by Manfred Henningsen
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two part series on the Obama – Hawaii connection by Manfred Henningsen, Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
As of today, Barack Obama is probably the only American politician who is welcome in most countries of the world. The reasons for this exceptional distinction have certainly to do with the fact that he has been so far in the long history of the USA the only Black President and distinguished himself with a scandal-free performance. Yet this distinction became accentuated by the outrageous charges his successor Donald Trump launched against him, claiming that Obama was not born 1961 in Hawaii but in Kenya, the country of his African father.
Trump’s baseless claims of a faked birth certificate may have created additional enormous sympathy for the unusual candidate from Hawaii. Yet Trump had also discovered with his charge a deep-rooted reservoir of racist prejudices that poisoned the two terms of the Obama presidency and became the steppingstone for Trump’s own presidential campaign and his surprising victory in 2016. Still, the Trump-factor doesn’t explain the continuing global appeal of Obama, it simply reminds the world, as it watches current American politics, of the presence of an obviously ever-present personification of the stereotypical ugly American.
One of the major reasons, if not the most important one for Obama’s appeal, is the never-recognized importance of his birthplace Honolulu and the impact of having been socialized in the state of Hawaii. Hawaii has remained for Americans on the continent a terra incognita, an unknown cultural, social, and political world. Yes, Hawaii was known in the past for its sugar and pineapple plantations and is still renowned as one of the most beautiful vacation destinations in the world. Yet the social complexity of Hawaii as the only state without a white or any other ethnic majority, has never been understood. A recent publication about the impact of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, on the mainland and Hawaii, highlights the amazing differences. These still existing and not recognized differences reach back into Hawaii’s history.
The journalist Tom Coffman recreates in his book Inclusion (University of Hawaii Press 2021) the frantic atmosphere in the military command quarters of Pearl Harbor and in the city of Honolulu itself after the attack. He makes his readers understand the initial suspicion that the more than 160,000 citizens of Japanese ancestry that were living in the islands were facing. But what is even more fascinating in his depiction is the way how military, local and national law enforcement people, and community leaders of different ethnic backgrounds immediately recognized the threats Hawaii was facing and creatively responded to them.
These threats became articulated in Washington, D.C. and translated into demands to intern all people of Japanese ancestry, whether they were American citizens or not, in camps on the mainland or on one island. President F.D. Roosevelt and some of the military leaders that advised him were actively pushing the internment idea for California and the whole West Coast and extended it to Hawaii as well. This policy became actualized on the West Coast with more than 100,000 persons of Japanese ancestry being placed in Internment Camps. In Hawaii a small number of prominent people of Japanese ancestry with known connections to Japan were arrested and interned in a camp. A few German, Austrian, and Italian residents were interned as well.
Coffman attempts to differentiate between the mainland and Hawaii attitudes towards the perceived possibility of a recurrent Japanese attack and the anticipated large scale sabotage activities by residents of Japanese ancestry. The subtitle of his book expresses his ideas: “How Hawaii Protected Japanese Americans from Mass Internment, Transformed Itself, and Changed America.” These widespread existential fears of American Japanese committing acts of sabotage were immediately raised in political and military circles in D.C. after December 7th, and FDR himself was very much affected by this syndrome.
He took for granted, as most people in the Washington power structures did, that acts of sabotage had been committed by Japanese residents in Hawaii before, during or following the military attack. People in military and political power in Hawaii attempted to counter this false impression by emphasizing the non-occurrence of such activities. They were for some time not believed. Only when military and political emissaries, among them the Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy (who after the war became the American High Commissioner for West Germany) were sent from Washington to Hawaii to check out the reality, they finally accepted the fact that Hawaii was different.
Hawaii was different from the mainland because it had experienced ethnic mixing since the days of the Hawaiian Kingdom at an unusual scale. This pattern of mixing between the indigenous Hawaiians, mainland whites and Europeans extended to the large influx of Chinese and especially Japanese immigrants in the late 19th century and Filipinos, after the Philippines became in 1898 after the Spanish-American War a US territory. Coffman’s thesis that Hawaii’s rather unusual response to the internment requests from FDR and mainland politicians and generals had a major impact on the mainland and changed deep-rooted xenophobic and racist attitudes is questionable.
It isn’t clear whether Hawaii’s different response to the Pearl Harbor attack was even noticed at all by large segments of people on the mainland. Even today when xenophobic and racist prejudices are spreading in many states on the mainland, the ethnically mixed diversity of Hawaii is solidly affirmed by the growing number of mixed marriages between most ethnic groups and doesn’t show any signs of becoming disrupted by violent confrontations. Yet, young Hawaiian nationalists, who don’t celebrate this ethnic diversity as the primary identity of the islands, cannot escape their own mixed genealogies. Some of them had also misgivings about Obama being identified by the mainland media as being ‘Hawaiian’.
Obama himself has never claimed this symbolic Hawaiian identity. In an almost paranoid way, he avoids wearing clothing, e.g., Aloha shirts, that would connect him superficially with Hawaii. Though he spent almost all Christmas vacations during his two terms as President with his family in Hawaii and has bought now an estate close to the ocean on the Windward side of Oahu. Yet he established his presidential library in Chicago, where his part African identity had become Americanized. After getting a law degree at Harvard, he worked as a community organizer in the Black community in Chicago, until being hired by a law firm, where he met his future wife Michelle, who happened to be a Black, Chicago-born lawyer.
This symbolic “Blackening” of Barack Obama in Chicago did not wipe out the origins of his cosmopolitan appeal, namely having had an African father and a white mother from Kansas, whose parents raised the teenage boy when he entered Punahou high school in 1970, while his mother, with whom he had stayed for four years in Jakarta, remained in Indonesia doing research for her anthropology PhD at the University of Hawaii (Surviving against the Odds. Village Industry in Indonesia (Duke University Press 2009). After the divorce from Barack’s father (1964), Ann Dunham had married in 1967 the Indonesian graduate student Lolo Soetoro and moved with him and her six-year-old son to Jakarta. The young Obama encountered at an early age ethnic diversity in his own family, in the capital of the predominantly Muslim Indonesia and then again in Hawaii.
When Obama finally appeared for the first time on the national stage in 2004 at the convention of the Democratic Party, he struck people by the contents of the unity speech and the demeanor of his ‘cool’ appearance. He was comfortable with himself, representing in his person the American unity he was appealing for, a longing for unity he had grown up with in Jakarta and experienced in Hawaii. His appeal to voters on the mainland, when he was first running for Senator in Illinois in 2004 and then for President, was remarkably different than the appeal of other Black candidates, which had run for that office. Certainly, anti-Black comments and slurs were also uttered against him during the campaign.
The Birther-crowd followed him with Trump’s lies. Yet in July 2008 a glimpse at the cosmopolitan appeal of Obama became visible when an estimated 200,000 people attended a rally at the Victory Column in Germany’s capital Berlin. Pictures of this event became published on the front pages of all American and most international newspapers. These pictures became part of the aura that carried him to his victory in November.
The cosmopolitan appeal that makes him at this moment in this politically troubled country an exceptional American ambassador in most parts of the world, should have made it easy for him to select Honolulu as the place for his Presidential Center. The geographical equidistance of Honolulu to almost all places of power in the world, would have made it the perfect choice for a center that doesn’t only commemorate his eight years in office, but is going to train young candidates for political leadership from around the world. He chose Chicago for the obvious reasons of his political awakening in that city.
Yet Chicago is a city that reflects the troubled USA of today, with its social and often violent tensions, whereas Hawaii’s Honolulu points with its diversity, which never shows signs of mainland style violent friction, not only at a potential future for this country but for the world. Why Obama did not choose his city of birth, despite all its preferable conditions, remains a mystery.
Manfred Henningsen is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the University of Hawaii, where he taught from 1970 until 2020. He received his PhD under Eric Voegelin in Munich in 1967. His dissertation was a critical assessment of A. J. Toynbee’s A Study of History in the general context of comparative philosophy of history. It became published in 1967 as Menschheit und Geschichte (Mankind and History). From 1968 until 1974 he edited and contributed, together with Juergen Gebhardt and Peter J. Opitz the 14 volume paperback series Geschichte des politischen Denkens (History of political thought), Munich. In addition, he published Der Fall Amerika (Munich, 1974) and Der Mythos Amerika (Frankfurt, 2009), books that dealt with European Anti-Americanism and American self-interpretations. He edited Vol.5 of Voegelin’s Collected Works, Modernity without Restraint (2000); Vol. IX of the German translation of Order & History (Ordnung und Geschichte), Das Oekumenische Zeitalter. Weltherrschaft und Philosophie (Munich 2004) and the original German version of Voegelin’s 1964 Munich lectures on Hitler und die Deutschen (2006). In addition, he published 23 articles in the German cultural journal Merkur and articles and reviews in The Review of Politics, Perspectives on Politics, China Review International, and many edited volumes on history, political philosophy and politics.
Photo and text courtesy VoegelinView