Menace to Empire. Anticolonial Solidarities and the Transpacific Origins of the US Security State

Jung, Moon-Ho
American Crossroads
Oakland, California 2022: University of California Press
Anzahl Seiten
368 S.
$ 29.95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Robert Kramm, Historisches Seminar, LMU München

By now, new imperial and postcolonial history are established perspectives in the discipline of history. Within this very heterogenous field, two approaches, among others, have been particularly insightful. Already in the mid-1990s, Bernhard S. Cohn, Ann L. Stoler and Frederik Cooper’s seminal works have demonstrated that imperial metropoles and colonial peripheries are no separate entities but constitute a unitary field of analysis. Whether one looks at the structuring of institutions or the creation of bourgeois culture, exchanges and entanglements across colonial and imperial boundaries had enormous impact on the most intimate realms of human existence on both sides of the colonial divide.[1] More recently, another body of scholarship has further underscored the significance of this unitary field by unearthing the rich history of the “underworld” of empire, including anti-colonial and anti-imperial struggles as well as piracy. The works of Benedict Anderson, Maia Ramnath, Tim Harper, David Ambaras and the late David Graeber, to name but a few, are good examples of narrating thus far untold and/or outright silenced histories, mostly because these stories and the historical agents presented dwelled at the margins and do not fit into a success story of empire, capital, and modernity. Moreover, the emphasis on radicals, revolutionaries, and pirates allows to further highlight the ambivalences and contradictions of modern empires that were (and are) of an exploitative, oppressive, destructive, and even genocidal nature, but simultaneously provided (and still provide) an infrastructure for its opponents to move, organize, propagate, and fight for their emancipatory ideals.[2]

Moon-Ho Jung’s excellent book, Menace to Empire, I would argue, should be embedded into this long research trajectory. Surprisingly, the author does hardly acknowledge this line of scholarship. The book’s subtitle, Anticolonial Solidarities and The Transpacific Origins of the US Security State, gives a first hint that it primarily speaks to a US history and particularly Asian American Studies audience. That said, the book might fall short of readers’ expectations, especially those of non-U.S. based/interested readers. However, Menace to Empire still tells a compelling story worth reading for everyone, also because its main topic – the making of the U.S. security state – arguably affects almost everyone to various degrees around the world. And Jung’s concern with the histories untold and historical agents’ experiences unheard of in the struggle with and against the US security state makes the book even more compelling.

In six chapters, Moon-Ho Jung unfolds a trans-pacific entangled history of US imperialist expansion and surveillance and anti-colonial and anti-imperial struggles and movements from the turn of the century to the Second World War. The book’s major settings are the Philippines, California, Hawai’i, Mexico, and the United States, with Japan, Russia/Soviet Union, and the British Empire lurking in the background. In two wars, Jung contends, namely the Philippine-American War and the war against anarchism, agents of the US state started establishing a security apparatus targeting any kind of revolutionary action, ideas and movements that would potentially threaten the United States, usually circumscribed with the terms insurrection and sedition. Working his way through the vast records of the Philippines Constabulary, the Military Information Division, the Office of Naval Intelligence, the Bureau of Investigation, and the Bureau of Immigration – all US state-controlled agencies – Jung vividly reconstructs the production and distribution of knowledge about sedition, revolution as well as radical and racial politics, which accompanied, sometimes proceeded yet nevertheless always advanced the expansion of the US empire. At the heart of building the vast network of what we today call the US security state, however, was the insecurity of US state agents, who feared insurrection and sedition behind every corner, and who were particularly anxious about any threats to established racial hierarchies that would undermine white supremacy in the colonial order of things in a world of empires. The US security state apparatus, Jung attests throughout the book, worked tirelessly maintaining and reproducing this order.

For instance, around 1900, as chapters one and two discuss, US officials sensed growing racial, anti-US and thus anti-white alliances in Asia, and thereby spurred fears about Filipino revolutionaries’ alleged support of Japan’s imperial ambitions that would ultimately lead towards a race war between the American and Japanese empires. In doing so, US officials managed to circumvent tangible criticism against the US empire and its repressive politics in the Philippines into a racial narrative of Filipino insurrection that legitimated the necessity of US colonial rule and even counterrevolutionary violence in the Philippines. This narrative was based on the racist assumption that Filipinos were apparently not yet fit for self-determination, and a large set of US anti-Asian immigration laws constructing Asians as potentially political and sexually deviant (e.g. anarchists) supported these claims. Moreover, US officials also managed to turn all this into a matter of national security, because alliances between Filipino insurrectos and Japanese imperialists would allegedly foster Japan as America’s international rival and directly undermine US interests. Ultimately, many US officials were caught in their own racial panic and believed in their self-spread rumors. This allowed them to foster US imperial ambitions by conflating race and revolution, and it laid the foundation of the imagined necessity for the building of the US security state abroad. Yet their anxiety and insecurity nonetheless materialized in real budget, manpower, and effort to make its building happen.

Similar patterns of imperial insecurity and racial anxiety were at work in surveilling and suppressing South Asians’ protest against imperial hierarchies of race and racist and misogynist US immigration laws on the US West Coast. One key protesting group was the Ghadar party with its global anti-imperial network, which motivated US officials to follow the party members’ tracks and expand their own monitoring networks accordingly. As chapter three shows, they did so in complicity with the British Empire. A central incentive to forge a strong transatlantic alliance to fight anarchism and sedition was to maintain white supremacy in the imperial order. In Hawai’i US officials believed to have detected sedition in Japanese empire-coordinated Asian solidarity of Filipino and Japanese workers in plantation labor struggles (Ch. 4). Their fear of invasion and sedition thus compelled them to stretch the US security state from the Philippines to Hawai’i, but later also to places such as Harlem and Mexico City. Especially in the wake of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Third International’s anti-imperial ambitions, they believed, Filipinos, South Asians, and African Americans might conspire against the United States by forging Asian and/or non-white solidarity with the help of Tokyo and Moscow (Ch. 5). During the war, when imperial competition between the US and Japan intensified, these beliefs justified yet again counterrevolutionary violence in the severe suppression of the Sakdalista uprising in the Philippines (Ch. 6). The making of the US security state, Jung keeps demonstrating, grounded in racism, and its racial politics kept racializing radicals, radicalism, and sedition.

Despite the focus on the making of the US security state, Menace to Empire is not a political or institutional history from above, but an actor-centered social and cultural history – although not necessarily from below. Jung’s narrative strategy is to tell the story of the US security state through the discursive field of mid-ranking US officials as well as through the experiences of their opponents, including Filipino and South Asian revolutionaries, African American internationalists, and Japanese socialists. One might argue that class and capital in the context of the US security state could have been explored more. Also, more attention could have been paid to competing sets of racism and racial hierarchy in early twentieth century Asia. In Jung’s narrative, white supremacy remains the dominant racist ideology, which it undoubtedly was, but there were other ones as well, which would have allowed, for instance, to articulate a stronger critique of Japanese imperialism. One might also complain that Jung’s biographical vignettes structuring his narrative are glossing over the insurrectos’ fragmentary documented and contradictory everyday experiences. However, as Jung convincingly elucidates, his storytelling is more than striving for effect. Rather, it is striving for affect to raise attention to the histories and perspectives of anti-colonial and anti-imperial struggles. This shall help creating “a historical consciousness” that allow us to see and think of other possibilities than a world dominated by empire, racism, and white supremacy. Or, as Jung eloquently puts it, in the past, present and future “struggle for justice and democracy, we cannot but be a menace to empire” (p. 25). That said, Menace to Empire is a book for all of us.

[1] Bernhard S. Cohen, Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge. The British in India, Princeton 1997; Ann L. Stoler and Frederik Cooper (eds.), Tensions of Empire. Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World, Berkeley 1997.
[2] Benedict Anderson, Under Three Flags. Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination, New York 2006; Maia Ramnath, Haj to Utopia. How the Ghadar Movement Charted Global Radicalism and Attempted to Overthrow the British Empire, Berkeley 2011; Tim Harper, Underground Asia. Global Revolutionaries and the Assault on Empire, Cambridge, MA 2022; David R. Ambaras, Japan's Imperial Underworlds. Intimate Encounters at the Borders of Empire, Cambridge 2018; David Graeber, Pirate Enlightenment, or the Real Libertalia, London 2023.