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8 November 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 3:58pm

The Midway of our movie screens ignores its place within America’s oceanic empire

The tiny Pacific island’s history is emblematic of the country’s little-discussed colonial past.

By Paul Kreitman

It was with some shock that I woke up to discover the full might of the Hollywood war-machine bearing down upon my tiny research topic. Roland Emmerich’s new film Midway, which opens in cinemas tomorrow, tells the story of one of the pivotal battles of World War II, fought between the Japanese and American navies on and around a tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It is not a subtle film: its themes are courage, patriotism and pyrotechnics, served up with a side-portion of suffering spouses. This will not come as much of a surprise to anyone familiar with the director’s earlier work, such as Independence Day (1996) or The Patriot (2000). But it also draws on a long tradition of Anglo movie-making (think Casablanca, Pearl Harbor or Darkest Hour) whose roots stretch all the way back to Allied wartime propaganda. In fact as Midway itself shows, the first ever feature film about the Battle of Midway was stitched together from actual documentary footage shot during the battle and rushed into movie theatres in order to congratulate US audiences on the successful defence of “your front yard” in the Pacific.

Like these earlier efforts, Midway repeats long-standing tropes of World War II as the archetypal Good War, a heroic struggle between the forces of liberty and tyranny. To do so, the movie conveniently ignores the fact that the United States was, like Japan and Great Britain, very much a colonial power during World War II. So, for instance, the film depicts the Japanese attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor without mentioning that Hawai’i would not achieve statehood until 1959, Nor does it mention that on the same day Japan also bombed the American colonies of Philippines (decolonised 1946) and Guam (still a colony!). Daniel Immerwahr’s recent tour-de-force survey, How To Hide an Empire (2019), has shown that Americans maintain remarkable amnesia about their country’s imperial history, manifest most recently in widespread indifference to the hurricane damage wreaked on the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico. But on the eve of World War II, America’s colonial territories encompassed roughly 13 per cent of its population. They may have lived under the Stars and Stripes, but they had no congressional representation and enjoyed only a limited form of internal democracy. Overwhelmingly Asian, Latino or Pacific Islander, their status under American rule was similar to that of those living under Japanese rule in Korea, Taiwan and Micronesia.

In particular, the film does nothing to explain how its titular island became American territory in the first place. The atoll of Midway is a peculiar kind of “front yard” for a nation. Roughly twice the size of Manhattan’s Central Park, it essentially consists of a handful of sand scattered over a coral reef growing from a sunken volcano in the middle of the Pacific. The Hawaiian press liked to call it “the loneliest place on Earth”. This very isolation has made the island an ideal home for albatrosses, terns, shearwaters, and other seabirds seeking to raise their young safe from land-borne predators. In a very real sense, these birds made Midway. They carried seeds and grasses that sprouted in and secured the atoll’s sandy soil. The run-off from their phosphate-rich droppings fed shoals of plankton, that in turn sustained a rich marine ecosystem that helped build the reef further.

And it was the birds that first drew Midway to the attention of American empire builders. In the mid-nineteenth century, merchants suddenly discovered that dried birdshit, or guano, could command a high market price as agricultural fertiliser. This sparked a global scramble to mine remote oceanic atolls, and in 1859 an American sea captain applied to the US government to annex Midway under newly passed Congressional legislation designed to formalise the process for claiming guano islands. The planned mine came to nothing, however, and for nearly half a century the sole evidence America’s claim to Midway consisted of an entry in a State Department ledger.

Then, in 1898, America went to war with Spain and, in a paroxysm of victory, suddenly acquired a whole new empire in the Pacific: the Philippines, a scattering of other Spanish island holdings in the Pacific, as well as the once independent kingdom of Hawai’i. This new empire generated new strategic imperatives. It brought the US face to face with Japan, another imperial power expanding vigorously into the Pacific. And in the Philippines, the new colonial government inherited from Spain a simmering counter-insurgency war against Filipino nationalists that would take a decade (and great savagery) to suppress.

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The US took a number of steps to defend its new Pacific Empire. It began to build a naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawai’i. It dug a canal across Panama to give its navy easy access to the Pacific. And it laid a trans-Pacific telegraph cable to connect San Francisco with Manila via Honolulu. Midway made for an excellent cable landing station. A detachment of US marines arrived on the island in 1903, summarily ejected the Japanese bird hunters who had encamped on the island to harvest feathers for ladies’ hats, and set about trying to fortify the island. An anonymous poem submitted to a Hawaiian newspaper captures their sense of the futility of the endeavour:

“Uncle Sam” saw this island,
A ‘floating’ so they say,
And he hitched a cable to it,
So it couldn’t get a away,
Then he looked the place all over,
And he sent a cablegram:

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“Send some big Marines to Midway,
There’s toehold in the sand,’
Hanging to a chunk of land,
With a toe-hold in the sand,
Would to God, it would grow bigger,
So we’d have a place to stand.

This early effort to fortify Midway did indeed end in failure, and the marines were evacuated in 1908. But over time the island’s growing strategic importance prompted new efforts. By the 1930s the range of long-haul air travel had increased to the point that it was possible to hop-scotch the Pacific by refuelling at island airfields along the way, and in 1935 Pan-Am introduced a commercial seaplane service from San Francisco to Hong Kong that used Midway as a layover stop. Military aviators were equally alive to the potential of the island. By 1940 both Japan and the US could able to field aerial bombers with a maximum range of 4,000 kilometres (roughly the same as a short-tailed albatross), and the same splendid isolation that made Midway a haven for seabirds also made it an ideal site for an airbase. If Japan had succeeded in capturing the island in 1942, it would have made for an “unsinkable battleship” from which to defend the home islands and conduct further attacks on US forces in Hawai’i. And indeed, the US military used precisely the same strategy in its island-hopping campaign across the Pacific, capturing Guadalcanal, Saipan, Iwo Jima and finally Okinawa as bases from which to launch the devastating bombing raids that eventually pummelled Japan into submission.

However 1942 marked the high-water mark of Midway’s strategic significance. Victory in World War II gifted the U.S. airforce with an even better unsinkable battleship from which to patrol its Pacific interests: Japan itself. And the introduction of mid-air refuelling and nuclear submarines made mid-ocean airstrips unnecessary to deliver devastating payloads of munitions. Lately, Midway has been reinvented not as a guano mine or a strategic lynchpin, but as a haven for wildlife. It is a striking transition. Once the US Navy blasted away at Midway’s coral reefs, slathered its sandbars in cement, and tried to wipe out its colonies of albatrosses to mitigate the risk of “bird strike”. Now the island forms the core of the Papahānamokuākea Marine National Monument, a 1.5 million square kilometre marine conservation park established in 2006 by President George W. Bush as part of an attempt to secure his environmental legacy before leaving office.

In both diplomatic and scientific terms, Papahānamokuākea is an innovation. It represents an audacious unilateral expansion of American sovereignty over maritime space, traditionally regarded as part of the global commons. If not a new form of empire exactly, then certainly a new watery dominium. Its conservation goals are similarly ambitious, aiming to protect a sprawling integrated marine ecosystem of bird- and plant-life, marine fauna and coral. Some measures are undeniably effective, for instance the banning of systematic over-fishing that has decimated Pacific fisheries and snarled albatrosses on longlines. But at the same time, drawing a line in the ocean to protect Midway has an air of futility. The island lies square in the middle of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast morass that sucks in plastic waste from around the world. A series of haunting photos captured on Midway by the photographer Chris Jordan show the bellies of dead albatrosses distended with bottle-caps and cigarette lighters, the sort of trans-border pollutants that show little regard for the boundaries of national parks.

Even more pressingly, anthropogenic climate change poses an existential threat to the island itself. Even without the expected rise in sea levels, ocean warming is raising the acidity of seawater, killing off the coral reefs that protect the atoll from erosion. The same president Bush who set up Papahānamokuākea also withdrew the US from the Kyoto Protocol, setting back the fight against climate change by a generation at least. It may not be long before this remote outpost of America’s Pacific empire sinks beneath the waves forever.

Paul Kreitman teaches 20th century Japanese history at Columbia University. His first book, Japan’s Ocean Borderlands, is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press. He tweets at @Paul_Kreitman.