From jazz as a Cold War secret weapon to how the suffragettes influenced Mahatma Gandhi, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Almost exactly 60 years ago, in the crisp, early spring of 1958, a young boy from California named Darius shuffled through the streets of Warsaw. He shivered; it still felt like winter, and snow frosted the bullet holes that peppered the city’s buildings, a stark reminder that the Second World War had concluded little more than a decade previously. Poland was in Russia’s sphere of influence, and Darius was there as part of a mission orchestrated by the U.S. State Department. His brief: to gain exposure to foreign cultures, and not cause any trouble. This moment was a new experiment in what is known as “cultural diplomacy.” Darius was tagging along because his father, the famous pianist Dave Brubeck, was a jazz ambassador.
The State Department hoped that showcasing popular American music around the globe would not only introduce audiences to American culture, but also win them over as ideological allies in the cold war. The Brubeck Quartet’s 12 performances in Poland were some of the first in a long tour that would never stray far from the perimeter of the Soviet Union. They passed through Eastern Europe, the Middle East, central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Other tours would allow jazz legends like Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie to trumpet American values in newly decolonized states in Africa and Asia. The idea was always the same: keep communism at bay by whatever means possible. [continue reading]
One hundred years have passed since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. It’s surely one of the signal events of the modern era, a project whose significance for humanity is hardly exhausted by its history, including the disastrous, tragic history of Stalinism. A scholarly and curatorial boom in works and exhibits in the centenary reflecting on the impact of the revolution suggests it is not forgotten, even in the former first world, but its legacy remains clouded behind a veil of Cold War hysteria.1 What complicates matters is that the emotions, and even some of the apparatuses, of that half-remembered, misremembered history are being mobilized in the prosecution of the War on Terror. It may also be that the mad fury of our present makes us too impatient to open ourselves to the aspirations driving that massive transformation of a society still in the midst of war, its population mostly illiterate, desperately cold and hungry, in the throes of awakening to what was their due as human beings. But it’s precisely because of the misery and dread produced by unbridled neoliberalism and reckless militarism, along with unmistakable signs of ecological devastation that we, in fact, need to learn about a historic effort to pursue a different vision of modernity—one that insisted on universal literacy and health care, gender and racial equality, and the reimagining of society such that it would both enable and express those goals.
The very fact of the Russian Revolution galvanized working people and intellectuals around the world, even as their governments did their military best to topple the fledgling state. The Japanese government outdid their European and American Allies, leaving a sizable army in Siberia until 1922, two years after the others had withdrawn. From this alone might be gauged the fierceness of the repression directed at the growing numbers of men and women, in cities and the countryside, joining unions, beginning to think of themselves as socialists and even as communists, though parties bearing those names would never become legal in imperial Japan. [continue reading]
On January 28, 1948, the engine of a plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon, about 60 miles southwest of Fresno, California, killing 32 people. Gabriel Thompson at SFGate.com reports that the incident was the deadliest plane crash in California history, the type of tragedy that typically takes over the newspapers and spawns biographies and memorials to the deceased.
But in 1948, news reports only identified four of those killed—two crew members, a flight attendant and an immigration official by name. Their bodies were recovered and sent back to their families. The other 28 people on board were Mexican farm workers being sent back home after working in the U.S. under the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican guest workers to legally work in the U.S. to fill agricultural labor shortages. Their names were not listed, their families were not notified, and they were buried in mass grave with a plaque reading: “28 Mexican citizens who died in an airplane accident near Coalinga.” Radio reports simply called them deportees. [continue reading]
Sarah Claire Dunston
One summer’s afternoon in 1923, a French barrister was enjoying a drink in a Parisian café. A man of broad experience and education, the barrister was also a medical doctor who had served in the First World War. This service had allowed him to become a French citizen in 1915, a privilege denied previously because he was a native of the former Kingdom of Dahomey, now a French colonial territory. Kojo Tovalou Houénou was not just from Dahomey, he also claimed the title of Prince on the basis that his mother was the sister of the last King. Contemporaries and later scholars doubted the veracity of this claim but it made him of much interest to the Parisian dailies. In their pages, tales of his exploits amongst bohemian circles – notably his on-again, off-again affair with the Comtesse de Ségur of the Comédie Française – were reported with glee.
On this particular August afternoon, Houénou was simply a French man. Or at least he was until a group of drunk Americans sat down at a table nearby. He thought little of them until they began to object, loudly, to his presence. The waiters, virtuous Frenchmen one and all, refused to eject Houénou from the café but the Americans grew rowdier. Finally, the foreigners stood up, dragged him from the café, beating him up and throwing him in the gutter. This example of American racism shocked Houénou, awakening him to the reality of black experiences outside of la belle France. He resolved to do all that he could to extend and uphold the principles of French civilization and to protect the less fortunate amongst his race. To this end, Houénou founded the Ligue Universelle pour la défense de la race noire and its journal, Les Continents. This very tale was printed in one of the early issues and reiterated as the origins story for the Ligue by other press outlets such as the African American journal the Crisis and Marcus Garvey’s newspaper, the Negro World, as well as by Houénou himself in speeches delivered to mainly black audiences in Paris and New York. [continue reading]
In February 1918, a hundred years ago this month, the King of England gave his assent to a bill permitting women over 30 and with five pounds worth of property to vote. The anniversary has sparked a flood of articles and books in Great Britain, remembering the popular movement that led to this (at the time only partial) enfranchisement of women.
This article is about the impact of that struggle on an influential Indian. In 1906 and 1909, Mohandas K. Gandhi visited London to lobby for the rights of the diaspora in South Africa. Both times, his visit coincided with street protests by activists known as ‘suffragettes’. In an article published in his journal Indian Opinion in November 1906, Gandhi wrote: “Today the whole country is laughing at them, and they have only a few people on their side. But undaunted, these women work on steadfast in their cause. They are bound to succeed and gain the franchise, for the simple reason that deeds are better than words.” [continue reading]