New Bruce Cumings book

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Mar 20 19:19:00 MST 2001


H-NET BOOK REVIEW Published by H-Diplo at h-net.msu.edu (March, 2001)

Bruce Cumings, "Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American-East Asian
Relations at the End of the Century"
Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1999. 280 pp.
Notes and index. $27.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-8223-2276-5.

Reviewed for H-Diplo by Arne Kislenko <arne.kislenko at utoronto.ca>,
Department of History, Ryerson University

Making Sense

There is no doubt that Bruce Cumings is a pre-eminent scholar of modern
East Asia and U.S. diplomatic history. His contribution to the scholarship
in both fields has been well-demonstrated with previous books such as _The
Origins of the Korean War_ (Princeton; Princeton University Press, 1981),
which should be mandatory reading for any student of that conflict, and
_Korea's Place in the Sun_ (New York; Norton, 1997). There is also no doubt
that with _Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American-East Asia Relations
at the End of the Century_, Cumings has embarked on an ambitious project.
"Making sense" of Asia, and U.S. foreign policy with respect to any part of
it, has always perplexed historians, and often continues to confound
observers.

Rather than being a conventional book, _Parallax Visions_ is mostly a
collection of previously published articles and chapters, here expanded or
revised, on topics ranging from "American Mythology and East Asian
Reality", to the war between the United States and Japan, and the state of
academe during and after the Cold War. The "feel" of the book is decisively
different than those with a more standard narrative, and Cumings frequently
discusses and applies theoretical frameworks to his analysis. Given the
enormity of the topics Cumings wishes to address, the reader is initially
struck by the surprising brevity of the book. However, _Parallax Visions_
is seldom in want of detail or original, and critical, analysis. It is
clear from the outset that what fascinates Cumings is the curious blend of
U.S. hegemony, the realities of global conflict during the Cold War, and
American liberalism. In fact much of the book pivots around his attempt to
understand the United States, more than it does Asia. In the introduction
Cumings laments that "so much about the American side is assumed, unspoken,
implicit, taken for granted... transparent, known, a thing understood." In
reality, he points out, American observers of the world often suffer from a
"deep, abiding, and often unexamined 'consensus'... so rooted in the United
States that it is not a matter of conscious reflection" (p. 4). Hence,
Americans believe that they are a people without ideology, which ultimately
leaves them with "a built-in ahistoricity." With this in mind, Cumings
examines East Asia in the wake of U.S. hegemony during the 20th century,
never forgetting to apply the "particularity" of an American world-view.

Cumings argues convincingly that Japan has occupied a special place in
American minds. From an enemy to an ally, Japan is still now a "mysterious
entity, to be loved or reviled" by Americans (p. 23). In addition to
discussing the war between the United States and Japan in general terms,
Cumings tackles more contentious issues, such as Japan's wartime
atrocities, and the American decision to drop the atomic bomb. He concludes
that throughout the 20th century Japan was subordinate in alliances, first
with Britain and then with the U.S., except for World War II. Cumings also
argues that as a result of this "Western hegemonic regime", Japan has never
developed a true autonomy. Although Japanese nationalists would no doubt
take offence, they can take heart from Cumings' contention that Japan may
ultimately move beyond this subordinate position vis-a-vis the West once
the United States "truly enters its period of hegemonic decline" (p. 225).

In a chapter entitled "Colonial Formations and Deformations", Cumings
examines Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam within the context of foreign, and
particularly American, influence. He sees Japanese rule in Korea during the
first half of the twentieth century as the key to its post-World War II
strife, but in an earlier chapter (Ch. 2) also discusses the "sorry
American record" there. He argues that Koreans were "de-humanized" by both.
In fact, again welcoming contention, Cumings lists "war crimes" that
Americans committed in Korea (p. 64). Despite this, and the long-standing
presence of U.S. soldiers in the Korea, he contends that few Americans know
or care about Korea at all, again illustrating their ahistoricity. With
respect to all three "colonies" he chooses, Cumings concludes that a
Western "hegemonic web", albeit with different spiders, has again dominated
Asia.

Cumings' discussion of China is one of the great strengths of _Parallax
Visions_ . He begins by outlining the numerous myths and metaphors that
have pervaded American thought on China; pointing out that such views
continue to influence opinion on "where" China is going, and what the U.S.
must do to prepare. Contrary to the myths, Cumings argues that China since
1949 has been remarkably restrained in exercising its power within its own
historic sphere of influence, and that despite prevailing American opinion
(which is frequently want to liken it to Japan in the late 1930s), China is
not a rogue state. Convincingly, Cumings contends that China is really a
fragmented nation, too divided between intellectuals, bureaucrats, and
party leaders to be a single-minded nation capable of truly "shaking the
world" as many Westerners fear. Instead, it is likely -- as we have already
begun to see -- that capitalism and the new global order will shake China.

Noting that "China still has no principle for interacting with that world
while retaining its dignity", Cumings suggests that U.S. policy should
avoid confrontation with, and the humiliation of China. Rather, the West
should focus on fostering what he terms "economism" in China, and seeking
an accommodation. However, Cumings is well-aware that such a generous view
of China is difficult to sell. That, he believes, is because China has
become a metaphor for "something else"; namely a huge American military
establishment without a clear protagonist, neo-conservatives without fear
of a credible "Left", and American idealists in search of themselves (p.
169-171).

_Parallax Visions_ offers some other interesting kernels throughout.
Discussing the struggle for democratic change in Korea, Cumings points out
that the process has been more profound than the 1960s were in the United
States, and that pluralism in America is, in fact, by comparison quite
limited. Dealing with North Korea's nuclear gambit, he notes that much of
the problem between Washington and Pyongyang stems from the "cunning of
history", which has left the U.S. bereft of worthy adversaries and
preoccupied with smaller pariahs (p. 138-139). Bringing full circle his
attempt to understand America, Cumings argues in the concluding chapter
that the Cold War was not just a "containment project" against the Soviet
Union, but also a "hegemonic project" designed to contain capitalistic
allies and further U.S. influence.

_Parallax Visions_ does have its weaknesses. Primarily, they come from the
sheer scope of the work. In places, the book deals perhaps too much with
questions of methodology and theoretical paradigms, detracting from
Cumings' excellent prose. Some of Cumings' arguments are left dangling,
without a full explanation or defence. For example, his comparisons between
China and South Korea or Taiwan in terms of political and economic
developments are somewhat tenuous. The potential for violent change in
China (given the inherent political divisions he details) is not fully
discussed, especially in relation to pressures from the global order
dominated by the United States. While Vietnam is mentioned at various
junctures in the book, an expanded, more comprehensive examination of that
country and its special place in American history is needed; especially
considering how readily the American experience in Vietnam would fit
Cumings' analytical framework. And, paradoxically, while throughout the
book Cumings discusses the dangers of U.S. hegemony, he frequently points
to the stability and success of an international order based on American
liberalism. Still, such criticisms do not detract from the power of
Cumings' arguments. _Parallax Visions_ offers the critical analysis of good
scholarship at its best, and is provocative, engaging reading that is
essential for any student of Asia or the United States.

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Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org/





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