History News Network
When’s a Palace an Emblem of Democratic Aspirations?
By Ron Briley
Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.
A recent visit to Hawaii during the annual meeting of the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association offered an opportunity to observe the impact of historical narratives well beyond the narrow confines of the history conference papers and sessions. Visits to the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor and the ‘Iolani Palace, the royal residence constructed by King Kalakaua in 1882, offer contrasting historical narratives regarding the American presence in Hawaii. The Pearl Harbor experience reinforces the popular national notion of American innocence, while the guided tour of the ‘Iolani Palace provides a tale of how the United States government and business interests participated in the overthrow of legitimate Hawaiian authority. Conflicting narratives of American innocence and imperialism in the history of Hawaii obviously have larger implications for how the Untied States is perceived in the world today. Although the long lines at Pearl Harbor, as opposed to the handful of tourists at the Palace, provide ample support for the hegemonic belief in the United States of American innocence.
The Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor remains a moving experience, and the National Park Service does an excellent job of expediting the overflow crowds through the roughly seventy-five minute film and tour. Before the short boat ride to the Memorial, the Park Service seeks to create an atmosphere of reverence and respect amongst the restive tourists with the screening of a twenty-minute film which places the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor within historical context. With the large number of Japanese tourists visiting the Memorial, there is no overt racism in the cinematic narrative. Japan is clearly portrayed as the aggressor in the Pacific, but this is neither due to the Japanese people nor Emperor Hirohito. Rather, the blame for the war is placed upon Japanese militarists, such as Premier Togo, who gained control of the government, invading China and allying with Hitler. On the other hand, Admiral Yamamoto becomes the noble man of the Japanese military, opposing the assault upon Pearl Harbor but executing his mission with precision.
The Americans are depicted as champions of democracy who seek to defend Hawaii, as well as the Philippine Islands and Vietnam, from Japanese conquest. There is no suggestion that the American military presence in Hawaii and the Philippines was motivated by any other concerns than promoting democracy. Of course, the history of American involvement with Hawaii and the Philippines is much more complicated. The U.S. military cooperated with American business interests to overthrow the Hawaiian monarchy, while U.S. Marines fought ferocious battles against Filipino insurgents following American acquisition of the Philippines from Spain in the 1898 Treaty of Paris ending the Spanish-American War.
Visitors to Pearl Harbor are not encouraged to question the reasons for the American presence in the Pacific. A more nuanced interpretation would introduce a note of ambiguity, with which many Americans are uncomfortable, into the perception of American innocence. It is no sign of disrespect to the fallen at Pearl Harbor to seek a better understanding of American foreign policy and the origins of World War II in order to avert future conflicts. It is fair to describe the Japanese as the aggressors at Pearl Harbor, but it misleading to depict the United States as having no economic or political ambitions in the Pacific.
This myth of Pearl Harbor exacerbates the sense of American purity which makes it difficult for many citizens to comprehend the complexities of the modern world. For example, many equate Pearl Harbor and 9/11 as manifestations of assaults upon an innocent America. One does not have to subscribe to the simplistic rhetoric and conclusions of Ward Churchill to recognize that it is crucial for Americans to examine the world view of those who wish to attack the United States. While the 9/11 victims were innocent, the history of American expansionism is more complicated. For example, the post World War II legacy of the U.S. supporting undemocratic regimes has its origins in the Truman Doctrine, for the litmus test of anticommunism all too often placed the United States in alliance with some unsavory bedfellows such as Saddam Hussein or the Shah of Iran.
This more conflicted history of America’s presence on the international stage is provided for Hawaiian tourists who stray from the beaten path and visit the ‘Iolani Palace. Here, visitors are cautioned about demonstrating proper reverence for the past, except this time the respect is for Queen Lili’uokalani whose monarchy was toppled in 1893 by American businessmen in cahoots with the United States Navy. As tourists move through the beautiful palace in their padded booties, they are informed that in 1895 the Queen was placed on trial, in her own throne room, for treason against the newly-constituted Republic of Hawaii, which represented the aspirations of American businessmen, such as Sanford Dole, rather than the indigenous Hawaiian people. The Queen was placed under house arrest for almost a year in a second floor bedroom of the Palace, where she worked on a quilt reflecting themes of Hawaiian sovereignty. Meanwhile, many of the royal furnishings were sold at public auctions by the new government. Lili’uokalani appealed to President Grover Cleveland to oppose a treaty of annexation and restore her monarchy. He said he was appalled by the takeover but five years later the United States backed the conquest of Hawaii. In the favorable expansionist atmosphere fostered by the Spanish-American War, Hawaii was accepted as an American territory, although statehood was not conferred until 1959. Lili’uokalani never regained her throne, and she died in 1917. The ‘Iolani Palace remains a symbol of Hawaiian nationalism and pride.
The narrative of Pearl Harbor is well known, and the Arizona is a worthy memorial and tourist destination. But the story of Lili’uokalani and the ‘Iolani Palace remains off the beaten path. Disregarding the troubled history of the Hawaiian monarchy distorts the American presence in paradise. History never takes a holiday, and an unquestioning acceptance of the American myth of innocence in Hawaii may cloud perceptions of the complicated international milieu in which we live and work.