arguing (in shorthand) that (1) national development is destructive whether accomplished by capitalists or socialists, and we are both relatively and absolutely worse off than before the modern epoch (Wallerstein); (2) South Boston offers more hope for our salvation than Cambridge (Lasch); (3) the Pacific Rim paradise called Los Angeles, city of the American future, where Horkheimer and Adorno wrote their book in 1944, is a 1990s techno-cultural nightmare (Davis); or (4) the new dark ages are upon us, and thus we await another St. Benedict (MacIntyre).

We seem to be in the midst of a fundamental paradigm shift—propelled by economic decline, moral collapse, and the rumored death of Marxism—away from "progress." All one has to do to dispel this depressing intellectual scene, however, is cross the Pacific—to Shanghai, where construction cranes sprout like bamboo shoots, and growth speeds along at an annual double-digit clip, or to Tokyo, where the fabric of morality, national development, and urban civility are all intact, even if the 1990s appear to have dealt Japan a bad hand (the "bubble economy" has burst, but no one knows whether this is a fundamental problem or a passing one). In China and Japan, the trains run on time, kids think drugs are what you buy in a drug store, and Mom kisses Dad as he goes off to work. And if Marx is dead, no one seems to have noticed.

Had Walter Benjamin not been blocked in his attempt to escape the Nazis through Spain, he might have been carted up and down the United States as "the last European" (the fate he feared 1940s America held in store for him). At that time, the United States was certain of its morality, its urban civility, and its belief in eternal progress: it was springtime for the American Century. Not for Americans an angel of history who cannot distinguish progress from a heap of debris. Lasch's lower-middle-class populists were safely submerged in a self-confident New Deal liberalism—they were MacIntyre's good Catholics, "left behind" by secular progressivism and "modernization" or condemned to a populist lunatic fringe by social scientists in Cambridge. Instead of Davis's "city of quartz," Los Angeles was the city of dreams, just sniffing a new phenomenon called smog in the mid-1940s. (The only wonder is that Horkheimer and Adorno could have been so irredeemably pessimistic in the Los Angeles of that halcyon period.)

The epigraphs I selected to begin this chapter—and our brief tour of Shanghai and Tokyo—raise questions: Is this paradigm shift or provincialism? Are we witness to fin de siècle angst or declining industrial sectors? Does our time herald a new morality or merely the autumn of the American Century? Methodologically, if intellectuals no longer believe in progress, how can we think? How can we purge our minds of a "progress" that was the point d'honneur of Western civilization and that held much of postwar academe in its thrall (here, I refer to the proponents of modernization theory, the end of ideology, "New" Leftism, and rational-choice theory)?

Let us assume merely for the purpose of argument that Wallerstein's blasphemy is correct: the modern system is capitalist, its theory is progress, and that theory is wrong. Without the notion of progress and its corollary "opiate" (Wallerstein's term) of rationality, universalism, and a resulting "truth" known to modern man, how are we to understand our world? If we accept Wallerstein's viewpoint, we must understand the Enlightenment, the French Revolution—even the Industrial Revolution—as mere moments in the rise and decline of the capitalist world system, or as a mere discourse (not his point) no more or less compelling than the Confucian doctrine that the golden age lay in the past, or the Buddhist belief that humans should not disturb the universe but live ascetically within it. Indeed, Wallerstein's third volume in his Modem World-System is essentially an historiographical polemic that seeks to deconstruct all the great modern moments save one, the sixteenth-century "big bang" in which the world system itself was created.

The discourse of progress is inseparable from an industrial mode of production, which is its justification, its verification, and, from Wallerstein's point of view, its structural base. If we assume he is also correct here, we must search for a method that does not reflect an epistemology of empiricist rationality, progress, and universalism, yet that is also capable of understanding the mechanisms of industrial capitalism (which the Confucian or Buddhist worldview cannot).

My position is that an archaeology of the present and a genealogy of the past can provide us with a way of doing so: that is, I follow Nietzsche and Foucault for the purposes of method while taking no position on the implications of their thought for human morality for how we live. Through an archaeology of the present we can excavate the debris gathering at the feet of the angel of history and poke around through the shards of lost worlds and lost worldviews, available to us moderns only as fragments. (I hesitate to admit that this metaphor occurred to me when I was eating a Japanese breakfast that looked like the effluvia left on the beach when the tide ran out: a dead fish, some seaweed, and a few clams.) Through a genealogy of descent, we can avoid an epistemology of progress that so often defines the discipline of history. Finally, through a conception of emergence, we can hope to define those turning points when rumblings in the "nondiscursive" (power) detonate changes in the "discursive" (knowledge). I will first seek to explicate a method that accounts for the discourse of U.S.-Japan relations and then examine the relations themselves.

Gary and P'ohang

To make the archaeological metaphor more vivid, we might imagine a Martian reconnoitering our world in the aftermath of a world-historical disaster that eliminated humanity but not human chattels: a terrible hailstorm of asteroids that darkened and cooled the planet for some years, like the one that some think eliminated the dinosaurs; or perhaps the effects of a yawning ozone hole; or simply a neutron-bomb holocaust. Our Martian would find all the people gone. Unable to read the books in the libraries, he would inspect sites of modern civilization in the way archaeologists excavate a site of antiquity.

Wandering today as if we were that Martian, we can witness the human wreckage and rust-belt debris of an old steel town like Gary, Indiana, existing in global simultaneity with the "vibrant dynamism" (to sample the progressive view) of P'ohang, steel city for the industrialization of the Republic of Korea. Paean to American decline and Korean advance?

On the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh is the great Homestead Steel Mill, site of a strike central to American labor history. It is now a museum— that institution we designate to be the repository of our archaeological finds. Paean to American decline?

In the 1940s, Pittsburgh was a symbol of American industrial prowess, as well as a headquarters of pollution. In the 1990s, Pittsburgh has neither steel nor pollution but has burgeoning service industries and is considered by yuppie trendsetters to be one of the "most livable cities in America." Paean to American progress?

In the 1920s, Gary had its own measure of tourism, its own admirable "lifestyle," its own avant-garde architecture, and a considerable measure of culture. "It had a settled air of community," to cite one source: thirteen movie theaters; eighteen hundred hotel rooms, making it the convention capital of Indiana; thirteen hundred retail stores; an opulent, bourgeois WASP West Side; a stable, working-class East Side; and two new, identical art-deco houses of city and county government sitting side by side. Today, its empty, gutted, or shuttered theaters, hotels, shop fronts, and bourgeois homes, and its shattered human beings, surround the still functioning art-deco buildings of state. In the documentary film Roger and Me, the residents of Flint resent being placed three hundredth among three hundred American cities: "Haven't they been to Gary?" exclaims one Flintite. Paean to American decline?

Surveying the industrial archipelago of the 1990s, our archaeology would locate the most efficient integrated steel complex in the world in the bustling city of P'ohang. Paean to Korean progress? P'ohang Steel was installed by Japanese technicians using Japanese technology. It is a paean to Japan's investments in (Belgian-discovered) basic oxygen-steel technology in the 1950s, after the American Air Force had renovated Japan's steel industry by bombing it to bits.

If we observe P'ohang in the 1920s, we find a sleepy port city of a few thousand people and no industry subsisting in a Japanese colony by exporting some rice. In 1950, P'ohang barely existed, having been blasted to smithereens as it changed hands several times between Korean People's Army forces straining to punch through the "Pusan Perimeter" and American forces using "high-tech" firepower to throw them back. Paean to Korean decline?

The North Korean siege was broken when General Douglas MacArthur landed at Inch'on. Shortly afterward, his forces were in Wonsan, where they came upon the up-to-date, technologically sophisticated Wonsan Oil Refinery, a Soviet-Korean joint company. Paean to Soviet technical prowess? Not quite: close inspection revealed this to have been a refinery installed in the 1930s by the Japanese. Paean to Japanese technical prowess? Not quite: the Japanese had used American oil company "blueprints and consultations," a reflection of American dominance in the world oil regime of the 1930s.

The town of Unsan was the point at which Sino-Korean forces roared out of the mountains in 1950 and turned MacArthur's Inch'on victory into a stark defeat. Moving forward to 1987, we find the North Koreans inviting Japanese firms to help them upgrade their mining technology at this same Unsan, which was the site of mining operations by Japan's Chosen Mining Company. These mines were the centerpiece of Korea's most valuable mineral export in the late 1930s: gold, dug from mines that were the technological leader in East Asia. Paean to Japanese progress?

Descending into the mines, we would discover not Japanese but American machinery—and not just that, but a firm owned by Americans for four decades until just before Pearl Harbor (the Oriental Consolidated Mining Company), long after the establishment of Manchukuo and the presumed closing of "the open door." If we were to investigate the investors who owned this mining concession, we would find a group of right-wing Republicans, associated with Herbert Hoover in the 1920s, who also controlled the Homestake Gold Mine in Nevada, the Cerro de Pasco copper mines in Peru, and the Insular Lumber Company in the Philippines—all renowned symbols of American imperialism or untender mercies for labor.

Our archaeology would determine that upwards of fifty thousand Koreans were directly dependent on gold-mining companies for their livelihood in the 1930s and that Americans trained "a small army of efficient native miners." Korean mine labor was considered the best in the Orient and certainly among the cheapest in the world: the miners earned sixty sen per day, about thirty-five Mexican centavos. (Yes, Dr. Archaeologist, the mine used Mexican dollars as currency in this period [as did many foreign enterprises in China] along with guards on horseback wearing Pancho Villa bandoliers to guard the loot.)

The Japanese allowed American expansionists to profit from Korean gold mines because they needed American technology. Japan occupied "an intermediate position" in mining: it was an imperial power that had mines, but it required advanced technology it did not have to exploit them. In other words, Japan was still "semiperipheral" in mineral extraction at mid-century.

If we continue backward in time to 1900 and move across the Japanese industrial archipelago, we find that Japanese textile firms, the leading sector in Japan's first phase of industrialization, for decades bought their machines from the renowned Pratt Brothers of England. In about 1930, they came up with their own "high-tech" equipment and quickly became the most efficient textile producer in the world (as well as England's primary bête noire of industrial dumping, market stealing, and general commercial miscreance). A few years later the obsolescent Pratt machines were serving Korea's first textile conglomerate, courtesy of "technology transfer" and Korea's labor-cost advantage.

Going further back in time, to the 1880s and Japan's first wave of industrialization, we find fish canneries in Hokkaido; the pioneer Kashima Cotton Mill; the huge Kobe Paper Factory; the first cigarette company; tanning and leather firms; the Osaka Watch Company; the Tokyo Electric Company, with its own brand of lightbulbs; even tasty Kirin Beer. Every last one was based on American technological start-ups or American expertise. And we would find that Japan's favorite economist in the 1880s was an American, the protectionist Henry Carey.

Moving to Seoul a few years later, we would happen upon the Seoul Electric Light Company, the Seoul Electric Car Company, the Seoul "Fresh Spring" Water Company—all American firms. Korean imports from the United States included Standard Oil Company kerosene, Richmond Gem cigarettes, California fruit and wine, Eagle Brand milk, Armour's canned meats, Crosse & Blackwell canned foods, flour, mining machinery, railway goods, cotton, and clothing. Meanwhile, the Japanese were upsetting the Rockefellers by copying their trademark kerosene cans and putting them on the Korean market at a cheaper price.

What is the point of this tour through time and space? Our archaeologist would have uncovered in little-known, far-off Korea, and in Japan proper, the modern world system and the limits of a Japan-centered regional political economy: Japan depended on American and/or British technology, and it was a subimperial power, that is, semiperipheral vis-à-vis the United States but a "core" power vis-à-vis Korea and China. It was a dependency of both the regime of technology and the system of states. Using the world as our "unit of analysis," our archaeology has placed us in the anarchic march of "progress" (ca. 1880, 1900,1950, and 2000) and led us to an epistemology that makes it impossible to comprehend our world, whether then or now, except as a global system with endlessly shifting points of production.

Sooner or later, our archaeologist would conclude that the industrial archipelago he had uncovered illustrated little more than the uneven development—the simultaneous creation and destruction—of industrial capitalism. The contemporary discourses of Gary and P'ohang are mutually incommensurable, and it would be inconceivable to most American pundits today that Japan's industrial march was founded in part on the thought of an American protectionist.

Genealogy, Descent, Emergence

Archaeology is useful, but it is not sufficient for our task. We also need genealogy. The former is static: it takes a photograph of Gary and P'ohang at one flash-frozen point. The latter is dynamic, but it does not necessarily imply development. Through a genealogy of the past, we can understand not a "progress," but a descent, perhaps from that fluorescent point in 1920s Gary or from the Los Angeles of the 1940s to the Los Angeles of today. But doesn't genealogy also imply ascent? From P'ohang in 1920 to P'ohang today? From Shanghai in 1880 to Shanghai today?


Excerpted from Parallax Visions by Bruce Cumings. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1Archaeology, Descent, Emergence: American Mythology and East Asian Reality9
2East Wind, Rain Red Wind Black Rain: The United States-Japan War, Beginning and End35
3Colonial Formations and Deformations: Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam69
4Civil Society and Democracy in the United States and East Asia95
5Nuclear Imbalance of Terror: The American Surveillance Regime and North Korea's Nuclear Program121
6The World Shakes China151
7Boundary Displacement: The State, the Foundations, and International and Area Studies during and after the Cold War173
8East Asia and the United States: Double Vision and Hegemonic Emergence205

What People are Saying About This

Andrew Scobell

"[A] fascinating collection of essays on late-20th-century Asian history and contemporary Asian affairs.

Steven I. Levine

Cumings has made a considerable contribution to elucidating the fundamental structures of US-East Asian relations.
— Steven I. Levine, The International History Review

Chalmers Johnson

Cumings's views derive from a close study of East Asia over several decades and produce insights that are devastating to American amour propre. His is not just a new perspective but also the source of truly unknown information. There is no other voice quite like that of Bruce Cumings.
— Chalmers Johnson, Japan Policy Research Institute

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