Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American-East Asian Relations by Bruce Cumings

A worksheet assignment examining American-East Asian diplomatic relations.

Thomas White

Parallax Visions: Making Sense of American-East Asian Relations

Bruce Cumings

Preface to Paperback:

How does Cumings view Conservative Republicans?

Cummings takes a dim view of Conservative Republicans, and claims that as a group during the Clinton-Gore administration they used Sino-American relations to engage in political witch hunts. These witch hunts Cumings claims, were intended to ferret out presumed Chinese spies that were non-existent, and instead created spy hysteria.

What was the fluke that saved Formosa?

The fluke that saved Formosa is based upon an article which appeared in the 1950’s. In the article Chinese troops were preparing to invade Taiwan until an outbreak of the parasitic schistosomiasis occurred stopping the invasion and subsequently saving the island from communism. 

How did Cumings view American policy toward Korea under George W. Bush?

Simply put, Cumings viewed George W. Bush’s policy toward Korea as a calamity .  Bush in 2001 during a meeting with South Korean President Kim Dae Jung in Washington, surprised Kim  by informing him that he did not trust the North Korean leader Kim Jong IL(Il) and would be re-evaluating American policy toward North Korea.  As a result of Jung’s visit with Bush, South Korea’s hopes for its own Sunshine Policy with its neighbor to the north was faced with a “darkening outlook”[1]. Bush’s revised Korean policy resulted in an increase in military tension, coupled with huge financial cost increases because of new United States (US) missile defense measures directed toward the North Koreans. Bush’s Korea policy unlike his predecessor Bill Clinton’s, which according to Cumings sought to offer 1 billion dollars in food aid to the North Korean’s in order to get them into a missile control regime, instead involved over 60 billion dollars in new missile defense technology aimed at the North for suppression purposes. Bush’s Korean policy according to Cumings upset several years of careful work and planning. 


On page 4, Cumings states that he has “made a conscious attempt to take nothing for granted but to step back and cast sidelong glances at East Asia and the United States as a means toward understanding, toward getting at truth, and toward speaking truth to power.”  How does the author hope to achieve this?

When Bruce Cumings discusses taking “nothing for granted” but instead stepping back and “casting sidelong glances at East Asia”, Cumings (he) is speaking about how Americans view the world essentially through a biased perspective. Cumings believes that Eastern nations are controlled through Western systems and power relations, and that “even the experts of late-nineteenth- century East Asia take Western theory as the norm…”[2]  despite the fact that in East Asia there was international systems which had been in place for centuries prior to the western influence. Cumings when he discusses looking at East Asia with “sidelong glances”, is referring metaphorically to not looking directly into a mirror and having his own reflection cast back at him. In other words, Cumings is trying to apply objectivity when examining East Asia, while carefully avoiding his own Westernized observation. Cumings believes that much of East Asia has resided in a Western hegemonic gaze, and it is his intention to reach an understanding that entails not focusing upon Asia from a Westernized perspective, but instead to approach Asia in much the manner that the historian William Appleman Williams approached America, and that was from an outside looking in perspective. Cumings borrowing from Williams’ believed that by taking this type of outside looking in approach toward Asia he would avoid bias, while at the same time he could compare what is not only similar about the United States systems in Asia, but he could also see what is exceptional about them.

Chapter 1: “Archaeology, Descent, Emergence: American Mythology and East Asian Reality”

On page 16, Cumings writes, “I will argue in this first chapter that however close it may be to hegemonic emergence (and I don’t think it is very close), Japan for this entire century has been a subordinate partner in either bilateral American hegemony or trilateral American-British hegemony.”  How does he prove his case and how persuasive is his argument?  

Bruce Cumings argues that, however close Japan is toward an emergence from the hegemonic dominance of America or American British dominance in the last century, it has remained a junior partner in that relationship. Cumings supports his argument by pointing out that beginning with Japan’s opening by the British Commodore Matthew Perry a “trilateral”[3] policy would emerge which “hooked”[4] Japan in to the hegemonic system. Cumings points out that if one goes back to 1900 which was a part of Japan’s first phase of industrialization where textiles were Japan’s largest sector, one will find that Japan  owed their technology to Pratt Brothers of England, until they were later able to improve upon the technology themselves. Cumings cites further evidence of a hegemonic junior partner status by examining Japanese industrial companies going back even earlier to the 1880’s, and noting that the Kobe Paper Factory, the Osaka Watch Company, the Tokyo Electric Company, and even Kirin Beer were all “based on American technological start-ups or American expertise.”[5]  Cumings notes that Japan was caught up in the “regime of technology and the system of states”[6] and was content with a steady feeding of British-American technology for the first quarter of the 20th century without making any significant technology break through on its own. Cumings makes his point that “Japan depended on American and /or British technology, and was a sub imperial power…”[7] placing it well within the sphere of the hegemonic dominance of America or American British dominance in the last century.  

Chapter 2: “East Wind, Rain – Red Wind – Black Rain: The United States-Japan War, Beginning and End”

Why does Cumings prefer American nationalism to isolationism on page 41?

Cumings prefers American nationalism to isolationism because isolationism gave the false impression that the US had no real foreign policy, and it was a term which evolved following the First World War in which the US felt it should have not been involved in that war. Nationalism on the other hand meant an America-first foreign policy, and interjecting American national interests into the decision making when it applied to international issues.

Delineate the Cumings’ discussions of just and unjust wars (war crimes and genocide) in regard to Pearl Harbor, the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9-10, 1945, and the use of unconventional weapons first on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki.

In delineating Cumings position on just versus an unjust war, it is first important to understand what Cumings means by a just war. Cumings answers that question by referring to “Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars. A just war is one that it is morally urgent to win.”[8]  Cumings clarifies his position further by stating that in the case of a just war “Critical values are at stake: political independence, communal liberty, human life.”[9] Just as important as defining the criteria for a just war according to Cumings are the goals which need to be clarified in order to seek an appropriate end to a war. Once these goals have then been met, or are within reach, then the hostilities should end.

Cumings, when discussing Pearl Harbor, the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9-10, 1945, and the use of unconventional weapons first on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki expresses some very strong and controversial opinions. With regard first to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Cumings refers to this incident as “the American way of going to war.”[10] The meaning of this statement according to Cumings is that a nation which has superior military strength often finds it to its own advantage to let the weaker side to strike first. In the case of Pearl Harbor Cumings argues that the United States (US) actually maneuvered the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor for the express purpose of gaining the full support of the American people, and thus entering into a just war.

Cumings, when discussing the firebombing of Tokyo, attempts to draw a parallel with Los Angeles, by explaining in excruciating detail the extent of the carnage which would have occurred if the same events happened in Los Angeles. Cumings refers to the architect of the Tokyo fire bombing campaign General Curtis Lemay as a pyromaniac, who possessed a “dull wit, and [practiced] crude racism.”[11] Furthermore Cumings minces no words when he states that the Tokyo firebombing of 1945 was “an atrocity, a war crime.”[12]

Cumings, when examining the use of unconventional weapons on Hiroshima and later Nagasaki, supports the position espoused by the historian J. Samuel Walker. Cumings, like Walker, believed that the use of atomic weapons on Japan was not necessary and disputes government claims at the time that the use of atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary in order to convince the Japanese to surrender. The Truman administration at the time claimed that based on their estimates if the US had tried to invade the Japanese mainland they would suffer military losses of up to 1 million lives. Cumings claims that this line of reasoning is blatantly false, and that there were other means which could have been employed to induce the Japanese to surrender which did not entail the use of atomic weaponry on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Furthermore Cumings supports the position espoused by the historian Martin Sherwin who concludes that after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the second bomb on Nagasaki was “gratuitous at best and genocidal at worst.”[13]

Chapter 3: “Colonial Formations and Deformations: Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam”

How was the colonial experience different in Vietnam, Korea, and Taiwan under the Japanese?  Why did some of the economies benefit more than others? 

The colonial experience was clearly different in Korea and Taiwan under the Japanese than it was for the Vietnamese under the French. According to Cumings both Korea and Taiwan under Japanese rule benefited economically, infrastructure wise, and enjoyed better educations than their Vietnamese counterparts under French rule, although the Koreans held much animosity towards their Japanese colonizers unlike their Taiwanese counterparts. Much of the animosity which the Koreans had for their Japanese colonizers was based on a strong nationalistic pride, coupled with the harsh Japanese policies imposed on the Koreans during the Pacific War, which included forced labor, and relocations. Furthermore the Koreans had long been an independent nation which was in sharp contrast to Taiwan which never  held nation status, and consequently put up little resistance to their Japanese colonizers. Another difference in the colonizing experiences which stands out between the Vietnamese, Koreans and the Taiwanese can be summed up to what Cumings describes as either colonialism or modernization, and that is a matter of perspective. Cumings points out that colonialism refers to establishing new forms of personhood, a new social order, which in turn gives way to modernity that produces “…armies, schools, and factories.”[14] Cumings points out that when examining both Korea and Taiwan it becomes impossible to tell which side of the ledger either falls, blurring the lines of colonization with that of modernity. Both Korea and Taiwan experienced development that was despite policy differences remarkable under Japanese rule, with the Koreans themselves viewing the Japanese experience as truly colonialism, while Taiwan would have viewed the experience from a modernity perspective.

However, the same cannot be said for Vietnam. The Vietnamese under French rule experienced none of the benefits or development which could be attributed to either colonization or modernity, but instead experienced only exploitation. While Taiwan, and Korea experienced development which arguably is difficult to explain as either a result of modernity or colonialism, Vietnam’s experience with colonialism finds “nothing good to enter on either the colonial or modernization ledger.”[15]

The economies of Vietnam, Taiwan and Korea also benefited differently according to Cumings. The Korean industrial revolution for instance began in earnest during the last fifteen years of Japanese rule, and both the economies of Korea and Taiwan benefited from state sponsored loans that were intended “as a means of shaping industrial development.”[16] This state sponsored loan program which was practiced in both Korea and Taiwan was in sharp contrast to Vietnam, where even the most meager forms of small business were not encouraged. Other state sanctioned programs which Cumings points to that attributed to economic enterprise that was present in both Korea and Taiwan was focused on the human capitol. In both Korea and Taiwan the education of the masses became a necessity under Japanese rule, believing that an educated population contributed to a more disciplined workforce, which was in sharp contrast to French Vietnam that placed no emphasis on state education. The economies of both Korea and Taiwan also had much better developed transportation infrastructures than Vietnam, and also enjoyed various forms of economic protectionism which also attributed to their economic success, and that was not present in Vietnam. But most importantly to the economies of both Korea and Taiwan was the careful planning of both light and heavy industry which also was not present in Vietnam since under the French the main emphasis was on exportation of agro mineral products. The Vietnamese economy was geared toward one function, and that was moving products out of Vietnam, unlike Korea and Taiwan. Consequently Vietnam under French rule with its emphasis on an exclusive export based economy didn’t benefit economically as well as either Korea or Taiwan and according to Cumings, Vietnam earned a status as one of the most exploited colonies in all of Asia.  

Did American companies benefit from Japan’s colonial policies?

Cumings makes the argument that American companies did benefit from Japan’s colonial practices, because American companies had a long history of being the architects behind much of the technology and industrial innovation which was a cornerstone in Japan. Consequently when Japan engaged in in colonialism in both Korea and Taiwan it was this same American technology which was used in both countries. Cumings points out that in Korea “electricity, trolley cars, and water, telephone and telegraph”[17]  all were installed and run by American firms. 

Chapter 4: “Civil Society and Democracy in the United States and East Asia”

During the Cold War, Americans believed they were fighting to defend democracy in South Korea.  Write a one-page essay on the true state of affairs.

In Bruce Cumings’ Parallax Visions, the author argues that South Korea was not a democracy until 1993, and even now has only a limited form of procedural democracy.  Prior to this time period South Korea had undergone a “cataclysm of revolution, war, division, and decades of military dictatorship.”[18] Cumings argues that, following World War II in 1945 democratic struggles began in Korea, with an aim at wiping out Japanese imperialistic influences, and establishing “both democracy and social justice.”[19] What occurred instead according to Cumings was that Korea after a devastating civil war ended up divided, without democracy, and in its place was faced with massive social injustice. In place of a democratic government following World War II, South Korea became divided, and governed by a series of constricted governments that were supported by US policy and where any sign of any real opposition could mean jail or worse. During  the Asian Cold War time period any organized opposition within Korea which stood up and opposed the dictatorships which existed there during the 1970-80’s, would have faced the full wrath of their government by way of brutal suppression, and martial law. Opposition within Korea led by students, workers, and young people have proven to be the vanguard for change in Korea seeking that most elusive of goals, social justice and equality. What emerged following the years of turmoil and protest during the Cold War period within Korea is a form of procedural democracy that mirrored neither the Japanese or American models. Prior to the emergence of this form of procedural democracy, Cumings argues that during the Cold War period there was not a defense of democracy occurring within the Republic of Korea at all as many of the US public believed because it did not exist, what existed instead was a repressive form of authoritarian government that had the US government policy blessing.  

Chapter 5: “Nuclear Imbalance of Terror: The American Surveillance Regime and North Korea’s Nuclear Program”

In 1999 Cumings wrote “Does it serve the interests of international legality for a single superpower to use ‘rogue’ methods to go after those it unilaterally designates as ‘rogue states’”?  (p. 150) Write an overview highlighting points of tension in US-North Korean relations.  Why were issues not resolved under Clinton?

The major points of contention which highlight the tension between the US-North Korean relations center on the following issues. The US believes that North Korea’s nuclear reactor program at Yongbyon aimed at producing power generation is really just a guise intended for the development of nuclear weapons.  The US insists on allowing representatives of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to the Yongbyon facility in order to monitor plutonium levels at this waste site which would indicate if weapons grade plutonium was indeed being processed for nuclear weapons. The North Koreans have refused access to the Yongbyon facility claiming the waste site facility is a military installation, and that the US is a belligerent who has violated IAEA mandates. The North Koreans on the other hand have a major bone of contention with the US, and that is the “perennial fear that the United States simply wants to obliterate its existence as a state.”[20] The North Koreans, according to Cumings, have every reason to fear the US because of the fact that nuclear weapons have been targeted at them, as noted when in 1993 “General Lee Butler, head of the new U.S. Strategic Command, announced that the Pentagon was retargeting strategic nuclear weapons.”[21]

Under the Clinton administration major strides were made at alleviating the tensions which existed between the US and North Korea regarding nuclear weapons and the fear of war. Under President Clinton’s artful diplomacy, as series of proposals were put forth aimed at alleviating North Korea’s energy issues which included providing safer light water nuclear reactors to the North, along with a peace treaty, arms reductions, removal of trade restrictions, nuclear facility inspections, along with other proposals all aimed at diffusing tension. One major obstacle, however, that kept the Clinton administration from resolving all the issues between the US and North Korea was the diplomatic fallout which occurred when South Korea discovered the extent of the diplomatic negotiations. According to Cumings when South Korean President Kim Young Sam heard of the diplomatic negotiations he “went ballistic in a meeting with Clinton, fearing that somehow Pyongyang might damage Seoul’s relations with the United States…”[22] and this resulted in the North Koreans resorting  to a new hardball approach to diplomacy.

Chapter 6: “The World Shakes China”

On page 154, Cumings briefly discusses Dean Acheson’s policy toward China before the outbreak of the Korean conflict.  Does it square with what you have read in our previous texts?

Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s policy of affecting a Sino-Soviet split by recognizing China and keeping it open does in fact square with previous texts. In Gordon Chang’s Friends and Enemies for instance, Chang discusses how Acheson engaged in a series of diplomatic paper writing which in the hope that China was not yet lost to Moscow, “saw possibilities for US involvement in China and the eventual alienation of the Chinese Communists from Moscow.”[23] Also in John Lewis Gaddis’ We Now Know, Gaddis discusses Acheson and the Truman administration’s hopes of being able to somehow “wean Mao and his followers away from Moscow…”[24], an idea that persisted as long as May 1951.      

Write a two page essay on how Cumings interprets the policies of the revolutionary Chinese leaders, Mao and Deng.

Cumings, when interpreting the policies of both Mao and Deng, begins by describing how each had to contend with the very same problems that the Qianlong Emperor faced which was how to cope with “a vibrant world economy led first by England and then by America.”[25] Both Mao and Deng in their own distinct ways sought to foster China’s wealth and power. In the case of Mao’s rule, Cumings writes argues that, like old China, it closed itself off from Western challenge. Mao chose the only alternative system to industrial capitalism and embraced communism. Under the umbrella of the communism camp Mao seized upon “orthodox Stalinist industrial policy”[26]  and launched into his economic reform program known as the Great Leap Forward. The crux of Mao’s economic reform was geared around heavy industrial development which was intended to allow China to catch up with England. Cumings points out that instead of accomplishing this goal of economic reform, Mao’s Great Leap Forward policy resulted in a disastrous economic crisis compounded by the deaths of millions as a result of famine. Cumings also argues that when the Soviet’s Nikita Khrushchev embarked upon his policy of peaceful co-existence with the US, it left Mao with no choice but to re-evaluate the existing communist camp system that was presently in place and decide upon a new alternative economic strategy. Mao according to Cumings viewed what was left of the old Soviet system after Khrushchev’s peaceful co-existence announcement as corrupt. As a result according to Cumings, Mao sought to employ a self-reliant strategy in the mid-1960’s which was uniquely Maoist, followed later by a gradual enmeshment with the world market in the 1970’s. 

According to Cumings, Deng, unlike Mao whose economic focus emphasized “class struggle and the relations of production”[27], instead “pushed the theory of productive forces.”[28] Deng’s theory of productive forces emphasized focusing on developing both the human and material forces necessary for production. Under Deng’s direction China joined the World Bank, received most-favored –nation status within the European community, and China embarked upon a new social market economy. Cumings also notes that unlike Mao’s earlier policies which advocated a “go it alone policy”, Deng’s reform policy encompassed an open door approach, which for China had the effect of creating economic prosperity. Deng’s economic reform policies had at their core a hypothesis “that if China’s living standards keep rising his party can rule forever.”[29]   

Chapter 7: “Boundary Displacement: The State, the Foundations, and International and Area Studies during and after the Cold War”

Why do you think that Cumings wrote this chapter? 

Cumings wrote this chapter of the book to draw attention to his argument that the US government intelligence community has through a combination of funding and coercive tactics, unduly influenced the scholarly attention and understanding of area studies. Cumings argues that the US intelligence community has used power and money to shape the academic fields of inquiry, and as a consequence has been complicit in perpetuating America’s hegemonic gaze towards area studies.

During the Cold War there was concern that America’s China policy suffered from a lack of experts after the McCarthy witchhunts.  Considering the links between academia and government discussed by Cumings, how valid might this criticism be?

After reviewing Cumings’ claims regarding the link between academic cooperation and government influence, it would seem reasonable to assume that an air of paranoia was present after the McCarthy witch-hunts and this could have resulted in a shortage of China policy experts. Cumings cites several examples where scholars were unjustly vetted out of academic programs for issues that either the academic hierarchy and/or the FBI considered inappropriate. Cumings argues that academics such as McGeorge Bundy, a former Dean of Arts and Sciences at Harvard during the Cold War period “made life difficult for young scholars with political backgrounds that he or the FBI found suspect…”[30], and the repressive tactics that Bundy engaged in was not the exception but rather the rule. Cumings goes on further to argue that “academics working on East Asia…were particularly vulnerable to FBI harassment…”[31] lending further credence that experts on China policy would have chosen other fields of study, or avoided involvement with any enterprise which would have put them under the microscope. 

Chapter 8: “East Asia and the United States: Double Vision and Hegemonic Emergence”

How does Cumings account for Gaddis’s “long peace” discussed on p. 213?

Cumings’ explanation for Gaddis’ “long peace” between the US and the Soviet Union is due to a “system of dual containment.”[32] Dual containment according to Cumings pertains to two separate systems, one is the containment project which consists of “providing security against both the enemy and the ally”[33], while the second part of the system pertains to the hegemonic project which provided “American leverage over the necessary resources”[34] of industrial allies. While the US dealt with dual containment the Soviet Union was also forced to deal with security concerns of its own, which involved a need to “contain not just the United States, but also any hint of revanche in Germany and Japan”[35] and the resulting efforts help to explain Gaddis’ “long peace.”  

Write a one page essay on Cumings discussion of American hegemony in Asia since 1945.  Is there an overall assessment to be made on whether it has been positive, negative or neutral?

According to Cumings, American hegemony within Asia has clearly had positive effects. Cumings argues that hegemony, which is strictly an American game, consists of a hierarchical power structure where the one on the top gets the most out of the relationship. Cumings argues that in a hegemony it is not a crude power structure where one side wins and another losses, but is instead a system that allows “Talent to rise to the top.”[36] The idea of a hegemony relationship is to establish outer limits on the behavior of those within the realm, and then to get people within the realm to “do what you want them to do without having to be told…”[37] In East Asia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and even China since 1978 have done what the US has wanted them to do for the most part since 1945. This hegemony has had an overall positive effect on Asia for several reasons. The first reason is that following World War II, the US has been the only global economy powerful enough to be able to restore the economies of the East Asian nations of Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Secondly, Japan, which has been an integral part of US hegemony, has also been able to re-invigorate peripheral areas such as Korea and Vietnam and add to the economic success of these nations. The last point Cumings makes regarding the positive change that US hegemony has had on East Asia is that the nations within the US core have benefited immensely through the massive influx of not only capitol, but of technology as well.

[1] Bruce Cumings. Parallax Visions: American-East Asian Relations. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), xiv

[2] Cumings. Parallax Visions, 7

[3] Cumings. Parallax Visions, 28

[4] Ibid

[5] Cumings. Parallax Visions, 14

[6] Ibid, 22

[7] Ibid, 15

[8] Cumings. Parallax Visions, 42

[9] Ibid

[10] Bruce Cumings, Origins, 2: Chap.13 quoted in Bruce Cumings. Parallax Visions: American-East Asian Relations. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 47

[11] Cumings. Parallax Visions, 52

[12] Ibid

[13] Martin Sherwin, A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance (New York: Knopf, 1975), pp. 233-34 quoted in Bruce Cumings. Parallax Visions: American-East Asian Relations. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 54

[14] Cumings. Parallax Visions, 72

[15] Cumings. Parallax Visions, 73

[16] Ibid, 75

[17] Cumings. Parallax Visions, 72

[18] Ibid, 111

[19] Cumings. Parallax Visions, 112

[20] Cumings. Parallax Visions, 143

[21] Ibid, 142

[22] Cumings. Parallax Visions, 145

[23] Gordon H. Chang, Friends and Enemies. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 16

[24] John L Gaddis. We Now Know Rethinking Cold War History. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 62

[25] Cumings. Parallax Visions, 155

[26] Ibid

[27] Cumings. Parallax Visions, 158

[28] Ibid

[29] Ibid, 162

[30] Cumings. Parallax Visions, 173

[31] Ibid, 182

[32] Cumings. Parallax Visions, 213

[33] Ibid, 214

[34] Ibid

[35] Ibid

[36] Cumings. Parallax Visions, 205

[37] Ibid, 206

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