This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History


Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From Britain’s empire of entertainment to the transnationalism of Black Panther Woman, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

How Britain Turned the Ruins of its Empire into a Mighty Entertainment Imperium


…. Thanks to its early industrialisation, Britain has been urban and literate for longer than most: it has an unusually deep well of entertainment traditions encompassing Punch magazine, the music hall and the seaside pier. Thanks to the pomp and derring-do of its imperial zenith, it also possesses a rich stock of novelistic tropes and settings—the country house, the class system, the boarding school, the self-reliant adventurer—available to its creative types and recognised worldwide. The empire laid the cultural tracks on which Andrew Lloyd Webber, J.K. Rowling and Simon Cowell now run their trains.

There are two ways of looking at this. The first is to situate the roots of Britain’s entertainment boom far in the past; in the Industrial Revolution and the colonisation of North America, India and parts of Africa. Yet Bagehot spies a more recent turning point: Britons successfully export their films, music and books to the world not thanks to the empire per se, but to the nature of its decline and their subsequent reaction. [continue reading]

The War in Vietnam Revisited

Mark A. Lawrence
Not Even Past

On January 9, 2007, Senator Ted Kennedy stepped to the podium at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., and assessed America’s ongoing war in Iraq in words certain to grab the nation’s attention. “Iraq,” Kennedy declared, “is George Bush’s Vietnam.” The speech came amid ferocious debate in Washington and across the country about the Bush administration’s plan to resolve the war in Iraq, a grueling and bloody affair despite nearly four years of fighting, not by drawing down U.S. troops but through a “surge” in the number of American combat troops in the country. The Massachusetts Democrat insisted that George W. Bush, just like Lyndon Johnson four decades earlier, was responding to frustration by doubling down on a failed enterprise. “In Vietnam,” Kennedy said, “the White House grew increasingly obsessed with victory, and increasingly divorced from the will of the people and rational policy.” In the end, he added, more than 58,000 American died in a quest for unachievable objectives.

A few months later, President Bush responded in kind as he sought to convince Americans to support his escalatory policy Iraq despite the difficulties that had befallen U.S. troops up to that point. In Vietnam, just as in Iraq, Bush asserted, “people argued that the real problem was America’s presence and that if we would just withdraw, the killing would end.” In fact, said Bush, the problem in Vietnam was that weak-willed Americans prevented U.S. troops from using sufficient force and forced their withdrawal before they could achieve goals that were within reach. The result was nothing less than human catastrophe: “One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam,” Bush concluded, “is that the price of America’s withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens whose agonies would add to our vocabulary new terms like ‘boat people,’ “re-education camps,’ and ‘killing fields.’” [continue reading]

Forced Prostitution: Japan and Korea Vow to Quickly Resolve Dispute over WWII “Comfort Women”

Women in the World/New York Times

The Korean and Japanese government have agreed to speed up their talks in order to resolve the conflict over the Japanese military’s forced prostitution of thousands of Korean and other women during World War II. The issue has strained diplomatic and economic relationships between the two countries as Korea felt Japan had not apologized sufficiently. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye discussed the issue at the first meeting between the countries in three years, also the first time the two leaders met since either of them took power. While historians disagree about the specifics, it is estimated that between 20,000 and 200,000 women in the 1930s and ‘40s were forced to work in Japanese military brothels.

While Japan apologized for this in 1993, and set up a compensation fund from private donors, Abe has been less forthcoming — questioning whether the women were coerced, refusing to personally apologize and declining to offer compensation to surviving victims. While they did not announce a deadline, both leaders are expected to look for an agreement by the end of the year, with Ms. Park saying during the summit that “we should make this year, the 50th anniversary of the diplomatic relationship, a turning point for advancing toward the future.” [continue reading]

The Indonesian Massacre: What Did the US Know?

Margaret Scott
New York Review of Books

President Barack Obama has several things in common with Joko Widodo, the president of Indonesia, whom he welcomed to the Oval Office last week. The two men are the exact same age, and Widodo, whom everyone calls Jokowi, looks like a shorter and skinnier version of Obama. They also share something else: a personal connection to one of the worst massacres anywhere since World War II. In the late 1960s, Obama lived in Jakarta with his mother, in the years just after the killings of hundreds of thousands of suspected Indonesian Communists, a carefully orchestrated purge that brought the US-backed New Order regime to power; Jokowi grew up in poverty in Central Java, near a river that was filled with corpses in 1965.

As it happens, a cache of intelligence documents declassified by the CIA this fall offers a new opportunity to revisit those events, and the US’s involvement in them. Moreover, Jokowi took office last year as the first president from outside the tight circle of oligarchs and political elite that flourished for decades under the New Order and even after its collapse in 1998. He promised to bring open, pluralist rule to Indonesia’s 250 million people, who are spread across 17,000 islands and who make up the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. Many hoped Jokowi’s reforms would include a full reckoning with the fifty-year-old killings. The question is whether Obama is prepared to support Jokowi, whose troubled administration faces stiff resistance to addressing what happened in 1965. [continue reading]

Black Panther Woman: Black Power, Gender and Limits of Transnationalism

Jon Piccini
Hatful of History

Masculinity was at the centre of the 1960s revolts. For the white student left, heroic, handsome figures like Cuban-Argentine revolutionary Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara were the epitome of a rebellious masculinity, and groups such as Students for a Democratic Society in America (and of course similar groups in Australia) were overwhelmingly led by males who relegated women to menial secretarial or typing jobs – much as women were in the workforce and society at large. Sara Evans has described well how the second wave feminist movement emerged not only out of a rebellion against sexist society – but the continuation of these practices within the white left and indeed the black civil rights movement.

black panther woman

For the ‘coloured’ left, masculinity was equally vital, but for a whole range of other reasons. For black power radicals in the United States, black men had been robbed of their masculinity by the dehumanisation of slavery and their continued status as colonial subjects. If black men had been emasculated and feminised by colonial white society, then the enactment of a proud black masculinity was seen as vital to the reclaiming of this. Such an ideology left little space for women. Stokely Charmical famously commented that the place of black women in the movement was “prone” – women’s place was to ascribe to traditional feminine values and faithfully serve their men – including being effective sexual chattels – so as to not contribute to the colonist’s emasculation. As Black Panther Woman highlights, this hideous gender politics travelled across the Pacific to Australia alongside the whole package of Black Panther Party iconography, lexicon and practice – fusing with a pre-existing sexism and unofficial code of silence. [continue reading]