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n a review essay published in a 2014 issue of American Quarterly, Simeon Man (2014, 451) calls on scholars of American empire-building in Asia to “collectively chart a new history of the ‘transpacific’ that decenters the United States and situates it in relation to other Pacific empires, most notably those of Japan and Britain.” The point of such a “comparative history of empire,” he continues, is not necessarily to “demonstrate the commensurability of imperial projects or simply to situate the United States in a wider world; rather, it is to seek to comprehend the discursive logics and technologies of empire and to unravel its entanglements with liberal modernity” (Man 2014, 451). What is at stake, in other words, is a more relational – and by extension, less U.S. centric–theory of transpacific empire: one that might help us think and organize across the various spaces, times, and scales of US transpacific empire and its unmaking.
Given how Man names Moon-Ho Jung as one of the first scholars to bring an explicitly transnational approach to the study of how “race, migration, and community formation across the Pacific remain deeply entwined with the imperatives of empire,” it should come as no surprise that the historian’s latest book–evocatively titled Menace to Empire: Anticolonial Solidarities and the Transpacific Origins of the US Security State–furthers the important work of mapping the relational, overlapping geographies of imperialism and decolonization, both in Asia and across the diaspora (Man 2014, 451). In Menace to Empire, Jung (2022) traces “both the colonial violence and the anticolonial rage percolating across the Pacific between the Philippine-American War and World War II” (8). Drawing from an incredibly rich and diverse array of archival sources, Jung shows how the everyday workings of US, British, and Japanese imperialism across Asia necessarily led to the radicalization of both individuals and communities. For much of the 20th century, Communist insurgents, guerrilla fighters, labor organizers, socialist intellectuals, and so on, pursued a revolutionary politics that struggled to expose, confront, and challenge the dynamic geographies of U.S.–as well as British and Japanese–empire-building in Asia. The net effect of this opposition was to “[racialize] Asians as seditious threats to US security and gave rise to what would become the US national security state, the heart and soul of the US empire ever since” (Jung 2021, 9). The US national security state, in other words, emerged as a response to the thorny problem of decolonization across the Pacific.
When reading through Menace to Empire, it is hard not to be impressed by the sheer amount of archival work that Jung must have done to uncover and weave together the life stories and geographical itineraries of the various Asian and Asian diasporic revolutionaries that feature so prominently in the text. To provide only one example, Jung opens Menace to Empire by mapping the travels of the Pakistani-born Communist Dada Amir Haider Khan, whose service for the British empire and eventual turn towards anticolonial radicalism took him to various hotbeds of leftist organizing across the globe, including London, New York, Panama, Manila, Singapore, Detroit, and Moscow. For Jung, Khan is significant because he, like many of his “fellow revolutionaries who crossed the oceans in the first half of the twentieth century,” embodies “the colonial histories and revolutionary hopes of peoples who attempted to forge a world against and beyond white supremacy and empire” (6). In the chapters that follow, Jung tells the story of these other revolutionaries–such as Carlos Bulosan, Isabelo de los Reyes, Har Dayal, Bhagwan Singh, and Sen Katayama, to name only a few examples–as well as the imperial counterinsurgents who worked tirelessly to stymie such radical dreams of decolonization. As Jung traces these transpacific struggles and conflicts through the archives of the US national security state, what becomes clear is how these counterinsurgents, in performing what George Orwell (1936) infamously called “the dirty work of empire,” effectively “[produced] the subversion they purport[ed] to quell, as racialized subjects of the US empire have always imagined and pursued radical alternatives to colonial authority, racial capitalism, and state violence” (Jung 2021, 25). As Jung shows, what appears at first blush as an unresolvable contradiction–namely, that the “catastrophic violence” of imperial counterinsurgency “could not but generate more anticolonial rage among aggrieved peoples around the world”–is perhaps better understood as the very condition of existence for the US national security state, guaranteeing its perpetual reproduction over time (2021, 292).
By drawing the reader’s attention to the entangled nature of anticolonial insurgencies and imperial counterinsurgencies, Jung effectively emphasizes the extent to which both radical insurgency and imperial counterinsurgency are both fundamentally relational projects. This is achieved in part through Jung’s sustained methodological commitment to reading across imperial archives. By triangulating sources drawn from US, British, and Japanese intelligence archives, Jung is able to track those radical Asian subjects whose travels took them from one imperial context to another, and then back again. Confronted by such a mobile geography of sedition, US counterinsurgents and intelligence officials reached out to and worked with their British and Japanese counterparts to gather information and execute operations. From this perspective, Menace to Empire is notable for how it offers a relational history of US national security practices in Asia: one that, to paraphrase Man, situates them in relation to the other forms of violence work that have always been central to the everyday reproduction of other Pacific empires (Seigel 2018).
But if Jung can read intelligence archives against their grain to tell more subaltern stories of resistance and revolution, Menace to Empire nonetheless remains curiously invested in and, by extension, constrained by the imperial politics of knowledge production that have always determined what kinds of people and practices might be considered radical, seditious, and worthy of closer counterinsurgent scrutiny. I think the most obvious example of this is how infrequently Asian women–and the radical work they undoubtedly carried out to further anticolonial and anticapitalist causes–appear in the text. While Chapter 2 has a short paragraph on Constancia Pobelete of the League of Filipina women, who “first [came] to the attention of US officials in 1901 when she led a march of five hundred women for the release of Filipino prisoners of war,” it isn’t until much later on in Menace to Empire that Jung considers how the gendered work of social reproduction–cooking, cleaning, caring, etc.–has always undergirded the everyday life and reproduction of transpacific radical movements (2021, 102). Writing about Salud Algabre, one of the leaders of the Sakdalista uprising that shook the Philippines in 1935, Jung details how she and other women prepared food to feed their fellow revolutionaries. Jung also notes that Algabre’s Sakdal party also made specific efforts to recruit working Filipinas to the cause. What all of this suggests, in turn, is that Asian women were just as active in anticolonial and anticapitalist movements as their male comrades, even if they also had to take on the double (or triple) shift of cooking food and caring for children while simultaneously blockading cars and confiscating weapons.
And yet, Menace to Empire largely fails to consider the important political implications of these specific archival stories. This is to say, by hewing so closely to US, British, and Japanese intelligence documents, Menace to Empire unfortunately reproduces the imperial archive’s specific disinterest in the radical dreams and struggles of Asian and Asian diasporic women. In this sense, it serves as an important reminder to scholars of empire in general, and of the decolonizing Pacific in particular, to be mindful of the ways in which a certain, gendered conception of what counts as radical politics remains normalized across a number of different academic fields, geography and Asian American studies included. An important corrective here is Vernadette Gonzalez’s (2021) most recent book, Empire’s Mistress, which explores the life and death of the Filipina vaudeville and film star Isabel Rosario Cooper. Most (in)famously and salaciously known as the mistress of General Douglas MacArthur, Gonzalez follows Cooper from the Philippines to Washington, D.C., to Hollywood, showing how she wielded her own beauty, the double-edged promise of imperial intimacy, and a relational politics of desire to carve out a life for herself in the Philippines and the US.
“What,” Gonzalez (2021, 5) asks, “does it mean to take Isabel Cooper seriously?” Gonzalez acknowledges that methodologically, at least, “grappling with [Cooper’s] life is not a radical act;” that Empire’s Mistress is “no bottom-up historiographical project that reveals heroic resistance to oppression.” Instead, she continues, it is a story of a woman “caught in the currents of history, who was at times adept and ill-equipped to navigate them,” playing with the “strictures of colonial race and gender” even as “she was also subject to them” (Gonzalez 2021, 8). Following Thuy Linh Tu (2022), she made do. But the gendered work of making do is often “barely registered” in the imperial archive. As Gonzalez (2021, 9) notes, “compounded by the ways in which imperial administrators decided which lives were worth documenting, the prejudices of people doing the recording, and the types of material selected for archiving, someone like Isabel Cooper slips in and out of archival focus.” Given such “violent occlusions,” therefore, it is perhaps unsurprising that Menace to Empire does not feature more women like Poblete or Algabre: they were simply never written into the intelligence archives that Jung otherwise reads so carefully and meticulously in the first place (Gonzalez 2021, 9).
But the important political task facing scholars of the transpacific, then, is to follow Gonzalez’s (and also, as I note elsewhere, Tu’s) lead in asking: what does it mean to take Isabel Cooper - and other Asian women - like her seriously as political subjects? How might we arrive at a more expansive conception of radical Asian and Asian diasporic politics that encompasses both traditional forms of direct action (organizing, striking, blockading, etc.), but also the less obvious, yet equally essential–if gendered–acts of intimacy, mutual aid, care, and relation work? What is political about the everyday work of survival, endurance, and making do? These are, of course, pressing questions that are on the mind of many abolitionist and decolonial organizers in the present moment. And they are especially crucial questions for scholars of the decolonizing Pacific, given that an increasing proportion of the radical Asian diasporic community these days are women and/or queer. What needs to be reckoned with, in other words, is the very real disjuncture between the strikingly cis-masculine history of Asian and Asian diasporic radicalism that is offered in Menace to Empire and the more complexly gendered reality of Asian and Asian diasporic radicalism in our present moment of crisis and emergency.
This isn’t to diminish the many significant accomplishments of Jung’s Menace to Empire. But it is to suggest that a book like Menace to Empire needs to be read alongside the work of other Asian diasporic feminist scholars such as Vernadette Gonzalez (2021), Thuy Linh Tu (2021), Genevieve Clutario (2023), Tessa Winkelmann (2023), and Karen Buenavista Hanna (2019, 2021) –amongst many others–who have written extensively about the US empire state’s deep obsession with managing the close and intimate encounters that invariably unfold between colonizer and colonized. Such encounters were as much the terrain and the concern of the US national security state as the insurgencies, uprisings, strikes, and blockades that have been so well documented by books such as Menace to Empire. And it is precisely by working at the intersection of these distinct, yet overlapping and entangled archives that we might further our understandings of the everyday geographies of the US empire state, and the collective work and organizing that will be required to dismantle it.
Clutario G 2023 Beauty Regimes: A History of Power and Modern Empire in the Philippines. Durham: Duke University Press.
Gonzalez V 2021 Empire’s Mistress, Starring Isabel Rosario Cooper. Durham: Duke University Press.
Hanna KB 2021 “Radical House/Work: Revolutionary Intimacies in the US-Based Anti-Marcos Movement.” ALON. 1.3: 331-352.
Hanna KB 2019 “When Mothers Lead: Revolutionary Adaptability in Filipina/o American Diasporic Community Theater Organization.” Amerasia Journal. 45.2: 188-206.
Man S 2014 “Transpacific Connections Between Two Empires.” American Quarterly. 66.2: 441-451.
Orwell 1936 “Shooting an Elephant.” The Orwell Foundation. Available here.
Seigel M 2018 Violence Work: State Power and the Limits of Police. Durham: Duke University Press.
Tu, TL 2021 Experiments in Skin: Race and Beauty in the Shadows of Vietnam. Durham: Duke University Press.
Winkelmann T 2023 Dangerous Intercourse: Gender and Interracial Relations in the American Colonial Philippines, 1898-1946. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Wesley Attewell is currently an assistant professor of political geography at the University of Hong Kong. His first book, The Quiet Violence of Empire: How USAID Waged Counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is forthcoming in spring 2023 from the University of Minnesota Press. He is currently working on a second book project on the entanglements of logistics and empire during the Vietnam War, which is tentatively entitled The Lifelines of Empire: Logistical Life in the Decolonizing Pacific.