Much has been made of the historical significance of this presidential election cycle: Obama, Palin and Clinton have shattered major gender and racial barriers in their race for office
But this election is historic for another reason. With candidates from Alaska, Hawaii and the Panama Canal Zone at the top of the Democratic and Republican tickets, this election, like no other before, charts the history of U.S. imperial ambitions and reveals how that history has become an integral part of the nation’s future.
John McCain has positioned himself as a Republican in the tradition of Theodore Roosevelt, the original maverick. His most profound connection to Roosevelt, but one he never mentions, is the Canal Zone. Roosevelt envisioned the Panama Canal as an essential component of the U.S. imperial project.
As a strategic commercial and military link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the isthmus canal was the fantasy of U.S. policy makers since the mid-19th century when the United States defeated Mexico and acquired the western half of the country through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
The subsequent discoveries of gold in California and Alaska, the Spanish-American-Filipino War of 1898, and the rise of the United States as a naval power made a more expedient route between East and West all the more imperative.
Previous plans to construct a canal failed, but when he ascended to the presidency Roosevelt made a canal one of the centerpieces of his administration. In 1936, 22 years after the Panama Canal opened for business, John McCain’s birth in the Canal Zone evidenced the success of Roosevelt’s imperial ambitions: McCain’s father was stationed at a naval base in the zone.
Hawaii, Barack Obama’s birthplace, also is a former outpost of American empire. Officially annexed by the United States in 1898 as part of the Spanish-American-Filipino War effort, Hawaii became a strategic Pacific fueling station enabling U.S. expansion into Asia. But Hawaii functions as a gateway to Asia in another way as well. Hawaii has long been the destination of Asian immigrants, forced and willing.
This multiracial milieu is one of the main reasons Hawaii was not granted statehood until 1959, two years before Obama’s birth. The nation was reluctant to incorporate territories like Hawaii and New Mexico because their large non-white populations would receive full citizenship; several outposts of empire remain in a liminal state between statehood and independence, partly for this reason. Hawaii’s historic ties to Asia also help to explain why Obama’s mother met and married an Indonesian man in Hawaii and later raised her son in Indonesia. Hawaii continues to link us to the East, albeit in ways the imperialists never imagined.
Indeed, McCain’s and Obama’s personal histories map out the United States’ imperial past, but they also shed light on the role of empire in America’s future. During the turn-of-the-century, imperial acquisitions like the Canal Zone and Hawaii played symbolic roles as new frontiers for the renewal and regeneration of the American spirit.
It was no coincidence that historian Frederick Jackson Turner presented his thesis on the closing of the American frontiers in 1893, only a few years before the United States returned to its expansionist mission with renewed zeal. Whereas the United States once sent soldiers, missionaries and businessmen out to domesticate the empire, we are now bringing the empire back in to domesticate the body politic.
Both McCain and Obama bring messages of change and reform from the outposts of empire. But their methods of bringing about change tell us much about their very different imperial experiences. McCain’s heavy-handed, tough-talk approach is reminiscent of the big stick that Roosevelt carried; Obama’s intellectual, internationalist approach reflects his upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia.
Whoever wins, it’s clear that our imperial past will be an inextricable part of our nation’s future.