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Title:The face of empire: the cultural production of U.S. imperialism in the Panama Canal Zone and California, 1904–1916
Author(s):Henderson, Sandra L
Director of Research:Hoganson, Kristin L.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Hoganson, Kristin L.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Harris, Dianne S.; Oberdeck, Kathryn J.; Pleck, Elizabeth H.
Department / Program:History
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Abstract:The U.S. government's construction of the Panama Canal (1904–1914) presented a template for expansive imperialism in Latin America in the twentieth century. After the highly publicized atrocities of the Philippine–American War (1899–1902) and the popular anti-imperialist movement at the turn of the century, imperial boosters required a new strategy. The U.S. government’s Isthmian Canal Commission (ICC) thus sold the Panama Canal project to the American public as a peaceful, beneficent development project rather than a coercive occupation. Imperial boosters continuously reinforced this message from the construction era onward through the cultural production of attractive, reassuring images that profoundly influenced media coverage of the canal project and the resulting public perceptions of U.S. imperialism in the American-run Panama Canal Zone (PCZ). Visually appealing images of canal construction highlighted the technological wonders of its engineering and made the canal a metaphor for the proclaimed superiority of American civilization in the jungle. The PCZ emerged as an unprecedented model for imperial occupation, in that boosters packaged the annexed territory as an Edenic civilian enclave rather than a militarized zone. The cultural production of this publicity, particularly visual images of technology and white settler life in the PCZ, worked to neutralize popular resistance to U.S. imperial expansion in the early twentieth century. The publicity triumph of the PCZ was consolidated by corollary mainland initiatives, the two world’s fairs in California in 1915–1916 commemorating the opening of the Panama Canal. Panama, San Diego, and San Francisco became three points on a circuit of imperial power, bound together inextricably with the opening of the canal. San Diego organized the Panama-California Exposition (PCE) in 1915–1916, and San Francisco staged the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) in 1915. These two expositions significantly advanced the publicity efforts of empire boosters, while furthering the imperial aspirations of the two cities. San Diego used its fair to exert control over the U.S. Southwest in an effort to forge an inland empire that would position the city as an imperial hub. The PCE employed scientific racism to justify white supremacy, Indian removal, and imperial expansion, both "at home" in the U.S. West and "abroad" in the PCZ, as imperial boundaries between "the domestic" and "the foreign" blurred. Fair exhibits and publications celebrated hydraulic engineering in both California and Panama as critical to expanding white American settler societies, and justified the dislocation of indigenous peoples in both locations in the name of progress, modernity, and civilization. San Francisco’s imperial boosterism also served local needs, as the city used the PPIE to stage a renaissance from the cataclysmic 1906 earthquake and fire and position itself as an imperial metropole on a global stage, a vital outpost on the Pacific Rim. San Francisco boosters strove to turn the fair into a wider celebration of imperialism in the tradition of Western Civilization. The PPIE claimed the legacy of Imperial Rome and the Greek Empire of city-states, which San Francisco aspired to imitate. The PPIE created a spectacle for millions of fairgoers who were dazzled and spellbound by the architecture, landscaping, sculpture, color design, and the unprecedented lighting shows. Fairgoers were lulled into a state of political quiescence by the fair’s sublime beauty and thus consented to imperialism without critically analyzing it. Visiting the fair became an aesthetic experience, one that fostered acquiescence and discouraged dissent. From Panama in 1904 to California in 1916, promoters made the expanding U.S. empire appear peaceful, consensual, beneficent, and beautiful, a marketing strategy that was difficult to argue with.
Issue Date:2016-04-11
Rights Information:Copyright 2016 Sandra Henderson
Date Available in IDEALS:2016-07-07
Date Deposited:2016-05

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