A Violent Peace
Race, U.S. Militarism, and Cultures of Democratization in Cold War Asia and the Pacific
Christine Hong



The Profile and the Target

In the wake of America’s decisive victory in World War II something murky entered into U.S. affairs, both domestically and abroad. The principle of indistinction—or the theoretical nonperception of difference—would in short order be enshrined as a postracial ideal at the very heart of American conceptions of liberal democracy. It would simultaneously, however, take institutional form in the militarized practices of racial profiling and area targeting critical to the undemocratic exercise of U.S. police and war power—practices predicated on the lethal conflation of racialized humanity with suspect terrain that refused differentiation on the level of the individual while generating “group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”1 As a world-destroying and -remaking force, post-1945 U.S. militarism demands complex, historically layered, and geographically far-reaching analysis. It requires consideration of the racism of the U.S. war machine and the latter’s equivocal function as an engine of both life-affirming and lethal multiculturalism. Yet our language for U.S. militarism’s at once formative and enduring role in global and domestic affairs, even though this history extends back several decades, is strikingly impoverished and insufficiently attentive to its penetrating reach. Understanding the role of U.S. police and war power within the political economy of postwar U.S. “democracy” entails critically revisiting World War II’s structural legacies. How we explain postwar U.S. militarism—its reliance on superior force to achieve political ends in foreign and domestic arenas—depends on our grappling with the transformation of the United States during World War II, a time of Jim Crow, into a boundary-blurring, total-war state, permanently mobilized not only for war abroad but also for war at its very core.

Examining how World War II, a war supposedly fought against the twin threats of militarism and fascism, gave rise to a far-reaching system of militarized unfreedom and imperial subjection requires challenging orthodoxy around the so-called good fight. Here, the pervasive cultural mythos that the 1950s was a time of war-fostered plenty has had the effect of recuperating, in terms of perceived domestic benefits, not only the Korean War, a U.S. war of intervention that left an estimated four million Koreans dead, but also World War II’s total-war economy. It has sanctified the guns-and-butter thesis of the welfare-warfare state—namely, that “our economic well-being depends upon the military budget.”2 That World War II saw unprecedented job opportunities for blacks, women, and migrants—segments of the labor force previously excluded or marginalized by reason of race, gender, or nationality—has granted U.S. militarism a potent democratic aura that persists to this day. What President Franklin Roosevelt, in World War II’s early years, described in velvet-glove terms as America’s “arsenal of democracy” signaled, however, far more than the shifting of domestic industry into war gear and the consequent heralded opening of the labor market. The arsenal of democracy relied on total war’s iron-fist infrastructure, which would shape the postwar U.S. welfare-warfare state, mostly in shadowy or unseen ways.3

Where it surfaced, warfare’s criticality to U.S. democratization efforts would call into question the postwar U.S. global project. Few could deny that Cold War America, with its serial catastrophic wars in Asia, had presented a damning “image of violence” in the form of mass civilian death to the world rather than a galvanizing vision of “revolution, freedom and democracy.”4 As Ho Chi Minh repeatedly pointed out, “U.S. imperialists . . . are clamouring about ‘peace,’ [while] hurriedly building up many more military bases, dispatching many additional troops to South Vietnam and intensifying the bombing of North Vietnam”; such professions of peace “can by no means fool ours and the world peoples.”5 As he noted, the United States had actively armed repressive client-states in the greater region while turning a blind eye to their counterrevolutionary violence. In Asia and the Pacific, where the Cold War immediately turned hot, the task of keeping the peace would thus prove hard to differentiate from the waging of war. Insofar as democracy could be said to be the legacy of U.S. triumph in the former Pacific theater of World War II, it presumed militarism, if not outright war, as a precondition. Significantly, in that same window, race, long the overt contradiction to U.S. claims to democracy on the world stage, would be strategically enfolded into the Cold War U.S. war machine. Indeed, the desegregation of the U.S. armed forces preceded Brown v. Board of Education by several years. Of the dubiousness of military integration as a civil-rights gain during a time of counterinsurgent U.S. war in Asia, Martin Luther King Jr. perceived that the Vietnam War succeeded in aligning “Negro and white boy . . . in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village.”6

For the inhabitants of Asia and the Pacific, the postwar Pax Americana, the American military “peace” that settled the region in the wake of Japan’s defeat, would introduce an anticommunist necropolitical order in which unfreedom would be presented as freedom, democratization as democracy, and militarism as the basis for life itself. In real terms the Pax Americana meant the suspension of decolonizing justice, the deaths of several million civilians, the displacement of many millions more, nuclear ruin that eclipsed the magnitude of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the creation of a forward-deployed permanent garrison state anchored in hosting sites throughout the region. During an era that some American Cold War historians have breezily described as a long peace, this militarized regime institutionalized the sweep and grip of U.S. power within the former Pacific theater of World War II in the form of the Pacific Command (now Indo-Pacific Command), the oldest and largest of U.S. military commands around the world.7 Encompassing more than half the earth and 70 percent of the world’s oceans, this sprawling military empire extends latitudinally from the Arctic to Antarctica and longitudinally from the western United States to India’s west coast.8 Meant to keep the regional peace, it stands as a testament to a legacy of ongoing, underrecognized war. How do we begin to square this history of catastrophic violence and world-altering terror with a redemptive national narrative of postwar U.S. democracy? How do we account for the formidable structure of counterrevolutionary violence that materialized out of the heated U.S. engagements in Asia and the Pacific during the Cold War—namely, the U.S. national security state, its empire of bases, its permanent war economy, and the military-industrial complex?9 How and why did most Americans perceive a time of unrestrained war violence to be a period of uneasy peace?

Examination of the Cold War U.S. military behemoth that emerged from U.S. entanglements in Asia and the Pacific requires analysis of the aftermath of U.S. triumph consequent to its total-war strategies in World War II’s Pacific theater. Scholars have periodized World War II as a rupture, in a world-historical sense—a global racial break, according to Howard Winant, and the inception of the age of the world target, in Rey Chow’s influential theorization. Yet even as Winant locates what he contends was a worldwide shattering of the formal trappings of white supremacy against domestic civil rights struggles and the sweep of postwar global decolonization movements, he does not dwell on how U.S. war strategy flexibly adjusted to these shifting geopolitical conditions or how the U.S. military, embroiled in a counterrevolutionary war in Korea just half a decade after World War II, led the way in institutionalizing colorblindness as postwar U.S. policy.10 Indeed, at the Cold War’s onset Harry Truman’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services (the Fahy Committee), in assessing the costs of black demoralization on the Jim Crow military, stressed “the interdependence of the objectives of equal opportunity and military efficiency” in the armed services.11 We thus must inquire into the centrality of the self-legitimating strategies of U.S. military empire to the racial break itself. In contrast to Winant’s thesis, Chow’s account of the militarized global dispensation inaugurated by the U.S. atomic bombings of Japan brings into sharp relief how the U.S. war machine positioned the world as a target, always already subjugated at the end of a nuclear kill-chain. Yet Chow does not theorize the target beyond identifying it as “an object to be destroyed.”12 While critiquing the nexus of war, national security, and race specific to Cold War Asian area studies, she assumes rather than explicitly argues the racism of war and militarism. How race inheres in the logic of the target thus goes unaddressed.

Whereas the obsolescence of racism as a ruling idea is at the heart of Winant’s account, the emergence of unrivaled annihilatory U.S. war power is at the center of Chow’s analysis. If Winant’s account illuminates the postfascist liberalization of postwar racial orders worldwide, Chow’s thesis sheds needed light on the post-Hiroshima illiberalism of a world order conditioned by the threat of apocalyptic U.S. force. In this regard both accounts look back to World War II as catalyzing U.S. global ascendancy, yet Winant’s emphasis is biopolitical whereas Chow’s is geopolitical. Winant’s racial-break thesis and Chow’s theorization of the age of the world target have much to say to each other. Both hint at what I contend is the strategic logic of indistinction that informs the liberalism and illiberalism of postwar U.S. military empire in Asia and the Pacific. If World War II expanded the concept of the military target and, with it, permissible indiscriminate death, it also highlighted, for all the world to see, the black soldier’s quandary in America’s Jim Crow army, fighting for democracy and against fascism on two fronts. As Winant briefly acknowledges, the “embittering return to a segregated or colonized homeland” (133) of soldiers of color propelled postwar movements against formal racism. Not, however, merely a factor in the abandonment of racism as state policy, U.S. war strategy in the first instance drove federal desegregation. We might remember the call for wartime national unity issued by Robert Patterson, Roosevelt’s undersecretary of war. Urging whites to regard World War II as “every American’s emergency” and to refrain from racist violence against black veterans in uniform, he reasoned that the danger posed by the enemy was common to all—indeed, that “the aerial bomb draws no color line.”13

A mere half decade after World War II, the biopolitics of the racial break and the geopolitics of the age of the world target would converge in interoperable ways in the Korean theater. U.S. war planners seized on the Korean War as an opportunity to implement Truman’s 1948 Executive Order 9981, which called for the desegregation of the armed forces. In The Strange Career of Jim Crow, published shortly after the Korean War’s combat phase, C. Vann Woodward observed: “In two historic instances, Negro Americans have been beneficiaries—as well as victims—of the national compulsion to level or to blur distinctions. The first leveling ended the legal status of slavery, the second the legal system of segregation. Both abolitions left the beneficiaries still suffering under handicaps inflicted by the system abolished.”14 This point is worth considering because the apparent racial democratization of the U.S. military in Korea would later be retrieved as evidence of an American civil rights “victory.”15 As historian Daniel Widener contends, “The Korean War provided the impetus for a specific reordering of American racial relations, paving the way for the emergence of the belief that the U.S. military . . . represents the most meritocratic, socially equal, and ultimately progressive institution in American society.”16 At the same time, however, this asymmetrical war furnished the occasion for the Pentagon to expand its definition of the military target, stretched to “include every human-made structure,” predictably leading to what historian Bruce Cumings has called a “bombing holocaust.”17 As Harold Ickes pointed out in a March 3, 1951, article for the New Republic, U.S. aerial bombing in Korea did not “distinguish between the sexes or between the aged and infants” (quoted in Conway-Lanz, 154). Even as late as 1957, while visiting North Korea as it was rebuilding its society in the wake of U.S. aerial warfare, the French documentarian Chris Marker commented: “Extermination passed over this land. Who could count what burned with the houses?”18 As the Cold War dawned, the principle of indistinction at play in the racial integration of the U.S. armed forces—and hailed by liberals as a civil rights milestone—thus had another institutional manifestation in the expansion of the target. In both instances, indistinction as U.S. policy was aimed first and foremost at ensuring the war machine’s necropolitical efficiency.

As a modality of racial capitalism, Cold War U.S. militarism in Asia and the Pacific enabled a range of incommensurate political outcomes, cognitively mapped as “representative government for some and despotism for others.”19 Yet to no small degree, investment in the democratizing returns of war over there—namely, civil rights gains here—contributed to the mystifications of the post-1945 U.S. welfare-warfare state. Reflecting on what impelled her to write her Korean War novel Home, Toni Morrison described her fascination with the darker recesses of the 1950s: “I have noticed how people think of it as a golden age, you know post-war, lots of money, everybody was employed, the television shows were cheerful. And I think we forgot what was really going on in the ’50s.”20 Here, she clarified, “We forgot McCarthy, anti-communist horror. We forgot that there was a war that we didn’t call a war, called a Korean police action. And it was a violent time for African-Americans.” Morrison’s comments point to the necessity of locating the potent imperialist concoction at the heart of military Keynesianism—the notion that U.S. war violence abroad stimulates universal prosperity, expanded social welfare, and democratization at home—within the lethality of Jim Crow. Not simply a site where the “good life” and other benefits of capitalist democracy could be pursued and realized, the U.S. home front was imprinted, in opaque undemocratic ways, by both Jim Crow and the structural legacies of World War II as a total war. The war’s perceived democratic benefits, emblematized by icons like Rosie the Riveter, call for comparative analysis against the total-war state’s institutionalization of a permanent war posture against internal dissidence. Insofar as democracy was to be had in this militarized configuration, it calls for critical interpretation, to borrow Ralph Ellison’s resonant World War II–era phrase, as “democracy within the teeth of fascism.”21

If the mass mobilization of society during World War II meant the provisional inclusion of historically marginalized and reviled demographics in the war industries and the consequent enlargement of civil rights, total war also meant the securitized mapping of the home front, renamed the “Zone of the Interior,” a term originating in World War I but animated on a vaster and far more complex scale during World War II. Indeed, democracy’s arsenal would serve as home to overlapping U.S. military and domestic counterintelligence campaigns, in essence, a testing ground for militarized technologies of surveillance, racial repression, and social control aimed at rooting out “fifth-column” activity in stateside armed forces and civilian populations. In ways that anticipated postwar political-policing measures aimed at neutralizing anti-imperialist, race-radical, and Third Worldist movements, total war furnished the rationale for the targeting of domestic populations as potential enemies of the state—spectacularly in the mass incarceration of ethnic Japanese and covertly in a nationwide FBI investigation into “racial conditions in the United States” (RACON) that, in surveilling and infiltrating black, Japanese, and communist organizations, set the stage for COINTELPRO.22

Under the Cold War rubric of civil defense, a securitized conception of national territory that derived from the geostrategic notion of the Zone of the Interior, the United States waged war in its cities. In the late 1960s the Pentagon developed a military-operational plan, “Garden Plot,” aimed at preempting urban unrest. It elaborated protocols for the pacification of urban arenas, including profiling neighborhoods according to “population by race,” “poor economic and sociological conditions,” “concentrated unemployment,” “existence of wide-spread sense of injustice,” and access to weapons. Through the lens of counterinsurgency doctrine, so-called high-crime areas were thus interpreted as “enemy territory” where armed combatants could “blend into the civilian population when under close surveillance or pursuit,” making it difficult for “the pursuing army to distinguish between the enemy and the civilian population.”23 According to one late 1960s analysis: “As in the war in Vietnam, where an American soldier finds it difficult to distinguish among Vietnamese . . . so the white American policeman finds it difficult to distinguish among Negroes, the predominant population in high-crime areas” (Black and Labes, 667). The framing of racial profiling in the language of counterinsurgency should alert us to the tactical convergence between U.S. military interventions abroad and the covert domestic wars the United States has prosecuted from the 1960s to the present. Akin to the simultaneously indiscriminate and group-differentiating logic of the target with its built-in margin of collateral damage, racial profiling presumes guilt not just by association but by location, sweepingly conflating racialized humanity with areas where “mere presence in a certain place” is tantamount to a crime.24 It turns on the simultaneous visibility of race as perceived threat and the invisibility of those targeted “as ‘individuals’” (M. Jones, 165). In her memoir, Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrisse Khan-Cullors reflects on how the wars on drugs and gangs ethnically cleansed U.S. cities, catalyzing the “forced migration” of black and brown communities and enabling “young white people [to] build exciting new lives . . . on the bones of ours.”25 More than deterritorializing in its combat operations on foreign soil, the United States has prosecuted wars domestically in unseen or underrecognized ways.

As a boundary-blurring total war, World War II renewed the role of U.S. war power in dispossessing native peoples. Three years after Roosevelt’s decision to enter the war, the securitized mapping of the United States as the Zone of the Interior corresponded to a staggering enlargement of military property holdings by 800 percent, one of the largest land grabs in twentieth-century U.S. history.26 Wartime emergency powers were wielded to justify the seizure of “public lands,” indigenous lands that were then placed under military control for a range of necropolitical objectives, many contaminating in their effects, including uranium excavation and nuclear weapons testing. The journey of the atom in the nuclear Pacific thus traced an itinerary from indigenous lands in North America to the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to U.S. nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands.27 Just a year into the postwar era, the United States detonated the first in a series of world-shattering high-yield nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands, with low-yield nuclear tests on Western Shoshone lands in Nevada to come. For most of the Cold War the United States strategically enclosed the Marshall Islands as part of its vast oceanic Pacific Proving Grounds, administering the islands as a strategic trust territory under the Department of the Interior—akin to tribal or “domestic dependent nations” in the United States. Analysis of the post-1945 Pax Americana therefore calls for the necropolitical conceptualization of territory not just in theaters of U.S. war and its sprawling empire of bases in Asia and the Pacific but also within the borders of the settler-colonial state. Not always destroying in order to remake native land as settler home, much less eventuating in privatization of property, but often destroying to destroy, the transformation of indigenous lands into terra nullius in the name of national security compels us to examine war power as an ongoing motor of the United States as both military-imperial and settler-colonial formation.28


1. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, The Golden Gulag (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 28.

2. Fred J. Cook, The Warfare State (New York: Collier, 1964), 106.

3. On the “iron first and velvet glove” analysis of the role of policing in American democracy see Tony Platt et al., The Iron First and the Velvet Glove: An Analysis of the U.S. Police (Berkeley, CA: Center for Research on Criminal Justice, 1975).

4. Martin Luther King Jr., “Declaration of Independence from the War in Vietnam,” Ramparts 5, no. 11 (1967): 37, 36.

5. Ho Chi Minh, “Appeal on the Anniversary of the Geneva Agreements,” in Against U.S. Aggression for National Salvation (Hanoi: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1967), 84–85.

6. King, “Declaration,” 33 (emphasis in original).

7. See John Lewis Gaddis, “The Long Peace: Elements of Stability in the Postwar International System,” International Security 10, no. 4 (1986): 99–142.

8. For a description of the Pacific Command (PACOM) see Winona LaDuke, with Sean Aaron Cruz, The Militarization of Indian Country (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), 48.

9. The phrase “empire of bases” is Chalmers Johnson’s. See Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books-Henry Holt, 2004), 5.

10. See Howard Winant, “The Modern World Racial System,” in Transnational Blackness: Navigating the Global Color Line, ed. Manning Marable and Vanessa Agard-Jones (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2008), 41–54.

11. “Initial Recommendations by the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services,” May 24, 1949, Armed Services, Record Group 220: Records of the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, Truman Library, www.trumanlibrary.gov/library/research-files/initial-recommendations-fahy-committee?documentid=NA&pagenumber=2 (emphasis added).

12. Rey Chow, The Age of the World Target: Self-Referentiality in War, Theory, and Comparative Work (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 31.

13. Quoted in Barbara Dianne Savage, Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and the Politics of Race, 1938–1948 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 140.

14. C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 219–20.

15. See Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President at 60th Anniversary of the Korean War Armistice,” July 27, 2013, Office of the Press Secretary, www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2013/07/27/remarks-president-60th-anniversary-korean-war-armistice.

16. Daniel Widener, “Seoul City Sue and the Bugout Blues: Black American Narratives of the Forgotten War,” in Afro Asia: Revolutionary Political and Cultural Connections between African Americans and Asian Americans, ed. Fred Ho and Bill Mullen (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 78.

17. Bruce Cumings, War and Television (London: Verso, 1992), 215; see also Sahr Conway-Lanz, Collateral Damage: Americans, Noncombatant Immunity, and Atrocity after World War II (New York: Routledge, 2006), 20.

18. Chris Marker, Coréennes, trans. Brian Holmes (1959; Columbus, OH: Wexner Center for the Arts, 2009), https://chrismarker.org/coreennes-english-text.

19. Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 107.

20. Toni Morrison, “In Toni Morrison’s ‘Home,’ Soldier Fights War Abroad, Racism at Home,” interview by Jeffrey Brown, PBS News Hour, May 29, 2012, www.pbs.org/newshour/show/in-toni-morrison-s-home-soldier-fights-war-racism.

21. Ralph Ellison, “Airman Novel,” Box 115, Folder 1, ms. and ts., Papers of Ralph Ellison, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

22. The phrase “race-radical” is Jodi Melamed’s. See Jodi Melamed, Represent and Destroy: Rationalizing Violence in the New Racial Capitalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), xix.

23. Harold Black and Marvin J. Labes, “Guerrilla Warfare: An Analogy to Police-Criminal Interaction,” American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 37, no. 4 (1967): 666–70.

24. D. Marvin Jones, Dangerous Spaces: Beyond the Racial Profile (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2016), 41.

25. Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir (New York: St. Martin’s, 2017), 134.

26. Brandon C. Davis, “Defending the Nation, Protecting the Land: Emergency Powers and the Militarization of American Public Lands,” in Proving Grounds: Militarized Landscapes, Weapons Testing, and the Environmental Impact of U.S. Bases, ed. Edward A. Martini (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015), 35.

27. See LaDuke, Militarization of Indian Country, 37.

28. See Traci Brynne Voyles, Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 7.