From the Cuban Revolution that almost wasn’t to the Sushi Craze of 1905, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Fidel reached for his sidearm just as a Mexican policeman put a gun to the back of his neck. It was June 20, 1956, and revolutionaries Ernesto “el Che” Guevara, Cuban President Raúl Castro and his brother Fidel would be arrested within hours. The three men spent weeks in jail, and might have been detained longer, had a former Mexican president not intervened to help gain their release.
Castro’s revolution eventually succeeded, but for a short time Mexican authorities unknowingly held the power to change history. Had Fidel or Che been killed in a number of narrowly averted shoot-outs, or if they had been extradited as the authorities intended — or even just prevented from securing weapons — ours would be a different planet. But the days of Cuba’s dictatorial regime under Fulgencio Batista were numbered, because Lázaro Cárdenas, former general of the Mexican Revolution and Mexico’s president between 1934 and 1940, was himself a revolutionary, a Robin Hood for the poor. He supported labor movements and nationalized the oil industry, and he personally interceded with Mexican President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines to help free Castro’s group, says Renata Nicole Keller, a history professor at Boston University and the author of Mexico’s Cold War: Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution. [continue reading]
On 30 April 2015, the Osaka International Peace Center (Peace Osaka) reopened after its “renewal” (rinyūaru). After opening in 1991, Peace Osaka became known as one of Japan’s most forthright museums, certainly the most forthright publicly-funded museum, examining Japanese wartime aggression and atrocities. However, in 2011, the Ishin no Kai (Japan Restoration Party) led by Hashimoto Tōru took control of both the prefectural and municipal assemblies in Osaka. Hashimoto’s conservative credentials regarding war history became world news in 2013 and 2014 when his controversial comments about the “comfort women” precipitated a storm of international protest. But well before then, Hashimoto and the Japan Restoration Party had launched a budgetary and administrative assault on Peace Osaka and another progressive museum in the city, Osaka Human Rights Museum (Liberty Osaka). Under direct threat of closure from Hashimoto and his party if its exhibits continued to be “inappropriate”, Peace Osaka embarked on the first major overhaul of its exhibits since opening a quarter of a century earlier. The museum closed on 1 September 2014, its old exhibits were discarded, and the museum reopened with new exhibits on 30 April 2015.
“Renewal” seems an inappropriate term to describe the transformation. On the outside it is the same museum: the name, the logo and the building remain. But on the inside – in terms of its layout, target audience and core message – the “renewed” Peace Osaka has changed fundamentally from the old Peace Osaka. The old exhibits were progressive. They depicted Japanese wartime aggression and forced visitors to reconcile this history with the museum’s other main narrative: the air raids that destroyed Osaka in 1945. The new exhibits, by contrast, largely elide Japan’s war with China and Asia and center on the devastation of the Osaka air raids. [continue reading]
Stuff From the Past
Forty years ago today, 35 countries from both sides of the Iron Curtain signed the Helsinki Accords – the final act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe. Since the end of the Cold War, this agreement has been held up as a crucial turning point in the modern history of human rights. Academic and journalistic accounts often cite the Helsinki Accords as a breakthrough moment when communist states in the Eastern Bloc first accepted the principles of human rights. It is, thus hailed as the inspiration for the wave of human rights activism that culminated with the revolutions of 1989. This fatal decision by the leaders of the Eastern Bloc to sign on to an agreement with significant human rights provisions has been explained as an act of hubris, cynicism or some combination thereof. According to these narratives, wily diplomacy on the part of the West pressured the leaders of the Soviet Union and its satellites to sign its own death warrant by agreeing to respect rights they were obviously violating.
In the broader history of human rights in the Eastern Bloc, however, it becomes harder to draw a straight line of connection from the diplomacy of 1975 to the collapse of European state socialism in 1989/91. First, the Helsinki Accords were not the first instance in which communist states had recognized human rights. Second, while the human rights provisions of the Helsinki Accords were fiercely argued over, they were not simply imposed by the West on a recalcitrant East. Third, while the agreement provided fodder for dissidents, it was one of many human rights documents cited by activists rather than a singular catalyst for change. [continue reading]
Sumiteru Taniguchi was 16 when he witnessed what a nuclear weapon could do to a person. He was delivering mail from his bicycle in the city of Nagasaki when the atom bomb burst just over a mile away on the morning of Aug. 9, 1945. The blast threw him and his bike 15 feet while an otherworldly heat melted the skin off his left arm and back. He awoke the next morning amid a field of corpses; it was three days before rescuers realized that he wasn’t one of them. For the next several years, he lay prostrate on hospital beds, often pleading with doctors to end his life. Now a frail 86-year-old who suffers from recurrent tumors on his back, he has spent the last 55 years campaigning for nuclear abolition, often with other hibakusha — survivors of the bombings.
He traveled from Nagasaki to New York in April to share his story ahead of the Review Conference for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, or NPT, where representatives from the 188 signatory nations met to discuss the current state of global nuclear affairs. Given his precarious health, it is doubtful that he will return when the conference next meets in 2020. The U.S. explosions that devastated Hiroshima and, three days later, the city of Nagasaki, seared an aversion to nuclear weapons into the Japanese psyche, embodied by people like Sumiteru Taniguchi. But although Japan never developed nuclear weapons, this aversion has not kept Japan out of the business of nuclear weapons altogether: Its advanced civilian nuclear program helped it recruit the United States and its nuclear deterrent as its guardians in the 1960s and 1970s. [continue reading]
An Eccentric Culinary History
The official history of Japanese food in the United States says that Americans didn’t get a taste of raw fish and vinegared rice until the late 1960s, when groovy Hollywood stars and trendy Buddhist humbugs began turning the squares onto the best thing since sliced bologna: sushi.
But that’s wrong. The truth is that two generation earlier, in the first two decades of the 20th century, Americans knew all about Japanese food and enjoyed it so much that labor unions and American restaurant owners conspired to run the Japanese out of business and out of the country. Worse, these angry agents of change were mostly successful in that effort, launching a thirty-year-long campaign of hysteria, intimidation and misinformation, one that ended in 1924 with the passage of the Japanese Exclusion and Labor Act…So how did Americans, living before the Great War, know so much about the Japanese and their cuisine? And why did we forget it? [continue reading]